“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
– William James
“In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated.”
– Gustave Le Bon
Fascism! What an emotive word! It’s a word that has become synonymous with violence, hate, racism, and persecution. But the term wasn’t always an insult. Indeed, in the early days of Italian fascism it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who said:
“I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he [Mussolini] has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy”.
The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs series:See the whole Dark Side series here
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Attention - Part 1
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Safety - Part 2
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Control - Part 3
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Intimacy - Part 4
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Connection - Part 5
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Status - Part 6
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Challenge - Part 7
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Mind and Body - Part 8
- The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Meaning - Part 9
The word ‘fascism’ comes from the Roman fasces, meaning a bundle of sticks that may be weak individually but become strong when bound tightly together.
While Mussolini didn’t initially seem interested in persecuting people because of their race like Hitler did (in fact, he saw racism as ridiculous), he was certainly all for violence and war if it meant promoting Italian nationalism. Mussolini felt that the collective should always take precedence over the individual:
“Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
– Benito Mussolini
The people were there to serve the state, not the other way around. Individualism? Forget it. Centralized state control was everything. Fall away from the bundle of sticks and you might just be snapped in half. But if some sticks happen to break, well, never mind. They were weak anyway!
It’s easy to feel superior to past peoples who were bamboozled by a monomaniacal leader. But the drive for conformity and group identity is powerful. And anything powerful can be dangerous.
It’s also easy to assume that a client’s problems happen in a vacuum. But we are merged in groups. And groups can start to act like mass personalities in their own right.
It’s always worth asking ourselves, especially if a client identifies strongly with some group or other: What are the beliefs, ideals, and assumptions of the group? Is the group identity dysfunctional in any way?
Your decisions? Or your tribe’s?
Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Jim Jones… any cult leader, in fact any leader, appeals to our innate instinct to merge with a greater group, be it a national or a political identity. “Stronger together!” Bundled sticks.
As with all the basic emotional needs, some people have a greater drive to merge as part of a group than others. Ironically, the true individualists, the ‘lone wolves’, may be the very ones at the top of the heap, getting everyone else to merge.
“Join us! Twenty million people can’t be wrong!”
Some leaders are more benign than others of course. But they have one defining feature in common: they play on our innate human need for connection to something bigger than ourselves, to a tribe.
People may come to identify themselves through their tribe first and foremost. This sounds noble, even selfless, but it can have grave consequences. If everyone is doing it, you’ll do it too. But what if ‘it’ is very bad indeed?
We need to understand how desire for group membership and groupthink works, because it can and often does work against us.
Taking poison instead of medicine
In this series I explore the dark side of our innate human needs, how an emotional need can become so intense that we seek to meet it from anywhere.
If we are dying of dehydration it may seem like a good idea to drink engine oil – it’s a liquid, isn’t it? But to do so puts our very lives at risk.
Lonely people may be more likely to get sucked in by manipulative con artists or narcissists. After all, what is loneliness if not a ‘thirst’ for connection, intimacy, and attention? They may become so ‘thirsty’, the need may become so great, that they drink poison instead of water.
When we meet our needs in balance we have spare capacity to be effective and fulfilled. When our life provides us with emotional fulfilment, we become less vulnerable to being manipulated, led by the nose, ushered to the cliff’s edge.
I think the entire human race needs to understand how this works. Urgently. It may be getting too late for us not to absorb the available information as to how we are all manipulated by our innate needs.
A drive to meet an emotional need isn’t good or bad. It just is. But any drive can be railroaded or diverted, and that’s the problem. We may be tempted to hand over autonomy to anyone who seems to meet our needs for meaning, togetherness, self-esteem, or whatever it is we are lacking.
Mind you, some level of drive for group togetherness is inherently healthy. It has and does keep us alive.
Stay or die!
You may be smarter than a lion, but you don’t bite as hard, rip as fiercely or move as powerfully.
As human beings developed, we had to evolve collectively, to form tribes. We were stronger in groups than individually. Safety in numbers protected us against predators and maintained our position in the natural dominance hierarchy. Organizing ourselves, socializing, made us strong and able to survive and thrive.
On the flipside, to leave or be cast out from the tribe meant almost certain death. And for many people, that is still a primal fear.
Recent research has found that being ostracized by co-workers or a social group, what some call the ‘social death penalty’, is more injurious than being overtly bullied. It seems that no attention or connection is worse than negative attention. Rejection registers in the brain in almost exactly the same way as physical pain.
On the positive side, being accepted and actively participating in a wider social network, a ‘tribe’, confers huge psychological and physical benefits.
