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Are We More Vulnerable to Manipulation in Groups?

“Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachment, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family.”

But the groups and tribes we belong to can also make us much more vulnerable to manipulation by narcissistic leaders, which is what Amy Chua’s well-researched and timely book, Political Tribes, is all about.

Political Tribes by Amy Chua“The tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It’s also an instinct to exclude.”

“Once people belong to a group, their identities can become oddly bound with it. They will seek to benefit their group mates even when they personally gain nothing. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their groups.”

Getting specific, Chua warns us that terrorism is above all a group phenomenon: it’s a murderous expression of tribal politics. To understand how group dynamics can so twist an individual’s psyche, she states: “Groups not only shape who we are and what we do; they can also distort our perception of objective facts.”

Members of terrorist and fanatical religious groups don’t become killers or shun family and friends overnight. “They are typically drawn in through a gradual process of socialization, indoctrination, and radicalization—with group identity and dynamics playing a critical role at every juncture.

J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, praises Chua’s book with, “Political Tribes is a beautifully written, eminently readable, and uniquely important challenge to conventional wisdom.”

Other reviewers of the book say it is a clarion call, a page-turner and a revelation that will change the way you think.

The book definitely reads like a cannot-put-it-down encyclopedia with fascinating and expertly-researched information about group dynamics, our tribal instincts and how easily people can be manipulated in a group environment.

Two masters of tribal politics, Chua asserts, are the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and America’s Donald Trump, both unlikely political victors with similar personality types.

We will conclude this post with a Friedrich Nietzsche quote in Political Tribes, “Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups . . . it is the rule.”


Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations is available here on Amazon.


Questioning our Unquestionable Assumptions

If we can be patient with our feelings of unease, and learn to question our assumptions, no matter how rigid they have become, and no matter the reverence we feel for the authority figures who taught us these assumptions, then we can transform ourselves and our society.

As prejudice is the foundation of human conflict, understanding how to resolve conflicts within ourselves, rather than on the battlefield, is probably the most important paradigm shift that we can achieve.

By learning to calm our emotional responses to such things as suicide bombings and mass shootings, we can help make our world a much safer place to live.

In recent times, we have been subjected to the War on Terror. It is always dangerous to solidify an abstract concept – to reify thoughts or emotions into concrete realities. Roosevelt said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but now we are fighting a war against fear, which is the very opposite of Roosevelt’s dictum.

We have been deftly moved from the fear of nuclear annihilation to the fear of terrorism: the fear of fear itself.

This war has led to immense and irrational prejudices against Muslims. The terrorists belong to tiny factions, yet the media continues to call the few militant Wahhabis of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State “Sunnis” (or simply “Muslims”). While the Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, the fundamentalist Wahhabis represent perhaps one per cent, and most of these do not belong to terrorist factions.

Similarly, only a fraction of Shi’ites – the other major branch of Islam – are involved in terrorist activity. But all of Islam is seen as threatening, through media manipulation or simple ignorance.

After the July 2005 bombing in London, one of my friends insisted that “Muslims” should apologize for this crime. This is like saying that Christians should apologize for the torrent of hate speech that pours out of the Westboro Baptists. However, cognitive dissonance tends towards generalization.

It is only by recognizing our frailty that we can become strong. The unconscious mind is easily directed, and thoughts are easily led. By understanding this, we can improve our ability to learn and strengthen our defenses against manipulation and undue influence which have become commonplace in today’s world.


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds, a primer about undue influence and how the unconscious mind works, a book scheduled for release in the fall of 2019




The long history of undue influence

Undue influence has been recognized in law for more than 500 years. It is a legitimate legal concept to provide remedy for the victims of swindlers. The law of undue influence was framed because of concerns about exploitative churchmen taking advantage of the deathbed fears of the faithful.


