Extremism, or behaviour and thinking that becomes relentlessly focused on one or a small group of issues, can be seen as both a negative and a positive dependent on the intention and outcome. For example, professional tennis players Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, artist Henry Matisse, scientist Marie Curie, the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who burned himself to death on a busy Saigon Road intersection in 1963 as a protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the then South Vietnamese Christian government, through to terrorists and other extremists who move the focus of their extremism to damaging or killing others. However, most forms of extremism are work and life related rather than terrorism focussed.
Extremism and moderation
The term extremism refers to any unusual or statistically uncommon, outlier and marginal event, behaviour or thinking/cognition. Moderation, on the other hand, tends to refer to events, behaviours and thinking/omissions that tend towards the normal or average.
Extremism therefore refers to any highly uncommon behaviours and thinking by relatively few individuals. Such outlier behaviour and thinking tends to be apportioned into positive and negative consequences, dependent on the impact those consequences have for the individual themselves and others. Extreme behaviours and thinking that result in positive outcomes, for example Mother Teresa’s outlier behaviour towards the poor and needy are usually lauded, whereas extreme behaviours and thinking that result in negative outcomes, such as extreme (unusual) forms of violence, violent acts that result in harm to large numbers of people or ideological views that denigrate others, are usually construed as being criminal.
…most forms of extremism are work and life related rather than terrorism focussed.
The motivation underpinning extremism
In terms of motivation, extremist thinking and behaviour suggests particularly focused and targeted set of drives, desires, reasoning and action. In other words, that there is a motivational focus which excludes other aspects of thinking and behaviour in order for the level of fixation and preoccupation to occur. In other words, extremism appears to be a form of motivational imbalance or possessiveness.
On the other hand, moderation appears to suggest some form of motivational balance.
A new study
A new (2020) study by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland, and Wayne University in the United States, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, the University of Québec in Montréal, Canada and the University of Rome in Italy has looked at the motivational underpinning of extremism from a psychological perspective.
The researchers in cluding Professor Ari Kruglinski from the University of Maryland looked at the available scientific evidence to develop a model of extremism from a psychological point of view.
Interview with Professor Arie Kruglanski
In this interview, David talks with Professor Kruglanski about this study, the nature of extremism and how to deal with it.
Professor Arie Kruglanski
Professor Arie Kruglanski is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology, a recipient of many awards, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. Previously he was editor of:
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition,
The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
and associate editor of the American Psychologist.
His work in the areas of human judgment and belief formation, the motivation-cognition interface, group and intergroup processes, and the psychology of human goals has been published in over 300 articles, chapters, and books.
Extremism and Obsession Transcript
Today, I’ve got with us Arie Kruglanski from the University of Maryland, he is a Professor there and he has a really interesting paper on the Psychology of Extremism, How Motivational Imbalance Breeds Intemperance. So Arie, welcome to the ‘Review’ and I just wondered… It’s an absolute pleasure, a real pleasure, I’ve seen some of your previous work, and I just wondered if you could just start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background and your research history and interests.
My name is Arie Kruglanski, I’m a Professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and I’m a Social Psychologist, primarily interested in human motivation. Up until recently, up until the year 2001, I was very happy to study psychological processes in the privacy and comfort of my laboratory with university students as subjects. I studying processes of basic human motivation, learning cognition behavior, but something changed drastically in my life following 911, the shock that all of us experienced. And scientifically at that point, the National Academies of Science in the United States offered their services to President George W. Bush to provide some understanding of terrorism. And the President Bush responded very positively and as a consequence, several different panels were established to study different aspects of terrorism.
The chemical aspect, the animal aspect, the food aspect, promoting terrorism through poisonous foods, environmental aspects. One of those aspects was the social and behavioral aspects of violent extremism and I was invited to participate in a panel to that effect. At that time, I knew nothing about terrorism, but there was no reason for me not to join and learn about it, which I did. And we scoured the literature learned as much as we could and the consequence of this process, we produced a document for the US Congress called ‘Making the Nation Safer.’ And that was the beginning for me of a longstanding interest in terrorism, applying to it what I knew about human motivation. At that time also the Department of Homeland Security issued the large competition to establish a Center for Excellence the study of terrorism. There was a big competition, 72 universities entered the fray, including all the IVs, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and all the others. It was our great stroke of luck that we won that competition and I was one of the Co-Founders of a Center for Excellence for the study of terrorism and the response of terrorism, the social and behavioral aspect.
