Cult Behaviours: Compliance with the Group – Reviewing Prof Arthur J. Deikman’s Work

This is a study article which is a review of Prof Arthur J. Deikman‘s work on cult behaviours in everyday life.  Deikman was clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Franscisco and published ‘The Wrong Way Home; Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society’ in 1990.  The book lays out his analyses of certain characteristics found in cults emphasising the point that, far from being unusual rarities of behaviour found in the easily led or weak minded, these ways of thinking and acting are widespread and nestled in the comfort of our own tendencies.

Rather like Hannah Arendt did in her 1963 book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, Deikman helps unsettle the cosy notion of us and them thinking; that the people who do these things out in the world are monsters entirely different from the everyday person going about their every day business.


Arendt documented the public trial of Eichmann, a bureaucrat in the Nazi Reich who had key involvement in the extermination of so many souls by organising the circumstances of their terrible end; a charge to which Eichmann pled that he was just following what he was compelled to do by orders.


The reaction to Arendt’s work was outrage by many; and by some her name was not to be spoken.  What she reported was something far more traumatic because it implicated humanity as capable of the horrific genecides; every day humanity rather than individuals born uniquely evil:


“They knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster, even though if he had been Israel’s case against him would have collapsed or, at the very least, lost all interest. Surely, one can hardly call upon the whole world and gather correspondents from the four corners of the earth in order to display Bluebeard in the dock. The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly an terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied – as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels – that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime – under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. ”

– Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Page 129


In a similar way Arthur Deikman used his considerable learning in an attempt to resist exceptionalising those people who become entwined in cults as different; as less capable or intelligent, or as lacking moral character or values.  He felt it important to question these convenient versions of our selves so that we might be our better selves in the face of societies which are as much prone to ill behaviours as healthy ones.


In this study article I am reviewing the first of the precepts which Deikman identifies as key characteristics of cult behaviour – Compliance with the group. The four key precepts he lays out in his book are:

Compliance with the Group

Dependence on a Leader

Devaluing the Outsider

Avoiding Dissent


I am going to be bringing in other thinkers to supplement the excerpts I have taken from his book to illustrate his thinking.  This is to show that these conclusions are not unique to Deikman as a thinker but various people have understood the unsettling truth that homo sapiens is affected by cult attitudes that shape how we act in the world.  We find it in friendships, families, businesses, belief communities, politics, education, healthcare – anywhere groups of humans organise themselves into networks big and small.


His point in writing the book is to show how we can avoid falling into the traps of conformity, insularity and dependence which undermine our very identities and keep us from reaching richer possibilities.  His work I think holds a vital place in the history we are living through just now.  Increasingly we are seeing infotainment masquerading as news or knowledge; opinion and rhetoric imposing itself over reason; public debate becoming more about demeaning the character of someone holding a different perspective than an examination of the content of their standpoint.


Whilst his book was addressed to the American community, I think that it has special place in British society.  The kind of cult characteristics which he examines run through the caste system Britain which we see in play.  The ritual celebration of exceptionalism, the ever increasing concentration of wealth and privilege in smaller and smaller numbers of people, the cultural exclusion of populations from social and cultural participation in society, and the punishment of the financially poor all indicate the issues of line managed corporate cult Britain today.


For a healthy society I would argue that we need to be able to critically analyse the cults of personality, cults of finance, cults of status, cults of gender and cults of personal relationships and networks which have become normalised to such an extent that they are just wallpaper.  For many, like with racism or sexism and other prejudices, people do not even understand that they are living out and reinforcing such ingroup-outgroup behaviours.



“I also can well imagine that an authentic controversy might have arisen over the subtitle of the book; for when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Page 134


Excerpts from Chapter 3 – Compliance With The Group

Human beings are social beings. Mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives form our first social group. The family into which we are born has enormous influence upon us, not only because a long and complex learning process takes place before adulthood and self-sufficiency are attained, but also because the family becomes the paradigm for other social groups.


In fact, most social groups share characteristics of family groups with members who occupy dominant (parent) and subordinate (child) roles. By considering the characteristics that social groups share with families, we can understand why individuals who are considered independent and adult outside the group may become dependent and childlike within it.


Of course, the family’s adults—who transmit social attitudes, fears, and hopes to the child—are themselves subject to the influence of larger social units toward which they may have many of the same dependency feelings that their child has toward them. These overlapping reference groups are composed of friends, colleagues, and/or people of similar religious and political persuasions. Reference groups influence our behavior greatly, although we may not be conscious of how and when this occurs.


Conformity to characteristic views, dress, and conduct differentiate social groupings, marking the most outwardly rebellious as well as the most conventional.  For a convincing analysis of this in French society see Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).


Sidenote: Pierre Bourdieu and Distinction

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist who famously focused on the sociology of education, class and aesthetics.  Bourdieu’s work explored the dynamics of power in society examining the encultured ways in which power is tranferred and exercised maintaining particular social orders in society.  His work details social life and reading the material signs of the lives people lead and project into the world emphasizing the place which practice has in embodying the social dynamics at play.

His book ‘Distinction’ examines snobbery and taste in the make up of society.  In particular he scrutinises French middle classness in the modern world and the prescriptions it holds in its tastes and preferences.  This book is regarded as a classic of sociology and provides a range of ethnographic commentaries breaking open the values at work in the bourgeois mindset.  This study highlights how people make decisions shaped by what pleases them aesthetically or what they find vulgar or otherwise according to the cultural groupings they wear as insignias of inclusion or exclusion.

What his thesis emphasises is that ‘class’ is everywhere making distinctions and demarcations which form ingroups and outgroups.  Bourdieu elaborates on the meanings which can be found in the decisions people display and parade laying out a sociological framework for larger institutionalised, structural features of contemporary society and the way people are treated.  He makes arguments about how the social world acts as a series of power relations and a symbolic system which communicate ‘tastes’ that are used as a foundation for social judgments.

