Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD – Brain Blogger Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cults and Terrorism, Part 6 – Leader-Follower Traits Fri, 28 May 2010 12:00:03 +0000 Continued from part five. Leaders of destructive cult-like groups are very likely to have a very strong need for power and control. The adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is especially true of leaders of destructive groups. As power increases, so also privilege, reflected in a lavish lifestyle, sexual excess, and eventually mental disorder usually with paranoid features. Such was the case with the leaders in the groups described earlier. Power in such people is psychological poison, often slow acting but always a downward spiral. The life and times of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, to Saddam Hussein and tomorrow’s tyrant are examples of the corrupting effect of absolute power and also that the world cannot prevent it.

Sigmund Freud, Jewish and victim of Nazi persecution that drove him from Vienna, saw firsthand the effect of unrestrained power. He theorized that there are two major forces in everyone’s personality: the positive, life sustaining eros libido, and the destructive thanatos libido. Some call thanatos “the death wish,” to “go out in a blaze of glory,” mental state suggested in the last days of Applewhite in Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones at Jonestown, and Koresh at Waco The psychologist Abraham Maslow studied well adjusted people he referred to as “self actualized.” He formulated a list of five need stages everyone realizes for normal personality development. We are all born helpless and dependent (survival need) and need to be protected (safety). In childhood we need to be accepted (support), in our teens to belong (self-esteem), and realize our full potential (self actualization). That process develops through Freud’s eros libido. But if thanatos is predominant, then survival and safety depend on the cult and its leader, support and self esteem from group members, and self actualization when you trigger the bomb strapped to you, awaiting heaven — and 72 virgins.

Unlike the selfish (psychopathic?) drive of leaders of destructive groups, followers tend to be what might best be described as “needy.” Leaders satisfy Maslow’s needs and in doing so strengthen their control over the group and members. As time passes survival, safety, and support needs build into a dependent “follow the leader” herd instinct. Total dependence is comforting. Self reliance requires effort, in thought and action. “Follow the leader” is a lot easier. What also happens is what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. It begins with bias, and we’re all biased. Ask individuals in a group to name their favorite food, color, car, or drink and you will get differing replies. But if bias is not corrected or tempered with facts it grows into cognitive distortion: wrongful thinking, And if, like in a commune away from family and friends, wrong thinking is not corrected it can grow into delusional thinking, gross oversimplification, such as “Satan America” and flying airliners into public buildings.

The brain does not full develop until about age 25, and the last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe. It is that area most involved with critical reasoning ad realizing one’s individuality and unique personality. Those 25 or younger are more likely to loyally follow a cause even to their deaths. “Crotch bomber” Umar Abdulmutallah was the son of a banker. Well educated, but at 23 his brain was not.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the last article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism.


MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 1
Cults and Terrorism, Part 5 – Features of Destructive Cults Thu, 27 May 2010 12:00:06 +0000 Continued from part four. Groups have a personality and destructive cult-like groups have certain behaviors in common. “Good” cult-like groups may or may not have the same traits. In “good” groups the traits serve to strengthen group identity and help members conform positively to the group’s ideals and mission. The acid test is in the results. There shouldn’t be any violence, to a member’s mental or physical health or to anyone outside the group.

The test is to apply Hippocrates’ admonition from 300 BCE: “Do no harm.” If there is harm, the group and its teachings are not “good.”

Signs most often cited for destructive cult-like groups are:

  • Exclusivity (only we know the truth)
  • Deviant beliefs (e.g., what the Book of Revelations really means)
  • Charismatic leader (more selfish than selfless)
  • Blind loyalty (prevents critical thinking)
  • Secrets and/or rituals (reinforces separation from society)
  • Social and/or family isolation (substitute group for family)
Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the fifth article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Leader-Follower Traits will follow.


MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 2
Cults and Terrorism, Part 4 – Destructive Cult-Like Groups Wed, 26 May 2010 12:00:04 +0000 Continued from part three. Heavens Gate was a California UFO/apocalyptic group founded by Marshall Applewhite, son of a Presbyterian minister who dropped out of seminary to study music. He taught music at the University of Alabama but was fired for alleged sex with a student. His wife left him taking their two sons. In 1972 he had vision that he was on a special mission but it so alarmed him he committed himself to mental hospital. There he met nurse Bonnie Nettles, herself married with three children. In 1973 they called themselves “the two” from the Book of Revelations, to save people from evil UFO aliens. Their followers were forbidden to have sex because, they claimed, heaven is asexual. In 1976 the group of 100 moved to Laramie WY and there Applewhite became Doe and Nettles Ti, as in the words for the musical scale and they began astronaut and mental telepathy training. Nettles died 1985. In 1992 the group moved to San Diego CA as Overcomers Anonymous. They raised money programming computers, opened a website, and wore black uniforms with Heavens Gate Away sleeve patches. In March 1997 they videotaped themselves, smiling and cheerful. On March 22 the Hale Bopp comet came nearest Earth and Applewhite announced it was time to leave their bodies and power their souls to the comet. In shifts, 21 men and 18 women, 26 to 72 years old, drank juice with vodka, phenobarbital added, put plastic bags over their heads, and died. They wore their uniforms, new Nike shoes, each of them covered with a square purple cloth. They had one 5-dollar bill and four quarters in their pockets.

The Peoples Temple left 913 men, women, and children dead in their jungle commune in Guyana. It began Indiana as an interracial mission for the homeless by James Warren Jones, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister. When his alleged cures for cancer and heart disease were being investigated, he moved to Ukiah CA, then San Francisco, then Los Angeles, and finally to a 4000 acre commune in Jonestown, Guyana as an agricultural co-op. He preached the imminent end of the world and regularly practiced mock mass suicide chanting “die for your faith, leave the world a message.” He began abusing drugs and became increasingly paranoid. In 1978 Congressman Ryan and his staff visited Jonestown to check claims of abuse. He and four others were killed and 11 wounded and Jones exhorted 913 including 276 children to drink cyanide in Kool-Aid and die. Jones died last, his final words taped.

The Branch Davidians began as The Davidian Branch, a splinter group in Waco TX of Shepherd’s Rod, a group excommunicated from the 7th Day Adventist Church. Vernon Wayne Howell joined in 1981 and by 1984 he formed a group that moved from Waco but returned in 1988 to take over the Waco property. In 1990 he changed his name to David Koresh, after Biblical King David, and claimed he was the Lamb of God to open the seven seals described in the Book of Revelations. He said the group had to defend itself against the government and God told him to have babies with girls and women members to start a new House of David. News media reports that he had a dozen children, some by girls as young as 12, and illegal weapons in the commune, led to a search warrant in1993. Refused access, federal agents laid a 51 day siege that ended in a raid in which four agents and six Davidians were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Then a wind-blown fire killed 76 commune members including Koresh, found with one gunshot to the head.

Aum Shinrikyu was founded in Tokyo in 1984 by Shoko Asahara as The Aum Club, a blend of Buddhism, Hindu yoga, and Christianity. In 1992 he claimed to be Christ and claimed there were conspiracies of Jews, Masons, the British royal family, and the U.S. was the beast described in the Book of Revelations. He said the world would end in World War 3 but he and his followers would survive. In 1995 his followers released sarin gas in Tokyo subway trains killing 12, hospitalizing 54, and injuring 980. Police raided Aum locations and found explosives, biological and chemical agents, and meth and LSD labs. 150 Aum members were arrested. Later, cyanide bombs were found in subway stations that could have killed 20,000, and a mail bomb to Tokyo’s mayor blew fingers off his secretary. Asahara was charged and convicted of 23 murders and sentenced to death.

The Solar Temple was founded in Canada by Luc Joret who prophesied the end of world but he and followers would be reborn in the star Sirius. The group stockpiled weapons as Joret lived lavishly on member assets signed over to him. Charged with gunrunning and money laundering he fled Canada. In 1994 the bodies of 53 members were found in Switzerland, most shot in the head, others stabbed, arranged in circles, wearing white, black, or gold costumes, Joret among them. In 1998 a psychologist member was arrested on the Canary Islands planning the suicide of 29 affiliated with Solar Temple.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are cult-like groups that use terror as a political tactic. Cult aspects are in hero worship of bin Laden and tribal leaders, and martyrdom that guarantees hero status, heaven, and 72 virgins. Their goal is to impose an Islamic theocracy on the West, as much political as religious motivation. Extremist Islam is a complex phenomenon. Imagine an American soldier in Waziristan, Pakistan, at the Afghan border confronted by a man in middle Eastern garb with an AK-47 pointed at the soldier, ready to shoot. Unlike previous wars, this enemy is not in uniform. He could be al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, or the U.S., or a local Waziri or Mehsud tribesman, competitive tribal groups, or a Pakistani Taliban, or an extremist Iraqi Sunni or Shiite Muslim who kill each other back home. He could be a kidnapper, a cattle thief, a vengeful family or tribe member to settle a grudge or uphold family or tribal honor, or fight for whoever pays well. Afghans have fought the British in colonial times, then Russians, and now U.S. or Pakistani troops. The literacy rate in Waziristan is less than 20% for men, 3% for women. To understand these complex dynamics watch the skilled actors in Lawrence of Arabia again, King Faisal (Alec Guinness), the rival leaders Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn, the British military (Jack Hawkins), diplomat (Claude Rains), and Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), all with their own agendas. Khartoum starred Charlton Heston as Chinese Gordon, and Lawrence Olivier as the Muslim leader The Mahdi. Both believed deeply in their cause. That is the true nature of “the war on terror.”