There are other centers, the economic aspect, the animal aspect, the food aspect in various universities. And that was the beginning for me to be interested in the problem of terrorism. At the beginning, I had no empirical data, so I satisfied myself with theorizing, but after a while the grants kept coming in and we were able to study terrorism in its various manifestations all over the globe. We studied The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, we studied jihadist terrorists in the Philippines and Indonesia, we studied the Neo Nazis in Germany, white supremacists in the United States. And we devoted a large chunk of our time to the study of of these phenomenon. At some point because of political correctness, Obama administration decided to not use the term Terrorism anymore, but rather to switch to Violent Extremists and it somehow seemed less offensive, less connected to Islamic terrorism and so forth. And that switch for me was meaningful because the term violent extremism suggested to me that may maybe there are other types of extremism, not only violent extremism, which led me to explore the phenomenon of extremist more generally and that is how I came up with the theory, the model that we then applied to the various domains. So this was my long-winded answer to your very brief question, David.[David] No, it’s a very good answer. And as I said, I’ve been following your work up, so I’m originally from a military and police background, but also involved a lot in counter-terrorism training through Cranfield University years ago, so I’ve come across a lot of the reports that you’ve authored and been involved in. So, in terms of this paper, particularly, I know yourself, you were working with team of colleagues from the Avalon University, which is a very beautiful university, I don’t know whether you’ve been… [Arie] Yes, I’ve had the honor of teaching there in Krakow The University of Maryland, Wayne University, The University of Quebec and The University of Rome, which is a really interesting group of people, by the sounds of it and the paper, the psychology of extremism, how motivational imbalance breeds intemperance. So could you just first give us an overview of what led up to this particular paper in this piece of research?
Well, as I said, we’re all interested in extremists and extremism in various forms and it was our insight based on discussions that we’ve had in the team, very international team, all colleagues interested in the same topic that there could be other types of extremism that people are extreme in various different ways. People engage in extreme sports, they follow extreme diets, there is such thing as addiction to a substance, of course, that has devastating consequences for people’s lives. There is stalking and a getting fixated on a person in instances of extreme love. So, all these phenomena were fascinating to us in addition to violent extremism and the sacrifice that it entails. And we were wondering, might it be the case that underneath, all these different, strange bedfellows as it were, there is concealed a common psychological dynamic, maybe extremism despite its very diverse manifestations has a common psychological process at bottom. And that led us to exploring the issue more thoroughly, looking at data from various domains of extremism and we decided that indeed there is a common dynamic and that led us to the formulation of this model and the rest is in the paper.[David] Yes, and a very interesting paper it too. So what do you actually mean? Because the paper is talking about motivational imbalance, what you actually mean by motivational imbalance? [Arie] This is really the core issue David, of motivational imbalance and our view of motivation is the following, that basically all human beings have the same set of motivations, basic motivations, fundamental motivations in the same way as we all experienced hunger and thirst, all human beings have the instinct for survival, there are some basic motivations. There are also psychological motivations that are fundamental and common to all human beings. Now, of course, if you look at human behavior, it’s highly diverse, it manifests itself in many different behaviors across different cultures, different customs, how is it all comparable with the idea that people have the same set of motivations? Well, these motivations give rise to various ways of fulfilling those motivations and these are determined by context by culture, by history. So for example, take an example of hunger, hunger can be satisfied in a western culture by ordering a meal at a restaurant or ordering in to be delivered whereas in a hunter-gatherer culture, hunger may mean they need to go on a hunt and catch one’s own food as it were. In the same way, culture determines the specific tasks, the specific goals, but they all go back right to the very basic needs and the same with the need for affection, the need for belonging, we are particularly interested in the need for metering insignificance, that to us is a huge mover that actually makes the world move around.
Now, the motivational imbalance occurs when one of these basic needs is so dominant that it overrides all the others, that can happen.[David] Yes. [Arie] And when that happens, behaviors become legitimize, behaviors become possible that otherwise would be constrained by those other needs because a behavior that serves this dominant need might clash with other needs. However, if those other needs are suppressed and subdued, then it opens up the scope for all kinds of behaviors to occur that otherwise would not be permissible and this is when extreme behaviors happen. Behaviors that involve sacrifices, of all of those other needs now become possible. Again, back to the example of hunger, when we are moderately hunger, our eating is constrained by health considerations, by tastes considerations, by all kinds of… By aesthetics, we would not eat something that is distasteful, that is bad for your health, bad for your diet, we will be choosy and selective. However, when the hunger becomes extremely powerful, extremely dominant, all those other considerations are set aside and an individual might then eat anything that is available, including tree bark, insects other animals, cannibalism, behaviors that are totally extreme, totally prohibited by other considerations, to which most people subscribe. So that’s how extreme is what happens when one need becomes so dominant that other needs are suppressed. And this is the opposite of moderation, moderation is trying to have all of one basic needs satisfied. So for example, in the context of organization, we talk about we’re to live balance, to attend to your work, but also have time for leisure activities for your family, for relationships and so on and so forth.