“A number of ethical, aesthetic, psychiatric or forensic classifications that are produced by the ‘institutional sciences’, not to mention those produced and inculcated by the educational system, are similarly subordinated to social functions, although they derive their specific efficacy from their apparent neutrality. They are produced in accordance with the specific logic, and in the specific language, of relatively autonomous fields, and they combine a real dependence on the classificatory schemes of the dominant habitus ( and ultimately on the social structures of which these are the product) with an apparent independence. The latter enables them to help to legitimate a particular state of the classification struggle and the class struggle. Perhaps the most typical example of these semi-autonomous systems of classification is the system of adjectives which underpins scholastic ‘appreciations’. “

― Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste  Page 477


An amusing example comes from my own field of psychiatry. Janet Malcolm relates the experience of an analyst of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute who, shortly after he graduated, purchased a black and white herring bone tweed jacket which enormously pleased him. Two years later he met a fellow analyst wearing an almost identical jacket. “My colleague laughed and said, ‘But, you know, everyone at the New York Psychoanalytic wears this kind of jacket,’ So then I understood why I had felt so great about my jacket. I began to look around the Institute and, sure enough, the jacket was all over the place.”


Sidenote: Janet Malcolm – Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession’

Malcolm writes an interrogation of the practice of psychoanalysis explored through interviews with “Aaron Green,” a well known Freudian psychoanalyst who was based in New York City.  The book offers insights into the sometimes conflicted setting of psychoanalytic training and the treatments it offers with a special look at its development in the United States.  It offers a background for understanding psychiatry and mental health practice today.  The quote Deikman uses is from Janet Malcolm’s book – what follows is a fuller quotation of the details:

Aaron’s attitude toward the N.Y.U. Institute is that of an older sibling toward a younger brother: affectionate, tolerant, a bit condescending toward the boy’s evident immaturity, and admiring and envious of his dash and style and charm. For Columbia, the no-good son. he has nothing but bitterness and scorn.

“But the schism was years ago” I said. “What’s the matter with them now?”

Aaron frowned, and said in a low, dark voice, “They’re sharp dressers.”

I laughed. “Is that all?”

“Isn’t that enough?” Aaron said. He laughed, too.

“Do they tell you how to dress at the New York Psychoanalytic?”

“No. But let me tell you a story. One time soon after I graduated, I wanted a sports jacket, and went to Abercrombie & Fitch. I immediately saw a soft-shouldered black-and-white-herringbone tweed jacket and thought. That’s it! That’s the one! So I bought it, and when I wore it I thought. Fantastic! I felt great in it. I enjoyed it, it corresponded to my adolescent idea of what good dressing was. Two years later. I met with two colleagues—a man and a woman—whom I regularly joined for mutual supervision. I was wearing my herringbone jacket, and when the other man came in—he was ten years older than me—he was wearing an almost identical herringbone jacket. The woman turned to him and said, ‘What a nice jacket!’ and he said, Thank you, I just bought it at Brooks Brothers. Yes, I think it’s nice, too.’ There I sat in the same jacket, making self-satiric gestures of Hey, look at me! But they went right on talking about his jacket. Finally they noticed me—and my jacket—and my colleague laughed and said. ‘But, you know everyone at the New York Psychoanalytic wears this kind of jacket.’ So then I understood why I had felt so great about my jacket. I began to look around the Institute and, sure enough, the jacket was all over the place.”

“So they don’t give a course on how to dress like an analyst.”

“They don’t have to. You do it by keeping your eyes open—or closed, as I did.”

– Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Page 53


Imitation of our peers is basic to learning and development and the reference group is an important influence throughout life. Social psychologist Albert Bandura and his colleagues were able to cure children of nursery school age of fear of dogs by the simple procedure of having them watch another child playing happily with a dog. Even when films were used instead of actual demonstrations, the procedure worked.


Sidenote: Albert Bandura – Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura was a Canadian-American psychologist who was Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.  He made contributions to the field of education and various areas of psychology.  Bandura developed social learning theory  which was later renamed the social cognitive theory, and proposed the theoretical construct of self-efficacy.  He is well known for demonstrating the concept of observational learning as a part of social learning theory with his 1961 Bobo doll experiment where children’s behaviour was measured after they witnessed an adult model act aggressively towards a doll.

“In the case under discussion, an extremely withdrawn boy was spending about 80% of his time secluded in isolated areas of the nursery school. Observation revealed that the teachers unwittingly reinforced his seclusiveness by paying a great deal of attention to him when he was withdrawn, reflecting his feelings of loneliness, consoling him, and urging him to play with his peers. On the infrequent occasions when the child happened to join other children, the teachers took no special notice. In the second phase of the program, a new set of reinforcement practices is instituted.

Continuing with the above case, the teachers stopped rewarding seclusiveness with attention and support. Instead, whenever the boy sought out other children, a teacher joined the group and gave it her full attention. In a short time, the boy’s withdrawal declined markedly, and he was spending about 60% of his time playing with other children. After the desired changes have been achieved, the original reinforcement practices are reinstated to determine whether the dysfunctional behavior was, in fact, maintained by its social consequences.

In this third phase, the teachers behaved in their customary way, being inattentive to the boy’s sociability but responding with comforting ministrations whenever he withdrew. The effect of this well meaningapproach was to drive the child back into seclusiveness. Findings such as these underscore the need to evaluate social practices by their effects on recipients rather than by the humanitarian intent of the practitioners.

In the final phase, the beneficial contingencies are reintroduced, the dysfunctional patterns are eliminated, and the adaptive ones are rewarded until they are adequately supported by their natural consequences. In the present case, the teachers gradually reduced their rewarding attentiveness as the boy derived increasing enjoyment from play activities with his peers. In follow-up observations, he continued to enjoy his social relationships, which contrasted markedly with his original seclusiveness.”

– Albert Bandura – Social Learning Theory, Page 97


Even more striking was the research of psychologist Robert O’Connor on socially withdrawn school children who typically stayed on the fringes of peer group activities. Believing that their behavior predicted a pattern of lifelong isolation and social unease, and trying to change that pattern, O’Connor put together a film composed of eleven different nursery school scenes. Each scene showed a different solitary child observing a social activity and then joining in, to everyone’s pleasure. O’Connor tried the film on a group of the most severely withdrawn children from four nursery schools. The results were impressive.


