Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Defense Mechanisms Commonly Observed in Cult Members

Inspired and extrapolated from over 40 years of observation through the lenses of...

a) Hans Toch's Social Psychology of Social Movements (1965), 

b) Anna Freud's The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936), and 

c) George Vaillant's Adaptation to Life (1977);

d) etc. (please see the References & Resources section at the end).

Most of Freud's and Vaillant's defense mechanisms are observable in those who have reached the higher levels of the cultic pyramid. Many are observable at lower levels, generally as the result of acquisition, rehearsal, habituation and normalization before the cult member was drawn to seek involvement and membership. Others are acquired and developed over time in the cult milieu. (See Burgo for what is possibly the easiest read on defense mechanisms in depth.) 

The ones I have seen the most -- ranging roughly from those widely seen in the general population to those seen only in those who have been deeply conditioned, instructed, in-doctrine-ated and socialized into the cult's belief system -- include...

1) Wishful Thinking: Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality.

2) Rationalization (making excuses): Convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. "Convenient excuses" are a fairly reliable indicator that this defense mechanism is in play.

3) Idealization: Tending to perceive another individual as having more desirable qualities than he or she may actually have.

4) Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person. For example, when we take on attributes of other people who seem better able to cope with the situation than we do.

5) Magical Thinking: The fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events. (This one is especially common among the members of charismatic, evangelical, religious cults, regardless of being "Eastern" or "Western" in nature.)

6) Compensation: Covering up, consciously or unconsciously, weaknesses, frustrations, desires, or feelings of inadequacy or incompetence in one life area through the acquisition of what is intended to be seen as excellence in another area.

7) Intellectualization: Concentrating on the verbal / cognitive components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, emotionally bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects.

8) Upward and downward social comparisons: A defensive tendency that is used as a means of self-evaluation. Individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about themselves or their personal situation.

9) Undoing: A person tries to undo an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.

10) Pointless Ritual: A sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence... regardless of whether the actions have application to their asserted purpose (and often because it has the opposite purpose). 

11) Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way. For example: Whining and complaining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with an appropriate level of maturity.

12) Passive Aggression: Aggression and/or hostility towards others expressed indirectly or passively, often through procrastination or some other form of (usually) subtle sabotage.

13) Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent. 

14) Splitting: A primitive defense. Both harmful and helpful impulses are split off and unintegrated, frequently projected onto someone else. The defended individual segregates experiences into all-good and all-bad categories, with no room for ambiguity and ambivalence. When "splitting" is combined with "projecting", the undesirable qualities that one unconsciously perceives oneself as possessing, one consciously attributes to another.

15) Reaction Formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety.

16) Projection: A form of paranoia that reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged, unacceptable, or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice and jealousyhypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting," all with the aim of shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.

17) Schizoid Fantasy: Retreat into obviously delusional fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.

18) Delusional Projection: Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.

19) Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.

20) Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.

With respect to each of the characters representative of the 10 levels on the Cultic Pyramid Model, defense mechanisms numbers...

1 through 5 are widely observed at the Seekers, Samplers and New Recruits levels;

5 through 8 are increasingly more evident among the Committed and Wonderbound;

9 through 14 become increasingly observable among the Lab Rats, Gluttons for Punishment and Willful Slaves;

and 14 through 20 are seen among the longer-term Willful Slaves and Cynics.

But, what about the Sociopaths at the top? So long as they are in their well-rehearsed harnesses, splitting, denial and distortion are (usually) the only defense mechanisms that are easy (for professionals, at least) to observe. But, "under stress, we all regress," and when that is the case, many of the other defense mechanisms become more apparent, including (especially) delusional projection. 


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References & Resources

Adorno, T.; Levinson, D.; et al: The Authoritarian Personality: Studies in Prejudice, orig. pub, 1950, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Altemeyer, R.: The Authoritarian Specter, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Altemeyer, R.: The Authoritarians, Charleston, SC: Lulu, 2006.


Arterburn, S.; Felton, J.: Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction, Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1991.


Asch, S. E.: Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments, in Guetzkow, H. (ed.): Groups, Leadership and Men, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press, 1951.

Atir, S.; Rosenzweig, E.; et al: When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, in Psychological Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/0956797615588195


Berger, P.; Luckman, T.: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Berreby, D.: Us & Them: The Science of Identity, Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 2005.

Brummelman, E.; Thomaes, S.; Sedikides, C.: Separating Narcissism From Self-Esteem, in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 25, No. 1, February 2016. DOI:10.1177/0963721415619737 

Burgo, J.: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways they Shape Our Lives, Chapel Hill, NC: New Rise Press, 2012. 

