You introduced us to the “psychological autopsy” approach in your study of suicide in New Orleans. Why did you choose to use this approach to understand violent extremism in the United States?
RAND is a great place for interdisciplinary research, and as a researcher at RAND, you are often exposed to new fields of research. My colleague, Todd Helmus, introduced me to the study of extremism and we noticed that there were similarities between studying suicide and extremism. I thought that the psychological autopsy approach could be useful for understanding why people joined extremist groups, just as we used it in New Orleans to understand why people chose to end their lives.
How did you find people to interview?
We established a really strong partnership with an organization called Parents for Peace, which helps family members of individuals who have joined extremist groups. They helped us recruit. We then decided to expand our sample to include people who had formerly been in extremist groups but had left these groups, called ‘formers.’ My colleague Ryan Brown developed a relationship with another organization, Beyond Barriers, that works to deradicalize individuals, and they helped us recruit many of the formers we interviewed.
What were some of your most surprising findings?
Two things really surprised me. First, I was surprised to hear that some individuals felt marginalized—disenfranchised with respect to job prospects, for example—and that they joined extremist groups because they believed the group would look out for their interests. I was also surprised to learn how members developed such strong bonds within the group. Being in the group provides social support for some members that they otherwise didn’t have. So, leaving the group, even if they became disenchanted with the ideology, was difficult for many people because they were abandoning people that they considered family.
Knowing the New Orleans area as you do, is there anything that our region can do to help stop the spread of homegrown extremists?
One quote from our interviews strikes me: a former extremist told us, “If I had a best friend who was black, there was no way I was—I can’t say I was a neo-Nazi. That just doesn’t work.” In our report, we discuss the importance of opportunities for expanding diversity exposure. New Orleans is a diverse city, but one that is racially segregated. Thoughtful and planned opportunities for diverse exposures could be instrumental in preventing the development of extremist ideology within the city and beyond.