Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Most religious extremists are psychologically normal, and here’s the evidence:

In studying the phenomenon of terrorism, one necessarily encounters the question of whether or not terrorists are psychologically normal. After all, many terrorists espouse a view of the world and a justification for their actions that seems absurdly out of touch with reality. This is particularly relevant in trying to understand terrorists who appear to think in religious terms. You want a single, global Muslim state? Aha, I see…Oh and you think that Jews run most governments and media, and that they conspire to dominate the world. Yes, I’ll read those Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hmm, well that seems credible. What’s that? The messiah will come when ‘the Zionist Regime Occupying Jerusalem’ is destroyed? Makes sense. And the gays cause natural disasters, eh? How about that!

Are they all mad? After all, the likelihood that a messiah will come after Israel is blown up is probably very low.  Equally as low is the likelihood that tolerance of homosexuality leads to earthquakes, I’d suggest. So low that we might be tempted to call anyone who thinks otherwise insane, stupid, or both. Well, as easy as it would be to dismiss them as such, the evidence suggests that they are mostly individuals of normal psychology and normal intelligence. They’re normal people who have constructed  their identity in ways that shape their beliefs into the bizarre and the scary.

Let’s talk about Social Identity Theory (SIT). According to SIT, individuals have both personal and group identities. When people identify as members of various groups, they start to see their groups as being distinct from and better than the others. As individuals possess an inherent need to feel good about themselves, self-esteem becomes tied with group esteem, which is a product of favourable comparison with other groups. Therefore, people will seek to advance and defend group advantages while combating group disadvantages.  So important is this association of individual with group identity that individuals will often make decisions based on calculations of group, rather than personal, cost and benefit. (Tajfel and Turner, 1978) In situations of inter-group competition, wherein other groups and their members may be perceived as a collective threat, individuals may begin to adopt more radical views. (Louis, 2009) In a society experiencing conditions of economic hardship and political conflict, groups may be frustrated entirely in their search for the basic needs of security, positive self-esteem, feelings of effectiveness and control, and coherent understanding of their environment. It is in such situations that one group may develop an identity that scapegoats another group and conceive of that other group as an implacable enemy, in an attempt to affirm itself. (Staub, 2004) Extremist groups offer a compelling collective identity: the familiarity of religion, a defined explanation for current societal conditions, and a clear plan for how an individual can achieve status and respect. (Louis and Taylor, 2002)

In groups with highly defined ideological outlooks, the group identity comprises beliefs, attitudes, values, and goals and contains a path through which those goals may be achieved. That group identity becomes most salient when it requires members to see themselves as being in a constant state of inter-group interaction (such as conflict), such that personal identity is constantly subordinate. In extremist individuals, group norms have an overriding influence in shaping behaviour. Thus, when a given inter-group environment produces inter-group competition, and low-status groups begin to view their frustrations as the result of an ‘enemy’ scapegoat, radicalisation follows.

What this all means is that it seems likely that religious extremists and radicals cling to their beliefs because those are the beliefs of the group, and their entire sense of self is reliant upon maintaining their membership in that group. Life gets really shitty when one has an identity crisis. Questioning those beliefs internally is likely to prompt some really painful feelings. Questioning those beliefs publicly is likely to prompt some really painful punishments.

To anyone familiar with the language of the religious far-right in the US, the link between my explanation of SIT and the extremist views of Palin, Limbaugh, Coulter, et al., is immediately apparent. Sense of group persecution? Check! Attributing all societal ills to another group? Check! Viewing that other group as a uniform ‘other’? Check! What about the environment for many Muslim youth in London? Societal alienation and economic hardship? Check! Religious groups as means of gaining social prestige? Check! The list goes on…

What does this mean for us? Well, we shouldn’t treat people with hardline religious views as necessarily being out of their minds. Their beliefs are out of touch with reality but their minds are not necessarily any more irrational than ours. But we should also expect any change in their beliefs to come slowly, and to come when they don’t feel as though they’re a persecuted minority and that all the things they hate in life are caused by some other group. Personally speaking, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what actions we as a society or more specifically we as a movement might have to make in order to foster such reconciliation — we might be better off seeking to further isolate and marginalise those who are already radical and ensure that they win minimal new converts.

