In the old days, it was called ‘authoritarian personality’. The research adopts the view that authoritarianism is a thinking pattern, a mental habit, a frame of mind that can be evoked – but we can also snap out of it. It is a mental model, or framing the world that is deep-seated but not unmovable.
Just as populism can be evoked by an unscrupulous orator, its opposite can also be achieved if we create the necessary narrative framework.
This research sets out to flesh out the elements of contemporary authoritarianism, the self-reinforcing cycle, and attempt to find inflection points where these thinking habits or mental models can be hacked.
The underlying problem is a self-reinforcing spiral consisting of: fear of failure, the absence of horizontal bonds of trust, reflexivity, fear of the unknown, the dissolution of the individual’s own perspective, clinging to and encouraging fear, victim blaming, learned helplessness, identifying with the powerful, and considering freedom to be a luxury.
Many of the elements sound innocent enough in isolation, or at least forgivable, but they support each other and fly on the wings of social conformity. In combination, they weaken society’s resistance to the abuse of power and authoritarianism.
The Tale of Two (Kinds of) Depressions
- How economic downturn triggers the vicious cycle
- Motivational deficit as a symptom of depression and learned helplessness
- The consequence of performance legitimacy to democracies.
On Fear and Terror-bonding
Fear should be discussed in all its incarnations, such as worry, anxiety, terror, and uncertainty of the future.
The precondition of Stockholm syndrome (also known as terror-bonding or trauma bonding) is that the victim must see no way out of the situation (extreme dependence). When that is established, terror ferments the situation.
It can be regarded as a kind of regression, when a gradual disempowerment and infantilisation takes place. (See more at learned helplessness). Gradually, it makes them not to trust their own ability and judgement. When their basic needs are met, the victims feel intense gratitude and positive feelings for their captors. They genuinely resent any outside effort that shakes the delicate balance – or their illusion thereof. They blame outside factors for the danger and their own misery, not their captor.
Terror-bonding (Stockholm-syndrome) only came to our attention because the dependence came from the same source as the threat. But when they are separate entities, we tend to take it as granted. It is also wrongly named. It is a survival strategy. Consider the political implications.
- How oppressive regimes rob their victims of their sense of agency by terror-bonding
- How it explains loyalty for the regime and confounds political scientists
The sense of one’s own competence can be eroded by learned helplessness, a mentality often induced by oppressive regimes. Low confidence in one’s own (political) influence is also correlated with low trust level in society. It is therefore crucial to understand how authoritarian regimes pursue and their people internalise helplessness and how this sentiment is conveyed by peers and society by projection and reflexivity.
It has a relevance far beyond current autocracies. It doesn’t matter whether helplessness has been imposed upon the victim by force from above, or creeped up on him in the shape of an all-encompassing welfare regime. Whether his helplessness was caused by one big shock, or the gradual erosion of his sense of agency. It is also irrelevant whether the dependence is straightforward (government keeps me safe) or reversed (government can choose to kill me). It thus applies to established democracies too – which normally fall on the blind spot for researchers of unfree thinking habits.
One of the most spectacular symptoms of authoritarian thinking is the admiration for anything powerful and the contempt for the weak. As if one-sidedly siding with power would make the authoritarian underdog to be powerful too. Melvin Lerner’s just world hypothesis describes this state of mind splendidly.
People, who feel helpless in the face of injustice tend to blame the victim. Authoritarian thinking will invariably jump to the conclusion that the weak is to be blamed. It will have very compelling arguments to support this conclusion, but it was the conclusion that came first. The need to find a reason as to why the victim is to be blamed is desperate. The authoritarian state of mind will never end up looking for fault in the actions or character of the powerful, not even by accident. The authoritarian mind never dwells upon the fault in the aggressor. It may be rape, murder or an entire genocide, his mind will immediately wander to find the counterintuitive reason why the victim had it coming. The justification of others’ victimisation thus completes the helplessness cycle.
Victim blaming is only necessary, when one is not in the position to prevent injustice. In other words, helplessness.
Lack of Trust (Social Capital)
- Generalised trust and its economic and political impact
- Trust in morals vs trust in competence
- Facilitate social capital by emphasizing competence
Pessimism and cynicism are widely regarded as smart, while aspiration to change and improvement is often dismissed as naïve (and bitterly attacked). The reason is obvious: these are mere justifications of one’s own immorality (active or by inaction).
Cynicism is a reaction to helplessness, not the cause of inaction. It is a way to pose as strong or wise despite one’s own moral capitulation. A form of “moral Stockholm syndrome”, often triggered by the lack of control and resignation. It also makes disengagement with the regime less likely due to the sense of complicity.
One should wonder why pessimism and cynicism is not widely condemned and why it is not socially shamed.
How Reflexivity Worsens the Situation
- and how it can be used for good.
- Identifying with the leader and losing one’s own perspective are symptoms of terror-bonding
- The mechanism of stereotype threat and how it can be reversed and used to facilitate freedom.
- Can individual perspectives be restored and if so, does it have a positive impact on the desire to be free?
Vladimir Putin once said that freedom is a luxury. And he knows what he is talking about – except he doesn’t want freedom to happen to his people. And statements like that serve his purpose beautifully.
Art is generally known to bridge gaps on the hierarchy of needs. Starving artists reaching for the unreachable, poets writing their most moving lines in the grasp of existential threats.
Aspirational Values to Crowd Out Survival Mentality
It is a well understood fact that introducing metamotivational aspirations to disadvantaged children is conducive for them to aim higher than their environment would normally suggest them to. Classical musicians playing for disadvantaged audiences can provide children with a sense of aspiration way above what’s expected of them – that elevates them over a number of developmental leaps on the Maslow hierarchy of needs.
Can the promotion of freedom as a lifestyle and as a higher aim help achieve the same metamotivational state? Can the instillation of metamotivational desires inspire a leap in political development?
Habituation science suggests so.
Bibliography and further reading