Feeling mutually supported is wonderful. It sure must have felt wonderful for early members of the Nazi Party! The power of being part of the in-group. The feeling of being special, mutually supported, respected, even feared simply for being in your tribe. Feeling you suddenly have a respected identity can feel amazing.
We can simply judge people as evil. But that is superficial, because most people are not evil. They’ve just fallen into the trap of following those who are.
Research shows that being in a group can make people lose touch with their moral code. This is sometimes called ‘mob mentality’. We can get swept up in a kinetic and sweeping wave of self-righteous rage that floods the whole group. Sometimes it’s not until years later that we even think to question what happened: “How did I act like that?” Sometimes we never reach that realization.
The first step towards understanding the power of the group over individual mentality is, I think, not to assume it’s only other people who could suffer from groupthink or ‘groupfeel‘. We are all susceptible at some level.
Ultimately we all have to answer to ourselves, whether we act as part of a group or not.
The danger of leaving our brains behind
We all need to feel a sense of community, a feeling that we are making a contribution to a cause beyond and greater than ourselves. This is a legitimate need and is often positive.
And any situation that helps us focus less just on the self tends to make us feel better because our life takes on meaning. Ultimately it never feels meaningful just to focus on one’s own concerns. And when life feels meaningful, we feel motivated and therefore happier.
But just because we have a real need doesn’t mean we should hand over our rationality and individual judgement.
10 simple steps to dangerous conformity
Here they are: ten ways in which the drive for social connection can backfire when we try to meet it indiscriminately. You may recognize in them some of your own experiences, and those of friends, relatives or clients.
1. Lack purpose, social connection and meaning
People looking for purpose, safety, and status may be more likely to follow any group that promises to meet these needs. The more disconnected and purposeless the person feels, the more susceptible they become.
The price of entry? The unsavoury belief system of the group’s leaders.
If you’re lonely and everyone else seems to be taking drugs, then taking drugs may seem a small price to pay to enter the social network. The temptation isn’t the drugs themselves, or even the excitement or criminality. It’s the sense of community, of doing what others are doing.
Most people will not recognize they have joined a group because of their innate needs. They may assume it’s the ideals of the group that attracted them. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that all group ideologies involve feeling morally right. The bad guys always think they’re the good guys.
2. Conform at all costs
The need to conform is, for many people, irresistibly strong. And it can build steadily.
Peer pressure feels like pressure even if it’s not stated overtly. People give in to peer pressure because that’s the price you pay to be a member of the tribe. They do it because everyone else is, or because the leader or other members of the group demand it (or even just imply it). This short clip shows how conformity can happen on a physical level even with no apparent pressure.
Sally, a young client, told me how, as a child, she had joined in with bullying her former best friend at school. The girl had later committed suicide. “Everyone else was doing it and I just went along with it!” she told me, shamefaced.
Conformity of language, ideas, and dress are all signs that someone is handing over their personal identity to a group. But it’s not just what we do on the outside that counts.
3. Put the group’s aims above your own moral code
We all know that some people are prepared to die for the ‘greater good’ (which may actually be bad) of the group. This kind of self-destruction may take many forms. Perhaps a suicide vest, or a one-way kamikaze flight. But it’s not always so obvious.
Some people may feel so connected to, say, a group of drinkers, drug takers, or dangerous thrill seekers that in some sense the group becomes all-important to them. Loyalty to a counterculture that holds you back may maintain dysfunctionality or misery. It may even kill you.
A drug overdose or accident may happen because the person felt they couldn’t survive beyond or outside of the group. Yes, the drugs killed them, but maybe their forged identity as a ‘drug addict’ or ‘drinker’ was really to blame.
When we ask a drug addict to stop taking drugs, we may also be asking them to forgo their whole community or even sense of purpose. The ‘addiction’ may be to the group or lifestyle as much as the substance. And unless the needs this group fulfils can be met healthily elsewhere, any therapy is bound to fail.
4. Let the group manipulate you using shame, threats, and promises
In order to indoctrinate, group dynamics must be highly emotional, both in language and in behaviour. Interrelational emotions, such as shame (public shaming or ‘outing’), embarrassment, and rivalry are ramped up to the max in order to keep the focus on group identity.
Hope for advancement within the group, the promise of reward or an increase in status, easily transforms into fear of loss of status, of being cast out. Continual alternation between fear and hope is what sustains the vicious cycle of groupthink.
The next step might be the most horrible of all.
5. Denigrate outsiders
To strengthen group identity there needs to be an enemy, real or imagined. On no account can outsiders be seen as being in any way like you.
