Archival footage of Hitler’s mass rallies shows crowds of faces radiant with joy—the same joy as that is visible at any religious revival meeting, exciting sports event, or political convention.
This joy is connected to a feeling of belonging, to being part of a group and a cause. This feeling is especially heightened if members are taught that their group is special and “spiritually” or morally superior, and convinced that their tradition is inherently and fundamentally more worthy than others.
Studies of cults show that a primary method used to indoctrinate people is to build this sense of intense belonging. Modern-day cult leaders and marketing gurus have studied techniques developed by Hitler, Goebbels, Lenin, and Mao, because they have been proven so effective.
How can we tell the difference between a cohesive group that is socially healthy and one that has crossed the line into destructiveness?
It is fairly easy to identify a cult, whether it is an extreme version of a religious, political, cultural or ideological belief system. Social scientists have graphed the many components and stages of programming— the initial conversion, isolation, dogmatic absolutism, group pressure, and thought control— that lead to indoctrination. However, it is much harder to evaluate the subtle cult-like behavior found in mainstream groups and organizations.
When does patriotism become nationalism?
When do group spirit and social support become coercive or collectivist?
At what point does a group with a normal social structure change into a controlling and repressive sect?
And how can this outcome be avoided?
Many researchers, including organizational, social, and behavioral psychologists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists and political and social scientists are currently examining these questions.
Social psychology research shows that the behavior and attitudes of individuals in general change when they are in a group. We influence each other: the way we act, respond, and express ourselves, and even how we view ourselves and our essential worth.
Any tradition or doctrine can start out as a flexible, sincere system and quickly turn into a rigid structure from a lack of transparency and accountability.
The ubiquitous human tendency toward confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are some of the factors we explore.
This section will explore current research on these issues. We will look deeply into how the search for belonging is a powerful motivator for joining a group, be it a gang, a political party, a cult, a terrorist faction or a paramilitary mercenary troop, and how the normal human need for affiliation can become distorted.
The need for belonging, acceptance, and approval are ubiquitous, but the line between normal conformity and mob zealotry can, at times, be thin.
Alienated youth may search for substitute families and belonging by joining gangs, cults, or extremist groups and may subsequently undergo indoctrination which spurs them to commit acts of hate and terror.
Honor among Thieves (Cultural Contexts)
Most people search for social bonds, even to the point of risking their lives. Nationalist movements, sports teams, and political parties can become pseudo-family for people. Loyalty is required for membership. Even the most antisocial people can act out a social contract with other members of their group. Violent or antisocial men, including gang members and mercenaries, often have strong feelings of loyalty toward other members of their own groups, and view them as family. Both the Mafia and the police enforce strict codes of honor for their members. Gangsters view betrayal by a “made man” as the worst of moral “sins.” Cops protect each other against police department Internal Affairs Division investigations.
Friend or Foe? A Paleolithic Legacy
Our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to label others as either members of our group or outsiders. Tribal categories can expand when small groups join forces against a bigger enemy or cooperate to survive. Under threat, a group can become strongly polarized, dividing the world into “Us and Them.” The human is also capable of overcoming this narrow identification with one’s own “tribe.” A person can have an expanded identification with others to include a much larger group (i.e., all of humanity, all living creatures, etc.)