“In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism
By Zoey Reeve
Zoey Reeve has a background in Psychology, Terrorism Studies and Political Science, and is a VOX-Pol Fellow. Her research focuses on the social-evolutionary psychology of radicalization and terrorism in both online and offline spheres.
However, this stance inhibits our capacity to understand the radicalization process because it exceptionalizes people on the basis of what can be, admittedly, a set of rather exceptional behaviors (i.e. suicide terrorism), though often also increasingly includes unexceptional behaviors (i.e. providing funding, logistics, or even just online support for certain groups). Radicalization and extremism are thus little more than labels. The ‘in the eye of the beholder’ philosophy is a luxury that some cannot afford, and perhaps many are unable to stomach. But it leaves us better equipped to understand why (some) people may engage in what we currently think of as extremism and violent extremism because it looks to normal psychological processes and mechanisms that are involved in the radicalization process, rather focusing on the qualities that we have labeled as exceptional.
One such psychological mechanism is Parochial Altruism. Parochial altruism is the propensity for humans to engage in costly-to-self behavior to protect group members from non-group members.2 One (of many) causes of death in ancestral times was outgroups. Whether due to resource encroachment, the spread of disease and parasites, or overt aggression, the mere presence of outgroups would have been enough to trigger parochial altruism. Parochial altruistic responses include fear, withdrawal or fleeing, withholding benefits/resources, and overt hostility and aggression. Presuming that an individual belongs to a sufficiently important group, perceptions of threat to that group will stir parochial altruism in modern humans, despite these conditions being unlikely to manifest in the potential existential threat that may have occurred during ancestral times. This is known as mismatch.3″