After watching the film, the isolates immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of the normal children in the schools. Even more astonishing was that O’Connor found when he returned to the schools six weeks later to observe. While the withdrawn children who had not seen O’Connor’s film remained as isolated as ever, those who had viewed it were now leading their schools in amount of social activity. It seems that this 23-minute movie, viewed just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong maladaptive behavior.3


Sidenote: Robert B. Cialdini and Robert O’Conner
Deikman references Robert Cialdini’s book ‘Influence’ for the Robert O’Conner work on socially withdrawn children.  Cialdini’s work focuses on persuasion from the perspective that understanding psychology can be used to advantage.  The book is based on marketing understandings based on psychological research.

“The powerful influence of filmed examples in changing the behavior of children can be used as therapy for various problems. Some striking evidence is available in the research of psychologist Robert O’Connor on socially withdrawn preschool children. We have all seen children of this sort, terribly shy, standing alone at the fringes of the games and groupings of their peers. O’Connor worried that a long-term pattern of isolation was forming, even at an early age, that would create persistent difficulties in social comfort and adjustment through adulthood. In an attempt to reverse the pattern, O’Connor made a film containing eleven different scenes in a nursery-school setting.

Each scene began by showing a different solitary child watching some ongoing social activity and then actively joining the activity, to everyone’s enjoyment. O’Connor selected a group of the most severely withdrawn children from four preschools and showed them his film. The impact was impressive. The isolates immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of the normal children in the schools. Even more astonishing was what O’Connor found when he returned to observe six weeks later. While the withdrawn children who had not seen O’Connor’s film remained as isolated as ever, those who had viewed it were now leading their schools in amount of social activity. It seems that this twenty-three-minute movie, viewed just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong maladaptive behavior. Such is the potency of the principle of social proof.”

– Robert B. Cialdini, Influence, Page 91


The paper which Cialdini cites is ‘Modification of social withdrawal through symbolic modeling’:

“The present experiment was designed to test the efficacy of symbolic modeling as a treatment to enhance social behavior in preschool isolates. Nursery school children who displayed marked social withdrawal were assigned to one of two conditions. One group observed a film depicting increasingly more active social interactions between children with positive consequences ensuing in each scene, while a narrative soundtrack emphasized the appropriate behavior of the models. A control group observed a film that contained no social interaction. Control children displayed no change in withdrawal behavior, whereas those who had the benefit of symbolic modeling increased their level of social interaction to that of non-isolate nursery school children.”


Yet, as we know, the power of group influence has its negative side and not only in cults. For example, research indicates that the reason a group of bystanders may not come to the aid of a victim is not that they are indifferent, heartless or “numbed by urban living,” but because in uncertain situations each person looks to others for cues as to how to interpret and react to what is happening. Each person’s passivity reinforces that of others. In contrast, when researchers enacted an “emergency” in the presence of a single bystander, that person invariably responded helpfully, whether in a city or not. Clearly, reliance on social cues, not empathy, is the issue.


Robert Cialdini, an experimental social psychologist, explains the group’s influence on our behavior as being utilitarian. The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it works quite well normally. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do.


Sidenote: Robert B. Cialdini, Following the Social Norm

“To discover why canned laughter is so effective, we first need to understand the nature of yet another potent weapon of influence: the principle of social proof. It states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer. The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally works quite well. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do.”

– Robert B. Cialdini, Influence, Page 88


But every society provides numerous examples of group influence which turned out to be injurious to the group itself, as well as unfair and harmful to others. How and why do groups affect their members so strongly?

The remarkable influence of groups upon their members has been of interest to psychologists and psychiatrists for a long time. Gustave Le Bon was one of the first to study the behavior of people in crowds and mobs. Writing in 1895 about such situations, he described “the disappearance of the conscious personality, the pre-dominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts.”5


Sidenote: Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon

The quotation Deikman draws on is found in the works of Sigmund Freud, the famous pioneer of psychoanalysis (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, London: the Hogarth Press, 1955, vol 18, page 75):

“A third cause, and by far the most important, determines in the individuals of a group special characteristics which are quite contrary at times to those presented by the isolated individual. I allude to that suggestibility of which, moreover, the contagion mentioned above is only an effect. ‘To understand this phenomenon it is necessary to bear in mind certain recent physiological discoveries, We know today that by various processes an individual may be brought into such a condition that, having entirely lost his conscious personality, he obeys all the suggestions of the operator who, has deprived him of it, and commits acts in utter contradiction with his character and habits.
The most careful investigations seem to prove that an individual immersed for some length of time in. a group in action soon finds himself either in consequence of the magnetic influence given out by the group, or from some other cause of which we are ignorant in a special state, which much resembles the state of “fascination” in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.  The conscious personality has entirely vanished; will; and discernment are lost. All feelings and thoughts are bent I the direction determined by the hypnotizer, ‘Such also is approximately the state of the individual forming part of a psychological group.
He is no longer conscious of his acts, in his case, as in the case of the hypnotized subject, at the same time that certain faculties are destroyed, others may be brought to a high degree of exaltation. Under the influence of a suggestion, he will undertake the accomplishment of certain acts with irresistible impetuosity. This impetuosity is the more irresistible in the case of groups than in that of the hypnotized subject, from the fact that the suggestion being the same for all the indjviduals in the group, it gains in strength by reciprocity.’

‘We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a group. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.’ I have quoted this passage so fully in order to make it quite clear that Le Bon explains the condition of an individual in a group as being actually hypnotic, and does not merely make a comparison between the two states.”

  • Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Page 75

Sigmund Freud was quoting from Gustave Le Bon’s book ‘The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind’Gustave Le Bon was was a well known French polymath whose areas of interest included anthropology, psychology, sociology, medicine, invention, and physics. He is best known for his seminal study of crowd psychology. For the purposes of context, what follows is the preceeding text from the quotation Freud made from Le Bon’s book, followed by the text after it :

[Preceeding] “Contagion is a phenomenon of which it is easy to establish the presence, but that it is not easy to explain. It must be classed among those phenomena of a hypnotic order, which we shall shortly study. In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest. This is an aptitude very contrary to his nature, and of which a man is scarcely capable, except when he makes part of a crowd….

[After] Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits.

An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will. It is for these reasons that juries are seen to deliver verdicts of which each individual juror would disapprove, that parliamentary assemblies adopt laws and measures of which each of their members would disapprove in his own person. Taken separately, the men of the Convention were enlightened citizens of peaceful habits. United in a crowd, they did not hesitate to give their adhesion to the most savage proposals, to guillotine individuals most clearly innocent, and, contrary to their interests, to renounce their inviolability and to decimate themselves.”

  • Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind, Page 7


Freud believed that these characteristics could be explained as a regression to a primitive mental activity, that of the primal horde. “The primitive form of human society was that of a horde ruled over despotically by a powerful male . . . Just as primitive man survives potentially in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random collection…


Sidenote: Freud draws upon Darwin

Freud identifies with Charles Darwin’s patriarchalism and despotism as forms of the ‘primitive horde’ – the kind of complicity which is found in group psychology is a prominent feature in the human mind, so much so that it tends to run through the very structuring of the language which is commonly used. The male gender is nearly always found to be privileged in written expressions indicating the implicit bias which contributes to the dehumanization of women in the world. What follows is a larger excerpt of the quotation:

“In 1912 I took up a conjecture of Darwin’s to the effect that the primitive form of human society was that of a horde ruled over despotically by a powerful male. I attempted to show that the fortunes of this horde have left indestructible traces upon the history of human descent; and, especially, that the development of totemism, which comprises in itself the beginnings of religion, morality, and social organization, is connected with the killing of the chief by violence and the transformation of the paternal horde into a community of brothers.

To be sure, this is only a hypothesis, like so many others with which archaeologists endeavour to lighten the darkness ofprehistoric times-a ‘Just-So Story’, as it was amusingly called by a not unkind English critic; but I think it is creditable to such a hypothesis if it proves able to bring coherence and understanding into more and more new regions.

Human groups exhibit once again the familiar picture of an individual of superior strength among a troop of equal companions, a picture which is also contained in our idea of the primal horde. The psychology of such a group, as we know it from the descriptions to which we have so often referred-the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction, the predominance of the affective side of the mind and of unconscious psychical life, the tendency to the immediate carrying out of intentions as they emerge-all this corresponds to a state of regression to a primitive mental activity, of just such a sort as we should be inclined to ascribe to the primal horde.

Thus the group appears to us as a revival ofthe primal horde. Just as primitive man survives potentially in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random collection; in so far as men are habitually under the sway of group formation we recognize in it the survival of the primal horde. We must conclude that the psychology of groups is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology, by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete. ”

  • Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Page 122


Freud went on to emphasize the contrivance by means of which an artificial group is held together and the constitution of the primal horde. We have seen that with an army and a Church this contrivance is the illusion that the leader loves all of the individuals equally and justly. But this is simply an idealistic remodelling of the state of affairs in the primal horde, where all of the sons knew that they were equally persecuted by the primal father, and feared him equally.


Sidenote: Freud on the Narcissm of the Leader

“Individual psychology must, on the contrary, be just as old as group psychology, for from the first there were two kinds of psychologies, that ofthe individual members of the group and that of the father, chief, or leader. The members ofthe group were subject to ties just as we see them to-day, but the father ofthe primal horde was free, His intellectual acts were strong and independent even in isolation, and his will needed no reinforcement from others.

Consistency leads us to assume that his ego had few libidinal ties; he loved no one but himself, or other people only in so far as they served his needs. To objects his ego gave away no more than was barely necessary. He, at the very beginning of the history of mankind, was the ‘superman’ whom Nietzsche only expected from the future. Even to-day the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent.
We know that love puts a check upon narcissism, and it would be possible to show how, by operating in this way, it became a factor of civilization. The primal father of the horde was not yet immortal, as he later became by deification. If he died, he had to be replaced; his place was probably taken by a youngest son, who had up to then been a member of the group like any other. There must therefore be a possibility of transforming group psychology into individual psychology.”

  • Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Page 123


Freud’s analysis—its exclusively male focus aside—would seem to have applicability in the case of the Life Force group (the case study of a cult he uses to illustrate cult thinking in The Wrong Way Home), where the initial feeling of the members of being loved by Alex gave way to fear of him.


Since Freud, the theory of group psychology has been expanded. British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, drawing on Melanie Klein’s ideas about primitive psychological defenses in the infant and young child, studied small-group phenomena and concluded that groups tend to adopt, unconsciously, one of three primitive emotional states—dependency, pairing, or fight-flight. Bion called these states basic assumptions, and thought of them as expressive of disowned impulses. He saw any group as likely to exhibit irrational behavior, indicating that one of the three assumptions is operating. What Bion designates as the dependency-assumption group is a very good description of the state of mind prevailing in cults.


Sidenote: Wilfred Bion

Wilfred Bion was a well known English psychoanalyst, who was the president of the British Psychoanalytical Society from 1962 to 1965.

“I hope to show that in his contact with the complexities of life in a group the adult resorts, in what may be a massive regression, to mechanisms described by Melanie Klein (1931, 1946) as typical of the earliest phases of mental life. The adult must establish contact with the emotional life of the group in which he lives; this task would appear to be as formidable to the adult as the relationship with the breast appears to be to the infant, and the failure to meet the demands of this task is revealed in his regression.

The belief that a group exists, as distinct from an aggregate of individuals, is an essential part of this regression, as are also the characteristics with which the supposed group is endowed by the individual. Substance is given to the phantasy that the group exists by the fact that the regression involves the individual in a loss of his ‘individual distinctiveness’ (Freud, 1921, p. 9), indistinguishable from depersonalization, and therefore obscures observation that the aggregation is of individuals.

