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Principles of Social Psychology in Group Involvement

Gerald (Gary) Peterson, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology
Saginaw Valley State University

We are about to engage in another hindsight analysis of the events that lead people to extreme acts. As the media hype about the Heaven's Gate group surges on, we should ask "what's the big deal?" We have had scores of groups, most of them with religious ideology, being martyred, commiting suicide, or engaging in acts of terrorism for centuries. Some of those groups are now mainstream religions. Why is it that we continue to deny the powerful influence of group involvement and ideologies that justify atrocities or extreme acts? I suspect it may be tied to the fact that we all feel passionate about some set of beliefs tied to our culture, class, or ethnicity, but that we then prefer after-the-fact analyses that allow us to keep ourselves out of the equation. It is those wierd cult groups not my patriotic fervor. It is those bunch of crazies not my gay-bashing minister that is the problem. Isn't denial, and "us-them" thinking part of the problem here? Doesn't it cover up our own lack of skeptical, or critical thinking?

Well, let me say at the outset that I can be idealistic, I search for meaning and answers in my life, and that at times I have found others appearing more perfect and confident than myself, and I was attracted to them and their beliefs because of this. Perhaps, it is this questioning, coupled with skepticism and not taking oneself so seriously, that now separates me from a Heaven's Gate. Perhaps. We all bring our own history of thinking or non-thinking habits to bear on our desire to be accepted, to find our place, to achieve a sense of who we are. Many seek a charismatic leader, or more perfect idol as they seem to promise this framework of love, acceptance, and rightous direction. They feel they have found their place, their "home," and their mission. Most of us however, become suspicious about such feelings as we have learned that the responsible struggle, not the comfortable, idealistic end-state, is the moral imperative here.

Ideologies are frameworks of belief, values, and attitudes associated with movements that provide social identity. When are people most likely to be attracted to such offerings? Social researchers find the typical recruit is young, idealistic, sometimes lonely, and often people undergoing social and developmental transitions with all the doubts, stresses, and soul-searching that typically accompanies such times. People are often seekers, unsatisfied with life as it has been, feeling overwhelmed and dislocated from the family or general community. Often people not comfortable in traditional social groups. Those at a low point in their life; having endured painful life changes, may be ripe for conversion experiences that seem to offer sudden insight, peace, and most importantly, a new social identity.

How do people find themselves involved in the new group? They may meet attractive, perfect-appearing beings at seminars, churches, community agencies, or be approached at airports, bars, campuses, or parks. They find themselves in this setting out of curiosity and their general openness to new ideas and approaches. While some groups do employ subtle manipulations with recruits, it is recognized that the person must feel that they came voluntarily. After this, they will be asked to freely partake of meals, rituals, and give behavioral indications of agreement with general ideals and values. This often occurs without knowing fully what the group is about; its history, its leadership, its actual activities. Once our voluntary involvement establishes the group's foot-in-our-mind's-door, gradual escalation of commitment is likely to be more successful. At this time, individuals are so enamored of the group and the philosophy presented, that critical thinking becomes unlikely. The new recruit is not thinking about ulterior motives because his/her direction is purposely kept elsewhere. Ritual and physically exhausting work or exercises keep the recuit's perception funneled on tasks or questions set by the group.

Group discussions may involve further expressions of acceptance, and further calls for voluntary expressions in line with the group's beliefs. The outside world, old allegiances become the enemy. The doubts and suspicions held before group discussion are now enhanced by members expressing similar ideas but even more extreme interpretations of events. Soon the new member also finds themselves expressing more extreme views and calls to action. A distinctive feature of an ideology is its justification of action on behalf of the cause. For example, if we believe that we are not taken up to the heavens by more perfect beings it is because we are not pure and live in an unworthy world. Hence, certain actions seem justified; namely, cleanse the world, oneself, and prepare for the transition or calling. The disparaging view toward one's body and the earthly world are ideas linked closely to Platonic and early Christian ideas. Likewise, other ideologies may call for murdering people who are seen as doing Satan's work, or are merely considered less than human in that ideology.

The group polarization process whereby extreme doctrines can be promoted via discussion of like-minded individuals, is furthered by leaders and rituals that bring out emotional reactions to the evil forces or filth that we wish to leave behind. The group becomes a cohesive source of acceptance and encouragement as a "we-them" view is established. The group becomes the refuge, the secure base, and only within it can I feel hope for salvation. My thoughts, ideas, and attention is focused on the group's agenda now. Intrusive, skeptical, negative counter-argument is felt as a danger to my new hope, and in opposition to what I want to stand for. The group will monitor such skeptical thinking and such thinkers. By controlling daily routine and ritual, it will make it unlikely that such thinking will roam too far from the group's objective. Most groups, intentionally or otherwise, involve members in exhaustive work and rituals, with information from the outside world restricted, eliminated, or used merely as an exercise in fitting the group belief template to it.