In 1617, a woman who rejoiced in the name of Mrs. Death made something of a media splash, when the eminent jurist Lord Francis Bacon tried her case. The following comes from Lord Bacon’s ruling, and speaks of Mrs. Death’s hapless victim, Mr. Lydiatt:


“An old man about the age of eighty years and being weak of body and understanding and having a great estate of goods and lands … was drawn by the practices and indirect means … to give his house here in London and to come to sojourn with her [and her husband, Mr. Death] at her house in the country … and that she having him there did so work upon his simplicity and weakness and by her dalliance and pretense of love unto him and of intention after the death of her then-husband to marry him, and by sundry adulterous courses with him and by sorcery and by drawing of his affections from … his kindred, telling him sometimes that they would poison him and sometimes that they would rob him.”


A later commentator continues the story: “After she had obtained control of his estate and property, Mrs. Death neglected such attendance of him as she had used before and used him in a most cruel manner reviling him and causing him to be whipped and suffered him to lie loathsomely and uncleanly in bed until three o’clock in the afternoon without anybody to help him so as all the skin of his loins went off, he being not able to help himself by reason he was troubled with a dead palsy and other diseases, and when at any time she did come to help him up she would pinch him and revile him and by such cruel and terrible courses kept him so in awe as that he durst not revoke what before he had done, neither would she suffer his nieces to come unto him lest he should make his moan unto them, for she said if they came there she would scald them out of her house.”


For a further explanation of the law of undue influence, stay tuned to the Open Minds Foundation blog posts later this month. 


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019

Spike on The Ochelli Effect – Societal Influence and Lifton’s Criteria

Advisory Board member Spike Robinson was a recent guest on the podcast The Ochelli Effect, where she and host Chuck Ochelli discuss the pervasive nature of undue influence and societal manipulation in our culture, stressing the fact that all influence, from beneficial to malignant, lies upon a spectrum, with the same techniques and methods being used to harm as well as heal.

In the second hour, they break down Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, taking each element and discussing how various diverse groups use these methods of influence to sway opinions, actions, and lives.

Listen in to the conversation!




The Bear and the Fox – Predatory Projection

A Bear and a Fox agreed to live together over the winter; the Bear would have someone to watch his store of honey while he hibernated, and the Fox would gain the protection of sleeping in the Bear’s cave.

After a month, the Fox started feeling hungry. But as he neared the entrance to the cave and felt the sharp wind bite his nose, he decided not to hunt for his own food: instead, he tiptoed past the Bear to a small tunnel in the cave where the honey-pots were stored. The Fox greedily ate up a quarter of the Bear’s honey, and, coming back, carefully smeared a few drops on the Bear’s fur.

In another month, the Fox was hungry again, and the weather was even worse. Again, he snuck to the honey-pots and ate another portion of honey, leaving about half of the Bear’s original store, again smearing a bit of honey on the Bear’s fur.

Twice more that winter, the Fox repeated the same theft, eating a quarter of the honey each time; the Bear awoke for Spring, ravenously hungry, only to find his food stores depleted. Furious, he confronted the Fox, only to be told: “You ate the honey yourself, when you were asleep. Look, there’s still some stuck to your fur.”

The Bear had no answer to this, and as he now had to hunt for his breakfast, he lumbered off, muttering curses under his breath. But even though he could not prove any wrongdoing, he never trusted the Fox again.

This old Hungarian folktale (a charming re-telling of which may be found here) showcases a regular feature of many predators, sometimes known as projection: they will turn the accusation of wrongdoing onto those they have hurt. So, the adulterous wife will accuse her husband of having an affair, the controlling boss will chide his employees for wanting to have everything “their” way, and the cyber-bully will tell all of Facebook that she is the injured party.

Manipulative groups and individuals will use this form of gaslighting not only as a pre-emptive strike, but also to confuse the issue: if both parties in a conflict are claiming that the other person hurt them, a bystander will not know who to believe and will often dismiss the whole case as “he said, she said” without looking deeper – the victim’s reputation is tarnished, and the predator escapes unpunished.

Skilled predators may even go one step further, and, telling everyone that they are the injured party, will weaponize a fleet of empaths to attack their victims, and so good people will end up attacking other good people, unaware that they are doing the work of a predatory individual – or, if they cannot be made to attack, they will simply give the predator un-deserved credit, believing the abuser to be “misunderstood” at best, or a victim of some conspiracy at worst. Destructive groups with a religious background will insist that those who criticize them for abuses are really being “directed by Satan” or some other evil force, while abusive therapy groups will label their critics as “sick” or “damaged”.

