The field of terrorism studies as a whole and radicalization studies in particular has made significant progress in the last two decades. Despite the large body of theoretical and empirical research, certain phenomena have yet to be understood in their entirety. One of these relates to the question of why certain people take violent action after they have been radicalized, while others do not. A multitude of radicalization theories exist, but most focus on the different stages of radicalization, root causes, or push-and-pull factors making individuals more susceptible to extremist worldviews. The ultimate step from cognitive to violent radicalization — that is from holding a certain worldview to engaging in violence justified by this worldview — is not fully understood yet.
How self-efficacy arises
One concept of potentially explanatory value for the choice to engage in violent extremism is Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy. Bandura developed a grand social-psychological theory, Social Cognitive Theory, seeking to explain the determinants and mechanisms of human behavior.
Bandura takes an interactionist perspective, postulating that humans are shaped by their environment but also subsequently shape the environment themselves. The situational structure interacts with the individual agency to form our cognitive and behavioral basis. In this interplay between the social world and the self, self-efficacy arises. While related to the so-called ‘quest for significance’, self-efficacy is more than the wish to matter or ‘be someone’; it is the belief that one is capable of doing so. Rather than describing objective skills or capabilities, self-efficacy describes self-perception of one’s own agency. It is a measure to describe an individual’s belief in his or her capabilities to successfully take action in any given situation.
Whether we expose ourselves to a certain situation and take action largely depends on our perception of self-efficacy. Low self-efficacy implies the expectancy to fail and individuals will not be motivated to act if they do not expect to succeed. High self-efficacy makes individuals confident and increases the likelihood that an individual exposes himself or herself to the situation in question and takes action. Self-efficacy, therefore, partially determines the social situations we expose ourselves to.
Previous research on self-efficacy in a variety of contexts has shown the concept to be very reliable, which increases the likelihood that self-efficacy also plays a role in radicalization processes. If self-efficacy explains when and how we decide to take action and a lack of self-efficacy results in individuals removing themselves from the situations they believe they are not capable of succeeding in, then only those with enough perceived self-efficacy will radicalize into violent extremism. Cognitive radicalization may be independent of self-efficacy beliefs, but behavioral radicalization — acting upon the violent beliefs — requires the self-perception that one is capable of effective action, a belief in one’s own capabilities and the value of one’s agency.
That said, self-efficacy does not evolve in a vacuum simply from internal thought processes. Individuals do not simply wake up and decide to be a terrorist. Acquisition of perceived self-efficacy is a social process. Because self-efficacy is in part influenced by external factors, it is fruitful to ask how terrorist organizations seek to increase self-efficacy in their followers to inspire violent action.
While self-efficacy beliefs are influenced by a multitude of factors, Bandura, amongst other aspects, postulates two social-interactionist influences on self-efficacy perceptions potentially relevant for radicalization research: Social persuasion and vicarious experiences.
The perception of oneself is not static but is modifiable and evolves constantly. Self-efficacy beliefs, which are based on the self-perception of our abilities, are also modifiable and evolve over time. One of the external factors influencing self-efficacy perceptions through social persuasion are authority figures with perceived diagnostic competency. For instance, teachers can influence their student’s perceived self-efficacy through their feedback and encouragement.
Social persuasion can increase or decrease the self-efficacy perceptions of the receiver depending on what the authority figure communicates to the individual. If someone believes in us, we are more likely to believe in ourselves. If, however, someone expresses that they expect us to fail, we too can start to doubt our abilities. It is important to note that social persuasion can only develop its full impact if an individual believes the authority figure to possess diagnostic competency; that is, the ability to adequately judge their abilities.
In the context of extremist propaganda, these authority figures could be specialized recruiters or the organization’s military or spiritual leaders. Through the new technological tools available to them, authority figures with diagnostic competency can now directly communicate with potential recruits across distance and time via social media and chat applications. They can tailor their messages individually and inspire action by increasing the self-efficacy perceptions of an individual recruit through targeted one-on-one communication strategies. This can increase, for instance, the likelihood of so-called ‘remote-controlled’ terrorist action, in which the perpetrator is closely guided by authority figures via messenger applications, which distinguishes him or her from the ‘lone wolves’ of previous times.
