This interdisciplinary course will examine the phenomena of cults and totalitarian regimes - closed, hierarchical systems led by charismatic, authoritarian leaders. Using in-depth case studies, we will use a variety of theoretical approaches to understand these systems, in addition to reading narrative and literary accounts. We will explore the processes of recruitment, conversion, conformity, commitment and disaffiliation, with a particular emphasis on understanding the extreme obedience found in these systems. This course will examine commonalities between cults and totalitarian systems including: the effects on personal life and relationships, social networks, a shared absolute ideology, and charismatic relationship between leader and followers.
Free Minds UK is a new education and support group for people who are, or were, involved in cults or high demand groups. The impact of cult membership, or the loss of a family member to such a group, can be traumatic and isolating. However it can be hard to find information, support and a safe place to share these difficult experiences. If you have ever been affected or know anyone who has, this unique group has been set up in response to the urgent need for information and support.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
What follows is a response I wrote to Malcolm Grant, vice-chancellor of UCL, printed in Times Higher Education a while back. It is unfortunately still timely and relevant:
As Malcolm Grant puts it, the recent discussion about the prevention of violent extremism in universities centred on the issue that "intellectual freedom on campus cannot be compromised" ("Freedom of thought is all we foment", www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 31 December). What has not entered the debate is the social psychology of group influence and conversion processes.
Universities have an obligation to teach. By teaching the classics in these and related fields, they can make a critical contribution without getting mired in debates about ideology or intellectual freedom. Yet in all the discussions about how a privileged student from a wealthy family became an attempted suicide bomber, not a word has been spoken about these well-researched yet often forgotten causes. It is not, as Grant states, "a mystery".
Over the past 60 years, academics have researched influence and conversion. This scholarship had its roots in trying to understand why "good Germans" performed the most horrific acts under Hitler's leadership.
There is a great body of work relevant to helping students resist recruitment attempts that is seldom taught except in occasional social psychology classes.
What universities can do is to use their educational brief to teach students about these processes to which we are all vulnerable. We warn students about unsafe sex, substance abuse, even unlicensed minicabs: isn't it time we took seriously our duty as educators to warn them about our vulnerability to group processes?
Using existing literature, we can teach students to recognise recruitment attempts, be aware of the potential dangers and costs to themselves, and understand how they can resist.
Contact Alexandra Stein here
The study demonstrates the process whereby the Newman Tendency positions itself as a safe haven for followers while simultaneously arousing fear in increasingly isolated followers, resulting in a situation of "fright without solution". This induces disorganized attachment of the follower to the group, as measured by the new Group Attachment Interview. Disorganized attachment (similar to a trauma bond) is associated with cognitive lapses, disorientation, dissociation and confusion and creates cognitive and emotional difficulties for followers. These cognitive and emotional effects allow for further insinuation of the group's total ideology and thus create a key pathway for radicalization. In contrast, Green Party followers demonstrated only an affiliative - not an attachment - relationship to their group. They showed almost no signs of dissociation or disorientation in their thinking about their group involvement. These findings clarify the social psychological mechanisms leading to radicalization, hyper-obedience and deployability of followers in extremist groups.
There have been many books and reports from former members of Scientology about the terrible conditions of life for those in the inner circles of the group. Most recently this article in the New Yorker covers the recent departure of Hollywood writer Paul Haggis and several former high-ranking Scientologists. The article states that the FBI has been investigating Scientology on human trafficking charges for over a year. And this website exscientologykids.com is a poignant and brave response of young people who were born or grew up in the group. Some of the stories document child labour, overwork, separation from parents, substandard education, and periods of confinement and physical punishment. Once again we see patterns of family separations, and general interference in close attachment relationships, thus preventing group members from being able to consider their group experiences in a safe environment without the sole interpretation coming from the group itself.
