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INNOVATOR Q&A

Incel culture and its rise in the modern dating world

A researcher at the University of Rhode Island explores what drives the incel movement, and when extreme misogyny turns violent.

Incels, also known as “involuntary celibates,” are members of an online community of young men who believe they are unable to attract women sexually.FEDERICO RIOS/NYT

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PROVIDENCE — While acts of violence that defy comprehension — including mass shootings and hate crimes — have consistently made the nightly news, researchers are finding that certain patterns that drive that brutality have begun to emerge.

Miriam Lindner, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island, points to extreme misogynistic world views coupled with a growing online presence as having brought the “incel” community into public view. Incels, also known as “involuntary celibates,” are members of an online community of young men who believe they are unable to attract women sexually, and usually have hostile or extreme views toward women.

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Incels and the rise of violent extremism have been investigated when it comes to their connections to senseless acts of violence, but Lindner said empirical research continues to be thin. In her latest research article in the Journal of Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, Lindner explores what drives the incel movement.

Miriam Lindner is a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island.HANDOUT

Q. What perceptions have changed, or are changing, regarding those who commit mass violence?

Lindner: For the longest time, there was this misunderstanding that this type of violence could be ascribed to socioeconomic standing or educational background. 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 percent of them are male — it is actually that they are extremely misogynistic.

Q. How is your research reframing what is known about incels?

A. Most of the existing literature explained incel-type violence and its connection to toxic masculinity and gender norms. My hypothesis was that it is a very unique kind of interaction between an evolved male psychology when factoring in the dynamics of the modern sexual marketplace and modern technologies that kind of gives rise to this movement.

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Q. How is the “modern sexual marketplace” evolving, and how is it impacting the rise of the incel community?

A. A lot of women are deciding to stay off the heterosexual marketplace [and for longer], they are actively removing themselves, and it creates this surplus of men in the population who will not find a partner. Women are exploring same-sex partnerships more, being more fluid in their sexuality than men are. That openness is different compared to any other previous time period.

But also, women are more independent. Even if you were to pull up TikTok, there’s videos of women talking about the pitfalls of their current marketplace and they say “I’m going to go home to my cat” instead of look for a date. They are seeking a peaceful life first. Also, women can make our own choices when it comes to reproduction and sexual health. We have careers that allow us not be dependent on men more than ever before.

Q. What are the “warning signs” of someone who is an incel?

A. Men who kind of flirt with that ideology. According to incels, some of the factors that continue their lack of sex have to do with their looks, including jawline, biceps, height, status, and those sorts of things. They also say that there are “reasons” why they cannot find a partner to sleep with. But there’s a mismatch as to what the incel community thinks and what women want. Many women value communication and emotional stability, we look for someone who is nonviolent, not aggressive, and who values consent. Many women are weary of the Andrew Tates of the world, who is the poster child of toxic masculinity, but he also models the kind of person who some in the incel community believe is a “real man.”

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[Tate is an American and British influencer who does not identify as an incel, but who Lindner says loudly voices misogyny on social media, playing into the culture’s belief that women owe men sex, and that men can treat women however they’d like. Tate was arrested in Romania in December 2022 on charges of human trafficking, rape, and creating a crime group to sexually exploit women. He has denied the charges and the case is pending.]

Q. When does incel culture become violent?

A. Most men who are part of the incel community do not commit acts of violence. These men are actually more likely to die by suicide than commit acts of violence. But 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.

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Q. What’s next as part of your research?

A. I’ve created a dataset and I’m using it to test the assumptions and precursors to self-directed and outward aggression among men. Establishing those factors that 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.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.