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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-May-09


Friday 08-May-09

Extremist persuasion

How do extremist political groups persuade? The answer would seem to be quite cleverly, if they are to get their message accepted, although some groups do seem to erroneously think that turning up the loudness is.a good alternative.

Researchers Finlay and Wood analysed communications from the right-wing British Nationalist Party after the '7/7' bombings in London in July 2005. Extreme events tend to provoke and polarise extreme views, and groups such as the BNP will milk them for all the converts they can get.

Finlay and Wood identify two principles used: the "accentuation effect", and "essentialism".

'Accentuation' amplifies us-and-them differences, making the out-group far more different from the in-group than they really are. When you exaggerate, you polarize people, creating a false contrast and forcing an alternative choice between the us and 'them'.

'Essentialism' enhances this process and perception by taking a single undesirable character and putting it at the core of the target group. This generalises people so you can say 'they're all like that'.

Another trick is to reframe a negative as a positive, such as 'Yes, we may be politically incorrect, but at least we tell the truth.' Note here how racist bias is weakened to an untruthful 'political correctness' then reframed as the higher-integrity value of honesty.

In a neat reversal, they also redirect labels applied to them to their opponents, accusing liberals and Muslims as being fascists. They also re-use emotive labels, calling others Nazis (using accentuation and essentialism to justify this).

Obscure scholarly references are used to add apparent credibility. Arcane and even biblical references are used to hook religious readers and extend significance.

The problem of extremist groups leveraging troubles does not go away. Even as I write this I just heard a government minister expressing concern that right wing groups may stir up racism as jobs disappear.

As with all political messages, the important thing is to see through the rhetoric and persuasive devices to the actual intent beneath. When this seeks to create social division and consequent unrest, it makes sense that while the message may be of academic interest, its substance should be carefully avoided.

Wood, C. and Finlay, W. M. L. (2008). British National Party representations of Muslims in the month after the London bombings: Homogeneity, threat, and the conspiracy tradition. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47 (4), 707-726.

Your comments

Many of these devices will not work with educated, intelligent or well read persons. However such groups need such members for credibility.

The tactic often appears to be that the extreme traits are only for the rank and file and that any that see through the rhetoric are invited to an elite wing.

I thought that I remember scanning microfilm of a 1933 newspaper. Hitler had just been positioned as either as Chancellor or president of the Reichstag.

Albert Einstein, who had dual Prussian and Swiss citizenship was out of the country at the time and was contemplating whether or not to return.

A group identified as the "British Fascist Association" (or something akin to that) invited him to England. "....come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly....."

He apparently thought better....

-- Peter

Dave replies:
Certainly, it makes sense that thoughtful people less likely to be taken in by crass persuasive methods and extremists may well not notice this in their crafty delight. Maybe also they are not seeking to persuade those who would think and challenge -- better to turn the masses against the intelligentsia, which has been done in such as Stalin's Russia.

Yet also I am perplexed to discover that cults often recruit from universities and value people who can persuasively promote the cause. It seems there is a style of intelligence that seeks certainty without question. In academia it can be about becoming an authority on other authorities (like being a Shakespeare expert). In religion it is about knowing the religious texts. In politics, extremists quote Marx and Mao. If such people jump, they do so hook, line and sinker.

People coming out of cults describe the affair as a 'temporary insanity'.  After the 2nd World War many ex-Nazi's felt a deep and perplexed shame for what they had supported. In war, soldiers commit atrocities that come back to haunt them. It is scary how easily we can be persuaded to do things we would never have thought we would do. 

Question was why intelligent people fall for extremist groups.

I think one has to distinguish here between 3 groups.
- Believers
- Purpose-seekers
- Opportunists

I take the example of Nazi Germany.

What most people just fail to get is that at the time now almost universally accepted "beliefs" where not that "scientifically" clear as now.
- Biology was not as advanced as now and it was just not clear if there was something to racial supremacy theory or not
- In terms of economic success it was still not clear at the time if a collectivist system (Soviet, Nazi, Mao China whatever) or an individualist system is more powerful, successful, productive
- There was much less information out there so conspiracy theories were much easier for people to belief than now. (Example: Theory of Jews being behind communism as well as capitalism) What that means: Some people truly believed in the different ideas of the ideology. Partly because the theories had not been falsified already.

Like the example Dave gave, people who just want to have something they can believe in and fight for. This might include some longing for a collectivist identity. The less mainstream the better. These people can be quiet intelligent. Example: Goebbels who came from a religious family and was looking out for a new creed.

Pretty easy. If an extremist party seems to offer the fulfillment of motivations like making a career some people unscrupulously jump on that. Example: People joining the SS because it is where you can go ahead.

The question why people now still join extremist concepts that have historically/empirically been falsified is however a bit more difficult to answer.
I guess background is either deep rooted prejudices/stupidness or extreme individualism (you defend something really non-mainstream (pretty much like "extremists" libertarians)

-- Bastian B

Dave replies:
Good classification, Bastion, with helpful examples. It is common to find 'purpose seekers'  amongst students, which is one reason many groups go recruiting there, from traditional religions to cults to political parties. Extremists and moderates plough the same furrow here.

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