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the fourth article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Features of Destructive Cults will follow.


MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 1
Cults and Terrorism, Part 3 – “Good” Cult-Like Groups Tue, 25 May 2010 12:00:44 +0000 Continued from part two. The Amana Colony was founded in 1713 in Germany by two Lutherans as the Community of True Inspiration. Amana means true, from the Song of Solomon. They believed God speaks through inspired persons (Werkzeug). Persecuted, they moved to Buffalo NY in 1842, then in 1855 to seven communes in Iowa on 18,000 acres. In 1859 they became the Amana Society, non-profit religious communes of farms and businesses. The great depression in the 1930s reduced income and many families wanted to live separately, with more material possessions. In 1932 it became a for-profit joint stock company. Amana built refrigerators (now Whirlpool), beverage coolers (the first coke machine), and the Radarange microwave.

The Shakers were founded in 1747 in England as a splinter group of Quakers. Shaker derives from “shaking Quaker” because of their physically active rituals. They called themselves the United Society of believers in Christ’s 2nd Coming. In 1776 they moved to New York State in a pacifist commune of celibate men and women who lived separately. Women had equal status (took the U.S. ‘till 1920). Work was prayer and they farmed but are most remembered for their simple, practical furniture, and inventing the clothes pin and flat broom. They composed many songs, among which is Simple Gifts (“Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be, after turning, turning, turning, to come down in the valley of love and delight”) made famous by composer Aaron Copland in Appalachian Spring.

The Oneida Commune was founded in 1848 in Oneida NY by Humphrey Noyes who believed Jesus’ millennial kingdom could be realized by spiritual purity. Members shared property and possessions, grew and canned fruits and vegetables, made leather luggage, garden furniture, straw hats, silk thread and, in 1857, silverware. Unlike Shaker celibacy, sex was seen as spiritual and every man was considered married to every woman. Partners changed weekly. Older members introduced teen members to sex since there was less risk of pregnancy (some unplanned pregnancies did occur). The commune declined when Noyes named his atheist son his successor, but also younger members wanted monogamous marriages. When marriage was allowed in 1879, 35 couples chose it. Soon all manufacturing was discontinued except silverware.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the third article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Destructive Cult-Like Groups will follow.


MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 5
Cults and Terrorism, Part 2 – Lessons from History Mon, 24 May 2010 12:00:47 +0000 Continued from part one. There have been cult-like groups in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. In 1090 CE, the Muslim Hassan-I Sabbah led the Nizariya faction of Shia Muslims from a mountain fort near the Caspian Sea in present-day Iran. He was called “Sheik of the Mountain” with forts in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. He sent assassins to kill Sunni leaders, by knife or garrote, usually in broad daylight and in public places for maximum impact. Assassin derives from hashishin, a follower of Hassan but can also refer to a hashish user. His followers called themselves Fedayeen (people of the new doctrine) the same term today referring to radical Muslims. Hashishin training was similar to that in ancient Greek and Roman mystery cults, involving dying and being reawakened. In a moving ritual Hassan himself intervened and followers believed it was to him they owed their lives.

The Thuggi of India were Hindu followers of Kali, god of death and destruction. Like Hassan their prime motive was to use terror to assume more power. They also killed by garrote. The word thug derives from the Thuggi. They were active for 300 years and it is reported that in the 1830s the British hanged 4000 of them.

