Science on Religion

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Group identity and ideological passion

Terror tensionsEveryone needs a sense of belonging. Somewhere there must exist a group where one feels at home. For many, this group consists of a religious community, although countless other groups could be named. Regardless, groups matter because they contribute to a person’s own self-identity, and consequently people become attached to their groups. In fact, they become passionate about them! Psychologists Blanka Rip and colleagues (University of Quebec) wonder why people become passionate about their group in extremist ways. They found that people who identify with their group in a psychologically healthy way tend towards harmonious ideological passion whereas those who identify with their group in an unhealthy way tend towards obsessive ideological passion.

The researchers define “ideological passion” as “a strong inclination toward a loved, valued, and self-defining cause, ideology, or group in which people invest considerable time and energy.” “Passion,” as the researchers see it, has two sides, both of which stem from the same source: the need to develop a sense of self-identity. In other words, people develop a passion for activities that they have internalized into their very being (their self-identity). These activities now have implications for a person’s self-worth. Because of this connection between passion and self-worth, the two sides of passion emerge. First, harmonious passion grows out of autonomous internalization. That is, the person willingly allows the valued activity to become a part of his or her identity, resulting in flexible involvement in that activity and a secure sense of self. Second, and by contrast, obsessive passion grows out of controlled internalization: self-esteem and social acceptance depend on the valued activity outside of the person’s control, and so this person feels controlled by and dependent on said activity.

The researchers sought to test the connection between harmonious passion and a secure sense of self and the connection between obsessive passion and an insecure sense of self. To do this, they conducted two experiments, one involving Quebec nationalists and the other involving Muslims. In both cases, the aim was to find a correlation between passion and the type of activism favored by a person. The researchers predicted that harmonious passion would correlate with peaceful activism, while obsessive passion would correlate with violent activism.

In the first study, the researchers surveyed 114 Quebec nationalists. Each participant completed a customized version of the Passion Scale relevant to Quebec nationalism that included an equal number of harmonious passion and obsessive passion items. Next, the participants answered items concerning how much they consider Quebec nationalist ideology as part of their identity (for example, “The Sovereignist cause is part of who I am”). After that, they picked the diagram that best depicts their affiliation with the Quebec nationalist cause (ranging from complete overlap to none). Finally, the participants gave their opinion as to the acceptability of various peaceful and violent political actions.

In the second study, the researchers found 111 Muslim volunteers, all of whom considered themselves highly involved in Islam. The participants completed similar surveys to those given to the Quebec nationalists (only adapted for Islam of course) with a twist: approximately half would read the following anti-Islam quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as the command to defend by the sword the faith he preached.” By having Muslims read this quote, the researchers aimed to make the Muslims feel threatened, at which point they would then complete a survey pertaining to hatred (Muslims in the control group, who did not read that quote, also completed this hatred survey). If the researchers’ hypothesis was correct, then those with insecure senses of self would feel deeply threatened by this quotation and would be more likely to score positively on the hate survey.

Both studies corraborated the researchers’ hypotheses: harmonious passion correlated with peaceful expressions of ideology, while obsessive passion correlated with violent expressions. Those with an insecure self in the second study, when threatened, did exhibit hateful attitudes as predicted. Thus, in both a secular and a religious context, healthy self-identity ultimately correlated with a desire for peaceful action and insecure self-identity with a desire for violent, even self-sacrificing action. Passion for what you love is not at all to be discouraged, but not all passions are created equal.

For more, see “Passion for a Cause, Passion for a Creed: On Ideological Passion, Identity Threat, and Extremism” in the Journal of Personality.

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