Byrne, R.; Whiten, A: Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans, Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Chopik, W.; Motyl, M.: Ideological Fit Enhances Interpersonal Orientations, in Social Psychological and Personality Science, July 2016; DOI:10.1177/1948550616658096

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Conway, F.; Siegelman, J.: Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, New York: Dell Delta, 1978.

Cooley, C.: Human Nature and the Social Order, Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1902, 1986.


Deikman, A.: The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Deikman, A.: Meditations on a Blue Vase (Collected Papers), Napa CA: Fearless Books, 2014.

Deikman, A.: Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat, Berkeley CA: Bay Tree, 2003.

DePaulo, B.; Lindsay, J.; Malone, B.; et al: Cues to Deception, in Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 129, No. 1, 2003.



Dyer, W.: Your Erroneous Zones, New York: Avon Books, 1977, 1993.

Ellis, A.; Harper, R.: A Guide to Rational Living, North Hollywood, CA: Melvin Powers, 1961.

Ellis, A.; Becker, I.: A Guide to Personal Happiness, North Hollywood, CA: Melvin Powers, 1982.

Ellis, A.; Dryden, W.: The Practice of Rational Emotive Therapy, New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1987.

Ellis, A.: Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, New York: Promethius Books, 2001.

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Freud, A.: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1937.

Freud, S.: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, orig. pub. 1920, New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.


Freud, S.: The Future of an Illusion, orig. pub. 1927, New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Fromm, E.: The Heart of Man: It's Genius for Good and Evil, New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Fromm, E.: Escape from Freedom, New York: Avon, 1965.

Fromm, E.: Psychoanalysis and Religion, orig. pub. 1950, New Haven, CT: Yale U. Press, 1973. 

Galanter, M.: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, New York: Guilford Press, 1989.

Gergen,K.: An Invitation to Social Construction, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1999.

Greenwald, A.: The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History, in American Psychologist, Vol. 35, No. 7, July 1980.

Hare, R.: Without Conscience, New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

Harris, S.: Waking Up: A guide to Spirituality Without Religion, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Haslam, A.; Reicher, S.: Contesting the "Nature" of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show, in PLOS / Biology, Vol. 10, No. 11, November 2012. 

Hassan, S.: Combating Cult Mind Control, South Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 1989. 


Hassan, S.: Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults & Beliefs, Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2012.

Henry, J.: Culture Against Man, New York: Random House, 1964.

Henry, J.: On Sham, Vulnerability and other forms of Self-Destruction, London: Allan Lane / Penguin Press, 1973. 

Hoffer, E.: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, New York: Harper and Row, 1951, 1966. 

Hood, R.; Hill, P.; Williamson, W. P.: The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, New York: Guildford Press, 2005.

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Kohlberg, L.: The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.



Kramer, J.; Alstad, D.: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 1993.

Krishnamurti, J.: Education and the Significance of Life, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, (1953) 1975.

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Lifton, R.: Methods of Forceful Indoctrination, in Stein, M.; Vidich, A.; White, D. (editors): Identity and Anxiety: Survival of the Person in Mass Society, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1960.


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Rokeach, M.: The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems, New York: Basic Books, 1961, 1973.


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Tart, C.: Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, New York: New Science Library, 1987.


Taylor, K.: Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, London: Oxford University Press, 2004.



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Vaillant, G.: Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers, 1st Ed., Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 1992.



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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Unquestioned Power of the Priest or Guru...


...as explained in Eric Fromm's Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950).

Those having reached the fourth level on the 10-Level Pyramid Model of Cult Organization (a.k.a.: the "Committed"), the cult member observably tend to fit the description of Hoffer's True Believer. And as such, appear to have been pre-conditioned, indoctrinated, instructed (as per Berger & Luckman, Asch, Burrow, Cooley, Gergen, Hoffer, Horkheimer, Johnston, Klaehn, Krishnamurti, LeBon, Lerner, Lippman, McDougall, Parsons, Riezler, Tart, and Woodward & Denton), socialized and normalized to ideas and concepts that predispose them to accepting without question an authoritarian (see Adorno et al, Altemeyer, Arendt, Fromm, Greenwald, Grunberger, Halslam et al, Henry, Hetherington & Weiler, Koonz, Kramer & Alstad, Milgram, Miller, and Popper), hierarchical concept of powerful and mysterious forces beyond their comprehension. The more "seriously" or "deeply" they subscribe to such notions as explanations of the challenges and frustrations they face in the course of normal life, the more likely it is that they will turn to those who seem (to them) to understand and be able to help them cope with such challenges and frustrations.

