Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Why are some people so idealistic that they are willing to go to extremes and even die for a cause? Ideals activate the approach system and so thinking about them can feel great and relieve anxiety. An attractive feature of ideals, as opposed to, say, cake, is that ideals are abstract and so can activate approach motivation efficiently, without concrete intention or consequences (or calories). They also remain compelling even when life circumstances are bleak. Merely imagining an ideal vision can mobilize eager approach states and begin to mute anxiety immediately. Ideals can be hostile, as with mass-shooters and terrorists who usually justify their actions with self-serving ideals or utopias tinged with punitive justice or revenge. Ideals can also be narcissistic—focused on personal perfection, admiration, desirability,
or superiority. They need not be antisocial, small-minded, or egocentric, however. They can be ideals of magnanimity, inclusivity, love, truth, progress, social harmony, compassion, or beauty. Thinkers since Pythagoras and Socrates
have attributed the surprising psychological power of abstractions to otherworldly, transcendent realms that are more perfect than physical reality. Throughout history this intuitive attributional tendency has sometimes been used to justify devaluation or even disdain for physical reality. When this happens, going to extremes and causing physical harm for an idealistic cause can therefore seem like a reasonable and noble decision for some people, especially when physical reality offends their idealistic convictions.

Ideals of any kind are difficult to maintain in solitary imaginations, however. Because they are abstract, they have no objective referents, and so they require social consensus to stabilize them. Without consensus-bolstered confidence, exposure to alternative ideals can raise doubts about personal ideals, which can cause more of the anxiety that the ideals served to suppress. (Recall that anxiety arises from conflicted or uncertain goals and since ideals are abstract goals that operate according to the same principles as concrete goals, conflicted or uncertain ideals can also cause anxiety.) Confidence in ideals accordingly benefits from relationship or group consensus that can reify lonely abstractions into confident and inspiring convictions. Narratives of charismatic leaders, role models, and exemplars of desired ideals are often used to help make ideals more concrete, and to facilitate the consensual conviction of ideologies and worldviews.

A dark-side of ideologies and worldviews is that they are so psychologically vital for some people that they can be intolerant of dissent. Anxious circumstances make people more reliant on them for approach-motivated relief from the anxiety, and accordingly also more inclined toward hostile derogation and punishment of ideological dissenters and deviants. Some people seem especially oriented toward ideals as levers for approach motivation. Specifically, in one series of recent studies we found that people who reported high scores on the tendency to seek meaning in life responded with a particularly large surge in approach motivation after writing about their most important values and ideals in life. In other studies we have found that people who say that their lives are oriented toward the promotion of ideals to be particularly inclined toward idealistically extreme reactions to frustrating and uncertain experiences. People with anxious personalities are also particularly inclined toward all kinds of reactively extreme and idealistic defenses to anxious experiences. Dynamics of the anxiety and approach systems thus seem to fuel important social phenomena related to ideology and worldview defense. 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.