Is There an Extremist Mindset?

New research explores the key motivators underlying extremist violence

Posted Jul 23, 2019

“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” —Robert F. Kennedy

In recent years, we've seen a frightening rise in acts of violence committed either by organized groups or by "lone wolf" operators acting on their own. Though numerous theories have been put forward to try explaining what makes some people especially vulnerable to being recruited by extremist organizations or to embrace specific causes, actual research looking at militant extremism has yet to provide any clear answers to date.

But is there such a thing as an extremist mindset? And could it be possible to identify people who might be prone to violent extremism based on the beliefs that they express? A new model proposed by researchers at the University of Belgrade suggests that it can. In a recent study published in the Journal of Individual Differences, Janko Mededovic and Goran Knezevic of Belgrade's Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research described what they termed the Militant Extremist Mind-Set (MEM) based on analysis of statements released by terrorist groups from seven different world regions. Though the content varied widely according to the stated goals of each organization, three primary underlying factors stand out:

  • Proviolence: Advocating violence as a way of achieving the intended goals as laid out in manifestos and public statements (including statements such as, "War is the beginning of  salvation."
  • Vile World thinking: Essentially regarding the world as a violent and unjust place for which there are no peaceful solutions (including blaming the Illuminati, international bankers, Jews, Communists, or other shadowy organizations lurking behind the scenes).
  • Higher Power belief: Also called Divine Power belief, this refers to a belief in a higher being or principle that can be used to justify extremist acts.  While this can be a religious belief,  faith in a utopian cause can often be applied in the same way by nominally atheist groups or individuals. Extremists who embrace martyrdom often rely on Divine Power arguments to rationalize their actions.

Though Vile World and Divine Power thinking can also occur in extremists, it is only by embracing Proviolence attitudes that they are most likely to engage in violent acts.  

But what about individual characteristics such as psychopathic personality traits or mental illness?  Research to date suggests that it is only the lone-wolf extremists who are most likely to be suffering from delusional disorders, schizophrenia, or deep-rooted personality disorders. As for terrorists who are already part of an extremist group or network, what little research that has been done to date has found little evidence of significant mental health issues. Which makes a certain degree of sense given that they regard themselves as foot soldiers for a cause and need to be able to take orders and work as part of a group.  

Still, though militant extremists aren't necessarily showing signs of clear psychopathology, Mededovic and Knezevic argue that extremists may be more prone to psychotic symptoms, whether or not the psychosis ever materializes.

According to recent research, people prone to developing borderline psychotic problems are often high in a personality trait known as Disintegration. Defined as a "proneness to see and feel connections among factually unrelated phenomena, leading to the weakened reality testing and various psychotic-like phenomena." 

Disintegration is distinct from the Big Five personality traits and can often be linked to the Dark Triad (or Tetrad) of human personality.   

Along with borderline psychotic features such as paranoia and mania, people high in Disintegration are also susceptible to what is known as "magical thinking" (assuming a causal a link between personal experience and the external physical world) and distorted perceptions.    

As a test of their research into Militant Extremist Mindset, Mededovic and Knezevic carried out two studies examining key personality characteristics in college students and prison inmates and how they were linked to MEM attitudes.   

This included personality tests measuring various psychopathic traits, sadism, and different aspects of Disintegration.   

They also administered a scale specifically designed to measure the MEM traits directly.    

Among the 306 college students and 147 convicted inmates who completed questionnaires,  psychopathy, sadism, and psychosis proneness (Disintegration) were all strongly linked to the different aspects of MEM.   

Proviolence attitudes were specifically linked to psychopathy and sadism while Disintegration proved to be a strong predictor for Vile World and Divine Power thinking. These results tie into previous research showing elevated psychopathic traits in militant extremists but might also provide important clues about the kind of thinking that can lead to joining fanatical movements.  

Not surprisingly, proviolent attitudes are the single biggest predictor of violent behavior, but this study also found a strong link between proviolence and likelihood of committing other kinds of antisocial behaviour, e.g., theft, vandalism, etc. Whether is because of the influence of psychopathic personality traits or because people with a history of criminal behaviour are more prone to becoming extremists is something for future researchers to discover. These results also highlight the role that Vile World thinking can play in violence since extremists often use their belief in the world's immorality to contain any sense of guilt they might have about their actions.     

In looking at how Disintegration and proneness to psychosis might lead to extremist views, Mededovic and Knezevic point out that people high in Disintegration are more likely to see patterns in world events that they interpret as 'proving' their pet conspiracy theories, even if those events are completely coincidental.     

All of which can feed into other extremist thought patterns and, along with proviolent attitudes, can result in extremist violence, whether by organized groups or of the "lone wolf" variety.

Though many researchers still question whether individual personality traits can play a role in extremist attitudes and behaviour, studies such as this one do seem to confirm that many extremists share a common mindset which can help explain their actions.   

Much more research needs to be done, especially in looking at how factors such as poverty, discrimination, and exposure to violence can make people more vulnerable to becoming radicalized.   

While most extremists aren't openly psychopathic or psychotic (though there are always exceptions), certain core beliefs such as Proviolence, Vile World thinking, and  Higher Power thinking might be considered as "red flags," especially in people on the borderline.   

Watching for these clues might make it easier to catch potential extremists before tragedy can strike.

References

Janko Međedović, Goran Knežević.  Dark and Peculiar: The Key Features of Militant Extremist Thinking Pattern?  Journal of Individual Differences (2019), 40, pp. 92-103. https://doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000280.

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