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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
Dancing, fot Nietzsche, was another way of saying Yes! to life.
He introduced idiosyncratic concepts such as the free spirit, the Übermensch, eternal recurrence, ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the revaluation of values, and the affirmation of life. He shifted allegiances: writing books, for example, in support of the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but later delivering blistering critiques of both. Not surprisingly, scholars range widely in their interpretations of Nietzsche: was he a poet or a philosopher? A nihilist, moral relativist, or Nazi sympathiser? A critic or a system builder? Anti-Christian or Christian? Answers frequently depend on which portions of Nietzsche's work a reader deems most important.
In the face of this complexity, Nietzsche offers an interpretive key: his references to dance (Tanz). Taken together, these references light a path that begins in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and wends through every major work into his final book, the posthumous Ecce Homo (1908). These references not only link his ideas and styles, they also shed light on Nietzsche's enduring motivation: to teach readers how to affirm life here and now on Earth as human bodily selves. Nietzsche's dance references call attention to the sensory education that he insists is necessary for creating values that 'remain faithful to the Earth'.
When Nietzsche wrote his first book, he was unaware of the significance that dance would have for his philosophy, in part because he was deeply enamoured with Wagner. The musician had begun composing a cycle of four operas – his now-famous Ring – intending to revive the tradition of Ancient Greek tragedies. In so doing, Wagner hoped to realise the power of music that Schopenhauer described: to save humans from the cravings and suffering of Will.
During visits paid by Nietzsche, Wagner and his wife Cosima encouraged the younger man to write a scholarly book to justify these claims. Yet, as Nietzsche later admits, in his rush to laud Wagner (and Schopenhauer), he shortchanged one of his own insights – namely, that, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, the dancing of the chorus was essential for ensuring that stories of madness, suffering and death nonetheless produce in spectators a rousing affirmation of life.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche analyses this paradoxical experience. He explains that the dancing and singing of the chorus move spectators to identify viscerally with what the chorus represents: elemental rhythms of an endlessly creative Nature. As they are moved by these rhythms, spectators feel joy. They know their bodily selves as members of an endlessly generative whole. And from this sensory vantage point, they are not devastated by the tragic death of their hero, god or ideal; instead, they perceive this death as a mere moment in an ongoing flow of appearances. Nietzsche calls the effect a 'magic transformation': spectators' sensations of suffering and terror yield to feelings of 'metaphysical comfort' and the notion that 'life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable'.
Later, in Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche elaborates that all human symbolism – even music – is rooted in the 'imitation of gesture' at work in ancient tragedy. He writes that the human impulse to move with others 'is older than language, and goes on involuntarily … [even] when the language of gesture is universally suppressed,' as he observed among Christians of his day. When humans don't learn how to move their bodily selves, Nietzsche insists, their senses grow dull and they lose the capacity to discern what is good for them. He asks: where are the 'Books that teach us to dance'? Here, dance assumes a role it will play throughout Nietzsche's writing as a litmus test for any value, idea, practice or person. Does it dance? Does it catalyse a joyful affirmation of life?
On the heels of Human, Nietzsche's poor health forced him to retire from teaching, and he began to conceive plans for writing his own tragedy – a book designed to awaken in his readers a sensory vantage point from which they might experience the death of a god – in this case, the Christian God – as good for them, and a reason to love life. A book that would teach us to dance.
Nietzsche began writing his tragedy only after breaking off relations with his friends, the psychologist Paul Rée and Lou Andreas-Salomé, the woman they both loved. Nietzsche believed that he had found in Andreas-Salomé the one person who understood his quest for a radical affirmation of life. He made plans with her and Rée to live together in an intellectual society that she called their 'Unholy Trinity'. However, due primarily to suspicions planted by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, the trio's plans did not materialise. A despondent Nietzsche wrote to his dear friend Franz Overbeck: 'Unless I can discover the alchemical trick of turning this – muck into gold, I am lost.'
Nietzsche's own 'magic transformation' appeared a month later: Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Three more parts soon followed. In this story, Zarathustra is a man who has lived alone on a mountaintop for 10 years, and comes down to teach people how to love themselves and their humanity. All four parts are saturated with references to dance, dancers and dancing. Zarathustra is a dancer, and dance is what he admonishes others to do. As Zarathustra exhorts: 'You higher men, the worst about you is that you have not learned to dance as one must dance – dancing away over yourselves! What does it matter that you are failures? How much is still possible!' And when Zarathustra states: 'I would only believe in a god that knows how to dance,' he confirms that even our highest ideals must encourage us to affirm bodily life.
