Exploring the Psychology of the Incel Phenomenon

Exploring of the incel phenomenon: image of male and female genes and a psy symbol

The incel (a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate”) phenomenon, at least in its present incarnation, has emerged in the last decade and a bit. It’s come into the public eye through acts of violence committed by the likes of Elliot Rodger (in 2014 in Isla Vista, California) and Alek Minassian (in 2018 in Toronto, Ontario). Misogyny, including violent misogyny, is certainly nothing new, nor is the existence of people who want to be having sex but aren’t; however, this particular subculture, with its extensive lingo, has arisen in the internet age.

In this post, I want to look at the mindset of incels rather than potential outcomes, like violence. Violence also strikes me as a downstream issue in this context, and there are more pressing upstream issues to consider that contribute to people joining incel communities in the first place.

Much of the current understanding of the psychology of incels comes from the analysis of what’s written in incel forums. However, a few smaller studies (<30 participants) have been conducted involving members of incel communities, and a larger 2021 study by Speckhard and colleagues surveyed 272 participants in an incel forum (I refer to this throughout this post as the Speckhard study).

Incel ideology

Let’s start with a few basics of how incels, a subgroup within the broader misogynistic manosphere, look at the world. Obviously, not everyone who identifies as an incel or participates in incel communities is going to believe exactly the same things, and not everyone who is celibate against their choice identifies with any sort of ideology. So when I discuss ideology here, I’m absolutely making generalizations.

One of the basic ideas is that influences like feminism and liberalism have led to cultural shifts that have undermined the traditional patriarchy, in which women are obedient and accessible for sex. This has created a culture based on lookism, with physical appearances being the primary factor on which people are judged. Now, it’s no secret that people get judged all the time based on looks, but incels seem to take this to extremes, to the exclusion of any other factors that might go into partner selection.

Hypergamy is identified as a consequence of lookism, and the Pareto principle is worked in to arrive at the conclusion that the 20% of men who are the most attractive monopolize 80% of women. The combination of this cultural system and incels’ own deficient genetics is thought to result in them being denied the sex to which they should be entitled.

Incels identify a social hierarchy comprised of “Chads” (attractive men) at the top, then “normies” (average-looking men), then incels. Women, often referred to as “femoids” or “foids”, are at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. “Stacys” are the most attractive women, and “roasties” are women whose labia change to resemble roast beef from having too much sex (this is not an actual thing).

Incels seem to loathe but sexually desire Stacys, and loathe but want to be Chads. Some believe that strategies like “looksmaxxing” or “gymmaxxing” can allow them to “ascend” and access sex and relationships, while others believe this is impossible.

Perceptions of women & the world

Some incels conceive of a past sort of golden age of the patriarchy, in which looks weren’t important and women were always sexually available. That world never actually existed, but this view seems to be part of a mythical castle of meaning that they’ve built to explain why they experience the world the way they do.

Beyond just hatred towards women, incels seem to have some very skewed and overly simplistic perceptions of how women relate to the opposite sex. Their beliefs about how relationships and sex actually work seem to be pretty detached from reality and fairly heavily reliant on stereotypes (as seen in the “roastie hierarchy of needs” on Incel Wiki’s hypergamy page, for example). Again, it seems like it’s part of the mythical castle of meaning.

In the Speckhard study, 97% of respondents thought women, in general, could always get sex. More than 70% agreed that women are self-centred, manipulative, never satisfied, always looking for something better to come along, and only care about appearances in male partners.

One thing that I find interesting is that there seems to be a remarkable lack of insight that having these kinds of attitudes about women is likely to be a very strong female repellant.

Racism

Incels are demographically heterogeneous. They come from a variety of racial groups, with some estimates putting white membership at about half of incel communities.

Some antisemitism is expressed in incel forums, but Jaki and colleagues described it as sporadic rather than systemic. Other forms of racism also appear; however, race tends to be primarily discussed in terms of how race affects a man’s ability to get sex and how disloyal women of different races are (like Asian “noodlewhores”). Non-white men, particularly Indian men (“currycels”), are generally seen as having a harder time accessing sex than white men.

While there is sometimes overlap between people who identify as incels and as having alt-right beliefs, they do seem to be distinct phenomena.

Experiences of bullying

The Organization for the Prevention of Violence cited results of a poll conducted within incel communities, with 71% of respondents reporting having been bullied as children.

In the Speckhard study, 87% of respondents reported experiencing bullying during middle or high school. Rejection by girls and social ostracism were also common (86% and 64%, respectively).

