Deradicalizing domestic extremists

Psychologists are using their expertise in human behavior to identify ways to deradicalize and disengage domestic extremists

American Psychological Association, Vol. 52 No. 5/July 1, 2021

By Zara Abrams

As the United States grapples with a surge of domestic extremism—including the Capitol breach on January 6—psychologists are identifying factors that are at the root of such violence, along with ways to stop it.

Psychologists, along with experts in sociology, political science, and criminology, are helping to identify strategies for deradicalization and disengagement. It comes as the country is seeing a surge of domestic extremism not seen in decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan think tank.

Over the past year, anti-lockdown protests, anti-racism protests, and the U.S. presidential election helped fuel the rise in violence, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), based at the University of Maryland (“A Tragedy In Three Acts: COVID-19 and Compounding Crises,” 2020).

In 2020, CSIS recorded 110 domestic extremist attacks. Of those, two thirds were from the far right, about a quarter from the far left, and the remainder were driven by religious or “ethnonationalist” causes.

In response to the uptick, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is expanding research into violent extremism in the United States.

“Ultimately, the decision to engage in violence on behalf of a cognitive or emotional belief is a psychological process,” said psychologist Gina Scott Ligon, PhD, director of the DHS-funded National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “As experts in human behavior, psychologists are going to have a very important seat at the table as this conversation moves forward.”

Seeking solutions

Though questions remain about violent extremism, psychologists have started to study how best to prevent, reverse, or neutralize the threat of radicalization. It is an area where psychologists can work as part of a broad team of interdisciplinary sciences, synthesizing their research with other fields to address a critical issue facing the nation.

Deradicalization—a shift to less extreme views—is the ideal outcome. But disengagement, which involves leaving a group and ceasing any extremist criminal activity, may be more attainable.

“Deradicalization requires changing attitudes toward extremist violence, and that is very difficult to measure,” said Allard Feddes, PhD, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam who studies extremism. “But in the end, you can think what you want as long as you don’t use threats or violence to support it.”

According to START’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS), a database of 2,226 people who engaged in extremist crimes, researchers have evidence that about 300 people disengaged from extremism in some way. But disengagement didn’t necessarily reduce their level of radicalization; in about a third of that subset, researchers found no evidence of deradicalization. In other words, these individuals have stopped enacting extremist crimes but may still hold radical views. Another fifth of that sample continued to engage in criminal activity such as theft or drug-related crimes.

“Push” factors from within a movement that drove people out included burnout, dissatisfaction with one’s status in the group, and other forms of disillusionment—for instance, having a positive experience with someone the group has vilified, such as a person of color. External “pull” factors that contributed to leaving included a new romantic relationship, the birth of a child, or new employment (PIRUS-D3 research brief, 2019; Jensen, M., et al., Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, online first publication, 2020).

One of the main reasons people disengage from extremist groups is the same reason many people leave jobs or other organizations—because they dislike their boss, according to a study of nearly 100 exit interviews with left- and right-wing domestic extremists conducted by Ligon and her colleagues (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 42, No. 6, 2019).

“It wasn’t that they realized their beliefs were wrong, it was that they didn’t trust their leaders or were dissatisfied with the way the group was being managed,” Ligon said.

But disillusionment and exit do not always go hand in hand, especially for women, said Kathleen Blee, PhD, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Research by Blee and her colleagues on domestic White supremacy groups shows that women may remain long after becoming dissatisfied because of concerns about physical safety or losing monetary support they receive from someone else in the group (The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3, 2020).

Most psychology-informed counterterrorism strategies have been developed internationally for use with Islamist extremists. The Danish Aarhus model, for instance, relies on a partnership between researchers, authorities, mentors, and parents to support inclusion and prosocial behaviors among youth and adults vulnerable to radicalization. But experts warn that these interventions may not translate to U.S.-based groups.

“Behavior is very situationally dependent, and it’s hard to transfer a method from one context to another,” said Martha Crenshaw, PhD, a professor emerita at Stanford University and former president of the International Society of Political Psychology.

Research on interventions for domestic extremism is still nascent, but some early efforts aim to use inoculative messaging to prevent radicalization in the first place. In one study, participants who saw a warning about extremist messaging before exposure to left- or right-wing propaganda showed more psychological reactance, which is motivated resistance to a perceived threat to their autonomy. They also felt the extremist group was less credible and said they were less likely to support it (Braddock, K., Terrorism and Political Violence, 2019).

Evidence also points to the power of former group members, or “formers,” in helping people leave extremist groups. Formers provide social support and can reflect on the challenges and fears associated with leaving. Such efforts, used in programs such as ExitUSA, also support individuals in extricating their identity from membership in the group (DeMichele, M., et al., “Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism: Research to Support Exit USA,” U.S. Office of Justice Programs, 2021).

“In order for people to successfully not just get out but stay out, they needed help in moving towards the formation of a new identity,” said John Horgan, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Violent Extremism Research Group at Georgia State University.

Since people are more likely to get out if they know someone else leaving, it may be wiser to focus on shifting the attitudes of entire groups rather than investing in deradicalization at the individual level, said Clark McCauley, PhD, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. This kind of approach can reach more of the people who do not enact violence themselves but support or sympathize with those who do.

What causes extremism

Controversy around the pandemic and 2020 presidential election may have exacerbated tensions, but experts say today’s domestic extremists have ties stretching back decades to the standoffs in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing.

“Many of the viewpoints we’re hearing have been around for decades, but they’ve always been relegated to fringe groups,” said social psychologist Anthony Lemieux, PhD, a professor of communication at Georgia State University and editor of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict. “Now for the first time, they are being given a voice and platform in mainstream society.”

