Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

“Why do we do destructive things—to others, and to ourselves? Why do we so often act against our own interests?”

I’ve been catching up on a number of research articles exploring the psychology of Trump followers and am surprised how closely some of the ideas cohere with what I have experienced and learned about the reasons people get mixed up in religious cults. One book I have started and that has me totally in its thrall at the moment is Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers by Post and Doucette. I will be sure to write more about that work before too long. But for now, I am keeping it simple and will address just one idea that in part has an overlap with what I have read so far in Dangerous Charisma. What follows is from an article in a September 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “The Most Dangerous Way to Lose Yourself: ‘Identity fusion’ might explain why people act against their own interests.”

The main idea is

that people are always striving to create a world in which their ideas of themselves make sense. We are motivated, sometimes above any sense of morality or personal gain, simply to hold our views of ourselves constant. This allows us to maintain a coherent sense of order, even if it means doing things the rest of the world would see as counterproductive.

William Swann

It has been developed by Professor William Swann and claims that

we tend to prefer to be seen by others as we see ourselves, even in areas where we see ourselves negatively. As opposed to cognitive dissonance — the psychological unease that drives people to alter their interpretation of the world to create a sense of consistency — self-verification says that we try to bring reality into harmony with our long-standing beliefs about ourselves.

Think of those who tend to sabotage their relationships and withdraw from others who genuinely appreciate them. Their view of themselves is negative and they find it unbearable that others should not agree. That sounds crazy (maybe because it is) but Swann suggests that such behaviour

might actually be part of a fundamental “desire to be known and understood by others.”

That makes sense to me. Maybe it’s not so crazy.

We naturally form bonds with others, whether with family or a religion. Others in this context can be extremely important to us but we don’t generally “identify” with them to the extent that we lose our own separate identity.

Sometimes (and that’s the word that will need to be understood) people do lose their identities to the group, though. Swann posits that the 9/11 terrorists totally lost their personal identities to a group identity that enabled them to die and kill on a horrendous scale. The concept Swann talks about is identity fusion.

The phenomenon is sometimes described as a visceral feeling of oneness with a group or person, and sometimes as an expansion of the self.

“When people are fused, your personal identity is now subsumed under something larger,” says Jack Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale. One way researchers test for fusion is to ask people to draw a circle that represents themselves, and a circle that represents another person (or group). Usually people draw overlapping circles, Dovidio explains. In fusion, people draw themselves entirely inside the other circle.

“This isn’t the normal way most people think about identity,” says Jonas Kunst, a psychology researcher at the University of Oslo.

Rational discussion that challenges the views of someone whose identity is so fused with a collective or another is impossible. Most people (surely) are open to accepting and debating challenges to their groups’ identities but someone whose personal identity is so fused and lost wholly within the group will see such questions as threats to their identity, a personal threat to themselves.

Arguments about climate change, for example, might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency.

Identity fusion is not merely blind obedience to group expectations or submission out of fear, but something much more dangerous:

Fusion is not a bunch of individuals contorting their way of thinking, but a bunch of individuals suspending their way of thinking. “It makes us more likely to do extreme things that aren’t consistent with our normal identity,” Kunst says. “It allows you to do things you couldn’t conceive of doing.”

Oh yes. I bitterly recall some cruel and hurtful things I did, even life-threatening things, when I was totally one {fused) with a religious cult years ago. I think of the pain I hurt my parents, and how I almost allowed a child to die from refusing medical treatment.

Does identity fusion help explain Trump supporters? A set of studies that used an “identity fusion scale” found that

Americans who fused with Trump — as opposed to simply agreeing with or supporting him — were more willing to engage in various extreme behaviors, such as personally .ghting to protect the U.S. border from an “immigrant caravan,” persecuting Muslims, or violently challenging election results.

Why do people who stridently oppose “big government” suddenly find themselves cheering on acts of “extreme authoritarianism”? No problem, according to identity fusion theory:

Value systems are only contradictory if they’re both activated, and “once you step into the fusion mind-set, there is no contradiction.”

Enter the charismatic leader

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