The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 135: The Psychology Of Extremism

There’s a lot of extremes around lately I’ve noticed.
Whether that’s religious extremism or political extremism it seems that you don’t have to go very far to hear a strong opinion about something from someone.

I regularly talk about finding a middle ground in life, too much concern vs too little concern that sort of thing and that moderate way of thinking doesn’t fit in well with the extremists so it can be difficult to learn how to pull yourself in a little, but it’s not impossible.

Understanding how we formulate these opinions can be very useful though, so here goes.

Firstly let’s look at our ego.
One thing that crops up a lot is that we like to be right, acknowledging our mistakes hurts our ego, which is why it’s so hard to say sorry most of the time even if we know we were wrong.
We still search for a reason that blames someone else, so that we don’t hurt our ego.
Then you throw opinion and belief systems into the mix and anything that we experience that contradicts those opinions will cause anxiety.

Challenges to our opinions suggests that we have made a mistake and because we don’t want to hurt our ego we defend those opinions and the anxiety becomes anger!

Anger then embeds those opinions into firmer and firmer beliefs about the way things should be. Which is why a very right wing Conservative will almost never see things from the perspective of a left wing Labour supporter.
Someone who is opinionated will rarely be able to see it from any other view, because we don’t like thinking that we’ve been wrong all our life.

It might sound counter intuitive, but being so stubborn and resistant to change actually helps us to be happy.
It gives us someone else to blame for everything that’s wrong in our life, it shifts our responsibility.
If you’re a right wing Conservative then the reason your life hasn’t turned out the way you’d have like it to is because of all the lefties causing trouble.
If you’re a left wing Socialist then the reason your life hasn’t turned out the way you’d have like it to is because of all the posh toffs who sit in their ivory towers controlling the workers.

So, it’s not your fault, it’s your adversaries fault!
As long as you have an adversary to blame you can feel happy. So, if it wasn’t for all these Eastern European immigrants coming over here and willing to work for less then our wages would have gone up.
So it’s our adversaries fault that we don’t have much spare cash, rather than the fact that we spent it on mobile phone contracts, Sky subscriptions, scratch cards and beer.

Some of the research into this goes back to the 1930’s with the Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.
It was her that came up with the phrase Paranoid-Schizoid.

Klein spent a lot of time working with young children, and what she discovered is that many children, under the age of 4, would have quite angry and violent thoughts toward their primary caregiver, mainly the mother in the 1930s.
This was because the child was scared that they might be abandoned, hence Paranoid, and the Schizoid part of it was due to the splitting of the mother in the child’s mind into being both the good mother that wanted to do anything for them and the bad mother that only had 24 hours in every day to do everything and sometimes said “No”.

As the child grows the 2 mothers merge into one person and our basic understanding of humans is that we are both good and bad.

We learn to accept both the good and bad sides of everyone including ourselves.

Problems occur when for some reason that doesn’t happen. If, because of some sort of trauma, the child continues with the split and only sees good in themselves and bad in others, that’s what seems to create extremist attitudes.
Usually being brought to the surface in later life due to stress.

I think having a basic understanding of this is useful as it gives us the opportunity to question ourselves and the way we see the world.

Otherwise we can’t get the ball rolling to help ourselves to be the best we can be. To recognise that happiness and pleasure is all internal not from the external world around you.