The recent polarization of public opinion on major societal issues has seen a rise in dogmatic thinking and failure of discourse. The psychology of cult behaviour can give valuable insight into why people are drawn to ideologies and what can be done to open the public debate.
Political opinions within Western societies diverge dramatically these days. At least if our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feed have any connection to reality. Social causes and political movements are being advanced in alarmist fashion, claiming that racism, terror, immigration, sexism, abuse, or homophobia have never had worse effects on our societies than today. And there are numerous people on the other side of these debates who argue that the exact opposite is true, that we live in better times than we ever have and that, if anything, social and political movements would be undermining the foundations that enabled societies to prosper in the first place.
It is undeniable that the last few years have seen a rise in ideological and dogmatic political thinking and discourse. The Pew Research Centre visualizes this recent polarization in American politics in recent research. It has become more common for people of all political convictions to be so hardened in their beliefs that they are rarely willing to openly discuss issues with people they disagree with and often even actively avoid doing so.
Why is this the case? How come people seem to be increasingly unwilling to think in nuance and prefer to revert to dealing in absolutes?
I believe that political movements increasingly serve as life-ordering ideologies that give people meaning in societies that have become more secular in recent decades and that face multi-faceted disruption of their lives.
The starting point to this argument can be found in research on cults and cult behaviour: Dr Arthur Deikman was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco who studied the phenomenon of cults as well as the behaviours and motives of the people who joined them. In his book “The Wrong Way Home” Deikman outlines the key characteristics of cult behaviour that he identified. The most central idea of the book, relevant to this discussion, is that the allure of a cult is the fantasy of security. The faith in the cult enables humans to relax in the face of the uncertainty that life can otherwise impose on them.
And especially in recent years, life has become much more uncertain and turbulent. Everything around us changes enormously fast. The internet and technology have introduced levels and speed of disruption that nobody could have ever predicted. It increasingly seems like everything is up for grabs and nothing is untouched by the ongoing societal, technological, political, and economic change that seems to undo everything anyone ever assumed to be certain. The nation-state, the dynamism of our economies, the safety of our jobs and incomes, the family, the social norms around us, the family, the relations between the sexes – it is all undergoing massive change. We now have global supply chains, ongoing complex civil wars that somehow involve multiple global powers, inconceivable levels of refugees, the rise of the gig-economy, social media, smartphones, Amazon Prime and Tinder.
I think if anyone is not currently feeling a slight but hard-to-ignore sense of vertigo – they are definitely the exception. How can you not be overwhelmed when faced with a world that seems to evolve faster than anyone is able to grasp? And what do we have in these confusing times to ground us? What is there to give our chaotic lives meaning? What should we strive for in this life? What is our mission?
As established religions have lost their credibility in many areas of the West, people are trying to find new sources to derive meaning from.
Deikman argues that people have a deep need to do good in this world and that cults usually offer people the attractive opportunity to be a force for truly positive change in the world and to fight evil. But the other important service that the cult delivers to its followers is providing a close-knit ideology that enables people to stop making certain decisions themselves. In a true cult, this leads to people following the preaching of the cult leader dogmatically. Deikman argues that this behaviour is shown because of the desire to “resort to a child-like state” in which the individual is guided, protected, and cared for by a loving parental figure – what Deikman terms the dependency-dream. As people grow up and face the chaos of the world they instinctively look for ways to put order to their experience and are thus attracted to ideologies that answer their existential questions and show them a clear path.
Essentially, the cult plays on very fundamental instincts and emotional needs of people and offers a comfortable space in which the person can relieve itself of its uncertainties about the world and return to the feeling of idolized childhood, whether this was ever personally experienced or not.
Deikman also stresses the importance of avoiding dissent for the cult to deliver on the central promise of security and certainty. There is no place for independent, case by case judgement – no grey, just black and white. As the ideology of a cult usually depends on the absolute righteousness of the cause of the organization and ideology, no nuance can be allowed without seriously harming the ability of the cult to relieve people of the pain of uncertainty. Thus, any dissenting voices are silenced to protect the mind from cognitive dissonance, or information and arguments that conflict with the tenets of the cult. Key here is also the devaluing of the outsider. As the people outside of the cult often have very different beliefs than the people within it, they must be thought of as inferior. This again utilizes one of the most basic human instincts, that of tribal behaviour. This us-vs-them dynamic can be observed almost everywhere in human behaviour and is also strong in binding people to the faith of the cult. Hence people react very aggressively when you question their beliefs or even provide evidence that runs counter to the cult’s view of the world.
In times as exciting, turbulent, and uncertain as the beginning of the 21st century, wouldn’t it be attractive to know exactly what’s right and what’s wrong, to have clear rules and thereby neatly order your view of the world? And say you found some shelter from this increasing complexity, wouldn’t you also get very angry if someone asked questions that endanger your nice little cover from the craziness of the world?
It is not ground-breaking to identify that part of the appeal of religion is the security and certainty about the world and all the big questions of human existence. But it also has to be recognized that Western societies are no longer genuinely religious – at least not turning to the established and institutionalised versions of Christianity. This is not to say that people are any less spiritual these days – but they turn to different mediums to answer the big questions of life. Doing away with religion has not in turn done away with people’s need for stability and guidance in the face of uncertainty – which goes a long way to explain why people are drawn to new gospels.
It becomes clear when viewing societal phenomena through this prism, that people have turned their ability for faith towards new “churches” and exhibit dogmatic behaviour that seems confusing when one does not consider the deep need for certainty that these new beliefs serve for the individual. In times of distress especially, people flock to rigid belief systems which explains why recent times have featured such a pronounced increase in political polarization and decrease of productive debate.
So now what?
Everyone falls victim to cult behaviour, even if it is just for a period. But what can we do to not let us drift too far into this? What can we do to not fall into full-blown cult mentality?
It is essential to constantly question and challenge your own ideas and interact with different opinions. Whenever you are in a room where nobody disagrees with you, you are in the wrong room. Also, whenever compliance with group doctrine is valued higher than independent thinking, discussion, and the right to reserve agreement, you are in the wrong group – and quite possibly in a dangerous situation.
Be aware of your inner child’s need to relax and devolve responsibility– You need to be an adult – You oversee your opinion – nobody else. Do not idealize your opinion leaders, your politicians or role models. We are all human, we all make mistakes, and we are all constantly wrong – if you do not feel comfortable pointing this out to someone – you probably shouldn’t associate with this person
Stop devaluing people that don’t agree with you – this does not need to be pointed out, but this is the most dangerous characteristic of cult mentality. The human tendency to form packs and the potential to become hostile towards outsiders that are deemed sub-human is a necessary condition for all human atrocities of the past. Whenever people paint with a broad brush or try to legitimize violence/aggression because it is against Nazis, or socialists, or disbelievers, you are on the slipperiest of slopes and on the best way to catastrophe. This does not mean that you should not argue against injustice that you perceive in other actions – as I pointed out above, the dialogue is also crucial. Being aware of your own biases does not mean that you should revert to cultural relativism. Speak out when you experience or observe things that you do not agree with, but be open and listen to the other side – do not become dogmatic in your thinking, but rather listen to what others have to say and engage on the level of arguments.
Never stop questioning things around you – don’t let other people make decisions for you. At least not the important ones. Be wary of people who make dissenting an offence – all authority should be questioned and challenged at times – if people categorically rule this out it gets dangerous
You will not get rid of your biases, but you can make sure not to fall full victim to them.