Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How psychology can help us stop radicalisation

Since Prevent’s inception it has sparked controversy. But if we take a step back, what does the science tell us about the best way to deal with radicalisation?

The bigger picture When thinking about extremist beliefs the focus is too often on two questions: who has the beliefs and how to stop them. The who and how questions are interesting, but the question most people miss is: why are these individuals are engaging with extremism in the first place?

It is also important to note that extremist beliefs may not themselves be problematic. Many people may hold extreme views (e.g., more guns in schools make school safer may be extreme to some) but the real concern is if those who hold violent extremist views and are willing to act on them or encourage others to act on them.

The science-y bit There are two bits of jargon we need to understand first of all: primary prevention and secondary prevention. Primary prevention is about trying to stop people succumbing to extremist beliefs in the first place (like taking vitamin C tablets to prevent a cold), whereas secondary prevention is more about mitigating the symptoms (i.e. radicalisation).

Primary prevention is obviously the hardest one to tackle here, as predicting which individuals might be vulnerable to radicalisation is laden with logistical and moral difficulties. But there is hope – in a branch of psychology called ‘community psychology’.

The bottom line The science is based on a simple idea: people like to fit in, they want to be liked and they want to be surrounded by those who value them.  Those who feel marginalised may have a harder time finding their place in society and this can lead to a more desperate search for a sense of belonging.

What’s happening One sure fire way to make someone feel marginalised is a feeling that they are being discriminated against, and the evidence shows that experiences of discrimination are related to engaging in violent behaviour . This doesn’t have to be restricted to one race or religion – a warped belief that immigrants are coming to the United Kingdom and jumping the queue could lead a vulnerable and deranged individual to take matters into their own hands. Labour MPs and friends of Jo Cox know this only too well.

It can be useful to look at how this effects specific groups. Focusing more on Islamophobia, we see some people incorporating extremism into their identity.  This can come as a response to being prohibited from taking on a more mainstream identity. This is not to say that everyone who feels blocked from ‘becoming British’ will become extreme, but there is something in the idea that there are only so many times you can try, and be made to feel unwelcome, before you stop trying.

Social identity, or highlighting groups that are different in a prejudicial way, can be problematic. A paper from 2012 put it this way: ‘Prejudice is a vicious circle, in which outgroups feel aggrieved, which inspires disruptive behaviour by an extremist minority, which may add to ingroup prejudice, which in turn exacerbates outgroup grievance’. Essentially: it takes two to tango.

What next This isn’t a perfect science, and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s important to acknowledge the political context in which this is taking place. Resilience in communities is important because we need to think about what we can do, politically and psychologically, to increase widespread community support for each other.  Resilient communities may have less concerns about extremism but more importantly may also be able to cope better when there are increases in extremist rhetoric.

An argument that can be summed up perfectly in the worlds of the late Jo Cox: we achieve more together than we achieve alone.

Labour’s strategy to prevent radicalisation would do well to take this advice on board.

Be a progressive Listen to Lara Frumkin, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, talking about how to stop radicalisation on this week’s Progressive Britain podcast


Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Brief

Sign up to our daily roundup email