Sezione Medicina

from Leadership Medica n. 9/2000

The study of the structure, the functioning and the social control processes that are found within the group environment are very important to social psychology and lends itself to many applications.
One of these applications concerns the social control processes that manifest themselves within certain religious groups, to which people affiliate themselves in order to express and live out their need for spirituality and transcendence.
Religious groups behave just like any other group: they function on the basis of their structure, defined by the roles of each member and his status, by the way in which the various members interact and communicate amongst them, and by the shared norms. The person who, within the group, occupies an intensely active and high powered position becomes the leader, who, due to his prestige, importance and value, enjoys an elevated status.
Thanks to his power, he can influence the other members, modifying their convictions and their behaviour, but the success of his actions depends on numerous interdependent factors.
Scholars who study social psychology have made distinctions between the various types of "power" exercised by these leaders.
Providing some examples that apply to the religious groups, we can cite the so-called "remunerative power", based on the use of awards and punishment, that in religious groups is exercised by the leader in various ways and to varying degrees.
Essentially, all religions are founded on some sort of "award" and "punishment" system that the divinity attributes to the followers based on the strength of their faith or their actions, but, in some cases, this "remunerative" power is transformed into "coercive power".
This happens when the charismatic leader (frequently a individual with psychological disturbances) uses his power to limit the free decision making capacity of the other members, perhaps influencing them dishonestly, even arriving at violating their very consciences and privacy.
Studies done on the negative effects of coercive power demonstrate that coercion preys on the fears of the individual and this fear can linger even after the individual has left the group.

Furthermore, an elevated level of fear of the leader makes the person less able to confront and solve his problems, contributing to generating in him various forms of social maladjustment.

For example, take the situation where the person inserted into the religious group is persuaded into making public confessions. The psychological trauma generated by these confessions causes a deep "wound" that is often difficult to heal and could prevent the person from having positive emotional relationships within other social groups.
There have been cases whereby the charismatic leader exercises his power by creating in the affiliated member an "identification" with him. The person involved in the religious group, in this case, obeys the leader not because he fears him, but rather, because he feels "like" him, he feels that he is "one" with him, and acts, believes, and thinks like him.

The most peculiar aspect of this form of submission is that the person is so conditioned and lacking in critical capabilities that he doesn't even realise the state he is in: indeed, he believes his actions and thoughts to be his own.

In religious groups, this mechanism is fairly frequent since the leader presents himself to his followers, not as a normal person, but as a person endowed with the most extraordinary powers, sent by God, God's messenger, or even God Almighty himself.

It is clear that the god-leader is not subject to criticism and can resolve any problem by appealing to the impenetrability of his divine designs.

In one of his studies, Dr. Arturo Domenico Nesci makes some considerations regarding the personality characteristics of Jim Jones (the charismatic leader that led over 900 followers to their death) and states that "... on an unconscious level...the fundamental attribute of the leader is his absolute power over life and death." In the case of Jim Jones, Nesci affirms that his pathological relationship with his mother caused him to conceive his relationships with others as if it were a life or death issue, a question of survival. Recently, an interesting hypothesis was formulated concerning the relationship between brainwashing (a common occurrence in some religious groups), and the dependency bond that unites the followers and the charismatic leader. Professor Zablocki in his article "Analysing the costs of leaving: a new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing" formulates the hypothesis that brainwashing can occur when power is exercised by a charismatic authority. The function of the leader, according to Zablocki, would be, therefore, to make it as difficult as possible for members in crisis to leave the group, constantly increasing the "cost of leaving".

The religious group functions as a system in whereby a vicious circle of positive feedback is in effect: the members expect ever greater "miracles" from the leader and the leader expects more and more burdensome "sacrifices" and proof of faith from his followers.

This, however, involves a system of precarious equilibrium that risks crumbling should heavy crises arise. A way out of this vicious circle lies in finding a way to guarantee the honesty of the members, independent of the success or lack thereof of the leader. According to Zablocki, this is possible only if the individual is inserted into the group by involving himself so deeply that the "costs" of his exit from the group would be too high to be sustained.On an emotional level, the Zablocki's hypothesis is that the charismatic relationship reintroduces the individual to the attachment-detachment relationship between mother and child. The initial instinct of the charismatic leader is to feed, and the instinct of the disciple is to be fed.

The action of the leader, then, can be seen in the destruction of the previous convictions (cognitive level) and in the creation of strong need of attachment (emotional level).

If the process is successful, the individual becomes "starved" for convictions and attachment, and begins to depend heavily on those who provide him with it.

In the successive phase, the person could end up relinquishing his individuality to the point where he can no longer recognise the emotional validity of life away from the religious community and from the leader that leads them with his "charisma".

Naturally, it is important to emphasise the fact that there are charismatic leaders who understand how to exercise their spirituality in a balanced and reasonable way, without undermining the freedom of his followers, and that there are religious groups from which one can leave without suffering retaliation of any sort and within which the creativity and the rationality of the members are respected just as their privacy and their emotional relationships are protected.

This undoubtedly positive reality in many groups must never weaken the vigilance towards those leaders who exercise their spiritual power without scruples, using other human beings as instruments for their personal interests and undermining the very foundations of social co-existence, to the point of persuading their followers to self-destructive gestures which have now become sadly well-known for their repetition and drama.

Raffaella Di Marzio
ricercatrice del GRIS, Gruppo di Ricerca e Informazione sulle Sette