The Power of Validation to Elicit Participation

Perhaps the strongest drive we have, aside from our more basic/primal survival drives, is the drive for validation. The need to fit in.  To belong.  To feel significant (though this drive is intimately tied to survival).

Scott Atran, a terrorism expert, believes that the biggest reason people become terrorists is that it satisfies their need to feel significant.  The promise of glory, a lasting legacy, of engaging in something of immense importance—these are the fundamental reasons people terrorize.

In an article written in The Guardian, Atran says:

Especially for young men, mortal combat in the service of a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers.

In other words, terrorism offers validation.

Research shows that terrorists generally don’t commit terrorism because they are extraordinarily vengeful or uncaring, poor or uneducated, schooled as children in radical religion or brainwashed, criminally-minded or suicidal, or sex-starved for virgins in heaven. Most have no personal history of violent emotions and generally peaceful in their daily lives but become ‘born again’ into a radical cause.

So how do we go about reducing terrorism?


In the long run, perhaps the most important counterterrorism measure of all is to provide alternative heroes and hopes that are more enticing and empowering than any moral lessons or material offerings (jobs that help to relieve the terrible boredom and inactivity of immigrant youth in Europe and the underemployed throughout much of the Muslim world, will not alone offset the allure of playing at war). It is also important to provide alternate local networks and chatrooms that speak to the inherent idealism, sense of risk and adventure, and need for peer approval that young people everywhere tend toward. It could even be a 21st-century version of what the Boy Scouts and high school football teams did for immigrants and potentially troublesome youth as America urbanised a century ago. Ask any cop on the beat: those things work. It has to be done with the input and insight of local communities, and chiefly peer-to-peer, or it won’t be effective: deradicalisation, like radicalisation itself, works mainly from the bottom up, not from the top down. This, of course, is not how you stop terrorism today, but how you do it for tomorrow.

As a parent and an educator, I would be wise to understand the power of validation and to apply it to my personal/professional lives (same life).  As Atran says above, meeting the needs for significance, risk-taking, and adventure for my children/students is important, and must be done in functional ways (as opposed to dysfunctional ways—terrorism is a dysfunctional means of validation……..)



In a TED talk by Zach Wade, called “Validation Elicits Participation,” Wade tells the story of a moment he shared with a student where he validated the student’s art project.  It started with a simple question of why the student chose that particular project.

The result?

He lit up.  I made him the authority on his piece, and he went in to delve deeper into the meaning of his artwork.

What does Wade attribute this response to?

The trigger was a simple human interaction.  I validated him…but why does this positive give and take have to be the exception, not the norm?  This kid feared my judgment… but when I validated him, he dove right in.

Reinforcing the all-too-often dis-empowering nature of evaluation, in contrast with the empowering nature of validation, Wade goes on to say:

By asking him questions of genuine interest, I made him the authority of his piece.  Where he was used to being evaluated, he was suddenly validated, and that was all that he needed.

Now, I am not against evaluation per se, but I do believe we tend to overdo it.  There is a dynamic balance between evaluation and validation that needs to be maintained, and if the balance should lean to one side more than the other, it should lean toward validation.

After watching Wade’s TED talk, take a look at this AMAZING TED talk by Naomi Feil called “Validation, Communication through Empathy.”

Wow.  Such a powerful talk!


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