Over the years, many studies have been conducted by social scientists in the field of psychology in an effort to understand and explain the atrocities of World War II.  Specifically, how local populations of nations, just went along with the attempted genocide of the Jews. The result of these studies is the concepts behind the term Influence Processes. They are: Behavior modificationgroup conformity, and obedience to authority.

One of the most remarkable discoveries of social psychology is that in our attempts to find the most appropriate response to a social situation, we sometimes respond to information that we receive unconsciously.”- Steven Hassan

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Behavior modification works through positive reinforcement (giving something to) and negative reinforcement (taking something away). Next to modeling it is one of  the most effective methods of teaching acceptable behavior from the family level to the society level.

In the above quote Steven Hassan was explaining behavior modification techniques and he went on to describe, as an example, a class of psychology students who decided to test the idea on their teacher. Each time the teacher moved to the left side of the classroom, the students would smile and show attentiveness; whenever the teacher moved to right side of the classroom, they would be listless and show boredom. Within a short period of time the teacher was spending the entire class lecture on the left side of the room.

When the students finally told the teacher what they had done, the teacher became angry and insisted he had chosen to stand on the left side of the room of his own free will. He was not aware of the fact that he had been influenced by the class’s collective body language and facial expressions. The class’s body language and facial expression cues had been registering on a purely subconscious level for the teacher. The teacher had been focused on the task, attentive to his audience, and subsequently trained with attentiveness as a reward like Pavlov’s dog.

Most people are socially conditioned by the culture they live in, and go on to condition others, in much the same way they themselves were conditioned. An example of this is gender norms and roles based on gender which vary a little or a lot depending on the culture and nation. Social conditioning is usually influenced by culture and tradition, while education and progressiveness play a mitigating role in social change. From progressive influences we have human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties that continue to influence standards for equality and fairness.

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Or children into leaving their parents alone for five minutes. 😉

In a destructive cult, social conditioning is “stage-managed”; veteran cult members use various cues including facial expression and body language to communicate acceptable and unacceptable behavior to new recruits. The recruits are trained the same way the teacher in Steven Hassan’s example was trained by his class to lecture on the left side of the room, without realizing he was being trained. Delphi had its own version of “stage-management” when it came to showing approval and disapproval, rewarding behavior, and punishing it.

Generally, factions did their own “stage-management” in the Delphi Forums. This was done in private message board folders and in chat room private messages where insiders would often message each other about handling faction outsiders. If an outsider was well-regarded approval, validation and friendship would be extended; if the outsider was not then distrust, hostility, and animosity would be extended. If the outsider did not move along, they were usually ousted from the chat room and forum.

To explain conformity, Steven Hassan describes the Asch experiment. In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment with students to determine how social pressure from a group majority could affect individual conformity. The experiment involved testing the reaction of individuals when as part of a group, they were asked to indicate which of a group of lines was longest, and the rest of the group all chose the same wrong answer. The result was that most people in the presence of a group will go along with a wrong answer.

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We are conditioned from a very young age that being different is perceived as dangerous to others, therefore a threat to ourselves and possibly those we are close to. Therefore we are hardwired to pay very close attention to the herd around us, and trained to not deviate from the safety of the herd. 

 

Likewise, individuals who may not be physically present in a group can still be likely to go along with a wrong answer if there is a perception that a majority supports that wrong answer. There is a strong social pressure to conform to group norms and expectations, so strong that individuals will note the wrong answer and how the majority supports it, and automatically question their understanding of the situation, and the evidence of their own senses. Individuals will assume that because a majority is giving the same answer, the answer must be correct.

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In the workplace this level of conformity in thought is referred to as “GroupThink”. Conformity in clothing styles including uniforms is a requirement in many schools and workplaces. Fashion creates conformity in social settings. In what ways do you conform?

 

To explain obedience to authority, Steven Hassan describes the Milgram experiment. Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to determine how far individuals might go to be obedient to authority figures. Subjects were asked to deliver electrical shocks to a “learner” when the “learner” provided an incorrect answer to a “memory experiment”. As the experiment progressed, the subjects were led to believe the voltage was being increased to dangerous and then deadly levels; while the “confederate” was instructed to scream and beg to be let out.

Many of the subjects objected to the instructions by the “authority figure” to continue the experiment; a few valiantly staged rescues of the “confederate”, but a stunning two-thirds of the test subjects continued the experiment despite believing they were killing and then had killed the “learner”. Hassan quotes Milgram; “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his own actions.”

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One of the first topics to come up on ethics is the Milgram Obedience Experiment. In my university there were two primary questions about it. First, was it ethical or unethical? Second, what would we have done if we had been a participant in the experiment? Stanley Milgram published a book on his experiment; my advice is to find and read his book before making any decisions on either question. Why? Because “short and concise” descriptions are misleading; and will lead you to answering the questions inadequately and skewed by the bias influence of your instructor.

