“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.
“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.
We are always on the lookout for best practice examples of educating teenage students about the prevalence and dangers of coercive manipulation in the modern world. The following story definitely meets that criterion:
While a middle school class was learning about the Salem Witch Trials, the teacher explained that as part of the learning experience the students would have to play a game.
He went on to say, “I’m going to come around and whisper to each of you whether you’re a witch or a normal person. Your goal is to build the largest group possible that does NOT have a witch. At the end, any group found to include a witch gets a failing grade.”
The students quickly began grilling each other. One fairly large group formed, but most of the teenagers broke into small, exclusive groups, turning away anyone they thought showed even a hint of guilt.
“Okay,” the teacher said. “You’ve got your groups. Now it is time to find out which ones fail. All the witches please raise your hands.”
No one raised their hands.
The kids were confused and told the teacher that he had messed up the game.
“Did I?” Was anyone in Salem an actual witch? Or did everyone just believe what they were told?”
Now that’s how you teach teenage students about how easy it is to
unduly influence and divide a community.
PS – The aforementioned classroom story has been circulating on Facebook and the Internet for the last ten months. We do not know for sure if it is a true story or the product of a very creative and well-intentioned writer and educator. Either way, we are grateful for the effort and pleased to share it.
The techniques of the scam artist has been elevated to new heights in destructive, authoritarian or totalist groups, which are also commonly known as cults. The term “totalist” or “totalitarian” refers to dictatorial leadership which allows no disagreement and has “total authority”. Our concern is for any authoritarian group or relationship, wherever it fits on the spectrum between autonomy and totalism.
There is no democracy in an authoritarian group. These groups have proliferated in our society. Experts list as many as three thousand dangerous authoritarian groups in the US alone. Some claim to be religious or philosophical, some are political or offer supposed therapy, others promise revelations leading to wealth or success in relationship, yet others promise eternal life.
There are many more “family” groups that cluster around an abusive individual, who has total authority. The smallest authoritarian group consists of a single follower in an intimate relationship with an authoritarian partner. The dynamics of manipulation or undue influence are broadly the same: all create authoritarian or even totalist relationships.
This definition of a totalist cult – which can be applied to any authoritarian group or relationship – was arrived at by a group of experts under the direction of Professor Louis Jolyon West, MD:
“A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the possible or actual detriment of members, their families or the community.”
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