Monday, September 29, 2014

Groupthink

By the requirement and pressure to "constantly" read and memorize the Bible (and the letters from Berg), the "them and us" mentality of the group, and the repudiation of dissent and dissenters, the structure for groupthink was in place.

Put very simply, groupthink is a psychological phenomena where group harmony and unity are encouraged to the degree that outside opinions or disagreement is disregarded. Originally coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte, Jr., it was researched and more thoroughly defined by psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s. "The term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures."  (I.L. Janis, Psychology Today, Nov. 1971) (More on deterioration of mental efficiency in a later post.)


In general, when pressure to conform is strong, members don't even consider possible alternatives. In my case, any objections were kept to ourselves, as voicing any dissent was considered "doubting" or disloyalty, which were strongly discouraged. Ideas presented from outside sources were not taken seriously. Outsiders were stereotyped as "systemites" - members of society at large and subject to the "system" from which we deemed ourselves free. So of course, no alternative lifestyles were even considered.

We cultivated the belief in the rightness of our cause (the chosen and called of God), and "gave no thought to the morrow" nor to the eventual consequences of our choices and decisions. In came the delusions of the importance of our work. Membership in the group was thought to be more important than anything else. 

In short, groupthink led to a very distorted sense of reality.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

What is a Heuristic?

Let me leave my story for a brief explanation of heuristics and biases.

The brilliant psychologist, Dr. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow described the brain as having 2 systems, System 1 and 2. System 1 is intuitive, emotional, automatic, and provides us with quick responses and judgements. System 2 is used when we stop to think and analyze things and is much slower, and as he described it, lazier. System 1 saves us a lot of time and is filled with shortcuts.  

We generally use our System 1 brain for most of life; using System 2 takes concerted effort. Although System 1 saves us a lot of trouble, it is also gullible, favoring belief and easy acceptance. System 2 readily provides explanations for the decisions of System 1. This tendency had serious consequences in my life.

System 1 is filled with pre-programed heuristics - mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions quickly and easily. We do these things unconsciously. Many times they are helpful, but they can also lead to us errors in thinking which are called biases.

The availability heuristic is the innate mental shortcut where we come to accept and deem important things that are oft repeated. The greater the ease of recall, the more value we give to the information. With hours devoted to Word Time and memorization each day, you can imagine what I, and all those around me, were considering most vital.

"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Availability Heuristic

Again I mention this, but please bear with me, as it is all-important. The required memorization and daily reading time of 1-2 hours, with more encouraged, provided much fodder for the availability heuristic - the innate mental shortcut where things commonly seen and easily brought to mind are deemed important. This is done by our brains completely without our awareness.

An oft-quoted example of the availability heuristic is shark attacks. When one occurs anywhere on the globe, you will find it reported in international news. This gives us the impression that such attacks are more common than they really are. In reality, fatal cow attacks are more common. In fact, statistically, you are 22 times more likely to be killed by a cow than by a shark.*

So all that "word time" and memorization could not help but bring those formative thoughts to mind continuously. That was the behavior that was held as ideal, "constantly living in the word." I embraced that as a good little cultist should, memorizing, reading, and studying the Bible even to the neglect of my physical care, hygiene, and exercise - and I had been an avid swimmer, which I suddenly stopped completely (resulting in weight gain, of course.) My poor parents must have been beside themselves with worry over this drastic personality change.

As I was underage, I continued to live with my parents until my 18th birthday, but I spent as much time as I could with the COG. When I was not with them, I was busy proselytizing or studying the Bible or publications from the group.

The members lived communally, strongly reinforcing the very real feelings of pseudo-kinship, i.e., my new "family." The united activities that naturally occurred, and which were scheduled each day, in this living set-up further reinforced that idea of group cohesion and separateness from outsiders. "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the lord."

