Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Psychology and Social Science


Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science

First Supervisor

Dr Eyal Gringart

Second Supervisor

Dr Deirdre Drake


Much of the current disengagement literature focuses on the causes of an individual leaving a radical social group with the intention of countering fundamentalism and violent extremism. However, the link between the cause and the decision to disengage is unclear as one cause may facilitate disengagement for one member and not another. Minimal empirical research exists on the individual’s psychological experience of disengagement and the studies that have been done tend to focus on sole ideologies or group types. What is lacking in the field of disengagement is a broader understanding of the core psychological experience across a broad range of ideological social group types. The current research addressed this gap by including participants from a diverse range of ideological social groups, where the criterion that defined these social groups was the member’s identification. The strength of identification to the group was to be sufficiently strong so that members were willing to jeopardise their wellbeing, or that of others, for the benefit of the group’s objectives.

The current research sought to further the understanding of psychological disengagement and to construct a theory drawn from the experiences of those who have left ideological social groups. In-depth interviews were conducted with 27 former members of social groups with high levels of entitativity, such as one percent motorcycle clubs, military special operations forces, cults, white supremacy, and fundamental religious or political groups. Utilising a grounded theory methodology and analysis, the discrepancy between group membership and the self-concept was identified as the core theme in the disengagement experience. The grounded theory of psychological disengagement details the process of experiencing a threat relating to the self, identifying a self-concept discrepancy and subsequent methods to reduce this discrepancy, achieving physical disengagement and developing a post-exit identity.

The findings demonstrate that participants followed a consistent pattern of moving towards membership reappraisal and disengagement. This process began with a personal threat that was related to, or derived from, the social group, and ended with the reformation of the self as a former member. The group was perceived as inconsistent with the self-concept held by the participant in four domains; (1) competence, (2) virtue, (3) power and (4) significance. The inconsistency and the psychological identification with such a group conflicted with personally held goals and values, and threatened the participants’ psychological integrity. For the participants in the current study, this self-discrepancy was resolved by employing four self-concept management strategies to restore psychological integrity; (1) the forming of an atypical identity, (2) utilising adaptive preferences (3) using justifications and rationalisations, and (4) the making of amends. These self-concept strategies, applied in isolation or in combination, contributed to participants psychologically, as well as physically, disengaging from the group as a means of restoring consistency between their self-concept and social identity. The physical disengagement led to initial feelings of relief over the decision-making process and freedom over the removal of lifestyle restrictions. These positive emotions gave way to feelings of grief over the loss of positive in-group aspects and concerns for the future. A post exit identity was adopted when the group experience was embraced and personal reflections followed a more positive approach.

Implications for policy and specific areas where members may benefit from additional support are identified. This research contributes to the current understanding of disengagement, as well as group dependency and ideological attachment from a unique perspective. Directions for future research and implementations of the findings of the current research are discussed.