In search of an answer to the age-old question, “why are people like that?” I am reading a lot of cult confessions.
Groupthink happens every day wherever there are people. We take our cues from those around us. A famous psychological experiment measured the ‘bystander effect’.
Notice To test the concept of “noticing,” Latane and Darley (1968) staged an emergency using Columbia University students. The students were placed in a room-either alone, with two strangers or with three strangers to complete a questionnaire while they waited for the experimenter to return. While they were completing the questionnaire smoke was pumped into the room through a wall vent to simulate an emergency…
… even though students in the groups had clearly noticed the smoke which become so thick that it was obscuring their vision, irritating their eyes or causing them to cough, they were still unlikely to report it.
Taking their cues from others in the room, they figured the smoke was no big deal.
We are social animals and going with the crowd has a huge survival value. It’s how we are wired. It brings out the best and the worst in human nature. I read stories of cult survival, or not (Jonestown) with more sympathy than judgment. But most of all, what are the red flags, how do we recognize when affiliation has become dysfunctional? And what are the keys for unlocking groupthink when it’s time to escape?
Two books describe a lifeline from the radio.
Carolyn Jessop’s account of escape from a polygamous marriage in the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, ‘Triumph: Life After the Cult-A Survivors Lessons’, tells how tuning in to Dr.Laura with the volume down low exposed her to new ideas,
Dr.Laura affirmed unequivocally that I had rights as a woman and value as a human being. No one had ever told me that before.
Marc Headley describes a similar message from the outside in ‘Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology’
I would listen to these two DJ’s called John and Ken. John and Ken challenged the status quo…I was thoroughly entertained with their bad attitudes and not accepting what they were told as fact.
He made his escape shortly after, followed by his wife.
I’m no fan of Dr.Laura, but everything happens in context. She offered the mental key that Carolyn Jessop needed to unlock her chains.
Both Carolyn Jessop and Marc Headley suffered years of abuse and domination in groups that allowed no dissent. It’s so interesting that both of them were rescued by trashy pop culture. It makes me feel better about our secular society.
After all, in the ‘bystander’ experiment it only would have needed one person to yell “Fire!” to break the spell.