Psychological Vulnerabilities and Extremism Among Western Youth: A Literature Review

Abstract

In response to a rise in extremism among Western youth, a new wave of research is addressing the interaction between adolescent development and extremism. This coincides with a renewed interest in psychological vulnerabilities, following a long period where psychological factors—narrowly defined as diagnosed mental illnesses—were considered to be poorly correlated with extremism. Given the impact of psychological vulnerabilities on adolescent development, this life phase is of particular relevance to understanding the relationship between psychological vulnerabilities and extremism. In this review, twenty-five peer-reviewed empirical studies are analyzed with the aim of taking stock of current understandings of the effect of psychological vulnerabilities on young Westerners’ propensity to endorse or engage in extremism. Six main categories of factors are observed: mental illness, traumatic experiences, early socialization, perceived discrimination, social capital and delinquency. These factors, indicative of psychological vulnerabilities, seem to play a critical role in the development of extremism among Western youth. It also appears that adolescence, a period of identity and ideology formation, influences these relationships. Overall, this review implies that the previous focus on the psychology of extremism has been too narrow. Future research should expand its scope to examine factors indicative of psychological vulnerabilities.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Modified from Moher et al. 2009

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks Ask Elklit, Lau Lilleholt, the editor of Adolescent Research Review and one anonymous reviewer for insightful comments and input on early versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Anna Naterstad Harpviken.

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Harpviken, A.N. Psychological Vulnerabilities and Extremism Among Western Youth: A Literature Review. Adolescent Res Rev 5, 1–26 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-019-00108-y

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Keywords

  • Extremism
  • Psychological vulnerabilities
  • Youth
  • Adolescence
  • Radicalization
  • Mental health