Radicalization Dissertation Proposal

Research on Radicalisation: Topics and Themes

by Alex P. Schmid

The following text is a slightly expanded version of the author’s introduction to a panel titled ‘Next Wave of Research Topics and Themes’ held at the end of a Research Seminar on ‘Radicalisation: From Theory to Practice’. It was held on 12-13 April 2016 in Vienna, Austria, and organised by the European Radicalisation Awareness Network. RAN was set up in 2010 by the European Commission as an EU-wide umbrella network of practitioners engaged to prevent and counter radicalisation to violent extremism. Its Centre of Excellence (RAN CoE) acts as a hub in connecting, developing and disseminating expertise and seeks to develop state-of-the-art knowledge.

Keywords:Radicalisation; research; extremism; terrorism; European Union; Radicalisation Awareness Network


The idea that terrorism comes in waves was first introduced by David C. Rapoport, the grand old man of terrorism research who started teaching about the subject half a century ago. He distinguished between four waves:

  • the Anarchist Wave (1870-1920s)
  • the Nationalist Wave (1920s-1960s);
  • -the New Left/Marxist Wave (from the 1960s to the 1980s), and the
  • Religious Wave (from the late 1970s to today and beyond)

Rapoport´s theory is one of the better theories in terrorism research, although it has not gone unchallenged[1].

This raises the question whether there are also waves in terrorism research and, if so, what are the drivers. Clearly, one of the biggest drivers of terrorism research is government funding which became substantial only after 11 September 2001. Research on what was termed by the European Commission “Violent Radicalisation” began, with few exceptions [2], only after the attacks in Madrid (11/3/2004) and London (7/7/2005). It was a largely political construct; there had been hardly any social science research driven by this particular concept before the early 21st century.[3] The phenomenon of homegrown terrorism emerging from immigrant diaspora communities worried national and European policy makers. The US-UK intervention in Iraq, launched under false pretexts, was widely viewed as an attack on a Muslim country in immigrant circles. It angered many young Muslims in Western Europe, making some of them susceptible to recruitment efforts of Islamist terrorist organisations. Both the United States and European governments had been reluctant to explore the root causes of terrorism after 9/11 and the US-led attack on Iraq. By shifting the public discussion away from Western meddling in the Muslim world to Islamist meddling with Muslim youth in the West in the form of radicalisation and recruitment, politically safe ground was reached for exploring some drivers behind homegrown terrorism–such as the role of certain mosques and other recruitment hot spots such as prisons. A European Expert Group on “Violent Radicalisation” was set up by the European Commission. It was chaired by Fernando Reinares and produced in mid-May 2008 a concise report that was, however, shelved and never officially released.[4] The Expert Group’s report interpreted radicalisation as socialization to extremism, manifesting itself in acts of terrorism and observed that radicalisation happens at the “intersection of an enabling environment and a personal trajectory.”[5]

Yet to this day the main focus of radicalisation research has been on the “vulnerable individual” who is somehow manipulated into becoming a terrorist, with radicalisation being the Black Box which contains the riddle of ”what goes on before the bomb goes off’, to use a snappy formulation of Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in London. To this day, the ‘enabling environment’, has not received the same amount of attention as the ‘vulnerable individual’.[6] Even less attention than to the meso-level has been given to macro-level drivers of radicalisation.

For research to become cumulative, one needs to agree on a definition. Despite more than ten years of research we still do not have a generally agreed upon definition of “radicalisation”. The definition articulated by the European Union The definition articulated by the European Union–which presumably is the one RAN is following – is short but not very precise:

“Radicalisation: Individuals or groups becoming intolerant with regard to basic democratic values like equality and diversity, as well as a rising propensity towards using means of force to reach political goals that negate and/or undermine democracy.”[7]

If we indeed would take–following this official European definition–democracy, equality and diversity as benchmarks for measuring degrees of radicalization, we would have a great deal more radicalisation in the world, and not just among “vulnerable youth”.

My own definition of radicalisation is one that owes an intellectual debt to the work of Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko[8] but goes beyond them:

“an individual or collective (group) process whereby, usually in a situation of political polarisation, normal practices of dialogue, compromise and tolerance between political actors and groups with diverging interests are abandoned by one or both sides in a conflict dyad in favour of a growing commitment to engage in confrontational tactics of conflict-waging. These can include either

(i) the use of (non-violent) pressure and coercion,

(ii) various forms of political violence other than terrorism or

(iii) acts of violent extremism in the form of terrorism and war crimes.

The process is, on the side of rebel factions, generally accompanied by an ideological socialisation away from mainstream- or status quo-oriented positions towards more radical or extremist positions involving a dichotomous world view and the acceptance of an alternative focal point of political mobilisation outside the dominant political order as the existing system is no longer recognised as appropriate or legitimate.”

There are many other definitions [9] as there are many ways of looking at the problem. Radicalisation can be viewed as a process of political socialisation towards extremism. Alternatively, radicalisation can be viewed as a process of conflict escalation in terms of increased use of illegal methods of political action when confronting an opponent. It can also be seen as a mobilisation and recruitment process, masterminded by manipulative political or religious entrepreneurs. It can finally be viewed primarily as a conversion process, a life-changing transformation from a more individual-centered personal identity to a new, collective-centered identity which makes the vulnerable individual subservient to the demands of an extremist religious cult while making him or her think of belonging to a superior group of true believers.[10]

Problems with the Concept of Radicalisation

If we look at the history of radicalisation research we find that there was an initial focus on prison radicalisation, followed by one on mosque and madrassa radicalization. More recently the main focus is on internet and social media radicalisation. Should we call this sequence of research ‘waves’?

It might perhaps be better to call the very strong focus on radicalisation itself as one wave of (counter-)terrorism research if we want to stick to this aquatic metaphor. Several leading researchers have expressed unhappiness with this heavy focus on radicalisation in terrorism research. To quote one of them, John Horgan: ”We should not have allowed to have radicalisation center stage.(…) We are stuck with radicalisation”.[11] My own unhappiness with the concept of radicalisation and its use has been expressed in a literature review.[12] It is threefold:

  1. the association of radicalisation with radicalism (rather than extremism; the former is an outflow of the 18th century enlightenment while the latter is regressive and authoritarian rather than progressive and egalitarian);
  2. the one-sided use of the term for non-state actors only (as if those holding state power never become more extreme in the course of a conflict); and
  3. the almost exclusive focus on the micro-level of the vulnerable individual (rather than a broader focus on the meso-level of the radical milieu or the macro-level of society, state and international system).

There are more problems with the concept of radicalisation. In some cases individual radicalisation follows joining a terrorist group rather than the other way round. In other cases (e.g. defensive vigilantism) those using terrorist tactics were never radicalised. In most cases, those holding radical (as opposed to extremist) views never engage in terrorism. The question “Why some radicalise while most do not radicalise?” is still in need of satisfactory answers.

A Dozen Topics and Themes for Research

If we look not at radicalisation and its opposite concept de-radicalisation but at Counter-Terrorism as a whole, one can note a shift from a (i) law enforcement approach that treated terrorism as crime to a (ii) military approach in the ‘Global War on Terror’ which treats counter-terrorism as a special type of counter-insurgency. More recently, we have seen advocacy for a (iii) whole-of-government approach, followed by pleas for a (iv) whole-of-society approach and even a (v) whole-of-UN-approach. Perhaps one could also apply the wave metaphor to these five phases.

Leaving the wave metaphor behind, what topics and themes should be next in terrorism and counter-terrorism research in general and radicalisation research in particular? Here are a dozen suggestions:

  1. Use of primary sources: Clearly the gap between academic research and counter-terrorism intelligence needs to be narrowed. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies often have too many data but lack time and also lack some of the analytical skills available in academia to fully exploit this heap of unprocessed raw data.[13] The problem to get security clearances makes it, however, difficult for researchers to work with primary sources. Most governments keep their in-house information close to their chest. [14]
  2. Re-contextualise research: Research on terrorism and radicalisation needs to be re-contextualised and linked to the history of a conflict on the one hand and government politics on the other hand.[15] There is a great difference between someone radicalising in Syria or Gaza from someone radicalizing in Brussels or Paris. There is a great difference between radicalisation in a democratic country and under an authoritarian dictatorship. There is a great difference between radicalisation in an occupied country and a free one, between a country at war and one at peace. Looking at radicalisation only from the perspective of those at the top social hierarchies both at home and abroad is bound to lead to biased results and bad policies.
  3. Address rather than avoid the role of religion: Religion and conversion to a fundamentalist religious worldview needs to be problematised rather than avoided. There has been a tendency in the United Nations but also with many governments to say that terrorism has nothing to do with religion and, more in particular, that Islam is peaceful and terrorism is un-Islamic. Political correctness has stood in the way of unbiased research. It has become customary to use the term “violent extremism” to avoid the term “Islamist terrorism”. It is repeated again and again that there is no profile of a terrorist. However, most contemporary terrorist attacks are perpetrated by self-declared Muslims, or recent converts to Islam. Here in Europe many of these radicalised young males in European urban diasporas have an immigrant background from Arab and other Muslim countries, have a history of involvement in drugs and crime, and a not insignificant part of them have been plagued by family (incl. domestic violence) and mental health problems. This does not amount to a single terrorist profile but is more than mere coincidence.

