So far we have concentrated mainly on the suggestibility of the individual, although in the last chapter, Hypnosis in Religion, we did look at the behaviour of groups in situations where the emotional response of the group was manipulated by the organisers, and how normally sane individuals could be submerged in the group. Now I want to take a look at how and why groups bond together in the first place.
In 1895, Gustave Le Bon in Psychologie des Foules (The Crowd – A Study of the Mind) wrote that even if we come to understand the individual, we must recognise that he behaves differently when part of a group. However intelligent, or culturally astute the individual is, the collective consciousness of the group will take over, causing the individual to act and behave in a manner quite different from what would normally be expected of him as an isolated individual.
The group goes on to display certain special characteristics. It has a sense of power, its members lose all sense of individual responsibility, feelings and emotions within the croup become highly contagious, and the group becomes highly suggestible. Within groups, especially those groups whose activities, thoughts and attentions are guided by the organisers, the member can quickly be persuaded to go to extremes; suspicions become certainties, and antipathy becomes hatred. Members of these groups suspend any altruistic tendencies and become impressed by force; they demand strength from their leaders, distrust new ideas and become profoundly conservative. Those inside the group respect and assist each other whilst they distrust and often vilify outsiders.
This dichotomy of behaviour has been convincingly explained by Erich Fromm who says that the group’s narcissism, the group’s self-worship, is a direct result, and directly proportional to, its members lack of satisfaction with life outside the group. Fromm points out that those who “lead a life of unmitigated boredom” will be more inclined toward fanaticism and find contentment and fulfilment in membership of a narcissistic group. Individuals who enjoy a variety of cultural activities and material wealth are far less likely to bend toward fanaticism. That’s one very good reason for the establishment of a middle class – it negates discontent and thus any ideas of revolution.
In the group, any doubts an individual has about himself are also negated and replaced with the security of ‘belonging.’ Fromm describes the results of this behaviour perfectly; “The narcissistic image of one’s own group is raised to its highest point, while the devaluation of the opposing group sinks to its lowest. One’s own group becomes a defender of human dignity, decency, morality and right. Devilish qualities are ascribed to the other group; it is treacherous, ruthless and basically inhuman.”
There are too many examples of this train of thought apparent in human history to list them all, but it is evident in the propaganda of every war ever fought, from the child-eating, blood-drinking French soldier of the Napoleonic Wars, to the nun-raping, murderous Hun of the First World War. It was exactly this sort of propaganda which preceded the first Gulf War. Tales of Iraqi atrocities were served up to a western public eager for more on an almost daily basis. Stories of babies being thrown out of incubators by Iraqi troops on the loot turned out to be cruel falsehoods perpetrated by ruthless leaders of national groups. And then of course the media whipped up our jingoistic appetite for the macabre with stories of ill-equipped Iraqi conscripts, depressed by low morale and bad leadership, which was by and large the truth, but the propaganda value of such statements was, and always will be, huge. Prior to the second Gulf War, we were literally brainwashed into thinking that the whole world was divided into two; on one side there was a madman with access to weapons of mass destruction, who had no regard whatsoever for democracy, who had filled all key government posts with his corrupt but loyal lackeys, who would happily destabilize the whole of the Middle East and who was a religious fanatic, while on the other, there was Saddam Hussain. And if you haven’t got it yet, behind all the cynical and hypocritical political rhetoric about freedom and democracy, Bush and the ever-smiling Blair were playing this old game. Which reminds me, did we ever manage to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, or was the whole thing a con, perpetrated on behalf of already massively wealthy businessmen with friends in the White House? Either way, the power of suggestion was powerful enough to send the lads to a foreign country to get blown to bits.
In the United States, films of a violent nature, featuring flag- waving, jingoistic, even-a-retard-could-understand-this-plot moviecrap, serve to persuade American youth to join the armed forces. American movies promulgate ‘justice armed aggression,’ the myth that the good guys always win, and loyalty to the American flag. This especially encourages poor, uneducated, dissatisfied and disconnected youths to join up in sufficient numbers so that America can wage war (sorry, be at the cutting edge of diplomacy) wherever the hell it likes, using semi-literate teenagers as cannon fodder. This is a perfect example of manipulation through the need to imitate, and the attractiveness of being a member of an elite group, in this case, the Marines. I never did like those kind of movies much.
