psychology and politics

Psychological Dimensions of Peacemaking

This article on the psychological dimensions of peacemaking by Ivan Tyrrell, co-founder of The Conciliators Guild, is appearing in the fall issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy. Many of the ideas behind our initiative are contained in this work.



As with making peace between children, couples and neighbours, the essence of achieving satisfactory outcomes always comes down to mutual needs satisfaction. But this, of course, presupposes an understanding of innate human needs, what we call ‘human givens’ (because physical and emotional needs are planted in us at the moment of conception).  

It is because innate emotional needs are little understood by politicians, diplomats and the general public that they are often unmet in the environment. That causes havoc as these needs play out in misdirected and chaotic ways, including politically. Although many dynamics are involved in domestic and international relations there is now an urgent need to focus on this missing piece of the equation. This is because when leaders decide on policies and enact decisions that prevent basic human needs from being met, or inhibit us from using our innate resources to the full, anxiety rises in the population and disenchantment and conflict automatically result. In peacemaking, ignorance of this factor means negotiations and peace talks will not be rooted in solid foundations, and will be less likely to succeed.  

This article will look at i) a new paradigm of understanding human needs as a foundation for moving forward ii) an assessment of how we learn and how that affects our progress, and iii) the crucial role of cults in politics and otherwise, a group behaviour pattern whereby human needs are hijacked often for ill purpose.

Human Givens

The human givens approach to helping people suffering mental and emotional torment grew out of my work with the Irish psychologist, Joe Griffin. We were puzzled and alarmed at the large number of schools of psychotherapy and counselling that attempted to alleviate such torment, many of which were cult-like and some actually harmed people (by, for example, creating false memories in their clients, or taking away volition from them by keeping them ‘in therapy’ for a long time). Other disciplines – physics, chemistry, biology, geography etc. – didn’t operate hundreds of different models in this way and we resolved to do something about it.

We made real progress when we realised that therapy always works best when it comes, not from an ideological or theoretical standpoint, but from a profound understanding of what it is to be a human being.

We began by stepping aside from theoretical models and exploring the most fundamental law of nature, the one that states that, to survive, every living thing must search its environment for the nutriment it needs in order to continually rebuild and maintain itself. This instinctive knowledge marks out the difference between all life forms and inanimate objects.

This drive to seek appropriate nourishment from the environment results, when we find it, in a fulfilling pattern-match as each need is satisfied. We called the understanding we developed the ‘human givens approach’. This same idea is an essential dimension of peacemaking at any level: unsatisfied needs (volition, meaning, connection with a community, status) can play out in very negative ways politically, for example through extremist ideologies that claim to meet those needs but that do so destructively, or they can block successful mediation because the sides’ most basic needs remain unsatisfied.

Of course physical needs take priority because if they are not met we quickly die. They are easy to appreciate: air, food, water, shelter, etc. We have all felt the fear of suffocation, the emotion of hunger or thirst, or a strong desire for shelter from the elements.

When we put our minds to it even the common diseases that ruin the lives of millions can be alleviated fairly easily by committing sufficient material and educational resources to satisfying physical needs.

Innate human emotional needs

Our emotional needs are as critical to healthy development and our wellbeing as our physical needs. Their manifestation is infinitely malleable depending on the genetic predisposition, culture and life experiences of each individual. Critically, it is impossible to suffer mental illness when our emotional needs are met reasonably well in a balanced way. When ordinary life is fulfilling, we are not distressed or looking for ways to destroy our enemies. Life is just far too engaging. But when our needs are not met, we quickly become anxious, angry or depressed, and this has large implications for politics and peacemaking. We might become violent or develop addictive behaviours to compensate. If these emotional symptoms last for a long time, they will have a detrimental effect on a person’s physical health and raise stress levels in those around them. And all these common conditions are precursors to even more serious disturbances like schizophrenia.

We list our emotional needs as follows:

Security: Feeling safe enough to keep anxiety levels down so we can think clearly and respond intelligently to events while not becoming too risk averse (and thus preventing progress).

Status: This is connected to the previous need because to be valued by others and receive a degree of respect from family members, friends, colleagues, peer groups and the wider world means that one would be unlikely to be cast out of the community. In the distant past such rejection would have meant certain death. (Early humans only survived because they banded together in groups to scare off predators. As isolates they were easy prey.)

