The Psychology of Extremism

Extremism describes any kind of exaggerated view. An obvious example of this then is political extremism, wherein a person or group of person holds highly extreme and black-and-white views regarding their politics and often incorporates ideals and attitudes that the rest of us would find offensive, impractical or plain wrong.

Other examples meanwhile though might be an extreme obsession with one idea or hobby, religious fanaticism, or some kind of debilitating belief. A very right wing neo Nazi could be accused of extremism on the one hand, but equally so could someone who takes their concern for the environment so far that they are willing to burn down factories and forego washing.

Extremism is highly dangerous because it often results in views that are detached from reality, or that are destructive to the ideals of others. But how does this go about? And how can someone relatively normal end up becoming a fanatic with such questionable ideals? Here we will look into the idea further.


First of all it’s important to note that all beliefs and ideas can be put onto a spectrum. A Nazi is someone who is to the extreme right of politics meaning that they have taken certain concepts to what most would perceive as an extreme level. Being right wing in itself is fairly normal, but of course this normal start can lead to you becoming gradually more obsessive and extreme. Being on the left of politics likewise is not wrong or right, it’s only when you go all the way to the left that your views can be classified as communist and potential extreme.

Confirmation Bias

So you might start out fairly normal in your political or religious beliefs, but then fall prey to a number of psychological effects that can lead you to fall deeper down the rabbit hole. The first of these is confirmation bias. This basically refers to our tendency to ignore information that contradicts our beliefs and to only take on board that information that confirms it and enforces it. To stay moderate you need to ‘seek out’ the opposite view, but what many people will do instead is to read magazines and books that confirm their beliefs and only listen to the one side of the story. Of course this will then more and more cause you to become increasingly certain of your beliefs, and potentially, ultimately delusionally so.

Convergence and Divergence

Convergence refers to an individual’s tendency to become more similar to members of any group they’re in and this is something that is noted across the board – even your language tends to become more similar. As such if you identify strongly with a group such as a political party, you will unconsciously become more like them and this will cause you to become gradually more zealous.

Divergence meanwhile is the tendency for any group to become less similar to other groups that they know of in order presumably to forge a clearer identity and to differentiate themselves. This then means that a political party or a fan club or a religious group is likely to gradually become more and more diverse from others and this will mean coming up with more and more ‘out there’ concepts which the whole group is likely to agree with due to the convergence principle.

At the same time this groupthink can also lead to a dehumanizing aspect where members of opposing belief systems start to seem less like real and important people (we are able to empathise more with people more like us). In turn this can result in an ‘us and them’ mentality that history has proven can lead to horrendous acts of violence and even genocide.

Religious Zeal

As you then begin to become somewhat fanatical about a subject you can start to experience an extreme emotional response when you are preaching your cause or engaging in your practice. This is often referred to as a religious zeal, but people have been shown to have similar firing in the brain when watching football matches, or when singing a patriotic song. At this point the emotion then becomes a reinforcing factor that means you start to associate your extreme view with powerful positive emotions meaning that you become almost ‘addicted’ to your cause and get an almost ‘high’ from it.

Deep Seated Psychological Issues

Can anyone develop extremist views? It’s hard to say – though the power of social influence has been demonstrated in psychology many times (Zimbardo, Milgram etc.). However it is certainly true that some people are more prone to extreme views than others, and of course some people can develop them free of any environmental factors. A psychopath for instance who lacked any form of empathy might well develop extreme views due to a lack of some of the guiding morality that acts on the rest of us. At the same time extremism can be a result of various other psychological issues and if you apply a psychodynamic lens to the phenomenon then you could very well look at extreme views as a coping strategy or an ego defence mechanism. For instance, one well known defence mechanism postulated by Freud is that of ‘reaction formation’ which basically means that you become extremely opposed to an idea or aspect of yourself that you’re not willing to accept. So yes, homophobia very often is a result of homoerotic feelings or thoughts – and someone who was to join a homophobic political party for instance then might well do so as a bid to try and ‘prove’ to themselves that they are straight. The lady dost protest too much methinks!

While no less dangerous because of it then, extremism is a psychological phenomenon that can be broken down into several causes. It’s important to understand this when dealing with it, and in order to keep our own thoughts and feelings moderate and rational.


  1. The only problem I see with this classifying some as extremists is that those with deep convictions who are acting out or speaking out will be scrutinized by the views of others, especially if those views aren't shared.

  2. Terrible. I want information on extremist disorder. This does not further my knowledge on that topic.

  3. Comment #2 is exhibiting the reaction formation right now! Isn't psychology amazing?

    Take a look at today's politics, ladies and gentlemen. It's all starting to make sense now, isn't it? Except that there is a majority in the population. Can you tell me what it is? Be prepared for another genocide. I believe this is the larger scale of evolution for mankind. Our genetics are already set, now we adjust the environment around us to meet our needs. What better way to do that than to remove what we dislike.

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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