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March 2017
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Social aggregation is a natural tendency and groups are a fundamental element of human life; an expression of the need to be part of something and to share archaic roots. The moments spent in natural or artificial groups have a big effect on our mental lives and it is for this reason that they can mark, influence, transform and, in some contexts, cancel out people’s individual personalities. Due to human sociality, we can become ‘addicted to groups’ as a result of a gradual and deceptively silent ‘ingestion’ of an individual, who is needy and not aware, by a group which ends up recruiting and enslaving the person for their own needs. The aim of a group which generates addiction is often to fulfil a hidden-agenda by using mental manipulation and psychological abuse. This allows them to control the addicted people’s emotions, thoughts and behaviour and, potentially, benefit from the addicts’ behaviour.

Groups, sects and addiction

A group is a congregation of individuals which interacts amongst themselves in a reciprocal way on the basis of sharing their interests, goals, characteristics and rules, developing roles and internal relationships.

A term which is often used, and which has a negative connotation, for a group is the word ‘sect’. However, in ancient times, this word was the name for schools – sactae – where certain disciplines were taught to both pupils and external students, thus the term, which is close in meaning to the one used today, was utilised when referring, in either a neutral or positive way, to groups which studied and divulged common disciplines which were appreciated by society. Gradually, the term took on a derogatory meaning which only represents some of its etymology and which derives from the Latin sequor, which generically means ‘to follow’. Today, therefore, sects are defined as usually minority organisations regarding politics, philosophy, religion or so called ‘evolutions of oneself’ organisations (psycho-sects or behaviour sects), characterised by an obvious tendency to proselytise people through illegal and/or immoral means

Sects are distinguished by a tendency to support an exclusive membership to the group, being closed off to the outside world and being very difficult to get out of. This latter feature coincides with addictions to groups, which is the result of various methods of coercive persuasion carried out by the group in various ways, which differ from sect to sect but which can sometimes be seen in closed families too and these sects do not allow members to be independent.

Processes and methods which create addictions to groups

The main way to get people addicted to a group is through coercive influence, otherwise known as control or mental manipulation, a process which in the past was called with the legal term ‘subjugation’, indicating that it is somewhat related to slavery. However, for some time now, even minor levels of behavioural or mental subjugation have been studied scientifically and described in detail and in specific terms which explain that these methods are more subtle in respect to total violation and suppression of the conscience and desire, as occurs, for example, in cases of psychological abuse.

Four components of mental control have been identified by the study of ‘psychological control’ and these are carried out by certain personal development sects which are able to generate addiction following ‘methods of thought reform’. More precisely, the first three psychological elements which can be played on in order to get someone addicted to a group are outlined in the ‘Theory of cognitive dissonance’ by L. Festinger. According to this theory, the general induction of internal contrasts (for example, emotions, thoughts and behaviour) produces a dissonance which acts as a need, generating tension and a consequential pursuit for a new equilibrium which can cause a change in other psychological areas that are considered to be in contrast to the manipulated part. It is easy to deduce that the pursuit for alleviating tension, and thus forcing the suitable change on oneself, does not always coincide with a real personal choice since it is a choice that is aimed at avoiding a crisis, in which one does not want to enter, or from which one does not know how to get out of. It is a ‘free choice’ insomuch as it is a free choice when one runs down the only alleyway around (the dead end) because they are running away from someone or something.

Based on these assumption, and generalising the study of what happens to other psychological changes, three possible, psychological actions have been identified which allow for mental control and which can be carried out one by one or at the same time through one or more methods of coercive influence, even getting to the point in certain contexts (especially military ones) and when it becomes somewhat where what is being done is called ‘brain washing’. The aforementioned actions are:

  1. Emotional control, which mainly plays on the possibility to stimulate constricted, emotional states, like the sense of guilt, sense of impotence, shame and fear, which are mainly activated through the construction of external enemies or imagining bad situation outside of the group (which generates fear and even conditioned phobias) or even admitting past mistakes (which generates feelings of guilt, shame, impotence and attempts to redeem oneself through the models of redemption in the group);
  2. Thought control, which consists of training thoughts according to the doctrine of the group, blocking every form of external criticism and being able to reply to the main questions of life through ‘group thought’, so as to deal with every problem and situation with the group;
  3. Behavioural control, which starts with conditioning daily aspects of life, such as clothing, diet, sleep/awake rhythms, rest periods and physical activities, but it can even go as far as concerning more personal and health activities, like going to the doctor, relationships with friends and relatives and even the choice of the partner and financial investments.

Controlling one, two or all three psychological aspects is possible through a preliminary form of control, indentified by S. Hassan and defined as control of information. Reducing cognitive dissonance can be carried out in many ways and one of these ways is integrating a new cognitive element (information) so as to change the dissonant elements and provide other ways to search for an equilibrium, that is, changes in dissonant areas which have not yet been changed, so as to get the person addicted to the group. Having information available for the mind is actually what makes up the foundations of critical thought, the possibility to compare a group’s thoughts with other types of thought and developing completely individual and independent opinions. Control of information is easily implemented through the proposal of texts which are sacred to the group and blaming opposing literature, as well as by limiting access to information on the television, radio and in newspapers, which is done by suggesting one does not trust such deceptions or keeping days filled with rituals related to sharing information amongst the group. Access to new members is extremely controlled so as to guarantee the minimum amount of criticism. In general, new recruits spend one on one time with a tutor or a retired member then, following this, control is guaranteed by means of a reciprocal control mechanism.

