Freud’s Theory of Conformity & Other Science Fiction

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Freud’s Theory of Conformity & Other Science Fiction

Freud’s Theory of Conformity: A Critical Analysis


Conformity occurs when an individual acts in agreement or has matching thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are perceived as normal or correct according to the group that they belong. Conformity is a powerful force that can create positive or negative outcomes. When one looks at protests which are aimed at civil rights, conformity can be seen as a powerful force for change. Similarly, the January 6th insurrection can also be seen as an extremely negative outcome. The theories behind conformity are varied and one of the earliest explanations of conformity can be found in Sigmund Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. While Freud’s theory explaining conformity appears sound, especially when looking at modern political examples, such as Trump and his MAGA followers, other research in violence reflects that the complexity of group interaction cannot be derived from Freud's psychoanalytic perspective.

Crowd Behavior: Conformity from the Psychodynamic Approach

Sigmund Freud’s theory of crowd behavior focuses on the idea that conformity is a natural state of mind which is also the earliest form of thought. Freud tells his theory through a narrative in which a precivilized culture (primal horde) learns to conform when the sons of a father, who denies them access to women, kill and eat him. Feeling guilt for the act, they make animal totems to symbolize the patriarch to alleviate overcoming their guilt and gaining his power. Eventually, the totem becomes deified. 

Freud bases his thinking on the idea that earlier humans depended on group thinking and conformity to provide organization and focus for the group. This pre-civilized human would operate with conformity as the basis of most thinking in order to better the survival of the group. In this prehistoric era, the human super-ego becomes displaced in order to unlock the unconscious mind and allow the ID and EGO to be subordinate to the group or primal horde. Individuals who emerge as the leaders in this groupthink are referred to as the “horde-leader”. As such, the primal horde is inherent in all groups. According to Freud,

...the group appears to us as a revival of the primal horde. Just as primitive man virtually survives in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random crowd; in so far as men are habitually under the sway of group formation we recognise in it the survival of the primal horde. We must conclude that the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology, by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete.

Freud believes the primal horde explains how individuals who do not identify themselves with cruelty or violence can fall prey to these behaviors.

Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader? They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance. … It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable. If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic.

The primal horde seems to explain how individuals are capable of acts of violence and indecency despite not identifying with the thinking of the primal group or leader. For Freud, the primal horde is a compulsion of thinking which can only be resisted through active critical thinking. While this appears to be rational and explains group behavior, upon further examination this theory is not complete. A more robust theory of conformity can be found when examining prison violence.

Correlating Trump & MAGA with Freud

One way to understand the correlation between Trump and his MAGA followers is to use the psychoanalytic concept of identification. Identification is the process by which a person adopts the characteristics, values, or behaviors of another person or group, usually as a way of resolving an emotional conflict or satisfying a psychological need.

According to Freud, identification can occur in different ways, such as with the father, the mother, or the aggressor. In the case of the primal horde, the sons identified with the father after killing and eating him, as a way of overcoming their guilt and gaining his power. In the case of the MAGA movement, the followers may identify with Trump as a way of overcoming their feelings of insecurity, frustration, or resentment toward the social and political changes that they perceive as threatening their status or identity.

By identifying with Trump, the MAGA followers may seek to emulate his traits, such as his confidence, charisma, or defiance of norms and authorities. They may also adopt his beliefs, values, or goals, such as his nationalism, populism, or conservatism. They may also express their loyalty and devotion to him, by attending his rallies, wearing his merchandise, or defending him from criticism or opposition.

However, identification is not a stable or permanent state. It can change or dissolve depending on the circumstances or the outcomes of the person or group that one identifies with. For example, if Trump loses his influence, credibility, or popularity, his followers may lose their identification with him and seek another source of identification. Alternatively, they may strengthen their identification with him and become more radicalized or isolated from the mainstream society.

Conformity from the Situational Approach

Prisons are violent places for both staff and inmates and a cursory view of this violence would seem to justify Freud’s primal horde theory. However, the causes of prison violence seem to reflect a more complex psychosocial factor. While Freud’s theory explains how inmates may fall prey to the primal horde it does not explain why guards and prison staff also experience increased violent behavior.

In 1971, researchers conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in order to determine whether violence and anti-social behaviors result from a minority of prisoners (horde leaders) acting-out, or if the violence was the cause of the prison environment. The Stanford Prison Experiment was intended to show if the prison environment could corrupt normal or well-adjusted people. The participants were students who were chosen based on their backgrounds and personalities which needed to be normal and healthy. During the experiment, participants were divided into two groups; prisoners and guards. The prisoners were housed in a mock prison in the Stanford University Psychology Department and the guards were instructed to maintain the order of the prisoners without the use of physical force. Within the first few days of the experiment, the prisoners began to revolt against the guards. The guards began using every means possible to control the prisoners which were described as “brutal, dehumanizing and sadistic”. Due to increasingly violent behavior, the experiment was ended after six days.