After Zarathustra, Nietzsche continued to evoke dance as a touchstone for life-affirming values. In his critique of western European Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), dance appears as an activity practised by the strong to preserve their ability to digest their experiences; those who dance are not burdened by ressentiment, or need for revenge. They have the sensory discernment needed to resist pernicious applications of the ascetic ideal. In Twilight of the Idols (1889) and The Antichrist (1895), dance appears as a discipline for training sensory awareness and cultivating skills of perception and responsibility, so that one is able to participate responsibly in the creation of values, conscious of what one's movements are making.
Nietzsche's ubiquitous references to dance are ever-present reminders that the work of overcoming oneself – of freeing oneself enough from anger, bitterness and despair to say 'Yes!' to life – is not just an intellectual or scientific task. An ability to affirm life demands bodily practices that discipline our minds to elemental rhythms, to the creativity of our senses, and to the 'great reason', our body, 'that does not say “I" but does 'I".' Only when we engage in such practices will we have the sensory awareness we need in order to discern whether the values we create and the movements we make express love for ourselves and the Earth.
Modern science progresses with an intensity and even irrationality that Aristotle could not fathom.
- Modern science requires scrutinizing the tiniest of details and an almost irrational dedication to empirical observation.
- Many scientists believe that theories should be "beautiful," but such argumentation is forbidden in modern science.
- Neglecting beauty would be a step too far for Aristotle.
Modern science has done astounding things: sending probes to Pluto, discerning the nature of light, vaccinating the globe. Its power to plumb the world's inner workings, many scientists and philosophers of science would say, hinges on its exacting attention to empirical evidence. The ethos guiding scientific inquiry might be formulated so: "Credit must be given to theories only if what they affirm agrees with the observed facts."
Those are the words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BCE. Why, then, was it only during the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, two thousand years later, that science came into its own? Why wasn't it Aristotle who invented modern science?
The answer is, first, that modern science attends to a different kind of observable fact than the sort that guided Aristotle. Second, modern science attends with an intensity — indeed an unreasonable narrow-mindedness — that Aristotle would have found to be more than a little unhinged. Let's explore those two ideas in turn.
In 1915, Albert Einstein proposed a new theory of gravitation — the general theory of relativity. It told a story radically different from the prevailing Newtonian theory; gravity, according to Einstein, was not a force but rather the manifestation of matter's propensity to travel along the straightest possible path through twisted spacetime. Relativity revised the notion of gravitation on the grandest conceptual scale, but to test it required the scrutiny of minutiae.
Einstein's general relativity predicts gravitational lensing.Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI / Public Domain via Wikipedia
When Arthur Eddington sought experimental evidence for the theory by measuring gravity's propensity to bend starlight, he photographed the same star field both in the night sky and then in close proximity to the eclipsed sun, looking for a slight displacement in the positions of the stars that would reveal the degree to which the sun's mass deflected their light. The change in position was on the order of a fraction of a millimeter on his photographic plates. In that minuscule discrepancy lay the reason to accept a wholly new vision of the nature of the forces that shape galaxies.
Aristotle would not have thought to look in these places, at these diminutive magnitudes. Even the pre-scientific thinkers who believed that the behavior of things was determined by their microscopic structure did not believe it was possible for humans to discern that structure. When they sought a match between their ideas and the observed facts, they meant the facts that any person might readily encounter in the world around them: the gross motions of cannonballs and comets; the overall attunement of animals and their environs; the tastes, smells, and sounds that force themselves on our sensibilities without asking our permission. They were looking in the wrong place. The clues to the deepest truths have turned out to be deeply hidden.
Modern science attends with an intensity — indeed an unreasonable narrow-mindedness — that Aristotle would have found to be more than a little unhinged.
Even in those cases where the telling evidence is visible to the unassisted eye, the effort required to gather what's needed can be monumental. Charles Darwin spent nearly five years sailing around the world on a 90-foot-long ship, the Beagle, recording the sights and sounds that would prompt his theory of evolution by natural selection. Following his famous footsteps, the Princeton biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant have spent nearly 50 years visiting the tiny Galápagos island of Daphne Major every summer observing the local finch populations. In so doing, they witnessed the creation of a new species.
Similarly excruciating demands are made by many other scientific projects, each consumed with the hunt for subtle detail. The LIGO experiment to measure gravitational waves commenced in the 1970s, was nearly closed down in the 1980s, began operating its detectors only in 2002, and then for well over a decade found nothing. Upgraded machinery revealed the waves at last in 2015. The scientists who had spent their entire careers working on LIGO were by then retired from their long-time university positions.
