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  • Writer's pictureHenry Severs

Helping extremists see their world in more complex ways

Behavioural science innovations can add to our multidisciplinary understanding of what violent radicalisation entails, and provide crucial lessons for 'best practice' programme design in efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Current research demonstrates that a narrow, categorical way of thinking is one of the best predictors for whether a conflict will become violent or resolve peacefully. This contemporary understanding of why people resort to violence suggests it is less about what someone thinks and more about how they think. Psychologists refer to this as "cognitive complexity" and it's corresponding measurement "integrative complexity ", or simply “IC”. Based on these concepts, an innovative behavioural science methodology called ICThinking® has been developed by the University of Cambridge, and is now helping extremists see their world in more complex ways.

ICThinking® uses questionnaires with groups of participants in immersive workshops to measure pre- and post-intervention cognitive patterns. Participants have consistently demonstrated increased cognitive complexity following the intervention, making them more equipped to deal with conflict constructively, and less likely to turn to violence. Longitudinal studies have shown this increased resilience is retained long-term.

All projects seeking to prevent and counter violent extremism (P-CVE) should clearly articulate how activities will ultimately seek to influence or change either extremist attitudes or behaviours. ICThinking® interventions can engage with individuals who have already undertaken terrorist acts or display clear intent to do so. These can augment wider deradicalisation and disengagement programmes, or intersect with sharp-end counterterrorism activities.

Initiatives can equally target attitudinal change among those who may exhibit early indicators of curiosity or engagement with extremist content, or who are already displaying clear signs of extremist attitudes and are at-risk of ‘tipping over’ into violent actions. Previous ICThinking® interventions in the form of interactive workshops with groups of individuals have ranged from relatively low risk (e.g. UK youth previously exposed to extremist environments) through to high risk (e.g. Taliban prisoners in Pakistan and Al Shabaab members in Kenya).

Workshops develop thinking as a social, emotional, relational and cognitive skill. This is a precursor for negotiation and conflict resolution

As measuring the success of P-CVE programmes at the impact level are usually impractical (i.e. a reduction in violent extremist incidents attributable to project activities), what can and should be done is assess the performance of projects at the outcome level. ICThinking® allows us to quantitatively measure changes in cognition and supplement these measures with other qualitative data and behavioural observations. This has practical application for credibly monitoring and evaluating P-CVE interventions, and can provide feedback that informs and can test, adapt and refine programme design during implementation.

These developments are hugely significant for policymakers and practitioners operating in this field. ICThinking® adds further insight to our multidisciplinary understanding of violent radicalisation processes, and provides crucial lesson learning for 'best practice' design of programmes to prevent and counter violent extremism.

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