In many ways, terms like “radical,” “political extremist,” or even “terrorist” is what one group or person applies to another in order to vilify them or otherwise undermine the validity of their stated goals and desires.  Of course, that characterization is too simple to be helpful. But in other ways, it offers insight into the underlying purpose of behavior that lies outside established norms: these are behaviors that are taken up largely by people or groups that oppose some important aspect of existing political, social or cultural structures, organizations or institutions that do not appear to adequately represent their interests or values.

At the most basic level, the political extreme can best be defined relative to the existing political mainstream, which of course has shifted over time and place. American revolutionaries who sought more democratic forms of representation in the 1770s and 1780s were labeled as radical extremists by the British government, as were similar revolutionary movements that swept across England in the 1640s, France in the 1790s and the bulk of Europe in 1848. Now democratic forms of government appear to be on the defensive as the status quo against more authoritarian and theistic forms of governance. Use of the terms “radical” or “extremist” also seem to imply, at least in common understanding, a tendency toward violent action, and indeed this is often the case. However, radical change need not necessarily involve violence; emancipation required a catastrophically brutal Civil War in the United States, but the radical change brought about by female suffrage occurred without any large scale violence, although it is arguable whether it would have been possible without the larger societal changes incurred by the First World War.

If we conceptualize radicalization and political extremism as a resort for those who feel excluded from the benefits offered to the powerful, we can see these drives as part of much older and larger drives. For example, attempts to overthrow leaders and other powerful actors or institutions that are not fair representatives of their constituencies can be seen as attempts at increasing egalitarianism and self-domestication2 over time. From this perspective, radical extremism can be understood to reflect a lack of alignment between existing distributions of power and the structures and institutions that preserve the wealth and power of one group at the expense of another. Conflicts, of course, do not only occur over wealth and power, but also over beliefs and values, and misalignments between modern circumstances and traditional norms can also spark radical acts.    

This is not to say that radical acts or people are good or bad in and of themselves; each set of behaviors needs to be evaluated not only according to the context in which they occur but also in terms of the harm or benefit they exert on the communities they affect. But examining radicalism in light of the ways in which current structures do not align with the values or interests of those over which they have influence and power can help us to begin to understand what may inspire some people to try to change things and what might be done to try to prevent violent forms of change.

Two points are worth considering from this perspective, among many others. First, individual actors differ in their motivation to seek change, and their willingness to engage in violent acts in order to achieve it. Some of those differences may result from individual differences in dispositional levels of physical aggression,3 calibration of anger,4 or different environmental circumstances that incur greater losses, or impose higher costs, on some individuals over others. People who have lost their entire families as a result of bombs being dropped on them, for example, may have less to lose by fighting and have a much greater motivation to fight against those who they see as the source of their suffering.

Second, the ancestral logic of coalitional fighting continues to infuse modern politics. Although the groups that are involved are larger, and the stakes may be higher with the risk of nuclear war or global climate collapse, an underlying psychology that seeks ingroup protection and defense against outgroup threat remains evident and salient. When governments are too large or too poor to meet the basic resource and defense needs of their populations, and community social fabric frays in the face of increasing atomization brought about by technological change which promises ease and convenience but brings isolation and loneliness with every plastic-wrapped box left at the doorstep, individuals increasing revert to their tribal affiliations in search of comfort and community, safety and security. As existing governmental structures, organizations and institutions increasingly fail to deliver these most basic of human needs, radical and extreme members will strive to overturn those systems in favor of a presumptive alternative that offers to deliver such protections against existential alienation, however false such promises may be. The attempt to solve a problem by attempting to destroy its source, like the underlying drive toward safety and community, remains an eternal aspect of the human condition.

Read the full series “Extremism in Historical and Evolutionary Perspective”:

  1. Introduction by Anthony Lopez and Hammad Sheikh
  2. The Virtue of Extremism is its Enhancement of the Ordinary by David Barash
  3. Extremism as Defense by Rose McDermott
  4. Why Extremism Isn’t the Real Issue by Mark Sedgwick
  5. What is Radicalization? by Sophia Moskalenko
  6. Conservative Extremists Are Afraid of Threats That Don’t Exist by Colin Holbrook and Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook
  7. Extremist Violence Has Its Roots in Morality, Not Ideology by Clark McCauley
  8. In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism by Zoey Reeve
  9. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of Terrorist Recruiters by John Horgan and Katerina Papatheodorou
  10. Why Terrorists Are Misunderstood by Max Abrahms
  11. Why Religious Extremism is Maladaptive by Richard Sosis
  12. The Extremist in Historical Perspective: Lessons from the Era of Anarchist Terrorism by Randall Law
  13. Terrorism and the Apocalyptic by Charles B. Strozier
  14. Extremist Groups Require the Greatest Trust Among Members by Melissa McDonald
  15. Moral Rigidity Evolved to Strengthen Bonds Within Groups by Antoine Marie
  16. Sacred Values, Social Identities, and Extremist Violence by Nafees Hamid


  1. Boehm, C., & Boehm, C. (2009). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Harvard University Press.
  2. Wrangham, R. (2019). The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. New York: Random House.
  3. McDermott, R., & Hatemi, P. K. (2017). The relationship between physical aggression, foreign policy and moral choices: Phenotypic and genetic findings. Aggressive behavior, 43(1), 37-46.
  4. Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(35), 15073-15078.

Published On: December 18, 2019

Rose McDermott

Rose McDermott

Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  She received her Ph.D. (Political Science) and M.A. (Experimental Social Psychology) from Stanford University and has taught at Cornell and UCSB. She has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and the Women and Public Policy Program, all at Harvard University. She has been a fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences twice. She is the author of five books, a co-editor of two additional volumes, and author of over two hundred academic articles across a wide variety of disciplines encompassing topics such as experimentation, emotion and decision making, and the biological and genetic bases of political behavior.

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