What this experiment proved was that despite guards and prisoners having different attitudes and values, both groups were made prone to violence by situational influences of a prison environment. This experiment explains why nonviolent offenders enter the prison and become violent due to the situation, but more importantly, it explains how prison staff becomes prone to violence. This would seem to challenge Freud’s primal horde theory because the two groups are not being led by a horde leader but instead are being affected by the environment itself.

However, the Stanford Prison Experiment is not without its flaws. Some of the ethical issues that have been raised include the lack of informed consent, the deception of the participants, the psychological harm inflicted on the participants, and the lack of debriefing and follow-up. Moreover, the experiment had a small sample size of 24 participants, which limits its generalizability to real prisons. Furthermore, the experiment was conducted in a specific historical and cultural context, which may not reflect the current conditions and dynamics of prisons.

Conformity from the Social Approach

Further investigation of conformity which seems to contradict Freud’s view can be found in the Milgram Experiment. Stanley Milgram’s experiment was designed to test the theory that German soldiers performing horrific acts were the result of following orders issued by a superior. Milgram sought to shed light on whether humans would adhere to obeying an authority figure or follow their personal conscience. The experiment was designed in a manner in which participants were instructed to electrocute a person when the person did not answer a question correctly. The majority of people followed the instructions without question. This experiment demonstrated that people are highly likely to follow orders given by an authority figure; even to the point of administering extreme pain. While one might think that this experiment justifies the horde theory, it is actually counter to it.

The individual participants in the Milgram experiment were not part of a group but were merely the receivers of instructions from an authority figure. This is not a person relinquishing their moral mind to a primal horde, but instead a social function in which a person believes that he or she must obey authority. The Milgram experiment shows that social norms and mores can provide sufficient strength for an individual to commit violence and antisocial behavior when he or she believes it is justified.

However, the Milgram experiment also has some limitations and criticisms. Some of the ethical issues that have been raised include the deception of the participants, the psychological stress and distress caused by the experiment, and the lack of debriefing and follow-up. Moreover, the experiment had a predominantly male sample, which may not reflect the gender differences in obedience and conformity. Furthermore, the experiment was conducted in a specific historical and cultural context, which may not reflect the current attitudes and values of people.

Why Freud is Science Fiction & Implications

Sigmund Freud’s theories have been influential in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis for over a century. However, they have also faced significant criticism from various quarters, but the general consensus amongst critics is Freud’s theories are outdated, lack empirical support, and often reflect his personal biases.

Lack of Empirical Evidence

One of the main criticisms of Freud’s work is the lack of empirical evidence supporting his concepts. Freud’s theories were largely based on case studies and introspection, which do not meet the rigorous scientific standards required for psychological theories today. Many of Freud’s ideas, such as the Oedipus complex, the structure of the unconscious, and conformity, are difficult to test and measure, making them unverifiable by modern research methods. Freud's view of conformity glares with this criticism since Freud relied exclusively on introspection and his own theories of cognitive nature with a loose connection to Darwin's Theory of Primal Horde.

Methodological Flaws

Freud’s methodologies, such as dream analysis and free association, have been criticized for their subjectivity but conformity is perhaps the worst culprit. Freud's methods were prone to interpretation bias when dealing with a patient’s experiences, but with conformity, Freud writes a fictional narrative to support his claims. This subjectivity undermines the reliability and validity of Freud’s findings.

Biased Views on Women & Sexuality

Freud has been criticized for his views on women and sexuality, which many consider sexist and based on limited understanding. Concepts like “penis envy” and his perspectives on female development have been particularly controversial, with critics arguing that they reflect Freud’s own cultural and personal biases rather than objective analysis. With regard to conformity, Freud never considers gender differences that might alter the manner in which one conforms. Most importantly, he bases his conformity theory on his theories about sexuality and the way this force guides individuals thus creating two layers of biased research.

The Danger of Fictionalizing Behavior

There are many more criticisms of Freud's views on conformity but the important point concerning conformity is that Freud's views are not scientific, i.e., not replicable or falsifiable. Freud analyzed many observations and made interesting insights into human behavior, and for this act he is remembered, but his theories are less than compelling since there is no way to substantiate them, in some cases. In others, like conformity, they have been proven wrong. Freud is not without his supporters today and the evolution of psychoanalysis would seem to show his theories have merit but this can be an illusion. Most notably, in relation to conformity because when we look at former President Trump and his MAGA followers, Freud appears correct but one must consider the other research into the corrupting nature of violence and how blindly following authority. Freud is the superficial easier answer couched in a fictional metaphor that when scrutinized even a little, the theory fails.

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