How do groups become hostile or extreme? An analysis of the online incel community

Note: an assignment I wrote for Social Psychology (part of my MSc in Psychology). The assignment is a position statement that should answer the question: Are traditional social psychological theories useful for explaining interaction in online environments?

The Incel community (Incels) is an internet subculture of men who are involuntary celibates, unable to find a partner (Donnelly et al., 2001). The online medium is essential for their radicalisation (Ging, 2019). Incels see society as a three-tier immutable hierarchy based on physical attractiveness: a minority of highly attractive “Chads” at the top, followed by a majority of normal-looking “normies”, with Incels at the bottom, exclusively male, characterised by physical unattractiveness (Baele et al., 2019).

Social identity is an aspect of identity derived from belonging to a group. Individuals self-categorise as members of “us” (ingroup), creating a collective identity that differentiates them from others, “them” (outgroup) (Webter & Sell, 2014), with the partial intent to feel good about themselves (Brown, 2000).   

Reicher et al. (2008) consider that not all groups are evil, but some groups display hostility against each other, driven mainly by their collective identity. The groups follow five steps to become hostile and develop social identities that allow acts of extreme inhumanity: (1) creating a shared identity that builds a cohesive group; (2) excluding a specific population from the ingroup; (3) painting the outgroup as a danger for the ingroup; (4) representing the ingroup as uniquely virtuous; (5) celebrating evil, the destruction of the outgroup to defend the ingroup. 

Incels have (1) defined their ingroup: as involuntary celibates, unattractive but more intelligent and displaying prosocial behaviours and (2) excluded a specific population, (3) painting it as dangerous to the ingroup: “them” is represented firstly by women, who are to blame for their issues (by becoming liberated and refusing them sex, to which they are “entitled”), and secondly by normies, who, by rallying with feminism, betrayed the Incels and turned the dating market upside down. Moreover, (4), Incels see themselves as the only group capable of pro-social values and intelligent enough to see the truth about the social world, with women needing to be punished for their nature (as they chase the best genes, Chads, being “hypergamous”) and feminism. Finally, (5) Incels promote violence against women as the only solution to their trouble, a legitimate reaction to their perceived oppression and abuse, even sanctifying mass killers such as Edgar Rodgers, a self-proclaimed Incel (Biele et al., 2019). 

In conclusion, social identity theory might explain the interaction of online extremist groups. However, Reicher’s five-step social identity model is considered a preliminary sketch and requires further multi-level and multi-dimensional development. 


Baele, S. J., Brace, L., & Coan, T. G. (2019). From “Incel” to “Saint”: Analyzing the violent worldview behind the 2018 Toronto attack. Terrorism and Political Violence. doi: 10.1080/09546553.2019.1638256.

Brown, R. (2000). Social identity theory: Past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30(6), 745-778. doi: 10.1002/1099-0992(200011/12)30:6<745::AID-EJSP24>3.0.CO;2-O 

Donnelly, D., Burgess, E., Anderson, S., Davis, R., & Dillard, J. (2001). Involuntary celibacy: A life course analysis. Journal of Sex Research, 38(2), 159-169. doi: 10.1080/00224490109552083.

Ging, D. (2019). Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere. Men and Masculinities, 22(4), 638-657. doi: 10.1177/1097184X17706401.

Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Rath, R. (2008). Making a Virtue of Evil: A Five-Step Social Identity Model of the Development of Collective Hate. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1313-1344. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00113.x

Webster, M., & Sell, J. (2014). Laboratory Experiments in the Social Sciences (2nd ed, pp. 385-402.). Academic Press.

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