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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Group-Think: Going Mad in Herds


return to the main-page article on "Satan" 



“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

                                           Charles Mackay



True believers of Satan, likely, will be part of a group.

Why is that?

Freud, once again, did much of the original research. But after Ferenczi plowed new ground in the field of hypnotism, as Dr. Becker explains, "Freud saw right away" what happened to people in groups.



Charisma as primal call of father to the inner child

"They simply became dependent children again, blindly following the inner voice of their parents, which now came to them under the hypnotic spell of the leader. They abandoned their egos to his, identified with his power, tried to function with him as an ideal."

Who has not experienced this? I am 70+, but, even with my lifetime-strivings to understand mysteries, it's only been in recent years that I've perceived what Freud was talking about.

The most egregious examples of this egoic herd-instinct, I think, are to be found in dysfunctional religion. But, close behind, we must include the rabid devotees of politics, sports teams, business affinities, family heritage, nation, on and on - "hooray for our side!" 


The slide toward human slavishness

People are looking for a cause, a goal, a project - preferably led by some "strong leader" to whom fealty might be paid; they seek to immerse themselves in a group; attach themselves to a collective-power entity, in order to find their significance. We saw this in Hoffer's "spoiled self" concept.

Let's allow Dr. Becker to continue. He speaks of psychologically-diseased group leaders, who, in any organization or social unit, might take advantage of neurotic tendencies toward human slavishness.

"The 'chief' is a dangerous personality, toward whom only a passive-machochist attitude is possible, to whom one's will has to be surrendered - while to be alone with him, 'to look him in the face,' appears a hazardous enterprise. This alone, says Freud, explains the 'paralysis' that exists in the link between a person with inferior power to one with superior power."

And as we've seen earlier, people not only put up with this oppression but, indeed, gravitate toward it, in order to make their way back to that "oceanic feeling" of safety and security they once knew as children with a "strong parent."

"For Freud, this was the life force that held groups together. It functioned as a kind of psychic cement that locked people into mutual and mindless interdependence: the magnetic powers of a leader, reciprocated by the guilty delegation of everyone's will to him."


I ain't scareda nothin'!

Some should be.

In this oceanic feeling of safety, under the protective wings of Dear Leader,

"groups do not fear danger. The members do not feel that they are alone with their own smallness and helplessness, as they have the powers of the hero-leader with whom they are identified."

But why? Some of us, later in life, having escaped the clutches of Dear Leader, vigorously lament,

"How could I have been so stupid! What was I thinking? How could I have allowed myself to be led by crackpot ideas! How could I have surrendered my autonomy to group-think mentality and a fear-mongering leader?"

Yes, how?

These true believers

"were partially self-hypnotised, so to speak... [as they imagined] victories against impossible odds: don't they have the omnipotent powers of the parental figure? Why are groups so blind and stupid? - men have always asked this. Because they demand illusions, answered Freud, they constantly give [to that which] is unreal [a] precedence over what is real."

But why do people go mad in herds? Why not alone?


This world is simply too terrible to admit; it says, we're all gonna die.

"We know why. The ... world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells a man that he is a small trembling creature who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way."


Editor's note: Though materialism will deny, Man, in fact, is important to the universe; he does have a cosmic future, and he is vitally positioned in the scheme of things. The scientific evidence of the afterlife assures us of this. But, without this assurance, people are prone to taking "short cuts," that subtle essence of Evil we spoke of. They attempt to find strength in numbers; whenever possible, in the security of complicitous group-illusion.


Keep that omnipotent infant away from my crystal vase!

"The masses look to leaders to give them just the untruth that they need... furthermore, he makes possible a new experience, the expression of forbidden impulses, secret wishes, and fantasies. In group behavior anything goes because the leader okays it. It's like being an omnipotent infant again, encouraged by the [strong] parent to indulge oneself plentifully."


Editor's note: For an image of the "omnipotent infant," think of a two year-old, running around a living room - maybe, the unleashed scion of guests - having a high old time, believing himself to be the center of the universe.


"In the group, each man seems an important hero who can give full vent to his appetites under the approving eye of the father."


The 'unconflicted person,' one with no conscience, is also known as a sociopath.

What penetrating insight by Freud! Redl, building on Freud's work,

"saw that in some groups there is ... what he calls [so aptly] the 'infectiousness of the unconflicted person.' There are leaders who seduce us because they do not have the conflicts that we have; we admire their equanimity where we feel shame and humiliation... [Redl saw that a Dear Leader establishes his importance in the group by committing an] 'initiatory act' [some bad deed; some outrageous idea or philosophy] when no one else had the daring to do it."

"Freud has said in his Totem and Taboo that acts that are illegal for the individual can be justified if the whole group shares responsibility for them. But they can be justified in another way: the one who initiates the act takes upon himself both the risk and the guilt. The result is truly magical: each member of the group can repeat the act without guilt. They are not responsible, only the leader is. Redl calls this ... 'priority magic.'"


