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Monday, February 5, 2024

New research sheds light on incel community’s connection to mass violence

URI faculty member looks at underlying misogyny

Dawn Bergantino

As mass shootings, hate crimes and other acts of violence consistently make the nightly news, certain common threads have appeared to emerge. 

Misogynistic worldviews, coupled with what appears to be a growing online community, have brought the “incel” community into the public view. Though much has been written in the past decade about “involuntary celibates,” the rise of violent extremism, and their connection to mass violence, empirical research on this community is surprisingly scarce.

A new examination authored by University of Rhode Island Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology Miriam Lindner aims to fill this gap. “The Sense in Senseless Violence: Male Reproductive Strategy and the Modern Sexual Marketplace as Contributors to Violent Extremism,” published in the Journal of Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, is a comprehensive look at the drivers of the incel movement through an evolutionary psychological perspective.

“For the longest time there was this misunderstanding that this type of violence could be ascribed to socio-economic standing or educational background,” Lindner said. “But when we look at the people who commit these very violent acts, it turns out that what they have in common is not that they are male–though 98% of them are male–it is actually that they are extremely misogynistic.”

Lindner explains the emergence of the incel movement as an interaction between three factors–an evolved male psychology that is very eager to obtain sexual access and may be more prone to using intimidation, coercion, or aggression to achieve that end; the dynamics of the modern sexual marketplace in which financial and sexual autonomy allows women to be more selective and, in some cases, remain single; and technology that amplifies the visibility of both patterns.

According to Lindner, online dating apps are one area where we see this play out. Men are left with few choices while women appear to accumulate more, shifting the traditional power dynamic, she says. Modern technology, she adds, has served as an outlet for many to play out fantasies online that they may not be able to in real life–online forums have provided men who may be romantically isolated and unlikely to share within their own circle a place to air their grievances and have those grievances validated. Violence is the extreme, maladaptive end of that spectrum.  

To be clear, Lindner says most men who are part of the incel community do not commit acts of violence. In fact, these men might be more likely to die by suicide than in the course of committing a mass shooting. 

However, she says, the environment is a breeding ground for misogynistic extremism and presents a perfect storm for these beliefs to thrive and make violence attractive.  

“If you have a male psychology that is designed to intimidate and coerce when they do not get what they want, and within this environment you have ready access to items such as guns, which make it very easy to express that intimidation, you can see how that might play out,” said Lindner.

“When we think about expressive acts of violence, such as mass shootings, it’s worth remembering that intimidation and threats are only credible if every now and then they are followed through.”

And while there is some association between mental illness and violence, Lindner cautions against simply ascribing these acts of violence to mental health problems.  

“Attributing mass shooting events to mental illness does us a disservice when a large portion of the population suffers from one form of mental illness or another and are not violent,” said Lindner. 

“That kind of language doesn’t help if we want to talk about the very real threat that we can actually trace back to grievances that are not just mental illness, though they might be amplified by such.”

She points to shooter manifestos that lay bare their grievances and convey not only their awareness of their actions, but also a willingness to explain the rationale for those actions. She also notes the intersectionality between misogynism and other extreme forms of prejudice within this sphere.

When it comes to reducing these acts, many call for discouraging men from acting out or more education on toxic masculinity. But Lindner offers a more nuanced approach. It is a perfectly normal reaction, she says, to be a little angry or a little upset in the face of rejection. 

Accepting this and creating space for a greater awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes and reactions–or metacognition–when it comes to certain types of rejection can be critical.  

“It’s important to acknowledge that these may be normal reactions, but to also realize that to act – whether that is in the form of nagging, or aggression, or anger– is not always serving you well in the modern environment,” she said. “So it is really about introducing a pause that you can use to create this moment of self-awareness versus allowing yourself to foster or nurture that grievance.”

While more study is needed, Lindner has created a dataset and is using it to test assumptions about the precursors to self-directed and outward aggression among men.

“Establishing those factors which lead to self-harm and suicide versus those that precipitate expressive violence is critical to growing our understanding as to when young men direct their aggression against themselves or others–and to developing nuanced public safety and mental health efforts in order to effectively intervene,” said Lindner.

Lindner, who joined the University in the fall, is looking forward to engaging interested graduate and/or undergraduate students in related research projects.