Just don’t be surprised when the next bomb goes off.


Louis, Winnifred R. If they’re not crazy, then what? The Implications of social psychological approaches to terrorism for conflict management.’ In ed. W.G.K. Stritzke, S. Lewandowsky, D. Denemark, J. Clare and F. Morgan, Terrorism and Torture: An interdisciplinary perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Louis, Winnifred R. and  Taylor, Donald M. ‘Understanding the September 11 Terrorist Attack on America: The Role of Intergroup Theories of Normative Influence.’ Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2002).

Staub, E. ‘Understanding and responding to group violence: Genocide, mass killing, and terrorism.’ In eds. F. M. Moghaddam and A. J. Marsella. Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences and Interventions (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2004)

Tajfel, H and Turner, J.C. ‘An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict.’ In eds. Tajfel, Henri.Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations (London: Academic Press, 1979).


7 responses to “Most religious extremists are psychologically normal, and here’s the evidence:

  1. Ian January 19, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Well said as usual. I think it’s a two-prong approach though, and requires a careful touch.

    History has taught us that demanding that extremists quit being extreme is doomed to fail. Similarly, trying to force people to pick up their own lives is usually met with resistance and further isolationism.

    However, there may be hope in making sure that the tools to escape whatever drove people into extremism are available to help them get back on their feet in stable society, while at the same time we make extremism an unpopular option to begin with.

    • Said Simon January 19, 2011 at 8:25 am

      What sort of tools are you talking about, Ian? Are you suggesting that by providing certain mechanisms for change as a sort of passive action, religious extremists will begin to shift their beliefs of their own volition?

      The conclusion one would draw from both from applying SIT to this situation and looking at existing evidence is, I think, that people who are already ‘radicalised’ are not going to ‘de-radicalise’ on their own. There are deradicalisation programmes in place in several countries facing Islamist terrorism, and these have had varying levels of success. This success is probably not really possible to emulate outside of the context of counterterrorism, and there is a lot of controversy over whether individuals who graduate from these programmes have actually changed many of their views or whether they’ve merely ‘disengaged from violence’. If we do learn any lesson from this, it should be that trying to change the views of extremists requires more than a passive approach.

  2. Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Grätz January 19, 2011 at 4:14 am

    As per usual, I enjoy reading your blog as an excursion into the highly normative moral world of your “Secular Humanism”. Based on my understand of your values, your entry seems analytically true. Please remember this does not equate to empirical truth. I particularly enjoyed your frequent deployment of Enlightenment views on the dichotomy between sane/insane, rational/irrational. Also of note: SIT applies to you, too.

    • Said Simon January 19, 2011 at 8:34 am

      Do you think that my statements are not supported by empirical evidence? If so, would you please offer some specific criticisms of my arguments, or call attention to new evidence which would undermine them? I’d be very interested! It’s only recently that I’ve started examining this issue from a social psychology perspective.

      You’re good to call me on my use of sane/insane and rational/irrational. I use these terms here because they are practically convenient for allowing me to express my thoughts simply, but I’ll be the first to say that religious views aren’t necessarily irrational and that nobody’s entirely sane.

      • Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Grätz January 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm

        I am in no way seeking to state that your claims lack an empirical basis. I am merely only affirming them analytically insofar as I am capable of judging. However, I would also like to draw attention to the fact that, well, you have not cited any empirical evidence in this entry. You are merely adhering to your own view on how SIT theory operates.
        In regards to the false dichotomy of the rational/irrational, please be advised that using misguided and dismissive trops is not acceptable on the basis of convenience. If you really would “be the first to say that religious view aren’t necessarily irrational”, then begin here.

      • Said Simon January 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm

        Added citations, since almost none of this is my own theory, but merely what I hope is a helpful summary. Thanks ‘Alfred’ for reminding me to do this!

  3. Pingback: Why we shouldn’t psychologise extremism (as often as we do, anyway) « Said Simon

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