Contact Alexandra Stein here
Last week I attended a debate on preventing radicalization at the RSA. The key element that became clear was that prevention is going to be very difficult when there is no agreed upon analysis of how radicalization occurs. I've run across this consistently in my work to encourage the development and implementation of prevention education programs - without a shared analysis of the processes of radicalization, it is hard to get decision makers to see the importance of prevention education. It is my view that we can make a big contribution to prevention by teaching young people (and their teachers and families) about social influence, recruitment and conversion processes. This is a missing plank in the current thinking about prevention of radicalization. In addition to law enforcement and community cohesion efforts, it is critical to teach the methods and mechanisms whereby people become the deployable agents of organized terrorist groups.
Interestingly, work to teach all young people about these social influence processes has been done for many years in Germany, for rather obvious reasons based in their totalitarian history. Several students I've taught from Germany had a sound understanding of these processes, having learned about them throughout their high school careers.
Prevention education certainly won't help on its own, but it is an important element of developing public awareness campaigns. In this I agree with Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz who, like me, sees the need to address this issue on a broad scale: in this debate he used the analogy of public awareness campaigns around obesity. Similarly I think we can learn from the immensely useful work done on HIV/AIDS prevention done around the world - but this brings me back to the lack of a shared analysis of the problem: until we can come to some agreement on how the processes of radicalization unfold it will be difficult to design such public awareness and education programs. HIV/AIDS prevention programs could not take place until scientists understood the methods of transmission.
Again I tend to agree with Nawaz here - recruitment doesn't happen randomly to "bunches of guys" as popularised by former CIA agent and terrorism researcher Marc Sageman. It happens as a result of concerted recruitment and conversion efforts on the part of organizations. These organizations employ processes of coercive persuasion which rely on the cognitive and emotional engulfing of individuals at the same time as increasingly isolating them from their prior relationships. Along with addressing the general social conditions that may create a favorable climate for recruiters, we must also look at, understand, and teach people about this systematic recruitment and conversion process. Becoming a suicide attacker (other than those few who really do have pre-existing suicidal and violent mental states) is on one level the most extreme exploitation of the attacker by the recruiting organization.
Contact Alexandra Stein here
In this study I looked at Fred Newman's New York-based political cult, and compared it with the non-cultic Green Party.
Part One gives some background about totalitarianism and cults, and introduces my research methodology.
Part Two gives some fairly detailed information on Fred Newman's group. Here are just a few of its projects or incarnations:
- International Workers Party
- Social Therapy
- Castillo Theater
- All Stars Project
- Some elements of the New York Independence Party
Part Three sets out my theoretical analysis, which draws on attachment theory. My main inspirations are John Bowlby, Robert Jay Lifton, and Hannah Arendt.
The Protea is a genus of South African flower that: "shows an amazing diversity of shape and form, ranging from trees to low-growing shrubs. In recognition of this diversity, it was named after the Greek sea god, Proteus, who was able to change his appearance."1
Robert Jay Lifton, who did some of the great work in defining totalist relationships, wrote a wonderful book, The Protean Self, Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, where he discusses the opposition of the rigid fundamentalist self with the shape shifting flexible self more adapted to the uncertainties of modern life.
As a South African by birth, I lay claim to the Protea as the flower of one of my nationalities. For me, it symbolises, in its many, shape-shifting forms, the opposite of a rigid fundamentalist unity, and offers instead a beautiful example of complex adaptation.
Solomon Asch, one of the great social psychologists, said this in his 1952 classic, Social Psychology: "the greater man's ignorance of the principles of his social surroundings, the more subject is he to their control; and the greater his knowledge of their operations and of their necessary consequences, the freer he can become with regard to them."
Yet so few people are taught these principles of (as Asch again says): "how individuals create the reality of groups and how the latter control their further actions."
So in this blog I intend to contribute to spreading the word a bit, by posting and discussing items that are relevant to this effort to understand our social world and the groups that we create and in which we exist.
Contact Alexandra Stein here