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Starting with psychology
Starting with psychology

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5 Group pressure

5.1 Introduction

Do you remember hearing about ‘Heaven's Gate’, the Californian doomsday cult which combined elements of Christianity with belief in the existence of UFOs? (A number of popular TV programmes, including CSI and The Simpsons, have based storylines on this cult.) In March 1997, thirty-nine members of the group, led by Marshal Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, committed suicide in the belief that their souls would be transferred to a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of the cult members had severed contact with their families and had sold their worldly belongings. They had committed themselves to a celibate life, with eight of the men submitting to voluntary castration (seemingly in preparation for a new gender-free level of existence).

Why did these group members engage in such extreme behaviours? Had they been brainwashed? Were they just weak and vulnerable, in effect easy targets for manipulation? While psychologists offer a variety of explanations, most would recognise a combination of emotional and social factors at work and most would say that these go beyond the individual, their personality and their roles. Cult bonds are often created through such factors as the emotional attachment to the group and fear of powerful leaders making people feel dependent on the group (Margaret Singer, 1995). People can be highly attracted by the security offered by membership of a group, where friends are apparently all around you and you feel cared for and safe.

It's worth looking more deeply at how social psychologists have explored the ways in which groups and group identity influence the way people think and act. In this section you explore different strands of research to do with ‘in-groups/out-groups’, and ‘group pressure and conformity’.