While radicalization is a process of how an individual gains the propensity1 to engage in political violence, the causes for this process are deeply social and environmental. Radicalization framed in this way is non-deterministic in that someone with a very high propensity may not engage in action; propensity merely represents the potential for action. Whether that propensity is converted into action depends on situational contingencies.2 In addition, there are those who may engage in political violence who were not radicalized, such as those who were coerced. Thus radicalization is neither necessary nor sufficient to engage in violence. However, an understanding of what increases this individual propensity is important both theoretically and practically.

Factors related to radicalization vary across cohorts, regions, and movements, highlighting the need for cross-context research. To this end, our research team has investigated the role of sacred values and identity fusion in various contexts. Sacred values are positions on issues that are non-negotiable and inviolable. Examples include Palestinian right of return, the resurrection of a Caliphate, an independent Kurdistan, or even freedom of speech. These values have been shown to contribute to intractability across a variety of conflicts such as Israel and Palestine,3 US and Iran,4 India and Pakistan,5 and in sub-state groups.

Identity fusion is a type of identification that captures a “oneness” between the individual and the group. A study on revolutionary fighters in Libya who were fighting against the Gaddafi regime found that frontline fighters were as fused with their combat units as with their families, whereas non-frontline logistical units were more fused with their families than with their battalions.6 This suggests that fusion with comrades in arms is related to self-sacrifice against an out-group.

Further research indicates that when sacred values and fused identities combine they create a potent mix. A survey study in Morocco found that the combination of holding strict sharia as sacred and being fused with one’s close friends boosted willingness to commit costly sacrifices for sharia.7 These findings are consistent with ethnographic research on Al Qaida affiliated cells in Europe and SE Asia that showed that cell members were sacrificing for cause and comrades.8 More recent research on Kurdish fighters on the frontlines against ISIS in Iraq showed that they chose their sacred values over their fused groups, including their families.9 This indicates that the most extreme members of a combat group would be willing to sacrifice their comrades for the cause.

Our neuroimaging research on supporters of jihadist groups and values provided new insights into sacred values. Our first study showed that inducing a feeling of social exclusion made non-sacred values more like sacred values both neurally and behaviorally, including increasing willingness to fight and die for them.10 Our second study showed that sacred value processing led to the deactivation of a brain region associated with deliberative reasoning.11 When participants were led to believe that their peers were not as willing to engage in violence, the radicalized participants decreased their expressed willingness to fight and die and this was correlated with increased activation in the area associated with deliberative reasoning. In other words, changing what people think their in-group thinks is acceptable levels of violence (if any) could be a way to mitigate violent actions.

As humans are social animals, our values and identities are socially embedded. Tight-knit networks of friends that develop on and offline reinforce and normalize what would be classified as extremist attitudes and actions. But just as friends can facilitate radicalization they can also buffer against it by reinforcing non-violent norms. For example, enabling non-radicalized and influential peers to lead anti-violence campaigns could be more impactful than current state or NGO branded messaging initiatives. Recruiting these friends’ help in direct intervention to break their peers out of their radicalizing echo-chambers could also be effective, though must be carefully managed to protect their safety. In general, any policies that seek to counter violent extremism must first understand and then potentially leverage the local context in which radicalization occurs.


[1] Bouhana, N. (2019). The Moral Ecology of Extremism: A Systemic Perspective. Prepared for the UK Commission for Countering Extremism.

[2] Wikström, P. O. H., & Bouhana, N. (2017). “Analyzing Radicalization and Terrorism: A Situational Action Theory,” The Handbook of the Criminology of Terrorism, 175-186.

[3] Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., & Atran, S. (2013). “Sacred Values in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict: Resistance to Social Influence, Temporal Discounting, and Exit Strategies,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1299(1), 11-24.

[4] Dehghani, M., Atran, S., Iliev, R., Sachdeva, S., Medin, D., & Ginges, J. (2010). “Sacred Values and Conflict Over Iran's Nuclear Program,” Judgment and Decision Making, 5(7), 540.

[5] Sachdeva, S., & Medin, D. (2009). “Group Identity Salience in Sacred Value Based Cultural Conflict: An Examination of the Hindu-Muslim Identities in the Kashmir and Babri Mosque Issues. In the Proceedings of the 31th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci).

[6] Whitehouse, H., McQuinn, B., Buhrmester, M., & Swann, W. B. (2014). “Brothers in Arms: Libyan Revolutionaries Bond Like Family,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17783-17785.

[7] Sheikh, H., Gómez, Á., & Atran, S. (2016). “Empirical Evidence for the Devoted Actor Model,” Current Anthropology, 57(S13), S204-S209.

[8] Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human. Penguin UK.

[9] Gómez, Á., Lopez-Rodriguez, L., Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., Wilson, L., Waziri, H., Vázquez, A., Davis, R. & Atran, S. (2017). “The Devoted Actor’s Will to Fight and the Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict,” Nature Human Behaviour, 1(9), 673.

[10] Pretus, C., Hamid, N., Sheikh, H., Gómez, Á., Ginges, J., Tobeña, A., Davis, R., Vilarroya, O. & Atran, S. (2019). “Ventromedial and Dorsolateral Prefrontal Interactions Underlie Will to Fight and Die for a Cause,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 14(6), 569-577.

[11] Hamid, N., Pretus, C., Atran, S., Crockett, M. J., Ginges, J., Sheikh, H., Tobeña, A., Carmona, S., Gomez, A., Davis, R. & Vilarroya, O. (2019). “Neuroimaging ‘Will to Fight’ for Sacred Values: An Empirical Case Study with Supporters of an Al Qaeda Associate,” Royal Society Open Science, 6(6), 181585.