Extremist mentality

Psychologists explain why people join hate groups

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., highlights how white supremacists have changed their look to appeal to millennials.

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., highlights how white supremacists have changed their look to appeal to millennials.

Photo by Eze Amos

About the article:
This is an abridged version of a story originally published by California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Actions of far-right fringe groups have ignited raw, angry passions across the country. What are people thinking when they spew hate? Are they all true believers? What’s more, how does someone get that way?

The uncovered American faces of white supremacy and neo-Nazism were broadcast on TV and the Internet for all to see at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., last month, which ended in violence and with one person dead. The forces that drew them there are not new.

Hate groups in the U.S. number 917 and have been on the rise for two years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It attributes the trend partly to the attention given to extremist views during the 2016 presidential campaign. But all people don’t perceive extremist groups’ beliefs the same way.

Those who study human behavior attribute hate speech more to deep personality issues than to a diagnosable mental illness. But they’re also intrigued by how the white supremacy movement is rebranding itself for the 21st century. The well-known racist symbols of white robes and hoods or shaved heads and torches have given way to a clean-cut subtlety for the millennial generation. With heightened tensions on all sides, there’s a renewed interest in explaining how minds turn toward hate.

Young people with a troubled past are especially vulnerable, said psychologist Ervin Staub, of Holyoke, Mass., a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who studies social processes that lead to violence.

“Why would people join groups like that? It usually involves them finding no other socially acceptable and meaningful ways to fulfill important needs: the need for identity, the need for a feeling of effectiveness, the need for a feeling of connection,” Staub said. “Often, these are people who don’t feel like they’ve succeeded or had a chance to succeed across normal channels of success in society. They may come from families that are problematic or families where they’re exposed to this kind of extreme view of white superiority and nationalism.

“If you don’t feel you have much influence and power in the world, you get a sense of power from being part of a community and especially a rather militant community.”

A 2015 report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (known as START) found that former members of violent white supremacist groups showed almost half (45 percent) reporting being the victim of childhood physical abuse and about 20 percent reporting being the victim of childhood sexual abuse.

The study by sociologist Pete Simi of Chapman University in Orange suggests that influences on these followers may be related more to the group’s social bonds than ideology.

Simi, an expert on violence and extremist groups who has interviewed hundreds of former believers, co-wrote the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate with sociologist Robert Futrell of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Now that these groups are courting millennials, they’ve taken to changing their image, Futrell said.

“It’s an attempt to distance from the past when the picture in all our minds of a white supremacist was the KKK with a hood and cape or a neo-Nazi with a shaved head and tattoos. That’s gone by the wayside over the last decade,” he said.

The term “alt-right”—referring to a loosely organized group that developed in response to mainstream conservatism and has been associated with white nationalism and anti-Semitism—was unknown to a majority of Americans in late 2016, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Familiarity rose in tandem with a respondent’s education—about three-quarters of those with postgraduate degrees recognized the term, as did about 60 percent of college graduates; among those with only a high-school education, about a third had heard the term.

Groups advocating white superiority have always preyed on “young, impressionable people who are loners or had a traumatic thing in their background,” Futrell said. “What’s different now is the range of ways the white power movement is reaching them. The Internet is a boon to those who are stigmatized and relatively powerless.”

The alt-right has gained power online, as its proponents use Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms to spread their message. A study last year from George Washington University found that white nationalists are heavy users of Twitter.

Yet while organizing has gone virtual, the power of a real-life crowd also fuels behaviors, said media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach.

“There’s a long history starting with [psychoanalyst Sigmund] Freud on the impact of crowd behavior and mob mentality,” she said. “People give up individual identity to support the norm of the group and affiliation with the group and end up behaving in ways they wouldn’t otherwise individually.”

In such tense conflicts, Futrell said, the natural cues that people use to understand appropriate behavior get skewed.

“It’s not surprising in a combustible situation, when people are on edge, once an aggressive move is made, it cues to others that it’s OK,” he said. “This is the norm at that moment, and they act.”

Forensic psychologist Laurence Miller, of Boca Raton, Fla., said there’s a misunderstanding about the motivations of those who join fringe groups—that they have an ideology and search for a group when, really, it’s the other way around.

“People will pick a belief system that best matches their personalities and their identities,” he said.

But he emphasizes that humans are complex. In the Deep South, it was common for otherwise upstanding citizens—mayors, sheriffs and judges, among others—to be members of the KKK.

“You can have people who put on a hood and march with a torch and take their kids to the playground,” Miller said.