Attention: Best seen as a form of nutrition (both too much and too little is bad for us). Mature people have learnt how to exchange attention – to give and receive it well. It is through balanced exchanges of sincere attention that an individual learns and families and cultures evolve.

Volition: Control over decisions that affect our life is felt as a need too, which is why imprisonment is such terrible punishment. Along with control there must develop the flexibility to realise that we that can’t control everything and need to adapt to unanticipated changing circumstances.

Emotional connection: We satisfy this through friendship, loving relationships and physical intimacy.

Community connection: We are a social animal and need to belong to groups in which we are valued. We know this is true because being rejected from any group is deeply painful.

Privacy: Access to a certain amount of space and time so we can reflect on and consolidate life experiences and ponder on possibilities is essential for human development.

Achievement: Our minds and bodies evolved to be used and are only at their healthiest when they are. We need problems to solve. (Becoming competent in something that requires effort is the antidote to low self-esteem.) And when we stretch ourselves to gain new knowledge and skills we are expanding our model of reality and improving our ability to think contextually.

Meaning and purpose: To feel life is meaningful makes suffering tolerable. We find meaning by being stretched mentally and physically in one or more of three ways: by being needed ourselves and serving others (as in raising a family, working in a team, running a business etc.); by learning new mental or physical skills (as in travelling, exploration, learning a language, academic study, obtaining a profession, sport, craft, music, etc.); by being connected in some way to ideas that are bigger than ourselves (as in committing to a political ideology, engaging in a philosophical quest for truth, following a religious practice or pursuing a spiritual path).

Innate resources

Along with physical and emotional needs, nature gave us guidance systems to help us meet them. We call these ‘resources’ and they evolved to help us meet our needs. They include:

Memory: The ability to develop complex long-term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn.

Develop rapport: Mirror neurons help us to empathise and build rapport, develop a ‘theory of mind’ and live and work in teams.

Imagination: This enables us to solve problems, focus our attention away from our emotions and use language more creatively and objectively. It was when we evolved to consciously choose to access imagination at will that human evolution speeded up.

Emotions and instincts: These evolved to protect and guide us and provide the impetus for action. But, because they narrow down our options, they can also misguide us.

Reason: A conscious, rational mind that can check out our emotions, question, analyse and plan.

Metaphorical pattern-matching: The ability to ‘know’ – that is, to understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern-matching. We learn through metaphor.

An observing self: This is that part of us that can step back, be more objective and know our self as a unique centre of awareness separate from intellect, emotion and conditioning.

Dreaming: Our brain when dreaming every night preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance by metaphorically defusing the expectations held in the autonomic arousal system that were not acted out the previous day.

It is these innate needs and resources together that make up the human givens. Over enormous stretches of time, they underwent continuous refinement as they drove our evolution on. They are best thought of as inbuilt biological templates – patterns that continually interact with one another (in undamaged people) and seek their natural fulfilment in the world. They make it possible for us to survive and flourish and live together as many-faceted individuals in a great variety of different social groupings, and continue to evolve.

Can humanity be stabilised?

Stabilising humanity by reducing conflict through working to get needs met should not be beyond the whit of humankind. Every policy idea should be considered from the perspective of whether or not enacting it would sabotage  anyone’s ability to meet their essential life needs. If society was genuinely run along human givens principles, so that people were properly fulfilled in their family life, schools and at work, we would find humanitarianism breaking out at all levels of society. Rates of mental illnesses would decline. More people would stretch themselves in healthier ways and become more insightful, recognising the need to curb greed and control their emotions. This in turn would stimulate an instinct to fulfil a yet more refined inner need, one that also finds its completion in the environment, the non-selfish, ‘connecting up to reality’ process often described today as ‘spiritual development’.

Instead, all too often, organisations frustrate this. Consider just one need, control, and how government ignores the stress levels they generate in their employees and citizens by not letting them have sufficient control over how they work or to work in jobs that do not stretch them sufficiently. Many teachers, GPs, nurses, social workers and policemen feel they have little volition over their working practices but are made totally responsible when mistakes are made or things don’t work out. This is unfair and unreasonable but common.

