By Dr S Zulfiqar Gilani
September 2, 2017
Extremists are sometimes mistaken for terrorists. However, we should know that many extremists do not engage in suicide bombings or terrorism, but exhibit an extremist mindset through their conduct and views. These include fanatics, bigots, misogynists, etc. They personify, breed and preach extremist views, and many are also associated with terrorism and suicide bombings. Regardless of the apparent differences in their overt actions, all extremists have notable similarities in their psychological makeup.
One needs to keep in mind that like all psychological phenomena, the extremist mindset is also a continuum and an individual extremist may lie anywhere along that. No one is a ‘perfect’ extremist and most ordinary individuals also exhibit streaks of extremism.
The psychological profile of an extremist includes the following: s/he lacks the quality of empathy. They feel that the others have no right to hold different views and are convinced that those with different views are misguided, ignorant or evil. So, the differing ones need to be shown the right path and/or punished.
The extremist is highly passionate about his/her own views and denounces the ‘different’ with equal passion. They have very strong feelings for or against persons, issues or ideas. They either demonise or idealise. To them, things are either black or white. They cannot recognise the reality that there are shades of grey in most things and all humans have some combination of good and bad.
Extremists are incapable of dispassionately examining the basis of their views and beliefs. They deny concrete evidence or information that contradicts their views and beliefs and only accept that information which confirms and reinforces them. Hence, there is little scope for change in their views.
It seems that the preaching of extreme views and engagement in extreme behaviour becomes addictive. Whenever the extremist indulges in such behaviour, positive emotions are experienced. As their behaviours are emotionally rewarding, it results in an addiction to them. Thus, over time the certainty of their beliefs gets stronger as does their conviction in the rightness of their actions.
This mindset is an outcome of dynamic unconscious processes. Although unconscious psychological processes influence everyone’s behaviour, they are far more powerful in the psyche of the extremist and the primary determinant of their behaviour.
The extremist represses such disturbing or threatening thoughts and feelings which would cause severe guilt if they became conscious. So, a tight lid is unconsciously kept on those ‘unwanted’ feelings and the individual remains consciously unaware of their existence. However, the repressed thoughts and desires continue to generate anxiety and other unconscious mechanisms come into play to cope with that anxiety.
The mind of an extremist also blocks such concrete evidence from awareness which could contradict or raise questions about their views and beliefs. Finally, unconscious impulses, usually aggression, are redirected onto a powerless substitute target.
Like all of us, extremists are also social beings and the sustenance of their extremist psyche is linked with the social group/s to which they belong. As groups tend to arrive at more extreme positions than any individual members would on their own, the individual extremist’s position becomes stronger and more extreme due to membership of an extremist group or groups. Groups also tend to become less similar to other groups, which leads to dehumanising members of other groups leading to an us-and-them mentality, and the conviction that acts of violence against ‘others’ are justified.
The mind of an extremist develops in the same manner as that of any other individual. The only difference is in the psychosocial conditions in which they are raised and live.