Was conformity and obedience to authority present in Delphi as part of the influence processes? Yes; all it takes are individuals who can communicate tone of text in a way that displays a high level of confidence and a willingness to state conjecture, speculation, and opinion as though it were fact. Individual readers generally don’t know enough about a situation to be able to determine all of the real facts. Therefore they have to rely on their own perceptions of the reactions of other people. Offline reactions can be manipulated; but online it’s much easier.

In any communication there is a sender (speaker, writer) and a receiver (audience). In an offline setting, audience members can look to each other to determine general consensus of the sender. Likewise, a knowledgeable speaker knows how to engage the audience, convince the audience using emotion language. In a text format, the visual cues are minimized; the individual has few or no fellow receivers to help him determine the quality of the content or the credibility of the sender. What is left is the tone of text, emotion evoking language, and level of confidence.

The content is received by the individual who has to determine how they will interpret the message and very often the first part of that comes down to familiarity with the sender. Do we know them? Have we seen or heard messages from them before? Are they knowledgeable? Are they likable? Attractive? Funny? Do we know their motive or agenda? Do we share that motive or agenda? Do we trust them? Do we believe them?

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Obedience and conformity are both ultimately tribal in that they first encountered in the family and responses are conditioned by the family members. Friends are often chosen from the same social environment as one’s family, the same is true for spouses. This is one reason why individuals from dysfunctional families prone to domestic violence continue the violence later in their own families. 

If we have a generally positive impression of the sender and the message, then we don’t tend to look too closely at the message. If it is delivered with a high level of confidence, we can tend to make assumptions about a high degree of knowledge. We tend to respond consciously and subconsciously to the tone of text; based on how we perceive the sender, the nature of the emotion language, our own moods, and what we imagine about the number of other readers, the number of responses, and the positive or negative nature of those responses.

If there are facts being communicated, they can be buried under subjectivity, biases, misperception, misunderstanding, and deliberate deception. Facts are very often difficult to check in the middle of an argument, and usually it is the emotion language that acts as triggers to our own reactions. When we are busy feeling something, we are not really thinking about it, while when we are thinking about something, we tend to put our feelings on pause; to “think rationally”. We can’t “feel rationally”, feelings aren’t rational.

Ultimately, “truth” in Delphi was determined not by who was right and who was wrong, who “had their facts straight” and who did not. Most people never had all of the facts, they just assumed they did. We simply did not know what we did not know. “Truth” in Delphi was determined by “the numbers”, who had the most individuals on their side. Whoever could gain a perception of a majority consensus won the argument; thus, friendship and influence equated to power. Whoever had the most “back-up” was the one that controlled the hearts and minds.

Whoever had the most “back-up” controlled the ability to modify behavior, and bring individuals into conformity by getting them to doubt themselves and follow the majority opinion. Whoever had the most “back-up” could generally coerce everyone else to obey them as an authority figure by simply threatening them with that majority opinion. All it took was to heavily misrepresent the characters of people who did not conform, verbally attack them, harass them, and mock them as part of “The Delphi Game”, and voila, a dangerous cult-like group mentality.

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The perception of who has the most “back-up” (support) from a majority is not unique to Delphi or the internet in general; we see it daily in the political system and media coverage. What we have to be aware of is that minority groups can apply marketing strategies to overcome a numbers deficiency and appear to be a majority. This is important in recruitment to build up numbers in minority factions.

In Delphi, there were still individuals who resisted; two individuals claimed their forum was the “Heart of the Community” invested with the right to police other forums for “shit-stirrers” and “troublemakers”, and for a few years, they got away with it because there was a majority of factions who went along with it; agreed that two individuals and one forum could police everyone else, or at least turned a blind eye to it. It was a false claim to authority; they did not own Delphi, they were not on Delphi’s payroll as staff members.

In 2007 I asked the members of this majority the following questions: Why would you sell off your own authority over yourselves, in favor of some other person or group, on an online server, if you have not been subjected to behavior modification, group conformity, and obedience to authority? Have you got some other explanation for this? I did not have a better explanation then, and now, seeing the way the same influence processes are still playing out across the internet itself; and also offline, I still don’t.

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***This is part 10 of a series of posts on cults and cult indoctrination online. It will focus on the book that played such an integral role in ending the indoctrination process on the Delphi Forums server; Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan. This series will be heavily revised and updated; the purpose is to show that Delphi is not unique.

The same process occurs elsewhere on the internet; Al-Qaeda and Islamic State did not invent it; they did not even innovate. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, none of these sites were first to find themselves the vehicles of fake news, propaganda, or truth decay. There are much bigger cults out in the world; awareness is key to stopping the cycles.