I once heard a story about an elephant that spent its life tethered to a stake that was driven deeply into the ground. He spent his whole life living only within the radius allowed by the tether. One day, the tether breaks, but the elephant never ventures out beyond that which he has always known, even though he is no longer physically restricted. He stays within the familiar and never ventures out beyond the well-worn path, the radius of that which the elephant has always known. It’s really quite a sad story.
The concept of bounded choice parallels that of the story of the elephant. Though no physical restraints exist, people who believe that they have no choice find that forces more powerful than physical ones keep them bound to a predictable number of options. In “Take Back Your Life,” what I consider the definitive guide to personal recovery from group manipulation, Janja Lalich describes what bounded choice looks like for those within a group.
From page 50:
In other words, neither the charismatic leader nor others in the group need to be present to tell a follower what to do; rather, having internalized the lessons and adapted her outlook, the loyal and true believer knows precisely what she needs to do to stay in the good graces of the all-knowing and all powerful leader. The true believer need only ‘imagine’ what actions to take, knowing full well that she will act within the bounds of the cult reality, for in a sense her self has merged with the leader and the group.
What other reality is there? The one thing the devoted adherents cannot imagine is life outside the group. In other words, the cult member is constrained by both external (real or imagined) and internal sanctions. At this point, whatever choices remain are “bounded” ones. They are choices, yes, but not free ones. They are choices of life or death — figuratively, and, in some cases, literally.
Once an individual becomes a part of a closed, totalistic system, several factors work to keep them entrenched in that system, powerfully tethered to the predictable radius that is acceptable to the group. Members appear to have a wealth of options, but often, the group dynamics and the withholding of information and knowledge drastically limit rational choice. Because of distorted and absent boundaries, personal choice actually become organizational choice which constrains the member to a predetermined set of “givens.” Though it is true that all people do not possess an unlimited number of possibilities, the structure of totalistic groups confines them even further.
Janja Lalich expands upon this concept to describe the comprehensive factors that bind an individual within a totalistic group, identifying four “interlocking and interactional dimensions of the social structure” that creates a “bounded reality and contribute to a state of personal closure for the individual participant” (pg 261).
These factors serve to create a closed reality for the individual. Lifton described this “personal closure” of options (not closure of "completion" but a sense of personal restraint) wherein the group deprives the individual of inner reflection apart from the group ideology and milieu, inhibiting their ability to test the reality of the environment. The group ideal becomes the only real perspective for the closed individual (an ideal maintained by milieu control, manipulation, social systems of control, impossible personal demands for perfection), and the individual can only perceive that everything else outside of the group’s reality as unreal and unthinkable. The individual becomes alienated from both the outside world and even their own inner life because of the profound lack of appropriate personal boundaries required by the group.
Lalich explains that the group manipulation of the true believer in an idealistic group far surpasses the extent of the power and influence governing conformity in normal settings because the depth and extent of group manipulation and control is so much greater by comparison. The system of ideological totalism poses an all-encompassing system and phenomenon that absorbs every aspect of a persons’ life, far exceeding the pressures of cognitive dissonance alone.
But what does this look like specifically?
Lalich tells us that all idealistic, manipulative and cultic groups center around a Charismatic Leader (Charismatic Authority) who develops a group of elite individuals that surround them, an upper echelon or inner circle of leadership. When a member receives acknowledgement from that “inner circle” or from the charismatic group leader personally, this greatly reinforces their own sense of pride, personal power and sense of personal elitism as well. They experience love and admiration for the leadership as positive reinforcement, but there are negative deterrents associated with the charismatic leadership as well. But accompanying this love comes specific fear of leadership, fear of loss of status, fear of failure to meet the impossible group standard, fear of the power that the group holds over others in the group, etc. For those who depend upon the group for their basic human needs and lack the ability to provide for themselves, rejection results in fear for their very survival.
The Idealistic (Transcendent) Belief System acts as a tether to the group in positive ways by providing members lives with greater purpose and meaning. They take pleasure in the connection with the strength of the virtuous group which also helps to solidify their experience. In contrast, negative reinforcement also binds them to the group ideology because they soon realize that the rigid dogma that demonizes those outside of the group deprives them of any identity should they leave the group.
Duty and guilt bind the member to the Systems of Control within the group. Social pressures and obligation to the group bind members to the ideology, serving as a most powerful motivation technique. The “leader becomes the moral arbiter” for the group, and members learn to displace their own better judgment in favor of the group norm, revising their own personal code of ethics. Repetition, ritual and required behavior compliance desensitizes members, and they behave in ways that they would reject under other circumstances. The individual develops deep bonds of personal investment with the group, what Johnson and VanVonderan term “sweat equity.” Leaving the social network requires abandonment of all situational supports, making life outside the group an increasingly unthinkable option over time, if at all for those who were raised within the system.
Systems of Manipulation within the group require unity and merging with the group persona, separating the individual from their previous or “pre-cult” identity. Information from outside of the group becomes inaccessible in addition to the systematic removal of appropriate personal boundaries cause the member to internalize the group perception of reality. Though the individual occasionally experiences some cognitive dissonance over inevitable inconsistencies, the group monopolizes most outlets available, so the dissonance is largely limited and controlled. Life outside of the group becomes increasable inconceivable to members, and it is beyond all comprehension for those raised within the system. Leaving the group results in the loss of all personhood because the person’s sense of self and perhaps their sustenance depends entirely upon the group.
All of these separate dimensions of the group interlock and reinforce one another, providing “claustrophobic personal boundaries” (pg 259). The individual becomes enmeshed with the group, identifying with the leader, adopting the idealistic (totalistic) belief system of a utopia, polarized view that all reality outside the group is inherently evil, and they have adopted the behaviors of the group. Not only does the group monopolize one’s internal, individual perceptions, choices are drastically limited to those supported by the group. Particularly for young women who have only been trained for limited activities within the home, and if they suffer academically, they are physically confined and would be deprived of physical provision. All contingencies have been predetermined by the dogma of the group, and unless support is offered by someone outside of the system or perhaps from a renegade comrade within the group, the individual has no option of choice.
Lalich notes on pages 260 – 261 of "Bounded Choice":
Generally, we need to better understand present-day manifestations of cultic thinking and totalistic systems and their effects on our society. Although the two groups discussed in this book [Democratic Workers Party and Heaven’s Gate] may be regarded as extreme and unusual, in fact, the people in them were in many ways no different from everyday citizens. They were by no means crazy or suffering from psychological maladies – at least not when they joined. Nor were they evil, ill-intentioned, or stupid. For the most part, they were just people who had a deep desire for a better life and found a way to act on it that they thought was right for them. Unfortunately, their idealism was betrayed by the very systems in which they participated, the very structures they worked so hard to uphold.
by Janja Lalich
Bay Tree Publishing, 2006
by Janja Lalich