Why people become radical extremists and how to help them

New research sheds light on the indoctrination process of radical extremist groups.

Big Think/April 8, 2021

By Derek Beres

  • A new study features interviews with 24 former extremists on the radicalization process.
  • Financial instability, online propaganda, and reorienting events that caused them to "snap" are leading causes of indoctrination.
  • The research team offers potential solutions, including exposure to diverse ideas during childhood and a tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism.
  • Researchers are continuing to unpack the reasons why extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6. Political scientist Robert Pape hypothesized that answers could be found in increasingly desperate economic conditions—the distance between the wealthiest and everyone else has never been so stark in America. As he dug into the data, however, a different story emerged.

The insurrectionists, he found, were predominantly from areas that feared immigrants and minorities are taking away rights and opportunities from white people. As Pape told the NY Times,

"If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups. [The Capitol insurrectionists] are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."

Pape isn't the only researcher contemplating the path from aggrievement to insurrection. A new study, published by the RAND Corporation, takes a detailed look at the indoctrination process through interviews with white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and their family members and friends.

The researchers set out with a basic set of questions to better understand the radicalization process in the hopes of developing prevention and intervention measures.

  • What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
  • How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leave their organizations, change their minds, and in some cases join the fight against radicalism?
  • What can we do better to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?

After poring over existing research, the team conducted 36 interviews, consisting of 24 former extremists, 10 family members, and two friends. Most of the subjects were active in this millennium, with six only active before the year 2000.

The researchers discovered three major background characteristics that led people to become extremists. (1) Financial instability: In 22 cases, financial instability was key, with seven former extremists claiming this as the main reason they joined an extremist organization. (2) Mental health issues: In 17 cases, overwhelming anger predominated, but PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and depression around physical issues also played a role. (3) Social factors: Marginalization, victimization, and stigmatization were mentioned in 16 cases.

Often, these background characteristics weren't enough. In over half the cases, there was a "reorienting event" a moment that "broke" them, such as being rejected from the military, experiencing long-term unemployment, or enduring a friend's suicide. Propaganda was involved in 22 cases, predominantly through social media but also through books and music. Another factor was direct and indirect recruitment, with indirect recruitment being much more common. In other words, the individuals sought to join extremists groups. Social bonds played a role in 14 cases, including "graduating" from one organization to a more extreme group.

How to help extremists

Why do extremists quit? The most common reasons for leaving are feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Members grew disappointed by the failed promises of leaders or noticed hypocrisy among the ranks. Over half of the individuals were involved in failed deradicalization efforts, however, showing the resilience of these organizations even when family members and friends try to intervene.

The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. An extremist isn't a lost cause. The team lists important steps for helping extremists leave hate groups as well as for preventing people from being seduced in the first place. The researchers' recommendations include:

  • Exposure to diverse ideas, especially during childhood
  • The development of critical thinking skills
  • Participation in prosocial activities that promote positive behaviors and inclusiveness
  • Exposure to different racial and cultural groups
  • Addressing marginalization more broadly
  • A tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism
  • Better access to mental health treatment
  • Targeted outreach and support for military veterans

The researchers note that this is a small study sample, so further work is necessary. Yet, these interviews offer a starting point for understanding the true scope of the problem. The reasons people become extremists are complex and multivariate. Preventing extremism therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses topics such as childhood education, poverty, mental health, ethnic and racial animosity, and the prevalence of propaganda.

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