    There are two basic approaches to de-radicalisation: one focuses on bringing people back into the community, the other focuses on bringing them back to the true faith. We in the West have stressed almost exclusively the first approach while in Muslim-majority countries efforts are made to bring them back to the “true religion”. While there are hundreds of religions, cults and sects, all claiming to be in possession of some special if not the only truth, we should not focus our attention on community only in order to avoid the perplexing world of beliefs. We should take the faith-based ideology of extremists seriously - without ideology radicalisation to a fanatic religious extremism, most terrorism is unlikely.

  4. The role of media-induced contagion needs to be addressed; what we call radicalisation might, in part, be contagion – imitation of behavioural models seen in social and mass media. The news value system of our commercial media favours conflict over peace, violence over non-violence, action over reflection, perpetrators over victims, and therefore unwittingly promotes violence for effect. As long as our mass media do not distinguish between events which happen anyway and pseudo-events that happen only- or mainly - because there are journalists around and the media are most likely to report about them, we will continue to provide terrorists with free publicity in exchange for the blood of victims.
  5. The silence of the moderates: We need to examine why the mainstream moderates in Islam are so hard to mobilise against the extremists who get most of the media and public attention. Are the moderates afraid of being killed by more extremist muslims? Are they secretly subscribing to the goals if not the means of the jihadists? Are they too divided, too disorganized or lacking resources? Or are they raising their voices but we do not hear them? These are issues that need to be addressed.
  6. The paradox of much sympathy but little support for jihadists: We still have no satisfactory answers why so few radicalise given the fact that so many non-extremists are growing up in the same social circumstances as those who become terrorists. 99 percent of all Muslims have not radicalised but sympathy and sometimes support for jihadists is much more widespread. We also have to ask: what makes some more resilient to radicalisation than others? We need to look not only at pull- and push factors behind radicalisation to violent extremism and terrorism but also at resilience factors that inhibit such radicalisation. Here is my own, admittedly untested, list of individual level resilience factors[16]:


    • No family breakdown, with positive father figure;
    • No previous involvement and exposure to violence;
    • No violent friends or criminal gang or drug scene involvement;
    • No signs of mental disorders;
    • No fascination with weapons and martial arts.

      B) Positive

    • Ability to think and act for themselves rather than accept ideological slogans;
    • Decent employment, with prospect of upward social mobility;
    • Successful integration in immigrants´ host society;
    • Acceptance of democracy, freedom and gender equality;
    • Acceptance of information from non-Salafist sources.
  7. The role of the family in radicalisation and de-radicalisation: Family members of young Muslims who have gone missing often express surprise that their son or daughter suddenly resurfaces in Syria. Through acts of omission or commission families play a role in such developments. Yet their role in both radicalisation and de-radicalisation is under-explored. It is, for instance, remarkable how often terrorist cells contain brothers from the same family or cousins and other kin.
  8. Indicators of Radicalisation: A comparison of regional and national checklists on outward signs of radicalisation in real life and signs in online behaviour is urgently needed.[17] French authorities, for instance have published a list of such signs of radicalization:[18]
    • They stop listening to music;
    • Stop watching TV and going to the cinema;
    • Dramatically change eating habits;
    • Stop all sport activities;
    • Change the way they dress;
    • Sever relations with old friends;
    • Reject members of their own family.
  9. Evaluation of de-radicalisation programs: This should have one of the highest priorities. Such programs have mushroomed in recent years. Yet without systematic, rigorous and comparative evaluations of de-radicalisation programs, no real progress towards more promising practices can be made.
  10. Willingness of communites to reintegrate former extremists: Like the concept of civil society the concept of community is used as a mantra. Yet to which community can de-radicalised former militants go back to? Who is willing to offer him or her employment? Which neighbourhood would accept a former terrorist criminal? Which community in particular should the ex-convict re-integrate to? Probably not the same one he came from. Community building, creating social cohesion, should be high on our national agendas. Yet in most countries it is not.
  11. Professional training of qualified mentors to guide vulnerable people away from the pathways to radicalisation. There are many social workers and others engaged in this type of work, but proper training has often been lacking. Such mentors might be selected former extremists who have genuinely persuaded themselves and others that they were misled in the past.
  12. Greater focus on collective de-radicalisation:Since individual de-radicalisation is labour-intensive, greater focus should be on the exploration of the possibilities for the de-radicalisation of a whole group of extremists (e.g. in a prison context).


These then are a dozen suggestions for new topics and themes of research on and around the issue of (de-) radicalisation. Some of them are not new but all are, in my view, under-researched.

What is most needed is that we try to better understand fanatical extremism and how to break or defuse it. To do so we have to have the courage to enter the radical and extremist milieus and talk to the angry, the disillusioned and the forlorn who search for significance and recognition in their lives and hope to find it in fundamentalist religion. How else can we hope to bring them back into the midst of our societies?

About the Author: Alex P. Schmidis a member of the RAN network. He is Associate Professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University, Campus The Hague. Dr. Schmid is also a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Perspectives on Terrorism’.


Motivation for aggressive religious radicalization: goal regulation theory and a personality × threat × affordance hypothesis

Ian McGregor,1,*Joseph Hayes,1 and Mike Prentice2

1Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

2Department of Psychology, University of Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria

Edited by: Eddy J. Davelaar, Birkbeck, University of London, UK

Reviewed by: Kai Sassenberg, Knowledge Media Research Center, Germany; Aaron L. Wichman, Western Kentucky University, USA

*Correspondence: Ian McGregor, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada, ac.oolretawu@rogergcm.nai

This article was submitted to Cognitive Science, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

Author information ►Article notes ►Copyright and License information ►

Received 2014 Oct 30; Accepted 2015 Aug 18.

Copyright © 2015 McGregor, Hayes and Prentice.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.


A new set of hypotheses is presented regarding the cause of aggressive religious radicalization (ARR). It is grounded in classic and contemporary theory of human motivation and goal regulation, together with recent empirical advances in personality, social, and neurophysiological psychology. We specify personality traits, threats, and group affordances that combine to divert normal motivational processes toward ARR. Conducive personality traits are oppositional, anxiety-prone, and identity-weak (i.e., morally bewildered). Conducive threats are those that arise from seemingly insurmountable external forces and frustrate effective goal regulation. Conducive affordances include opportunity for immediate and concrete engagement in active groups that are powered by conspiracy narratives, infused with cosmic significance, encouraging of moral violence, and sealed with religious unfalsifiability. We propose that ARR is rewarding because it can spur approach motivated states that mask vulnerability for people whose dispositions and circumstances would otherwise leave them mired in anxious distress.

Keywords: religion, radicalization, aggression, approach motivation, avoidance motivation, anxiety, groups


“We have killed all of the children in the auditorium…what do we do now?”

—Taliban gunman, December 16, 2014

After methodically shooting all 132 children and 12 teachers at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, the Taliban militant, Abuzar, called his handler for further instructions. The answer came back, “wait for the army to arrive, kill them, and then blow yourself up” (Khan, 2014). Abuzar and the six other gunmen complied and detonated their vests on cue. This kind of self-immolating, aggressive religious radicalization (ARR) has recently animated high profile Islamist atrocities by the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Harem, al-Shabaab, and lone-wolf extremists all over the world. Although Islam is currently in the spotlight, ARR is not a Muslim phenomenon. Throughout history its callous extremes have blighted all major religions traditions (Armstrong, 2000). This paper provides a theoretical framework with data-driven hypotheses about how basic human motivations interact with situational affordances to make ARR alluring.