All the things that were done together cannot be emphasized enough in the formation of my believing and accepting mindset. Emotionally laden thoughts are even more apt to be brought to mind in the availability heuristic, and with all the emotional turbulence of the teenager I was, the COG's emotional pull, the highs that came with group singing and "inspiration time," I was fully in its grip.

Research has shown that the psychology of teams shuts down open-mindedness, and we were a team. In fact, we were "the Lord's endtime army," or so we told ourselves.  

* http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/events/department-news/1195/forget-sharks-cows-are-more-likely-to-kill-you/

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chosen

One terribly heart-rending consequence of accepting the "them and us" mentality was the requirement to cut ties with former friends and family. After all, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." I callously and blatantly disregarded the feelings of my family, preferring the approval and acceptance of my new pseudo-family, with all its consequent obligations and inherent loyalty. 

This "burning of bridges" by my insensitivity to those who cared about me further secured me to the group, and most likely, alienated and baffled them. I had all the emotional support and protection that I needed (or so I mistakenly thought). How self-centered this was never once occurred to me. On the contrary, I was sacrificing my life to "help others" and "reap eternal rewards." I was blinded by my perceived good intentions and convinced I was taking the high road.

"God has chosen me" was also a central theme in the COG teachings. Once I accepted that, then of course joining was my only option, staying in the group was my only option, unless I was mad or stupid, or decided to turn my back on God - and just imagine the consequences of such a decision as played out in the mind of the vulnerable. A fate worse than hell.

Clearly, "it was God's will" that I serve him. Once that precedent was set, it was very hard to dismiss. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Them and Us

The more I read and memorized, the more I participated in united activities that strengthened group cohesiveness, such as singing, dancing, group readings, etc., the more my views and mindset changed. I valued the opinions and ideas of fellow members while disregarding those of outsiders. After all, "we" were the virtuous ones who had given up all to follow Christ. (St. Francis comes to mind...)

Outsiders were considered unenlightened followers of Mammon (materialism), while we were "free" as the "lilies of the field." The concept of "them and us" was crucial to uniting us to the cause, and is also a fairly common mental bias and was easy to fall into.

A further strengthening of this clannishness was public (or private, yet publicly known) humiliation and/or punishment of traitors or those that expressed doubt. This, of course, would have the obvious result of arousing fear of upsetting the status quo or doing anything to damage my position in the group. The shepherds were not exactly trained in personal relations, so generally any correction of perceived sins was in the form of loud and humiliating harangues, even if behind closed doors.

To quote Jonathan Haidt, "Religions and their associated practices greatly increase the costs of defection (through punishment and ostracism), increase the contributions of individuals to group efforts (through cultural and emotional mechanisms that increase trust), and sharpen the boundaries — biological and cultural — between groups."

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New "Family"

With all this newly memorized material fresh in my mind - and growing in volume daily - I had easy access to plenty of reasons to rationalize my decision to join. That decision was, without a doubt, made by the emotional pull of the group. But now I had time - and plenty of material - to give reasons to that decision.

Making the decision to commit my life to such a noble and selfless cause was admirable, bringing to mind such greats as David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer (as ludicrous as that comparison sounds today). Choosing to live a life of "service to God and others" was irrefutably honorable. Sixteen is already an idealistic age, and "giving one's life to the Lord" was not all that different in my eyes than the dedication of the nuns who had taught me in Catholic schools all my life.  


My intentions were good. My heart was "in the right place." There are numerous Bible verses that point to the way of giving up all one's goods, leaving home and family, and following Christ. It was the right decision - no question.


Conveniently, we had a leader - later known to me as "The Prophet" - to show us "newborn babes" the way. Although living in secret, Berg was to be thought of as our "father in the Lord." This fit in nicely with the concept of the COG as our new "family," which term we used when referring to the group among ourselves, further reinforcing this idea. Having this new father-figure - and not just father-figure, but the very voice of God - worked to further blind acceptance of his directives.


