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What if Terrorists Understood the True Nature of Motivation? Part 1

What if Terrorists Understood the True Nature of Motivation? Part 1 post image

Some might argue that terrorist groups, specifically ISIL, know all too well how to tap the true nature of human motivation. I argue the opposite. This post explores the truth about human motivation that explains why such extremist groups have emerged. The next blog explains why the science of motivation could also offer an antidote for the escalating ideological warfare.

It is obvious to most of the world that terrorists are acting out as a way to alleviate their own suffering. They long for something to absolve their anguish. Without understanding the root source of their need and longing, they resort to age-old, debilitating tactics of perpetrating misery on others. A new paradigm of motivation offers alternatives to both the terrorists and those being terrorized. But, before explaining the alternatives, it’s important to understand four basic truths that have emerged from motivation science and how they relate to terrorism.

All human beings desire to thrive. 
The idea that people want to thrive may seem obvious or even trite, but it is not common wisdom. The way motivation is handled in even the most contemporary organizations represents an underlying belief that people are basically lazy and will do as little as possible if not held accountable. Most organizations still depend on traditional approaches to motivation based on the outdated assumption that the only way to get things done is to reward, incentivize, or bribe people.

We would treat people differently if we accepted this scientific truth: No one wants to be bored, disengaged, disconnected, useless, victimized, or incompetent. People do what they can to survive, but they yearn to thrive. The question then becomes, what does it mean to thrive? What does it require to thrive?

One of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of motivation research is this: We now know the source of human thriving. And, it’s not what we have thought. There are three basic psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, competence) that are as important to human thriving as the “big three biological needs” (water, food, sex). When these psychological needs are satisfied, people flourish. When these needs are undermined, people languish.

Through the ages, many populations suffered when their world systemically undermined basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC). The greatest impetus for uprisings by common folks against governments, dictators, or power structures has been people seeking something they longed for but didn’t understand—their need for ARC. The implications of need thwarting are well documented: distrust, ill-being that leads to mental and physical degeneration, short-term focus, isolation, stunted creativity, feelings of being unsafe and insecure, and disengagement, to name a few.

Now we have a generation of young people whose psychological needs have been thwarted using the means of the day in pursuit of restitution—they are seeking ways to compensate for ARC. But, as motivation science shows, there is no such thing as compensatory need satisfaction. If children’s needs are not satisfied at home or school, there is little chance their needs will be satisfied outside of those arenas. If employees’ needs are not satisfied at work, there is little chance they will compensate for them outside of work, especially given the amount of time they spend connected to their work.

With an innate need to thrive, people attempt to compensate for the gaping hole left by unsatisfied psychological needs in different ways depending on how they internalize their experience, the sophistication of their coping skills, and their programmed or developed values.

For example,

  • Some seek restitution by pursuing tangible and intangible rewards
  • Others, experiencing unexplored anger and self-righteous indignation, might seek revenge, resort to bullying, or execute a vigilantly sense of justice
  • Many compensate for their lack of ARC by under- or over-doing their three biological needs—drinking too much, eating too little, having indiscriminate sex

Do money, power, status, vengeance, bullying, and junk food motivate people? Yes. But, these motivators are not substitutes for ARC. What terrorists fail to understand is the nature of low-quality motivation. Motivation based on the promise of rewards, retaliation, or anger cannot replace the positive energy, sustained vitality, and sense of well-being that comes from satisfying ARC.

To thrive, all human beings need autonomy.
Autonomy is our human need to feel we have choices, to perceive we have some control over our life condition, and that our actions are of our own volition. After years of sublimation, terrorists become determined to exercise their right to autonomy. Historically, we have seen the oppressed become the oppressor. This knee-jerk reaction is a desperate attempt to compensate having lacked autonomy for so long.

The irony is that terrorists believe they are experiencing autonomy by choosing to retaliate or become a suicide bomber. The problem is, when people’s actions are born of fear, hate, and anger, external forces are still driving them. These external forces are as detrimental to their well-being as being oppressed. Ironically, the actions terrorists take to compensate for lack of autonomy guarantee they will not satisfy their need for autonomy.

To thrive, all human beings need relatedness.
Why do disenfranchised youngsters join gangs? Why would someone choose to leave their family and friends and join ISIL or any other terrorist group? Why is social media such a force? The answers lie in our psychological need for relatedness. Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others, find meaning, and feel connected to the whole by contributing to the greater good.

When people don’t perceive they are cared about and cannot attribute meaning to their current existence, they seek relatedness with something. Finding an affinity group—even an ill-meaning one—feels better to them than nothing. If relatedness cannot be imagined in this world and is promised in the next, a suicide bomber is willing to die for it. If terrorists understood what they are really dying for, they might find it in this lifetime.

To thrive, all human beings need competence.
People simply cannot thrive without the competence to cope with their situation or affect changes required for flourishing. In the workplace, we see people who lack the skills to meet daily challenges “check out” or “quit and stay.” In society, we see them give up hope and take advantage of their victimhood. But, this is not what people desire. Human beings long to learn and grow. That’s why a two-year old constantly asks, “Why?”

As we grow up, we don’t lose the yearning to master the world around us. The primary way we satisfy our needs for competence is through our job and meaningful work. Without a social structure that ensures education and skill building, terrorists take satisfaction in what they seem to do well: taking revenge by disrupting other people’s lives. The world’s reaction to their behavior gives them a warped sense of mastery they aren’t getting anywhere else.

Back to the original question.
The undermining of psychological needs for ARC provides a fundamental explanation for the rise and growth of gangs and terrorist groups such as ISIL, prompting my opening question: What if terrorists understood the true nature of human motivation?

I hope to shed more light on that question and ask you to consider a more provocative question in my next post: How can we use what we know about the true nature of human motivation to change our approach to terrorism?

What People Are Saying

Kim D Smith   |   25 November 2015   |   Reply

I believe that the problem is deeper than motivation. The terrorists are warped in their very spirit, which is their innermost being. Unless their spirit is healed, they will continue to wreak destruction in the world.

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