A Persuasive Psychology Approach to CVE
By Barkley Saltzman
April 15, 2019

Are all violent extremists the same? No. Recruits join extremist groups for a myriad of social and political reasons, giving a vast diversity to the motivational makeup of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. But, like our genetic similarities, behavioral science can show us where humans are more alike than we are different. A persuasive psychology approach offers valuable insight into potential avenues for deradicalization programming. By understanding how psychological biases and persuasive techniques interact with the ideological factors of extremism, we can more effectively identify shared characteristics among extremist recruits and promote stronger, more targeted messages of respect and tolerance.

One’s quest for significance often overshadows the human desire to support and care for oneself and one’s family. Extremists have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice lifestyles enjoyed by others for a harder life in service of a broader goal. Ideology that supports seeking significance and the sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves holds enticing sway. This desire becomes even stronger after humiliating occurrences that threaten that significance. Violent extremists exploit the desire for significance in their recruitment, so countering violent extremism (CVE) must take this desire into account and satisfy it with more constructive means.

The psychological principle of social proof shows us that humans are more likely to engage in a behavior if they believe other people engage in it as well. Social proof can result in negative and positive outcomes. A societal example of a positive use of social proof could be considered in a program designed to encourage people to recycle. In this case, asking people to join a vibrant recycling community in its steadfast commitment to recycling would move people toward recycling. If everyone else is recycling, social proof suggests that people would be exceptionally careless not to. Suggesting that we are facing a crisis because people don’t recycle would result in fewer people recycling as social proof would provide evidence that many people aren’t making the effort to recycle. The persuasive principle of social proof applies to violence, tolerance, and adherence to ideologies. It can and should be used to move extremists toward positive behavior.

Social proof should also be considered when promoting religious tolerance as a popular cause with a noble history. It’s not enough that tolerance has a moral message; it must also present as an ideological heritage with many past and present adherents. Respect and tolerance should be framed as a vast tradition and a calling many leaders have answered. Religious tolerance needs to satisfy the desire to be part of a group in service of a significant goal. This can be done while recognizing the reality of intolerance.

Persuasive psychology suggests that humans are driven to be consistent. Once one makes a small commitment, one is more likely to engage in similar, and potentially larger commitments. This is true for individuals and groups. Deradicalization should involve a series of actions that build a pattern of tolerant behavior. As participants engage in little steps in the right direction, they will begin to internalize the alternatives to violent extremism and see them as part of who they are.

The availability heuristic describes the tendency to view what comes to mind easier as being more common. Our memories are less reliable than we think. What might seem like a common occurrence might just be a recent one. Humans favor recent information (recency), which is easier to remember. Thinking of five positive things before thinking of anything negative, positively affects one’s evaluation – even if a more thorough count would yield more negatives than positives. An example of a way to use this heuristic to promote tolerance would be to expose extremists to positive stories that may be counter to their pre-existing beliefs about opposing groups, prior to negotiations with those groups.

A wide variety of radicalizing factors all influence people through remarkably similar psychological processes. Accounting for these processes, and including a more robust account of contemporary and emerging psychological research, will make CVE and deradicalization efforts more successful. As CVE practitioners continue to analyze and improve their CVE strategies, persuasive psychology needs to be incorporated into the field of practice.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).