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No shades of gray: Psychological reasons for joining ISIS

By Reyhan Güner

Reasons that encourage individuals to join extremist groups are often found in the problems they are beset with in their social lives or in the long-lasting economic hardships they have to face. Tangible and observable challenges in a person’s life such as social exclusion, a lack of education and difficulties in making ends meet are widely accepted factors which, so to say, force individuals to join these groups. Yet besides this, there are psychological reasons that might play a role in these individuals’ decision to join extremist groups. The Islamic State (ISIS), well-known for its extremely violent methods and effective use of propaganda tools, even employed for its executions, has been heavily discussed with reference to its foreign participants. It may seem out of the ordinary that ISIS, with its brutal methods, could attract so many foreign participants from the West, be they from the U.S., Canada or all throughout Europe. Hence, what are the psychological reasons why an individual might join ISIS?

It is not about ideology, but about self-identity

At first glance, what stands out about the militant profile of ISIS is its young composition. The reason for this might relate to the recruitment strategies that ISIS pursues, such as the effective application of social media as a propaganda tool that is much more appealing for young people. Besides these strategies, there are also psychological factors related to the journey for self-identity that feed into the overrepresentation of young people in ISIS.

According to Arie Kruglanski, a professor at the University of Maryland and expert of social psychology and terrorism, someone that sees the world in absolute, dichotomous terms while resisting the existence of shades of gray may exhibit a higher tendency to join such kinds of extreme groups. In the words of Prof. Kruglanski, “The extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal. First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of [a participant] becoming very unique and part of a larger whole”. Thus, defining the world in absolute terms and placing strict dividing lines between concepts such as good and evil are two of the most common characteristics of those who join extreme groups.

Impact of cognitive closure

Such strict belief systems are not related to the ideological approaches of people, but instead to the need for self-identity, which plays a notably larger role in the lives of young people. This is explained by psychologists with the term cognitive closure. The term is defined as the strong desire that individuals have to find firm and clear-cut answers to their questions. Here, cognitive closure is closely intertwined with certainty, while its opposite may be seen as ambiguity or duality. While this sense is experienced by the everyday adult from time to time, it more or less dominates the lives of young people throughout the period of their adolescence. This is why we see the disproportionate representation of young people in extremist groups that exhibit such strict, clear-cut and limited ideologies when compared to the participation rates of adults or seniors.

It is often possible to see the same story portrayed in the media when it comes to youths’ participation in ISIS. Originating from different countries all over the world, a number of young people left their homes to join ISIS after contacting the group via social media. The example of Samra Kesinovic, 17, and her friend Sabina Selimovic, 15, who grew up in Vienna and were persuaded to take part in the “holy war” in Syria in April shows the effect of cognitive closure and the expression of consequential regret. These two Austrian girls had left a note for their parents which read, “Do not look for us. We will serve Allah and we will die for him”, before leaving their homes. Their photographs and posts on social media sites as well as the note they left for their parents are expressions of the cognitive closure which made them see joining ISIS as the sole and absolute right way to serve Allah by fighting in the name of Allah. The Austrian newspaper Österreich that was able to reach the two girls revealed their regret in the decision to join the group and their desire to come home. Yet, Spokesman for the Austrian Ministry of the Interior Karl-Heinz Grundböck explained that it would be too late to take the girls back from ISIS.

The main point here is that the two young girls’ joining of ISIS from a distance could be seen as the outcome of their strong ideological beliefs, as it was a very brave and risky act. However, the swiftness of their regret shows that it was neither a commitment to strong ideological nor religious beliefs that pushed them to join ISIS, instead, it was the reality of cognitive closure that made the girls perceive of ISIS as the “absolute way of fighting in the name of Allah”.

Kruglanski states that when it comes to the psychology of such victims of terrorist propaganda, “there is a high need for closure, high need for clarity, high need to commit to an ideology that would provide quick answers”. Therefore, particularly the fundamentalist religious groups that claim to know exactly what right and wrong truly are and how to behave in every situation are the “golden opportunity” for young people who are seeking their self-identity.

Three factors triggering the need for closure

Does this mean that each young person has the same tendency to join such kinds of extremist groups due to the effect of cognitive closure? According to Kruglanski, the need for closure varies from person to person. In this respect, Kruglanski and his colleagues conducted a study of cognitive closure as part of the response to terrorism. In a series of five studies, they determined three major factors that increase the impact of cognitive closure on young people, namely, increasing need to develop strong beliefsto form clear-cut impressions and to classify objects and events into sharply defined categories. As these factors require certainty and the elimination of ambiguity, extremist groups seem quite able to satisfy these needs.

To conclude, it could be stated with reference to Kruglanski’s research, and from a psychological approach, that cognitive closure is one of the leading factors behind the broad participation of young people in ISIS. Seeking a self-identity and to-the-point answers to their questions on life, politics and other related issues, young people tend to behave in a way that is influenced more by cognitive closure than those who are older.

Other psychological reasons for joining terrorist groups, with specific reference to ISIS, will be evaluated in the second part of this op-ed series.

Reyhan Güner is a PhD student at Political Science Department of Bilkent University

Source: JTW

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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