However, there is a way to cut through the fog of accusations and counter-accusations to determine who is the injured party and who is the perpetrator: while an abuser will be careful to keep their accusations vague and general, harping on the person’s perceived motives and engaging in ad hominem attacks, those who truly have been injured will relate specific incidents of abuse, and offer concrete evidence. An abuser will beg you not to look at the “pack of lies” their accuser wants you to read, while honest people will want you to research both sides of the story.

If you are on the receiving end of such predatory projection, resist the impulse to fight fire with fire – no matter what insults might be thrown, if you refrain from mudslinging, it will be harder for the predator to paint you as vicious or vindictive. Keep your head and document all that is said and done: although a lie can indeed make its way around the world before the truth can tie up its boots, hard facts – and the predator’s own words – can help dispel many nasty rumors, if stated calmly and bolstered with evidence.

When dealing with a predator’s projection, it is best to use every ounce of healthy skepticism and research the problem from many different angles, asking not only who has been injured, but what has been done, when, and how. Separate facts from opinions, remembering that even the best of us can sometimes be fooled by a sufficiently glib lie.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about predatory projection that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!



OMOA Undue Influence in Pop Culture – Cult Recruitment and Exiting

In this month’s episode, Pearse and Spike take a look at two cult-related episodes from the popular cartoon shows, The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

In The Simpsons episode entitled “The Joy of Sects,” Homer joins the Movementarians, who promise their followers a life of Bliss on Blisstonia – if only they give up all their money and follow their Leader, by toiling in the lima-bean fields. The whole town falls under the group’s spell until Marge gets the family out. Spike and Pearse discuss the inaccurate Hollywood “cult” tropes – and consider the few bits the episode got right – as well as dissecting the extremely erroneous “deprogramming” of the Simpson family.

Moving onto the King of the Hill episode “Fun with Jane and Jane,” Pearse and Spike explore what makes this a much more accurate picture of a high-control group – and which tropes weren’t so accurate. In particular, they discuss the excellent job Hank does in helping Peggy and LuAnne leave the group on their own terms, in sharp contrast to the forcible kidnapping and deception Marge employs to “rescue” her family in the Simpsons episode.

Before you tune into this informative and high-spirited discussion, we encourage you to watch the shows so you have them fresh in your mind. Also mentioned in this podcast is a former episode with Christian Szurko, available here.

You may also upload the episode as an mp3 here.

What do you think about this podcast? Do you agree? Do you know of a movie, television or book demonstrating undue influence that you’d like to see us tackle next? We’d love to hear from you! 

Jon Atack and Yuval Laor Discuss “Wild Wild Country” with Kirk Honda


Jon Atack, our Director of Projects and Managing Editor, and Yuval Laor, our Review Board Research Coordinator, visit Kirk Honda’s popular “Psychology in Seattle” podcast to discuss the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country,” a look at the controversial interactions between the Rajneesh cult and the small town in Oregon where they settled. Jon, Yuval and Kirk talk about what they liked about the documentary, what they felt could have been done better, and the actual mechanics of the process of indoctrination into high-control groups. This fascinating interview is filled with compassionate humor and thought-provoking insight. Enjoy!

Who Benefits from Hate and Fear?

The Squirrels and the Rabbits, after many years of feuding, were about to come to a truce. Most of the other animals rejoiced: they had grown tired of the endless scuffling in underfoot burrows and the shrill, hectoring curses from overhead branches. The Fox, however, was not pleased. He liked to sit quietly under a disputed bush or tree, and wait for two or three combatants to scurry by, their normal caution blunted by anger. He enjoyed this quick route to a good supper, and didn’t want to lose it.

Fox also knew his opinion was bound to be unpopular, so he wore a mask of vulpine concern when he approached Mother Hedgehog, who was a longtime friend of a prominent Rabbit family. “Like you, I’m glad the Rabbits are parleying with the Squirrels, at last,” he declared suavely. “I do hope that the Rabbits aren’t making a grave error, trusting those Squirrels.” He refused to be drawn further, only mentioning some “rumors” about a plot to betray the Rabbits, adding: “It’s probably nothing. But still, one wonders….”