In the recent IS instantiation, over 30,000 young men and women from over 100 Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western countries have abandoned their normal lives to go fight with IS in foreign territory and abject living conditions. Indeed, more British Muslims have joined IS than the British military (Barrett, 2014a,b; BBC, 2015; The Soufan Group, 2015; Weaver, 2015). When they get there they sometimes burn their passports as a show of commitment before submitting to the harsh regimen of discipline for the fascist cause. They know they may die soon after arriving, and many do, either as suicide bombers or as casualties in battles picked with a more powerful enemy—a coalition that includes many of the world’s most powerful countries. Despite the shocking atrocities perpetrated by IS that include beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, pedophilia, and genocidal slaughter (BBC, 2014), and that have been well publicized on YouTube, IS continues to attract foreign recruits who are often among the most zealous (Barrett, 2014b). What is the appeal of enthusiastically perpetrating atrocities in the name of a religion that preaches mercy? How can personality and demographic profiles of recruits so often be normal and well-educated (Post, 1990, 2005; Barrett, 2014a).

We present a basic motivational framework that contests popular views claiming ARR is primarily a pragmatic revolutionary strategy, or driven by self-serving superstitions, or fueled by the particularly aggressive nature of any particular religion. We draw on classic and contemporary psychological theory and over 30 years of experimental research showing how and why psychological threats cause belligerent defenses and reactive approach motivation (RAM; McGregor et al., 2010a; Jonas et al., 2014). We hypothesize that ARR arises from personal predispositions, anxiogenic threats, and group affordances that combine to divert normal motivational processes toward approach motivation for ARR. Each factor alone is not enough, but conducive personality, threats, and affordances, together, are potent. Our view is compatible with insights about how motivation for worldview defenses, significance, meaningful engagement, identity-fusion, group-based control, belonging in action groups, and compensatory conviction and consensus might propel ARR (McGregor et al., 2001, 2005; Rothschild et al., 2009; Atran, 2010; Sageman, 2011; Fritsche et al., 2013; Hogg, 2014; Kruglanski et al., 2014; Swann and Buhrmester, 2015). Our view augments this previous work by grounding its hypotheses in primitive motivational substrates that can provide additional depth to the emerging understanding of motivation for ARR.

Our main premise is that ARR is rewarding because it spurs approach motivated states that mute anxiety for people whose personalities and social circumstances would otherwise leave them anxious and depressed (McGregor et al., 2010b; Jonas et al., 2014; Hayes et al., 2015). We begin by reviewing classic theories foundational to understanding ARR. We then link them to contemporary goal-regulation premises, theories, and recent advances in RAM theory. We next define the components of ARR, and use empirical research findings to justify our personality × threat × affordance hypotheses. We conclude by suggesting strategies for testing our hypotheses in the lab and real world.

Classic Theory

A premise in classic and contemporary theory is that conflicts, frustrations, and uncertainties can propel belligerent reactions far removed from the eliciting difficulties. Sigmund and Anna Freud popularized the view that conflicting motivations in competing directions can arouse bizarre and extreme defenses against the ensuing anxiety. “Excessively intense,” “supervalent” thoughts form “mental dams” that effectively repress the offending conflicts Gay (1989, pp. 200, 261–262). From this perspective ARR-relevant defense mechanisms such as turning against the self, rationalization, fantasy, regression to childish tendencies, and projection of one’s own hostilities onto others would be considered mechanisms of repression that help people escape from other motivational conflicts in their lives (Freud, 1946).

Lewin (1933) brought Freudian ideas into a more general theory of motivation and goal regulation by showing that conflicts and uncertainties cause a kind of anxious tension that persists as long as goals remain impeded. If people have no clear way to relieve the tension arising from their (often social) conflicts then they escape from the field of tension by resorting to fantasy, submission, or belligerence (Lewin, 1933, 1935).

Neo-analytic theorists similarly proposed that aggression is a reflexive response to frustration for people and animals. The frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al., 1939; Berkowitz, 1989) is implicit in neoanalytic views that failure to forge identities grounded in prosociality tilts people toward fanaticism and oppositional power over others (Horney, 1950; Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1956; Erikson, 1959). Horney (1950, pp. 86–109, 184) and Adler (Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1956, pp. 259–261) respectively referred to this tendency as “arrogant righteousness” and “neurotic pride” or a “superiority complex,” wherein grandiose and oppositional facades mask insecure selves. Fromm (1941) viewed such defensive tendencies as escapes from existential freedom and saw conformity, authoritarianism, fascism, and destructiveness as symptoms of human’s inability to cope with the frustrating uncertainty about how to make choices in life. People cling aggressively to externally referenced “frames of orientation and devotion” to avoid becoming overwhelmed by existential uncertainty (Fromm, 1947, p. 48). Antisocial extremes replace gnawing uncertainty with decisive commitment that relieves angst. Durkheim (1897/1951) viewed uncertainty about what to do as noxious enough to cause suicide. If viable family relationships or cultural norms are not available to provide clear direction and purpose, people use suicide to escape the unbearable burden of choice (Durkheim, 1897/1951; see also Baumeister, 1990).

Sartre’s (1956) existential philosophical perspective similarly held that uncertainty arising from radical freedom spurs attempts to escape from the nausea of uncertain self-awareness by conforming to group norms (Barnes, 1973). Under this view, masochistic extremes of submission to authority and sadistic extremes of domination and hate are attempts to suppress uncertainty arising from absence of objective truths that could guide one’s choices in life. Masochism and sadism reduce the uncertainty associated with awareness of multiple perspectives by eliminating one’s own and/or others’ subjective perspectives. Problematic subjectivity, with its conflicting perspectives and uncertainties, is replaced by the solid ground of supposed objective authority.

These neoanalytic and existential ideas were the foundation for the Adorno et al. (1950) treatise on the authoritarian personality and causes of fascist disdain for deviants. Authentic identity development requires a vulnerable process of trial and error exploration (Rogers, 1951; Erikson, 1959; Marcia, 1980; Deci and Ryan, 1991). If this process is blocked by unsupportive people or chaotic social structures, then confident personal values and priorities for resolving uncertainty are not developed, and people turn to the dictates of powerful others and groups. Fusing or identifying with a fascist ingroup can thereby become psychologically vital, and critics become the enemy.

These classic theoretical views predict the link between conflict, uncertainty, and frustration, and aggressive radicalization, but they do not imply a specifically religious form of aggressive radicalization. James (2006) made that connection around the time that Freud was penning his first ideas about repression via commitment to excessively intense thoughts (Gay, 1989, pp. 200, 261–262). James (2006, p. 240, 399) observed that “religious rapture and moral enthusiasm are unifying states of mind that incline the sand and grit of selfhood to disappear,” and that can unify a “discordant self.” Consistent with our approach-motivation hypothesis he further proposed: “We shall see how infinitely passionate a thing religion at its highest flights can be. Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, it adds... a new sphere of power” (James, 2006, p. 58).

These repression-related views were first put into goal-regulation language by Lewin’s (1933, 1935) understanding of how strong goals and commitments can clear away other conflicts, leaving people feeling sanguine and single-minded (reviewed in McGregor, 2003). Lewin (1933, p. 609) paved the way for a goal-regulation view of zealous religious devotion as an idealistic commitment that can function like a motivational “field of force” to push other uncertainties and frustrations out of awareness (see McGregor et al., 2010b, 2012b, for elaboration on the goal and emotion-regulation function of ideals). Contemporary social psychological and social neuroscience research now provides a clearer, less metaphorical understanding of the basic motivational mechanics beneath Lewin’s seminal goal-regulation ideas.

Contemporary Theories of Threat and Defense

In the second half of the 20th century, personality and social psychological research began empirically testing and refining classic theories about causes of defensive social phenomena related to ARR. Hundreds of experiments on cognitive dissonance theory (begun by Lewin’s student, Festinger, 1957) demonstrated that experimentally manipulated cognitive conflicts could cause extremes of opinion rationalization that defied logic, including dubious claims by religious cult members (Festinger et al., 1956). The first generation of dissonance theory and research had its roots in classic psychodynamic theory, from Freud, through Lewin, to Festinger’s experimental demonstrations. Its growth became even more psychodynamic with neo-analytically inspired demonstrations of compensation. Research began to support Allport’s (1943, p. 466) assertion that various ego defenses provide “fluid compensation” for psychological discomfort arising from threats, conflicts, and uncertainties. Self-serving affirmations of worth, conviction, morality, meaning, or adaptive adequacy of any kind were found to mute threat-induced distress, even if they did not directly address the content of the original threat (e.g., see Steele, 1988; Tesser, 2000; McGregor et al., 2001; Heine et al., 2006). As Lewin would have predicted, the affirmations make the anxious uncertainties and conflicts less motivationally salient (McGregor, 2006a), which makes them less aversive (McGregor et al., 1999).

