From Social Structure to the Mind: Disorganized Attachment as a Means of Control in Extremist Organizations
Alexandra Stein, Ph.D.
Radicalization often results from coercive processes employed within closed, totalistic groups. This exploratory social psychological study investigates the mechanisms through which people become tightly bonded to such groups and differentiates these mechanisms from those operating within democratic, open groups. Using a multiple methods, comparative case study methodology within an attachment theory framework, the study investigates two US-based groups: the extremist and totalistic Newman Tendency is compared with the democratic, non-totalistic Green Party of the US.
An innovative analytical approach is employed combining attachment theory and methods, network theory and methods, field observation and discourse analysis to produce thick descriptions of each group along with analyses of attachment relationships, ego-centric networks and patterns of discourse. In-depth interviews were conducted with 14 former members of the Newman Tendency and 12 former members of the Green Party. Features of totalism--found in the Newman Tendency, but not in the Green Party--include: a charismatic authoritarian leader; a hierarchical, closed network structure; a total ideology; coercive persuasion, and resulting radicalization and exploitation of followers.
The study demonstrates the process whereby the Newman Tendency positions itself as a safe haven for followers while simultaneously arousing fear in increasingly isolated followers, resulting in a situation of "fright without solution". This induces disorganized attachment of the follower to the group, as measured by the new Group Attachment Interview. Disorganized attachment (similar to a trauma bond) is associated with cognitive lapses, disorientation, dissociation and confusion and creates cognitive and emotional difficulties for followers. These cognitive and emotional effects allow for further insinuation of the group's total ideology and thus create a key pathway for radicalization. In contrast, Green Party followers demonstrated only an affiliative - not an attachment - relationship to their group. They showed almost no signs of dissociation or disorientation in their thinking about their group involvement. These findings clarify the social psychological mechanisms leading to radicalization, hyper-obedience and deployability of followers in extremist groups.