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. 

References & Resources

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