At the local level, tribalism, still prevalent today in many parts of Africa has spilled over into genocide in Uganda, Rwanda, and more recently Darfur. Its latest manifestation can be seen in South Africa  when a wave of Xenophobia swept the townships and foreign refugees became the target of what at its most base level, was simple race hatred. One does not have to delve too deeply below the seemingly serene surface of suburban right-wing Christian America to uncover exactly the sort of attitudes Fromm illustrates.
It’s easy too, to see the correlation between this psychological theory and the Christian Right movement in America and extremist Moslem groups in the Middle East. This correlation has historical parallels in the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi Party and Bolshevism. In the Second World War, Stalin fought the Germans, not to save Russia from the invading fascist hordes, but to save Bolshevism; the enemy was not solely German, the enemy was anyone who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution, and as a consequence of this thinking, Stalin imprisoned and executed more anti-Soviet Russians than German soldiers died or were imprisoned on the Russian Front.
Again, I digress, and I apologise, but I think it’s relevant. If you can understand the great monsters it’s much easier to understand the little monsters. Just as we should by now have firmly in our heads, the enormous power of suggestion, we must recognise the enormous potential of the suggestibility of the group. There are countless examples, emanating from different parts of the world, and more importantly, vastly different cultures where we can observe not only parallels, but exactly the same processes taking place; the mass suicides of the most famous of the religious cults; Jim Jones, David Koresh; Shoko Asahara, the Japanese cult leader responsible for the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. They all use exactly the same technique to manipulate the suggestible. Maybe the key word here is ‘suggestible.’ But remember, there were many in Germany who opposed Hitler and many in the Soviet Union who opposed Stalin and even more in China who opposed Mao. And there are many in our societies who oppose groups and leaders we find morally repugnant. The fact is, we have to tolerate them because we are democratic by nature. Democracy is what nations achieve when they have grown up.
The Hitlers and the Koresh’s are perhaps only the most obvious examples. We have all known someone in our lives that we know to be an blackguard, someone who is ‘pissed with power’ and this is probably the reason for it. I have met several such individuals and I always use the same benchmark to categorize them; how would this individual behave if he were put in a position of authority in a totalitarian regime? Then I usually try to distance myself from them, for the sake of my own sanity. Regardless of my own personal distaste for dictators though, we must press on to examine the power of the group in sufficient detail to understand it sufficiently.
Members of groups look alike. A particular football team’s shirts are always a telltale sign of an individual’s membership of a specific group. In the military, very short hair is an unmistakeable mark of a military man even before the uniform has been put on. Military historian Richard Holmes points out that the short hairstyle of the US Military cuts across any racial or cultural divides and also produces a uniformity of appearance which submerges the recruit’s individual identity. Certain hairstyles can be indicative of the sort of music people in a group are fond of, or can even be an outward sign that a particular peer group eat a lot of lentils and brown rice. In the case of the military, the psychological shock associated with the shearing of the recruit’s carefully cultivated locks is a significant part of his induction. Then follows the endless shouting, ceaseless drilling and continual repetition which completes the breaking-down process, carefully designed to increase the effectiveness of the troops performance on the battlefield and also, believe it or not, to infuse an undeniable spirit of loyalty to their fellows. The big disadvantage with this sort of training is that it leaves the rank and file utterly clueless as to what to do in the absence of orders.
So just like the church then. The never ending repetition of catechism produces conditioned responses and reflex actions in the same way as repeated orders and actions do in military service. Frederick the Great is reputed to have noted, with a certain air of cynicism no doubt, that if his soldiers began to think, not one of them would remain in the ranks. But soldiers are trained not to think. So are members of religious groups. Identically clad members of groups of football fans are incapable of thinking for themselves in the first place. Their god is someone called David Beckham, or Renaldo, or whoever.
