Small Wars Journal

Psychology of the Radical

Fri, 10/22/2021 - 12:31am

Psychology of the Radical

By CPT David M. Tillman


The Study of Terrorism is plagued with ambiguity and contradiction, much of which stems from the inability to agree upon a universal definition. This is particularly apparent when analyzing the various contributing factors surrounding individuals who gravitate towards and ultimately adopt extremist ideologies. To reduce the complexity of analyzing this topic, we will focus exclusively on individuals who have adopted an extremist ideology and are prone to commit violence in support of it. There is a multitude of characteristics that may be associated with these types of individuals, but as Boaz Ganor (2021) alludes to, it is typically an amalgamation of variables that precipitate the manifestation of these ideologies. While some characteristics appear almost symbiotic in nature, others may be viewed as directly contradicting one another. This article argues that there are five major factors that perpetuate extremist ideology and acts of terrorism including sociocultural incompatibility, lack of personal achievement, aptitude toward ignoring contradictory evidence, elevating basic values into sacred ones, and falling well outside the typical socioeconomic distribution curve. It is the amalgamation of these factors that leads individuals to become receptive to extremist ideologies which, as this article will later discuss, all typically follow a consisently  specific archetype. 

For many radicalized individuals, the first two factors seem to go hand in hand, but it's important to note that they are in fact distinct from one another. Sociocultural incompatibility, otherwise known as social exclusion, has been observed at a neuroscientific level to have a significant impact on an individual’s aptitude toward committing violence to further an extremist ideology (Hamid & Pretus, 2019). A study of three dozen Islamic extremists in Barcelona conducted various psychological exams while simultaneously using brain imaging to examine possible neurological abnormalities. The findings demonstrated that sociocultural incompatibility effectively influenced individuals both toward violent radicalism and away from it, depending on the collective. For example, the study found that the artificially induced social exclusion of the subjects appeared to increase their propensity toward violence, as well as activate brain function in the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with the repository of deeply held sacred values (Hamid & Pretus, 2019). However, when the subjects were made aware of the far less radical (and fabricated) opinions of their peers, they demonstrated an ability to reduce the level of commitment they had toward committing violence in support of their sacred values (Hamid & Pretus, 2019). Juxtaposing these two methodologies and their differing effects on the subjects demonstrates that social exclusion can have either positive or negative effects on radicalization, depending on whether the exclusion manifests in a direct or indirect manner.

The notion that individuals lacking personal achievement could somehow contribute to radicalism was best described by Eric Hoffer (1951) when he outlined the archetype of the permanent misfit. These individuals are often unable (or unwilling) to attain personal goals and/or ascend the societal hierarchy to a level which they deem appropriate. As a result, they completely reject the notion of free agency and personal responsibility, and instead divert their rage toward the culture itself and its institutions of power; they lay blame on the collective system. As Eric Hoffer (1951) points out “By renouncing individual will, judgement and ambition, and dedicating all their power to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment.” However, a requisite for maintaining the above perspective requires the consistent rejection of both logic and reasoning. 

Individuals, even radicalized ones, require a unique mental framework that can reliably and unjustifiably reject objective evidence and basic reasoning, particularly when the evidence in question discredits their deeply held sacred-values (Hoffer, 1951; Hamid & Pretus, 2019). This denunciation of objectivity and reasoning is a foundational element to nearly all mass movements and radical agendas. However, to do so requires that the radicalized establish sacred values that are neither negotiable nor inviolable (Hamid & Pretus, 2019). While many common examples of sacred values are centered upon religious causes, due to the shared archetype, there are also many non-religious ideologies that utilize them as well. To further complicate this phenomenon, it has been shown that individuals who hold extremist views, especially when coupled with sociocultural incompatibility, are extremely adept at elevating basic values to the status of sacred values, which then provide the needed justification to defend the ideology with outrage and violence (Hamid & Pretus, 2019). 

Lastly, and perhaps one of the most unexpected factors, are individuals who fall well outside of the socioeconomic distribution curve. When Eric Hoffer wrote True Believer, he was specifically focused on these statistical outliers among minority groups. He theorized that within minority groups, those who were least and most successful were the most likely to see the appeal of mass movements (Hoffer, 1951). Today, we can expand upon this concept by extrapolating that the statistical outliers of all groups, not just minorities, are more likely to gravitate toward extremist ideologies and mass movements; a notion that is most clearly supported by Fat-Tail Distribution Theory. Fat-Tail Distribution demonstrates how the statistical outliers of nearly any subset tend to have a disproportionate societal impact, especially when compared to the overall percentage of the general population that they represent. For example, as Jordan Peterson points out (2018), if we were to create a Bell Curve of IQ scores across the general population, we would quickly find that most individuals (68%) fall well within one standard deviation of the mean (100) IQ score. If expand our analysis to include two standard deviations, it would account for 96% of the population. However, it is the remaining 4% that tend to have the most disproportionate outcomes, when compared to remaining 96%. For example, the top 2%, with IQ scores over 130 are far more likely to achieve a high level of socioeconomic success when compared to the general population. Meanwhile, the bottom 2%, with IQ scores below 70, are far more likely to be incarcerated and exhibit violent behaviors. This Fat-Tail Distribution Theory transcends IQ and has proven consistent across a variety of psychoanalytic studies of the relationship between various character traits and socioeconomic status (Peterson, 2018). It may seem logical for those that are least socioeconomically successful to be susceptible to radicalization, but it is surprising to find that same susceptibility among the most successful in society. However, as Eric Hoffer (2015) points out, once individuals climb the socioeconomic ladder and attain success, they are faced with the guilt prompted by the evidence of their individual superiority, coupled with the realization of the implied inferiority of the rest of their respective group (Hoffer, 1951). 