A proliferation of threat and defense theories sprouted around the intuitive idea that fluid compensation occurred because threats to a psychological resource (esteem, security, integrity, immortality, belongingness, meaning, or control) aroused compensatory reactions that served to replenish the threatened psychological resource, often in disguised ways. For example, if an anxiety-inducing failure threat caused a worldview defense reaction involving hostile derogation of an outgroup or moral offender, various compensatory theories would interpret this as disguised compensation for threatened esteem, certainty, conviction, integrity, immortality, security, belongingness, meaning, or control (i.e., depending on the authors’ theoretical allegiance; see Jonas et al., 2014 for review). Compensation perspectives would accordingly view ARR as an indirect strategy for restoring whatever basic need had been indirectly undermined by psychological threat. As powerful and generative as resource compensation theories became, their proliferation and explanatory competition ushered in an integrative theoretical approach to understanding threat and defense processes at a more basic motivational level.

Goal Regulation Theory: A Lens for Understanding ARR

Primitive motivational structures in humans, mice, and other vertebrate brains are organized around goal dynamics and anxiety. Behavioral, lesion, and pharmacological studies reveal that goal frustration and uncertainty are the prime causes of anxious distress, mediated by the septo-hippocampal behavioral inhibition system (BIS; Gray and McNaughton, 2000). The neurophysiology of anxiety is different from that arising from other aversive states like sadness or panic. As with Lewin’s (1933, 1935) idea of tension, anxiety arises from the approach-avoidance conflicts inherent in goal blockage, uncertainty, novelty, and frustration. Recent revisions to Gray’s theory (by his student, Corr, 2008), emphasize that BIS activity is inversely related to activity of the other main motivational system, the behavioral activation system (BAS). The BAS promotes single-minded approach motivation—the “impulse to go toward” (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013, p. 291). It is an eager, goal commitment system that, when active, mutes the BIS (Corr, 2008; Nash et al., 2012). Effective goal regulation is maintained by the interplay between these two systems. When goals are going well the BAS predominates and makes people feel energized, eager, and single-mindedly committed to approach of the focal goal. BAS activation automatically inhibits possible distractions and conflicts, and allows people to focus on eagerly approaching identified incentives, free from anxious preoccupation with their worries. If a serious conflict or uncertainty erupts along the way and succeeds in activating the BIS, however, then the BAS is muted and three primary BIS outputs result. All ongoing goals are inhibited to stop the animal from doing whatever is not working; anxious distress further discourages persistence at ongoing goals; and vigilance dilates to help the animal notice a wider range of possible threats or opportunities that could cue single-minded withdrawal or approach to get the animal out of the conflicted and anxious state, and onto a more viable track.

This account of BIS and BAS follows Lewin’s (1933, 1935) view of how tensions aroused by goal conflict can be blocked out by focused immersion in other goals. In more contemporary language, activating the BAS through goal commitment eliminates the hesitant, anxious vigilance associated with the BIS. Throwing oneself into a commitment like ARR could accordingly be a way to effectively repress other anxious conflicts (Harmon-Jones et al., 2009; Nash et al., 2011; McGregor et al., 2013b; see Jonas et al., 2014 for overview of the underlying basic processes and links to threats and defensive reactions).

This goal and emotion regulation function of the BAS has been empirically demonstrated in humans by personality and social psychology experiments focused on goal commitment, shielding, and implementation. Tenacious goal commitments and related eager approach motivation processes activate the BAS and narrow motivational attention to the focal goal (Harmon-Jones et al., 2011, 2012), shielding it from interference by other conflicting or competing goals (Shah et al., 2002). The single-mindedness facilitates vigorous goal completion (Elliot and McGregor, 1999; Harmon-Jones et al., 2009) and is also affectively rewarding—people feel more optimistic when actively engaged in implementing a commitment than when deliberating about alternative possibilities (Taylor and Gollwitzer, 1995). The same insulation from conflicts and uncertainties can come from eager immersion in more abstract goals, values, and group identifications (McGregor et al., 2001; McGregor, 2006a, Study 1; McGregor and Marigold, 2003, Study 4; McGregor et al., 2005, Study 4) because values and groups also activate the BAS (Agroskin, unpublished doctoral thesis, McGregor, unpublished data), especially if they are extreme (Sleegers et al., 2015). Cybernetic theories of goal regulation posit that ideals and values are abstract goals that function as self-guides or system concepts to organize and coordinate the array of subordinate, more concrete goals (Higgins, 1996; Carver and Scheier, 1998; Hirsh and Kang, 2015). Extremes are resistant to ambivalence, so they should be particularly effective as clear self-guides (Newby-Clark et al., 2002).

These basic goal regulation processes furnish a parsimonious, mechanistic account for the operation of classic theoretical ideas about why people in anxious circumstances turn to excessively intense thoughts, moral enthusiasms, exclusive fields of force associated with goals, or the other manifestations of rigid and extreme opinion, devotion, and authoritarian hostility. All might effectively function as levers for BAS-activated approach-motivated states that are rewarding because they mute BIS activity. Considering that anger is also a powerfully BAS-activating phenomenon (Carver and Harmon-Jones, 2009), it seems plausible that extreme commitment to ARR might be an appealing response to anxiety-inducing threats, uncertainties, frustrations, and injustices because ARR contains several elements capable of transitioning people from “anxiety to approach” (Jonas et al., 2014).

From Anxiety to Reactive Approach Motivation for ARR

The basic-process ideas outlined above were first organized in papers identifying exaggerated conviction, pride, consensus, and intergroup animosity as levers for approach-motivation-related states that people use to downregulate threat-activated BIS (McGregor et al., 2005; McGregor, 2006b). Over the last 10 years this speculation has been empirically supported by rigorous experimental research. Anxiety-related threats (dissonance, uncertainty, failure, control loss, mortality salience, relationship distress, insecurity, goal-frustration) that have caused extreme “compensatory” reactions in past research have also now been found to cause neural indicators of BIS activation at first, and then RAM (reviewed in Proulx et al., 2012; Jonas et al., 2014). The measures of RAM include basic neural, perceptual, and affective evidence, along with eager and idealistic commitment to personal goals and commitments in everyday life (McGregor et al., 2007, 2009a, 2010a, 2013b; Nash et al., 2011; Greenaway et al., 2015). Importantly, these same threats also cause self-reported endorsement of religious extremes and increased willingness to kill and die for religious beliefs (Pyszczynski et al., 2006; McGregor et al., 2008, 2010b, 2013b; Rothschild et al., 2009; Wichman, 2010). Further, laboratory experiments now indicate that elements of ARR, and religious devotion itself, can cause neural, perceptual, and self-report evidence of approach motivation (reviewed in Jonas et al., 2014; Agroskin, unpublished doctoral thesis, McGregor, unpublished data). Anxiety-to-approach dynamics are thus well positioned to help explain the enigma of ARR.

Pragmatic and Palliative RAM

It is important to acknowledge, however, that levers for activating RAM are not necessarily defensive and irrational. Constructive responses to anxiogenic circumstances can also provide RAM relief from anxiety. Indeed, this may be the most usual and adaptive function of anxiety-to-approach processes, as in tenacious striving for financial security after deprivation, or for success or love after failure or rejection. It is when direct resolution opportunities seem blocked and hopeless, however, that people turn to merely palliative defenses like ARR to activate RAM for relief.

It has been argued that ARR might be a direct, constructive form of freedom fighting aimed at restoring social justice for oppressed people (Armstrong, 2014). The suffering inflicted on Muslims caused by the long history of Western hegemony, hypocrisy, political interference, exploitation for oil, economic sanctions that mostly harm poor civilians, and military invasions have been identified as catalysts for Islamist extremes. Although realistic grievance is surely part of the story (Armstrong, 2014; Barrett, 2014a,b), and ARR may be partly motivated by pragmatic motivation to make constructive improvements, characteristics of ARR cast doubt on the adequacy of such straightforward explanations.

