ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005
One of the commonest reactions to the revelation of the London bombers' identities has been that they were so ordinary, and in at least some instances so well educated. How could such people have callously bombed dozens of their fellow citizens into oblivion? The surprise, really, is that we can be so easily surprised.
In truth, throughout history ordinary people have believed and done extraordinary things. The key to understanding why is to recall that they do so when driven by two things - intense commitment to a powerful ideology and when they join a high control group environment whose every ritual is designed to reinforce their ideological commitment. Groups of this kind are generally known as cults.
Most people assume that, since what cults do is mad, the members must be mad to join. But in fact researchers have found no correlation between cult membership and psychological disorder.
Counterintuitively, most cult members are of at least average intelligence and have perfectly normal personality profiles. It is this which makes them valuable to the cult's leaders - those who are certifiable would be useless at recruiting others, raising money or successfully engaging in terrorism. Consistent with this, a recent analysis of 500 al-Qaeda members found that the majority of them had been in further education and were from relatively affluent families.
The only difference between a cult member and everyone else is that they tend to join at a moment of heightened vulnerability in their lives, such as after a divorce, losing a job or attending college away from home for the first time.
At such moments we are more likely to crave certainty, and the comfort of belonging to some group that gives our lives a higher purpose than day-to-day survival.
Cults promote a message which claims certainty about issues which are objectively uncertain. Despite this logical flaw, the message is alluring. Most of us want to believe that the world is more orderly than it is, and that some authority figure has compelling answers to all life's problems. An individual who claims to have "The Truth" is more convincing than someone who announces "I don't know".
We should never underestimate the power of ideology. Cult leaders know this. They invest their ideology with extraordinary power by exaggerating the extent to which they are confident in its precepts. Conviction becomes faith.
Since we can't see into their heads, we take their public performance of certainty as more authentic than it probably is. And by virtue of their skill as interpreters and purveyors of the chosen ideology, the leader also becomes a powerful authority figure, whose pronouncements are taken very seriously by his or her followers, however strange they seem to outsiders.
Moreover, most of us are much more willing to do bizarre things on the word of authority figures than we care to realise. This was famously shown by Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist in the 1960s. Milgram convinced his subjects that, by administering potentially lethal shocks to other subjects in the next room, they would be helping him in a learning experiment - a rationale, or ideology, that justified despicable behaviour.
In point of fact, the recipients of the shocks were actors who, on cue, shouted and screamed with great conviction. Three quarters of Milgram's real subjects carried his instructions through to an end, when the fake subjects next door were silent, signifying that they were unconscious - or dead.
The London terrorists had two ultimate authority figures - Osama bin Laden, and, beyond him, God. Cults, whether secular or religious, generally go to great pains to project their leaders in a semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the cause. Convincing messages from such sources, cloaked in the language of ideology, have a powerful effect.
The ideology is therefore critical, and cults are adept at reinforcing its power. Members spend more and more time talking only to each other. They engage in rituals designed to reinforce the dominant belief system. Language degenerates into a series of thought-stifling clichés which encourages other actions that are consistent with the ideology of the cult.
The world becomes divided into the absolutely good and the absolute evil, a black and white universe in which there is only ever the one right way to think, feel and behave. Members are immunised against doubt - a mental state in which any behaviour is possible, providing it is ordained by a leader to whom they have entrusted their now blunted moral sensibilities.
A further factor is what has been described as the principle of "commitment and consistency". It has been found that if people make an initial small commitment to a course of action or belief system they become even more motivated to engage in further acts that are consistent with their initial commitment.
For example, if we persuade people to attend a Tupperware party the chances are that they will buy something, even if they have no particular desire to do so. In a similar vein, if we get someone to buy cult literature, attend a meeting or engage actively in any other activity at its behest, more will follow.
The key is that each new step is but a small advance on what has already been done. A terrorist cult does not order each new recruit to engage in a suicide bombing tomorrow. But they will gradually build to that point, so that the final act of detonation is but a small incremental step from that which was taken the day before. The gulf from where the person started to where they have ended up is not immediately apparent.
Within the cultic environment I am describing, ideological fervour is further strengthened by the absence of dissent. Imagine, if you can, a senior DUP member daring to suggest that Gerry Adams has some redeeming qualities.
The reaction of his or her colleagues can be readily imagined. It is even more difficult to imagine a group of terrorists listening patiently while one of their number offers the view that "maybe bombing London is not such a good idea". Rather, any deviation from the official script is met by a combination of silence, ridicule and yet louder assertions of the group's dominant ideology.
Ridicule is a powerful social force. It strengthens people's faith in their belief system. Rather than risk becoming marginalised, most of us wish to affiliate even more closely with those groups that we have come to regard as important.
Secondly, when no one is openly critical we tend to imagine, wrongly, that those around us are more certain of their views than they are. The absence of obvious doubt from anyone else quells any reservations that we ourselves may be harbouring, and tempts us into ever more enthusiastic expressions of agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy.
We reason that, if something was wrong, someone other than ourselves would be drawing attention to it. Psychologists call the process "consensual validation". What seems mad to an outsider becomes the conventional wisdom of the group. All sorts of dismal group decisions, including many made by business and government, can be partly explained by this dynamic.
People have been attempting - and failing - to imagine what must have been going through the minds of the bombers in their last minutes. Surely they must have looked around, and had some glimmer of doubt? It is necessarily speculative, but my guess is that any such feeling would have been muted.
Within cults, the gap between rhetoric and reality is so pronounced that, of course, doubts do occasionally intrude. But cult members are taught a variety of automated responses to quell the demon of dissent. For example, a member of the Unification Church who suddenly doubts that the Rev Moon is the ordained representative of God on earth might chant "Satan get behind me".
It is likely, I think, that the London bombers spent their last moments in a final silent scream, designed to obliterate in their minds the pending screams of their soon-to-be victims. It is a sound we all must now attempt to deal with.
What therefore can be done? It is certainly clear that where cultic groups engage in illegal activities the full force of the law should be deployed against them. It is less clear that outlawing any group deemed cultic is the way forward. Who, ultimately, is to decide on the difference between, say, your legitimate religion and my view of a cult?
We must become suspicious of those who claim certainty, we must challenge all authority figures and we must cherish dissent: it is these responses that diminish the leaders of cults, rather than the society in which we live.
This article was originally published in the Irish Times, July 16, 2005. It is reprinted with permission.