Next, the Fox visited an old Chipmunk, who was like a second father to the Chief Squirrel. “You must be so proud of your young friend! He’s certainly brave to be brokering peace in times like these, and with the Rabbits, even! Never mind all those rumors one hears, he just soldiers on and – what rumors? Oh, well, if you haven’t heard, then there must be nothing to them! That said, I am surprised….”

Over a dozen more visits, the wily Fox used his memory of the two tribes’ ongoing battles, and sought out the animals who had been hurt by the feuding – those who had their burrows trampled through, those who had nuts and twigs rain down on their heads; in short, everyone who could possibly hold a grudge against either Squirrel or Rabbit had a trip through their bad memories, courtesy of the Fox. But he not only revived the old injuries; he exaggerated them, and put them in the worst possible light.

Pretty soon, the whole forest was on the brink of battle, with those injured by Squirrels joining the Rabbits’ cause, and those injured by the Rabbits siding with the Squirrels. The Squirrels and the Rabbits, paranoid and jumpy about the vague rumors no one could quite trace (but everyone was now repeating), abandoned all talks of truce, and were, once more, easy prey for the Fox.

We humans are social creatures; we can be fiercely loyal to our “team”, be it our family, our neighborhood, our political party or our nation. We also don’t take kindly to people hurting those we love – sometimes, we don’t even need proof of that hurt to react. Sadly, once we decide to start distrusting and disliking the “other side,” it’s much harder to make peace, partly because we’re also hot-headed, proud creatures, and often say things we shouldn’t in the heat of the moment, and all too often because we find it hard to swallow our pride and admit that we might have been wrong.

And sadly, sometimes, people who serve only their own interests – whether it be a predatory individual or a coercive group – will deliberately “stir the pot”, fostering enmity and sowing fear through “triangulation”. Abusers will use this fear to keep their victims in the net of undue influence, and to lure others in: it’s a scary world, they’ll tell you, and you can’t trust anyone. Except for us, of course…

When “battle lines” are being drawn, before taking sides, we should take stock: examine what we know, and how we know it. A totalist group or manipulative individual won’t want you to think, they’ll want you to fight, and to keep fighting: those other people don’t have a different viewpoint, they’re just evil! You can’t go to another church, it’s a front for Satan! We can’t talk to those people, they’re vermin!

Those who practice healthy skepticism know that only a predator benefits from hate and fear.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about triangulation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!






Dangerous Misconceptions About Coercive Groups and Relationships

Coercive groups and relationships are all around us  – from domestic abuse and pedophile grooming, to human trafficking and terrorist radicalization – millions of people worldwide are trapped in a web of undue influence, coerced to act against their own best interests.

Sadly, although these people remain caught up between false hope and real fear, most outsiders cannot see the elaborate web of coercion, and assume that the web does not exist, believing that the thirteen-year-old being prostituted to multiple men has “chosen” that life; that the woman staying with an abusive husband could leave if she really wanted to; that the cult member who believes his guru controls the weather is “stupid”; or even that the middle-aged couple who refuse contact with their nonbelieving children are simply “bad parents”.

Undue influence is designed to be invisible to outsiders, so those not in its grasp look for other explanations for the bizarre behavior they see. Because of this, a mass of dangerous misconceptions has arisen, myths about coercive control that need to be debunked. Here are some of the worst:

“If it was really so horrible, they’d leave.”

How much would you sacrifice to save the world? If you knew that, simply by denying yourself some comfort and happiness now, you could help all lifekind to ascend to a new level of enlightenment, wouldn’t you do whatever was demanded of you? Most cult members are convinced that they are working for the betterment of humanity, and through the lens of their faith, what we would see as “wrong” becomes their “right”, harm becomes help, and even murder can be explained away – what is one human life, compared to the fate of the entire universe? Even without the trappings of an afterlife, political extremists can readily contemplate suicide – or genocide – if it means creating a “better world” for their children. The fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century proved this conclusively. As Hannah Arendt said, the surprise was in the “banality” of evil: ordinary people committed atrocities because they believed in a purified world.