First, ARR is often rash and counter-productive. In one of the first examples of ARR that gave rise to the word “zeal,” an oppressed Zealot sect of Judaism assassinated anyone who disagreed with their extreme agenda, even those in their own group who did not seem devout enough. Their extremism brought annihilation from the governing Romans. A similar plight befell the first Christian Crusaders. After Pope Urban’s rousing 1086 CE speech about restoring the glory of Charlemagne and saving the Holy Land from Evil, a band of overly enthusiastic and unprepared Crusaders broke from France for Jerusalem before the designated date. In their zeal they began slaughtering anyone along the way who seemed a different race or religion. They were soon annihilated by the first wave of organized resistance that they faced (Durant, 1950). The violence of IS and other ARR groups seems similarly rash and counter-productive (Post, 1990; Barrett, 2014b). Their self-publicized atrocities may have some strategic value insofar as they discourage resistance in the towns they occupy, but they have also turned most of the world against them. Even predominantly Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, that might otherwise have been sympathetic to legitimate social justice grievances, have joined a coalition with Western powers against IS. The Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities of IS have even alienated the radical Islamist group, al-Qaeda, from which IS evolved (Barrett, 2014b).

A second reason for doubting the pragmatics of ARR is the retrograde nature of its religious claims. Mature religion is usually associated with humility, recognition of mystery, compassionate concern for others, and aversion to violence (Armstrong, 2006, 2009; Schumann et al., 2014; Shariff et al., 2015). These characteristics are at odds with the fascist, black and white, superstitious, and hostile characteristics of ARR that more closely resemble psychological defenses (Post, 1990; Jonas et al., 2014). Indeed, among ARR recruits there is often only a thin veneer of religious knowledge supporting their devotion (Atran, 2010; Barrett, 2014a). Pragmatic devotion would presumably be built on a more mature foundation.

The third reason to doubt the pragmatics of ARR is the risky self-destructiveness of its members. New recruits leave lives and loved ones behind and risk everything. A longer life of careful, strategic devotion to a solid cause would presumably accomplish more than a quick and dirty death for a dubious and sensational cause. The relish to join, fight, and risk for an extreme cause seems to have more psychological appeal than instrumental benefit (Nash, unpublished doctoral dissertation; McGregor et al., 2013b; Black et al., 2014; Hogg, 2014).

A Concrete and Social Approach

Our specific hypotheses below about the kinds of people and circumstances conducive to ARR are informed by a recently advanced taxonomy of phenomena people approach for relief from BIS-activation. People react to anxiety-inducing experiences by approaching phenomena that are either personal or social and either concrete or abstract. The four domains of phenomena people use to activate RAM are accordingly concrete personal (e.g., money, personal aggression, power, control); concrete social (e.g., group membership, group aggression, group power, group status); abstract personal (personal values, ideals, moral convictions); and abstract social (collective worldviews, ideologies). Phenomena in all quadrants can be eagerly pursued to activate approach motivated states (Jonas et al., 2014). Ostensibly religious phenomena can populate all four quadrants, e.g., ritual action in the concrete personal quadrant; coordinated group rituals, coalitional action, or intergroup hostility in the concrete social quadrant; idiosyncratic ideals and values in the abstract personal quadrant; and consensual worship of cultural symbols, worldviews, and meanings in the abstract social quadrant. Our working definition of religion emphasizes the idealistic aspects of religious devotion (see below) but the concrete aspects can serve as accessible sacraments for orienting toward the idealistic elements, especially (as we develop below) for people who may prefer concrete engagement. Our view is consistent with Armstrong’s (2000, 2009) claim that fundamentalist ARR cleaves to the concrete in an arguably blasphemous attempt to remove the inherent mystery from its understanding of God. Our position here on the concrete nature of ARR is accordingly a departure from our past focus on more abstract aspects of idealistic religious devotion (e.g., McGregor et al., 2010b, 2012a).

Past investigations of phenomena people spontaneously use to activate RAM focused on abstract-personal levers. Random assignment to various, 2–5 min anxiety-related experiences (e.g., personal uncertainties, mortality salience, relationship insecurities, social exclusion, performance anxiety) caused people to become more extreme in their moral opinion conviction and consensus estimates, and in pursuit of idealistic goals, convictions, and meanings (McGregor et al., 2009b). These abstract-personal reactions appear to relieve anxious distress by activating approach-motivated states (Jonas et al., 2014). The same threats also heighten abstract-personal varieties of religious devotion—more confident certainty in the objective truth of self-identified religious beliefs, more determination to live according to them, more identification with them, and more willingness to argue in defense of them (McGregor et al., 2008, 2010b, 2013b).

People with eager, idealistic, and approach-motivation-correlated traits have been most inclined toward use of abstract-personal levers for RAM (reviewed in Jonas et al., 2014). Based on this we had initially assumed that eager, idealistic, and confident kinds of people should be especially inclined toward ARR, under the assumption that ARR was essentially an abstract ideology (McGregor et al., 2008, 2010b, found that eager, idealistic people were most inclined toward reactive, abstract religious extremes). Our most recent research, however, suggests that the kind of abstract-personal religious zeal that our previous research focused on is not what ARR usually revolves around. Like ethnocentrism and outgroup derogation, ARR is usually idealistically impoverished, and seems to revolve more around opportunity for concrete participation in hostile authoritarian groups that mobilize aggressive action disguised by a veneer of oversimplified ideology (Post, 2005). We propose that it is through this concrete participation in simplified, black and white ideologies that identity-weak people (i.e., morally bewildered) are able to acquire an externally referenced sense of “identity, purpose, belonging or spiritual fulfillment” for a “greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives” (Barrett, 2014a, p. 18; Barrett, 2014b, p. 7; Atran, 2015). Groups, aggression, and action can activate approach motivate states, and approach motivated states feel meaningful (McGregor et al., 2012b). Given the seeming concrete and authoritarian characteristics of ARR, we here hypothesize different predisposing personality traits than in our past research. Whereas identity-strong people have tended toward abstract-personal levers for RAM, identity-weak people should be most inclined toward ARR.

Without the guiding and constraining influence of mature personal or religious identity, which tend to be prosocial, the more concrete, risky, aggressive, hostile, and coalitional kinds of levers for activating RAM could be especially alluring. Indeed, markers of concrete coalitional but not intrinsic religion predict support for suicide bombers and prejudice (Allport and Ross, 1967; Ginges et al., 2009). A limitation of concrete, extrinsic religion, however, may be that it is less reliable and efficient in maintaining approach-motivated relief. It requires involved physical engagement because it may not be as easily summoned as abstract ideals in private imaginations (McGregor et al., 2012b). Further, despite temporary relief engagement in ARR might provide, its antisocial hostility presumably impedes harmonious social functioning and brings more social conflict and anxious insecurity over time. Indeed, internal conflict is predicted to be the downfall of IS (Barrett, 2015).

Once it becomes clear to identity-weak people that ARR doesn’t work as well as hoped, they might either amplify zeal, or withdraw altogether from life so as to activate unmitigated avoidance motivation. Anxiety is a function of the BIS response to simultaneous approach and avoidance cues. It can accordingly be relieved by either singular approach or singular avoidance (Hayes et al., 2015). Withdrawal from concern with life outcomes would make hostile and antisocial levers for RAM easier to engage without regard for possible consequences. In sum, the appeal of ARR may be that it offers opportunity for toggling between concrete approach (aggressive, powerful, hostile, coalitional) and fatalistic withdrawal from life through self-immolating extremes. Both are anxiety-relief strategies available to identity-weak people.

Components of ARR


By aggressive we mean a tendency to assert ones will against others, oneself, or any symbolic or concrete target in a way that can augment the feeling of power, status, or control vis-à-vis the target. Belittling, overpowering, or destroying others, the self, institutions, or properties are aggressive by this definition. Violence is a concrete manifestation of aggression.


As reviewed above, philosophical and goal-regulation perspectives propose that humans need moral ideals to guide concrete goals. Without moral ideals humans can become mired in conflict among all the imaginable possibilities for action. Following Fromm’s (1973, p. 260–261) view that a primary existential need for humans is “an object of total devotion…to be a focal point of all his [sic] strivings,” we view religion as a vehicle for moral values that is often bolstered by consensual rituals and symbols (Geertz and Banton, 1966). This morality-focused view of religion is compatible with Durkheim’s (1976/1912) seminal claim that religions are not necessarily about gods (though they often are—Gods are potent symbols), but rather that they revolve around group convictions about what is to be valued as sacred, above any particular temporal concern. Worship and ritual involve active group affirmations of these sacred phenomena as worthy of veneration. From this perspective, the essence of religion is less about superstitious belief in existence of supernatural entities and their intra-group moral policing function (cf., Shariff and Norenzayan, 2007) than about eager devotion to moral commitments that function as arbiters for coordinating enthusiastic action within individuals and groups.