Personal stories, legends, anecdotes of suffering and persecution are recited to enhance sympathy and commitment. Myth, and vivid stories pull at our heart strings and we feel we have profound insight, comfort, or passion for our cause. But of course, this further locks out alternative views and skeptical thinking. Analytical thinking may lead to appreciation of ambiguities and uncertainties, but with the group ideology everything becomes clear, certain, purposeful, and meaningful. The new member finds such solace in the framework of the group that fiction and myth are not distinguished from fact.

Chance events, news accounts, sudden changes, are all seen as having special meaning and requiring analyses and interpretation according to the group doctrine. Old stories are seen to prophesy such events, connections between such events and the group are viewed as significant. A new comet? A sudden catastrophe? Reports of, even photos of something following the comet? A strange star in the sky? A savior-to-be that appears? Can this all be just chance? A confirmatory search begins to make things fit the group ideology, and the amazement about this fit becomes startling to the naive. And lo, many connections are found and become lore, and used to further recruitment and prosletizing efforts.

This is an active and natural human effort after pattern and meaning. What is missing in the dangerous groups is simply an opportunity to hear other views and to be able to consider the possibility of being wrong. Free, critical inquiry is not cultivated. One's attitude and beliefs are forged by the active role-playing and ritual exercises, the drama and continual mouthing of the group doctrine. Under such conditions, research has demonstrated that saying facilitates belief. Now if the person reflects on their new life, their new identity, their new-found comfort, and happiness what are they to find? Should they find that prophesies do not come to pass, or that other facts are counter to their views, they will instantly find ways to interpret such events in line with the group belief. We tend to act in ways to fulfill our self-images, we tend to look for ways to justify our actions when we feel we acted freely. Not all aspects of our group experience are negative or needing much re-interpretation, but when external events seem to contradict what we believe, we find justification and excuses for this and persevere in our rightous path. If we want to know what we think and believe we need merely to look at what we have done and what we have said. We may have merely conformed to get along as a new recruit, but now we have come to accept an influential group way of seeing that does not promote serious doubt or skepticism. Further, as social psychology research has documented, when the group promotes public commitment, and there is no prior strong counter belief framework, and no counter-arguing is allowed, the expressed view is likely to be embraced and maintained despite counter-evidence at a later time.

As noted above, those most likely to conform and involve themselves are those seeking answers, structure, acceptance, and social position. What kind of leader can foster this search? Appearance counts. They should dress and act as expert in esoteric knowledge; as a guru or special being, they may lead us to think they know all about us. Indeed, many groups use tactics to get information about recruits. They may create an impression of having special knowledge or powers. They may employ a little psychic trickery for this purpose as Jim Jones was said to have done. They appear as confident, serene or mysterious, with vital energy and charm. They may have much experience in the type of person seeking answers from them and they are keen on what to say, and how to say it to foster their appearance as divine, annointed, or gifted. They are practiced motivational speakers. They and their followers will gain the trust and confidence of the new recruit. Via their outpouring of support, and the confessions and self- disclosure expected of the recruit, they build social obligation. They offer special secrets, transformative powers, spiritual renewal and re-birth if only you cleanse yourself and embrace the new faith. The leader offers an umbrella of dramatic presence; that is, you feel special and different around him or her. You attribute this to their power, charisma, or something equally esoteric, but it portends promise, and confirms your search for special answers. The leader will keep you focused on group goals and away from skepticism, counter-argument, or other negative paths. Isolation and control, fatigue, absorption, acceptance on condition of further commitment, all promote diminished self- reflection and counter-argument.

And so we ask again, "what's the big deal"? It is one more tragic waste of lives and we should all be concerned about that. In addition, we see again a price to be paid for beliefs not critically examined, but wishfully embraced. But there is no real puzzle about the lengths people will go for beliefs held passionately. Nor should we fault them for such passion. The easy and cheap hindsight analyses that call such people crazy, or try to distance such religious motivation from religious beliefs closer to home is really not necessary nor valuable. By trying to see "them" as different from "us" we may feel unique, and invulnerable to such social influence, but also shield our own beliefs from the kind of critical analysis needed. Most college- level textbooks in Social Psychology can provide further information about the principles of social influence. However, the important lesson is to take responsibility for periodically reviewing those taken-for-granted beliefs we have picked up from the groups to which we belong.

Gerald L. (Gary) Peterson, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
Saginaw Valley State University
University Centre, MICH 48710

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