* This post is part of a series based on talks given at the Trajectories of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Conference held at the University of Queensland in 2018.
Recent research suggests that identity fusion, a visceral sense of oneness with the group, is capable for motivating extreme self-sacrifice for others, even willingness to lay down one’s life in order to protect them. The link between fusion and self-sacrifice has been demonstrated in a wide variety of different groups, from rural tribesmen to football hooligans and from religious fundamentalists to revolutionary insurgents.
Can identity fusion help to explain the phenomenon of suicide terrorism? In a recent target article due to appear in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, I have argued yes. The article attracted a deluge of commentaries from which twenty-nine were accepted for publication, along with a substantial response from me. The debate is lively but the potential costs for not taking it seriously are high. If I’m right, instead of trying to de-radicalize terrorists we should be trying to de-fuse them. Rather than directly challenging the religious convictions or other kinds of beliefs held by extremists, the idea would be to focus attention instead on their personal experiences, and initiating a process of reframing self-defining memories that give rise to identity fusion in the first place. If such an approach were to work, it would likely need the support of the terrorists’ relational networks, including members of their families, school friends, workmates, and others.
Winnifred’s commentary (with Emma Thomas, Craig McGarty, Catherine Amiot, and Fathali Moghaddam*) also makes the argument that people fused with peaceful groups are not at risk of becoming violent extremists, so norm change may be a more relevant path forward for violent groups. I agree that violence condoning norms are likely to be part of the problem, and research we have done on fusion and violence with football hooligans supports this, but changing norms may not be the easiest or most effective starting point in tackling extremism. What we do know from previous research is that fusion is a necessary, even if not a sufficient, condition for certain forms of violent self-sacrifice so de-fusion certainly appears to be one of the options we should be considering in our efforts to tackle the problem.
Research on identity fusion has other potentially valuable applications to reduce criminal violence in society. In some cases, there may be benefits in fostering processes of fusion in persons who lack socially desirable group alignments, for example, convicted felons. If a legitimate goal of any criminal justice system is to reform prisoners, to reintegrate them into society as loyal and law-abiding citizens, then one way to do this might be to facilitate fusion with mainstream groups and values. Yet another potential application of fusion theory would be neither to create nor to obstruct group alignments but to harness existing ones, for example, to rebuild societies devastated by conflicts or natural disasters or to redirect the destructive urges of football hooligans into more socially desirable activities. Again, the research to test and translate the theory into application is only beginning to be conducted – and there is plenty of room for more researchers to become involved.
- Guest post by Professor Harvey Whitehouse, the University of Oxford.
* Louis, W. R., McGarty, C., Thomas, E. F., Amiot, C. E., & Moghaddam, F. M. (in press). The power of norms to sway fused group members. Brain and Behaviour Sciences. Accepted for publication, 11 June 2018.
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