An example of a cult-like group regarded as positive is the Knights Templar, a Catholic religious order founded 1119 CE after the 1st Crusade. They called themselves Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon and their mission was to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. In 1129 the pope endorsed them which facilitated fundraising. Uniforms were a white tunic with a red cross, worn over armor. Initiated by secret ceremony, vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their Grand Master they became a feared combat force and they usually led the charge. They originated a banking system from Europe to Jerusalem using coded accounts, built castles, and owned a fleet of ships. In 1305 they were charged with heresy, their assets seized, and leaders were burned at the stake.

The Essenes were an isolated Jewish desert commune at Qumran credited with writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had initiation rituals, communal rules, and believed there would be a war between armies of light and darkness. Some speculate Jesus spent some time there.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the second article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – “Good” Cult-Like Groups will follow.


Lewis, Bernard. The assassins: A radical sect in Islam. New York: Oxford University Press. 1967.

MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 3
Cults and Terrorism, Part 1 – The Problem of Definition Sun, 23 May 2010 12:00:39 +0000 Cults make the news when there is a large number of deaths of cult members or their victims. Terrorism is also in the news when there is violence or catastrophe, such as the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Not all cults are dangerous but there is a risk and likelihood of violence from terrorists. As their name implies, terrorists intentionally use violence to achieve their goals.

2500 years ago the Chinese sage LaoTse observed that whenever anyone or anything is named it fixes an identity. The same person can be identified as a “cult member” or “terrorist” in one society and at the same time hailed as a “freedom fighter” or “hero” in her of his home country. Cult and terrorist have a negative connotation and those words are avoided by researchers. Cult usually refers to a group with beliefs or practices that differ from the surrounding culture that views it as deviant or threatening. Also refers to fans (fanatic), personality cult, fashion cult, etc.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cult as

a system or community of religious worship and ritual generally considered extremist or bogus, an obsessive devotion or veneration of a person, principle, or ideal, or an exclusive group sharing an esoteric interest.

Langone (1988) offered a definition that better reflects research findings:

a group or movement with excessive devotion of a person, idea, or thing, using unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group leader to the possible detriment of members, their families or the community. Unethical manipulative techniques include but are not limited to isolation from former friends and family, special methods to increase suggestibility and subservience, group pressure, information management, suspension of critical judgment, promoting total dependency on the leader or group, fear of leaving it, etc.

Researchers in organized religions prefer to refer to cult-like groups as sects or new religions, such as in 1986 The Vatican Report. Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge. Note the choice of words. There is an underlying and unstated truth here. Today’s cult can be tomorrow’s mainstream religion. Quakers and Mormons are two examples of how controversial religious minorities can be assimilated into future mainstream culture. Historically, such groups have been divisions in a sect or have emerged as separate sects differing from traditional beliefs or interpretations of scripture.

In ancient Rome, Christianity was first seen as a cult but by the 5th century it was the state religion. Cult-like movements in ancient times often faded over time as a new religion became the mainstream. Such is the case when Christianity overcame Greek and Roman mystery cults, Isis-Osiris worship in Egypt, and Zoroastrianism in Persia. Ancient polytheistic cultures worshipped gods and goddesses with specific character traits. In ancient Egypt, Osiris was the god of the underworld ought after to lead the deceased after death, and Isis the mother figure who could restore life. In ancient Greece, Asklepios was half god half man who could cure illness, and his priest-physician Hippocrates gave us the “do no harm” oath still used today as the standard for professional ethics. Dionysian cults (to Bacchus in Rome) may be the oldest example of inducing an altered state, using wine in rituals. Mithraism began in Persia about 1000 BCE and spread to Greece, Rome, and India. Popular in the Roman Legion, with seven degrees conferred in rituals, it is an example of “secret societies” we see today in Freemasonry and college campus fraternities and sororities.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the first article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Lessons of History will follow.


Langone, M.D. Cults: Questions and answers. Weston MA: American Family Foundation. 1988.

MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

]]> 5
Is War A Psychosis? Fri, 27 Apr 2007 14:19:39 +0000 Opinion2.jpg

I have no future but I am a force.
— Robin Williams, as a terrorist, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, 1996

In 1967, the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing wrote, “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Normal men have killed 100 million of their fellow men in the past 50 years.” Wartime behavior deviates markedly from crosscultural social norms and values. The irrationality and emotionality of war is a radical departure from accepted normal behavior. In the heat of battle, killing becomes the norm and is reinforced, even rewarded. Wartime behavior of and by itself meets current diagnostic criteria for a severe mental disorder.