            While all the above factors may create conditions for individuals to become receptive to radical ideologies, they only account for half of the equation. The other remaining requirements are centered upon both the existence and access to a suitable ideology, most of which follow the Tyrannical Father archetype (Peterson, 2021). This is best demonstrated through the Freudian lens of the Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id represents the natural world or nature itself, the Ego represents the individual, and the Superego represents the “father” or culture. All well-developed religious systems, as well as extremist ideologies, follow this standard archetype with each component presenting intrinsic positive and negative elements. Radical environmentalists provide an excellent example of an extremist ideology that relies on the Tyrannical Father - evil human (Ego), who is a part of a corrupt culture (SuperEgo/Tyrranical Father), deliberately assaulting mother nature (Id/the benevolent feminine) (Peterson, 2021). While each ideology provides its own requisite elements, they consistently rely on this framework to develop their narrative. 

All of the above discourse is great in theory but requires further work to fully operationalize. For example, during the primitive stages of a movement, the best approach is to leverage non-kinetic means to foster conditions that directly challenge the pervasive narrative being spread by extremist ideologies. One effective approach would be to leverage the social exclusion approach. When individuals are actively being outcasted, they gravitate toward violence. However, when they are passively outcasted, by discovering the more moderate opinions of their peers, they tend to soften their extremist point of view, to better fit in (Hamid & Pretus, 2018). In the modern information age, there is no shortage of mediums that can be used to broadcast these messaging campaigns, even if they are completely fabricated. The goal will be to convince the radical movement that the general population does not share their sacred values and therefore is unwilling to commit violence to further that cause. This would be the first, and least aggressive step in a tiered approach, which is designed to respond directly and proportionally to the reality on the ground. Another “Soft-Power” alternative could include combating the extremist ideology indirectly. Rather than directly contest each claim made by the movement, an attempt is made to systematically dismantle the underlying foundation upon which the ideology was built - The Tyrannical Father. When it comes to terrorism, there are no effective “one size fits all” approaches, and methodologies are seldom prescriptive; operational flexibility and creativity will prove to be the cornerstones to combating the five contributing factors of extremism described above.





















Crenshaw, D., & Peterson, J. (2021, July 5). The Mind of Jordan Peterson. Hold These Truths with Dan Crenshaw. other.

Ganor, B. (2021). Understanding the Motivations of “Lone Wolf” Terrorists: The “Bathtub” Model, 15(2), 23–32.

Hamid, N., & Pretus, C. (2021, March 19). The neuroscience of terrorism: how we convinced a group of radicals to let us scan their brains. The Conversation.

Hoffer, E. (2010). The true believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements. Harper Perennial.

Peterson, J. (2018, February). Hierarchies, Inequality, Big-5. Simulation.




Categories: radicalization - terrorism

About the Author(s)

CPT David Tillman served as the brigade information collection manager, 1st Brigade Combat Team “Bastogne,” 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, KY. His other assignments include information collection platoon leader and brigade information collection manager, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, CO; and assistant S-2 and intelligence surveillance reconnaissance manager, 4th Squadron 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4thInfantry Division. CPT Tillman’s military schools include the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Collection Manager Basic Course; Signals Intelligence/Electronic Warfare Officer Course; DIA PACE Essential; DIA Joint Intermediate Targeting Course; Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Manager Course; the Military Intelligence Basic Officer Leadership Course, and is currently a student at the Military Intelligence Captain Career Course. He has a bachelor’s of arts degree in criminal justice from Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), and he is currently a graduate student at the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies for a master’s of arts degree in strategic intelligence and analysis. CPT Tillman has completed one rotation at NTC, one rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center, and one deployment in support of Operation Spartan Shield.



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Good synopsis, and anyone who quotes Hoffer gets cool points in my book.  You mention a lot about deviant out-grouping, which is legit issue and I recommend you check out George Vold's work on the subject.  Social capital is the coin of the realm when it comes to deviant out groups.  My issue however lies in connecting a deviant out-group/mass movements with a violent deviant out-group.  I think there is a missing variable in the model.  

I hope to get my last article in SWJ soon, but the gist is, after all the elements you mention happen, the members of the new deviant in-group need to be convinced of their victimization.  Then they can (and usually do) become violent.  Groups discriminate against each other even when formed at random as Tajfel determined in his Social Identity work, so they are already primed to become violently discriminatory - but that one extra step really supercharges the process.