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The Potential Militant Extremist Inside Each of Us

The fanatical thinking that leads to militant extremism is a seductive narrative that may have a surprisingly widespread low-level resonance in the general population, finds one study.
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Ever since 9/11, the threat of militant extremism has loomed large in the American psyche. But how much do we really know about the militant-extremist mindset?

According to one new study, we may actually be able to learn more than we think just by looking in the mirror. That's the conclusion from group of psychologists who presented undergraduates in two countries with a broad range of framings common to militant extremist fanatical groups. In survey after survey, students generally failed to strongly dissociate themselves from the sentiments.

"If, in fact, extremist thinking is something bizarre, you'd expect people to disagree with the statements," said Gerard Saucier, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the lead researcher on the study. "What you get instead is that they're failing to disavow them. A typical showing is a mixture of agree and disagree." The findings are reported in the May issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

In order to determine what goes into the militant-extremist mindset, Saucier and his colleagues (a pair of Oregon psychology grad students, Laura Geuy Akers and Seraphine Shen-Miller; Goran Knezevic, a professor of psychology at the University of Belgrade; and Lazar Stankov, currently a visiting professor at National Institute of Education, Singapore, formerly a research scientist with Educational Testing Service) first read widely. They examined the published materials of 13 militant extremist groups, which they defined as groups that combine fanatical beliefs and values and advocacy of extremist means, including violence.

The extremists came from across regions, religions and cultures. They ranged from the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Germany) to Meir Kahane and followers (Palestine and Israel) to the Lord's Resistance Army (Uganda) to the Tamil Tigers (Sri Lanka) to Aum Shinrikyo (Japan) to the Shining Path (Peru) to home-grown U.S. extremists like the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh.

The researchers then extracted 16 key themes that occurred over and over in the texts. Taken together, the themes cohere into what Saucier and colleagues describe as a "seductive narrative": The modern world has fallen into a catastrophic state. The ordinary mechanisms of change are no longer valid. Only extreme, violent measures can save things. This is a war of us against them, a war of good versus evil, a war of necessity. Any and all means are not only justified, they are glorified. God is on our side. In the end utopia will be restored.

"The persuasive force comes from the storyline," Saucier said. "When I tried putting all the themes together to get a composite storyline, it was kind of striking. What struck me was the highly emotional kind of thinking. It has a lot of a kind of motivational force to it." (In the journal article, Saucier and colleagues call this story "the seductive narrative in militant-extremist thinking" and write that it "may seem like a dramatic comic book.")

Then, the researchers asked 215 American undergraduates and 297 advanced high school students from Serbia how much they agreed or disagreed with statements. On a five-point scale (going from strongly disagree to strongly agree), American undergraduates averaged 2.5, with nobody averaging higher than a 4; Serbian students averaged 2.95, with only very few scoring 4 or higher.

"The simple but unattainable position is to see militant extremists as some kind of maverick freaks or severely mentally disturbed people or exceptionally evil," said Knezevic, the University of Belgrade psychology professor, in an e-mail. But, he noted, "the psychological constituents of it are omnipresent in humans. ... Consequently, the immense recruiting potential for all sorts of future extreme and destructive political programs will continue to be present in human societies."

A depressing statement, perhaps, but the researchers hope that by identifying the dangerous thought patterns, they can promote modes of thinking that they call "antithetical to militant extremism."

These include the general virtues of toleration, respect for rules and ethical responsibility for actions, as well as being comfortable with the imperfections of the world and not longing for some glorified past or future utopia or dwelling on some current catastrophe. They describe 16 such modes in the journal article. "The pattern of thinking should be promoted everywhere as part of educational standards," Knezevic said.

Saucier suggested that better understanding militant extremist thinking can help "to defuse the phenomenon, because the story line may be a kind of a key glue in how movements operate, and so a big piece is just understanding that." Saucier also thought that such an understanding might allow pollsters to better design questions to gauge the levels of support for such movements internationally.

But while militant extremist thinking may lie dormant in many people, it takes certain conditions to activate the thinking. One is the general condition in society. "Failed states, oppressive governments, factors like that," Saucier said. "There is a good chance those broad contextual factors will heighten tendencies towards extremist patterns." This explains why brutal regimes often gain popular support when a society descends into chaos.

The other is the social context. "It depends on who you hang around with," Saucier said. If someone prone to militant extremist thinking falls in with a group of similarly minded folks, the individuals are likely to feed off each other.

Recently, far-right nationalist parties have been gaining ground in some European countries as the economy continues to struggle. For example, in the Netherlands, the nationalist Freedom Party did surprisingly well. And in the United Kingdom, two members of the British National Party who were just elected to the European Parliament recently made news by saying the EU should sink boats of African immigrants in order to stop Europe from being "swamped by the Third World." Such sentiments may lead to more widespread militant extremist thinking.

"I see indications that ethnonationalism is a pretty good place-setter for militant extremism wherever the ethnonationalists feel particularly obstructed and adopt an angry and aggressive tone," said Saucier, who is now beginning to explore the psychological construct behind such thinking. "It is pretty easy to see that ethnonationalism can easily get one well into a militant-extremist thinking pattern because of the emphasis on fervor-promoting themes like an obstructed group, an illegitimate government, a glorious past and so on."

In the larger context of personality research, the militant-extremism study is also an attempt, as Stankov put it, to ask: "Is there something new that captures that militant mindset of terrorists or can it be understood in terms of the well-established constructs from the broad areas of personality and social psychology?"

The question of evil, of course, is a longstanding one in modern psychology. Following World War II, a lot of psychological research investigated if there was a particular fascist mindset or personality that would explain the rise of brutal totalitarian states. Theodore Adorno, for example, developed a theory of the authoritarian personality, and came up with a set of tests to rank one's propensity to this kind of thinking. Stanley Milgram's famous Obedience to Authority experiments, meanwhile, seemed to suggest given the "right" conditions, most people would follow orders even when the orders were to administer a potentially fatal electric shock.

Saucier and colleagues, however, draw more inspiration from a 1951 work by Eric Hoffer called The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements, which posits fanaticism as something different from Nazi/Fascist/Communist authoritarianism, but no less dangerous.

"Hoffer's work is based on a much broader look at fanatical groups," Saucier said. "And one of the things that is going on in this work is that we're going back to a different foundation looking at attitudes, one not coming out of the fascism-authoritarian school, but one with a much broader background."

Finally, in an era in which so much psychological research focuses on happiness, Stankov notes that it is important to remember that most people also have a dark side that would be dangerous to ignore.

"Our work can be seen as a reaction to what is sometimes called 'positive psychology.'" Stankov said. "What we are doing is saying that 'hate' is still around and it can be harmful and we need to understand its nature and its workings in society."

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