The United States was founded in war, the American Revolution, and has had wars in every generation from that time to World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and now the Afghan and Iraq wars. That is not unique to the United States. Every world region has had a war. In the context of world history, it seems war is inevitable, and as philosopher George Santayana sadly observed in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

“Why war? Of all the personality theorists, Freud came closest to explaining the psychological roots of war. He speculated that war is an outlet for the thanatos libido, the “death instinct,” a basic instinctive drive that is the polar opposite to eros libido, prosocial and life supportive. Applying Freud’s insight, under the right circumstances the thanatos libido can rise to a level that overcomes reason and logic. It also emerges in a quest for power and the impulse to win or dominate. This tendency is evident in business, government, and competitive sports.

Situations and circumstances allow this primitive and predatory drive to surface, such as in the racist paranoia of lynchings in the U.S. South and the Indian wars in America’s West, à la Custer’s infamous last stand. The thanatos libido emerged in the holocaust in Nazi Germany and more recently in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, Darfur, and Rwanda. It was economic in Japan’s need for oil and the country’s attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor that began World War II for America. The death instinct has been political and nationalistic, in the colonialism of European nations in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and the quest for power and dominance from Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin into the twentieth century. It can be territorial, like tribal wars in ancient societies. And it can be religious, such as the Crusades and today’s extremist Muslims reinforcing millennia-old, seemingly irreconcilable differences.

There have been attempts at neutralizing this powerful instinctive drive and nonviolently resolving differences. Gandhi’s “salt march” opposing British rule in India led to India’s independence. But Gandhi was assassinated, and differences between Muslims and Hindus led to the establishment of Pakistan as an independent nation. Their armies still face each other in the continuing dispute over the Kashmir. Both have nuclear weapons.

The norm has been tens of thousands dying in religious wars, but nonviolent accommodation of religious differences does occur. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists peacefully co-exist in many nations. They have had no religious wars.

But it is in war where the death instinct is most obvious. Atrocities–“crimes against humanity”–occur in every war. Ironically, we award medals to and hail as heroes or martyrs those who kill more of the enemy. One nation’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, even though it may be the same behavior. To Islamic terrorists, death in battle or a suicide attack is martyrdom; reward with a harem of virgins is said to be guaranteed. Suicide is especially attractive when many enemies are killed with the martyr. This was true for the 9/11 terrorists who flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, inspiring others to follow their examples in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel.

World history offers many examples of extreme wartime behaviors, including Attila, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great. More recently, leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and others in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have motivated thousands to take up arms and vent their aggression against targeted enemies. Extremist behavior is not limited just to charismatic leaders. Kamikaze pilots in World War II and today’s suicide bombers were recruited from the rank and file. Suicide as a chosen alternative has historical roots (e.g., Japanese hara-kiri).

These behaviors meet current criteria for mental disorder. For example, the diagnostic standard, the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) defines a dissociative disorder as “disruption in usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment and impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (p. 239). Derealization (“Can this be really happening?) and depersonalization (“Is this me?”) are listed as typical symptoms. Victims are dehumanized into objects, and robot-like violence depersonalizes the aggressor in the process.

In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger described the state of “cognitive dissonance,” which preserves “internal harmony, consistency, or congruity among opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and values” (p. 260). Waldinger defined delusion as “a false belief firmly held despite incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary, not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the culture or subculture.” What begins as bias and opinion, usually tolerated, can lead to distortion, then wrongful belief. Reinforced by charismatic leaders, there can be a downward spiral into delusion. Genocide in Nazi Germany and recently in Rwanda and the Sudan is evidence of this tragic process. And it is not limited to mass behavior. Street crime and domestic violence reflect Elbert Hubbard’s observation a hundred years ago: “So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”

The environment in war lacks external controls. Societal values weaken. War disinhibits and desensitizes. The horror of the holocaust of World War II became evident only as time passed, not immediately. The Allies did not give it a high priority while it was happening. The perpetrators denied personal responsibility, using “the Nuremberg defense” that they were simply following orders. Defense mechanisms of denial, externalization, projection, rationalization, and splitting block reality testing have the effect of reducing anxiety and protecting against stress. Violence then becomes part of the array of defense mechanisms.

The strong drive that leads to the practice of beheading victims, common among Islamic extremists, suggests an entrenched, inflexible belief system of delusional proportion. It involves a grandiose quality the DSM-IV-TR describes as one “of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person” (p. 160). Wartime behavior suggests an extreme mental state of psychotic proportion and with it, often paranoid ideation–a simplistic “us or them” dichotomy. Killing becomes routine “business as usual.”

