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Terrorism: A Self-Love Story

Re-directing the Significance Quest Can End Violence
The same motivational force that drives people to commit acts of terrorism can actually promote pro-social and benevolent behavior, according to a new START study. In the study "Terrorism: A Self Love Story" psychology professor Arie Kruglanski and his co-authors suggest that understanding self-love and redirecting an individual's "quest for significance" is crucial to reversing the current tide of global terrorism.
Kruglanski and co-authors, Jocelyn Blanger and Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland, College Park studied terrorist detainees in Sri Lanka and the Philippines in addition to community samples in the Middle East to analyze the processes that promote radicalization and those that encourage de-radicalization.
The researchers collected qualitative and quantitative evidence from participant surveys, interviews, and carried out specific experiments to test implications of their theory about self-love and the quest for significance. Self-love is concern with one's image in the eyes of respected others and members of one's group. It denotes one's feeling of personal significance; the sense that one's life has meaning in accordance with the values of one's society.

The researchers looked at how significance loss, the threat of loss and the opportunity for significance gain increased adherence to the group ideology and the effect this has on self-empowerment and the readiness to self-sacrifice on the group's behalf.

"The quest for significance is a motivation that is common to all human beings, but it isn't active at all times and can be awakened in specific circumstances," Kruglanski said. "If you feel humiliated or belittled because of something you did or because of something others did to you, then you experience the need to restore your sense of significance."

Kruglanski said that if the group's ideology and belief system tells its members that they can restore their significance by engaging in violence and terrorism, then its members are inclined to do so. Kruglanski said that is why it's imperative to offer individuals an alternative route to feeling worthy and significant, a pro social path that is constructive and humane.

"We cannot defeat terrorism by violent or military means alone," Kruglanski said.

"The role of psychology is to guide activities, programs and policies in relevant domains such as education, immigration, and defense and foreign affairs, so as to reverse the tide of radicalization."

The study was based upon work supported by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

The article is expected to be published in the American Psychologist journal in 2013.