Push and pull factors in violent extremism

‘Violent extremism’ refers to a person or group who justifies or uses fear, terror and violence to achieve ideological, political or social change. But what drives someone to see violence as a solution? There is no universally agreed clear pathway, however it is widely agreed that that a mix of outside influences and individual personal motivations (sometimes knows as push and pull factors respectively) contribute to a person’s interest in using violence to achieve change.

Factors in extremist interest

People from a wide range of backgrounds have become violent extremists and it’s not possible to make predictions based on experience, social situation or psychology. However, there are many factors that may influence a decision to engage with the use of violence for change.

Below we look at some (though by no means all) of the potential social health and societal drivers. We need to remember, however, that in most cases these issues do not lead to violent extremism.

Socio-cultural drivers (push factors)

Factors that may drive vulnerable people towards an interest in violent extremism include:

  • Societal push factors – An individual’s personal circumstances including (but not limited to) lack of access to opportunities and support, marginalisation and discrimination, human rights issues, conflict and war, inequality, and injustices that may push people towards seeking change through a radical ideology.
  • Individual push factors – Factors which could contribute at an individual level include a lack of a sense of belonging, isolation from mainstream society, bullying, loneliness, disconnection, grief, low self-esteem or the need for approval or attention (to name just some of the factors). To varying degrees, we all experience personal social health problems at one time or another – some of us will use drugs and alcohol to cope, others might develop a mental health problem, but usually with the right supports we can address these issues. Other people, in a very small number of cases, will look to involvement with extremist groups, ideologies and actions as a solution to individual grievances, although they will often not view their own actions this way.

Personal drivers (Pull Factors)

Factors that may entice or pull vulnerable people towards an interest in violent extremism include:

  • Peer groups – or people you feel close to you promoting extremist viewpoints and actions.
  • Belonging and identity – are offered by extremist groups who design narratives and propaganda to entice vulnerable individuals and give them a place for their anger.
  • Extremist narratives – which engage with a romanticised vision of heroism offered by a particular group.
  • Other social and psychological rewards – including a sense of purpose and the illusion that injustices will be resolved through the use of violence.
  • Exposure to media viewpoints or online grooming – although individual connection often has more influence than content alone.
  • It is most often a combination of push and pull factors that lead to participation in violent extremism. In a NSW Parliament e brief literature review, it was found that in many case studies, people had shown a stage of individual change or extremist interest, which was then enhanced by external socio-cultural factors, and then a move to violent extremism had taken place when the person socialised with “like-minded people”. Again though, not all people will progress through all of these stages, and it is only when there is a criminal action/orientation involved that a person moves from extremist thought to violent extremist action.

How you can help

It can be hard to know how to tackle these issues at an individual level, but there are many things we can do to look out for, and support, those we care about:

  • Look for signs – someone you know may be showing an interest in using violence for change, including online influences. Ask questions with the aim of understanding why people are showing this interest. Do they have an emotional or social health need that is not being addressed? Are they worried about something but don’t know how to enact change?
  • Help them to find positive ways to enact or influence change – being angry or upset about real injustices is perfectly valid. However, it’s important to show others how to advocate peacefully for what they believe in. Early intervention is critical – the earlier a shift in identity or behaviour is recognised the better the chances of diversion and disengagement. Empower others and create a safe environment where people feel free to talk.
  • Encourage critical thinking – Ensure people know that they are in control of what they watch or read, and that should critically analyse everything they see or hear (including messages from close friends or relatives). Expose people to different sources and perspectives.
  • Insert “Talk through your concerns with a friend or a helpline support worker, who can advise you on practical ways you can help those you are concerned about. 
  • In very rare cases, you may only find out when it’s too late and someone intends to harm themselves or others. In this case it is important that you report this immediately to emergency services or the National Security Hotline.
Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

27 May 2024

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