After joining incel communities, people have reported experiencing distress due to bullying by anti-incel incel online groups, such as the IncelTears sub-Reddit.

Social skills deficits

Shyness during middle and high school was reported by 81% of participants in the Speckhard study. Social skills deficits may also be an issue. One community service group described incel clients they’d worked with as having difficulties with boundaries, social cues, and dealing with rejection.

Autism is relatively common in incel communities, with studies finding 25-29% of incel participants self-reporting that they were autistic. Of course, autism doesn’t make people incels, but problems with social skills and experiences of bullying can increase the vulnerability among this population.

Personality

One study of a small group of incels looked at Big Five personality traits. Incels had higher than average levels of neuroticism, which is the tendency to experience more negative emotions and be more emotionally reactive to stress. They also had lower than average levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Locus of control and the black pill

Incels tend to have an external locus of control, meaning they believe that primarily external factors control the outcomes that they experience. For example, they may believe that their ability to access sex or a relationship is predetermined by their own genetic deficits and hypergamy.

Various pills are identified, including the blue pill (remaining oblivious to the social structure) and the red pill (realizing what the social structure is and fighting back), based on the film The Matrix. The black pill adds a nihilistic element where there is no control over one’s fate, and nothing can be done to change the social hierarchy and one’s position in it. In the Speckhard study, 88% of respondents characterized the black pill ideology as true.

Hatred

There’s plenty of hate in incel communities. It gets divided around and is often directed at Stacies and Chads, but there’s also a whole lot of self-hatred. The degree of violent ideation is correlated with the level of misogyny, but incels aren’t violent across the board.

In an analysis of incels who perpetrated homicides, some were found to be self-deprecating, while others (like Elliot Rodgers) were grandiose. Writing by these offenders has displayed cognitive errors like overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking, and displayed entitlement, lack of empathy, denial of victim, and victim-stancing (making themselves out to be the victims).

Mental health

Isolation and loneliness are common. Online incel forums may provide individuals with a sense of belonging, shared experience, being valued, and having an identity that they aren’t able to access in the offline world. These spaces allow them to vent their grievances and express anger.

Depressive and anxiety symptoms are common among incels, occurring in around 60% of the sample in the Speckhard study. A paper by Daly and Laskovtsov cited a survey conducted by an incel forum in which 68% reported long-lasting depression and 74% reported long-last anxiety, stress, or emotional distress.

PTSD symptoms can also be an issue, and they were reported by 28% of the Speckhard study participants.

Researchers who conducted a small online survey of incels found that higher degrees of inceldom were associated with lower general, emotional, social, and psychological well-being.

Coping techniques (“copes”) seem to be a regular topic of discussion in incel forums, and the strategies that are used most often, like distraction or avoidance, tend to be maladaptive and not particularly effective.

Self-harm and suicidal ideation

Self-harm and suicidal ideation are common among incels. In the Speckhard study, 48% of participants had experienced suicidal ideation and 34% had self-harmed at some point. Within incel communities, “rope” is often used as a metonym for suicide. It’s used as a noun and as a verb, regardless of the method being contemplated.

Speckhard et al. found that the intensity of depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and self-harm that participants reported were correlated with greater agreement that participation in the forum made them feel depressed or suicidal or want to self-harm.

In a study that analyzed suicide notes posted online by incels, most of the notes expressed positive feelings about the support of the incel community. Of the notes analyzed, 25% expressed hope for a more positive afterlife.

Help-seeking

Professional help-seeking is discouraged within incel communities. Some of this relates to individuals describing their own negative experiences accessing or trying to access help. Therapy is also framed as something that’s unlikely to be useful because it wouldn’t address the underlying problem of being unattractive and therefore unable to get sex.

In terms of what participants in the Speckhard study thought would actually make their lives better, 92% thought being in a sexual/romantic relationship would make their lives better, while 56% thought plastic surgery to change their appearance could be helpful.

Putting on a show?

I wonder if there’s an element of putting on a performance to establish positioning within online communities, at least to some degree, especially when it comes to some of the hard-core vitriol-spewing. I came across one extremely gross forum thread in which the original poster was several kinds of highly disgusting human being all rolled into one and the activities being discussed were criminal in nature. The whole thing seemed almost caricatured. It had the feel of showmanship, even if the original poster actually did believe that the things he was writing were true.