But under normal circumstances, even if we have an extreme context, so for example, somebody is in a context where they are hungry and they’re eating extreme foods, foods that they wouldn’t normally consider. Once the context comes back to normal, most people balanced back out again, what we’re talking about here is a fixation that even when it does balance back out, they’re still ignoring their other needs and focusing on just one set of needs.
This is a very important point because we do not satisfy all our needs all at the same time. Usually, there’s a sequence at one point, one need is dominant and we satisfied at other points, we move to another need… So there is a kind of moving back and forth, multitasking sequentially, but when extremists happens, we are fixated on a basic need for a long period of time. And this is difficult to sustain because all those other needs, as we said are basic and so it’s very difficult to suppress them for a large amount of time and in many cases it requires a certain personality, but also it requires in many cases, a group support living in an environment when this need is so important that people are ready to sacrifice everything else as it happens sometimes in terrorist organizations in cults, in all kinds of organizations that support a given need to the exclusion of everything else.
Yes and it’s that fixation that becomes interesting in as much… So we see this with some artists, so artists who forget to feed themselves, there’s no grooming, they have no relationships, that art becomes everything. And so in terms of extremism, we’re not just talking about terrorism here, we’re talking about extreme behaviors in organizations, workaholics who have no time for relationships, in academia, we see some professors who their entire life is just around their research and them keeping good relationships with colleagues for example, really isn’t an issue for them.
Exactly and you see great humanitarians who devote all the time to others and face enormous discomfort. I was just interviewed yesterday about a very interesting person, a Brit actually, a Hollywood actor who lived in Los Angeles for decades and at the age of 51 volunteered to join the a Kurdish militia, YPG to fight against ISIS, facing almost sure death or a great injury, most of his fellow comrades were killed in fact. What motivates a person to do something like that, to abandon or travel thousands of miles to join a fight in extremely uncomfortable… The heat of the Syrian desert in conditions that are terrible, surrounded by death and destruction, leaving his comfortable existence in Hollywood with luxury and comfort driving around in his Porsche, what causes that kind of thing? And in this particular case, it’s the quest for glory and significance that overrode everything else. And this is not an isolated example, we have people who joined the crusades in the middle ages or the thousands of people who flocked to fight on behalf of ISIS, the volunteers for the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, between the Republicans and the Nationalists. So this kind of extremism can be motivated by this desire for glory, this desire for significance, which is a basic human need.
Yes and we see it with some sports people who become fixated on being better and better and better and everything else comes out. And there’s a fine line between something that’s a positive form of extremism and one that’s detrimental, not only to the own individual’s health, but also to society for example, and the kinds of extremism that we talk about in terms of terrorism, I suppose, people who become fixated on damaging a nation or damaging people from a nation or a type of people, as we see with kind of white supremacists and those kinds of extremism as well.
Yes, the extremism can have very negative consequences for the person and for the society. It can have positive consequences, at least for society, a great painter, like Degas or Picasso, were extremists in their own term, but our culture has benefited from their great works. Mother Theresa was-
Mother Theresa, yes.
Mother Theresa sacrificed her life to work with the poor of Calcutta, but they benefited from it. But there’s also the cost and benefits for the individual and the problem for the individual who is extremist, that they put all their eggs in one basket as it were, they are totally dependent emotionally on what happens in that domain. If everything goes well, they are exhilarated, they experience euphoria and great, great happiness that is uncommon, to us common mortals. But if things do not go well, they’re cast into the depths of depression, they suffer tremendously. They don’t have anywhere else to go, they do not have any other domain where they can find satisfaction and happiness.
Yes and it’s that the distinction between being focused, but all right through to those kinds of levels of extremism. I just wonder, what are the kinds of attributes that lead to that motivational imbalance and those levels of extremism?
I think that we now have started developing a scale that measures that and we have some interesting data. So there is a personality kind of impulsivity that allows people to suppress everything and move into one direction. We try to see to what extent is connected with other things, we find that the most toxic, if you will, combination is a high need for cognitive closure and this proclivity to be motivated very strongly by something, because the need for cognitive closure leads people to fixate, to freeze on something on which they decide. So if these people are both highly motivated and highly passionate, experience things with great intensity and also high on the need for cognitive closure, once they find that thing on which to fixate, they would not let go and they can be really the kind of person you discussed, who not only pursue something with great intensity, but they do not pursue other things, they do not satisfy their other needs.
Yes and as you say, can become toxic extremism, so there’s positive forms of extremism, but also toxic forms… And not just toxic for the individual, but society and things like that. So what are the main takeaways then for practitioners in organizations, because there are extremists in organizations and I just wondered what your thoughts were about that.
