June 12, 2010

Characteristics of the Extremist Personality

by Profesor Tariq ibn 'Ali Al-Habeeb

First: Is there an extremist personality?

Second: Are there specific characteristics for the extremist personality?

Third: Can extremism in individuals be the result of genetic aptitude or of social and political circumstances?

This paper is not a comprehensive research but rather a journey to the different types of personalities to verify the researcher's proposition:

"Immoderation and extremism are not the inherent in certain personalities, for mere personalities cannot be extreme. Extremism is an intellectual ideology more than a psychological need. It is a separate idea which people choose and are attracted to mostly for social reasons."

Immoderation and Extremism

In this paper, we will discuss immoderation as a behavioral and religious concept which sticks to the highest lawful extreme. It is usually characterized by free thinking and sentimentality. It usually revolves around fear of slipping into error. The immoderate person often avoids those who do not share his attitude without attacking them.

Extremism is an intellectual deviation, as the religious principles are distorted and given an opposite value. Some people claim that killing, stealing and aggression are permissible when they serve the extremist purposes and ideas.

Extremism is a destructive behavioral deviation which holds the highest forms of ignoring the other without having an actual alternate plan for successfully applying change.

It is noticed that extremists all over the world come from different social classes and not from a specific group or class.

The extremist usually goes through a psychological remolding process where he is isolated from his inner self and community to be reshaped with the ideas and behavior of extremism.

What is the Personality?

It is an inherent behavior in the self which is transmitted through the genes and education, and it is unique in each one.

Each individual has a genetic aptitude to take up a certain way in life which agrees with the education received during childhood and adolescence. The result is an individual with unique traits (sensitive, suspicious, aggressive, narcissist, hesitant… etc).

The non-hereditary influence is not limited to the parental education but the personality is influenced by the ideas prevailing in the surrounding society and recently by the ideas of this vast world.

To prove the heredity influence, a study was conducted on identical twins (who developed from the same fertilized ovum) who were raised in the same environment but there were differences in personalities. This proves there is a difference in personality between one person and the other in spite of living in the same environment and having almost the same genes.

To show the influence of the environment, we say that if an American child is raised in a Saudi family in Saudi Arabia, he will be raised embracing Saudi ideas and behaviors, while his twin raised in America will have a different personality.

What is a Normal Human (the Normal Personality)?

There is no accurate definition or precise description in books of psychology and psychiatry for the normal personality. There are only traits of abnormal personalities. Whoever is not characterized by these traits is nearer to normality. One becomes closer to normality as much as these traits do not appear in his personality.

The statistical definition of the normal personality is the following: "It is the personality agreed upon by the community as having the most accepted behaviors, ideas and feelings." This reflects the influence of community in defining the normal personality. If a Jew feels superior to others, aggresses others to protect himself and exploits them even in unlawful ways, this person is considered to be normal according to the psychological definition of the personality. The community he belongs to agrees on certain characteristics and traits as being of the normal personality. The same applies to other communities.

What is personality disorder (the abnormal personality)?

It is an individual pattern of behavior and personal experiences which are different and abnormal from others in the same community. This is represented in:

1. Thinking strangely about himself, people and the events that surround him as in evaluating events and situations.

2. Having unbalanced feelings and reactions (feelings do not match the situation whether by over-reaction or under-reaction).

3. Having disorders in restraining oneself and in understanding his needs and duties versus the duties of others.

4. Having disorders while dealing with others due to some personality traits (such as intense suspicion, extreme pessimism, oversensitivity…etc).

Personality disorder is reflected in the functional, marital, social or educational productivity of the individual. The deterioration increases in highly disordered personalities.

Types of Abnormal Personalities

According to psychiatry, these are the types of abnormal personalities:

1. Schizoid
2. Schizotypal
3. Borderline
4. Histrionic
5. Narcissistic
6. Psychopathic
7. Depressive
8. Avoidant
9. Dependant
10. Obsessive-compulsive
11. Aggressive
12. Sadistic
13. Masochistic

There are other less important types of personalities.

