Political radicalism or simply radicalism is adherence to radical views and principles in politics. The meaning of the term radical (from Latin radix, root) in a political context has changed since its first appearance in late 18th century. Nevertheless, it preserves its sense of a political orientation that favors fundamental, drastic, revolutionary changes in society, literally meaning “changes at the roots”. Its specific forms vary from reformism (early 19th century, antonymous to conservative) to the contemporary synonym of extremism (antonymous to moderate). The 19th century American Cyclopaedia of Political Science states that “radicalism is characterized less by its principles than by the manner of their application”. Conservatives often used the term radical as a pejorative.
The following list contains possible socio-psychological factors that enhance or assist people who join terror groups and help them to justify their acts. Each of these concept followed by possible social psychology concepts (usually very well researched) that might shed some light on the suggested factor.
- Ideology/religion that promises clear and simple solutions to all or most problems. For example, religious who promises their followers that if only certain steps will be taken, that the messiah will come and all our problems will be solved. Social psychology concepts: Persuasion, massive social pressure creating conformity, prevention of criticism, use of ceremonies, special techniques such as sleep deprivation, isolation from the rest of the world.
- Strong belief that there are no other alternatives but the one proposed by ideology/religion. For example, research on suicide terrorist indicated that many of them believed that explode themselves in order to harm their enemies is the only way to victory, achieving their goal, and the like. Social psychology concepts: Narrowing the cognitive spectrum (psychopathology such as depression, extreme stress).
- The world is interpreted according to one “overall” perception which is not subject to any doubts. Social psychology concepts: Narrowing the cognitive spectrum, characteristics of cult.
- Charismatic leader who attracts followers. The followers fully accept and conform with the leader’s ideology and instructions. Social psychology concepts: Conformity and obedience, group thinking, cults.
- Clear sense that “my” in-group is in danger: It is “we against them”. Social psychology concepts: In-group vs. out-group.
- Stereotypical thinking in black/white with no gray or possible compromising. Compromising is perceived as surrender. Social psychology concepts: Stereotypes and prejudice.
- Atmosphere of support for the steps being taken (such as use of violence). Social psychology concepts: Norms and values.
- The goal is more important than the person and all means are legitimate to achieve that goal. Psychology concepts: Moral disengagement (Bandura): moral justification, euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, disregard or distortion of consequences, dehumanization and attribution of blame.
- Sense of futility – A sense that nothing will work out but tough measures such as use of violence. Social psychology concepts: Situation effect (Zimbardo Prison Experiment), de-individuation, de-humanization.
- Destroying the system/regime/world is perceived as unavoidable.
- Sense of time limit: the change has to come now.
- Young age might facilitate the above processes. Young people who are –among other- looking for their own identities are more prone toward these processes.
- Group dynamic processes.
However, it is impossible to account for what combinations of the above factors are necessary to lead people to radicalism. Probably this differs according to cultures/ethnic/groups and historical periods. In other words, there are many roads to political radicalism. As a result, our ability to predict political radicalism (when, where and way) is limited and much more research is needed.