The 3 Ps of radicalisation into violent extremism:

push, pull and personal.


Matteo Vergani, Muhammad Iqbal, Ekin Ilbahar, Greg Barton

To identify the risk factors of radicalisation into violent extremism, we need to define what radicalisation and extremism are. Unfortunately, the terms radicalisation and extremism are ambiguous because they identify a relative position on a continuum of opinions and behaviours. Depending on the context, the line that defines an extremist/radical opinion or behaviour from a moderate/legitimate opinion or behaviour can be drawn at different points in the continuum. Moreover, structural forces (like the agendas of governments and security agencies) influence the definition of those terms in different circumstances and for different institutions, potentially creating conflicting classifications.

The definition of radicalisation into violent extremism generally refers to the path that leads an individual to endorse or commit a politically motivated act of violence (e.g. terrorism, kidnappings, assassinations, etc.). By itself, the term radicalisation does not necessarily refer to violence. Similarly, extremism can refer to political ideas (for example racial or religious supremacy, or ideologies that deny human rights), but also to methods that can be used by political actors, such as terrorism or assassinations. However, when we talk about radicalisation into violent extremism, we focus on politically motivated acts such as terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, which are of greatest concern to states and communities. However, we believe that it is important to conceptually distinguish between behavioural radicalisation (which con-


A wide range of factors can be considered as predictors of radicalisation. We group them into three broad categories: push, pull and personal factors. Push factors overlap with the structural root causes of terrorism and include for example state repression, relative deprivation, poverty, and injustice (please see the methods section for a comprehensive list). Pull factors capture the aspects that make extremist groups and lifestyles appealing to some people, and include for example ideology, group dynamics, and other incentives. Personal factors are individual characteristics that are unrelated with cognitive and social processes (such as ideology and identity aspects) and with structural aspects (such as unemployment), and include for example psychological disorders, personality traits and traumatic life experiences. We acknowledge that certain psychological disorders (such as depression) could develop in conjunction with the radicalisation process (for example because of the isolation from primary ties), but we generally see them as preceding radicalisation.

In reality, push, pull and personal factors are closely inter-related. Push factors, which identify contextual and structural conditions, can be the root cause of both pull and personal factors. For example, structural conditions (like unemployment) could explain both personal conditions (like depression and low self-esteem) and boost the appeal of pull factors (like material incentives or the need to belong to a group). Moreover, we acknowledge that radicalisation most of the times happens in social settings, with for example the majority of those who join ISIS or al-Qaeda doing so in groups that involve pre-existing social networks (such as family or kinship networks) and typically cluster in geographical areas, towns and neighbourhoods. This means that other factors like ideologies, narratives or political grievances need to be intended within specific social settings.

Yet, we also see a clear theoretical distinction between push, pull and personal factors because they capture different levels of explanation of radicalisation into violent extremism: push factors focus on structural political explanations, pull factors on group-level socio-cognitive explanations, and personal factors on psychological and biographical explanations. Each of those levels is then associated with a different set of preventative measures and policies, which tap into the political, socio-ideological and psychological-medical spheres.

The existing empirical research disproportionately focuses on pull factors, while push factors and personal factors are comparatively under-researched. Personal factors are more often cited to explain cognitive radicalisation, but they also appear as a unique cause of behavioural radicalisation in relation to lone wolf behaviour: we know in fact that lone attackers are more likely to have some sort of mental disorder.

We see radicalisation into violent extremism, in its fundamental mechanisms, as a cross-ideological and global process that entails similar fundamental categories of factors: 1- a political grievance, 2- a reward or appeal of violent extremism and 3- a personal vulnerability or predisposition. We believe that this combination of push, pull and personal factors comprises all the dimensions that allow to understand the diversity of situations that breed violent extremism and terrorism.

More research is needed to understand the interaction between push, pull and personal factors for both cognitive and behavioural radicalisation, and the specific conditions that develop the emergence of different types of those factors in certain contexts. For example: do all push, personal factors have the same effect on the radicalisation process? What is the specific combination of personal, push and pull factors that triggers radicalisation in a specific context? Are there any differences in the push, pull and personal factors that predict cognitive and behavioural radicalisation? What factors are more important to identify the move to action? We believe that these are the most important questions that rigorous and theoretically informed empirical research should focus on, to move the field of terrorism studies forward.


Atran, Scott, Axelrod, Robert, Davis, Richard, Fischoff, Baruch (2017) Challenges in researching terrorism from the field, Science, 355 (6323): 352-354

Bartlett, Jamie & Carl Miller (2012) The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization. Terrorism and Political Violence 24(1): 1-21.

Bhui, Kamaldeep; Nasir Warfa & Edgar Jones (2014) Is Violent Radicalisation Associated with Poverty, Migration, Poor Self-Reported Health and Common Mental Disorders? PLOS ONE 9(3) DOI:

Grossman, Michele, Peucker, Mario, Smith, Debra, Dellal, Hass (2016) Stocktake Research Project. A Systematic Literature and Selected Program Review on Social Cohesion, Community Resilience and Violent Extremism 2011-2015, Victoria University and Australian Multicultural Foundation, Melbourne

Ilardi, Gaetano Joe (2013) Interviews with Canadian Radicals. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36(9): 713-738.

Kruglanski, Arie; Michele Gelfand, Jocelyn Belanger, Anna Sheveland, Malkanthi Hetiarachchi and Rohan Gunaratna (2014) The Psychology of Radicalization and Deradicalization: How Significance Quest Impacts Violent Extremism. Political Psychology 35(1): 69–93.

McCauley, Clark & Sophia Moskalenko (2014) Toward a Profile of Lone Wolf Terrorists: What Moves an Individual From Radical Opinion to Radical Action. Terrorism and Political Violence 26(1): 69-85.

Sedgwick, Mark (2010) The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion. Terrorism and Political Violence 22(4): 479-494.

Campana, Aurelie; Lapointe, Luc (2012) The Structural “Root” Causes of Non-Suicide Terrorism: A Systematic Scoping Review, Terrorism and Political Violence, 24:1, 79-104