“Them and Us” by Arthur Deikman – a Reflection

A few months ago, I typed, “politicians as parental figures” into a search engine and Arthur Deikman’s book: Them and Us came up. Those of you who regularly read this blog, may have noticed I’ve referenced him a few times recently, and now I want to reflect more fully on the book.

Deikman, who died in 2013, was a professor of psychiatry at the University of California. Them and Us was originally published in 1990, as The Wrong Way Home, as a study into cults and cult behaviour. It was updated early this century to include a section on terrorism. The blurb on the back says, After September 11, Waco, Jonestown, the Khmer Rouge, Hitler and Stalin – each time the horror seems unprecedented and inconceivable. Yet, the same kind of thinking led to each of these events… the antidote lies in recognising cult thinking in a wide range of institutions … and in our personal responses.

Those last four words are the ones that interest me the most: and in our personal responses.

You and I aren’t in cults, we’re not terrorists and we’re not dictators, so cult thinking has nothing to do with us, surely?

Deikman thinks it does, and I agree with him. Cult-like behaviour is present in all aspects of society – it’s in religion, politics, business and the media. It is in our daily lives. Instead of asking ourselves, “Is this a cult?” We need to ask, “How much cult behaviour is taking place?”

We all have some of the thinking patterns – though mostly we are unaware of this. Deikman describes a young psychiatrist who was delighted with a new jacket he’d bought – until some time later he realised this style of jacket was almost a uniform for psychiatrists. This doesn’t mean that psychiatry is a cult; it does illustrate how we unconsciously desire to belong to a group – which is a normal human instinct that can escalate into something more dangerous. And that is the thing about cults and cult-like thinking – it all starts with ordinary human instincts that, given certain conditions, can get out of hand.

Deikman initially believed that cults were “pathological entities alien to everyday life.” However, after interviewing many people who had left cults, he realized the same dynamics are so prevalent in society that “all of us might be seen as members of invisible cults.”

This occurs largely because we all have, “two kinds of wishes: … for a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and… to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure.” Cult members also wanted meaningful lives, and to belong. Those people Deikman interviewed had mostly joined cults at a time when they were dissatisfied, distressed or at a transition point. In other words, they were looking for something, and felt some sort of void. Their introduction to the cult came through a friendly, attractive member, and early on they had an intense experience that seemed to prove the group and leader were special.

What does this have to do with my Google search on people seeing politicians as parental figures?

Even as adults, we long for what Deikman describes as the “back seat of the car.” He draws this term from a Peanuts cartoon, in which Charlie Brown describes security as sleeping in the back seat of the car, safe in the knowledge that your mother and father are in the front, taking care of you and doing all the worrying so you don’t have to. The danger of the longing for the back seat of the car is, “because it is usually unconscious, it can powerfully influence us in ways that are not recognized.”

In contrast, Deikman says, most of us recognize threats from “powerful authorities” and are aware of our desire for money and power. The hidden nature of, “the dependency dream,” is what gives it such force. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. Have you ever thought, They should do something about it? Or, It shouldn’t be allowed? Me too. Yet who is this magical “they” we want to do something? Could it be that fantasy parent we yearn for?

Deikman lists the following behaviours as indicative of Cult-like thinking:

  • Compliance with the group
  • Dependency on a leader
  • Devaluation of outsiders
  • Avoidance of dissent

All of these behaviours have their roots in normal family life, and all of them served a survival purpose at some time in our evolution.

Compliance with the group

As small children, we learn that certain behaviours are deemed “good” and others “bad.” When we comply with our parents, we are rewarded; when we don’t comply we are more likely to be punished. We don’t realise that what our family deems good might not be considered the case by another family. For example, one family might value competitiveness and see it as good, whereas another might see this as bad. At school, we learn to comply with our peers – to form friendships or to take part in class. This isn’t wrong; it is normal human behaviour – yet if, as we grown older, we comply blindly or out of fear, then we are fostering the conditions for cult-like behaviour.

Dependency on a leader

As young children we are dependent on our parents for survival, and Deikman says this is where our cult-like behaviour begins. In cults, leaders are seen to have special powers or access to special knowledge, just as young children see their parents as something close to God. (I can still remember the shock I felt the first time I heard my father use a swear word.) Deikman says that because of this dependency, families are necessarily hierarchical, with children literally “looking up” to parents. As adults our world should be at “eye-level” but we don’t quite leave that imbalanced relationship behind, and see others as above us. (Our celebrity culture is one example of that.) Deikman describes how he used to give public lectures and feel a deep disappointment, no matter how well the lecture had gone. He eventually realized that he was preparing the lectures with images of authority figures from his early years as a professor in his mind. He wanted their approval, even though they were not at his talks.

