Cognitive Dissonance: Why you should read everything and be discerning.
Make phone calls and confirm the truth yourself.
Be a Berean.
In any manipulative group that practices surreptitious techniques to influence members, one of the primary means of establishing and maintaining control of the community and environment comes through what Robert Lifton called “Milieu Control.”
For most groups, this involves not only control of the flow of information into / within a group but also the generation of information to keep those within the group from engaging critical thought. Any information from outside this closed system (or sometimes from a disgruntled member) that challenges the group must be silenced, because people will then begin to think for themselves and will question the veracity of the information that the group has communicated to them. The outside information will magnify the flaws in the group’s dogma. Most groups communicate the idea that only information from certain sources may be considered, and other sources will be portrayed as false or evil.
For this reason Steven Hassan includes information along with the three elements of the self (thought, emotion and behavior) as a means of dominating a person for the purposes of surreptitious manipulation. When the group can gain control of one aspect of the self, it is highly likely that the other aspects of the person will follow the path of least resistance to reduce psychological stress by causing a change in the other unaffected aspects (cognitive dissonance). Personally, I like to consider information as a separate factor because, though it can be manipulated in order to convert a person, it is external to the person themselves. However in terms of influence, it is just as powerful a means of establishing control.
As noted in the previous post, people experiencing cognitive dissonance in response to challenging information can respond in a whole host of ways, but primarily they reduce to three basic categories: (1) denial, (2) filtering/rationalizing the information to limit cognitive dissonance or (3) actually receiving the information, making no effort to escape the cognitive dissonance.
The first two options demonstrate the thought squelching processes necessary for manipulative groups to maintain milieu control, and the third option stimulate critical thinking which will ultimately guide a person away from the group influence. This post will deal primarily with denial but will also discuss why some people might be more predisposed to denial than others.
Denial, a form of isolation or withdrawal is fairly self-explanatory. (It is also employed as a result of confirmation bias which I will discuss in a later post, but I included denial here as an independent factor.) The most obvious way that people can compensate is to avoid the information through isolation, though eventually one does encounter dissonance, even when immersed in the neotribal subculture. When messages do penetrate the group’s barriers, one can esteem the messages as lies so that they do not have to be weighed and evaluated. All veracity of the information is denied and rejected because the pain of the truth becomes too great for the person to easily process. It is easier to abandon the new information.
Frankly, the whole list of informal logical fallacies and propaganda techniques can be employed for this purpose so that members can find reasons to reject the challenging, dissonant information. This alleviates them from having to pay any significant attention to the information at all. It may initially disturb individuals who encounter the information, but they have been trained well to preserve the milieu of the group at all costs. Members know that they will be punished by the group in various ways if they entertain the information, and the group will nearly always resort to damage control. Damage control by group leadership and other willing group members who are actively staving off their own discomfort go to great lengths to refute that which challenges them. The group will richly reward those members who labor to reject the dissonant information with positive reinforcement.
Many other factors affect whether a person will choose denial to shield themselves from the stress of the challenging and dissonant information. If new information depicts a scenario that is too close to a person’s individual experience prior to group involvement for example, an individual may choose to entertain the information. But generally, if a group member is reasonably far removed from the direct effects of a situation and is not personally involved with anyone involved, they will naturally trust their presuppositions about the group. When any reasonable person learns negative information about someone that they trust and know only to be virtuous (and they are satisfied with the relationship), they will also experience a degree of dissonance, scrutinizing the dissonant information. They have more cause to trust their satisfaction with what they know as opposed to cause to doubt.
But the person who is not part of a closed and manipulative system will not be pressured or punished for reviewing the information, and their standing before God will not be drawn into question as a consequence. A person within a closed, manipulative system will not only have to process their own normal internal stressors regarding the new information itself, they also have to overcome the conditioning and the dynamics of their group. The pressure not only affects only their internal mental and emotional state, any dissident behavior threatens their standing within the group (loss of one’s emotional and relationship support) and likely their entire faith. Apart from the group, a person will experience challenge of that which contradicts what they know, but the group’s milieu control measures make the process all the more intense for those in in a manipulative group. These individuals have very little motivation to resist denial and consider the dissonant information and will suffer if they do. It is not worth the effort.
These individuals have very little motivation to resist denial and consider the dissonant information and will suffer if they do. It is not worth the effort.
Cialdini writes about how we tend to disbelieve unpleasant things about people that we like. Expert manipulators exploit this tendency and capitalize upon our human trait of “liking” through predictable tactics. Physically attractive people are often attributed with more virtue, based merely on their appearance, creating an “halo effect.” Human beings also tend to cooperate with people who are more like them, seem familiar to them, and through positive associations like praise and care. What man dying of thirst does not have a favorable impression of someone who gives him water until he is restored to health? These forces prove to be incredibly powerful under any circumstances.
However, when the negative consequences of mistreatment become personal, additional pressures create their own dissonance. Whereas the individual who has some personal distance from the effects of misbehavior and the effects of spiritual abuse, the person who has been personally impacted by the negative consequences or the abuse itself has more cause to question the milieu. If someone you never met offers a complaint against your minister, for example, you have no cause to place a great deal of emphasis on this information. You love your minister, and most of what you know about him is quite pleasant and positive. But if you, your friends or your family suffer directly because of mistreatment from this same minister, you no longer find yourself in the previously impersonal situation where you still experience a high degree of satisfaction.
If your friends or family have been harmed, you have a high degree of personal stress and will likely develop dissatisfaction. If a minister within a manipulative group harms you, the stress created by the problem also becomes more significant than any concerns you may have had about the consequences of behaving like a dissident within the group. Some personal circumstances pale in comparison to the preservation of the group milieu. Often, this is the only time that some people will consider the possibility that their group leader, minister, or confidant could demonstrate hurtful behavior.
Most people who emerge from spiritually abusive situations actually state that they never would have believed that spiritual abuse was possible had they not witnessed and experienced the mistreatment personally. (They dismissed warnings such as Paul's warning to Timothy to avoid Alexander the Coppersmith as noted in 2 Timothy 4:14 until they experienced their own unpleasant dealings with their own real-life Alexanders. Or perhaps no one made efforts to warn them at all.)
Read more about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias
in upcoming posts on the Under Much Grace blog.