Authority figures are not the only factor that influences the way we perceive our self-efficacy. Vicarious experiences, also called modelling influences, describe how self-efficacy perceptions are influenced by observing peers.
When we witness a peer perform a certain action successfully, we are more inclined to believe that we are capable of this action as well. Especially in the case of violent extremism, where individuals may not be able to rely on past experiences to assess their abilities and form their self-efficacy, observing peers can be fundamental in judging the prospect of success if performing a similar act.
Modelling influences do not imply simple behavioral mimicry. As humans we are reflective agents and evaluate observations by our own internal cognitive standards before we act, but vicarious experiences can influence our perceived self-efficacy if we judge them to be relevant for our behavior. How influential vicarious experiences are in an individual case is partially determined by the degree of similarity the model exhibits. The more similar the model is to the individual observer, the more influential vicarious experiences are in forming self-efficacy perceptions.
It is not by coincidence that groups such as ISIS have used foreigners as prominent figures for their global propaganda strategy. A study by the Brookings Institute found that of the 20,000 ISIS Twitter accounts studied, one in five had chosen English as its primary language of communication. During the peak of its influence, ISIS also allowed foreign fighters to share their experiences via social media and included them in their propaganda videos. Modelling influence for prospective foreign fighters, who were not yet a member of the organization, displayed a high degree of similarity to potential recruits thereby increasing the perceived self-efficacy of these individuals, which increased the likelihood of them taking violent action and/or travelling to the ‘caliphate’.
Self-efficacy is one of the determinants of human behavior and is therefore likely to play a role in radicalization processes and subsequent violent behavior as well.
Through social persuasion and modelling influences in extremist propaganda, terrorist organizations seek to increase self-efficacy perceptions in potential recruits to inspire violent action. Confidence in one’s own abilities and a high degree of self-efficacy are likely to be important factors in perpetrating violence and exposing oneself to the social networks of extremists.
More research, especially of empirical nature, is needed to support the theoretical application of self-efficacy to violent radicalization, but so far the concept appears to be a step towards greater understanding of the processes of violent radicalization.
 Moghaddam, F. (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism. American Psychologists. Vol. 60 (2). pp.161-169; Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding Terror Networks. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia; Venhaus, J. (2010). Why Youth Join Al-Qaeda. USIP Special Report. Retrieved from: https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR236Venhaus.pdf; Wiktorowicz, Q. (2005). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West. Rowman and Littlefield: London.
 Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2010). Violent Radicalization in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Vol. 33 (9), pp.797-814.
 See: Ransdorp, M. (2016). The Root Causes of Violent Extremism. RAN Issue Paper. Also see: Vergani, M., Iqbal, M., Ilbahar, E. and Barton, G. (2018). The Three Ps of Radicalization: Push, Pull and Personal. A Systematic Scoping Review of the Scientific Evidence about Radicalization into Violent Extremism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2018.1505686.
 Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review. Vol. 84 (2), pp.191-215; and, Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 52, pp. 1-26.
 Kruglanski, A., Belanger, J., Gelfand, M., Gunaratna, R., Hettiarachchi, M., Reinares, F., Orehek, E., Sasota, J. and Sharvit, K. (2013). Terrorism – A (Self) Love story: Redirecting the Significance Quest Can End Violence. American Psychologist. Vol. 68 (7), pp. 559-575; and, Kruglanski, A., Gelfand, M., Belanger, J., Sheveland, A., Hettiarachchi, M. and Gunaratna, R. (2014). The Psychology of Radicalization and Deradicalization: How Significance Quest Impacts Violent Extremism. Advances in Political Psychology. Vol. 35 (1), pp. 69-92.
 Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishing: Duffield
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 Berger, J.M. and Morgan, J. (2015). The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. The Brookings Institute.