Some historians of religion have similarly concluded that the essence of religious devotion revolves around functional meanings that help people set priorities for effective living (Smith, 1986; Armstrong, 2006). Armstrong argues that the jagged evolution toward compassionate values across religious traditions has been occurring because prosocial values are the only kind that can sustain consensus and cooperation, and constrain costly inter-group violence. Drawing on existential, psychological, and religious-historical perspectives we accordingly define the essence of religion as a moral orientation toward action that is often but not necessarily anchored by ideas of God, that is often but not necessarily bolstered by consensual ideology and ritual, and that is usually prosocial but can sometimes endorse aggressive and fascist extremes.

The vulnerability toward fascist extremes exists because devotion to abstract moral ideals can be difficult for solitary individuals. Ideals and values have no concrete referents and so rely on consensus for confidence (Festinger, 1950; Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1982; Hardin and Higgins, 1996). “Conservative,” coalitional moral foundations relating to ingroup consensus (authority, loyalty, purity) sometimes co-occur along with the more universal social justice moral foundations (fairness and care; see Graham et al., 2009 for evidence of conservative vs. universal moral foundations). Among people who are vulnerable to anxiety (Jost et al., 2003; Olvet and Hajcak, 2008) and in frustrating circumstances conducive to aggressive reactions and ingroup cohesion and consensus (Dollard et al., 1939; Shah et al., 1998; Kruglanski et al., 2002; Miller et al., 2003; McGregor et al., 2005; Burke et al., 2010), the balance between social justice idealism and the more concrete coalitional and authoritarian moral foundations can list toward coalitional/authoritarian. When they eclipse social justice, ARR can flourish.


Radicalization is a shift from mainstream to anti-normative or comparatively extreme ideological convictions that animate eagerness to challenge the status quo. Radicalization is neither necessarily aggressive nor religious. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi were radicals, as was Tommy Douglass, the politician who won universal health coverage for Canadians in the 1960s. Barack Obama’s quest for more universal healthcare in the US is still considered radically subversive by half of the US population. All of the above might be considered religious radicals to the extent that their radical determination for social justice was girded by their own religious values. Their somewhat religious radicalization was pragmatic and constructive, however, not aggressive.

From our perspective ARR is usually motivated more by the psychological appeal of the radical and aggressive lifestyle than by a constructive assessment of what the radical agenda is likely to accomplish or by thoughtful religious integrity (see also Post, 1990; Atran, 2010, 2015, for more on the superficial religious knowledge and idealistic impoverishment of ARR recruits). We propose that people are drawn to ARR simply because it feels right. Here we develop a theory for why something that seems bizarre and abhorrent to most people could be attractive for some. Based on past theory and research we hypothesize that specific personality, threat, and affordance factors combine to make ARR feel right.

Factors Conducive to ARR: Personality, Threat, and Affordance

When episodes of ARR occur they are typically met with astonished exclamations of “why him,” “why there.” Why, for example, did one sleepy Norwegian town spawn eight IS recruits (Higgins, 2015), one pre-university school in Montreal 11 (Perreaux, 2015), and one elementary school in Morocco five of the seven Madrid train bombers (Atran, 2010)? Part of the reason may be that the individuals belonged to tightly knit, action-oriented social networks, such as neighborhood groups or soccer teams that set a group-action template for them to engage in heroic adventure together in another context (Atran, 2010). But most people in buddy-groups are not drawn to ARR. Blaming personality predispositions or demographic characteristics is also little help because perpetrators of ARR are surprisingly normal (Post, 2005). Environmental threats, frustrations, and anxieties may similarly be ingredients (McGregor et al., 2010b), but most anxious and frustrated people do not turn to ARR.

Difficulty identifying causal factors in past research may have arisen from failure to simultaneously consider combined personality, threat, and affordance interactions. Here we identify 10 ARR-facilitating influences across the three factors (personality, threat, and affordance). For each influence to be above average in prevalence would occur by chance with a 210 probability of only 1/1024. It is not surprising, then, if our view is correct, that isolated personality traits or threat influences often fail empirical tests of relevance. Some laboratory studies (described below) have found combinations of a few of these 10 influences can cause self-reported movement toward aspects of ARR. Real life ARR surely requires more influences to align, however, because barriers to ARR in real life are higher than for self-reported opinions or intentions.

The personality factor includes three influences from normal-range personality traits that lean toward: (a) oppositional personality traits related to aggression (disagreeableness, hostility, anger, narcissism, or low self-control); (b) high BIS personality traits that incline people toward the experience of anxiety; and (c) identity-weak personality traits that undermine capacity to assert personal value priorities, take initiative, or maintain self-regulatory control. The threat factor includes two influences: (a) external control threats that undermine faith in the social system (that identity-weak people are especially inclined to rely on; and (b) life circumstances that underscore hopelessness. The affordance factor includes five influences: (a) opportunity for immediate, concrete engagement with active ARR groups, (b) a consensual injustice narrative that condenses conspiracy-theory blame for system and self-dissatisfaction onto the outgroup, (c) narratives that convey heroic participation in a cosmic battle between good (own group) vs. evil (outgroup), (d) justifying narratives for religious aggression, and (e) unfalsifiable religious arguments.



A history of delinquency or criminal activity prior to ARR is a common but not a clear predictor (Post, 1990; Atran, 2010). Its incidence may arise from intercorrelated dispositional leanings toward aggression, narcissism, disagreeableness, and low self-control that have been linked to ARR-related phenomena in other research (and that are all correlated at around r = 0.3, McGregor, unpublished data). Trait-aggressive and narcissistic people are especially receptive to aggressive media exposure and inclined toward displaced hostile reactions to frustration, perceived provocation, and rejection (Bushman, 1995; Bushman and Baumeister, 1998; Anderson and Dill, 2000; Twenge and Campbell, 2003). Narcissistic and the other “dark tetrad” traits of psychopathy Machiavellianism and sadism (Paulhus, 2014) are significantly correlated with each other and with high agency, low agreeableness, punitiveness, and callous low empathy (Watson et al., 1984; Campbell et al., 2002; Paulhus and Williams, 2002; Vernon et al., 2008; Jones and Paulhus, 2010; McGregor et al., 2013a). Aggressive reactions to threats are approach-motivated (Carver and Harmon-Jones, 2009), and should accordingly focus one on tenacious personal goals with diminished regard for others’ perspectives (Hogeveen et al., 2014; Sassenrath et al., 2014). Indeed, people with low agreeableness scores are mistrusting, devious, selfish, stubborn, arrogant, and callous (Costa and McCrae, 1991). Low self-control is also associated with delinquency, criminal behavior, physical and verbal aggression, self-directed aggression, and extreme and risky reactions to various environmental threats (Tagney et al., 2004; Nash, unpublished data; see also links with low conscientiousness and the dark personality traits, Jakobwitz and Egan, 2006). High scores on these intercorrelated and highly heritable oppositional traits should accordingly predispose people to the appeal of ARR, if other traits, threats, and affordances are also conducive (Costa and McCrae, 1991; Miles and Carey, 1997; Baker et al., 2008; Vernon et al., 2008; Beaver et al., 2009).

It is important to emphasize that these predisposing tendencies need not be in the abnormal range. The vast majority of ARR perpetrators have normal range traits. Our hypothesis is that even normal range tendencies should be enough to combine with the other factors to make ARR appealing. There are also several different kinds of ARR for which the conducive personality traits are likely differentially important. For example, lone-wolf perpetrators and leaders of ARR movements should be most likely to score highly on oppositional traits. In contrast, the foot soldiers and joiners of established movements may be less likely to be oppositional and social dominance oriented, and are more likely to be submissive authoritarians who participate in the oppositional tendencies by association (Son Hing et al., 2007).


