Sunday, March 15, 2009

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Part VII: An Ideal Environment for Covert Influence?

Previous posts discussed how cognitive dissonance works, but they did not really discuss what this might look like in a religious setting when the individual enters a place with tremendous pressures designed to support a particular state of mind? Entering into a setting like this is fine if it is done without coercion and with the individual’s full and informed consent.
It becomes objectionable, however, when manipulators make use of techniques of influence in order to covertly exploit individuals. Previous discussions examined single examples and elements of manipulation and thought conversion, but it did not discuss how individuals become bombarded by this information and can find it overwhelming when experiencing nearly every type of influence concurrently. Techniques of manipulation intensify their effectiveness when done in social settings and when they are layers upon one another.
Imagine that you walk into the sanctuary of a church. You hear music playing, but you do not realize that this music’s meter, rhythm, chords and patterns induce a particularly prayerful state of mind. Though you do not realize it, your body and mind synchronize with this music, shifting you from the state of mind where rational, critical problem-solving takes place into a more emotional and experiential state. The service begins, and the more simplistic seem repetitive, and they do not focus on doctrine or confession but upon emotions and experience. It is not balanced, and the music minister repeats the chorus of the last song 12 times before concluding the singing portion of the worship service. You feel a bit out of touch, particularly after the repeating chorus at the end.

You don’t realize how much you follow the patterns of the people seated around you. Social mentoring sets the standard for appropriate behavior in the church that evening. You feel rather weary from the long day, and you follow right along with the group. Your attention drifts for a moment, and suddenly, everyone around you stands up. The man seated nearby looks at you in your still seated position, and you feel a bit embarrassed. You aren’t quite sure why everyone is standing, but the critical gazes around you feel uncomfortable to you, so you stand up also. We tend to determine what is correct, at least in terms of behavior in this setting, by conforming to the group standard. A moment ago, you looked over and noticed that the man that you consider to be the wisest and most respected person in the group was standing and he also noticed that you were still seated. You figured that if he was standing, that is a good gauge to you indicating that also should be standing, too. You stood up, though you don’t quite know why everyone else stood up, but you don’t want to be impolite.
Now feeling a bit more self-conscious, you notice that you are not dressed like everyone else in the group. You feel a bit uncomfortable and think that you should really be respectful and dress more appropriately next time you come to the mid-week service. You are dressed in your formal business attire, and everyone else is a bit more casual.
Someone in the front has started making some announcements, and they have asked for volunteers. You again feel the gaze of others on you, and a friend looks over at you and makes eye contact with you as the plea for a particular volunteer is made. The person in the front asks specifically for people in your profession to rise to the occasion, and they mention how the help will benefit the unfortunate. The person asks for a show of hands of willing volunteers. You feel self-conscious again, and against your better judgment, you raise your hand. Your current schedule for the next month makes such volunteer work difficult because of a certain project, and you consider the option of telling the person after the service that you really now have second thoughts, but you did make a commitment, and you did so in front of the group. If you had not been so fatigued by the long day before coming to church and if you had not been a bit self-conscious already, you would not have volunteered. You are disappointed in yourself. Oh, well.

The minister gets up to speak, and you smile, considering how much you really enjoy the company of this pastor. You admire his attire, he is your ideal image of a pastor. He has the nicest family, too. He strikes you as a very honest man and you just find him to be very likable.

It is the midweek service, so things are a bit informal in comparison to the Sunday services. The pastor reads a section of Scripture and stops three times to say, “Repeat this verse with me….” So the congregation repeats the short verses with the pastor as requested. You don’t particularly like that practice, but you participate. After all, it is the informal service, and it is Scripture. This echoing of the pastor does get your attention. The platform is elevated and you gaze upward to see the pastor, and you find yourself looking up at about a 40 degree angle to see him on the platform. (You do not realize that when you gaze upward like this that your brain shifts out of a problem-solving mode into a more relaxed mode that actually encourages you to accept information without question.) He also says, “Can you say, ‘Amen’?” You chime in with the group, repeating “Amen.”