Many trapped in a coercive situation – especially those suffering domestic abuse – cannot see that there is anywhere else to go. Janja Lalich calls this bounded choice: whether through exhaustion, misinformation, threats, or a combination of these and other factors, those inside the prison of belief cannot see their options, least of all the option to escape.

“I would never …”

This unhelpful phrase is the bane of all survivors of high-control groups and relationships. Otherwise well-meaning friends and relatives seem determined to tell us that they would never fall for such nonsense, not realizing that they, too, could someday be vulnerable enough – or unlucky enough – to be trapped in a controlling relationship. Unfortunately, the probability of being seduced into a coercive situation has little do with who we are, and much more to do with changes to our everday relationships and routines: first-year university students away from home for the first time, seniors who have lost a spouse, or those seeking a new interest, income stream, spiritual path, or social outlet are all prime targets for manipulative people and groups.

“They must be stupid/ emotionally needy/ gullible.”

 Even in support groups for cult survivors, this phrase runs rampant – someone will mention some point of the cult’s credo they still believe, and others will pile on judgmental refrains: “You must be stupid if you believe that!” Even after years of describing the exact processes of manipulation used to ensnare people into high-control groups, popular vlogger and OMF Advisory Board member Chris Shelton still receives comments on his YouTube channel saying: “You couldn’t be all that intelligent if you were in a cult.”

Friends and family members of survivors speculate that those who were trapped must have been “emotionally needy” or just “plain stupid”. In reality, well-adjusted individuals – often with high levels of education – can and do join cults: Aum Shinrikyo (of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks) and Heaven’s Gate recruited computer programmers, heart surgeons and other intellectuals – the Rajneeshis were called the “PhD cult”; emotionally well-balanced people can be seduced by traumatizing narcissists into long-term, abusive relationships. Like those proclaiming “I would never …”, people who believe this myth have missed the important point – that coercion can happen at any time, anywhere, to anyone, given the right combination of circumstances. Indeed, those who are most confident in their invulnerability are among the most vulnerable. It is safer in this world to realize that we can be tricked.

“All religions are cults/ it’s just another religion.”

Espoused by “New Religious Movement” scholars and atheists alike, this is perhaps the most unhelpful fallacy of all. Whether they choose to ignore the coercion and maintain that those in a high-control group enjoy not having freedom or autonomy, or condemn all religions as equally coercive, such blanket statements only cloud an already highly complex issue. Comparing all religions to destructive cults is like saying that all marriages are abusive – it’s not only a vast over-simplification, it’s simply not true.

While some level of control can be found in any “mainstream” church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, it does not compare with the high levels of control found in a destructive religious group. This thinking also dismisses the reality of the high-control groups with no religious trappings, such as political groups, therapy groups, multi-level marketing scams, gangs, and human trafficking rings, or the many situations where coercion is wielded without the slightest spiritual pretense. On the other side, there are plenty of “new” (and old) religious movements which are not abusive – it is the coercion, not the belief, that is objectionable to those who love freedom. If we help people to think more clearly and to understand the manipulation of emotions, they can make their own choices about their beliefs: autonomy is the goal, not an imposed belief system.

“It’s their choice.”

No one chooses to be abused, degraded, or tortured, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Those in the clutches of manipulative people and destructive groups did not choose to become the pawns of their captors; undue influence, coercive control, gaslighting, emotional blackmail and other forms of manipulative pressure are in play, bringing otherwise sane people to believe the impossible, to ignore their friends and family, to hide abuse, to lie, cheat, steal, even murder or commit suicide – all from a lack of choice. From the wife who lies to friends that she “just fell”, to parents allowing their children to die for want of a blood transfusion, from the cult operative setting up a “hate page” full of lies about a critic, to the gang member who murders someone from an opposing group, people commit acts against their own self-interest every day – convinced, hoodwinked, and mentally bludgeoned into compliance through a web of fear, lies, pressure and undue influence.

To free society from the plague of undue influence, we must eradicate this fog of misinformation and disninformation that clouds the subject. We should gently correct those who believe them and point them to the evidence. Those of us with experience should speak out about our experiences without shame or embarrassment. The truth is it can happen to anyone, and we can only prevent that by educating the world about the reality of undue influence.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a misconception about coercion that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 




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