The sociocognitive processes of ideological obsession: Review and policy implications

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Understanding what motivates people to join violent ideological groups and engage in acts of cruelty against others is of great social and societal importance. In this paper, I posit that one necessary element is 'ideological obsession' - an ideological commitment fuelled by unmet psychological needs and regulated by inhibitory and ego-defensive mechanisms. Drawing from evidence collected across cultures and ideologies, I describe four processes through which ideological obsession puts individuals on a path towards violence. First, ideological obsession deactivates moral self-regulatory processes, allowing unethical behaviours to be carried out without self-recrimination. Second, ideologically obsessed individuals are easily threatened by information that criticises their ideology, which in turn leads to hatred and violent retaliation. Third, ideological obsession changes people's social interactions by making them gravitate towards like-minded individuals who support ideological violence. As these social networks become more interconnected, they amplify one's adherence to violent extremism. Finally, ideologically obsessed individuals are prone to psychological reactance, making them immune to communication strategies intended to dissuade them from using violence. In fact, messages espousing non-violence can have the opposite effect by reinforcing their violence-supporting ideology. I conclude by presenting evidence-based strategies to prevent radicalisation leading to violence for individuals in pre-criminal spaces. This article is part of the theme issue 'The political brain: neurocognitive and computational mechanisms'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200144
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1822
StatePublished - Apr 12 2021


  • ideological obsession
  • passion
  • radicalization
  • violent extremism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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