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The Quest for Significance Can Lead to Extremes

In 2021, several psychologists made an in-depth study into what drives people to political and social extremes. This can result in beliefs in a wide range of unsubstantiated and sometimes harmful conspiracy theories. The research paper was titled “Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn.”

According to the study, bout 5% of Americans are considered "chaos-seekers." They feel marginalized and have "an intense need for social dominance; they’re angry that they’re not on top." There is a growing sense of anxiety that in a time of rapid change, ideological conflicts, and social unrest, they "feel their prospects in life have tanked. People who believe the system isn't working for them." They gravitate toward extremist views and include those on the political Right and Left.

The researchers named the model for extremism a “significance quest.” Many Americans "need to feel they matter and that their lives have purpose. These needs intensify when they feel powerless, as in times of stress and uncertainty or after a serious loss or humiliation. People will do nearly anything to restore meaning in their lives. All too often, meaning comes in extremist packaging."

Many of the people studied reported being simply bored with their lives. "People who are adrift are likelier to seek exciting, risky pursuits that give them a sense of purpose and meaning. Diehard ideologies fit the bill." The search for meaning led some to be "more sensation-seeking and more willing to support ideological violence."

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