Thursday, December 3, 2009


We often live by the old adage, "There is safety in numbers." We act as though being part of a group can somehow protect us from things that might go wrong. And there is some truth in this. When it is functioning correctly, the group we call "the family" can serve as a cushion that softens the various hard knocks we experience in life. Our friends can look out for us, protect us from lonliness, and give us advice when we need it.

For centuries, communities have effectively banded together to protect their common interests, and support groups for various problems and issues have sprung up all over the world in order to help people deal with difficulties. The drive toward safety in numbers is as old as humanity itself.

Spiritual abusers know that people gravitate toward groups for a sense of security and protection. They also know that this sense of protection we derive from groups is very often misguided. People who depend on a group, or some kind of group-process, to help them avoid problems are often in for a rude awakening:
"How could we have been so stupid?" President John F. Kennedy asked after he and a close group of advisors had blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion. ...
Stupidity is certainly not the explanation. The men who participated in the making of the Bay of Pigs decision, for instance, comprised one of the greatest arrays of intellectual talent in the history of American Government--Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon, Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allen Dulles and others.
[Irving L. Janis, "Groupthink," reprinted from Psychology Today Magazine, 1971, in Decision-Making Group Interaction, by Bobby R. Patton and Kim Giffin, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 243.]

Perhaps because they provide people with a sense of security, groups so have an inherent tendency toward harmony and self-preservation. Any group can only withstand so much internal dissent before it falls apart, and so to some extent, every group we belong to -- whether it's our family, our group of friends, our place of employment, our government, or our local church -- has its own formal or informal system for monitoring dissenters and dealing with them.

Most group members want to keep their group, and do not want some "troublemaker" to ruin it for them. Thus every group has its own way of letting members know when they should keep their complaints and disagreements to ourselves if they want to continue enjoying the group's company.

These tendencies help to keep groups together, but they also tend to stifle individuality. But usually that's okay, because if we have a strong enough desire to belong to a group, and if the group is relatively healthy, we can shut up when we're supposed to without sacrificing too much of our individuality. In such cases, silence in the face of occasional rudeness, or stupidity, or an overbearing, dominating individual is more often an indication of personal graciousness than weakness. People have to edit their words in any group. This does not necessarily make a group abusive. So when does it cross the line into abuse?

Groups become abusive when any disagreement or dissent, or when an unreasonably low threshold of disagreement, is punished -- when conformity to the leader's opinion, or the party-line, is not an option for membership-in-good-standing, but a requirement. All spiritually abusive groups claim to allow a diversity of views, even if only on some issues. But upon examination, it turns out that they have various ways of punishing expressions of disagreement, even when they are supposed to be allowable. The hidden agenda of the group requires it!

Psychologists have taught us a great deal by studying how even well-meaning groups can go wrong, and describing these dynamics for us. Irving Janis coined the Orwellian term "Groupthink" in 1971 to name the set of negative tendencies that often lead groups astray. These dynamics have been helpfully summarized for us.
"Groupthink" happens when --
1. The group shares an illusion of invulnerability;
2. The group engages in collective rationalization to discount dissonant information;
3. The group comes to believe in the inherent morality of what it wants to do;
4. The group develops stereotypes of other groups and of dissenters which protects it from accurate analysis;
5. The group puts direct pressure on dissenters in order to silence them;
6. Group members begin to censor their own thought, especially doubts they may have about the wisdom of proposed courses of action;
7. The group comes to believe in its unanimity because of lack of dissent and the belief that "silence means consent;"
8. Some members of the group come to function in the role of "mindguards" -- watchmen who "protect" the leaders from dissenting views by actively discouraging such dissenters from expressing their disagreement.
[From Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Psychology, 3rd edition, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980), p. 169; based on I.L. Janis and L. Mann, Decision Making, (New York: Free Press, 1977).]

The spiritual abuser knows how to manipulate his group in order to make Groupthink more likely to occur. Even in a non-abusive, well-meaning group, if Groupthink's dynamics are present, the group's capacity for providing checks and balances in the decision-making process is seriously impaired. Instead of preventing a disaster, the group of highly intelligent and experienced men that John F. Kennedy had gathered around him succumbed to these dynamics, and together they blundered into the worst American political tragedy of the Kennedy administration.

But in spiritually abusive groups, it isn't a matter of "blundering into" a tragedy. The tragedy is guaranteed by the leader's agenda. The illusion of invulnerability derives directly from the rhetoric of the leader, who claims to be doing God's will.

The leader actually teaches the group how to collectively rationalize away any dissonant information that might sway the group in a direction the leader does not want it to go. The leader also, through constant reminders, impresses upon his group that his agenda for them is inherently moral. And so on, down Janis's list of eight "Groupthink" dynamics.

Every one of them is deliberately encouraged by the spiritually abusive leader.
Especially frightening is dynamic #6: "Group members begin to censor their own thought ..." As with all of the features of Groupthink, I remember this one well in my own spiritually abusive group. All of us can probably remember a time when we should have spoken up and objected to something, but we didn't. At times such as these, we are probably weigh many factors simultaneously -- the different personalities in the room; the different relationships they represent; our own place in the group; our own agenda; etc. -- before deciding to just sit back and not say anything. Sometimes it is a wise decision. Other times we regret it.

In a spiritually abusive group, where the negative dynamics of Groupthink are actually encouraged by the leadership, the pressures on each individual are so great that inappropriate self-censorship occurs all the time. This is demonstrated by the fact that, in an abusive group, overt abuse is frequently taking place, and yet few if any stand up to oppose it. Could all of these people be so "out-to-lunch" that they cannot recognize abuse when they see it? No. In almost any other setting, they probably would stand up and oppose it, or leave.