By anxious traits we mean those associated with a predisposition toward BIS activity that may or may not be reflected in consciously self-reported state anxiety (which can be attenuated by defenses and which is often out of sync with physiological indicators). The BIS generates early signals conducive to anxiety, vigilance, and caution in uncertain or conflict-laden circumstances, and people with anxious traits are more inclined than others toward these responses (Hirsh and Inzlicht, 2008; Proulx et al., 2012). Correlational studies show reliable links between anxious and aggressive traits (e.g., rs of 0.4 and 0.5 between neuroticism and measures of aggression and hostility in our recent sample of 299 culturally diverse college students; McGregor, unpublished data; see also Jakobwitz and Egan, 2006).

Anxious arousal also mediates defensive reactivity. After threats, if participants can misattribute their anxious arousal to a mundane external cause (e.g., a placebo, or uncomfortable room) they no longer react defensively to threats by rationalizing or becoming extreme (reviewed in Jonas et al., 2014). Anxiety-related need for structure also mediates the effect of threats on worldview defense (Agroskin and Jonas, 2013). Anxiety-related traits and states including felt uncertainty, trait neuroticism, uncertainty-aversion, need for structure, and sense of victimhood, also moderate defensively extreme lifestyle choice, worldview defense, violence, and religious zeal reactions to uncertainty, mortality, control deprivation, and relationship insecurity threats (Hirschberger et al., 2009; Juhl and Routledge, 2010; McGregor et al., 2010b, 2013b; Agroskin, unpublished doctoral thesis).

The interconnected and anxiety-linked constructs of low implicit self-esteem and relationship attachment insecurity (DeHart et al., 2006) similarly moderate distressed, aggressive, extreme, and worldview zealous reactions to failure, relationship, insecurity, and mortality threats (Mikulincer and Florian, 2000; McGregor and Marigold, 2003; Jordan et al., 2005; McGregor et al., 2005; McGregor and Jordan, 2007; Schmeichel et al., 2009; Laurin et al., 2014; Nash et al., 2014).

Recent advances in techniques for indirect assessment of states related to anxiety have also begun to implicate anxious distress in ARR reactions. A wide variety of threats that have caused ARR-related defenses in past research only inconsistently arouse self-reported anxiety. However, almost all of them have been shown to heighten electrical activity source-localized to the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain which has been associated with anxious distress and BIS activation (Proulx et al., 2012). These same threats also elevate self-reported anxious distress that is delayed or retrospective, presumably because delay or retrospection evades the defenses that can obscure self-reports of anxious distress immediately after threats (McGregor et al., 2001; Nash et al., 2011; Agroskin, unpublished doctoral thesis). Taken together in light of recent RAM theorizing (Jonas et al., 2014), the links between ARR-related phenomena and BIS-related states and traits suggest that anxious traits related to high BIS activity should predispose people towards using ARR to mask their distress.

High BIS personalities may also be drawn to ARR because of their discomfort with abstraction and their attraction to concrete engagement in low-level thoughts and goals. High BIS personalities feel energized and mobilized by immersion in details of concrete action and are averse to focus on abstract reasons for “why” which can cue distressing rumination. Indeed, concreteness manipulations (e.g., being randomly assigned to write about the “how” vs. “why” of various goals) not only relieve distress after anxious experiences (Watkins et al., 2008) but also causes high BIS participants to run harder and burn more calories on a treadmill endurance test, squeeze with more tenacity on a hand-gripper, persist to better performance in a speeded data-entry task, report higher eager excitement on a self-report questionnaire, to feel more optimism about personal goals, and show an increase in left frontal brain activity, characteristic of approach motivation (Tran et al., unpublished manuscript).

High BIS personalities may prefer the clarity of concrete action to the ambiguity of abstraction because focus on concrete steps regarding what to do alleviates the potentially bewildering tangle of uncertainties about values and identity, especially for identity-weak people (Vallacher and Wegner, 1989; Baumeister, 1991). Developmentally, however, patience with uncertain abstraction may be required if one is to identify, simulate, and hone reliable personal values to identify with (Adorno et al., 1950; Erikson, 1959; Marcia, 1980). Values need to be test-driven in comparison with other existential options before they can be adopted as an autonomous and intrinsically motivating part of personal identity (Ryan and Deci, 2000; La Guardia, 2009). This uncertain discovery process is more likely to feel threatening for people with high BIS reactivity whose anxiety circuits are most easily overloaded by uncertainty (Hirsh and Inzlicht, 2008). For them, defenses that allow escape from anxious conflicts by either unmitigated approach or avoidance motivation would be appealing (cf; Marcia, 1980; Jonas et al., 2014; Hayes et al., 2015).

When anxious people choose the approach route, they should accordingly be especially drawn to concrete and immediate commitments that limit exposure to the anxious burdens of abstract selfhood (Baumeister, 1986). They should also be drawn to the fascist structure of ARR groups that can provide direction and a sense of meaning without requiring self-clarity. Indeed, when faced with mortality reminders, mildly depressed people were most likely to bolster meaning with jingoistic judgments (Simon et al., 1998). Concrete and active engagement with fascist groups should accordingly hit the motivational sweet spot for anxious people by allowing them to restore approach motivated states without having to think abstractly.


At any choice point, people can imagine multiple possibilities for action. Classic and contemporary theories of human choice and goal regulation hold that identity-strong people constrain the potential for uncertainty and conflict among imagined alternatives by using idealistic abstractions (i.e., highest values) for guidance (reviewed in McGregor, 2004, 2006b, 2007). Committed identification with high values can help guide choices and thereby allow people to function with confidence and efficacy through frustrating or uncertain circumstances (Lydon and Zanna, 1990; Kroger and Marcia, 2011). Put another way, clarity about how to be can effectively guide what to do. Committed values function like abstract goals and can also activate approach motivation directly and further relieve anxious distress by mere reflection (McGregor et al., 2001, Study 1; Creswell et al., 2006; McGregor, 2006a; McGregor et al., 2012b). Indeed, for highly meaning-seeking people, even brief reflection on personal values activates approach motivated states (neural, perceptual, and self-report evidence in McGregor, unpublished data).

In contrast, identity-weak people who lack clear value identifications to guide action and relieve anxious distress are less able to cope constructively with frustrating circumstances. Indeed, identity-weak people (i.e., with low scores on a trait measure of idealism) reacted to mortality, control deprivation, failure, and relationship threats by becoming especially anxious, bewildered, and demotivated (McGregor and Marigold, 2003; Ferriday, unpublished master thesis; Prentice et al., unpublished data). Self-doubt also predicts materialistic reactions to uncertainty (Chang and Arkin, 2002). Moreover, when simultaneously confronted with multiple vulnerabilities and threats (life-dissatisfaction, goal frustration, mortality salience) identity-weak people become fatalistically withdrawn from personal goals, report being depressed, and report that they wish to live shorter lives (Hayes et al., 2015). In contrast, identity-strong people (i.e., high self-esteem, high scores on trait idealism) cope with anxious distress relatively easily by focusing on personal ideals about self-worth or value conviction that activate approach motivated states and thereby relieve the anxiety (Dodgson and Wood, 1998; McGregor and Marigold, 2003; McGregor, 2006a; McGregor et al., 2007, 2009a; Schmeichel et al., 2009; Nash et al., 2010; Schumann et al., 2014; see also McGregor et al., 2010a for evidence that experimentally priming ideals can also activate this process).

When high personal values (which are usually prosocial; Crocker et al., 2008; Schumann et al., 2014) are not available or salient, on the other hand, we propose that people will be more likely to revert to concrete, angry, controlling, and jingoistic foci. All can activate palliative approach motivation in a concrete way (Keltner et al., 2003; Carver and Harmon-Jones, 2009; McGregor, unpublished data). Participants with low scores on a dispositional idealism scale also reacted to social-order and relationship-security threats by becoming especially bewildered, and by becoming extremely devoted to the concrete and social (angry, group-related) aspects of religious zeal but not the abstract personal. After threat they rated their personal goals in life as being more random and out of control, and reported more willingness to support war and die for their religious beliefs, more allegiance to their own religious group, more hostility and less openness to people with different religious beliefs, more confidence that God would give them power and take care of them, and more willingness to go to extremes for God (Ferriday, unpublished master thesis).

Both high self-esteem and idealism are significantly correlated with each other and with other constructs related to personal agency (McGregor et al., 2007, Study 2). People with low scores on either self-esteem or idealism report significantly lower power, self-control, drive, hope, and efficacy, and higher anxiety, depression, and rumination (McGregor, unpublished data). The low personal agency arising from difficulty with ideals is consistent with classic and contemporary theories of the self-regulatory role of ideals and values. Accordingly, when people lack personal agency they cleave to sources of group-based and external control, through heightened allegiance to active groups, external agencies, and religious authority (Fritsche et al., 2008, 2011, 2013; Kay et al., 2010; Landau et al., 2015; Stollberg et al., 2015).