It is worth mentioning that these disordered personalities are found in 1-3% of humans. Their characteristics without the disorders are found in many people varying in degrees. The characteristics of more than one personality can be found in the same person.

We will review the characteristics of these personalities and try to search for characteristics of immoderation or extremism among them. Then we will ask:

- Are immoderation and extremism caused by a definite psychological disorder or an intellectual ideology stemming from dealing with political, economic and social variables?

Note that we are not studying the psychology of extremism as a behavior but we are studying the personality itself. I wished to clarify the goal from the start. That is why I have avoided talking about extremist groups, how they form and their characteristics.

The Schizoid Personality:

This personality is isolated, withdrawn and separated from reality. It lacks the interest of establishing close relations. It tends to individual activities and hobbies and is not affected by the criticism of others. It is also characterized by emotional coldness.

Due to the strong tendency towards isolation, owners of this personality have their own thinking methods. They derive their ideas from what they read and what is dictated to them more than from communicating with others, as their psychological structure refuses mingling and enjoys being isolated.

- It is not likely that this personality turns to extremism and immoderation. The lack of communication with others gives this personality the chance to reexamine its ideas and it may become immoderate, especially in the suitable circumstances.

The Schizotypal Personality:

This personality is characterized by odd behavior, disorder in perceiving reality and by having no definite pattern in life. It is the kind of personality which you cannot anticipate what it will do or how it thinks in new matters. The ideas of this personality are fanciful and have nothing to do with reality. Its behaviors are totally deviant from those living in the same circumstances. This individual's disorder is usually clear to others but he might embrace a certain idea and fight for it, no matter how strange it is.

- This personality may turn to extremism but the obvious disorder in its life aspects makes it clear to others that it is disordered, unless they lack the understanding or if the intellectual deviation concerns an originally correct idea.

The Paranoid Personality:

This personality suspects others without sufficient basis other than unreal suspicions. The paranoid is preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates and with the level of trust given to them. He thinks others do not see the plots woven to ensnare him. He often avoids close relations because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against him. Add to this that he bears grudges, is unforgiving of insults and tends to read hidden demeaning or threatening meanings into remarks or events in a way that annoys the people who deal with him. He draws suspicious links between events in a continuous quest to justify his doubts.

- This personality may turn to extremism due to excessive doubt inherent in it. His suspicions increase with the vagueness of social circumstances or political systems he is living under.

The Borderline Personality:

A borderline person has a one-dimensional character. He is an extremist in his ideas and concepts alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. He is an extremist in his relations wavering between excessive love and hatred just in few hours. He suffers from having no fixed self-image, impulsivity of his actions and emotional instability that precedes his ideas. He has feelings of emptiness, has no clear goals and is unable to control his anger fits.

- This personality is liable to extremism; rather it is extremity in itself. Due to its instability, it does not remain as an extremist but takes up the opposite course at the first emotional change with no need to be convinced.

The Narcissistic Personality:

It has a grandiose sense of self-importance and love. The narcissist believes that he is special and unique and can only be understood by other special people. He expects a special kind of respect to his own self and ideas from others. He is exploitive, extortionate and opportunist who takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends. He is envious, self-centered and can do anything to reach a position not to promote himself but to achieve his personal goals.

- This personality can turn to extremism not because of conviction but because of the worldly gains of embracing this idea. Soon he will abandon it if he finds his personal interests in another idea, regardless of the idea (He is centered on himself not on a notion). The leading extremists are of this type of personality more than the followers.

The Histrionic Personality:

It appears more frequently in women compared to men. These people feel uneasy when they are not the center of attention, and that is why they are excessively concerned with their physical appearance to attract others (for lack of a character). They seek admiration without being able to offer any profound thought or benefit. Their emotions are shallow and they are very much suggestible.

