What is wrong with the official ‘psychological’ model of radicalisation?

Leda Blackwood

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on The implications of the counter-extremism agenda.

Get a pdf of this article *

leda profile 2With the introduction of the Counter-terrorism and Security Act (2015), teachers in schools and universities and frontline health personnel across the UK have a legal duty to report anyone they deem vulnerable to recruitment to violent extremism. In support of this mandate, training is being provided to equip people with the knowledge to identify those at risk. The blueprint for this training is the Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP); a workshop based around a video and group exercises which has been developed (and revised) by the Home Office.

by inviting scrutiny of young Muslims, WRAP may itself contribute to the very problem it hopes to solve

In 2009, my colleague Nick Hopkins and I observed the first WRAP session delivered by police in Scotland.  What was striking about the workshop was that the message was in many respects a compassionate one – those at ‘risk’ of recruitment are vulnerable rather than bad. It was also plain to see that this message would resonate with many participants because it rests on a familiar understanding of how people (particularly the young) become ‘mixed-up with the wrong crowd’. But, however appealing this message may be, it is premised on a partial understanding of the dynamics of social influence and the radicalisation process that neglects decades of social psychological research on these topics. In doing so, it fails to understand the ways in which through inviting scrutiny of young Muslims, this intervention may itself contribute to the very problem it hopes to solve.

The ‘official’ psychological explanation of radicalisation

Broadly speaking, ‘susceptibility’ to radicalisation is understood as deriving from a series of ‘risk factors’ including mental health issues, withdrawal from mainstream cultural practices, and experiences of discrimination. These risk factors are thought to, in turn, undermine personal identity and resilience and so make people more receptive to social influence by radical individuals and groups. This provides the logic to the government’s focus on identifying individuals who are at risk; strengthening resilience through the assertion of British values; and silencing radical voices in our midst.

In order to recognise what is problematic about this model, we need to begin with an understanding of the social influence processes thought to be at work and the psychological assumptions on which this is based.

Assumption 1: Individuals lose their sense of self within groups and submit to the influence of radicalisers.

All of us can recall times in our lives when we have gone along with others out of fear, a desire to fit in, or simple uncertainty about how we should act. But whilst this is one form of influence, the image of people passively submitting to the stronger will of others and being pulled away from what they might actually want to do is limited. First, it is based on a very essentialised notion of the ‘true self’ where personal identity is held separate from group-based identities. Thus, it assumes that where people lack a secure sense of the self, the group becomes powerful as a form of consolation for unmet psychological needs. This understanding of groups (and society) as being outside of and indeed antagonistic to an essentialised self neglects research informed by the social identity perspective which has transformed our understanding of more ‘genuine’ forms of social influence where our sense of self, of who we are and of what we value, has been shown to be bound up in our group memberships and social identities (e.g., as a woman, a feminist, an academic).1 Second, by implication what is also neglected is the ways in which through identifying with groups our sense of self can be transformed such that even in the absence of others we can come to genuinely believe in something and act on those beliefs autonomously.

Assumption 2: Radicalisers are charismatic and manipulative individuals whose talents lie in taking advantage of vulnerability to spin a false narrative of ‘them and us’. Accordingly, our role must be to identify vulnerability and refute this pernicious narrative.

When we premise our understanding of influence on vulnerability, the implication is that how people are influenced depends largely on who turns up with a plausible message – the drug pusher, radicaliser, or teacher. But, social influence is not such a passive process. Regardless of whether one is young or old, Muslim or non-Muslim, we all seek out and use others as a resource, and draw upon those whose views can help us make sense of our experiences. That is to say, we are influenced by those we see as knowledgeable about our group and its situation (e.g., ingroup members) and by messages that fit with group-based identity and values. Thus, when we observe a certain level of conformity in the values and practices amongst front-line teachers or police officers, this is not because these individuals have succumbed to their respective peer groups. Rather, this conformity arises because others who share our day to day experiences are more likely to be seen as relevant sources of information about how we should think and act.

