American Psychological Association (APA)

Thrill-Seeking, Search for Meaning Fuel Political Violence

Access to exciting, non-violent alternatives may help curb impulse to harm, study says

Newswise — WASHINGTON – What drives someone to support or participate in politically or religiously motivated acts of violence, and what can be done to prevent them? While one factor may be a search for meaning in life, research published by the American Psychological Association suggests people may be further driven by an increased need for excitement and feeding that need with thrilling but non-violent alternatives may curb the desire.

“Recently, scholars have discussed how youths are lured to join political or religious movements,” said Birga Schumpe, PhD, a social psychologist at New York University Abu Dhabi and lead author of the study. “Although research has recently linked people’s search for meaning or significance with their willingness to use violence for a cause, our research suggests this is further advanced by a thirst for adventure.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Schumpe and her colleagues surveyed 460 participants from Spain asking a series of questions designed to measure how much they were searching for meaning in life, to what extent they craved new, exciting experiences, how willing they were to sacrifice themselves for a cause and how much did they support political violence. The researchers found that the search for meaning in life was strongly associated with a need for excitement and that, in turn, was associated with greater support for political violence. A second set of similar surveys, conducted three months apart with approximately 300 participants from Spain, found that the need for adventure increased over time in people who were searching for meaning in life and as that need got greater, so did their potential to support political violence.

The researchers next conducted an experiment online with 121 participants. Half were asked to participate in an activity designed to increase their sense of meaning in life (write an essay about their legacy) and half were given a random control activity (write about their favorite sport shoes). They then completed the same set of surveys used previously. Those who wrote about leaving a legacy scored higher on feeling that their lives had meaning and subsequently lower in need for excitement and support of political violence than those who wrote about their shoes.

In a similar experiment, 305 participants were asked either to write about a time when they were searching for meaning in life or write about the last time they went shopping for shoes. Those who wrote about searching for meaning subsequently reported a greater need for meaning in life, which was associated with higher levels of adventure seeking and, again, support for extreme political violence. 

Additional online experiments involving more than 800 participants confirmed the findings, but in those the researchers measured support for a hypothetical extreme activist group and determined that support for the activist group was due in part to participants’ identifying the group as exciting.

Based on their findings, the researchers decided to test what they thought might be a strategy to reduce support for political violence. In one final online experiment, they presented 392 participants, who identified themselves as animal rights activists, with either an unexciting activist group (e.g., engaged in activities such as boycotts and pray-ins) or an exciting but peaceful activist group (e.g., engaged in marches, parades or concerts). Participants who rated high in adventure seeking scored much lower in support for political violence when presented with the exciting compared with those who were shown the unexciting option.

“In recent years, many approaches to counter violent extremism have tried to tackle people’s ideologies by producing counter-messages pleading them to say no to violence or trying to convince them that the foundations of their belief system are inappropriate or wrong,” said Schumpe. “Our research indicates  that this latter approach is likely to backfire and have the opposite of the intended effect. Interventions to counter violent extremism should be geared either toward helping individuals make meaning of their lives or redirecting their desire for thrilling experiences toward exciting but socially oriented groups.


Article: “The Role of Sensation Seeking in Political Violence: An Extension to Significance Quest Theory,” by Birga Schumpe, PhD, Jocelyn Bélanger, PhD and Claudia Nisa, PhD, New York University Abu Dhabi and Manuel Moyano, PhD, University of Cordoba. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Nov. 1, 2018.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

Contact: Birga Schumpe at


The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.

If you do not want to receive APA news releases, please let us know at or 202-336-5700.

Filters close

Showing results

110 of 4573
Released: 15-Jan-2021 5:40 PM EST
Research Links Social Isolation to COVID-19 Protocol Resistance
Humboldt State University

As health officials continue to implore the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, recent research by Humboldt State University Psychology Professor Amber Gaffney provides key insights into connections between social isolation, conspiratorial thinking, and resistance to COVID-19 protocols.

Newswise: Rapid blood test identifies COVID-19 patients at high risk of severe disease
Released: 15-Jan-2021 5:35 PM EST
Rapid blood test identifies COVID-19 patients at high risk of severe disease
Washington University in St. Louis

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have shown that a relatively simple and rapid blood test can predict which patients with COVID-19 are at highest risk of severe complications or death. The blood test measures levels of mitochondrial DNA, which normally resides inside the energy factories of cells. Mitochondrial DNA spilling out of cells and into the bloodstream is a sign that a particular type of violent cell death is taking place in the body.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 2:55 PM EST
COVID-19 deaths really are different. But best practices for ICU care should still apply, studies suggest.
Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan

COVID-19 deaths are indeed different from other lung failure deaths, according to two recent studies, with 56% of COVID-19 patients dying primarily from the lung damage caused by the virus, compared with 22% of those whose lungs fail due to other causes. But, the researchers conclude, the kind of care needed to help sustain people through the worst cases of all forms of lung failure is highly similar, and just needs to be fine-tuned.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 2:50 PM EST
45% of adults over 65 lack online medical accounts that could help them sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations
Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan

As the vaccination of older adults against COVID-19 begins across the country, new poll data suggests that many of them don’t yet have access to the “patient portal” online systems that could make it much easier for them to schedule a vaccination appointment. In all, 45% of adults aged 65 to 80 had not set up an account with their health provider’s portal system.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 1:30 PM EST
New England Journal of Medicine publishes COVID-19 treatment trial results
University of Texas at San Antonio

A clinical trial involving COVID-19 patients hospitalized at UT Health San Antonio and University Health, among roughly 100 sites globally, found that a combination of the drugs baricitinib and remdesivir reduced time to recovery, according to results published Dec. 11 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 12:40 PM EST
DNA test can quickly identify pneumonia in patients with severe COVID-19, aiding faster treatment
University of Cambridge

Researchers have developed a DNA test to quickly identify secondary infections in COVID-19 patients, who have double the risk of developing pneumonia while on ventilation than non-COVID-19 patients.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 12:30 PM EST
Fight CRC To Present Research Findings on The Impact of COVID-19 on the Colorectal Cancer Community at 2021 GI ASCO
Fight Colorectal Cancer

Fight Colorectal Cancer presents abstract at Gastrointestinal Cancer Symposium highlighting the need to address the barriers and opportunities for care within the colorectal cancer community during the COVID-19 pandemic

Released: 15-Jan-2021 12:25 PM EST
Technion to Award Honorary Doctorate to Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla
American Technion Society

Israel's Technion will award an honorary doctorate to Pfizer CEO and Chairman Dr. Albert Bourla, for leading the development of the novel vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The honorary doctorate will be conferred at the Technion Board of Governors meeting in November 2021.

Released: 15-Jan-2021 11:30 AM EST
UW researchers develop tool to equitably distribute limited vaccines
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and UW Health have developed a tool that incorporates a person’s age and socioeconomic status to prioritize vaccine distribution among people who otherwise share similar risks due to their jobs.

Showing results

110 of 4573