The enemy is simplistically seen as ‘bad’. This process of denigrating outsiders strengthens group identity, gives the group purpose, and prevents dissent. Ideas that are not part of the group’s ideological lexicon or dogma are not tolerated.
Opposing groups or individuals are labelled as ‘bad’, ‘mad’, ‘stupid’, or simply ‘misguided’. They are regularly blamed, shamed, belittled, and, in some cases, dehumanized. Dehumanizing and therefore objectifying outsiders is the first step towards justified violence.
The Nazis described and depicted Jews as ‘rats’. In the Rwandan genocide of between half and one million Tutsis in 100 days, the Tutsis were repeatedly described as ‘cockroaches’. When you liken the enemy to vermin, it’s not hard to convince people they should be exterminated.
Rats, cockroaches, squares, commies, fascists, unbelievers! The list goes on. Outsiders may become no more than one-dimensional objects. And once the out-group is objectified, violence can swiftly follow – because objects can be disposed of.
We can have loose affiliations to many groups, but the more power a group has over an individual’s life the more they’ll start to fall into a repetitive pattern.
6. Partake of frequent, ritualistic, repetitive activities
Ritual, repetition, and provocation of collective emotion are all indoctrination techniques. Any group, even one professing to be atheist, can behave like a religion in the way it organizes its activities and engineers the belief of its adherents.
Again, some groups that do this have a positive effect on people and communities. Belief engineering through ritual occurs in all types of strong groups.
7. Blindly defer to authority
For some people, leaders may come to replace a father or a mother. This can confer a warm sense of security. After all, if everything is taken care of by someone who knows better than me, life becomes simple. Just like when I was little!
American social scientist Stanley Milgram showed that ordinary people are often prompted to do horrible things simply because they are told it’s okay, or even desirable, by an authority figure. If Mummy or Daddy says it’s okay, then it must be! (Just as “if everyone else is doing it, it must be okay for me to do it too!”)
8. Use not just groupthink, but also groupspeak
The ‘f’ word at the start of this piece is proof that words can carry great power.
Only individualists or leaders use original language (usually carefully curated to their advantage). Other members of the group are so strongly conditioned to follow that they will naturally adopt that same system of language.
The stronger a group identity, the more the same all its members sound when they communicate. Just talk like everyone else, and you’ll be fine!
9. On no account try to understand outside perspectives
Ideally, subsist in your in-group echo chamber. Don’t listen to dissenting, conflicting, or unorthodox ideas. In fact, actively shut down or otherwise drown out ideas which conflict with your group thought.
There is no reality beyond the group.
10. Lose your mind in mob mentality
As the writer Gustave Le Bon observed in his seminal book The Crowd: A Study of The Popular Mind, individual intelligence and reasoning can be lost when caught up in a mob. The mob takes on a will of its own, like some kind of raving beast. Lenin, Mussolini, Freud, and Stalin were all fans of Le Bon’s work.
Belonging to a group can make us more prepared to do violence because the mob wills it.
And now, for the sake of balance….
3 steps to resisting group mentality
1. Understand how it works. Without an understanding of how group psychology works humanity is condemned to make the same mistakes over and over.
2. Meet your needs for connection in healthy ways. Ways that don’t damage you or others. This will give you spare capacity. You won’t be so ‘thirsty’ that you end up drinking whatever’s on offer.
3. Maintain objectivity. Stay calm and use your psychological knowledge. Recognize what is really going on above and beyond slogans, propaganda, whipped-up emotionality, and the ‘us and them’ mentality.
The need to connect to larger groups is powerful and inherent. Understanding how group psychology works frees us up to see it operating in everyday life, within ourselves and others.
Seeing the part that group psychology plays in the formation and maintenance of emotional and behavioural problems is vital in order to protect ourselves, collectively (as in the whole human race), from extinction.
Together we are stronger. But strength without compassion, fairness, calmness, and an understanding of human nature is worse than useless, as history has repeatedly shown. It’s time we learned our lesson.
And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:
And for a more in depth look at how unmet emotional needs can work against us, Uncommon Practitioners TV includes over 30 live therapy session videos with real clients. Click here to be notified with UPTV is open for booking.
- Mussolini, who had a Jewish mistress and friends, famously said: “Race? It is a feeling, not a reality. … National pride has no need of the delirium of race.”
- Williams, K. D., Forgas, J. P., and von Hippel, W. (Eds) (2005), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying. Psychology Press, New York.
- For a wonderful clarification of cultishness in everyday life, see: Deikman, A. (1990), The wrong way home: Uncovering the patterns of cult behavior in American society. Beacon Press, Boston.
- Milgram, S. (1973), ‘The perils of obedience’. Published in Harper’s Magazine, December 1973.
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