Can Anyone Become a Terrorist? How Cognitive Biases and Other Psychological Phenomena Lead to Extrem

Studying our own psychology and that of others is a fascinating process and one that many of us are very interested in. The human brain is a highly complex mechanism that’s capable of some quite incredible feats, and understanding why it works the way it does can help to tell us more about ourselves and the world we live in.

But what’s perhaps even more fascinating is looking at the minds of outliers. When the brain behaves in a way that we don’t consider to be completely normal, what is going on to trigger this behaviour? How can we avoid it? And how can we deal with it?

A relevant example of this is extremism. Generally we use the term ‘extremism’ to describe political and religious views taken to the extreme where they are no longer reasonable and are often dangerous. An extremist might be willing to die for causes that don’t make sense to anyone else, to dedicate their life to matters that seem unimportant, and even to injure others in order to make their point known. Of course this is an antisocial way to behave, and it is far from being adaptive, so what’s going on and why does the brain allow this to happen?

Cognitive Biases

Well there is more than one mechanism at play here, but one of the most prominent is something known as a ‘cognitive bias’. A cognitive bias is any example where our thinking is ‘flawed’ or ‘biased’ due to the nature of our evolution or our upbringing – such as our tendency to believe that we are never going to get ill.

A more dangerous form of cognitive bias is something called ‘confirmation bias’ which refers to our tendency to seek out and accept information that confirms our existing beliefs and reject that which contradicts them. In other words then, if you hold an extreme political view, then chances are that you will associate with other people who hold that view, that you will read papers written by people who hold that view and that you will disregard anything that tries to tell you otherwise.

Of course this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. What we should always do is to seek ideas and information that challenge our views and help us to form a more well-rounded view of the world, and if we don’t then we are only going to become more and more convinced that we are right – even if that is not the case. The more you read articles written by others with your political leanings, the more you will grow to believe what they say with vigour and passion.

Convergence and Divergence

It’s easy then to see how someone who is a little left wing could easily find themselves becoming a communist under the right circumstances, and what makes this worse is another phenomenon known as ‘convergence and divergence’.

What this term describes is the observation that groups of people will tend to become more alike as they as spend more time together – and more different from people outside those groups. Thus if your next step is to join a political party that agrees with your views, you might well find that all the members of that group become more and more extreme as they develop more and more of their own ‘culture’ and start to view everyone else as outsiders.

Psychology of Crowds

Aiding this convergence and divergence is the psychology of crowds: the tendency we have to seek acceptance and to be easily influenced when we are part of a large group. Couple this with something called ‘the diffusion of responsibility’ and it’s easy for anyone in a crowd to feel anonymous and free to do whatever they want. When you are in a big group of people who all agree passionately with your views, it’s easy to feel empowered and free of any kind of responsibility. This is what can lead to riots, to hooliganism at sports games, and to various examples of extreme behaviour when motivated by the larger group.

Religious Zeal

Another factor is religious zeal. This occurs when you are already somewhat fanatical on a subject and you then begin to feel extreme emotional responses when talking about that topic or listening to talks. Again this causes similar areas of the brain to light up as you might experience when watching a football match or singing a patriotic song and is likely the result of conditioning and of once again feeling as though you are part of a larger ’cause’. This extreme emotional response can then be enough to push you over the edge and to do things that you might otherwise not have done – emotions have a way of clouding reason that can lead to all kinds of behaviours.

Psychological Issues

But could anyone become an extremist? Of course that’s a very difficult question to answer definitively, but chances are that as with most things it would certainly be easier for some people to become extremists than others. The ideal circumstances for extremism would likely involve a natural predisposition coupled with the right environmental factors to help tip you over the edge.

Chances are that there are probably some psychological traits then that would render you more likely to become an extremist than others. Psychopathy for instance might make you more willing to commit atrocities as you wouldn’t have the same sense of remorse that others might have. Being highly emotional meanwhile might also make you more likely to become extremist, as might being more easily influenced by others.

So whether or not anyone could become an extremist is uncertain – and if the wrong groups got to you at an early enough age then chances are that right now you could hold some pretty extreme views (and in the eyes of some you probably already do). But fortunately there are ways to combat against this likelihood and to try and stay moderate and accepting at all times. Retain your independence, break away from the groups you spend time in, and seek out views and ideas that challenge your beliefs. And most importantly, recognise that no one has all the answers…



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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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