An acknowledged shortcoming of research that analyzes writing in incel forums is that it considers what people are putting out there into their community rather than what’s inside their heads. This isn’t an easy group for researchers to access, but it does seem like forum discussions may be skewed towards talk of violence in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect many members’ feelings about violence. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s also some degree of pluralistic ignorance, with members’ perceptions of group norms not necessarily matching up with most group members’ private beliefs.

Why is this happening?

While there are definitely problems with these communities, I think that if the focus is on trying to address the forums themselves, that’s intervening way too late in the game. My sense is that inceldom is the result of a chain of events, not an inevitable result of a starting point of something like psychopathy, although as in any social group, I’m sure there are some individuals who always were and always will be pretty awful people. In one post I came across in an incel forum, the poster said that while people seem to think incels are psychopaths, they’re actually not: “Psychopaths are the ones who prosper in modern society, and are enlivened by brutality and cruelty, not the ones who are victimized by it.”

Inceldom seems like one of the uglier potential endpoints of a combination of bullying, rejection, alienation, social isolation, and problematic cultural messaging about gender stereotypes/expectations, relationships, and sex. The internet provides a way for it to coalesce into an ideology, but the ingredients are probably already there by the time vulnerable people come across these forums.

The fact that a lot of hate gets directed at women is probably heavily influenced by the kind of problematic social messaging that people are exposed to; however, the sense I got was that self-loathing related to social alienation is the hot mess spark that lights the misogynistic dumpster fire. Further ostracizing people once they’re in incel communities, and writing these communities off en masse as violent alt-right hate groups, seems likely to throw that dumpster fire straight into a train wreck, to borrow CNN’s Jake Tapper’s “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck” progression.

How do we stop people from becoming incels?

Some of the potential areas that have been identified to address in terms of prevention include digital media literacy, teaching about healthy sexuality and consent, training people who work with vulnerable groups in recognizing and addressing underlying issues, and creating a counter-narrative around masculinity.

I don’t know how we even begin to make changes to prevent inceldom from being an endpoint, but I do think it’s got to involve what we’re teaching our kids, what we’re doing about bullying, and how the whole village steps in to support kids who are feeling alienated. This isn’t just a “them” problem; it’s an “us” problem that people are feeling compelled to head down that path, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that everyone who feels ostracized is going to come up with a prosocial, adaptive response.

Is the incel phenomenon something that you were familiar with? Do you have any thoughts on how to address this issue?

Note: All percentages mentioned have been rounded to the nearest percentage point.

You may also be interested in the post Thoughts on Feminism and Misogynistic Trolling.

References

33 thoughts on “Exploring the Psychology of the Incel Phenomenon”

  1. Johnzelle Anderson

    This part, “One thing that I find interesting is that there seems to be a remarkable lack of insight that having these kinds of attitudes about women is likely to be a very strong female repellant.” Great post!

  2. The solutions proposed seem to be about ‘fixing’ incels by making them less misogynistic, rather than creating social structures without bullying and where autistic and other people with poor social skills get the support they need before they get to the stage of being lonely, bitter and looking for someone to blame. I agree we need to change society on this level as well as on the level of making it less misogynistic in general.

    I do also think our culture really IS overly superficial and focused on looks, not to the extent the incels say, but still to a big extent, and women would benefit as much as men from a less superficial culture.

    1. I wonder if there are cultures where looks and conformity with beauty standards within that culture actually aren’t important. There are certainly a lot of modern tools that facilitate a focus on appearance, but given older practices like foot binding in China, it doesn’t seem like an emphasis on looks is a new thing.

  3. I first heard of this group from reddit, and found it so disturbing, especially their disgusting jargon. Too much obsession with attractiveness and sex (or lack thereof). There’s so much more to life!!

  4. This boils down to entitlement. These “men” think that they’re entitled to wives, girlfriends, sex, jobs, whatever. They think that simply by existing they’re owed these things. It’s a disturbing trend, but I don’t know how, as a society, this can be dealt with. Sometimes I wonder if it’s that they were too coddled as kids, with parents, maybe specifically mothers, telling them constantly that they were special and that they deserved the world without giving them any kind of work ethic or drive.

  5. An informative and as compassionate post as can be, given the topic. I wonder what percentage of the incel community have a fixed mindset vs growth mindset? And how strong that becomes a predictor of someone leaving the community.

  6. Wow, what an interesting post about a topic I’d only superficially been aware of. I’m so impressed by your thoroughness, digging deep for the underlying causes and start of the discussion of how incel phenomenom can be prevented. Thanks for the awareness, Ashley!

