2020-01-22

Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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

Fusion seems most likely to happen when there is a charismatic leader, particularly of an authoritarian bent. “Humans are social, and the individual person has a power over us that abstract thought doesn’t,” Dovidio says. “The leader is a concrete manifestation of ideas, but allegiance to individuals will trump allegiance to ideas.” In that sense, the idea of fusion might help some people explain how family members or colleagues whom they view as fundamentally good people might seem to suspend their typical sense of morality and do things like downplay Trump’s bragging about groping women; enriching himself at taxpayer expense; defending white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia; or failing to release his tax returns despite multiple promises to do so.

Oh yes, again. I recall on occasions twingeing at our cult leader’s bombastic claims about himself but then suddenly remembered how Moses wrote that he was the meekest man in all the earth, and only a genuinely and truly godly man could say that honestly in meekness, with no sense of braggadocio. I recall listening to an explanation of one of our cult leader’s succumbing to adultery and being told that God chooses very strong and great men to do his work and strong and great men have a much stronger sexual passion than ordinary men, or something like that. Why God couldn’t choose men who at least sounded a lot more humble or who had greater strength to fight against their sexual appetites never crossed my mind, at least I don’t recall wondering those things.

Good potential

Happily, we have had good leaders leading good movements, too. Think Gandhi. Maybe fusion has evolved to facilitate cooperation in the face of extreme adversity, it has been suggested.

Victimhood

Here’s the worry:

A sense of deprivation — real or perceived threats to socioeconomic status — also seems to leave people inclined to fuse. “When we primed people to think of relative deprivation, this increased their likelihood of fusion with the leader,” Kunst says, noting that economic recessions have often preceded authoritarian movements. The findings from Kunst and Dovidio’s study suggest that Trump’s continued emphasis on the relative deprivation of his base — and his promise of the power and resources presumably under his control as an apparently wealthy Manhattan real-estate developer and reality-TV star — probably helped his election by increasing his followers’ fusion with him.

Even if this personal enrichment didn’t come to fruition for his voters, the researchers found that fusion with Trump only increased after his election. The presidency itself made him more powerful, and hence a more attractive target to fuse with.

Fundamentally, fusion is an opportunity to realign the sense of self. It creates new systems by which people can value themselves. A life that consists of living up to negative ideas about yourself does not end well. Nor does a life marked by failing to live up to a positive self-vision. But adopting the values of someone who is doing well is an escape. If Donald Trump is doing well, you are doing well. Alleged collusion with a foreign power might be bad for democracy, but good for an individual leader, and therefore good for you. “Fusion satisfies a lot of need for people,” Dovidio says. “When you fuse with a powerful leader, you feel more in control. If that person is valued, you feel valued.


Hamblin, James. 2019. “The Most Dangerous Way to Lose Yourself.” The Atlantic. September 25, 2019.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/09/identity-fusion-trump-allegiance/598699/


 

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

4 Comments

  • ROBERT JASE
    2020-01-22 13:32:39 GMT+0000 - 13:32 | Permalink

    Ein volk…

  • Steve Ruis
    2020-01-22 16:28:44 GMT+0000 - 16:28 | Permalink

    My people, my people, … as usual intellectuals are overthinking things. I don’t think most people are as introspective as these hypotheses would make them. I think there is a much simpler explanation. It can be found in the answer to the question “Why do evangelicals vote Republican?” If there were arguments or reasons for always voting Republican, then we would expect some sort of breakdown based upon those arguments (60% vote GOP, 40% vote Dems or some such). But there is not any such distribution because there are no such arguments. Voting Republican is a sign one must display to belong to the group. Sometimes such signs are in language (“Praise the Lord” or “Pray with/for me.”) These are cues that one is a member of the same group. Children are raised in that group, learning the signs, learning that their parents did believe in nonsense stories and took them seriously and what child would have the courage to reject those stories and thus reject the group that is at the social center of their lives?

    This is not an intellectual process. These are indoctrinated feelings at the core of these attitudes. Ask any evangelical if they ever vote Democrat and the response will be the same as if you asked them to vote for the Devil. These attitudes do not stem from any sort of reasoned argument or even reflection upon ones own values and thinking.

  • Morris
    2020-01-22 16:29:36 GMT+0000 - 16:29 | Permalink

    This is also happening on the Left, people looking for some sort of messiah like figure who will destroy the evil of the Right. Trump is in deed a false messiah. The reason that people are looking to these types of individuals to save them is because the country is divided, they have few common values, less and less common culture. If the messiah comes from the Left communism follows, from the Right, fascism, both are ugly. I hope Secular Representative Democracy can survive but it seems to be getting more and more difficult to keep it going.

  • Pingback: Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump |

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.