- This personality may turn to extremism but due to its emotional immaturity, its shallow mind and its impatience, it will be an extremist as long as others are interested in it. When people's attention decreases, it will seek another idea to fulfill its need of being the center of attention. The extremists of this personality are rare.

The Psychopathic Personality (antisocial):

This personality is characterized by an inability to conform to society's regulations and systems, lack of future planning and impulsivity. It is always violent, cunning, irresponsible and unable to learn from past experiences and lacks feelings of remorse. Most criminals who are merciless are of this personality. If some of them are intelligent, they may pretend to be pious or assume any other perfect trait in the society to achieve their mean goals.

- This personality may turn to extremism if the criminal behavior is going to fulfill its criminal desires such as stealing, plundering and killing. The level of extremity is determined according to the level of intelligence. What distinguishes the psychopathic from the extremist is that the first suffers from a disordered behavior from childhood and not from a sudden idea.

The Obsessive-Compulsive Personality:

This personality is characterized by preoccupation with details, inflexibility and rigidity in applying rules.

It is a perfectionist personality that shows excessive devotion to work on the expense of rest. It is characterized by an inability to depend on others for achieving tasks, rigidity and stubbornness. It usually adopts a miserly spending style, is over-conscientious and unable to discard worthless objects.

- This personality - like the previous one – may turn to extremism due to concentrating on minute things more than regarding the whole picture and due to the workmanship mentality instead of the reflective way of thinking.

The Dependant Personality:

A person with a dependant personality finds difficulty in making everyday decisions and carrying out activities without repeatedly referring back to others and seeking their advice. He has difficulty expressing disagreement with others because of fear of loss of support or approval. This person has difficulty initiating projects on his own because of a lack of self-confidence rather than a lack of energy. He feels uncomfortable when alone and urgently seeks another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends. He is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take decisions for himself.

- This personality may turn to extremism if people around it were due to lack of self-confidence and the inability to have independent views.

The Avoidant Personality:

A person with an avoidant personality avoids the functional jobs which require communication with others. That is why he avoids social interaction for fear of not being accepted. He always fears criticism in meetings and social gatherings and feels inept. As a result, he tends to keep silent while in company. It is a general feeling of inferiority.

- This personality does not usually turn to extremism because it cannot be disciplined or committed. If it turned to extremism, this will be for the same reasons as the Dependant Personality.

The Depressive Personality:

It refuses doing any action or activity due to its depression. It looks negatively to different aspects of life. These are the symptoms of depression embodied in a person all his life.

- This personality may turn to extremism due to its pessimism and missing the meaning of life.

The Passive-Aggressive Personality:

It tends to attack others in indirect and seemingly passive ways.

- This personality may turn to extremism if there is a personal gain or attack on others involved in extremism.

The Sadistic Personality:

It is the personality that derives its pleasure and joy from inflicting physical and psychological pain on others. That is why they seek the jobs that make harming others lawful.

- This personality may turn to extremism if it fulfills its desire to hurt others physically or psychologically.

The Masochistic Personality:

It is the personality that finds pleasure and joy when others inflict physical or psychological pain on it. That is why it seeks always to be harmed by others.

- This personality may turn to extremism if the desire for being hurt is fulfilled and if other members in the extremist group inflict pain on it.


It is now clear that immoderation and extremism are not the inherent in certain personalities, for mere personalities cannot be extreme. Extremism is an intellectual ideology more than a psychological need. It is a separate idea which people choose and are attracted to mostly for social reasons. An individual may become an extremist during some period of his life due to certain social circumstances that force him to behave in a certain way that he does not oppose. These behaviors may even draw him nearer to his country, group, tribe or religion. Social circumstances play an effective role if they were accompanied by feelings of injustice and marginalization.

We stress that extremism is not a religious trait. It can occur in any aspect of life provided that the suitable circumstances are present.

* This paper was presented to the Forum organized by King Abdul-Aziz Center for National Dialogue during the period 27-31/12/2003. More than 40 scholars and thinkers participated in the Forum.