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Changes in violent extremist attitudes during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood

In a recently published study by NSCR and Utrecht University researchers investigated how so-called ‘violent extremist attitudes’ change during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, based on Swiss data. It appears that these attitudes are largely stable or declining, and that there is rarely a meaningful increase in this period. Changes in the level of support for extremist violence are related to changes in psychosocial maturity in this age period and in the attitudes of peers about violence.

From previous research it was unclear how violent extremist attitudes change over the life-course and which factors are related to these changes. The reason was that there was a lack of studies in which people and their political attitudes are followed over time. In the study Understanding changes in violent extremist attitudes during the transition to early adulthood, this gap in the literature was filled by analyzing data about changes in violent extremist attitudes and various factors that may be related to them.

Violent extremist attitudes present but not common among adolescents

The researchers used data from 910 participants of the Zürich Project on Social Development from Childhood to Adulthood (z-proso). This is a large-scale study in Switzerland, in which an age-cohort of children were followed from primary school onwards into their adulthood. In two of the study waves, when participants were aged 17 and 20, four questions were asked about violent extremist attitudes, and these waves were used for the analysis of changes in these attitudes. These questions contained statements on the necessity or justification to use violence for political or religious reasons. It appeared that the large majority of the adolescents disagreed with such use of violence. Only a few percent totally agreed and around 10 to 25% somewhat agreed with the various statements that may serve as indicators for violent extremism.

Meaningful changes mostly a strong decline in violent extremist attitudes

Between the two waves of investigation, the proportion of participants in support of the four statements declined and also the average score on a ‘violent extremism scale’ decreased. To investigate how many young people meaningfully changed their attitudes in this age period, the researchers calculated a ‘reliable change index’. This indicates whether the change is statistically significant, which means that it is likely that an increase or decrease is not due to random fluctuation. The findings with this index showed that the large majority of young people were relatively stable in their attitudes. When there were meaningful changes, it was mostly a strong decline in violent extremist attitudes (among 48 participants). Only a few (13) participants reported a significant increase.

Changes in attitudes related to psychosocial maturity and attitudes of peers

The researchers investigated which factors were related to levels of violent extremist attitudes, as well as changes in these attitudes. Differences between persons were related to a range of factors, including educational failure, low self-control and coping skills, contact with the criminal justice system, low police legitimacy, feelings of social exclusion, and peer attitudes about violence. However, changes in violent extremist attitudes were mainly related to changes in self-control, coping and peer attitudes. This suggests that, in this age period in particular, changes in psychosocial maturity and exposure to peers that endorse violence are important to understand changes in violent extremist attitudes.

Further research needed into different radicalization trajectories

The results suggest that support for violent extremism tends to decline as young people mature from adolescence into your adulthood. This means that prevention efforts may benefit from supporting this maturation process. At the same time, there is considerable heterogeneity in the development of extremist attitudes, with a small number of participants remaining at high levels or increasing support over time. Further research is needed to describe and understand different trajectories in violent extremist attitudes.

Publication details and further reading

Nivette, A., Echelmeyer, L., Weerman, F., Eisner, M. & Ribeaud, D. (2021). Understanding changes in violent extremist attitudes during the transition to early adulthood. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. Online before print, July 9, 2021.

Prof. Frank Weerman

Senior Researcher

Lea Echelmeyer MSc

PhD Candidate

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