Translate this into the more benign atmosphere of the hypnotic session and one begins to see more clearly the connection between repetition and conditioned responses. Hypnosis, if handled skilfully, is just another way modifying behaviour, in this case by modifying the individual’s inherent habitual instincts.
More than for any other reason though, groups survive and flourish because they satisfy the hierarchy of needs we looked at in a previous chapter. The group can make available the safety and security required by the individual; it can satisfy the individual’s need to belong, his need for self-esteem and for status and recognition.
Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Bourne made a study of the behaviour of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. His conclusions sum up the essence of group behaviour; “Basic training has evolved in the guise of a masculine initiation rite that often has particular appeal to the late adolescent struggling to establish a masculine identity for himself in society.”
Writing about the First World War in Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, Wilfred Trotter said that Man is “more sensitive to the voice of the herd than to any other influence… he is subject to the passions of the pack in his mob violence and the passions of the herd in his panics… His relations with his fellows are dependent upon the recognition of him as a member of the herd. Again, Wilfred Trotter was writing about the First World War, but his theory holds true to this day, as anyone who has even cursorily observed the behaviour of football fans will testify. The state is produced in groups from all walks of life, and is most evident when members of the group have undertaken some initiation ceremony or rite of passage, and most especially when that rite of passage is designed to ensure a particular member’s loyalty. The ritual of initiation often produces an unconscious feeling of immunity from harm.
Trotter pointed out that in threatening situations, [soldiers] despite their training, unconsciously bunch together on the battlefield when under fire. “The physical proximity of his fellows… dispels feelings of loneliness.” Dense formations on the battlefield are actively discouraged and much of military training is designed to stop this happening – death loves a crowd! The instincts of groups of soldiers in war are explored by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace and with much greater erudition that I can accomplish here.
Leaders of groups emerge because they most embody the cultural aspirations and values of the group. In The Human Group, G.C. Homans offers us some superb observations of groups and leadership. In his brilliant book, Homans says of the leader, “…he is in a sense more controlled by it [the group] than others are since it is a condition of his leadership that his actions and decisions shall conform more closely than those of others to an abstract norm.” In other words, they control the group, but their authority only extends to the wishes of the rest of the group. Leaders are comparatively (comparatively is the key word here!) more erudite than the rank and file of the group; they usually have greater charisma, in inborn intuition for what the rest of the group wants to hear and a greater cunning and ruthlessness than the average member. These personalities naturally rise to leadership, yet they often realise the hypocrisy and limitations of their own twisted code. They recognise weakness in others, both inside and outside the group, and are always ready and willing to exploit any vulnerability to their own advantage. Leaders of groups and subgroups have parallels in every part of today’s society, from the school playground, to groups of football supporters, to the military, to wine tasting clubs. Politics and intrigue have been part of the human survival strategy since the birth of humanity itself. No other species is as adept at exploiting the internal machinations of the group as Man.
Hitler capitalised on this phenomenon, already recognised and fully understood in the 1930’s by abolishing the comparatively impersonal oath of allegiance to the Weimar Republic and replaced it with one in which the individual soldier swore personal allegiance to the Fuhrer himself. This rather clever move created an insurmountable obstacle to any future opposition to Hitler himself from the Wehrmacht officer corps, such is the ability of such ritual, symbolism and imagery to impose moral authority. Furthermore, many soldiers from other cultures feel that the taking of an oath is enough to absolve them morally from any actions which they may have to take in the course of future conflict. In Professor Richard Holmes’ book Acts of War a black GI is quoted, “the officer told us to step right foot forward, raise our right hand and take the oath. It was all over in about a minute. I felt trapped.”
There are parallels here too, with some stage hypnosis shows, especially where subjects are suddenly and unexpectedly asked to perform in ways that were totally unexpected when they first volunteered. The unconscious agreement between the individual and the hypnotist – that all actions will be limited to a bit of harmless fun – takes on a different and altogether more sinister meaning when out of the blue the subject is asked to empty a tin of baked beans down the front of his trousers.