Just as a mature parent welcomes a growing child into a more equal relationship, so a mature leader will encourage subordinates to grow in responsibility and authority. If this doesn’t take place, then the leader plays the role of omnipotent parent, and the subordinates remain in the position of children. Deikman says: The key issue is not the strength of the leader, but the development or suppression of autonomy.

The key issue is not the strength of the leader, but the development or suppression of autonomy.

Devaluation of outsiders

Since I’ve already done a fair bit of investigation into the causes and effects of devaluation of outsiders, it was no surprise to me that Deikman says it is probably the most common cult-like behaviour in wider society.

Every time we judge someone else as, “stupid,” “lazy,” “ignorant” or anything eles, we are devaluing them. As Deikman points out, we seldom inquire into our judgements to see how true they are, or consider their point of view. This is particularly easy to see in politics, when opponents often attack each other for the exact same thing. (It would be funny if it didn’t have such sad consequences.)

Deikman says that devaluation, “relies heavily on projection.” When we project, we see the “bad” thing as outside of ourselves – so young children say their hand hit their sibling and adults say that those who disagree with us are bad. In Scottish politics, this is colloquially known as “whataboutery.” When a politician is called out on his or her mistakes or failures, instead of admitting and apologising, he or she says, “What about Xyz? They did something far worse than me!” (XYZ is always a member of an opposing political party, who may have nothing to do with the issue in debate.)

Avoidance of dissent

In cults, dissent is suppressed. People dismiss their own doubts; leaders and other members accuse those who ask questions of disloyalty or of other failings.

Again, it’s not hard to see that avoidance of dissent has its roots in our childhood experiences. As we grow older, we might question our family’s beliefs, or learn to suppress doubts. For example, many children repeatedly hear that lying is wrong and that their parents would never do such a thing – and are then thrown into confusion on discovering that their parents have told them a huge lie about a fat man in a red suit. Their choice is to realise that parents do lie, or to make excuses and continue to believe that in all other areas they tell the truth.

As we grow into adults, we can open ourselves to new opinions or we can reinforce our beliefs by choosing newspapers, books and other media that back our views and by choosing “like-minded” friends. This sense of security that comes from avoiding dissent comes with a price. That price is our authenticity. Deikman writes about how the US media is heavily self-censored. For example, Fred Freed, a producer of NBC public affairs programs, upon reflecting that he had never had a program turned down for censorship reasons, also says, “I’m not sure I’ve ever asked to do one I knew management would not approve.”

Not all avoidance of dissent is voluntary of course, and Deikman writes about suppression of dissent in media, the corporate world and in politics.

I find it particularly interesting the way this plays out in politics – with the general public often seeing dissent among party members as a sign of a leader’s weakness. Instead, we should applaud it.

Deikman  writes about two incidents that took place during John F. Kennedy’s time as president – the first was the Bay of Pigs, when dissent was suppressed during planning, with disastrous results. The second was the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Kennedy organised his team to actively create independent critical thinking. The latter process meant disagreement and stress but the outcome was a success.

As Deikman points out, although few of us actually like being contradicted, we need it. It is one way to escape cult-like thinking, to move beyond “us and them.”

Another way is to go beyond dependence and see ourselves as equal to others – not beneath or above. We need to recognize our desire to devalue others as a defence against seeing in ourselves tendencies we find shameful.

We need to take responsibility for our own choices, not long for a “parent” to tell us what to do. This isn’t always easy to do, because as Deikman points out, our desire to be taken care of is mostly unconscious. Son way to create a more equal society would seem to be to become more aware of our own hidden beliefs and fears. My own experience is that the more I practice mindful awareness and the more I question my beliefs, the more I see that Deikman is right when he says, “We are one family. There is no Them. There is only Us.”

There is no Them. There is only Us.only us

My final thoughts: I found the opening chapters a little long – in them, Deikman writes about a case history of  couple who joined a cult and eventually left. Other than that, it is absorbing reading. Them and Us should be on reading lists for every course in politics.

Yvonne Spence’s e-novel Drawings In Sand is available on Amazon. Yvonne was the instigator of 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion, an initiative uniting bloggers and vloggers to come together monthly to write about compassion. On the 20th of each month, we hold a link up. To learn more, sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook Group or our Google+ community or find us on Twitter at @1000Speak

Disclosure: if you click the link to Deikman’s book and buy it from Amazon, I will receive a small



  1. This is very well written, researched, and presented. This is a topic that has always fascinated me and always wanted to learn more about it. I’ve never heard of this psychiatrist, but I think, this is a good topic to address. I have mentioned that I join this blogging movement because I’ve found it to be very authentic, but I think we all want to belong, to find somewhere to belong to. Group madness and pressure can take over, but I am most worried when there is one person any group of others start following. Will be sharing this.