It follows that if the observer judges a group to be in existence, the individuals composing it must have experienced this regression. Conversely, should the individuals composing a ‘group’ (using that word to mean an aggregation of individuals all in the same state of regression) for some reason or other becomes threatened by awareness of their individual distinctiveness, then the group is in the emotional state known as panic. This does not mean that the group is disintegrating, and it will be seen later that I do not agree that in panic the group has lost its cohesiveness.”

– Wilfred Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, Page 141


The essential aim [of the dependency-assumption group] . . . is to attain security through and have its members protected by one individual. It assumes that this is why the group has met. The members act as if they know nothing, as if they are inadequate and immature creatures. Their behavior implies that the leader, by contrast, is omnipotent and omniscient.


Sidenote: Margaret Rioch on Wilfred Bion

Deikman cites the paper Rioch, M. J. (1970). The Work of Wilfred Bion on Groups. Psychiatry, 33(1), 56–66. doi:10.1080/00332747.1970.110236
“According to Bion there are three distinct emotional states of groups from which one can deduce three basic assumptions. The first of these is the dependency basic assumption. The essential aim of the basic assumption dependency group is to attain security through and have its members protected by one individual. It assumes that this is why the group has met. The members act as if they know nothing, as if they are inadequate and immature creatures.

Their behavior implies that the leader, by contrast, is omnipotent and omniscient. A group of sick, miserable psychiatric patients, for example, and a powerful, wise, loving, giving therapist easily fit this picture. The power, wisdom, and lovingness of the therapist are, of course, not tested. The patients are often united in the belief that if they sit long enough, the wise leader will come forth with the magic cure. They do not even need to give him adequate information about their difficulties for he knows everything and plans everything for the good of the members.

In this emotional state the group insists that all explanations be extremely simple; no one can understand any complexity; no one can do anything that is difficult; but the leader can solve all difficulties, if he only will. He is idealized and made into a kind of god who will take care of his children. The leader is often tempted to fall into this role and to go along with the basic assumption of the group. But since no one really can fill this role and since anyone who is doing his job will refuse to fill it, he can never succeed in meeting the group’s expectations.

In failing to be the omniscient and omnipotent leader of these people who are presenting themselves as inadequate weaklings, he inevitably arouses their disappointment and hostility. The members will try for a long time to blind themselves to this and will try not to hear what he says in interpreting their dependency to them. They often try quite desperate maneuvers to wring his heart and to force him to take proper care of them. One of the most frequent maneuvers is to put forth one member as especially sick and requiring the special care of the leader.

Such a member may actually be pushed by the others into a degree of distress which he had not really felt at all, but the group needs someone who will wring the leader’s heart or else show him up to be an unfeeling demon. The interesting thing is that whereas the group seems to be concerned about this poor person and his trouble, it is actually more concerned about the group aim to get the leader to take care of it and to relieve its feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

A person who falls into this role can very easily be carried away by it until he oversteps the bounds, and then he may find himself abandoned by the group. When the leader of such a group fails to meet expectations, as he is bound to do, the group searches for alternative leaders. These are often eager to accept the role, and to prove that they can do what the original leader could not do. This is a temptation which the group offers to its more ambitious members. When they fall for it, they are usually in for the same fate as the original leader. ”


Object relations theorist D. W. Winnicott has suggested that the group may represent a transitional object for its members, who express regressive themes appropriate to that stage of development. Going further, Jungian analyst Arthur Colman, drawing on the work of Margaret Mahler, has proposed that group consciousness is a developmental phase prior to full individuation. All these theorists endeavor to explain the powerful effect of groups from the point of view of the psychology of the individuals that compose them.


However, from a sociobiological point of view, there is another basis for understanding why the group should be so influential: human survival has been enhanced by the tendency for families to combine in bands or tribes for mutual protection and support. As banishment from the larger group could endanger an individual’s survival, an acute sensitivity to the group’s wishes and requirements probably carried an evolutionary advantage.


Socially aware, adept individuals would eventually dominate the genetic pool through the process of natural selection. Perhaps in this way the human race has developed a high awareness of the wishes, fears, and requirements of the groups on which each person depends. Such an evolutionary process may explain why certain basic group reactions and fantasies (such as those described by Bion) seem to take place regardless of the member’s actual family experience.


Certainly, whatever theoretical model or models one might prefer, the desire for group approval and the fear of disapproval remain with us as very powerful controlling forces. In the Robinsons’ case [The case study Deikman lays out at the beginning of his book], Hugh’s testimony makes clear how much his need for the group’s approval influenced him, especially when he was in quarantine, and Clara recalled how seductive it was for the group to praise her while criticizing Hugh. Furthermore, numerous experiments show how a group can change the perceptions of its members, can even foster and maintain a bizarre, paranoid worldview such as that which developed within the Life Force executive group.


We can feel secure in the protection provided by a group but that protection has its price. Compliance with the group often extends further than acceptance of the group’s views to include participation in the attack on deviants by subtle (or not so subtle) disapproval, punishment, or rejection of any member who voices criticism of the consensus or disagrees with the leader. The dissident is criticized as disloyal, lacking commitment, interfering with the important work of the group.


As a psychotherapist, I frequently work with people oppressed by a punitive, controlling internal figure who lashes them with guilt and mocks with disapproval. Exploring the reason for this oppression, we often find that its purpose is to insure conformity to the group upon whose approval they depend and whose rejection they fear. Although most social groups encourage dependency and compliance in civilized ways, the basic pattern can usually be discerned.


Pressures encouraging dependency, present in most groups, are intensified in a cult. As we saw in the case of Hugh and Clara, extreme dependence on the cult is fostered by isolating the member from other sources of self-esteem, financial support, and emotional closeness. Consequently, the cult’s ability to reward or punish is markedly enhanced. With this in mind it is not surprising that a particularly pernicious feature of cults—and often an index of their power over their members—is the attack on couples and families.