Fromm (1900-1980) was a social psychologist of the Frankfurt School and the psychoanalytic model, though he rejected a number of Freud's earlier explanations of human behavior. His many books include Escape from Freedom, widely considered to be one of the best explanations of authoritarianism in general and the rise of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler in particular, as well as Psychoanalysis and Religion. I quote here from the latter book with the objective of attempting to further clarify the culture-wide, mental "set-up" in the West that makes it difficult for so many to see what they're getting into in the evangelical fundamentalist "churches" (and "mega-churches") that seem (at least a first) to be "perfectly normal" to them.... given their imersion in the common cultural, "consensus trance." 

Fromm's original text is in black below; my comments are bracketed and in dark red

"...at the root of the Judeo-Christian religion both principles, the authoritarian and the humanistic, are present."

"The beginning of the Old Testament [to this day, a fundament of both orthodox Jewish and Islamic religious belief] is written in the spirit of authoritarian religion. The picture of God is that of the absolute ruler of a patriarchal clan, who has created man at his pleasure and can destroy him at will. [God, according to whoever wrote the scriptures,] has forbidden [man] to eat from the tree of knowledge... and has threatened him with death if he transgresses this order. [Freud's position on this in The Future of an Illusion -- as well as Assman's (see bellow) -- is that severe measures may have been required to discipline the members of clans, and later tribes, and later residents of trading villages and then city states -- which is sturdily supported by the Code of Hammurabi laid down in what is now central Iraq in the early second millennium BCE -- for the sake of "self"-protection against raiders from other clans, tribes, trading villages, etc. One may consider, however, that the utility of such discipline also served the interests of those who began to amass wealth in such groups.] ...

"The text makes it very clear what man's sin is: it is rebellion against God's command; it is disobedience and not any inherent sinfulness in the act of eating from the tree of knowledge. ... The text also makes it plain what God's motive is: it is concern with his own superior role, the jealous fear of man's claim to be his equal. ...

"A decisive turning point in the relationship between God and man is to be seen in the story of the Flood. ...

"There is no question [in the text] that God has the right to destroy his own creatures; he has created them and they are his property [because, by this time, man is so many generations distant from his creation of "God," that -- save for the priests and gurus -- he no longer knows that "God" is man's invention (for the purpose of patriarchal social organization), and not the other way around; as the old saying goes, "too much of a good thing may not be, especially of one forgets why it was 'good' in the first place"]. ... Thus far the destruction of man and the salvation of Noah are the arbitrary acts of God. He could do as he pleased, as can any powerful tribal chief [, priest or guru].   

"That early Christianity [roughly 1500 to 1800 years subsequent to the advent of Abrahamic Judiasm] is humanistic and not authoritarian is evident from the spirit and text of all Jesus's teachings. ... But on a few hundred years later, after Christianity had ceased to be the religion of the poor and humble peasants, artisans, and slaves and had become the religion of those ruling the Roman Empire, the authoritarian trend in Christianity became dominant. ...

"While in humanistic religion God is the image of man's higher self, a symbol of what man potentially is or ought to become, in authoritarian religion God becomes the sole possessor of what was originally man's: of his reason and his love. The more perfect God becomes, the more imperfect becomes man. [See the Augustinian-Pelagian Controversy.] He projects the best he has into God and thus impoverishes himself. Now God has all love, all wisdom, all justice -- and man is deprived of these properties. [Man] had begun with the feeling of smallness, but he now has become completely powerless and without strength; all his powers have been projected onto God. This mechanism of projection is the very same which can be observed in interpersonal relationships of a masochistic, submissive character, where one person is awed by another and attributes his own powers and aspirations to the other person. It is the same mechanism that makes people endow the leaders of even the most inhuman systems with qualities of superwisdom and kindness [see Fromm: Escape from Freedom, pp. 158 ff]. ...

"Everything [man] has is now God's and nothing is left in him. His only access to himself is through God [, the priest or the guru]. He tries to get in touch with that part of himself which he has lost through projection. After giving God [, the priest or the guru] all he has, he begs God [, the priest or the guru] to return to him some of what originally was his own. But having lost his own he is completely at God's [, the priest's or the guru's] mercy. ...

"He becomes a man with faith in his... own power of reason. ...

