The Pidgin Psychobabble Chronicles: #2 Extremism and Uncertainty

I recently finished an excellent volume of essays entitled Extremism and the Psychology of Uncertainty edited by Michael A. Hogg and Danielle L. Blaylock. Each of the 16 writings builds upon and expands on the psychological underpinnings of extremist movements, fundamentalism, and terrorism.

In the very first writing, “The Need for Certainty,” co-authors Arie W. Kruglanski and Edward Orehek explore the implications of a high need for cognitive closure (and an intolerance of ambiguity or uncertainty) and its apparent tendency to leave an individual quite vulnerable to extremist groups and ideologies.

One of the essays contained within, “Uncertainty-Threat Model,” states the following: “Political conservatism is an ideological belief system that consists of two core components, resistance to change and opposition to equality, which serve to reduce uncertainty and threat. The idea is that there is an especially good fit (or ‘elective affinity’) between need to reduce uncertainty and threat, on one hand, and resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, on the other…This is because preserving the status quo allows one to maintain what is familiar and known while rejecting the risky, uncertain prospect of social change; traditionalism and hierarchy generally provide reassurance and structure, whereas progress and equality imply greater chaos and unpredictability. Even for people who are relatively disadvantaged by the status quo, the ‘devil’ they know often seems preferable—-in terms of satisfying basic epistemic and existential needs—-to the devil they do not know.”

Another fascinating assertion comes from “Extremism is Normal,” whose chief claim is just that: While the manifestations of such feelings and the way they play out may be different than how others react, the feelings themselves and desire for resolution, shared identity with a group, etc, are quite normal desires, and to some extent, we are all extremists at one point or another.

In “The Extremism of Everyday Life,” perhaps the most troubling uncertainty of all, that of individuals’ existential uncertainty, i.e., “uncertainty about whether their life amounts to anything, whether anyone will remember them after they die, whether anything is protecting them from harm, and whether they are valuable enough in the eyes of others,” is explored in all its glorious detail. Its rich subtitle, “Fetishism as a Defense against Existential Uncertainty,” focuses on the non-sexual definition of fetish object, a fetish as a talisman, a protection in the form of a singular focal point by which to base one’s whole worth. It could be an action, an object, a particular discipline. For example, I know many people who put an inordinate amount of emphasis on their skills as a writer when determining their usefulness or self-worth, all the while ignoring the rest of their life’s work, their positive relationships with others, their other myriad contributions to society. The fetish serves as a focal point, a way of escaping from the anxiety of dizzying uncertainty that comes when considering the breadth and depth of one’s life – much the same way a sexual fetish or ritualized sexual routines with a partner can for some be an effective anchor to ward against the more varied, often anxiety-invoking complexities of the whole of sexual experience.

Much more in this lovely book, but those were the biggest highlights for me. What a lovely foray into the world of applied social psychology!

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