More insidious than bullets, but perhaps as deadly. The Editor, Amanda Suriya Ariffin, asks an expert what makes a person abandon normality and embrace extremism.


Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of hidden psychological disorders is that a person in possession of said disorder doesn’t display symptoms. It’s not as if we all carry a brain scanning machine with us at all times. And why should we?

We wouldn’t need to if each and every person were a perfectly normal, functioning member of mainstream society. Arguments about what constitutes normal aside, the reality is most people, for a large part of their days, do not display extremist behaviour.

But then there are the recent circumstances of seemingly-normal young adults joining extremist groups. This is not a recent phenomenon; history is littered with instances of the often-tragic relationship between the two. (Think neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups in Europe, the Ferguson police shootings and ISIS.)

The disturbing fact is young adults who seem perfectly normal are, in fact, joining groups such as ISIS with alarming fervour and ease. So it begs the question: why? It’s not always a simple case of believing in a cause. Many people believe in a cause, but quietly. They join a group but do not subscribe to the barbarity of acts such as beheading complete strangers.

So what flips a person to believe the propaganda to the point of suspending their morality?

Hidden Ills

Speaking to Dr Edward Chan, leading consultant psychologist at the International Psychology Centre in KL, the diagnosis is multi-layered. It starts with the seed. That seed is hidden psychological disorders. The conditions in which that seed germinates – social isolation, dissatisfaction with society – can determine a person’s propensity to become part of a fringe group and undertake acts of extremism that are, frankly, mortifying to the average person.

He makes the distinction between those who joined the Third Reich and an insurgent rabble such as ISIS. “The Third Reich involved the entire German population,” he explains, “whereas ISIS is a small percentage of larger society.”
“So we need to ask, what makes these people more vulnerable (to extremist propaganda)?”

There are “a lot of hidden psychological disorders,” he states, and when they have access to arms or have been exposed to violence – like the Sandy Hook shooter, Dr Chan cites as example – then the tipping point becomes more likely. “Even though his teachers recognised him, he was, in fact, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.” (It is a neuro-psychological disorder, says Dr Chan, where there are abnormalities in the brain. It is often referred to simply as Asperger’s, that is characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests.)

Studies in the United States involving numerous brain scans of people with abnormal disorders, including Asperger’s, explains Dr Chan, have shown that brain patterns differ from what is considered normal. “Certain areas are more active and light up more than others.”

I interject and ask him pointedly if there are similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths, and those with Asperger’s, noting that psychopaths and sociopaths often lack empathy, and rarely display remorse.

To my surprise, for I was expecting him to debunk my superficial knowledge gleaned from reading a few books, he declares that there are indeed similarities between those with Asperger’s and psychopaths or sociopaths.

The similarity lies in the inability to apologise; to say sorry.

It sounds simple, to diagnose or label a person who is truculent with apology, as either being a psychopath or having Asperger’s.

“There are a number of similarities but they are not the same,” he points out. “Lack of empathy, lack of remorse – these are the similarities. There are a lot of parents who do not know their children have Asperger’s, and they come to us (for counselling) and we diagnose these children.

There is a genetic link to Asperger’s, he adds, but says there is no single gene to determine or trigger Asperger’s. There is only a signature cluster of genes that can suggest a person may suffer a disorder. And – here is the kicker – it can be passed on from parent to child.

External Forces

But again, diagnosis is not so simple. If your parent has or had psychopathic tendencies it does not necessarily follow that you, too, will be more susceptible to joining an extremist group and start slaughtering hostages.
It’s not a simple one-to-one correlation, he asserts.

So does it follow that someone with Asperger’s syndrome is more susceptible to violent acts of extremism?

He pauses in reflection, weighing his response.

“Let’s just say those with Asperger’s are more susceptible to being brainwashed through propaganda. From there, we make the other link.” There is a link between brainwashing and violence, he explains. Though this may seem obvious, it needs stating.