Delusional thinking is encouraged in signs, posters, banners, and statues that propagandize or deify a cause, leader, or martyr. Iran’s Ayotollah Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung are examples. Emotion overrides reason and logic in public education and controlled news media that reinforce aggression. Schools teach children a biased version of history and current events, reinforced with songs and recitation: Hitler Youth, China and Russia’s Young Pioneers, North Korean “patriotic” school activities, and anti-West Islamic school curricula. Singled out, the United States is the common enemy (“Satan America”) and the cause of a nation’s problems. According to the DSM-IV-TR, these are neurotic defenses (externalization, displacement, isolation, denial, and rationalization).

On a smaller scale, cult-like groups develop similar impaired reality testing. Jim Jones in his People’s Church in Guyana caused the suicides of 913 men, women, and children by propagating the delusional belief the U.S. would soon invade their commune. David Koresh of the Branch Davidians refused to submit to lawful authority for almost two months, leading to his death and the deaths of most of his followers. Marshall Applewhite led the Heaven’s Gate cult in a group suicide to join with alien super-beings in Halley’s comet. The Taliban in Afghanistan executed people at soccer games, beat “uncovered” women on the street, and blew up centuries-old Buddha statues. These behaviors are not consistent with any definition of normality or sanity.

“Shell shock” of World War I and “combat fatigue” of World War II were precursors of what we now diagnose and treat as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition is evidence of the harmful impact of the wartime environment on both military and civilian populations. The phenomenon of war has been with us since cave dwelling tribes. Many of our fathers fought in World War I, brothers in World War II, we in Korea or Vietnam, and our children in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan or Iraq. Throughout history, war has been taking place somewhere in the world.

A major feature of psychosis is impaired reality testing, and it is evident in wartime behavior. Hinsie and Campbell (1973) observed that “psychoses differ from other psychiatric disorders by certain features.” They listed four distinguishing features: disruptive severity, withdrawal in which “objective reality has less meaning,” affect that is “qualitatively different,” and regression that “may include a return to early and even primitive patterns.” They suggested the term “collective psychosis,” if it is shared “by an entire group.”

Freud had much to say about behaviors common in wartime. He survived the rise of Nazism in Vienna and saw firsthand its aggression and violence. He saw aggression as a basic drive that inevitably leads to conflict. There is a tendency to project it onto others, for instance, Nazis onto Jews and Muslim extremists onto “Satan America.” As early as 1933, he traced psychosis to a “repressed unconscious too strong that overwhelms the conscious” and a state “when reality becomes so unbearably painful the threatened ego succumbs to unconscious impulses.”

Experimental evidence of antisocial behavior in otherwise “normal” people exists. Milgram in 1974 and Zimbardo in 1973 showed how it is possible to violate societal norms. Milgram instructed volunteers to administer what they were told were dangerous electric shocks to others. Actually, there was no current in the equipment but volunteers did not know that. Zimbardo stopped his experiment of a mock prison when “guards” became increasingly aggressive. The behavior of army reservists at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison is a recent real-life example of how aggression can become the norm in an environment of little or no external control.

Hopeful signs exist, however. The world now has a United Nations. For a thousand years, major world religions have developed and promoted moral standards. Colonialism and imperialism have given way to independence among nations. Science and technology improve the quality of life.

But wars continue. Technology develops more weapons. As in ages past, soldiers face each other with the stark realization that only one will survive. To people in war-torn nations, it may seem the world has gone mad. Many veterans of wars return home unable to cope with their own and others’ extreme behaviors.

War is a tragedy for both sides. That it continues is an even greater tragedy, a downward spiral of world civilization of psychotic dimension.

War is a psychosis!


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 2000.

Ferguson, N. War of the world. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Festinger, L. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Freud, S. New introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933). New York: Norton, 1950.

Hinsie, L.E., & Campbell, R.J. Psychiatric dictionary. 4th edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Laing, R.D. The politics of experience. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.

Milgram, S. Obedience to authority. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Santayana, G. The life of reason. Volume 1. New York: Dover.

Waldinger, R.J. Psychiatry for medical students. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1984.

Zimbardo, P.G. Human choice: Individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17, 237-307, 1969.

]]> 23