The Psychology of Extremism

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 30, 2011

It is not possible to understand fully why moderates are no longer welcome within the Republican Party — indeed why for all practical purposes the Party has been completely taken over by extremists — in conventional terms alone. For instance, intense anger towards those currently in office is not a satisfactory explanation because intense anger towards incumbents has always been a part of politics. By the same token, the size of government and the deficits are only partial explanations at best. Therefore, something else must be operating.

To understand what fuels extremism — in short, the psychology underlying it — one has to dig beneath the surface of everyday explanations. This is precisely why the pioneering discoveries of some of the early giants of psychoanalysis are invaluable. In fact, renewed interest has spanned a relatively new field of inquiry: psychoanalytically based social science.

It is said that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein discovered the infant in the child. Working with children as young as 6 months and up to 9 years, Klein discovered the earliest, formative roots of human behavior.

Klein discovered that the earliest phase of child development was filled with extremely violent feelings and phantasies towards the child’s principal caregivers. In the 1930s, the period in which Klein worked, this was primarily the mother.

Klein aptly termed this phase, “paranoid-schizoid.” It was “paranoid” because the child was literally terrified that the mother would abandon it. It was “schizoid” because below the ages of 4 to 5, the child could not understand, and hence not accept, that the “good mother” who met the child’s every need at its beck and call was also the “bad mother” that couldn’t satisfy the child’s every need at its every whim and fancy. The schizoid part was also called “splitting” because that’s precisely what the child did in dividing the basic internal image of the mother into two distinct and irreconcilable parts or objects.

With understanding and tolerance on the part of the parents, and other key figures that cared for the child, that splitting was a normal part of human development, the child eventually came to accept that the “good” and the “bad mother” were one and the same. In this way, the child not only healed the split he or she felt towards its mother, but the split within him or her as well. Just as important, the child came to accept that there were “good” and “bad” sides to everyone.

But, if for some reason the child was subject to trauma, especially if it was prolonged and severe, then the split could become permanent. Splitting could also result if later in life one was subject to intense stress, disappointment, etc. Indeed, as adults, all of us from time to time split the world into “good” and “bad guys.” Isn’t this what politicians use unscrupulously from time to time to whip up support for favored policies?

The key point is that if a person was not helped to heal splitting at whenever age it developed, then it not only festered and grew, but something even more ominous could result. The aggressive and violent parts of a person could be split off from normal moderating influences. In short, the aggressive and violent parts not only grew and intensified, but developed a separate life of their own.

In other words, splitting is more general than the division of people into sharply opposing images, i.e., good and bad guys. It also refers to the case where the acute aggressive impulses that are part of everyone are severed from moderating influences that are also a part of everyone.

Of course, none of this takes part in a social vacuum; what is going on in society and the general world around, one’s work, family, etc. are also potential contributors to splitting as well. In addition, the aggressive and violent parts that could be split off from one another could be intensified further through association with other like-minded individuals to whom one was naturally attracted. Indeed, it was only with other like-minded individuals that one could express one’s “true uninhibited feelings and emotions.” Thus, over time, those with more moderate feelings would either be removed or remove themselves from more such groups. In this way, groups would not only attract those who were extreme, but they would become increasingly more extreme over time.

Saddest of all is the fact that one cannot reason with such groups for reason and moderation are seen as forms of weakness that are despised in others and oneself. The psychology of what has made extremists extreme has no appeal whatsoever. For precisely this reason, moderates must take it with utmost seriousness.

At this time in our history, it is imperative that moderates of every political persuasion band together, not to smooth over their natural philosophical differences that are real and even necessary for democracy to exist and function, but to strengthen the forces of moderation wherever they are found. If moderates cannot band together within the Republican Party, then they will have to form temporary alliances with others who will support them without trying to convert them to their philosophy. This is in the direct interests of Democrats no less than that of Republicans.

To do this requires that we understand clearly the psychology of extremism.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 30, 2011

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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