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 5687
Newswise: 250494_web.jpg
Released: 3-Dec-2020 2:05 PM EST
Why does it matter if most Republican voters still think Biden lost?
University of Rochester

As President-elect Joe Biden and his administrative team officially begin the transition process, only about 20 percent of Republican voters consider him the true winner of the election.

Released: 2-Dec-2020 7:15 AM EST
Congress Must Act To Fortify Health Care System And Protect Access To Care
American College of Radiology (ACR)

The final 2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule fails to avert the potential impact on seniors of payment cuts to more than a million health care providers already reeling from COVID-19’s financial impact. If Congress does not act now to address these changes, the results may be devastating for patients, communities and providers.

Released: 1-Dec-2020 11:10 AM EST
‘Fairmandering’ data tool makes redistricting more representative
Cornell University

A new mathematical method developed by Cornell University researchers can inject fairness into the fraught process of political redistricting – and proves that it takes more than good intent to create a fair and representative district.

Newswise: Efficient In-person voting observed by URI VOTES research team
Released: 30-Nov-2020 4:30 PM EST
Efficient In-person voting observed by URI VOTES research team
University of Rhode Island

The 2020 election is all but complete, but a team of researchers at the University of Rhode Island is still crunching the numbers – not the number of votes, but the statistics used to determine the efficiency of in-person voting in Rhode Island, Nebraska and Los Angeles.

Newswise: Rutgers Philosophy Professor Analyzes Justice Issues in New Podcast
Released: 30-Nov-2020 9:30 AM EST
Rutgers Philosophy Professor Analyzes Justice Issues in New Podcast
Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Rutgers-New Brunswick philosophy Professor Derrick Darby is helping to bring logic and data to discussions on the struggle for justice in America and globally in A Pod Called Quest.

Showing results

110 of 5687