In the case of Life Force, not a single couple who began with the group survived intact, even the marriage of Alex and Barbara Monroe failed. This destructive effect is characteristic of the stronger cults; the power of the leader and the sense of security of the group are diminished by any strong social bonds which set up conflicting loyalties. (Hugh and Clara’s enduring bonds to their child and to each other eventually provided the motivation to break from the group.)


Thus, powerful cult groups often attack the couple through arranged marriages, the breaking of love relationships by order of the leader or the group, pressure toward group marriage or chastity, sexual relationships with the leader, and/or interference with the bonds between parents and children. In her study of communes and utopian communities, sociologist Rosabeth Kanter described how in the previous century such groups coped with the threat to cohesiveness posed by two- person intimacy.


Successful nineteenth century groups often discouraged couples in one of two extreme and experientially opposite ways—either through free love, including group marriage, in which every member was expected to have intimate sexual relations with all others, or through celibacy, in which no member could have sexual relations with any other.


She cites the Oneida community, which had been notorious for its practice of free love. Every member had sexual access to every other with his or her consent, while fidelity was negatively sanctioned; preference of one member for another was quickly discouraged. When two members of the community showed a marked preference of one member for one another, they were asked to mate with two others.


Sidenote: Rosabeth Kanter

Rosabeth Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972) Page 87

In such communities, ties between parents and children were minimized by varying degrees of communal childcare and by restricted contact between mother and child. In the Life Force group this was accomplished by making inordinate demands on Clara’s time and devaluing her contribution as a mother, even labelling it selfish


The weakening of family structures is not only an issue of loyalty. The role of parent and the roles of husband and wife are adult roles, whereas in a cult the leader and the group together constitute a parent-child structure in which adult autonomy has no place. For this reason it is in the cult’s interest to foster the regression of its members to a pre-adult phase of psychosexual development, and such a regression is usually easy to observe. A family unit resists this push.


The attack on couples and families is usually restricted to tightly controlled groups that set themselves off from the surrounding society. Seldom is it a significant factor in ordinary society. However, the weakening of ties to others so as to strengthen dependency on the group and leader can be observed in strongly authoritarian political systems such as that which prevailed in Germany’s Third Reich. The Hitler Youth were encouraged to regard parents as potential enemies of the glorious new Germany, to inform on them and to turn them in to the Gestapo for comments critical of the Nazi regime. Many did so. Parents came to fear and distrust their children, while the children scorned their parents as being weak, obstructionist or traitors.12 Mao Tse-tung encouraged a similar split between the generations of China.


Sidenote: Alfons Heck

Alfons Heck, A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika (Frederick, Colorado: Renaissance House, 1985)


Compliance and dependency can be strongly enhanced by the group’s eliciting a powerful emotional experience. Lowell Streiker, a researcher who interviewed converts to revivalism, gives a composite description of a conversion experience as it typically occurs in a small revivalist group or church.


The prospect is directly confronted with his sins. His physical and psychic space are invaded by these self-confident strangers. He is discomforted and thrown off balance. He becomes anxious. The group tells him that his feelings are caused by his sinfulness. He is overcome with guilt and sadness. He realizes that his life is not working. Eagerly he confesses his shortcomings—sexual lapses, lies, petty thievery, drug abuse, and so forth. Guided by the group, he prays that God will forgive him and receive him as His child. He is urged, “Ask Jesus to come into your heart.” He does, and the inner turmoil subsides. The recruit senses an inner release and relief. The hugs and congratulations of the group tell him that he belongs, that he has identity, that he is accepted. Many ecstatic converts report, “It was as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”


Streiker suggests that such groups create an unbearable tension in the person on whom they are focusing, and that the sudden release from that tension—”accepting the Lord into your heart” or “surrender to Jesus”—is interpreted as a spiritual experience, being “born again.” He goes on to comment, “When Jesus told Nicodemus of the need to be “born again” he did not badger his hearer until he underwent a group-coerced, programmed, stereotyped purgation.”


Sidenote: Lowell Streiker

Lowell Streiker, The Gospel Time Bomb: Ultrafundamentalism and the Future of America (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1984), P. 81


Of course, to be born again does not require a specifically Christian context. Listen again to Clara Robinson: So I went up towards the sun and there was this wise man and he said to me, “My child”, and I climbed in his lap, like a child—he was very much like a father—as I retell it I realize that … I just felt like I was home … I felt a downflow of love and affection that I have never felt before or since. … It was that experience that made me feel that I needed to do more of whatever this system was.


Groups may enhance compliance and dependency by producing a variety of altered states of consciousness that are easily misinterpreted to conform with the beliefs and interests of the group. Hugh and Clara Robinson always had an intuitive sense of a larger reality that was very important to them. That perception was confused with unresolved dependency longings, leading them to interpret the initial guided daydream as being spiritual and to accept the Monroes as guides or agents in that domain. A variety of techniques—chanting, singing, dancing, sleep deprivation, meditation—can produce a state of consciousness quite impressive to the participant. The event may then be offered as proof of the group’s value or the leader’s spiritual power—the convert’s wish to believe does the rest.


Demonstrations of psychic ability are especially potent in this respect, and Yogic disciplines, in particular, seem to have a technology for producing phenomena unexplainable by current scientific knowledge. Some years ago, while investigating a popular Eastern cult, I underwent an initiation in which a Yogi placed his hand on my head and I then experienced a spot of intense white light blazing briefly in the center of my mind—or so it seemed. This was interpreted (by the cult) as contact with the divine and proof that the guru was a new messiah. I still don’t understand how the man did it, but the spot of light was just that—a spot of light—and no more a demonstration of the divine than turning on the faucet would be to someone who knows nothing about plumbing. Indeed, the mystical literature warns repeatedly that such experiences are distractions and should be ignored. (Nevertheless, this particular group’s converts eagerly practiced the prescribed meditations hoping to repeat the experience and rushed to take part in any further initiations that were made available to them.)