If policies and practices were based around helping people get their needs met, rather than on unsound grandiose schemes dreamt up by committees or demagogues with no clear connection to the circumstances or knowledge of what people actually require, then more conflicts could be avoided and we might progress. This would be the proper recipe for conflict prevention, and the basis for successful peacemaking.

The three ways that prevent emotional needs from being met

After observing for many years that our approach was highly effective in psychotherapy Joe Griffin and I could delineate the three main reasons that prevent people from getting their emotional needs met. Any one of these is sufficient to generate unhealthy levels of stress in an individual, which, if maintained, poses the real danger that anxiety or anger disorders will develop, depression set in, psychotic symptoms appear or addictive behaviours take hold.

Any one of the following, or a combination of them, is sufficient to create considerable distress.

1. The environment is ‘sick’ and prevents them from fulfilling themselves. They might be living in an aggressive, violent or abusive home or neighbourhood, or they may be suffering bullying or humiliation or are not being sufficiently stretched at school or by the work being done. A country at war is sick in this sense.

2. The person doesn’t know how to operate their internal guidance system so as to get their needs met. They may not have been properly nurtured and socialised when young for example, or they may have been conditioned by their parents or school to have low expectations of themselves and so have developed learned helplessness, negativity and blindness to opportunities life presents them with, or they may have unrealistically high expectations.

3. The innate guidance system is damaged: perhaps through faulty transmission of genetic knowledge (as in autism and Asperger’s), poor diet, poisoning, accident causing brain damage, sub-threshold trauma, or deep psychological trauma: post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The first factor is critical politically: Environments that don’t nurture needs satisfaction, or manipulate needs towards ill ends, generate conflict and violence.

Innate motivation

Since it is now widely accepted that we are confronting global problems of such a magnitude that civilised life could soon become untenable. Almost all writers and pundits agree that, without significant changes in the values that we hold and the way that we organise our societies, disaster looms. Selfishness, lack of empathy for strangers, conflict, warfare, consumerism and the piling up of massive financial debts in exchange for short-term advantages are the powerful forces fuelling the various crises we face. They are the leitmotif running through almost all modern commentaries analysing the situation. Traditional peacemaking cannot keep pace in this context.

Our effort to improve psychotherapy practice gave us glimpses of what Nature requires of our species for further evolutionary development. In this age of tumultuous change, an understanding of this requirement is of increasing urgency. As Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet, said, “Things which have to be tackled have to be done at the right time. That time is generally soon.”

Without doubt, a more powerful and inspiring motivation than greed has to take hold for the human species to find the will it needs to make the effort to save itself. For this to happen however, an enthusiasm has to spread in the human race for learning how to learn about the innate needs that motivate us. Teaching the human givens approach could hearten and enthuse enough people to develop a greater capacity for cooperation and service at a level beyond the one that political and religious ideologies have achieved to date.

This also requires greater knowledge about humility, how it is not a virtue but a necessity if we are to learn, a prerequisite for real progress and that requires we check our own assumptions, including in the fields of politics and peacemaking.

How we learn

This is what learning consists of: attention is focused by any means and expands existing patterns in the brain allowing more scope for richer pattern-matching to occur. Focusing attention on a new stimulus enlarges our pupils and increases blood flow to the brain. This process starts from the moment we are born.

An important mechanism underlying this process is the orientation response, the neuronal pathway from the brainstem to the thalamus which, when activated, prepares the brain to receive information from each incoming stimulus by triggering off the REM state, the state in which our basic instincts were originally laid down.

Since attention has to be focused in order for new learning patterns to be made it means that our emotions must be aroused by the fight or flight mechanism being triggered, or being rewarded or punished for our curiosity or feelings of desire or love. Our emotions activate our orientation response and focuses and locks the brain’s attention mechanism on the stimulus long enough for programming to take place. This is how we learn, develop realationships and also how we are conditioned by whatever culture we are born in. Because that process occurs via the REM state it is the common denominator of all conditioning variables, and therefore all learning, which is why we say all learning is post-hypnotic.