The "iron rule" of modern science
What pushes scientists to undertake these titanic efforts? That question brings me to the second way in which modern science's attitude to evidence differs from Aristotle's. There is something about the institutions of science, as the philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn wrote, that "forces scientists to investigate some part of nature in a detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable". That something is an "iron rule" to the effect that, when publishing arguments for or against a hypothesis, only empirical evidence counts. That is to say, the only kind of argument that is allowed in science's official organs of communication is one that assesses a theory according to its ability to predict or explain the observable facts.
Aristotle and Alexander the GreatCredit: Charles Laplante / Public Domain via Wikipedia
Aristotle said that evidence counts, but he did not say that only evidence counts. To get a feel for the significance of this additional word, one of modern science's most significant ingredients, let me return to Eddington's attempt to test Einstein's theory by photographing stars during a solar eclipse.
Eddington was himself as much of a theoretical as an experimental physicist. He was struck by the mathematical beauty of Einstein's theory, which he took as a sign of its superiority to the old, Newtonian physics. He might have devoted himself to promoting relativity theory on these grounds, proselytizing its aesthetic merits with his elegant writing style and his many scientific connections. But in scientific argument, only empirical evidence counts. To appeal to a theory's beauty is to transgress this iron rule.
If Eddington was to advocate for Einstein, he would have to do so with measurements. Consequently, he found himself on a months-long expedition to Africa, where he and his collaborators sweated over their equipment day after day while praying for clear skies. In short, the iron rule forced Eddington to put beauty aside and to get on the boat. That is how scientists are pushed to hunt down the fine-grained, often elusive observations that endow science with its extraordinary power.
Irrational but effective
Though it may be a resounding success, there is something very peculiar about the iron rule. For Eddington and many other physicists, beauty is an important, even a crucial, consideration in determining the truth: "We would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful," wrote the Nobelist Steven Weinberg.
At the same time, the iron rule stipulates that beauty may play no part in scientific argument, or at least, in official, written scientific argument. The rule tells scientists, then, to ignore what they take to be an immensely valuable criterion for assessing theories. That seems oddly, even irrationally, narrow-minded. It turns out, then, that science's knowledge-making prowess is owed in great part to a kind of deliberate blindness, an unreasonable insistence that inquirers into nature consider nothing but observed fact.
Michael Strevens writes about science, understanding, complexity, and the nature of thought, and teaches philosophy at New York University. His most recent book, The Knowledge Machine (Liveright, 2020), sets out to explain how science works so well and why it took so long to get it right.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
Are we enslaved by the finer things in life?
- The Roman writer, Tacitus, argued that the Roman Empire was built by enslaving conquered people who became accustomed to fine living and luxury.
- Technology today has become so essential to our daily lives that it seems impossible to break free of it. It's as much a cage as a luxury.
- Being dependent on a thing gives it power over you. To need something or someone is, for better or worse, to limit yourself.
Philippa has decided she wants to quit social media. She's worried about how addictive it is and thinks it's not doing her any good at all. But then, how will she speak to her aunt in South Africa? What will happen to all of her photos? And how can she organize that party?
Trevor wants to leave the country. He distrusts the government, dislikes the people, and hates the weather. But, then, he does get good healthcare. And he does like the TV. The roads are pretty good, too.
Philippa and Trevor are two examples of how luxury, technology, and easy-living can ensnare us or box us in. In many ways, it's a modern and relatable phenomenon, but it goes back at least to the Roman writer, Tacitus. It's the idea that the trappings of civilization enslave us. How is it that, without even knowing it, those things we thought were helpful and time-saving became indispensable essentials?
The hidden danger of luxury
The Roman army was one of the most militarily effective and successful forces the world has ever known. On open land, their legions were pretty much unbeatable. But the Roman Empire was not built on the back of military genius and short, stabbing swords alone. The legions might have beaten a people, but they did not subdue them. It was the love of luxury and easy living that did that.
The Britons, Tacitus noted, were enslaved, not by chains, but by their desire for good wine and elegant dinner parties. In fact, the governor of Britain, Agricola, deliberately sought to pacify this tribal warrior society by the "delightful distractions" of warm baths, togas, and education. As Tacitus wrote, "The naïve Britons described these things as 'civilization,' when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement."
Comfort and convenience had morphed painted, screaming warriors into genteel, pacified civilians. (It should be noted that Tacitus likely over-exaggerated all this. Britain was never as compliant as France or Spain in the Roman Empire.)
The use of luxury to win over a people is a tactic mirrored across time.
Faced with a trade deficit with China, the British Empire flooded their country with cheap opium they had shipped over from India. A luxury drug became an addiction, and the British traded their opium for porcelain, tea, and silk.
Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying the American way of life.Credit: Bob Galbraith / Public domain via Wikipedia
The Cold War was also won on the back of luxury. When cheap American TVs and refrigerators inevitably worked their way into the USSR, the Soviets couldn't hope to match such opulence. The bloc came to see such "luxury" domestic goods as essential, and only the USA could give them.