Sidenote: Mystical Literature

See Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection (London: Burns & Oates, 1953), pp. 14; St John of the Cross, The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross (Westminster: Newman Press, 1953) vol. 1. P. 457; and Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 40


Unfortunately, legitimate but subtle intimations of the spiritual that may have led a convert to search for a group and teacher may be displaced by such dramatic alterations of consciousness, which can then become a further basis for control. Just as the group’s emotional support and validation can be provided or withdrawn, so can the dramatic pseudo-spiritual experiences. Before long, the positive force of idealism and service that may have been foremost in a convert’s mind when joining a cult becomes corrupted by fear of deprivation and abandonment. As we saw in Life Force, idealistic concepts are then subverted when they are used to rationalize behavior a convert would have condemned before joining the group.


A major way a group exerts power is through threat of censure and expulsion, classifying the deviant as bad. I had occasion to learn about this firsthand a few years ago when I became involved in the anti-nuclear movement. (At that time I would not have believed that liberals such as myself could behave like cult members, although I was certain that right-wingers did.) The story is worth telling because it may connect with the reader’s own prejudices and provide an experience of the very dynamic I am discussing.


In 1980 I attended a weekend conference given by Physicians for Social Responsibility, entitled “The Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War.” The presentations were intended to impress the audience with the ghastly consequences of nuclear war. That goal was certainly achieved; we were left in a state of great alarm and dread. I responded by becoming active in spreading the word about the enormous danger and the immediate steps that should be taken. (This was not a new role for me; I had been active in the 1960s in the effort to stop the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.


Now the menace was worse and the catastrophic aspects more overwhelming.) I raised questions with other PSR members about what action people might take to increase their chances of survival if a nuclear war did occur. I was told that there was nothing that could be done; shelters were described as useless and prevention of nuclear war as the only answer. Some speakers declared that anyone who undertook civil defense planning was immoral, engaged in “a highly unethical act.”


These summary judgments were not convincing to me, and I began reading outside the peace movement literature, encountering other points of view and other facts. Eventually, I came to the judgment that regional food stockpiles would save millions of lives if a war did occur and that establishing such stockpiles would not accelerate the arms race or give people a false sense of security, but would be a logical and appropriate response to a very real danger. Furthermore, I believed that people should be told the less alarming facts about radiation danger and about what protection a shelter could and could not offer.


When I mentioned these ideas to my friends in the peace movement, they would draw back slightly, their eyes would narrow, and I could see them mentally remove my name from the file of “good guys” and transfer it to the one marked “bad guys.” (Perhaps you, the reader, have been having a similar reaction.)


I promoted a lecture about protection against a variety of radiation hazards including nuclear explosions. Almost no one came, except some protesters from the peace movement. With the radiologist who gave the lecture, I later appeared on a radio talk show. It was clear the host found it hard to grasp that although I was in favor of stockpiling food, a civil defense measure, I was opposed to the MX missiles and favored a nuclear freeze. He had assumed, as did others, that I must be a hawk. A cult-like propensity for a black-and-white division of the world was all too obvious.


This publicity, along with an interview published in a local newspaper, generated a response whose character and vehemence caught me by surprise. I was roundly attacked. No one from the peace movement asked me why I thought what I did. They weren’t curious at all; they had simply decided I had become a hardliner, an immoral survivalist. The arguments advanced against my views seemed simplistic and illogical, much like the recitations of dogma I was familiar with from my study of religious cults.


In addition to seeing cult processes at work in others, I became aware that I was influenced by them. I began to avoid mentioning my views to acquaintances and even some friends, for fear of being cast out. Educational as the experience proved, being regarded as a bad guy within my own group was quite unpleasant. At one public hearing where I testified, I was attacked by a peace movement contingent who used the same rhetoric that I had used in the past as part of that same group. It was startling to be on the receiving end, to be the object of the glaring hostile eyes and the impassioned appeals to humanity. Ruefully, I realized that in the past I had been similarly self-indulgent in obtaining the emotional satisfaction that springs from being righteous in a good cause. I would not have known that I was to some degree a member of a cult had I not challenged my group’s dogma.


Compliance with a group increases with one’s psychological and economic dependence on it. This can be seen in many social institutions, including the corporations that dominate modern economic life.


Sociologist Diane Margolis studied the managers at a large corporation and found that the one effect of frequent transfers was to decrease a husband and wife’s involvement in local politics and community life and to increase their dependence on the friends and activities of their particular corporate world. Moreover, they learned to buy their homes with a view to resale and this tended to place them in housing areas occupied by other corporation managers.


Economic and social segregation played an important role in the corporation’s becoming, for many managers, the chief source of self-esteem, companionship, and personal expression. For the managers of many corporations needs usually fulfilled by human relationships become increasingly difficult to satisfy because almost all relationships outside their nuclear families are distant and fleeting.


So like half-starved people who in the absence of proteins will fatten but not nourish themselves on starches, managers and their families hunger for goods money cannot buy, but reach for those it can. Each year salary increases put these within easier reach, and the manager’s family finds that every purchase just whets the appetite for the next. … He knew he was in a game he could never win, but he played on. For him it was the only game in town.


Sidenote: Diane Margolis

Diane Margolis, ‘The Managers: Corporate Life in America’ (New York: Murrow, 1979), pp. 107-09


To leave the company would mean all that sacrifice has been in vain; security must be given up. Wishful thinking tends to replace critical assessment just as it did with the Robinsons who also had to face giving up a “warm cocoon.” With few connections to the outside world that world can easily appear less desirable—and the corporation more valuable—than it is.


Although corporations do not attack the family directly in the manner of cults such as Life Force, most of them do require the subordination of the manager’s family’s needs to those of the corporation. This sacrifice is demanded as the price of career advancement. A common practice is to promote managers by transferring them every year or two to positions in other parts of the country. Then their positions are filled by others who are moved in; a game of musical chairs takes place.