Reward or punishment or fight or flight intensify the focus of attention by firing the orientation response (the brain mechanism that focuses attention) and release the required attention energy. Indeed, the underlying mechanism of all reward is attention, whether taking hard drugs or alcohol, eating an enjoyable meal, falling in love or engaging a political debate. In any intensification of experience, pleasurable or otherwise, the underlying mechanism is the process of focusing and locking attention. This is what intensifies consciousness – for good or bad, pleasure or pain – and conditions in new learning, useful or otherwise.

Attention requires energy however. We all know from our own everyday experience that we have a limited amount of attention energy. At the end of an exhausting day, for example, we all find it difficult to concentrate: we just want to relax, chill out and recharge our batteries.

Curiously, evidence supporting the idea that we have a limited amount of attention energy comes from research into the connection between dreaming and depression. It was found that when the orientation response (technically called a PGO, or ponto geniculo-occipital, spike) fires off too intensively and for longer than normal periods while we dream, the balance between recuperative slow-wave sleep and energy-burning REM sleep in which dreaming takes place, is disturbed. That’s why depressed people wake up tired, unable to focus and lacking the motivation to do anything. Excessive worrying about one or more innate emotional need not being met causes this depressed state. Worrying generates a large number of stimulations of the autonomic arousal system. When no action is taken to solve the difficulties and getting these needs met somehow – which would de-arouse the autonomic nervous system – excessive dreaming is the result. This misuse of imagination is why humans are so vulnerable to depression. Worrying depletes our store of attention energy. It’s a question of balance: we become de-aroused if we take appropriate action in the environment, and remain aroused if we misuse our imagination by focusing on negative fantasies and worries.

It is our capacity to give attention that enables us to focus on the world around us and learn. But, we can be conditioned with inappropriate patterns that, when they fire off, create unhelpful neurotic responses that prevent us from learning. This occurs regularly in politics as political speeches, debates on social media and our tribal instincts carry our attention in one direction or another without the engagement of our full volition and critical mind.

Learning versus indoctrination

Hypnosis is the word used to describe any artificial means of getting people to enter the REM state trance. A trance is simply a focussed state of attention therefore anyone can be hypnotised providing they can focus attention. (Even animals can be hypnotised.) The easiest ways to hypnotise people is to emotionally arouse or fascinate them. It follows that a hypnotic trance can be generated in thousands of ways. The problem that arises for us is that when in a trance human beings highly suggestible.

The trance state is our natural learning state: how we learn and absorb new information.  In order to take on board new information we have to suspend our critical faculties for a bit and open up the REM programming pathway in the brain in order to add new information and insights into our internal model of reality. While all learning is post-hypnotic, it happens at varying degrees of intensity. Why does this matter in politics?

One form of learning is brainwashing, also known as mind control or thought reform, a process in which a group or individual systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated. We see political leaders doing this all the time.

The difference between brainwashing and genuine learning is stark. In normal learning, the individual is given the opportunity to, at various points in the process, reset the learning in the larger context of their already acquired model of reality in order to evaluate it. In brainwashing, information is implanted by a learning process that requires the victims to be kept in a highly emotional state with no possibility allowed for relating the new knowledge to a bigger context. (Strong emotions narrow our focus of attention, inhibiting critical thought.) Cult members are not given time to question what they are being encouraged to absorb. Objectivity is discouraged. This type of learning is therefore not subject to further modification because the victim’s volition is taken away, even though they don’t realise it.

This is why brainwashed people, however intelligent they are, are difficult to reason with when their beliefs are put under scrutiny. Whenever the pattern of doctrine is summoned up in them, they automatically regress into the trance state that charismatics put them in and behave as they were instructed to do, which usually involves dogmatically expressing the beliefs they were programmed with, a common problem is our polarized politics today.

The eyes have it

When you closely observe someone enthusiastically evangelising about whatever he or she was programmed with, you can see that they are quite unaware that they have regressed to an unnatural trance state. Their pupils contract to the size of pinpricks, a strong visual indication that they have been brainwashed rather than that they are espousing real knowledge that they have subjected to evaluation. This indicates that their attention is focused internally on the indoctrination messages that were hypnotically planted in them, not focused outwards on you and the wider world. In this state they have no self-awareness. They are not in touch with outside reality or their own Observing Self, one of our capacities outlined above.

