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|Psychopathy and Mass Movements
The latest video from the Islamic extremist group ISIL takes inhumanity to another level by setting a captured Jordanian pilot (caged and doused with flammable liquids) on fire. Apparently mass shootings and beheadings have grown tiresome for ISIL.
And as always, the question is asked: who would ever do such a thing? How does someone go from being in school, playing sports, or working full-time, to joining a grotesque mass movement that kills with fetish-like frequency and reptilian indifference?
This is not just a rhetorical question. As we in the West are finding out, thousands of individuals from the United States, France, England, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere have flocked to join ISIL, which seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate by using the techniques mastered by the Gestapo 70 years ago.
The answer lies in history and the findings of an intellectual giant working as a longshoreman. First, the history. As Alexander the Great learned early on, nothing gets attention like killing and slaughter. Do it with enough ferocity and whole cities and kingdoms will yield even before you arrive. In Alexander’s day, it was enough to allow a few survivors to escape and flee to the next city for the propaganda to work. Word of mouth was the Internet of the day. ISIL has perfected the more modern version (their videos are masterfully put together by professional videographers and editors – even with sound tracks). They use videos of their atrocities to terrify—which explains the millions of refugees who have fled Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere—but also to recruit. While most of us understand the former, the idea of recruitment via mass killings and beheadings is hard to fathom.
Here is where the absolute brilliance of Eric Hoffer, the moral and social philosopher and yes stevedore comes in. In 1951, Hoffer published The True Believer, a classic that should be widely read and studied. As an observer of mass movements, Hoffer did well to point out that mass movements attract people because they provide hope. In the case of ISIL, that hope takes the form of the professed intent of ameliorating Muslim grievances against the West and the prospect of establishing a worldwide caliphate to once more rule over Muslim lands and people. As flawed as those goals may seem to us in the West, most people can understand how they might prove influential.
Hoffer took his analysis a step further by recognizing that the marginalized, the desperate, the unemployed, the socially wounded, or the traumatized are naturally attracted to mass movements because the collective affiliation brings meaning into their lives, along with the prospect of hope. This, too, can be understood, even though it is a course most of us would not follow.
But perhaps most disquieting, Hoffer found another kind of individual who is attracted to mass movements—in fact, whose participation is often necessary for such movements to thrive. He referred to these individuals as “The Sinners.” We have to excuse Hoffer’s language here with the understanding that he was not schooled in psychology, but his terminology detracts in no way from his accuracy in deciphering mass movements. What Eric Hoffer found, and what has often been overlooked by many sociologists and certainly by the general public, is that mass movements attract what we now call the psychopathic personality – in essence predators: individuals who are content in causing great harm, who perhaps are even sadistic, and yet aren’t bothered in the least by what they do.
Hoffer’s observation should not come as a great shock; after all, the Nazis had psychopaths in droves. Under the Swastika banner and while wearing brown shirts, they did horrible crimes without any regret—remember Kristallnacht?
Mass movements that utilize violence as part of their solution attract and even need psychopaths. After all, someone has to carry out the violent acts, the beheadings, the mass shootings, and the setting of humans on fire, even as these individuals plead for their lives. They need people who are callous, who can hurt others effortlessly because they have no conscience. They need people who are immune to the pleas of a grieving mother and who view a crying child as an inconvenience that also must die.
Psychopaths are not like you and me. While you and I might look for love and success in life, the psychopath looks for exploitable weakness and opportunity. For psychopaths, a mass movement, especially one cloaked in religion, provides the opportunity to do anything they wish, uninhibited by morality, laws, or the police. For them, an especially violent mass movement, whatever the philosophy being espoused, is like being at a diabolical theme park where stealing, raping, killing, shooting, or decapitating humans is purposeful as well as recreational.
In violent mass movements, moreover, the more violent and virulent a member is, the more respect is garnered from fellow true believers and those likely to be recruited. This is exactly what transpired with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It wasn’t enough to join al-Qaeda and be involved in bombings. As grotesque and unconscionable as the videotaped beheadings of Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong were, al-Zarqawi’s reputation and stature increased with each—and so did al-Qaeda’s recruitments. Unbridled psychopathy creates unbridled infamy. That is why we remember Stalin, Pol Pot, the Boston Strangler, and Ted Bundy.
All of this is disturbing on many levels—including the fact that little of it is new. We have known for a long time who joins mass movements and why—yet governments, politicians, and even intelligence agencies seem surprised when current events confirm it time after time.
The more recent manifestations are cause for additional concern because unlike 70 years ago when most of the Nazis came from one general population from a particular geographical area and their recruitment was based on word of mouth, mass rallies, or newspaper accounts, the internet now casts a global net. That net, filled with rage, hatred, violence, and well-produced theatrical brutality, is attracting thousands. They are not all psychopaths, to be sure, but enough are. Their cruelty will rub off on others, and unfortunately no government or mother pleading for her child to be released will prevail, because psychopaths have no conscience. They have no remorse, as Robert Hare, the worlds leading expert on psychopathy has so often warned us. You can plead for a snake not to bite you, but reptiles do as they please – so do psychopaths.