Certainly, it is in the corporation’s interest to give managers wide experience and also to test their commitment to the company; however, the interests of the manager’s children are served poorly. (Although corporations have begun paying more attention to this problem, the transfer is still a standard feature of corporate life.) Indeed, in my psychotherapy practice I often encounter people who have been socially impaired by frequent family moves that made them perpetually new kids on the block; just when friendships were established, their families would move again. Such children learn to limit their friendships to avoid the pain of loss and tend to interpret other children’s reserve toward them when they arrive in a new town as indicating that they are not likable. For many wives the process is almost as painful.


If people know you’re going to move, they start to disengage themselves from you, too . . . you find them backing off . . . I You start finding out that they’re not there anymore. They’re busy. And they’re busy with things they know they’re going to be doing after you’ve left. You notice it. . . . people starting to draw back. And the kids, I know, would say they couldn’t get any friends to come and play. The other kids would sud- denly be busy with somebody else, even though they’ve al- ways been with them. Their friends were starting to find somebody else because after all, “she’s leaving.”


Frequent transfers are also ruinous to a spouse’s career ambitions. The wife of a Schlumberger manager stationed in Cairo summed it up: Sometimes you really feel lost . . . The man has a job to do. You have nothing to do. So you have babies to keep you busy. Or you join a club. If you say, “I want to have a career of my own,” and say you don’t want to go where your husband goes, then you’re headed for the divorce courts.


Sidenote: Ken Auletta on Corporate Life

“Although Schlumberger is proud of creating a sense that its employees are all one family, the company nevertheless often disrupts personal family life. Outside North America, the company discourages engineers who are married. The wives of Schlumberger employees, because their husbands are transferred so frequently, find it difficult to pursue their own careers. This difficulty is compounded when families are transferred to poor nations, where jobs are scarce, and to Muslim nations, where tradition holds that women stay home.


‘Sometimes you really feel lost,’ says Kate Yemi, a Nigerian woman whose husband, Esan, runs a Schlumberger computer center in Cairo. ‘The man has a job to do. You have nothing to do. So you have babies to keep you busy. Or you join a club. If you say, ‘I want to have a career of my own,’ and say you don’t want to go where your husband goes, then you’re headed for the divorce courts. That means splitting the children. So you have to decide what’s more important—family or your career. For me, the family is more important.’ There is also within Schlumberger a natural tension between a desire to keep people on their toes by shifting them regularly, and a desire to make employees feel secure, part of a Schlumberger family.”

  • Ken Auletta, The Art of Corporate Success: The Story of Schlumberger (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), pp. 131, 132


Commitment to the corporation is also measured by a manager’s willingness to take work home at night and on weekends and to be absent from his family on frequent business trips. In the competition for a manager’s time, energy, and attention the corporation is out to win. Conflicts that arise between family needs and corporate needs—which may have the look of accidental occurrences—are sometimes deliberate tests of the person’s commitment, the outcomes of which are carefully noted. The manager who chooses family over the corporation fails the test, as does the family. Furthermore, wives may become unpaid company employees as they fall in line to support the careers of their husbands.


They [the managers] are . . . corporate men, not family men. Wives must actively subordinate themselves to the husbands’ work aims or, at the very least, not interfere with them. The key to an effective partnership . . . (would be) the degree to which the wife actively adopted the corporate goals and skillfully aided the husband in that direction. This makes the wife a kind of high-class assistant bound by marriage rather than salary but otherwise facilitating the work goals with the same sense of efficiency the husband would expect of his secretary and other office personnel. The all-embracing demands of corporate life do not permit distraction.


Sidenote: Rosabeth Kanter on Corporate Life

Rosabeth Kanter, the respected Harvard management thinker and consultant wrote this landmark work on corporate power with a special focus on how it relates to women.  In it she examines the careers and self images of managers, professionals and executives along with the lives of the secretaries, wives of managers and aspiring women executives.  This work looks at the distributions of power and powerlessness inside the corporate structures.

“One wife told Robert Seidenberg, ‘I bask in my husband’s reflected glory. I don’t have to be anything myself. His status is my status. Sometimes I feel he’s living his life to the fullest, and I’m living his life to the fullest.’  The actual casualty rate among corporate wives has never been fully known, and at every wave of criticism and protest there was also a chorus of apparently contented wives waiting in the wings to insist that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

However, no one disagreed that marriage to successful men was constraining, shaped role demands for wives, and often put the family last in the men’s priorities. William Henry had this to say after a study of the personalities of successful executives: ‘They are . . . corporate men, not family men. Wives must actively subordinate themselves to the husbands’ work aims or, at the very least, not interfere with them. The key to an effective partnership, and we use this neutral word intentionally, would in fact be the degree to which the wife actively adopted the corporate goals and skillfully aided the husband in that direction.

This makes of the wife a kind of highclass assistant, bound by marriage rather than salary but otherwise facilitating the work goals with the same sense of efficiency the husband would expect of his secretary and other office personnel. The all-embracing demands of corporate life do not permit distractions. The second theme in the victim critique focused on economic exploitation: wives as unpaid workers. Some writers pointed to the direct and indirect services wives performed for their husbands’ careers and organizations. ”

  • Rosabeth Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1977), page 110


Within the corporate culture of many companies, it is assumed that the corporate goals and the husband’s career should have first priority in much the same way that Life Force and other cults regard their own activities as primary and the competing demands of marriage and family as distinctly secondary. As Harold Geneen, former chief executive officer of ITT put it: “The first requirement of a senior executive is instant availability. He must put his firm above his family; he must be prepared to go anywhere at any time, or simply to wait around in case he is needed.”


Sidenote: Richard Pascale and Japanese Management

Quoted in Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos, The Art of Japanese Management: Applications for American Executives (New York: Warner Books, 1981), P. 155


Just as the commitment and spiritual worth of the Robinsons were judged by the extent to which they sacrificed their marriage relationship and their child’s needs to the purposes of their group, the loyalty of the corporate manager is usually measured by the acceptance of corporation priorities over anything else in life.


Of course, corporations vary in their demands, and some managers sacrifice their family’s interests over and above what the corporation requires. Personal ambition can take a toll without any pressure at all from corporate authority.

I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member