Crucially, in terms of the suggestion that we can all play a role countering extremist narratives (Muslim leaders in particular), presenting people with arguments that run counter to their experiences and their understanding of group identity, runs the risk of creating backlash effects. Indeed, our own research found that some Muslim community leaders who had been working closely with the police were alert to this potential. They expressed concern that in the context of Muslims experiencing discriminatory treatment by authorities, it was becoming more difficult to urge trust and cooperation without compromising their own credibility and influence.

Assumption 3: Discrimination and various forms of social exclusion play a role in the radicalisation process through undermining personal identity and resilience to the narrative of ‘them and us’.

This understanding of discrimination individualises the experience and puts it on an equal footing with experiences such as mental health issues or personal loss. What is missing here is an understanding of the relationship between particular kinds of experience and the adoption of particular identities. What is significant about discrimination is that it functions as a group-making practice that defines people as ‘other’ and so defines relations in intergroup (‘them and us’) terms.2 Thus, rather than the radicalising effect of discrimination being mediated by ‘identity crisis’, it arises because discrimination may help constitute particular social categorical relationships that position people such that they are distanced from authority figures and begin to give anti-authority voices more credibility.3 The implication of this blind spot is to avert our gaze from the ways in which the practices involved in identifying and reporting those deemed vulnerable may shape people’s sense of who they are and where they stand in relation to authorities and wider society.

Some lessons from beyond the official model

The key point in this critique is that group memberships are integral to our understandings of who we are and provide the lens through which events and others are judged. For example, if a person identifies strongly as a British Muslim but finds that various authorities treat them or other British Muslims as an alien other, then this may impact on the way that they conceptualise the relationship between Muslims and authority. This does not mean that they experience a crisis of identity which makes them vulnerable to any source of charismatic influence. Rather, it means that they may need to re-evaluate their assumptions about the relationships between social categories (in this case relationships between the categories of Muslim and British), and that this may impact upon who they see as relevant when considering how to act.

However much someone might embrace a British identity, their ability to inhabit and act on that identity is constrained by the degree to which other Britons recognise that claim

We have heard much discussion in the media (and from senior government figures) about the need to address the alienation of Muslim youth through the assertion of a more rugged British identity based on shared values. Quite apart from the inherently contested nature of group values, one of the lessons from social psychology is that identity is not something that people can simply claim. However much someone might embrace a British identity, their ability to inhabit and act on that identity is always constrained by the degree to which in their daily lives they experience other Britons recognising that claim. One domain where British Muslims report experiences of having their identity misrecognised is when they criticise foreign policy or domestic counter-terrorism policy; here they are not heard as British citizens but are judged as alien ‘other’ and as warranting scrutiny.4 The requirement for teachers to monitor Muslims’ views on such issues risks further undermining Muslims’ sense of themselves as members of the national community.

This is not to say that people will respond to these experiences in any pre-determined way and nor is it to deny the importance of influence agents. In any group there are always multiple voices vying for influence and proposing different analyses of the situation and courses of action.5 The appeal of these arguments will depend on several factors. One as already discussed, is the degree to which the message meshes with people’s direct experience. The second concerns the availability of different voices and different messages. To the extent that authorities compromise more moderate voices through practices that discriminate against British Muslims; and to the extent that they close down debate within communities by banning those critical of the government; then the field is left open to those advocating more extreme solutions.

radicalisation is a dynamic process where those in authority have the power to create contexts within which processes of alienation and radicalisation occur

Finally, what is most problematic in the official model of the psychology of radicalisation is the insistence on focusing solely on ‘them’; on their individual vulnerabilities, on Muslim cultural practices, and on Islamist ideology. What is not present is an understanding of radicalisation as a dynamic process where those in authority have the power to create contexts within which processes of alienation and radicalisation occur. Accordingly, what is needed is greater ‘self’ analysis and reflection. Indeed, the role played by authority figures has particular importance because (a) they have direct power to intervene into people’s lives; and (b) they are seen as representative of society and so their actions communicate societal norms to the wider community.6 Moreover, minority group members themselves tend to see their treatment by the authorities as revealing the degree to which they are included in that community. Thus, when politicians, police and teachers, treat people as ‘other’ and dangerous then this amounts to their being told that they are not valued and respected and that the wider community shares the view that they do not belong.