  7. Very fascinating/scary write-up. I’ve never really read anything about incels because I don’t know anyone like that. Jargon like that definitely scares me. It’s interesting how you bring up the issue of rhetoric vs what people actually believe. I don’t hear that talked about a lot. The incel issue is usually presented very one-dimensionally but it’s clear there are many driving factors behind this.

  8. I have heard of this subgroup. I think the whole entitlement versus victim mentality is interesting. I also think that if they’d love themselves and not worry about being a Chad or getting the best looking female they’d find real connection. It’s sad really as they see their life with no value unless they can attain something that is inherent to them such as how they look. It’s a lot of wasted energy on a life outlook that can be improved with self reflection. I know personally I couldn’t have a non toxic relationship until I worked on loving myself. You often get what you put out there.

  9. It is all very concerning….I wish there was a way to make sure that every person could be guaranteed a balanced life with people of all ages, backgrounds etc. I worry that when people become isolated with their thinking, and develop quite extreme ideas, and then are drawn to others who have similar extreme ideas….which are then brewed and fermented….it seems to result in alarming actions.

  10. Another excellent look into an intriguing topic!

    I like that you’ve covered the mindset as separate to outcomes as I don’t think that violence and Incel are mutually exclusive. There were some guys I went to school with that could, in theory, kind of fit the incel definition quite well and while I wouldn’t be too surprised if nastiness happened in later years, I don’t think they’d all turn to violent, abusive behaviours.

    I’ll have to look into hypergamy and the Pereto Principle a bit more. I imagine the Incel type (my brain isn’t coming up with the word I want here to say what Incel, as a term, is) will receive more attention over the next few years as a direct result of the violent actions of the likes of Jake Davidson.

    The pill thing is new to me. I loved The Matrix, but those are real pills so I don’t get how they work here. Could be that I’m just slow on the uptake today.

    The aspects of hatred, loneliness, shunning of professional support, suicidal thought etc are all unsurprising I think. I also agree on the show aspect – these are often going to be people who didn’t fit in, who feel like they’re outsiders and have no group to belong to. The forums and the self-prescribed Incel title give them some of that sense of belonging, which is a little ironic when they’re likely to also openly shun the need to belong anywhere. What’s said on forums can’t be taken as a true reflection of a person or what they’d actually do. It’s like seeing someone’s comment on Twitter that they’d like to kill their boss and using that to suggest they’re capable of murder. But seeing talk on forums does give a good insight into group mentality in a way I don’t think is really possible in any unnatural setting for the purpose of research.

    On a side note, when catching up on your posts I noticed there’s no weekend update. I just wanted to say I hope everything’s okay (or at least no shittier than usual).

    Caz xx

    1. I didn’t look into it, but hypergamy is an actual term for people marrying up in terms of social class, and incels have twisted that to fit with their own outlook on the world.

      It sounds like the red-pill/blue-pill thing from the matrix has been coopted by various groups, not just incels, to represent how they choose to view the mainstream.

      Things are shittier than usual, but it is what it is.

  11. Thanks again for the educational post. This is new to me and very frightening to consider. I like the idea of focusing on root causes which may include addressing bullying and addressing alienation of our youth. I also wonder if society places too much emphasis on sex and having sex as making you OK or prestigious rather than the idea of simply relating to people, either of the same or the opposite sex.

  12. Interesting, thought-provoking post. While I don’t condone, dismiss, or absolve incels of their harmful attitudes and behaviors, I do think it’s important for society to acknowledge that many of the societal attitudes that we have around sex – the “everyone is doing it”, the objectification of women, the entitlement, shaming of people who are still single/virgin, etc. – are harmful not only to women but also to men, with incels being an example of a negative impact on men.

    It’s interesting to think about what a society with a healthier approach to sex would actually look like. I’ve spent time in both religious and secular circles and I don’t think either has the right approach to this yet.

    1. A society with a healthier approach to sex is a very interesting thing to think about, but I have no idea how we get there. I wonder how much social messaging around sex actually represents individuals’ private views, and if the polarized messaging persists in part because people who have more balanced views are keeping those views to themselves.

      1. Yeah, I definitely think that there’s a gap between what individuals actually think and do, and what they claim to think and do publicly. I am certainly guilty of projecting different image/opinion outwardly when I feel the situation calls for it

        1. I also find that my opinion in general doesn’t necessarily match up with what I’d want for myself. And what might lead me to screen someone out on a dating app is not necessarily something that would be an issue if I found out after having already met the person.

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