Psychological Extremism: Overwhelming Need

Psychological Extremism: Overwhelming Need
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 17 January, 2023

Psychological extremism appears when a need becomes overwhelming, leading the individual to forget everything else, to the point of addiction. In fact, their imbalance of needs leads to extreme behavior. This is a consequence of psychological inflexibility and the inability to regulate themselves.

As a rule, our needs, whether physiological or psychological, are balanced. For example, we eat, drink, and are in contact with others, etc to a reasonable extent. However, sometimes, a need can become dominant, in fact, too dominant.

Let’s take hunger as an example. When you feel really hungry, this need can become overwhelming, almost instinctively directing all your actions. Everything else loses importance.

The same is true of psychological longing. Whether it’s due to the need for respect, dignity, importance, commitment, security, or freedom. A psychological longing or need can become so powerful that an individual signals the fact with their thoughts and behavior. In effect, they’re in need of social recognition.

Therefore, extreme behavior of any kind is based on an imbalance of needs, or rather, on a maladaptive balance when it comes to investing the resources to satisfy it.

Woman eating a donut
When a need becomes overwhelming, an imbalance occurs that has physical, psychological, and social effects.

Psychological extremism

Psychological extremism is based on the concept of motivational imbalance. In effect, a given need gains dominance and overrides other basic concerns. On the contrary, moderation results from a motivational balance in which the different needs of an individual are equally attended to.

It’s important to highlight that when an individual attends to all their needs, it moderately restricts any extremist behavior. In fact, the enactment of extremist behavior sacrifices common concerns. Indeed, most people avoid it, hence it being designated as extreme.

This motivational imbalance has cognitive, behavioral, affective, and social consequences. It’s reflected in a wide variety of extremisms that share the same psychological core. For example, extreme diets, extreme sports, extreme crushes, various addictions, etc.

Psychological extremism as the basis of addiction

Extreme behavior of any kind is based on an imbalance of needs. Studies with workaholics, internet addicts, and political extremists have demonstrated this fact. In addition, certain athletes and artists who engage in specific behaviors exhibit psychological extremism.

The dominance of a single need can be triggered by a pronounced deprivation state. This could be a state of parental abandonment in childhood or strong external stimuli, such as wishing for great success and only ever accepting first place. In the first case, the individual has an extreme need to be taken care of. While in the second, they desire to be personally validated for what they do.

This is where the difference lies between needs and objectives. A goal can be achieved. You can pass an exam, then it’s over and you disconnect. Or, you might have the goal of writing five articles a day, achieve it, and feel satisfied.

However, a psychological need is never fully satisfied or, if it’s achieved, it’ll only be for a relatively short time. The need to be recognized socially is extremely difficult to achieve. This leads the individual to adopt extreme behaviors.

Poorly regulated mechanisms

When we smoke, what need is satisfied? Smoking may begin as a social need, such as wanting to appear confident to others and gain their approval. The tricky thing about addiction is that smoking becomes a habit. The longer we do it, the harder it becomes to stop.

With addiction, there are proven changes in the brain that make the individual numb to everything else. This means they only want the drug. Yet, the social processes and narratives that fuel and control extreme behavior are crucial to its emergence.

Certain ideologies can also contain these types of narratives. It’s especially the case if they contain seductive promises that could help satisfy the individual’s unfulfilled longing for transcendence.

All psychological extremisms are equal

Behavioral extremism (eg, extreme violence, grooming, dieting, or extreme sport) evoke fear, disgust, pity, or admiration, depending on the context. In fact, its common image as exotic and esoteric makes extremism fascinating to audiences around the world.

Negative, antisocial, or positive and prosocial cases of extremism are generally seen as polar opposites and are based on qualitatively different psychologies. However, all cases of extremism are different sides of the same coin. They have different manifestations and levels of phylogeny but involve the same psychological mechanism.

This mechanism consists of a motivational imbalance in which a certain need becomes dominant to the point of overriding other basic concerns. It releases behaviors that the latter previously restricted.

Social fanaticism: the perfect companion to extremism

Psychological extremism is present in the processes of political fanaticism. Indeed, it’s not difficult to understand that anyone who develops the kind of extremist behavior that’s well-regarded in the eyes of society, may also develop other negative extremist behavior.

As we mentioned earlier, extremism is nothing more than the result of a bad balance. Fanaticism, in this sense, is the ideal companion for the individual who usually exhibits psychological extremism.

By adopting a single, simple, and clear ideology, the individual feels that they’ve regulated all their personal and social plans. Their home, emotional relationships, moral decisions, and attitude towards strangers can be summarized in a brief and tremendously simple theory.

It’s hardly surprising that extremism in an individual’s way of thinking can turn into social fanaticism. That’s because it provides occupation and meaning to those who haven’t adequately developed all the emotional and social skills necessary to live in a community.

Ellis and his rational emotive therapy to decrease psychological extremism

Rational emotive behavioral psychotherapy (REBT) can help make radicalization and extremism prevention programs clearer and more efficient.

According to Ellis, REBT posits three major intertwined aspects of human function: beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. A basic tenet is that evaluative cognitions are the most important determinants of human emotions and behaviors.

Ellis proposed that rigid and absolutist demands are at the core of emotional distress. All other categories of irrational beliefs arise from this dogmatic root. Human beings easily transform their preferences, wants, and desires into ‘shoulds’ and commands.

There are three categories of absolutist demands: (1) self-demands; (2) demands of others (3) demands of the environment. Self-demands (for example, I must perform well, I must demonstrate my competence, I must be competent, I must be in control, I must please my friends) lead to self-hatred, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior.

Demands directed at others (eg, They must always treat me kindly/ fairly, They must love me) lead to strong feelings of anger, rage, hurt, and violent disruptive behavior.

While environmental demands (eg, the economic, social, and political conditions must be favorable, without any problems and there must be certainty in the world) lead to self-pity, anger, depression, anxiety, despair, and dysfunctional behaviors. For example, addictions, isolation, and violence.

man in psychotherapy
Ellis’ rational emotive therapy can help restore the balance lost in the wake of psychological extremism.

The key lies in maintaining balance

Psychological extremism is a product of both the way we talk to each other and the few behavioral alternatives we have to regulate ourselves. If an individual maintains balance in different areas of their life, it’s difficult for them to develop the kind of psychological extremism that leads them to carry out destructive and unsustainable behaviors in the long term.

However, when an individual achieves excellence in the world at the detriment of their mental and physical health, they’ve fallen into the trap of psychological extremism due to a lack of self-regulation. In fact, any conduct, taken to the extreme of practice and control, is likely to become problematic.

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