Cognitive Dissonance Reduction A Possible Explanation for LC and RC Perseverance? Even After Founder’s Exposure as Fraud

By ReGAIN Staff


Since 2009, many family members of Legion and Regnum Christi consecrated members have been frustrated, wondering what it would take for their loved ones to wake up and smell the coffee (as Ann Landers used to say). From an outside perspective, there has been blatant fraud, deceit and inconsistencies, yet by far the majority of members have proven their loyalty? by choosing to remain faithful? to the group.

Recent studies and articles about Cognitive Dissonance provide helpful information to explain how high demand groups are able to retain intelligent and well educated members regardless of bad news about the group or its leaders.

Michael Shermer, a monthly columnist in Scientific American, has written an article Click Here that explains how people have an innate ability to avoid cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.

When people feel distressed because they are in a situation where there is an obvious incongruity between their actions and beliefs and what they are experiencing around them, they engage in a process termed dissonance reduction.

In his article, Michael Shermer uses an analogy to explain how a typical brain is arranged in what he refers to as logic-tight compartments, which he compares to water-tight compartments on a ship. He goes on to say that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality.

The author further explains that our logic-tight compartments are influenced by our moral emotions, which lead us to bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning. The brain module housing our religious preferences, for example, motivates believers to seek and find facts that support what they wish to believe. He recommends some effective strategies for breaking down the walls separating the logic-tight compartments adding that Debunking by itself is not enough. We must replace bad bunk with sound science.

We might suggest here that Father Maciel’s communities continue to remain mostly isolated from most outside influences. Until the statutes and norms established by the founder have been revised, the majority of them remain in effect.

Critical thinking inside high demand groups is nearly always severely compromised and one characteristic typical of such groups is a black and white thinking mentality. In the case of the Legion and Regnum Christi consecrated life, the black and white thinking is reinforced by the illusion that everything to do with their methodology has been approved by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Pope. The leaders are able to reassure their members that even though there is some apparent confusion, it is best to follow the leadership of the Catholic Church and the Pope. Father Maciel created a false belief that members of his groups were safe because everything had absolute Church approval. The current Legionary leaders are able to continue this illusion because everyone is aware that they now have their own private cardinal in the picture ensuring that everything is harmonious with the Church and overseeing a reform process to correct any problem areas.

The International Cultic Studies Association has a wealth of information and resources. Kaynor J Weishaupt, M.S., M.F.C.C and Michael D. Stensland have co-authored an excellent article Click Here
regarding the Jehovah Witnesses that includes discussion regarding cognitive dissonance.

Following is an excerpt from this article that further explains how cult members resolve cognitive dissonance by having their reality defined according to their group’s ideals.

Psychological Issues

Locus of Control and Cognitive Dissonance
Psychological literature refers to an individual’s source of motivation as the locus of control. Locus of control is viewed as either internal–that is, stemming from inside the self–or as external, where control is attributed to sources outside the self, such as another person, group, or adopted philosophy. Studies have shown that people with an internal locus of control tend to fare better psychologically then those whose locus of control is external (Pearce & Martin, 1993; Thompson et al., 1993). Having an internal locus of control has been found to correlate significantly with feelings of happiness and self-esteem (Kopp & Ruzicka, 1993). People with an external locus of control tend to have difficulty accepting responsibility for their lives and tend to blame forces outside themselves for difficulties when they arise (Wang & Anderson, 1994).
Those involved in high-control groups have their reality defined by the group’s ideals–that is, their locus of control is external. Winell (1993), in a discussion of fundamentalist family structure, states:

Doctrinal rules are applied and fear of punishment is used for control. By adopting such a simple formula, a family can be robbed of the enormously constructive process of consciously developing family values and mores. As a result, children often fail to learn about personal responsibility or how to make complex choices. (p. 119)

The group dictates what is acceptable behavior, what and who is good and bad, and so on. Ambivalence, uncertainty, moral struggles, and conflicting feelings are tidily resolved by the group’s dictates. For the practiced member, such feelings are repressed before even being raised to consciousness.

In high-control groups such as WTS, doubt and ambivalence are seen as moral weakness.? Should doubt arise, members are exhorted to “work harderâ€� and “have more faith.â€� In many cases, the group defines how one should even feel. Certain feelings and thoughts are defined as bad, while others are seen as good. The world is perceived in black and white. Tobias and Lalich (1994) write, Cults create a world in which all the answers are known–and the cult supposedly has them. This type of thinking also serves a protective function, saving members from the anxiety of thinking for themselves? (p. 100). The individual in a high-control group does not have to struggle to develop her own beliefs and perceptions because they are defined, interpreted, and predicated by the group. Right and wrong are known, not discovered. In fact, The Watchtower plainly states that Adam and Eve lost Paradise because they wanted to make their own decisions about right and wrong? (Shepherds and Sheep, 1994, p. 16).

