Radical Ideologies: Deadly Ways of Thinking, Part 2

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We’ll have to do a lot less shooting and a lot more speaking to hearts and minds if the cognitive-behavioral paradigm is right about the ways deadly ideologies can lead to deadly consequences.

The professional practice of psychology experienced a rather profound shift in perspective with the emergence of the cognitive-behavioral paradigm. Over the past several decades many clinicians have come to appreciate not only how critical the link is between the ways in which we think and the ways we both feel and behave but also how important it is to directly confront “distorted” or erroneous thinking patterns if folks are ever to make significant changes in their maladaptive behavior patterns. (See “What Were They Thinking?” and “Rethinking “Stinking Thinking””.) We’ve also come to realize that it’s not just that the ways we look at things influence our sentiments and behaviors. Our firmest beliefs, convictions, and attitudes also have a profound impact on how we behave (see “What We Believe Really Matters”). Sometimes, our “core beliefs” can predispose us to act in some incredibly problematic ways, as we so unfortunately bore witness to once again when a handful of individuals adhering to a radical religious and political ideology (see “Radical Ideologies, Deadly Ways of Thinking”) mercilessly took the lives of so many in Paris, France.

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My work as a therapist radically changed in character the day that I adopted a new (i.e., cognitive-behavioral) perspective and began directly addressing the way my clients thought about things and acted. Before I could even begin this new work, I had to challenge many beliefs that both I and many other professionals had long accepted about the nature of people’s psychological difficulties — beliefs that were increasingly proving to be shortsighted, inaccurate, and sometimes even irrelevant. I also had to quit assuming that most people were generally unaware of “unconscious” motives behind their behavior. I had to dismiss the belief that directly confronting someone’s behavior, attitudes, or manner of thinking would necessarily alienate them and ensure they would be non-amenable to any constructive intervention. Once I started addressing various behaviors in the here and now moments during therapy and confronting the ways of thinking and attitudes that prompted many of those behaviors, everything began to change — including my clients’ problematic ways of doing things.

It’s really troubling that so many still fail to fully appreciate how important a person’s belief system is to their behavior. I’m not talking about a person’s “professed” belief system, either. Rather, I’m talking about what cognitive-behavioral psychologists call “core beliefs,” or our truest and deepest inner convictions. That’s why it was striking to me how many political pundits and commentators had a hard time believing that the terrorists who wreaked such havoc on the City of Light really believed the things their comrades were asserting on social media about the motivation for their actions. Many suggested that the radical religious rhetoric these folks spewed was but a ruse to justify a strictly politically driven desire to conquer for purposes of territory and social control. But even surface level consideration of the matter would make it hard to imagine why a person in the prime of their life would have enough motivation to end it purely in the service of a purely political cause. While there may indeed be some psychopathic war lords who in the fearless drive for conquest use religious dogma merely as a pretext for their brutal quest for domination, it’s clear that the majority of the foot soldiers in terror movements are motivated by an ideology that they have truly bought into. That is why defeating these of merchants of terror and mayhem is such a daunting task. It’s hard — some would say impossible — to kill an ideology. Any therapist who’s had to confront problematic thinking patterns that are deeply ingrained and equally deeply embraced knows this firsthand. But that doesn’t mean the ideology shouldn’t be confronted: unless radical, destructive ways of thinking are confronted directly and tactfully, they will only take firmer root.

The hearts of the people of the free world ache for the people of Paris, and all of France. It’s not just the senseless loss of life and the pain borne by the families of those killed that disturbs us. Rather, we mourn the loss of a sense of security and hope that we’ve so long enjoyed as we go about the pursuit of our various interests and dreams. We’re also troubled by what we intuitively know is responsible for that loss of security. Deep down, we understand the inextricable link between our beliefs and our behaviors, and we know that as long as radical ideologies are ardently embraced, even by a few, no one can ever really be safe. Problematic beliefs always predispose problematic behaviors, and deadly ideologies can always lead to deadly consequences. Moreover, there’s no way to bomb or shoot our way back to a safer place. Our safety ultimately lies in the conversion of hearts. For such a conversion to even have a chance of taking place, we have to confront — respectfully and benignly, but firmly and directly — the deadly ways of thinking being promoted in so many areas of the world. Doing so will be a substantial challenge, no doubt. But we have no alternative. What we believe really matters. So if we’re to save the world, we’ll have to do a lot less shooting and a lot more speaking to the hearts and minds of those who would have us believe as they do or perish.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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