The four principal forms of control listed above can be obtained through numerous manipulation techniques which vary from group to group and which can be personalised. However, they do have one aspect in common: they do not resort to extraordinary methods, nor do they use drugs. In general, and thanks to stories told by ex-addicts and redeemed ex-manipulators, principle subjugation methods have been identified and described, all of which are characterised by the possibility to hide oneself behind apparently normal, daily and justifiable behaviour which allows them to mentally trick people and push them towards an ‘unconscious change’, which is made through a uninformed consent born out of a tacit consent to something which is never explained, nor declared, but which is often excellently and fully concealed.

The first technique used to instigate an addiction is called affectionate bombarding or love bombing and it consists of a seduction approach, especially initially, which is based on using compliments, flattery and different forms of ‘hugging’ and it is carried out either by members whose role is to welcome new members, or it is done by the entire sect.

Then there are quite exaggerated forms of isolation, which is usually gradual thanks to continual spiritual and ritual trips which steadily cause new members to break contact with people outside of the group. More obvious and advanced forms of isolation involve living in isolated places and controlling telephone calls and face to face meetings.

Another technique is using suggestive methods which decrease rational and critical abilities such as states of self-hypnotism and repetitive meditation, which are enhanced by the diet followed, stressful mental indoctrination courses, sleep deprivation, the removal of the freedom to manage one’s own physiological rhythms or generating states of physical tiredness so as to train critical vigilance. A modern method used in some contexts is neuro-linguistic programming and hypnotic communication techniques based on intonation and using key words.

However, more modern thought reform programmes are mainly based on techniques aimed at attacking oneself so as to induce an identity crisis through confessions and group meetings, which are initially in the form of sharing and liberating oneself of emotions. These meetings are then manipulated so as to generate false memories and reinterpret one’s personal life story to change the ‘balance of personal life’ and become a critic of oneself, destabilising personal beliefs, the ability to self-evaluate and judge others and, finally, destabilising the core of the person.

Lastly, group codes (jargon, clothing) are imposed, creating quick identification with the group and, at the same time, making shared, critical thinking difficult (one can only speak to those who have already been codified), limiting communication between the group and outsiders. It is almost as if the new member has become part of a foreign country.

Effects of an addiction to a group

The gradual loss of a sense of individuality in a sect-group, caused by the groups tendency to make members confused about their ‘individual self’ and their ‘group self’, can foster phenomena similar to those that we can see in crowds in pursuit of a common ideal. Some of these phenomenon are listed below and they can even be found in mild forms inside non-secular groups.

  • Moral justification is a thought mechanism which authorises and dignifies reprehensible behaviour when putting oneself at the service of principles which are considered superior by the group (for example, social purification).
  • Euphemistic labelling, which consists of using ‘light verbal forms’, often codified by the group, when describing dramatic events. This is a process which is able to make the member distance him/herself from the effects that his/her actions have, and which is able to alleviate the negative reactions these actions can cause (for example, the use of the word "training"). 
  • Moving the responsibility, which consists of justifying an unpardonable act to oneself and others by saying it was done in accordance with the orders given by the leader .
  • Underestimating consequences, which consists of dumbing down the serious, negative consequences that certain behaviour could cause.
  • Blaming and depreciating the victim which may go as far as dehumanisation and then, in turn, the victim tolerates any form of cruelty because of the guilt afflicted on them, especially if he/she has become estranged from or rebelled against the group and its ideologies.

Risk factors

At this point it is important to highlight the fact that addictions to groups are established more easily in some people. This does not depend on a weakness in the personalities of the people affected, but rather it depends on vulnerability at that moment, or more precisely, a state, which can be temporary, and which is somewhat stressful, such as a sad event, a family problem or severe depression. The ability to not overestimate oneself and acknowledging that one is going through a vulnerable period are the first things which will prevent an addiction to a group, as is the case for other addictions which play on emotional states and human needs.

Dealing with the problem

There are various way to solve an addiction to a group. Of course everything is made much easier if the addict is able to gradually become aware of the addictive tie that he/she has established with the group. This is possible when the person involved is able to activate/reactivate their critical and logical skills and challenge him/herself by reviewing the group’s thought process, which has become his/her point of reference. Help can, in some cases, come from outsiders, such as friends and relatives who are aware of the problem and they will not help the addicted person if they become aggressive or attack or heavily criticise the group though, rather they need to makes themselves a reference point or provide different perspectives.

One must always consider the fact that people have various psychological needs when detoxifying themselves from a group and, above all, it is necessary, often with professional help, to understand why this addiction occurred and support the need to belong to something. This must be done in a positive way though, such as helping the victim to make new, positive relationships, as well as make sense of what happened so as to avoid relapses or secondary psycho-social problems which often follow the exit from a sect and which can range from depression to a form of post traumatic stress disorder.

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