Extremist groups can provide adherents with easy-to-digest but sometimes dangerously misinformed answers to complex societal issues, according to Feddes. “That makes them attractive to people who are vulnerable to radicalization,” he said.

Terrorism—or violent extremism—describes the use of violence in service of a specific ideology, typically social, political, or religious in nature. Radicalization refers to the process by which that ideology is adopted, but researchers say holding extreme views is not inherently a bad thing.

“Radicalization of opinion can be an important precursor to meaningful social change,” said Lemieux. “The problem is when people begin to feel that using violence in service of those views is not only justified but also recognized and celebrated.”

Many—but not all—of the extremist crimes tracked by PIRUS are violent. Some are what experts call “paper terrorism,” such as when those opposed to federal income taxes engage in tax fraud or evasion. Differentiating between violent and nonviolent crimes can help focus counterterrorism efforts on preventing loss of life.

“Why is it that some people are more vulnerable than others to enact violence, where they try to harm people because of their extremist beliefs?” said Michael Jensen, PhD, a political scientist at START who leads the PIRUS project and other studies of domestic radicalization.

He and his team found that people who had a criminal record before they radicalized were about 2.5 times more likely to engage in violence once they adopted extremist ideology (Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2020). They also found higher rates of violence among people who isolated themselves in small cliques of two to four peers and among people with mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or bipolar disorder (Criminology, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2018).

For example, of 35 known QAnon followers who were arrested for extremist crimes not including the Capitol breach, 63% had a documented mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, and 44% had experienced a traumatic event (QAnon Offenders in the United States, START, 2021). Though the vast majority of people with mental illness are not prone to violence, a subset of the population diagnosed with psychotic disorders can be (Insel, T., Understanding Severe Mental Illness, National Institute of Mental Health, 2011).

Jensen also found that some factors, including being married or stably employed, appear to decrease the likelihood that individuals will enact violence.

“By now, we have a pretty good grasp on how individuals radicalize,” Jensen said. “What we aren’t as prepared for is how to deradicalize or demobilize millions of people who have potentially bought in to extremist narratives.”

Scouring social media for clues

Another key question is how extremist groups organize. Informal events such as parties or gun shows have long been the main path to joining far-right groups, but online recruitment has become increasingly important (“The Use of Social Media by United States Extremists,” START, 2018).

Social media can also provide clues about when and where violence may occur. NCITE is funding research by Shane Connelly, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma and a researcher at NCITE, that aims to predict extremist violence in various regions by measuring changes in the emotional valence of nearby tweets.

Psychologists are also working to better understand how extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories spread on social media, in order to equip users to resist persuasion.

Mason Youngblood, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the City University of New York, applied an epidemiological model to PIRUS data to track the spread of far-right radicalization in the United States between 2005 and 2017. He found that social media enhances in-person organizing efforts, likely by helping extreme ideas reach more people (Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, Vol. 7, 2020). In Anti-Defamation League surveys, about 10% of YouTube users and 23% of online gamers reported viewing extremist content, including White supremacist ideology (“Free To Play? Hate, Harassment, and Positive Social Experiences in Online Games, 2020; Exposure to Alternative & Extremist Content on YouTube,” 2021).

“The far-right extremist movement, both in the U.S. and globally, has always gone hand in hand with conspiracy theories,” Youngblood said. “And conspiracy theories do appear to spread more quickly on social media.”

In that domain, Youngblood said the most important unexplored area is how cognitive biases influence the way radical ideas transform and proliferate online.

“These extreme ideas continue to spread on social media, and that may be because the cognitive biases we have evolved to navigate the world function in slightly different ways on social media,” he said.

Types of extremism

Members of the three main domestic terrorist groups tend to fit certain profiles

Studies of domestic terrorism have largely focused on three categories: far right, far left, and Islamist. START’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS), a database of 2,226 people who engaged in extremist crimes, points to some demographic differences between those groups.

For example, Islamist extremists tend to be young, male, and radicalized on the internet. Far-left extremists are typically young and well educated and are more likely to be female than members of other extremist groups. Far-right extremists tend to be older and to have engaged in criminal activity before they radicalized (PIRUS research brief, 2020).

Left-wing extremists include groups and individuals who oppose capitalism, support environmental or animal rights causes, or embrace communism, socialism, or anarchism (The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020). Some members of the anti-fascist political protest movement Antifa have enacted violent extremist crimes, but research by psychologist Gina Scott Ligon, PhD, director of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) at the University of Nebraska Omaha, shows that while Antifa-inspired individuals engaged in increasing levels of violence over the summer of 2020, it is still a decentralized movement with low levels of coordination and does not meet the criteria for an organization (Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2021).

Right-wing extremism, which currently eclipses all other domestic threats, accounting for almost three quarters of extremist murders in the past decade (Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018, ADL Center on Extremism, 2019), falls into three main categories, said Martha Crenshaw, PhD, a professor emerita at Stanford University and former president of the International Society of Political Psychology. Militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, regard themselves as patriots upholding the founding principles of the American Revolution. They often wear military garb and engage in public displays of violence. Neo-Nazi groups, such as the National Socialist Order, formerly known as the Atomwaffen Division, ally with far-right groups in Europe and see themselves as heirs to Adolf Hitler’s regime. White supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, unite around the “great replacement theory”—the idea that a movement or conspiracy exists to replace U.S. citizens of European origin with immigrants and people of color as the country’s dominant group.

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