Editor's note: Think about this process as it has manifested in well known examples of history. Think about how the most cultured, the most scientifically advanced civilization the world had ever known - Germany in the 1930s - allowed itself to participate in methodical and efficient genocide of an entire race of people. Hitler did not do this alone. He had millions of accomplices. How was this possible, in a most literate, a most highly educated society that was Germany? Freud explains it to us. It is the slavish element in the human psyche; that secret yearning to get back to the oceanic feeling of childhood's security. And in this blindess, a surrendering to a Dear Leader, it becomes the hidden proclivity to go mad in herds.


this is the illusion that man craves, redistilling reality as he goes

But this dark dynamic

"does something even more than relieve guilt: it actually transforms the fact of [atrocity or anti-humanistic concepts]... In other words, participation in the group redistills everyday reality and gives it [i.e., one's membership in the group] the aura of the sacred... This penetrating vocabulary of 'initiatory acts,' 'the infectiousness of the unconflicted person,' 'priority magic,' and so on, allows us to understand more subtly the dynamics of group sadism, the utter equanimity with which groups kill. It is not just that 'the father permits it' or 'orders it.' It is more: the magical heroic transformation of the world and of oneself. This is the illusion that [unenlightened] man craves."


Editor's note: The insights here of the great psychologists are stunningly perspicacious! This "redistilling of reality," which is but the essence of cultism, finds its most outrageous expression within the purview of Big Religion. Think of the "infectiousness of the unconflicted person" and the "priority magic" of true-believers in their guru-worship of ecclesiastical leadership. Think of what otherwise normally-functioning people allow themselves to believe - what William Stainton Moses might have termed the “dreariest twaddle” - when they swooningly surrender reason itself to a "strong father figure" in exchange for the promise and prospect of safety and security, that lost "oceanic" sense of well-being, against their terrors of death - all of which "slavish" proclivity causes a great many to "go mad in herds."


transforming atrocity into the socially acceptable; indeed, the divine will


Editor's note: Does this kind of "redistilling of everyday reality," a "transforming of atrocity into the acceptable," actually happen? Well, we know it does, because it happens regularly, from pulpits in our neighborhoods.

In the "Bible" article I spoke of certain verses which condone sexual atrocity inflicted upon young girls. Intent upon upholding the illusion of an "infallible Bible," church pastors will intone gravely about checkered sections of scripture as "God's will." I remember hearing many sermons like that in my youth.

We piously wonder how the millions in Nazi Germany could have turned a blind-eye to their evil - but we see the same spirit all around us. Think of the strangeness: average, decent people, people you know; see them in their normal day-to-day civic-mindedness - but suddenly, when a church pastor quotes an "infallible" bible verse, which seems to anoint the sexual abuse of little girls, then millions and millions of church-goers will agree that this is "God's will."

The great psychologists were right. The approving nod from a cult-leader behind a pulpit will, in a hot moment, transform and "redistill reality" of what's normally viewed as atrocity into something socially acceptable! It's "going mad in herds."


more than drinking the koolaid

The long reach of cultism encompasses much more than crackpot churches. The root idea of cult offers the sense of "cut." This core concept of "cut" leads us to images of refinement and refashioning and, by extension, development, control, pattern, order, and system.

Cultism as systemization finds a ready home in religion and philosophy which seek to regulate and redistill the patterning and ordering of ideas. However, in a larger sense, the spirit of cultism extends to every facet of society. We find it scheming and sedulously at work in politics, academia, family, corporations, entertainment, science, artistry – anywhere power might be gained by capturing credulous and fear-based minds.

See the “cultism” page for a full discussion.


Under the patriarchal numen, a nod from on high, all is sanitized and blessed.

The great psychologists speak of the "numen" - literally, the approving "nod" from the aloof father-figure. Once the cultish patriarchal numen is issued, reality is transformed, individual responsibility fades, all actions, no matter how socio-pathic, are cleansed under the aegis of the protecting-father's nod.



"W.R. Bion ... extended this line of thought... arguing that the leader is as much a creature of the group as they of him and that he loses his 'individual distinctiveness' by being a leader, as they do by being followers. He has no more freedom to be himself than any other member of the group, precisely because he has to be a reflex of their assumptions in order to qualify for leadership in the first place."


Editor's note: How well I understand the author's point. I am thinking of the many dozens of young men with whom I attended ministerial college. Virtually every one of them "sold their souls" in pursuit of religious power and control over others. In the end, they no longer had "the freedom to be" themselves, and they could no longer be "real" with me as an old college buddy. They now had an image to uphold.


"The noted psychoanalyst Paul Schilder ... said penetratingly [regarding people allowing themselves to enter group-hypnosis, that their subsequent drone-like actions, at the behest of the group, are] 'timid' ... the timid 'heroisms' of group behavior. There is nothing free or manly about them... People use their leaders almost as an excuse... they can imagine themselves as temporary victims of the leader. The more they give in to his spell, and the more terrible the crimes they commit, the more they can feel that the wrongs are not natural to them... There are many ways in which men can [deny reality] ... [as they are] avoiding responsibility for their own acts in a cowardly way."

Group dynamics becomes an expression of

"magical transformations, wherein passive and empty people, torn with conflicts and guilt, earn their cheap heroism, really feeling that they can control fate and influence life and death. 'Cheap' because [their actions are] not in their own command, not with their own daring, and not in the grip of their own fears: everything is done with the leader's image stamped on their psyche."


I must stop here. There is much more. You will want to study these references for yourself. But we can begin to understand the problem of why men and women go mad in herds: It's that need for "transference"; it's the Small Ego's proclivity toward slavishness.


Satan and timid heroisms

Corrupt politicians do this every day, demonize the opposition, to energize their party-faithful.

And church leaders, too, often use the concept of "Satan" to rally the troops, to vivify, to pump meaning into life, to get the sap up.

The dysfunctional belief in a "Satan" is primarily a product of cultish group-dynamics. The group needs something to "set itself against" in order to feel its otherness and distinctiveness. The small ego loves to wallow in perceptions of "me against them," thereby, in terms of contrast, enhancing its identity and sense of self.



Editor's last word: