Wisdom//

What The Science Of Extremism Can Teach You About Success and Self-Worth

One researcher’s epic quest to understand the radical mind.

Photo illustration by Lisa Chin Mollica.

You wouldn’t expect terrorists, workaholics, and saints to have a lot in common. But according to Arie Kruglanski, a leading researcher on the radical mind, people who strap bombs to their chests, sleep under desks, and dedicate their lives to the poor share some key qualities. They are, as their outlier lifestyles attest, extremists.

For an extremist, one need dominates everything else. Comfort, family, and love get pushed aside in the name of the single dominating desire. Understanding why and how this happens is not only vital for the global counter-terrorism effort, but also for understanding why so many high-achieving, high earning people sacrifice their lives to their livelihoods.

Now 78, Kruglanski was three years old when Nazis came into his native Poland. He escaped the Holocaust—his story is here—and has since become a leading researcher in understanding how humans become open- and close-minded. The University of Maryland psychologist has helped turn terrorist psychology into an in-person, empirical discipline, administering studies in prisons in the Philippines and deradicalization centers in Sri Lanka.

Kruglanski in the field in Sri Lanka. 

To Kruglanski, people become extremists to increase, maintain, or restore their “personal significance,” or the sense that you matter to yourself, your peers, and your society. This runs counter to the standard explanations of violent extremism — that it’s the product of vengeance, money, or love of a leader. “Why do you want revenge?” he says. “You want revenge because you were humiliated and you want to level the playing field.”

He calls this retrieval of worthiness the “significance quest.” It’s a major motivation for becoming radicalized. “They feel that by joining the cause, the value inside the cause is transferred to their own person,” he says. “They become valuable as functions of the cause to which they’re attached, and for each they’re willing to sacrifice.” To illustrate how this process can play out in very different situations, and among very different people, in presentations, like the one I saw at the Association of Psychological Science, Kruglanski shows a photo of Mother Teresa with the primer extremist. “Not all extreme behaviors are violent or destructive,” he and colleagues write in a new paper in American Psychologist. “The humanistic works of Mother Teresa or of Albert Schweitzer, for instance, represent acts of self denial that very few persons venture, which makes them extreme.”

To Kruglanski, hurting people is a “primordial way” of obtaining significance. You can see this in the panoply of ways that trauma, abuse, rejection, or other devaluing experiences precipitate brutality, itself an attempt to preserve or regain honor. Studies indicate that school shooters were bullied, ostracized, and socially rejected. Urban gun violence happens within small networks of people, and sociological analyses of Chicago and Boston indicate that it’s largely a matter of revenge, collective memory, or status assertion. Palestinian women who became suicide bombers had been stigmatized in some way, like disfiguration, infertility, allegation of affair or divorce. In a 2016 paper, Kruglanski and his collaborators analyzed almost 1,500 Americans who’d committed an ideologically motivated crime, and they found that getting rejected in relationships, failing at work, or receiving abuse were all linked to greater violence. A particularly grisly study of 219 suicide bombers found that the greater their hunger for significance, the more casualties their bombings caused.

Extremists have a “motivational imbalance,” Kruglanski says. Their quest for significance crowds out their needs for self care, comfort, love, security, and stability. Bungee jumping, wingsuit flying, and other such sports are “extreme” because they risk your health in a way most people would avoid, Kruglanski and colleagues argue in the American Psychologist paper. It’s the same with anorexic diets, which entail acts of self denial that most people eschew.

These needs balance each other out, and in turn lead to what’s considered “normal” behavior: you might want to feel esteemed and admired, but heroism in battle looks a little less appealing once your survival instinct kicks in. Wriggling your way up the corporate ladder as fast as possible sure sounds validating, but it would also be nice to have relationships, take care of your body, and not die young. “Because people generally strive to satisfy their fundamental needs, they tend to stay within a restricted behavioral range,” Kruglanski and his colleagues say, and extremism requires “partial oblivion” to those fundamental needs.