Again, you probably want people who are highly devoted, so you want people who have the capacity for passion especially in some professions where tenacity is of great importance, but on the other hand, you do not want people who forget everything else. So you need a kind of combination of people who are passionate and at the same time, not fixated, perhaps people who are high on passion, but also low on the need for cognitive closure, people who will consider alternatives. There is very interesting word by one of my co-authors on this paper, Robert Vallerand from L’Université du Québec àMontréal and he distinguished between two types of passion, obsessive passion, which is what we are talking about, that leads to extremism, leads to suppression of everything else and harmonious passion and he has scales to measure it in various domains. And people with harmonious passions are the kind of people you would want to have in an organization that on the one hand, they’re capable of devoting themselves to the task, with great intensity that is required for success. On the other hand, they would not be the kind of people who are incapable of working in a team, who are incapable of human relations, who are incapable of seeing other aspects, of their own problem, but are totally fixated on this one thing. So harmonious passion, people who are high on passion and low on a need for closure are the kind of persons that would be probably profitable for organizations to recruit.
Yeah, so I think that’s quite important and I also suspect that there’s probably a connection here with cognitive flexibility in terms the people who are obsessive passionates tend to like that, whereas the more harmonious obsessives tend to have a greater level of cognitive flexibility. And it was what you were saying, is that the ability to be able to have peripheral interests as well, to be able to see the consequences of things, to be able to work through what are other consequences are happening here both for myself and for whatever it happens to be the organization or society.
Exactly, cognitive flexibility, when I mentioned a need for cognitive closure, this is the kind of need that leads people to fixate. We talked in our theory of cognitive closure about seizing and freezing, that they seize on the first bit of information that provides them closer and freeze upon it and thus becoming impervious to subsequent information and they therefore display very low cognitive flexibility, they are frozen on their conceptions. There are all kinds of interesting examples of people who surprise attacks that despite the information that was available to policymakers and the military, they were so frozen on the conception, all the various surprise attacks. In Israel, the Yom Kippur War in which Egypt and Syria surprised Israel almost it was deadly consequences for the country. Operation Barbarossa of Hitler against the Soviet union, the Pearl Harbor attack, the information was there, but people would not be sufficiently cognitive flexible to consider it, they were so fixated on their previous assessments. So that’s very important, has huge consequences. Going all the way to the Troy example, where there were warnings that the Greeks bearing gifts should not be trusted yet they were trusted and we know what happened next.
Yeah, so that’s a really nice example and certainly from my own research, one of the areas that I’ve been looking at a lot over the last 20 years is to do with tolerance of uncertainty. And I think there are a lot of connections there-
People who have low levels of tolerance from certainty are much more likely to be surprised by these kinds of events to get fixated on things and to believe their own rhetoric and not see the wider picture, whereas people with higher levels of tolerance of uncertainty usually see that peripheral story and are less surprised because they can anticipate things, but they can also see things that are coming from the kind of left-wing as it were.
Exactly, again, it’s a fundamental motivation, this need for closure that has these vastly important consequences for people, for societies-[David] Yes.
Actually the motivations shake the course of history, all these different decision-makers mistakes.
Yes and particularly when we get into the arena of politics and politicians, although I don’t want to go there that’s a whole different ball game.[Arie] It is.
This has been fascinating.
Sorry, you were going to say?
That motivations play out in these large scale social phenomena. For example, this need for significance, for metering, for dignity, for recognition is something that motivates large social movements and across history. It’s what philosophers like Hegel, Victor, Kant Sartor, Max talked about in understanding great social movements, the revolutions of various kinds, the French revolution. So it was all about dignity, about equality, about fraternity, about the Russian revolution, the war of the classes that inspired by Max-[David] Yes.
The American revolution, they all were motivated by these basic human motive, so we as psychologists are very modest in studying individuals, but these aspects of human psychology play out in larger macro level events that shape the course of history and John Stuart Mill actually asserted as much in I guess, 18th century to say that all social phenomenon have their basis in the human nature and that’s what he must have meant.
Yes, yes, certainly. And one of the growing areas of psychological interest, but particularly it is around motivated reasoning and how people’s things like their political background shapes the way that they’re actually perceiving things and what they see and they don’t see, how it forms that biases and things like that, which is-
It’s such an important area, we recently published a paper-
With a provocative title, “All thinking is Wishful Thinking.” And we mean by that, that all thinking is motivated, even if the motivation is for accuracy, it’s still motivated. So if accuracy is the wish and thinking is motivated by the wish for accuracy, it’s still wishful thinking. The place of motivation in cognition is of paramount importance in our estimation.
Yes, I would absolutely agree with that and it drives an awful lot of not only people’s actions, but the thinking behind the actions, but also their perceptions, what they see and what they don’t see-
What they think about, they don’t think about, yeah, absolutely. I could be here all day with this one I just like to thank you so much Arie, this has been absolutely fascinating. Can I just ask how can people contact you if they want to?
My email would be one thing, I have a website-
Yes, I’ll put a link in the show notes to you website.
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