On the surface it may seem perverse to argue that aggressive religious radicals are identity-weak when their rhetoric brims with moral certainty and megalomanic conviction. Theories of narcissism, however, hold that such overt entitlement and importance is a reaction to weak capacity for nuanced and viable ideals. The rigid narcissistic shell shields against anxious distress of a vulnerable and lost soul (Kohut, 1971; Kernberg, 1975; see also Kroger and Marcia, 2011, for related research on identity foreclosure). Indeed, reactive narcissistic rage, punitiveness, and callous disregard for others is especially prevalent among people whose entitled grandiosity is belied by vulnerability and shame (McGregor et al., 2005, 2013a; Krizan and Johar, 2015). From this perspective, ARR is a kind of narcissistic response that appeals to identity-weak people. They should be most vulnerable to the dubious and grandiose religious ideals that animate ARR because they have no clear opposing identity and are most in need of bolstering and escaping the problematic self. Accordingly, they should be most inclined both toward extremes of bolstering the self by joining ARR groups (Fritsche et al., 2013; Swann and Buhrmester, 2015), and de-individuated escaping of the self by cleaving to group authority (Postmes and Spears, 1998). Both processes would orient them toward group loyalty and angry, concrete action without pangs of conscience.

In sum, clear values provide resilience in the face of anxious distress. They aid instrumental coping by providing agile capacity for assessing, prioritizing, and adjusting goals. They also provide a ready focus for activating approach motivation and relieving anxiety. They thereby help people cope with life’s frustrations, choices, and uncertainties in instrumental and palliative ways. Without authentic and confident personal value identifications, some other arbiter for making choices and soothing anxious distress is necessary. Rigid (concrete, literal) and extreme commitment to hostile, fascist, and authoritarian groups may be a default alternative for the dispositionally inclined.


External Threat

For people like those just described who are dispositionally reliant on external sources of agency, threats that undermine external sources of agency should make ARR especially appealing. When personal control is weak (i.e., for anxious and identity-weak people) or unavailable, and a source of external agency (e.g., ingroup, god, government) is threatened, people should be inclined to switch allegiance to another seemingly viable source of external agency (Kay et al., 2008, 2010). Feeling excluded or alienated, or like one’s ingroup was unfairly treated or humiliated, or one’s country was out of control should make people with weak capacity for personal agency turn to other sources of external agency, such as ARR.

Preliminary support for this hypothesis comes from research showing that whereas high dispositional idealism predicts reactive personal agency (for personal goals and personal beliefs) after a personal agency threat (i.e., zeal for personal beliefs after a failure experience; McGregor et al., 2007, 2010b); low dispositional idealism predicts reactive allegiance to external religious agency after an external control threat (i.e., willingness to go to extremes for God and religious groups, and claims to derive strength and safety from a powerful God after threats to important relationships or to economic stability; Ferriday, unpublished master thesis). Based on these results and our extension of compensatory control and group-based control theories (Kay et al., 2010; Fritsche et al., 2013) we expect that because identity-weak people rely on external sources of agency in uncertain circumstances they should be especially bewildered and drawn to the external agency of ARR when their other external sources of agency are threatened.

Turning to ARR as a way to restore approach motivated relief from distress could be precipitated by various threats to institutional or relational sources of agency, such as war, sanctions, economic instability, high unemployment, system injustice, system incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy, relative deprivation, and cultural marginalization, ridicule, prejudice, ostracism, unfair social policies that relegate disadvantaged people to inescapable cycles of humiliation and hardship. Relational, domestic abuse, conflict, unfairness, boredom, or uncertainty could have a similar effect leaving people feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. External threats, whether societal or domestic should accordingly heighten the appeal of ARR. Consistent with this external-threat interpretation, the first three reasons suggested for the rise of IS relate to perceptions of systemic injustice against Muslims: (1) Shia (Iran, Iraq, Syria) oppression of Sunnis, (2) lack of confidence in governmental ability to protect social justice, and (3) the perception of a “Western-led onslaught” against Muslims by the West and their coalition (Barrett, 2014b).

No Hope

If the present is grim and frustrations or chaos make the near future seem hopeless, one can still look to the distant future for redemption. Hope is an eager state, closely aligned with approach motivation, and is negatively correlated with anxiety (McGregor et al., 2012b). Indeed, when people are confronted with anxiety-inducing threats, they respond by exaggerating hopeful commitment in alternative domains at near and far temporal distances as a way to activate RAM and suppress anxiety (reviewed in Jonas et al., 2014). But if all temporal horizons for hope, near and far, seem blocked, then people simmer in impotent anxiety, get depressed, and disengage from life. The combination of present life-dissatisfaction, salience of near-future failure, and mortality salience (that undermines distant future hope) made participants became depressed, demotivated, disinterested in personal goals, and less interested in living (Hayes et al., 2015).

Such across-the board withdrawal from life goes against the primal human motivation to strive, live, and love, however, (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Accordingly, such no-hope predicaments could be expected to vacillate between depression and fatalistic withdrawal on the one hand, and anxiety arising from frustrated efforts to re-engage with life on the other. Such vacillation would be conducive to ARR because the withdrawal would make people more willing to forsake normal goals and even die, but the anxiety would also orient them toward active participation in extreme ARR as a source of group-based, external agency to activate RAM for relief. ARR could be even more alluring because its utopian elements transcend the frustrating limits of the hopeless temporal world (Cohen et al., 2011).

It is important to note that neither threat nor hopelessness is synonymous with objective personal failure, disadvantage, or low SES. Hopelessness can refer to the plight of a group one identifies with (Wohl et al., 2010). It can also refer to a sense of futility about reaching whatever standard one has for oneself, high or low. Indeed, hopelessness may become particularly acute when one has ostensibly succeeded according to normative standards, but still feels dissatisfied. Being wealthy and vocationally successful, for example, but still feeling ostracized, socially excluded, alienated, or meaningless might make one feel especially hopeless and cynical about the viability of culturally available opportunities for a good life. Similarly, even in affluent circumstances domestic dysfunction could trigger hopelessness about social goals.


Salient Narratives and Opportunities Conducive to Immediate, Concrete Engagement with Active Groups

The aforementioned combination of traits and threats should make RAM via concrete engagement in active groups particularly appealing. People intuitively turn to groups and consensus in anxious circumstances because doing so can help people either bolster or escape from their vulnerable or uncertain selves (e.g., Festinger et al., 1956; Solomon et al., 1991; Gardner et al., 2002; McGregor et al., 2005; Fritsche et al., 2008). Fusing one’s personal identity with a group identity can powerfully validate and bolster confidence in personal agency, liberating sacrifice and risky extremes for the sake of the group (Swann and Buhrmester, 2015). Groups can also support de-individuated identification as an escape from personal selfhood, and thereby promote enactment of group norms and beliefs even if they are anti-normative (Postmes and Spears, 1998). Authoritarian groups may further facilitate conformity and obedience beyond personal inclinations (Martin and Hewstone, 2003). Cleaving to group norms as a way to escape self-uncertainty is a theme long identified by existential philosophers and classic developmental psychological perspectives as described in the introduction. Authoritarian groups allow one to follow concrete orders, focusing on the concrete topics of what to do and how to do it instead of being responsible for grappling with uncertain moral quandaries about why. Authoritarian groups that explicitly specify immediate engagement in concrete action should be especially appealing for anxious and identity-weak people (Vallacher and Wegner, 1989; Baumeister, 1991; Hogg and Adelman, 2013; Tran et al., unpublished manuscript).

Indeed, people with barriers to personal agency react to threats by cleaving specifically to active and agentic groups, presumably because the groups’ agency can be internalized as a surrogate or splint for personal agency (Hogg and Adelman, 2013; Stollberg et al., 2015; cf. Landau et al., 2015). Consistent with this group-based agency view, short experimental manipulations of ingroup affirmation or outgroup derogation can activate approach motivated states (McGregor, unpublished data). Approach motivation is an eager, confident, and resilient state resistant to anxious distress (McGregor et al., 2005, 2012b; Drake and Myers, 2006; Nash et al., 2011).


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