These insights cast fresh light on the siren call of workaholism and the various modern cults of overwork, success, and status. It’s in the higher executive echelons: In Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Harvard Business School leadership professor Leslie Perlow documents her successful intervention to help a team of high-achievers at Boston Consulting Group take a night off. She comes to an anthropological conclusion: “We are successaholics not workaholics,” she writes. “We’re obsessed with work because of the satisfaction we get from the kudos for achievement, not because of some deep-seeded satisfaction from working long hours, as an end in itself.” It’s also present in the glambition glittering out of Silicon Valley: “Starting a company has become the way for ambitious young people to do something that seems simultaneously careerist and heroic,” essayist Gideon Lewis-Kraus observed for Wired.

There is reason to believe that busy is becoming less cool, that sacrificing everything to the altar of achievement motivation isn’t the way to live. Consider the backlash that Apple got for running an ad to a reality show about entrepreneurs, where one founder humblebrags I rarely get to see my kids … That’s a risk you have to take, or the outcry against gig economy startup Fiverr for their spot reading You eat a coffee for lunch … Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice, just below the face of a disheveled, apparently ambitious, young model. 

Workaholism reflects the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion. In the former, you’re absorbed in what you do and find the task itself enjoyable—you enjoy the act of playing the instrument, rather than the applause you get from the audience. Growing out of unmet needs, obsessiveness arises when an activity is such a part of your identity that you feel compelled to do it from some unseen force.

The research indicates that mistaking your job for your sense of self is not healthy. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung observed as much in his The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. For professional people, there’s the danger that they’ll “become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice,” he writes. “Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography.” The quest for significance, the following of the social script, overtakes the lived experience, and all the bothersome needs (love, food, relationships) that come with it.

What brings extremists back home, as it were, is a rediscovery of those needs, and finding sources of significance beyond the ideological prescriptions that have circumscribed their lives. As violent extremists start getting into their 30s, being on the front lines starts feeling forced, and they start to feel the tug of career, family, and a stable living situation. “My way of thinking about the armed struggle hasn’t changed in the least,” one Basque militant said. “But I’d done my fair share, I’d given three years of my life to them as a militant, always at the expense of my personal life.”

Indeed, that’s what’s needed for sustained, successful deradicalization. Kruglanski calls it the “3 N” approach: you have to address extremists’ needs, furnish them with new narratives, and plug them into new networks. A recent study of some 500 former Tamil militants in Sri Lanka provides a model: these former extremists received education, employment training, psychological support, and highly realized people from the country’s Tamil community—athletes, movies stars business, business people who would mentor them. After one year, these attempts to increase personal significance reduced extremism. Other research shows that turning extremists into counter-violence activists works especially well, since then there’s still that strong sense of mattering. Similar things are being done with urban gun violence in America.

Everybody goes on their own quests for significance, Kruglanski argues, and that can be for better and for worse. When that’s combined with destructive ideologies and sweeping social forces, you get the worst of people, like in terrorism. But “when coupled with enlightened thought, it can lift us to the summit of our potential, creating great science, great art, and inspiring human relations,” he writes. It’s a duty for psychology—and one might add, education and the culture in general—to help steer people toward flourishing and generativity, rather than the destruction of self and others.

As extreme as all this extremism is—you should try reporting and writing on it for a couple weeks—there’s also something deeply human about the study of extremism, and not only in the way it compassionately humanizes people who bring ugliness into the world. It’s a way of trying to understand how easy it is, to paraphrase my former colleague Jesse Singal, for “normal” people to do evil things. Like lots of the best social science, understanding the quest for significance is like explaining water to fish: all of a sudden, you can better see the invisible mediums we spend our lives swimming through. The significance quest is about fulfilling the social scripts of success, the American one being to become individually great. “We are a culture that bestows stardom — intellectual stars, literary stars, it’s all about significance,” Kruglanski says, same with owning a beautiful home, gorgeous car, or portraying the perfect relationship on Instagram. These are indicators of significance, rather than necessarily being things that are valuable in and of themselves. The key, Kruglanski says, is to recognize that the quest for significance is unending, and to have, in almost Buddhist sense, a degree of nonattachment toward your quest. That’s the way to avoid become the professor that thinks she’s a textbook or the tenor who mistakes himself for his voice. To make the desire for importance be something that serves you, rather than something you serve. “You’re entitled to a life,” Kruglanski says, “as opposed to being enslaved.” 

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