Last week when you taught Sunday School, you asked the pastor to assist him in a demonstration before the class. He was quite helpful, and you are always honored when he sits in on your class. This evening, at this more informal service, your pastor asks for a male volunteer for a little object lesson, and he motions over towards the area where you are seated. No one seems too interested in cooperating, but since the pastor was so agreeable last week, you stand up and offer to participate. The pastor asks you to go up to the front to assist him with holding something, a very simple request. It doesn’t really make sense to you, but he is the pastor, after all. He’s the one preaching at the moment, so you show yourself as a good Indian to his chief. He thanks you in front of everyone for being so helpful. You consider again how much you like the pastor as you return to your seat. You really hate getting up before crowds like this, particularly in church, but you do so because this is what was expected and what was asked of you.

You notice that there was a bit of a political twist in the sermon this evening. Something was said about a political figure’s behavior, and the pastor said “Well, why should we expect otherwise? Of course, that’s what we should expect him to say, considering his background.” He also made an argument that doesn’t quite make logical sense. If the end times are coming, then there will be increased war and decreased peace. We are at war with another nation, therefore the pastor says that it is surely the end times. You consider that you heard this same thing when you were very young, 30 or 40 years earlier. You wonder how long the end times really are. The straw man argument was used regarding all of a particular political party, and the connotations used to identify this party were neither favorable nor terribly accurate. But everyone hopped on the band wagon and really responded to the message.

At the end of the service, the front of the church seems quiet and looks a little more focused to you. You almost feel inspired and as if you can see more clearly. As an Assemblies of God pastor once shared with me about his church, your pastor has a remote in his jacket pocket which allows him to control the lighting. The pastor is gradually dimming lights in the periphery around the front of the sanctuary, making them brighter in the center where he is standing, and the house lights that were quite dim have begun to brighten. To some people in the congregation, the gradual increase in the level of light above them corresponds with the zenith of the sermon, and this enhances the sense of epiphany for them…

And as you drive home, you find yourself humming one of the repetitive choruses that you sung that evening, and you didn’t even realize that you remembered the words to it. Hmmm.
You do not realize it but you were intentionally placed in an alpha state of awareness (highly suggestible) with the use of music and lighting. Just having to gaze upward to see the pastor on the platform causes a physiologic response of going even deeper into this alpha state. Every time you felt an emotional response of embarrassment or self-consciousness, your critical thought suspended for several minutes, making you highly open to suggestion. When called upon to volunteer by the person making announcements, you responded because of your tendency for consistency, desiring people to think of you in the way that you like to think of yourself. You also responded to social pressure, something intensified because this pressure was applied in a very public forum.

You responded to your pastor, though you did not really want to participate and don’t enjoy that sort of thing. You complied in response to the appeal to authority, social pressure/proof, consistency, reciprocity and liking (see Cialdini). The pastor was able to gain your compliance several times, both with the group and individually. You are now conditioned to respond to other more significant requests for compliance in the future because they have built your trust and increased your familiarity via the small requests.
Though some things about his message did not sit well with you, you failed to realize that the pastor actually threw several complex logical fallacies at you in a very short period of time. The rapid use of these arguments did not allow you sufficient time to consider their validity, so you were swayed by the situation. The mention of the end times implies scarcity and capitalizes upon the principle of scarcity and a desire to survive. You found yourself agreeing with the pastor on points that you otherwise would have rejected and taken issue with under other, less pressured circumstances. Now consider that all of these factors and “weapons of influence” were all layered upon one another. Also consider that you were very fatigued, and so you were much more compliant than you would have been otherwise.

In and of themselves, this does not constitute spiritual abuse. But consider that these powerful influences, all layers upon one another in complex ways, could be used against you to manipulate and exploit you. If the pastor promised and advocated one set of ideas and secured your trust, how would you feel and what would you think if the pastor was not honest about his objectives? What if he kept his true purposes for the congregation concealed until he had gained the trust and love of the congregation? What if he misused his authority and position? What if he started teaching subtle error? Consider how easy it would be for you to be pressured and exploited.