05.01.2021 change 05.01.2021

From saviours to terrorists: Extremism lies at the heart of infatuation, creative passion and fanaticism

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Madly falling in love, devoting oneself to work, passion or idea... Whenever one need blinds a person to other needs, extreme behaviour comes into play. It can have many faces and is hardly uncommon, psychologists believe. They propose a new look at what extremisms are.

“Until now, extreme behaviour has been associated with political extremism, terrorism, and the use of violence. We show a completely new perspective: there are many other behaviours, including socially desirable ones, which have similar psychological dynamics,” says psychologist Dr. Ewa Szumowska from Institute of Psychology at the Jagiellonian University.
She was a member of Arie Kuglanski's team which developed a new model of extreme behaviour. The research was published in the journal Psychological Review (https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Frev0000260). In light of this new approach, extreme behaviour includes behaviours as diverse as obsessive passions, practicing extreme sports, exhausting diets, devoting one's life to helping others, training skills to the point of exhaustion, fanatically promoting ideas, stalking, being an extreme supporter or fan of a team or band, or even a blind infatuation with a person...
And with this definition, we can conclude that extremism was a trait of not only Herostrates and the Unabomber, but also Maria Skłodowska-Curie, Venus and Serena Williams, Mother Teresa, Pablo Picasso, Joan of Arc, and in the literature also Romeo and Juliet or Werther. After all, these characters would not be famous if they had not sacrificed a lot in their lives for one idea.
“In our model, we assume that extreme actions result from an imbalance between goals and needs,” Dr. Szumowska says. She adds that such an imbalance can occur in any person. “The fact that a person exhibits extreme behaviour does not mean that he or she has any disorders. Or that he or she has some unbelievable predispositions. This mechanism is common for all of us.”
People have many needs, including physiological ones, needs associated with relationships with other people, competence, autonomy. Szumowska continues: “In general, the goal is to satisfy all needs, and push none of them to the background. This is called balanced, moderate functioning. But sometimes one of the needs becomes so important for someone that for a long time it obscures others. And this can lead to extreme behaviour.”
If a need is not satisfied for an extended period of time, the normal mechanism is that it temporarily determines human behaviour. “The hungrier you are, the less attention you pay to all your other needs. And then, in order to fill yourself up, you are able to do things you normally would not do: eat something that you consider terrible or even disgusting, steal food, hurt someone, eat things that are inedible, in extreme cases even engage in cannibalism.” she says. One need can make you blind to your other needs and goals derived from them, and start behaving in an unexpected way.
The same also applies to more complex needs. Dr. Szumowska points out that in the biographies of successful people, rulers or geniuses, a frequent reason for extreme behaviour is the desire to satisfy the need to be significant. “Everyone has this need, but they also have a need to be moral, a need for security or belonging. But if someone focuses on this one need, they may be neglecting or actively undermining other needs. For example, if it is extremely important for you to do something important in your life, you will be able to do it at the expense of other people, at the expense of your ethical principles, your health, friends, family.”
Whether or not an extreme behaviour occurs, depends on various factors. Firstly, there must be a very strong need that dominates other needs. Secondly, there must be a narrative that will show the person the way to satisfy that need. These narratives are often borrowed from the culture we live in. For example, when it comes to the need to be significant, in some narratives the way to achieve it is through hard work and self-improvement, in others - through helping other people, or the pursuit of fame, or fighting people with different views.
The third factor influencing the emergence of extreme behaviour is the group to which the person belongs and identifies with. It can enhance or inhibit extreme behaviours. Dr. Szumowska points out that it is not without reason that terrorist groups, sects, but also groups that prepare athletes for sports competitions cut off from the world, often have their headquarters in remote places. As a result, their members lose sight of everything they might want and what is outside of this group. They can focus on one thing: pursuing the goal desired by the group. If someone loses motivation, it is the task of the other group members to restore it. “You can also engage in extreme behaviours on your own, but it is much easier when there are people in the environment who encourage, praise and devote themselves to these behaviours,” she says.
In extreme behaviours, the key is prolonged domination of one need. It may result from long-term deprivation (and thus inability to satisfy the need). The person undertakes various, also harmful actions to satisfy this need, or they may also try to satisfy other needs in order to compensate. Szumowska says that a given person may have many unmet needs in various spheres of life and see no possibility of satisfying them. For example, they have no financial security, they are lonely, underestimated, have a low social status and little chance of finding a prestigious job. And then unmet needs are channelled into one area: a need that can be satisfied.
And if such an 'obsession' is harmful, how can we free ourselves from it? Szumowska gives an example of programs in the field of de-radicalisation of members of terrorist groups. The participants are taught how to notice different needs and how to satisfy them in a harmless, constructive manner. For example, they learn a new profession, receive help with finding a better job, a new hobby or a reference group in which a given person will be able to satisfy their neglected needs. A way to free yourself from harmful extreme behaviours can also be found in therapies for people with behavioural addictions (such as workaholism, shopaholism, sexaholism). There, too, people get help with regaining the balance between different needs and aspects of life.
“Devoting oneself to a single idea costs a lot of energy. In our view, it is functioning in an imbalance. It requires a lot of commitment and it is a behaviour that is difficult to maintain for a long time,” she says.
A very broad look at extremisms, proposed by the researchers, may help better understanding of where they come from and regulate the processes of transition from extreme to sustainable behaviour. In addition, it may help develop more effective forms of support for people and groups who have problems with their extreme behaviours.
PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala
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