As last week's mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue reminded us, some hate-filled people are willing to use deadly violence to further a political agenda. It's well established that the perpetrators of these horrors are often lost souls for whom a racial or religious crusade becomes a source of meaning in their otherwise aimless lives.
But another component of the radicalization process has received relatively little attention. Yes, potential terrorists are often seeking a sense of purpose. But they are simultaneously yearning for some excitement.
Timely new research provides evidence that thrill-seeking plays a key role in the creation of violent extremists. It also points to a promising method to divert would-be terrorists from that destructive path.
"The need for adventure and thrill bridges the gap between the search for meaning and extreme behavior," writes a research team led by psychologist Birga M. Schumpe of New York University–Abu Dhabi.
"When individuals search for meaning, they look for novel and intense experiences, thereby making them more likely to adhere to violent ideologies or groups."
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers describe seven studies that demonstrate this linkage.
One featured 234 people recruited online who filled out standard questionnaires measuring the degree to which they were searching for meaning as well as their propensity for adventure-seeking. The latter was determined by their responses to such statements as "I would love to have new and exciting experiences, even if they are illegal."
Participants then read information about a violent animal-rights group, which was said to have tracked down, threatened, and even bombed the cars of scientists who used animals in their research. The subjects then reported the degree to which they supported the organization.
The researchers found that those who were searching for meaning were more likely to score high on thrill-seeking, and that thrill-seeking was "in turn positively associated with the evaluation of the violent group."
A follow-up study featuring 160 self-defined animal-rights activists replicated those results, while still another offered evidence that thrill-seekers perceived the violent groups as tantalizingly exciting.
"To restore their [lost sense of personal] significance, people pay increased attention to novel and exciting experiences," the researchers conclude. "They become sensation-seekers, and thus increasingly allured to extreme behaviors, and to groups that carry out such activities."
A final study suggests this knowledge can be used to design effective interventions. The 392 participants read about either a dull-sounding animal-rights group (which focused on "letters of opposition, or pamphlets") or an exciting-sounding one (which "engaged in marches, parades, humorous skits, and pranks").
The researchers found that, among those high in sensation-seeking, reading about the drama- and spectacle-oriented group reduced support for political violence.
"The need for novel and exciting experiences fuels people's interest in political violence," they write, "but it can also be re-channeled toward peaceful political movements that are engaging and exciting."
As the researchers note, these findings have practical ramifications for governments and organizations devoted to preventing violent extremism. Social media messages attempting to counter the lure of extremist groups may be more effective if they offer emotionally stimulating but non-violent ways to join a crusade.
A whole lot of people crave adventure and also yearn to belong. Extremist groups cover both of those bases; non-violent alternatives should ideally do the same.