But here they have been manipulated into deferring to the leader's "wisdom." And if the leader says that what he is doing does not constitute abuse, then, in a Groupthink mode, the members will censor their own inner objections, and others in the group will assume from their silence that they must agree with the leader.

Some who are reading this -- particularly some Christians -- might be dismayed by one possible implication of Groupthink: i.e., that the idea of Groupthink might be used to downplay personal responsibility for one's actions. While it is true that Irving Janis used the phrase "victims of Groupthink," he did not necessarily intend for that idea to be an excuse. He published his research years before the popular trend toward denying personal responsibility through a "victim status."

When we think of ourselves as "victims," that thought naturally causes us to direct our blame and anger outward, toward those whom we perceive have victimized us. But people who have actually experienced Groupthink, especially those who did not realize it at the time, tend to blame themselves:
"In the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the cabinet room," Schlesinger writes in A Thousand Days. "I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one's impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion."
[Quoted in Decision-Making Group Interaction, by Bobby R. Patton and Kim Giffin, p. 250.]

The answer to the question of just how much a "victim of Groupthink" should blame him- or herself really depends upon the situation. Each person has to answer out of his or her own conscience before God. If it happened to you, you need to take a long, serious look at the things you did while under this manipulative influence. To what extent were you totally fooled, and to what extent did you go along because the leader told you something that you wanted to hear? The issues can be confusing and painful, and it may take a long time before you get to the bottom of them, so you will need to be patient with yourself while you work on sorting it out in your mind.

As for me, the Groupthink of my spiritually abusive environment led me to break off contact with my family for three years. It was a very cruel and unbiblical thing to do. There was no justification for it. I had not been abused by my family, even though, after months of manipulation, my leader had persuaded me that I had.

He also persuaded everyone else in the group that they had come from abusive, "dysfunctional" families. One-by-one, members started writing letters to their parents, cutting off ties with their families. The pressure to conform to this group trend was enormous. But in the final analysis, I made a choice for which I was responsible.
So some time after I escaped from the group, I apologized face-to-face to my parents, and hand-wrote personal letters of apology to my three brothers.

True, I had been fooled. Yes, I had been manipulated. But as far as I was concerned, I still had to take personal responsibility for my actions.

As Christians, we need to strive for a Biblical balance in understanding. Even if we have been victimized in the past, we still need to think about those experiences from a Christian point-of-view. The world thinks in terms of blame, anger, hatred, and revenge. We are called to a higher standard, and part of that standard involves taking responsibility for our own foolish choices.

On the other hand, we should not minimize the role the manipulator played in getting us to do those things we should not have done. We are to be blamed for listening to the manipulator, just as our first parents were to be blamed for listening to the serpent (Gen. 3). But that does not get the manipulator off the hook! It is appropriate to have a righteous anger toward him or her (Eph. 4:26). And if we minimize that person's role, we are likely to be manipulated again.

By employing the principles of Groupthink, a spiritual abuser is able to exercise something I call "indirect persuasion." Indirect persuasion is "state-of-the-art" manipulation. It happens when the manipulator gets you, and/or the people in the group, to think that his idea is actually yours. It creates the illusion that your choices and decisions arise only from within you, and are strictly voluntary in the purest sense. That is to say: Groupthink is both an extension of, and a camouflage for, the very real pressure and psychological duress that the leader is exerting on the members.

Times without number I can remember hearing our spiritual abuser say in an accusatory tone, "Aren't you the one who said [this or that]?" or "Didn't you publically agree with me on [this or that]?" The only possible answer was, "Yes, I did say those things." In front of other people he would throw my own words back in my face, carefully overlooking the possibility that I may have said those things because of group pressures, and ignoring my right to change my mind.

This was yet another manipulation of the group, designed to reinforce in their minds that he was right, and leverage group pressure to influence my thinking as well. Since I had not caught on the manipulative nature of all this by that time, I had no really good answer. Even after I left, he kept using this technique through harrassing letters he wrote to me.

When this type of spiritual abuse is successful, members will begin to mistake the leader-encouraged Groupthink for "the leading of the Holy Spirit." After seeing others in the group, one after the other, make certain choices, eventually they, too -- after wrestling long in prayer -- will feel "prompted" to do what the rest of the group is doing. Either that, or they will be forced out of the group, or they will leave on their own.

All the while, the leader is carefully covering his tracks, trying to keep his role in all of this hidden from view, keeping current and former members very confused.

By God's grace, he does not always succeed. You will recall that my spiritual abuser used Groupthink to manipulate nearly everyone in the group into estrangement from their families. For the most part, he was careful never to directly advise us to do this. But one time he slipped up. In a private, one-to-one meeting I had with him in the summer of 1988, he suggested to me that it was God's will for me to separate from my family.

He had been successfully manipulating several others in the group to do the same. He obviously thought that I had been influenced enough by the rest of the group that his suggestion was a timely one. Around six months later, I followed through on his suggestion.

In 1994, a group of offended family members arranged to meet with this man, in an effort to hold him accountable for creating strife in their family. In the middle of the meeting he declared, "I never told any of these people to separate from their families!"

By this time, I had been out of the group for two years. I could remember not only the time he advised me to separate from my family, but also times that he exerted great pressure on others to do the same. The man had told a bold-faced lie!

Even so, during that 1994 meeting, other group members were present who had also separated from their families, and they all nodded in agreement with their leader. Couldn't they remember? Was I the only one who could?

But at least I could remember, and for me, this was an example of God's grace. Even two full years after my involvement, I was still confused by my ex-leader's skillful use of Groupthink. He had managed to keep me in self-doubt long after I left, thinking that maybe God was leading me while I was in the group, and perhaps I shouldn't have left. But God graciously allowed me to see his manipulation for what it was all along: a lie. And now I was no longer confused.

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