Can the Science of Purpose Help Explain White Supremacy?

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A sense of purpose makes us physically and psychologically stronger. But what if your purpose is hateful and destructive?

BY JEREMY ADAM SMITH, The Greater Good Science Center

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A sense of purpose is a source of strength.

It was for the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl when he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. During his worst moments, Frankl would envision the face of his wife, which led him to this realization: “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man [sic] can aspire.”

Indeed, during his time at the camp, Frankl noticed that prisoners who were able to see beyond themselves and help others often stood the greatest chance of day-to-day survival. His wife died in Bergen-Belsen, but Frankl went on to turn this personal insight into a lifelong effort to understand the role of meaning and purpose in human life.

I thought about Frankl as I watched video from Charlottesville, Virginia, of men (and some women) marching with torches and Confederate flags, chanting, “White lives matter,” “Blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us.” The specific goal of their march? To protect a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who led Confederate forces in defense of slavery. These were the American descendants of the Nazis who imprisoned Frankl and killed his wife—and there is no doubt that they too share a strong sense of purpose, one embodied in their chants.

As a marcher told a Vice documentary team: “Last night, at the torch walk, there were hundreds and hundreds of us. People realized that they are not atomized individuals, they are part of a larger whole.” This “larger whole” killed one woman and seriouslyinjured dozens of counter-protesters.

As part of a general movement in psychology to turn from studying human weakness to discovering what helps us to flourish, for almost two decades researchers have explored the questions Frankl raised in his work. Research suggests a commitment to goals bigger than yourself can strengthen your physical health and psychological well-being.

But what if achieving your purpose must come at the expense of someone else? Today, what can the science of purpose teach us about the growing movement for white supremacy in America? And how might the answers help us to clarify our own sense of purpose?

Purpose is intensely personal, say these studies, and yet it is shaped by the people who surround us. The nobility of our purpose often reflects the quality of the company we keep.

The psychology of purpose

“Purpose is absolutely a tricky concept, especially as it is possible to have a destructive purpose,” says Susan Mangan, a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University who has studied purpose for years. “The definition of purpose does not require it to be altruistic.”

Indeed, a sense of purpose is defined by its inherent, profound subjectivity. According to Mangan and her advisor Kendall Bronk—one of the country’s leading researchers on purpose—purpose can be broken down into three components.

  • It’s an ultimate goal that shapes your short-term choices and behavior.
  • It is personally meaningful, coming from within. In other words, no one is standing over you forcing you to pursue your goal; you are self-motivated. The goal imbues your life with importance and value.
  • Finally, a purpose in life goes beyond the self, leading you to want to make a difference in the world.

A fairly large body of scientific studies suggest that a sense of purpose evolved to drive us humans to accomplish big things. That may be why it has been linked to alower risk of heart attack and a longer life: Evolution rewards those with a sense of purpose. Indeed, studies suggest that Frankl’s concentration-camp observations of who survived and who didn’t were probably accurate.

We thrive when we are working for some greater good. Some people find purpose in making others laugh, caring for the sick and injured, or just taking care of their families. Others want to protect the environment. Many people find purpose in religion—spreading the word of God, as Christians say. There may well be as many kinds of purpose as there are members of the human family.

The Nazis had a purpose as well. We can hear an echo of that time in the words of today’s white supremacists.

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