by Jon Atack
Social Influence Producing Behavior Change
Why people stay in destructive groups or relationships is often a mystery to people who have never been the victim of a coercive manipulative environment.
We often hold onto beliefs stubbornly. Once we are persuaded by a manipulator, it can trap us into a system of beliefs. Even the brightest and best people have been tricked into irrational beliefs and foolish practices by human predators.
Idealistic people who want to better the world, and are dismayed by society’s cynicism, are the most likely cult converts. Doctors, surgeons, scientists, artists, professors and lawyers have all been lured into cults and abusive relationships: it isn’t about intelligence, poor reasoning skills, or “gullibility”.
Because of consistency, or inertia, we tend to keep moving in the same direction, once we have adopted powerful ideas. Very few people find it easy to change habits and routines.
Predatory people use manipulative techniques to amplify commitment. Robert Cialdini has listed the normal, everyday methods of influence. Robert Jay Lifton observed the deliberate methods of “thought reform”.
Most people believe that they are not vulnerable to predatory influence. They are sure that others “fall” for the tricks of predators, but without knowing those tricks, and recognizing them, we are all vulnerable. We can fervently believe almost any idea, but it is much easier to see others’ faults than our own.
The only group of people – thankfully a small group – who are invulnerable to manipulation are those without emotional responses, without conscience and without any concern for others; and they tend to be the ones using the manipulation.
Irrational and cultic systems have often dominated human thought, even in the sciences. For instance, Behaviorist psychology, which insisted that nothing can be known about the mind or its workings, was dominant in universities in the US for decades, well into the 1970s, when it was shown to be plainly wrong.
A group provides a social environment. Some people remain in an abusive group, because their friends and family will abandon them if they leave.
We are all prone to groupthink, where we go along with the rest of the group. We don’t want to “rock the boat” or cause trouble.
We accept more and more dissonance over time, and our loyalty can keep us stuck. We become used to the language and the routines of any group we belong to, and other groups can seem ever more strange.
Only a significant event will cause someone to reconsider involvement with a group or individual they are loyal to. It can be an unpleasant event, an obvious contradiction, or a revelation of conscience that motivates a challenge to our beliefs. Often the abusive group or partner knows how to overcome disagreement, by playing on guilt, phobia or aversion, and it takes outside help to reconsider the abusive relationship.