“Yes, I Can”: The Role of Perceived Self-Efficacy in Violent Radicalisation Processes

By Linda Schlegel & Till Baaken

In recent years, radicalisation, its causes and facilitating conditions as well as possible counter-strategies have been widely discussed within the academic community, among practitioners, and by politicians. Today, there are a variety of radicalisation models available in order to facilitate our understanding of this phenomenon and the empirical evidence is progressively growing on this subject. However, the research findings and models have so far been unable to answer one of the most pressing questions within the field: Why do some people become extremists/terrorists while others do not?

Moghaddam for instance, famously claimed that radicalisation could be conceptualised using the analogy of a staircase. As people radicalise further, they move upwards from one floor to the next and ultimately reach a stage, in which they perpetrate a violent, terrorist act. While many people are on the ground floor, exposed to the same external conditions (such as perceived discrimination) as their peers, only a few climb up the stairs and even fewer reach the top floor. So what makes some individuals climb the staircase and others, who are in the same situation, remain at the bottom?

What is Self-efficacy?

One concept with the potential for explaining why some individuals perpetrate violent acts in the name of an extremist ideology and others do not is perceived self-efficacy. Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura developed a grand theory of social behavior, social cognitive theory, and perceived self-efficacy is an important aspect of his work. Self-efficacy can be defined as the belief about one’s own capabilities to successfully perform an action. It is the perception of one’s own ability to take a certain action, which influences our behavior; essentially, it is the belief in our own agency.

While related to the so-called quest for significance, perceived self-efficacy is more than the wish to matter. It is the belief that one is actually capable of achieving the goal or performing the action required. Bandura takes an interactionist perspective. An individual is shaped by external conditions, but he or she also shapes the environment he or she lives in, can anticipate consequences of their actions, reflect on past experiences, and decide to take action based on a conglomerate of factors.

As humans, we are proactive, not just reactive and therefore internal cognitive processes stimulated through, but not solely determined by, the social situation we find ourselves in, shape our decision-making process and therefore our actions.

High self-efficacy and confidence in one’s ability not only means that one is more likely to take action, but that one is more likely to overcome obstacles on the way and succeed. Low self-efficacy, on the other hand, will often lead to avoiding situations the individual believes he or she cannot successfully manage.

This could explain why some people have the confidence to move up the staircase, while others remain on lower floors: They have the confidence in their own abilities to successfully manage the environment higher up the stairs, meaning the individual perceives that he or she can perform the actions needed in “another level”. The most important question to answer is whether self-efficacy, the belief that one is able to take violent action successfully, can be increased externally and if so, how terrorist organisations are able to do so.

What influences Self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is influenced by multiple factors, but social persuasion and vicarious/modelling influences are of special importance in the realm of online propaganda and the resulting radicalisation. Social persuasion describes the external influence of authority figures such as preachers or teachers on our perception of capability, agency, and self-efficacy. Those authorities with diagnostic competency can transform our perception of past successes and failures and instill a belief that we are capable of executing a certain action regardless of previous experiences.

Social persuasion can influence our standards of self-evaluation and thereby self-efficacy over time. Similar to a teacher, who can instill self-belief in his or her students, authority figures can facilitate how individuals judge their own capabilities and thereby increase the likelihood that they act.

Authority figures can effectively influence the perceived self-efficacy of individuals, but so can vicarious or modelling influences of peers. Seeing someone with a high degree of similarity to oneself capable of a certain action and succeeding in a situation can increase self-efficacy and as such can be a powerful motivational tool. Witnessing a peer succeed leads to a positive social comparison: If he can do it, I can do it.

Modelling influences, whether they are verbal or visual, can increase perceived self-efficacy proportionally to the degree of similarity the model displays and can increase the likelihood that an individual will take a similar action. If the friends of an individual have all travelled to Syria, it is much more likely that he or she will take the same action, as the person has seen it work for his or her friends.

This is the reason foreign fighters as disseminators of online-propaganda could act as incentives for other foreigners to join groups and may also have been part of the reason we saw clusters of existing networks radicalising together. After all, the degree of similarity within long-standing social networks of friends is very high.

Self-efficacy has been extensively researched in various contexts such as academic performance, athletic success, and career choices and has proven to be a reliable concept. The applicability to radicalisation processes needs to be tested extensively both theoretically and empirically. However, the considerations made thus far suggest the applicability of self-efficacy to this context and support the hypothesis that self-efficacy may be one of the missing puzzle pieces in explaining why only some people undergo a process of violent radicalisation.

Self-efficacy could even be used to advance existing risk assessment tools such as VERA2R or ERG22+, and influence the concepts of de-radicalisation programs and prevention measures. If extremist organisations can affect behavior by influencing perceived self-efficacy, counter-measures might be able to do the same. Further research is certainly needed on this topic, but the results so far suggest that the study of self-efficacy is an important step in facilitating our understanding of violent radicalisation processes.

Linda Schlegel is a counter-terrorism consultant at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Her research interests are social deviance, (online-)radicalisation and psychological resilience to extremism. Follow her on Twitter: @LiSchlegel.

Till Baaken is a research fellow at the German NGO Violence Prevention Network (VPN). His academic interests are in CVE programs in prisons and youth work, as well as on online propaganda/deradicalisation and the role of the internet for extremist groups. His Twitter handle is @tillbaaken.