Friesema (1995) writes:

One of the most destructive processes within fundamentalism is, paradoxically, one of the sources of its greatest appeal: The dogmatic certainty, the good/evil, right/wrong view of the world that reduces true understanding to judgmentalism, also provides an unambiguous sense of direction and righteousness?. The promise of redemption and future salvation becomes like the alcoholic fix which mollifies fears, perplexing emotions, and unpleasant realities. (pp. 29B30)

In a high-control group, truth is presented as indisputable, solid, and reassuring fact. Questioning or deciding for oneself about right or wrong is viewed as a potentially fatal sin or as being under the influence of the devil. The danger of this certainty of experience occurs when a member cannot successfully dismiss doubt and ambivalence, or cannot repress unseemly emotional experiences such as envy, lust, and so forth. Cognitive dissonance is then experienced. Cognitive dissonance can be defined as a sense of unease or disharmony which occurs when feelings or reality fail to match one’s beliefs or opinions (Festinger, 1957). Festinger states that

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance? when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance. (p. 3)

Therefore, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that once one has invested time and energy into a course of action, inconsistencies will be ignored because the advantages of continuing on course will tend to outweigh the uncertainty of changing. Festinger found that once a decision is made in a given direction, confidence that the decision is correct tends to increase, regardless of evidence to the contrary. As Friesema (1995) writes:

Either the doubt is kept hidden and an aspect of the self is split off; or there is fervent prayer and soul-searching to remove the doubt?the doubt or discontent is not seen as having validity, but as a blotch or irritant to be removed? fundamentalists do not consider perspectives that may threaten the status quo, but rather turn the dissenting voice back onto the dissenter with the injunction that he or she is weak in the faith. The doubt then becomes self doubt, and trust in one’s own perceptions is undermined. (p. 30)

A woman with an internal locus of control defines and interprets her experience by a set of internal judgments, comparison of prior to current experiences, and a singular set of moral values that has been refined and constructed over trial and error. The internally defined person will periodically experience cognitive dissonance and ambivalence because feelings and judgments are constantly being refined and adapted through experience. When conflict is successfully resolved for the internally defined person, personal growth and a higher level of functioning are achieved. When conflict and cognitive dissonance are not adequately resolved, the internally defined person may experience substantial psychological symptoms. He or she may then be tempted to turn to an external structuring system such as a high-control group to help quell uncertainty and provide a sense of direction.

ReGAIN Comment
Some readers may question why we would refer to an article about the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) on a website that is focused on a Roman Catholic religious order and movement. We wish to remind everyone that ReGAIN rarely has any criticism relating to the theology of the Legion or Regnum Christi; it is always the structure andmethodology of these groups that we find to be comparable to other high demand groups.

For example, one of the co-authors of the article about the Watch Tower Society defines a high-control group by the following characteristics (most of which sound familiar to those familiar with Father Marcial Maciel’s groups).

    1. Members experience negative consequences for nonconformist behavior or attitudes (such as questioning doctrine or disagreeing with the party line).
    2. Information is controlled, especially if critical of the group.
    3. Leadership is absolute and not bound by checks and balances.
    4. Individual behavior is excessively limited by rules and regulations (legalism).
    5. Outsiders are generally viewed as dangerous or evil, and associations with outsiders are primarily in order to convert them.
    6. Members are required to give up their own interests or make sacrifices in favor of group activities.
    7. Members leaving the group are punished or shunned.

The fear of punishment varies in different high demand groups. Father Maciel established ways of making his followers totally dependent on their groups and having an irrational fear of leaving because they would be in danger of losing their salvation. Once a person is convinced that his or her eternal salvation depends on remaining with the group and that the group is faithful to the Pope and the Catholic Church it becomes relatively easy to block out any suggestion of leaving. Alternative paths to salvation and to a happy life are easily discounted no matter how reasonable they might sound.

At ReGAIN, we are aware that within the Legion and Regnum Christi, there has been extensive bending and distorting of data and evidence resulting from motivated reasoning to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

We invite our readers to think, analyze, doubt, and discuss what we have written above with the firm conviction that only good can come from honest questioning. St. Thomas Aquinas never advocated blind faith which fears the critical mind. He defined theology as Fides quaerens intellectum, a faith constantly being challenged by reason. Jesus chose not to avoid the doubt and questioning of Gethsemane in order to reach his calling. He teaches us that The Truth will set you free.? But many of us are prevented by FEAR. We prefer the safety of our infantile unquestioning faith. Courage and maturity invite us to enter along the path of questioning, uncertainty, and the discomfort of cognitive dissonance? in order to find and encounter our destiny, The Truth.

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