The term ‘brainwashing’ was coined in 1950, but knowledge about how to brainwash arose around the world through primitive tribal initiation rites that are thousands of years old. Originally the objective was to bind people together in whatever belief system the tribe adhered to. Conditioning techniques were developed to ensure group members were submissive to tribal rules and obeyed the chiefs and elders. The process always involved: raising expectancy; a period of withdrawal from the community; generating high emotional arousal for long periods (often maintained by noise such as continual drumming, chanting or dancing); frightening or dangerous endurance tests; humiliation through harangues and threats; symbolic death and resurrection; and maybe a renaming ceremony. Post-hypnotic instructions for awakening the conditioned behaviour at a later date would be given in the form of signals, rituals or phrases.

There are highly profitable cults and ‘self-development’ courses using these techniques around the world. They succeed and become popular because they artificially manipulate people in a highly charged emotional atmosphere to feel better about themselves. They remove people’s volition while claiming they are freeing them.

Even some of the most good-willed individuals come to the negotiating table programmed to a considerable extent by their culture, ideology, or experiences in war and conflict.

If our attention capacity and its importance, and how it is manipulated, was appreciated more by educationalists and others and this knowledge taught to diplomats, mediators, students, managers, and health workers – including how, like other forms of energy, it must be nurtured and used wisely – the human race might become more flexible, intelligent and creative in the ways we respond to other people and react to stress-inducing circumstances. This is the kind of flexibility that is essential to successful peacemaking.

Hypnosis, tribal thinking and conflict

Politics and negotiations are not only about individuals, they also affected by group behaviour. Nations, political parties and ideologies are basic factors in politics, and they are often prone to cult behaviour.

Cults are commonly thought of as religious or utopian groups with a charismatic leader. Some undeniably do much damage, causing anything from the breaking up of families to horrific acts of war, ritual murder, mass suicide and terrorism. But cults also come on a continuum from the mild in effect to the extreme. Although the more flagrant groups might require members to conduct themselves in obviously bizarre ways, wear strange clothes and talk in a ‘culty’ way, most cult behaviour is only a slightly more exaggerated form of the normal cultural conventions that we are steeped in from childhood and throughout our lives: peer group pressure to conform, for example.

The author of The Observing Self, the US psychiatrist and academic Arthur Deikman, studied cult formation and pointed out that people who are not a member of one generally regard them as dangerous but rare. But he found that the patterns of cult behaviour are more widespread than generally thought. Cults form in human communities as readily as water freezes when the temperature drops below a certain point. This is because the desires that bring people to join one – including the need to feel secure and protected – are universal human longings. “Cults form and thrive,” says Deikman, “not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home. The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling cult leaders to elicit behaviour directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group.”

The four factors that are characteristic of cult phenomena are: obedience to a charismatic authority figure; avoidance of dissent; diminished realism and devaluation of outsiders. The difficulty that arises is that to do anything worthwhile as a group also requires a similar structure: a degree of compliance with a group; some direction (leadership); minimal dissent so progress can happen; and an evaluation of less effective methodologies to achieve an agreed goal. In other words, groups are necessary but vulnerable to becoming cult-like.

With a better understanding of the psychology behind group behaviour and what motivates people, we can grasp more of what’s going on in the world. Conflicts always occur when one cult clashes with another. When nations or ideologically drive political movements partake of cult behaviour, especially the devaluation of outsiders, the risk of violence and conflict is dramatically increased.  

A ubiquitous longing

The innate need for meaning and purpose in the face of knowing we are going to die creates a longing in ourselves to connect up to something greater. Cults wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this ubiquitous yearning for the possibility of connecting up to a higher level of being. However, fool’s gold only exists because pure gold exists. The problem is that all those chasing fool’s gold don’t know that there is far more fool’s gold about than the pure substance. We are easily led astray.

Another problem is that most human groups display some of the characteristics of cults. The question then arises of how to discriminate true gold from false, how to separate the container from the content, the information from the packaging. This is easier said than done, because we all tend to perceive only what makes sense to our existing patterns, and this makes us vulnerable to the blandishments of dubious opinion formers, cult teachers, political rabble-rousers or charismatic tyrannical leaders.