In conclusion, the government’s insistence that we all can and should play a role is apposite. But the real question is: what role should this be? By seeking to mobilise large numbers of public sector workers to be on the alert in spotting individuals who are vulnerable to radicalisation, current government policy isolates and stigmatises a group of people – and social psychology research tells us that the experience of group isolation and stigmatisation is more, rather than less, likely to encourage radicalisation.

Leda Blackwood is a social psychologist in the Department of Psychology at Bath University. She has conducted research across a range of social phenomenon, including collective action and processes of alienation and radicalisation; social influence, leadership and group advocacy; and the experience and consequences of misrecognition and humiliation. In recent years, much of this research has been focussed on Muslims’ experiences of surveillance and scrutiny.


  1. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks Cole.
  2. Cronin, T. J., Levin, S., Branscombe, N. R., van Laar, C., & Tropp, L. R. (2012). Ethnic identification in response to perceived discrimination protects well-being and promotes activism: A longitudinal study of Latino college students. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15(3), 393-407.
  3. Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change: Researching crowds and power. Journal of Social Issues, 65(4), 707-725.
  4. Hopkins, N., & Blackwood, L. (2011). Everyday citizenship: Identity and recognition. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 21(3), 215-227.
  5. Reicher, S., & Hopkins, N. (2001). Psychology and the end of history: A critique and a proposal for the psychology of social categorization. Political Psychology, 22(2), 383-407.
  6. Sunshine, J., & Tyler, T. (2003). Moral Solidarity, Identification with the Community, and the Importance of Procedural Justice: The Police as Prototypical Representatives of a Group’s Moral Values. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 153-165.
  7. Talbot, D., & Böse, M. (2007). Racism, criminalization and the development of night-time economies: Two case studies in London and Manchester. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(1), 95-118.

* This article is a summary of a paper http://dx.doi.org/%2010.1111/pops.12284 critiquing the government’s psychological model of social influence and radicalisation.


To cite this article, please use the following: Blackwood, Leda (2015) ‘What is wrong with the official ‘psychological’ model of radicalisation? Public Spirit (October 2015: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/what-is-wrong-with-the-official-psychological-model-of-radicalisation/)

One Response to “What is wrong with the official ‘psychological’ model of radicalisation?”

  1. Iftikhar Ahmad

    British schooling is the home of institutional racism and native teachers are chicken racists. Muslim children have been victim of Paki bashing for the last 50 years. This is one of the main reason why I have been campaigning for state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers for the last 45 years. I set up the first Muslim school in 1981 in London. Now there are 188 Muslim schools and only 18 are state funded. I would like to see each and every Muslim child in a state funded Muslim school and I hope one day my dream would come true. Police are investigating a hate crime after two pigs heads were left outside a Muslim school in Lancashire.

    Terrorism and sexual grooming is nothing to do with Masajid, Imams and Muslim schools. Those Muslim youths who have been involved in terrorism and sexual grooming are the product of western education system which makes a man stupid, selfish and corrupt. They find themselves cut off from their cultural heritage, literature and poetry. They suffer from identity crises and I blame British schooling. Not a single Muslim youth who is in Syria and Iraq is a product of a Muslim school. All of them were from state or church schools.

    Majority of Muslim children are in failing state and church schools with non-Muslim teachers. They are unable to satisfy the needs and demands of the Muslim children. Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    I do not blame the parents. British schooling has been mis-educating and de-educating Muslim children for a long time. Muslim children needs state funding Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.
    Indiscipline, incivility, binge drinking, drug addiction, gun and knife crimes, teenage pregnancies and abortion are part and parcel of British schooling. These are the reasons why majority of Muslim parents would like to send their children to Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. Only less than 10% attend Muslim schools and more than 90% keep on attending state and church schools to be mis-educated and de-educated by non-Muslim monolingual teachers. These are the main reasons why educated Muslim parents do not want to send their children to British schooling.

    There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education.




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