Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Part II: Establishing Milieu Control

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.

Within a manipulative or harmful group, leadership uses information to affect all of the aspects of self in order to reinforce the identity of members. They isolate group members from information outside of the group, replacing it with their perceptions and message. In order to overcome pre-existing thoughts or ideas that might be held by members, it may be necessary to use logical fallacy and propaganda techniques to convey and reinforce their messages (though both of these tactics also employ emotional tactics as well). Information may also be used to convey messages of shame and fear to coerce members, but they can also appeal to desires by promising solutions to troubling problems. Groups actually create a perception of problems and then provide an irresistible solution to those problems, and naturally, the solutions can only be found by actively participating with the group. Cialdini in particular outlines the social pressure (see Asch), authority (see Milgram), and systems of positive and negative reinforcement (see Spiritual Abuse) utilized to influence members in order to gain behavioral compliance.

Most groups use some method of isolation of members from external information that contradicts the group’s message and information, or the group may allow select information to be filtered into the group after it has been altered or tainted with negative connotation. Lifton says that isolationism or withdrawal often serve as unavoidable adaptations. Group members learn rather quickly which sources and information should be avoided because they will experience cognitive dissonance when faced with the truth. Any message that scrutinizes the group or that contradicts the group think will produce great discomfort in the follower, so groups actually have to do very little warning of their members. (Because members experience discomfort when they do review challenging information that brings the group or their teachings under scrutiny making the milieu a self-reinforcing system, when groups do formally declare warnings to their followers, it does make one wonder if the groups have become particularly threatened.)

If the group is unable to stop any information that challenges its ideology, the sacred science of the group, and the doctrine over person at work in a manipulative system, it predictably resorts to various measures of damage control. Groups marginalize or discredit sources of information and the information itself through typical propaganda techniques. "Poisoning the well," reducteo ad hitlerum, ad hominem arguments, straw men, red herrings and other typical tactics are used to discredit the source of information (refer to sidebar information). Groups often employ fear mongering, communicating to followers that review of information deemed questionable or dangerous will place their eternal souls in great jeopardy. Most members will not be Bereans about this type of information because reviewing the challenging information while holding on to the group dogma will place them in harms way with the group and may not be worth investigating.
Bill Gothard propagates a particularly powerful means of establishing and maintaining milieu control with his “umbrella of protection” teachings. Gothard makes submission and acts of selfless humility a type of sacrament necessary for the earning of grace that enables Christians to live safe and protected lives. Going against the standard set by the group exposes believers to harm, so that under Gothard’s ideology, failure to observe the rules that maintain milieu control expose one to God’s wrath and open one up to satanic attack. This serves to further isolate the group and polarize members to reject information from outside of the system because of fear of losing their salvation as well as their physical well being.

Most interesting to watch in closed systems and manipulative groups is their response to disgruntled members of the group. Thought reform and mind control is very effective, but it is not a sure thing. Most people walk away from cultic groups of their own volition and are not usually dismissed or disfellowshiped from their groups. As group members become dissatisfied, the same types of techniques used to influence members to reject information from outside of their system is used to isolate members who demonstrate non-compliance. Groups devote many damage control measures to containing information propagated by problematic members who become wise to their deception. Groups often dissemble and exaggerate information to cast these disgruntled members in unfavorable light so that if they do communicate problematic or thought provoking information, members will be highly inclined to ignore or dismiss this information.

Coming in part three: How groups and individuals respond to information that contradicts their ideology.