How the Search for Significance is Exploited by Extremists

How are ordinary young people drawn into extremism? Why would someone whose future could be bright turn toward terrorism and violence?

When we look at extremist groups we often see only hatred and irrational violence. But if this is all there is to it, how are we to understand the appeal of extremism and develop ways to prevent recruitment?

In the video below, psychologist Jocelyn Belanger, (whose work is applied at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization leading to Violence in Montreal), discusses The Psychology of Martyrdom and sheds light on the why extremist groups are able to co-opt the normal quest for significance that every young person goes on.

Key to understanding the success of extremist groups are what Belanger refers to as the 3 N’s: need, network, and narrative.

  • Need – Belanger states that humans most profound motivation is the need to feel significant. Its what we crave, its what drives us to achieve great things and persist when things get tough. The need for significance is not some airy-fairy concept; it has profound psychological implications for individuals. For example we know from neuroscientific evidence that the brain correlates associated with physical pain and social pain are identical. In other words, losing significance deeply hurts, and this is why when we lose it, wed do about anything to restore it.”
  • Network – In times of hardship, people turn to groups in order to fulfill their need for significance. When someone joins a group, his or her identity fuses with the social identity of the group. The person comes to experience a sense of oneness with other group members and these group members progressively become like family. And when this transformation in the self occurs… people feel empowered, theres strength in numbers, the fear of death vanishes from the mind… if their network is endangered, they become willing to self-sacrifice in order to defend it.”
  • Narrative – … embedded in such a group theres also an ideological component, a narrative. The narrative essentially is composed of the norms and social values of ones group, and these ideas permeate the self… The narrative essentially prescribes what one needs to do in order to get significance. Those that sacrifice everything at the behest of these ideological imperatives are elevated to a legendary status, this is why theyre called heroes and martyrs.”

To sum up: “People transition from wanting significance, to joining a powerful social network to which they become fused, which leads them to adhere to sacred narratives or sacred values.

So what does this mean for extremism prevention or de-radicalization? Belanger claims that the same ingredients – the power of the 3 Ns – can also be harnessed for peace building and conciliation. In other words, the ingredients that fuel radicalization toward violence and self-sacrifice are the same as those that produce movement toward moderation.

He urges that “we need to keep investing in our youth, otherwise terrorist groups will because they need the youth in order to carry out their gruesome agendas.”

Indeed, we must take this advice seriously if we want to build a safe and healthy society free of violent extremism.

Parents for Peace aims to help families concerned about a loved one becoming involved in extremism in addressing these 3 Ns. Family, friends and other community members can help to form a healthy social network to replace the dangerous influence of an extremist network. By working together and communicating respectfully with the individual of concern, this network can begin to uncover why the need for significance was going unfulfilled and how it became an opening for extremist recruitment. With this understanding, the personalized network can begin to guide the individual toward a healthy significance quest. Instead of buying into a black-and-white narrative which prescribes violence against an out-group, the individual can be empowered to do the difficult work of attaining genuine knowledge about our complex world and charting a constructive course toward positive, fulfilling goals.