Many years ago, when I still lived in the centre of Manchester, I took the tram to visit some friends of mine. It was a dark winter’s night, but only about 8.00pm. There were several other passengers on the tram but plenty of spare seats. Close to the city centre, a group of about a dozen or so people got on, the sort of group that immediately puts you on your guard. As the tram pulled away from the station, their self-proclaimed leader went through an utterly pointless exercise of counting heads, as if there was any possibility that one of these grown adults might be left behind. He then proceeded to engage in some meaningless infantile banter which the rest of his party found hysterically funny. He then marched up and down the centre of the carriage shouting “City’s right, United’s shite!” at the top of his voice, much to the general dismay of the other passengers. No one dared to challenge this overgrown retard for fear of getting assaulted, especially me, so I sat there and pretended not to notice, resigned that this unacceptable behaviour is now part and parcel of living in a large city in Britain. After the yob’s second length of the carriage, it was an elderly lady who finally stopped him in his tracks with the words “young man, you may think you are being clever, but you’re not. I know it and so do your friends, so why don’t you pipe down and give the rest of us some peace.” I was filled with admiration for this lady, a frail old woman who with a few simple, well-chosen words, and a considerable degree of courage, had brought down a giant, and made me feel quite ashamed of my own impotence.
The point of this story though is not that these groups can be terrifying, but that when the tram disgorged its passengers at St. Peters Square, the subgroup had changed allegiance and this former leader of men had not only been demoted, but his continued membership of the group was clearly in doubt – he had failed to live up to the expectations of his peers and his very existence was now in a precarious state. The group would go on to choose another leader in due course, and this would happen without any conscious decision making process by its members. Maybe that is true democracy, but the tale serves to illustrate one of the facts of life; not even the leader can threaten the continued existence of the group. Once off the tram, they would continue their noisy, aggressive expedition to whichever hostelry they had decided to get pissed in.
There is also a cultural aspect to this story; assaulting an old lady would have been a serious breach of the conventions of the group. Council Estate Man lives by his own set of rules, and these include the well known rule that hitting any woman is a cowardly act. Women are not to be assaulted, although in the same culture, women are increasingly more likely to commit assault, especially when they themselves form groups (sometimes known as hen-parties) and themselves go out on the piss. But a one punch knock-out blow to a male passenger would have been celebrated as an act of oneupmanship. My point is, even cultural conventions can affect behaviour; an unwritten, unconsciously obeyed custom is just as powerful a suggestion as a verbal one. This is something I learned about very early on in my career as a hypnotist, by practical experience and the example of the very shrewd owner of the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool. When we first put on the Late Night Shows in 1985, shows that were packed to the rafters week after week, one of the major issues that concerned us was the likely behaviour of 1,500 people at eleven-o-clock at night, and how they were to be controlled. Nightclubs have bouncers who are usually well-built men with close-shaved heads wearing dinner jackets (deliberately bought one size too small to enhance the impression of muscle) who look as if they know their business and would not shrink from the use of physical force should it become necessary. At the Royal Court however, we adopted a much more subtle and reliable method of policing – we employed teenage girls in yellow sweat-shirts on the doors and at strategic points in the auditorium. The result of this enlightened strategy was that there was never any trouble, not even when the show came out at two- o-clock in the morning.
Knowing how to manipulate and control groups is something that governments have become more adept at, especially in the last half-century. The lessons of the past are not wasted on the powers that be; in today’s increasingly complex society, order is the order of the day. In Britain, most people labour under the delusion that the police are there to prevent or solve crime. This is not the case and never has been. The primary purpose of the police force is to keep public order. They are better trained to do this than the army (third world counties take note.) Using the police to look after law and order frees up the army for more sinister activities; not the defence of the realm as you may have imagined, but to look after a country’s interests [assets] abroad.
For more information about how Suggestion affects Group Behaviour, read All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists. Available from this website.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.