Blog

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 in to 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.

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 […]

View Details »
Guide for People Concerned about Extremism in a Friend or Family Member Posted by on 15 Jun 2017

            Challenging Extremism Inkblot, a challenging extremism initiative of Boston University students that Parents for Peace worked with this spring, has produced a toolkit aimed at helping young people engage in a productive way with a peer who may be turning toward extremism. Though it focuses on the scenario of […]

View Details »
A guide to talking to friends about violent extremism
Strengthening Resilience to Agents of Radicalization Posted by on 18 May 2017

The Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV) in Montreal published a new radicalization prevention guide titled ‘Strengthening Our Resilience to Agents of Radicalization and Their Rhetoric.’ According to this guide, an agent of radicalization is: “… a person who uses extremist rhetoric to attract individuals with different degrees of vulnerability and […]

View Details »
Myths and Realities of Online Radicalization Posted by on 16 May 2017

Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) recently talked about the myths and realities of online radicalization and what can be done to address it. In the video, Neumann focuses on jihadist radicalization because that is his area of expertise, but also says:

A lot of the insights that I’m going to convey to you, you can easily transfer to other kinds of radicalization. So if you’re particularly interested in, for example, how people become far-right extremists then a lot of what’s in this presentation, even though it doesn’t deal directly with far-right extremism, is also relevant to you.

View Details »
online radicalization myths and realities
Video from Event: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? Posted by on 12 May 2017

On April 28th, Parents for Peace collaborated with the Inkblot Project from Boston University for an event featuring former white supremacist Arno Michaelis and former jihadi-sympathizer turned undercover operative Mubin Shaikh. A main focus of the discussion was explorng commonalities in the radicalization process across extremist movements.

View Details »
Image of Arno Michaelis and Mubin-Shaikh speaking about radicalization of youth
Melvin Bledsoe’s Reflections on MLK and Extremism Posted by on 12 May 2017

Melvin Bledsoe publishes op-ed: ‘Embracing MLK’s Legacy to Overcome Extremism.’

View Details »
Parents for Peace Partners with ‘Inkblot’ – Boston University ‘Challenging Extremism’ Initiative Posted by on 12 May 2017

Parents for Peace joins the BU student-led initiative for an event on April 28th featuring a conversation with former extremists from different ideological backgrounds.

View Details »
Reuters Story about Parents for Peace Helpline Posted by on 12 May 2017

The article ‘For Families of Radicalizing U.S. Youth, a Helpline’ talks about this new resource which grew out of the pain of Parents for Peace who didn’t know where to turn for help for their loved ones.

View Details »
‘Vogue’ Interview with ‘American Jihad’ Director Posted by on 12 May 2017

Vogue interviewed Allison Ellwood, director the of new documentary ‘American Jihad’ featuring stories from Parents for Peace members.

View Details »
Parents for Peace Members Featured in Showtime Documentary Posted by on 12 May 2017

The stories of Melvin Bledsoe, Monica Holley, Julie Boada, and Deqa Hussen are featured in the new Showtime Documentary ‘American Jihad.’

View Details »