But the most relatable example for most of us today is our relationship with Big Tech. Companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google slowly and surely wire our lives into their algorithms and platforms. Social media are designed and calibrated to be deliberately addictive. Time- or money-saving services, like cloud-based storage, have become so universal, that going back is becoming impossible. It's increasingly the case that we don't even know our passwords for things—we let our phones or apps invent and store them for us.
You can't leave the machine
A new technology or service is initially a luxury—until it becomes so normalized and ubiquitous, so essential—that we can't go back to the time before it appeared. What was once a "want" becomes a "need."
E.M. Forster's novella, "The Machine Stops", imagines a world where every facet of life is provided by "the machine." There are buttons "to call for food, music, clothing, hot baths, literature and, of course, communication with friends." How prescient has this turned out to be? Today, we have Uber, Skype, Hello Fresh, and Amazon Prime. Our friends and family are also plugged into the machine.
Is it possible to leave?
Though we view technology as liberating, it also boxes us in. If we believe Tacitus, we are now enslaved by the things we once saw as luxury. It's the job of philosophy to see these chains for what they are. And, as we examine our lives, we can then choose to wear them happily or start the long hard journey of throwing them off.
New research sheds light on the indoctrination process of radical extremist groups.
- A new study features interviews with 24 former extremists on the radicalization process.
- Financial instability, online propaganda, and reorienting events that caused them to "snap" are leading causes of indoctrination.
- The research team offers potential solutions, including exposure to diverse ideas during childhood and a tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism.
Researchers are continuing to unpack the reasons why extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6. Political scientist Robert Pape hypothesized that answers could be found in increasingly desperate economic conditions—the distance between the wealthiest and everyone else has never been so stark in America. As he dug into the data, however, a different story emerged.
"If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups. [The Capitol insurrectionists] are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."
Pape isn't the only researcher contemplating the path from aggrievement to insurrection. A new study, published by the RAND Corporation, takes a detailed look at the indoctrination process through interviews with white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and their family members and friends.
The researchers set out with a basic set of questions to better understand the radicalization process in the hopes of developing prevention and intervention measures.
- What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
- How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leave their organizations, change their minds, and in some cases join the fight against radicalism?
- What can we do better to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?
After poring over existing research, the team conducted 36 interviews, consisting of 24 former extremists, 10 family members, and two friends. Most of the subjects were active in this millennium, with six only active before the year 2000.
The researchers discovered three major background characteristics that led people to become extremists. (1) Financial instability: In 22 cases, financial instability was key, with seven former extremists claiming this as the main reason they joined an extremist organization. (2) Mental health issues: In 17 cases, overwhelming anger predominated, but PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and depression around physical issues also played a role. (3) Social factors: Marginalization, victimization, and stigmatization were mentioned in 16 cases.
Often, these background characteristics weren't enough. In over half the cases, there was a "reorienting event," that is, a moment that "broke" them, such as being rejected from the military, experiencing long-term unemployment, or enduring a friend's suicide. Propaganda was involved in 22 cases, predominantly through social media but also through books and music. Another factor was direct and indirect recruitment, with indirect recruitment being much more common. In other words, the individuals sought to join extremists groups. Social bonds played a role in 14 cases, including "graduating" from one organization to a more extreme group.
A Proud Boy member is armed with a gun labeled "Zombie Killer" as members and supporters of Patriot Prayer gather in Esther Short Park for a memorial for member Aaron J. Danielson in Vancouver, Washington on September 5, 2020. Credit: Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images
How to help extremists
Why do extremists quit? The most common reasons for leaving are feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Members grew disappointed by the failed promises of leaders or noticed hypocrisy among the ranks. Over half of the individuals were involved in failed deradicalization efforts, however, showing the resilience of these organizations even when family members and friends try to intervene.
The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. An extremist isn't a lost cause. The team lists important steps for helping extremists leave hate groups as well as for preventing people from being seduced in the first place. The researchers' recommendations include:
- Exposure to diverse ideas, especially during childhood
- The development of critical thinking skills
- Participation in prosocial activities that promote positive behaviors and inclusiveness
- Exposure to different racial and cultural groups
- Addressing marginalization more broadly
- A tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism
- Better access to mental health treatment
- Targeted outreach and support for military veterans
The researchers note that this is a small study sample, so further work is necessary. Yet, these interviews offer a starting point for understanding the true scope of the problem. The reasons people become extremists are complex and multivariate. Preventing extremism therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses topics such as childhood education, poverty, mental health, ethnic and racial animosity, and the prevalence of propaganda.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."