"In societies [or cults] ruled by a powerful minority which holds the masses in subjection, the individual will be so imbued with fear, so incapable of feeling strong or independent, that his religious experience with be authoritarian. Whether he worships a punishing, awesome God or a similarly conceived leader [, or priest, or guru] makes little difference. ... Early Christianity was a religion of the poor and downtrodden; the history of religious sects fighting against authoritarian political pressure shows the same principle again and again [in cyclical fashion, as reactive, anti-authoritarian energy waxes and wanes in relation to authoritarian control, much as one can easily observe in American culture in general during the era that began with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 through the evangelical, authoritarian religious revival of the mid 1800s onto the anti-religiosity of the turn of the 20th century, to yet another revival in 1930s to 1950s, to yet another swing towards humanism in the 1960s and '70s, to yet another revival in the 1990s and henceforth]. Whenever... religion allied itself with a secular power, the religion had by necessity become authoritarian. The real fall of man is his alienation from himself, his submission to power, his turning against himself even though under the guise of his worship of God [, the priest, or the guru].

- - - - -

Further recommended to grasp the authoritarian, hierarchal con-struct of both "God" and religion in the Abrahamic paradigm:

Karen Armstrong: A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; New York: MJF Books, 1993.

Steven Arterburn & Jack Felton: Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction; Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1991.

Jan Assman: Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism; Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1998.

Jan Assman: The Price of Monotheism; Palo Alto, CA: Stanford U. Press, 2009.

Sharon Beder: Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR; London: Zed Books, 2001.

Peter Berger: The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Boethius of Rome: Consolation of Philosophy, somewhere in what is now Switzerland or southern Germany: The Holy Roman Church, c. 524.

Jean Bottero, et al.: Ancestor of the West : Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece; Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 2000.

Jean Bottero: The Birth of God: The Bible and the Historian; orig. pub. 1986; Philadelphia: Penn State Press, 2010.

Emile Durkhem: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; orig. pub. 1912, London: Allen & Unwin, 1915.

Sigmund Freud: The Future of an Illusion; orig. pub. 1927, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961.

Jared Parker Friedman, Anthony Ian Jack: What Makes You So Sure? Dogmatism, Fundamentalism, Analytic Thinking, Perspective Taking and Moral Concern in the Religious and Nonreligious, in Journal of Religion and Health, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10943-017-0433-x

Ralph Hood, Jr.; Peter Hill; W. Paul Williamson: The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism; New York: Guildford Press, 2005.

Jack Miles: God, A Biography; New York: Random House 1996.

Jack Miles: Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God; New York: Random House, 2001.

Pew Research: U.S. Religious Groups and their Political Leanings, February 2016, at

Milton Rokeach: The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems; New York: Basic Books, 1960, 1973.

Jeff Sharlett: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power; New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Huston Smith: The World's Religions: The Revised & Updated Edition of The Religions of Man; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. (First Ed. 1958.)

Charles Strozier, David Terman, James Jones, Katherine Boyd: The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History; London: Oxford University Press (April 19, 2010).

Barbara Tuchman: Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Max Weber, Talcott Parsons (translator): The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1930.


Theodor Adorno, Daniel Levinson, et al: The Authoritarian Personality: Studies in Prejudice; orig. pub, 1950, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Robert Altemeyer: The Authoritarian Specter, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Robert Altemeyer: The Authoritarians, Charleston, SC: Lulu, 2006.

Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism (The Burden of Our Time), orig. pub. 1951, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973.

S. E. Asch: Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments; in H. Guetzkow (ed.): Groups, Leadership and Men; Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press, 1951.

Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge; New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Trigant Burrow: The Social Basis of Consciousness; New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.

Charles Cooley: Human Nature and the Social Order; Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1902, 1986.

Erik Fromm: Escape from Freedom; New York: Harper & Row, New York: Farrar & Reinhart: 1941.

Kenneth Gergen: An Invitation to Social Construction; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1999.

Alan Greenwald: The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History, in American Psychologist, Vol. 35, No. 7, July 1980.

Richard Grunberger: The 12-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933-1945; New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher: Contesting the "Nature" of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show; in PLOS / Biology, Vol. 10, No. 11, November 2012.

Jules Henry: Culture Against Man; New York: Random House, 1963.

M. J. Hetherington & J. D. Weiler: Authoritarianism and polarization in American politics; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Eric Hoffer: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements; New York: Harper and Row, 1951, 1966.

Max Horkheimer: Authoritarianism and the Family Today, in R. N. Anshen, ed.: The Family: Its Function and Destiny; New York, Harper, 1949.

Christopher D. Johnston: Authoritarianism, Affective Polarization, and Economic Ideology, in Advances in Political Psychology, Vol 39, Issue Supplement S1, February 2018. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12483.

Claudia Koonz: The Nazi Conscience; Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 2003.

Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power; Berkeley, CA: Frog , Ltd., 1993.

Jiddu Krishnamurti: Education and the Significance of Life; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (1953) 1975.

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