I was doing my best to leave behind any former ideas I had and embrace my new life. I was enjoying the spiritual highs of being with a like-minded group of young people, regularly singing together which bolstered the feelings of oneness and united purpose, and united readings from Berg's letters which were considered "God's word for today."

My personality was changing. I was becoming "a new creature" - or perhaps I should say, "a very different person."

Monday, September 22, 2014

Feeding the Availability Heuristic

Faced with this high authority of "God's Word" there was really no place for argument or disagreement, so there was nothing to do but to dive in with wholehearted vigor. After all, no one wants to be "lukewarm" and have God spew him out of his mouth. (Revelations 3:16)

The memorization began. First, I memorized Bible verses and chapters at the rate of several verses each day. This is one of the core tenets of the group - daily memorization. In time, memorization also included passages from the Mo Letters. (At first, these were actually in the form of spiritually instructive letters, but very soon deteriorated to the depraved ravings of a madman.) 

All the repetition required for memorization, as well as the consequent withdrawal from society at large, served to make the doctrines of the group more believable and easy to accept as normal. In-group social pressure, the apparent simplicity and purity of the group's beliefs, the desire to fit in and be accepted, and the basic human instinct to "belong" all worked together to overwhelm any critical thinking skills that I may have had.

The self-reinforcing cycle of belief was underway.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Bandwagon

A defining precept of COG membership is daily reading of the group's publications. These are considered the "spiritual food" that "newborn babes" in Christ need to grow. Even in my naive mindset, I felt that many of these publications were strange, yet I didn't voice these opinions, but rather kept my "doubts" to myself. Why?

No one else was objecting. Others seemed to think these publications were great. Who was I to question? After all, "I am a worm and no man" (Psalm 22:6). Who was I to doubt my "elders in the Lord"?

This may sound incredibly stupid, but it is a blatantly clear example of the phenomenon has been demonstrated in psychological experiments and falls under various categories. For simplicity, let's just take a look at "the bandwagon effect," as demonstrated by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. He experimented with a group of confederates (actors hired for the research project) and one unwitting volunteer. Placed in a room where the confederates unitedly gave the wrong answer, in the vast majority of experiments, the volunteer went along with the others giving the wrong answer - even in spite of misgivings. This experiment has been replicated many times and the results have confirmed these findings.


How much more would this occur in the atmosphere provided by the COG? New converts are told they must learn everything afresh, even going so far as calling new members "babes." They are taught to look to their leaders as sheep look to a shepherd. "Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13,14)

(Regarding the bandwagon effect research, my personal favorite is the The Smoke-filled Room.  This link takes you to a very brief synopsis of the study.)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Joining

For me, joining was the easiest decision to understand.  

Let me first say that no one joins a cult. We join a new religious group. In my case, a revival of living like the early Christians - getting back to the roots of Christianity. It all sounded so good.

There I was, a naive 16 year old whose, like those of my peers, frontal lobe was not fully developed. I already had been struggling with anorexia, feelings of self-loathing, and on some sort of immature spiritual quest which so far had left me dissatisfied. I was ripe for the picking.

Enter the COG, and I was handed unconditional love and acceptance, a selfless purpose for my life, a new community/"family," which eliminated the need for me to think seriously about my future. "Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself," became part of my life's ethos.

The confusion of my life lifted, dissonance dissipated, brain rewarded for making the decision to devote my life to such a magnanimous cause, and a sense of peace and purpose came upon me. I was on my way.

Introduction

It is probably hard for many people to comprehend why anyone would join a cult. More so, why someone would remain in one for years. I also asked myself these questions. In fact, they haunted me. The remorse and shame I carried for how my life decisions affected those dearest to me - my own children - effectively caused me to be paralyzed by guilt for years. Overcoming this paralysis and extreme negativity is a work in progress, and I want to share with you what I've learned along the way. Perhaps other people are on similar journeys. If so, this blog is written for you.

After leaving, it has taken me years to be able to face what I'd done without self-recrimination. Well, actually, I'm still working on that one. But I have come to understand some of the whys.