Since World War II, we have had to live with the infamy of the Khmer Rouge, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Rwanda, among many others. All serve to remind us that mass movements attract the criminally facile, the remorseless, the unfeeling, the anti-social personality—what Eric Hoffer called “The Sinners,” we know them today for what they are: psychopaths.
* * * * * * * * *
Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through Psychology Today or at www.jnforensics.com – Joe can be found on Twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. His latest book Dangerous Personalities (Rodale) is available on Amazon. My gratitude and thanks to Thryth Hillary Navarro and Toni Sciarra Poynter for their much appreciated assistance in editing this article which is based on the Predator chapter in Dangerous Personalities.
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|Making Stress Your Friend - It's All In Your Mindset
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James
I first began to re-think the way I think about stress when I saw Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s wonderful TED talk on the topic. As a stress management and burnout prevention coach, and as someone who has experienced a great deal of stress in my life, I am well aware of how chronic stress can wreak havoc on your health and happiness. I experienced frequent panic attacks both during law school and when I was burning out. Panic attacks and chronic stress in general can zap your energy in lots of ways, so choosing how to respond to stress gives you control when you need it the most and can make a world of difference to your health and well-being.
While it’s no secret that sustained levels of stress are not good for your health, there is more to the stress story than “stress is bad.” As it turns out, how you perceive stress is just as important as the amount of stress you’re experiencing. Specifically, individuals who both perceived that stress affects their health and who also reported a large amount of stress had a 43% increased risk of premature death (Keller et al., 2012).
When people think that they have the resources sufficient to deal with a stressor, they experience a challenge response. Challenge responses are typically associated with positive psychological and physiological outcomes. In fact, participants in one study who were instructed to rethink stress as functional were able to recall more available resources and had improved cardiovascular functioning. Conversely, when people perceive their resources to be lacking under stress, they experience a threat response. Threat responses have been shown to impair decision-making in the short-term and are associated with brain aging, cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease in the long-term (Jamieson, Nock, & Mendes, 2012).
The goal is not to decrease the level of stress or to erase it completely, both of which feel impossible in the moment; rather, the goal is to reshape how you interpret stress (e.g., first thinking that this stressor is here to help me in some way).
Adopting these two strategies will help you be better able to reframe stressful events.
Develop a “stress helps” mindset. Your stress mindset is your belief about whether stress has enhancing or debilitating consequences. The type of mindset you adopt about stress – either a “stress helps” mindset or a “stress hurts” mindset – highly influences psychological, physiological and behavioral outcomes. While chronic stress is not good for your health, some stress can impact your health in positive ways and aid physical recovery and immunity. Research shows that those who adopted a “stress helps” mindset were more likely to seek out feedback and therefore grow as a result of experiencing stress and had more adaptive cortisol profiles under acute stress (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013).
Help others. When I’m anxious about giving a presentation, the last thing I want to do is reach out to someone, especially a stranger, and tell him or her that I’m feeling butterflies. My preference is to hole up by myself and try and “deal” with the emotions. As it turns out, your stress response is actually pushing you to tell someone that you’re feeling stressed. Helping behavior actually serves as a stress buffer and help given to others is a better predictor of health and well-being than indicators of social engagement or received social support. In fact, experiencing stressful events significantly predicts increased mortality among those who had not helped other people in the past year, but among those who had provided help to others, there was no association between stress and mortality (Poulin et al., 2013).
How do you interpret the stressors in your life? Are they there to help you learn something, grow in a new direction, wake you up to life, or do they exist to take a toll on your health and well-being? The choice is up to you.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP is a burnout prevention and resilience expert who helps companies and busy professionals prevent burnout and build stress resilience. For lots of strategies and tips to prevent burnout and find more engagement at home and at work, click here for a free copy of Paula’s e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Her website is www.pauladavislaack.com.
Crum, A.J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104(4), 716-733.
Jamieson, J.P., Nock M.K., & Mendes, W.B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology 141(3), 417-422.
Keller, A., et al. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology 31(5), 677-684.
Poulin, M.J., Brown, S.J., Dillard A.J., & Smith, D.M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103(9), 1649-1655.
Image reprinted with permission of photspin.com.
How a "stress helps" mindset fuels health and happiness
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When people think that they have the resources to deal with a stressor, they experience a challenge response. Conversely, when people perceive their resources to be lacking under stress, they experience a threat response. The goal is not to decrease the level of stress or to erase it completely; rather, the goal is to reshape how you interpret stress.
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