    1. Author

      Thank you Kerry. This post took me time to write, so I’m glad you think it’s well written! There is so much of importance in the book that the hardest thing was deciding what to include in the post.
      Yes, I remember you said you had misgivings about joining the movement and I’m so pleased you find it authentic – authenticity really matters to me.
      I also agree with you regarding a group following on person, and having read “Them and Us,” I’ve felt pleased to see people expressing differences of opinion both in the group and in our admins discussions. It really matters.

  2. I found this fascinating. I don’t have anything intelligent or insightful to add, all I can say is thank you for making me think. x

  3. Yvonne: thanks for a great, thought provoking, post! There’s a bunch of fascinating literature out there on groupthink (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink) and similar perspectives such as Deikman’s work. I’ve always been curious about what drives people to behave in what are, to an outsider, peculiar ways. Looking forward to reading more about this from you!

    1. Author

      Anna, thanks for your comment and for the link to those additional resources. I’ll check them out.

  4. What an absorbing read, Yvonne. Thank you for putting such time and effort into this post. It certainly shows.

    The most salient part for me is the following:

    “As we grow into adults, we can open ourselves to new opinions or we can reinforce our beliefs by choosing newspapers, books and other media that back our views and by choosing “like-minded” friends. This sense of security that comes from avoiding dissent comes with a price. That price is our authenticity.”

    With blessings,

    1. Author

      Thanks Dani. If you enjoyed this, then I’m sure you’d enjoy the book too. It is fascinating.
      And, as for the part you highlighted – if I’d realised that as a young adult, how different my life might have been! (But it’s good to see it at any age.)

  5. I’ve bought the book! Enjoy your commission. Don’t send it al at once. Funny a friend recommended this while I was skiing last week (together with Master and his Emissary about the right and left sides of the brain). It interests me that a lot of the most enormous human inflicted catastrophes – Stalinism, Nazism, the genocide in Rwanda all of which follow the cultish pattern you describe, especially the suppression of dissent – have a secular base yet have all the characteristics of a quasi faith in the followers. And of course so much has been done in the name of religion, if not, when looked at on a large scale, by a religion. The tendency to want a home, a safe group resides within all f us at all levels. I worked in a large commercial law firm, one of the top four in the UK and hugely successful world wide. We merged on 2000 with an equally prestigious behemoth from Germany and were fantastically well placed to take on the legal world. Yet for four years, to make sure the ties of merger didn’t fray we didn’t challenge our German colleagues over the election of new partners and they didn’t challenge us – and each group felt the need to promote our own talent to partner to keep the number up, like this was evidence that we were contributing to the long term business success. Then one partner, in 2004, in Hong Kong challenged us – ruthlessly he showed how the number, the profit, was being distorted by this inability to challenge each other and within. We had partners, practice areas which weren’t preforming and we were papering over them. He did this in his own group to start with but by pulling away the screen we had erected he showed us where we were headed. Inside 18months we shrank ourselves by over 100 partners. We stopped behaving like a cult and went back to what we were good at; asking the bloody awkward questions. So when in 2008 the commercial legal world collapsed with everything else we were ready, leaner than out competitors and with a mind-set that was prepared to challenge the status quo. I tell this story as evidence that even in a hard nosed, very successful business the same cult themes exist. So if here, where questioning and challenging is ingrained why wouldn’t these behaviours exist elsewhere.
    I am so with you Yvonne – it is US not THEM

    1. Author

      Geoff, thanks so much for your comment (and for ordering the book! So funny that someone else also recommended it to you. )
      Your comment is a brilliant addition because Deikman wrote quite a lot about corporations and you confirm much of what he said. He definitely includes corporations among the entities that display cult like behaviour. I think you’ll find the book very interesting, it was hard to do it justice in a short post.

      Yes to your point about the quasi religious faith in the followers of Stalinism, Nazism etc. The worship of a leader, the reciting of mantras etc, are all things Deikman covers as ways to suppress dissent.
      It is kinda scary to think that we are all capable of getting drawn into this, and I find myself half-wanting people to disagree with me so I can get better at welcoming that!

  6. I think the thing which grabbed me most was the likening to Charlie Brown and yearning for the back seat of the car. That’s SO true, and a difficult comfort zone to exit.

  7. Pingback: Where do we go from here? | Yvonne Spence

  8. What a fascinating read. This review was well-researched and had me glued – I now need to read the book! As we face many recent attacks on human kind, this book and the review, can help us understand the line of thinking that motivates groups of people to commit heinous atrocities. It may even help us prevent future tragedies.

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