“It depends on critical criteria,” he explains. “Are you, firstly, okay with violence?” What he means is if a person has been brought up in an environment where violence is not only tolerated but also accepted and, worse, condoned, then the propensity towards committing violence is greater. The presence of violence in a person’s childhood can be as simple as parents smacking their child or teachers employing corporal punishment in school.

“The message you send to a [child on the receiving end of violence] is that violence is ok,” he states baldly.

So let’s break it down.

Internally, a person who seems normal might possess the neural disorder – that presents no symptoms, other than a lack of empathy or remorse – is already susceptible. Externally, when that person is exposed to a culture, or is brought up in an environment of violence, then the susceptibility to extremist propaganda becomes greater. But again, it is not that clear-cut.

“There are layers of sending messages of propaganda,” he adds, especially to a child. Isolation plays a part. Lack of contact with other members of society, lack of friends: these add up to a lack of opportunity to hear other points of view.

Single-tracking in Isolation

Simply put, if an impressionable young person hears a one-track message – for example, that society is corrupt, that one race is inferior, or that a segment of people must be exterminated – then the propensity towards extremist violent behaviour becomes more pronounced.

You would think that if a person has been isolated for so long but suddenly is accepted in a group, surely that offsets the negative effects of social isolation in the first place, I venture.

“Not so,” replies Dr Chan. “When that person has been accepted into a group, they are more likely to believe the propaganda of that group BECAUSE they have finally found acceptance.”

“He is MORE susceptible because of his existing isolation.”

Lack of parental guidance or wilful neglect (Dr Chan terms it lack of nurturing) has to be distinguished into social, intellectual, physical and emotional nurturing.

I remind him of William Golding’s book The Lord of the Flies, the cautionary parable about what happens when you leave a group of unsupervised individuals to their own devices. Group think, anyone?

“Whatever race you are, there are certain practices in certain cultures, where the child’s exposure to a multitude of views and thoughts, or even opposite views, is limited.” Limiting a child’s experience to just a small, closed line of thought can have less-desirable consequences, is what I read in his diplomatically-crafted response.

One-sided exposure to a specific stream of thought leaves a person more vulnerable to the wrong kind of brainwashing. Exposure here can be defined as person-to-person exposure or even external stimuli such as broadcast media.

“This is where intellectual nurturing comes in. Let’s suppose you have a supportive environment for your child to get acquainted with a diverse range of ideas and also in social contact,” he postulates.

“It is very important to provide a diverse range of social contacts and intellectual stimuli,” Dr Chan advises.

I throw my burning questions to him. Can brainwashing be prevented?

Can a person be immunised from brainwashing?

“Well, you can inoculate them, but it has to start at a young age,” he says, “how to assert themselves, how to say no to certain things.” And if you think it starts in adolescence, let me tell the good doctor goes lower; it starts from the age of five.

If a parent wanted to be sure their child did not grow up into a 19-year-old who brings a gun to school and shoots his schoolmates or becomes a trigger-happy ISIS soldier, stress inoculation is what he recommends as a preventive measure against future brainwashing. Methods are non-invasive. “What happens is you teach the child to think critically, that there are ideas where you can evaluate the pros and cons.”

But this doesn’t take into account herd mentality.

He tells me about an established experiment known as the Milgram experiment that, in a nutshell, illustrates how people in a group are quite happy to inflict the maximum amount of pain onto a person if they are absolved of all responsibility.

The key point is, beyond susceptibility to brainwashing and the science behind the wholesale swallowing of propaganda, is the fact that a person’s moral compass can be swayed so easily.

If you think you would not be capable of hurting a person – a complete stranger — to their maximum pain level, it seems, you can be persuaded to.

So instead of fearing the men with guns and machetes, perhaps it’s time to remove the real weapons of mass destruction: one-track rhetoric peddled to those languishing on the fringes of the very society that has ignored them.