The Psychological Reason We Hurt Each Other
From the crises in the Middle East to mass shootings in U.S. schools to the reckless striving for wealth and world domination, there is one overarching theme that almost never gets media coverage—the sense of insignificance that drives destructive acts. As a depth psychologist with many years of experience, I can say emphatically that the sense of being crushed, humiliated and existentially unimportant are the main factors behind so much that we call psychopathology.
Why would it not follow that the same factors are at play in social and cultural upheavals? The emerging science of “terror management theory” shows convincingly that when people feel unimportant they equate those feelings with dying—and they will do everything they can, including becoming extreme and destructive themselves to avoid that feeling.
The sense of insignificance and death anxiety have been shown to play a key role in everything from terrorism to mass shootings to extremist religious and political ideologies to obsessions with materialism and wealth. Just about all that is violent and corrupt in our world seems connected to it.
So before we rush to judgment about the basis of violence in our world, we would do well to heed the terror management theorists and consider missing pieces of the puzzle. Economic, ideological and biological explanations take us only so far in unpacking the bewildering phenomenon of slaughtering people in cold blood, or playing recklessly with their health, safety or livelihoods. Granted, some violence is defensive and perhaps necessary to protect the lives of sovereign individuals and states. But too often violence is provocative, and when it becomes so betrays a common thread of psychological destitution—the sense of insignificance, the sense of not counting, of helplessness, and of emotional devaluation. We have stories daily about both lone gunmen and soldiers who seek vengeance and “prestige” to cover over their cultural and emotional wounds. Correspondingly, such stories parallel the kind of psychopathy of some in the corporate sector who speculate, pollute and militarize at will.
How do we prevent such terrorizing cycles from continuing to arise? How do we transform people who feel so utterly estranged and stripped of value that they are willing to do virtually anything to redress perceived injustices? That transformation is not likely to occur through political or military coercion (as is now being contemplated in Iraq), nor through the ingestion of pills nor anger management programs (as was the case with several mass shooters), nor through the usual hand-wringing about stricter gun laws and increased diplomacy, which are imperative, but don’t go far enough.
What is needed is no less than a “moral equivalent of war,” to echo the philosopher William James, but at a fraction of the cost. The rampant sense of insignificance needs to be addressed at its root, and not with simplistic bromides. This means that alongside providing affordable short-term public mental health services, we also need to provide affordable long-term, in-depth mental health services. Such services would emphasize the transformative power of deeply supportive, subtly attuned relationships over short-term palliatives and would likely be life-changing (as well as life-saving) in their impact.
We could (and should) also provide cadres of group facilitators to optimize encounters between people in power. These encounters could include heads of state, members of diplomatic corps and legislators. Such facilitators could be schooled in well-established approaches to mediation, such as nonviolent communications, and would likely be pivotal in the settlement of intractable disputes. While the most hardened extremists may be unreachable, there are many others who might surprise us and engage the opportunity.
There is no theoretical reason why such practices would not work with the appropriate adaptations; we see these practices work every day in our clinics and consulting rooms, and often with the most challenging personalities.
The range of violent upheaval in the world is alarming. The quick fix, militarist solutions to this problem are faltering. In many cases, they are making situations worse (as we have seen with recent military operations). The time for a change in societal consciousness is at hand. By focusing our resources on the root of the problem, the many people who feel they don’t count, we not only bolster individual and collective lives, we provide a model that others will find difficult to ignore.
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Kirk Schneider is president-elect of the Society for Humanistic Psychology of the American Psychological Association, and author of “The Polarized Mind: Why It’s Killing Us and What We Can Do About It.”