Who do you think has more in common; a moderate and a left-wing extremist or two people, each at the left and right extremes? Recent research has shown that, from a psychological standpoint, individuals with extreme religious or political beliefs have more in common – no matter how different the actual ideas – than individuals who are in the middle of the road. It’s the common psychological states of these individuals that opens the door to extreme and violent views. Once it’s open, what’s inside is seductive and the door is really hard to close. 

The Roots of Radicalism 

For example, people who adopt extreme beliefs of any kind are more likely to have experienced childhood abuse and/or trauma. At the time they are radicalized, they also may feel a current lack of purpose or meaning in their lives as adults, often as a result of distressing personal or social events. We all need to feel important and respected and, for individuals who are anxious, uncertain, or pessimistic about their place in the world, it can be appealing to take on a crusade or a cause.   

Last week on our Thread of Evidence show, I interviewed Jesse Morton, who shared with me his winding journey from troubled Pennsylvania teenager to radical jihadi propagandist to patriotic American. Five year ago; Jesse was in federal prison. Today, he works with the same NYPD officer who monitored and tracked him to prevent and combat extremism and terrorism all over the world. His story is both a cautionary tale and one of redemption.

Several of the things Jesse said reminded me of some of the hate group members I’ve evaluated in prison. Jesse did not have a happy childhood. By the time he was in his middle teens, he was on his own. He started getting into trouble and wound up in jail. He was an angry young man looking for a cause. It was while he was incarcerated that he read a book by Malcolm X. He was captivated by the righteous anger of what he read.

Jesse Morton is a white man. Yet what seemed to draw Jesse to Malcolm X was the idea of a purpose, an identity, a way to use his pain and anger for some greater good. Not the religion. I got the impression that if Jesse had met Malcolm X in prison instead of the Muslim man who began radicalizing him over the subsequent 90 days, he would have become a Black Panther.

In many respects, Jesse’s story is consistent with what we know. Individuals who are recruited into militant groups or radicalized to extremist violence are typically not initially motivated by religion or politics. They view them as a way to address their grievances and deliver the promise of adventure, belonging, or becoming a hero. Of course, this changes after a person has become radicalized or “indoctrinated.” But, in the beginning, the roots of extremist beliefs are psychological, not religious.   

The Superior View of the Righteous

Extreme beliefs can also boost our confidence. Time and again, research shows that people with extreme beliefs believe they are superior to others in terms of understanding the world, even when they don’t actually have more factual information. A Dutch study, for example, found that left- and right-wing extremists did not differ from moderates in their factual knowledge about a political event; the only different was how certain they were that their view was right. 

Unfortunately, this certainty can lead to intolerance. Extremists of any kind are more likely to experience their moral judgments as moral absolutes that reflect a simple and universal truth.

This moral superiority leaves little room for the acceptance of different values and beliefs or the groups of people who endorse them. This becomes a continuous feedback loop as they selectively expose themselves to people and ideas that validate their own convictions.

The Bottom Line

No single reason explains why people become violent extremists, but it often starts with someone trying to fill a psychological need that has often been missing since childhood. Those who subsequently find themselves adrift – feeling isolated and lacking meaning or purpose – may be vulnerable to radicalism and recruitment, especially after an upsetting or stressful event. And, of course, there’s the social aspect; individuals with limited opportunities for traditional paths to social acceptance and financial success often feel they have little to lose. 

There are no easy answers when it comes to preventing extreme and violent ideology but one thing is clear; finding ways to stop child abuse and address the social and mental health needs of young people gives us the best chance to prevent violence of any kind – even that seems based on something entirely different.

LISTEN to the Podcast:  Inside the Mind of a Terrorist