Harvey Whitehouse: Studying ritual may help us understand extremism

Why do people engage in self-sacrifice? Why would people adopt such an extreme behavior? Answering these questions has proven to be difficult for policy makers, world leaders, and academic researchers alike. Seshat founding editor and Oxford University scholar Professor Harvey Whitehouse recently offered several critical insights into the psychology of extremism at the IdeasLab session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Whitehouse revealed that to quell radicalization understand extreme self-sacrifice, we must reimagine our current understanding of the role of ritual and identity in human behavior.

Citing his published research with University of Texas Austin psychologist Professor Bill Swan, Whitehouse discussed how he recently led a team of researchers who studied revolutionary fighters in Libya to better understand the impact of shared extreme pain on identity fusion. To hear Whitehouse summarize his team’s surprising discoveries about human behavior, watch the video below.

Mainstream media reports on Whitehouse’s work on shared dysphoria as a bonding agent can be found in the Pacific Standard and Evening Mail. Further work on this topic is being carried out as a part of the Seshat: Global History Databank Project. Specifically, Whitehouse and other researchers are trying to understand if societies with dysphoric rituals produce more tribal warfare, intra-elite conflicts, rebellions, and military revolts. The Seshat: Global History Databank is currently collecting data to explore the relationship between ritual and warfare and will use this data in the coming months to test theories and develop a better understanding of why people engage in extreme behavior like self-sacrifice.


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