When the form a cult takes matches our expectation of what a group that offers to satisfy our need for meaning looks like, then those unaware that the content may be markedly different from what is promised can easily pattern-match to what the cult offers, and get drawn in. And, if a cult has large numbers of followers and appears popular, this only serves to confirm to such people that, “it must have something of value in it”. Critical reasoning is then abandoned in the excitement of belonging; the ‘love-bombing’, the certainties and the emotional arousal involved. But emotional arousal destroys contextual thinking, in effect making us temporarily stupid and preventing critical reasoning. Mediators or the parties involved in peacemaking who suffer from this state of mind will have great difficulty achieving constructive results.

A bad trade

Cults come on a continuum from the mild in effect to the extreme. Although the more flagrant groups might require members to conduct themselves in obviously bizarre ways, wear strange clothes, be cruelly brutal to outsiders and talk in a ‘culty’ way, most cult behaviour is only a slightly more exaggerated form of the normal cultural conventions that we are steeped in from childhood and throughout our lives: peer group pressure to conform, for example.

What the participants don’t see is that they are really involved in a form of trading when they join a cult. The deal is that, in return for work or money, adherence to its beliefs and a willingness to recruit new members, the cult will satisfy some of your innate needs by giving you attention; a structure; a community; a sense of being special and having meaning in your life. It cons you into thinking that the warm feelings you get from all this are sufficient to trigger spiritual development. This is a poor trade because it can’t deliver.

Once a new member is sucked into a cult it has a number of ways to take away their volition and bind them to it using techniques that have been in use for thousands of years. These invariably involve destabilising each individual and negating their own sense of self by insisting they don’t understand their own past. The leaders will imply, or directly state, that only they know what is good for their followers, even to the extent of controlling what they can eat and drink, what they should value, how long they can sleep for and, in some cases, who with, and even who they should marry. Sleep deprivation, keeping followers constantly active, not allowing them time to rest and think, public haranguing or humiliation, separating victims from the outside world so they can’t do a reality check, and keeping the emotional temperature high so as to suppress critical thought are just some of the techniques.

All such methods take away a person’s volition and ability to introspect freely. This inevitably makes them easy to condition, although new devotees cannot see this and comes to believe that the opposite is true. The most bizarre cults can even propel people to take self-destructive paths so they blindly, and ironically, rush toward the security they seek by killing themselves and others, as in the cases of those who brought about the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11, and the mass suicide of 909 members of the Peoples Temple cult at Jonestown, Guyana, many of whom killed their own children before taking their own lives. The suicide bombers of Sri Lanka, Africa and the Middle East are equally dedicated.

Political movements are cults

Critically for peacemaking, many heavily ideologically driven political groups are cults without the knowledge of those who partake. The reason cults can attract followers so easily, even highly intelligent ones, is that we are not educated about psychological responses. Most people are unaware, for example, that when attention is focused collectively and emotion generated, hypnotic group phenomena will occur. This conditioning can damage people’s potential for development and that is why it pays to be careful if you are invited to join a group, of whatever rubric, that claims to be a developmental one. They are, whether knowingly or not, almost invariably using conditioning techniques involving hypnotic phenomena. This kind of psychological education is critical for more successful peacemaking and conflict prevention in the future.

The acid test that grounds our perception of somebody as either a cult leader or not is to observe them to find out if they are a grounded human being. How well do they contribute to reality? How balanced are they? How sane are their relationships? Is the way they live their lives and mix with people fair and generous? Are they contributing to the real world, or do they behave like parasites and survive by financially ripping off cult members? If they are not contributing directly to the wider community, or their relationships aren’t functional and they’re projecting themselves as ‘special’ despite seeming unbalanced – then indeed they are unbalanced.

This principle applies to whole communities just as much as to an individual and understanding this can help us in political work. If we wish to resolve conflicts and stabilise our humanity we all have to be willing to move beyond inadequate models of human functioning: religion based on tradition rather than knowledge; politics based on ideology rather than pragmatism; obsolete psychological theories rather than ones tested in the field; medical models that promotes fixing psychological instability with drugs rather than employing a bio-psych-social model, or for that matter, that many political problems are resolved mainly through the hard security response. These outdated models – whether religious, political or pseudoscientific – all unconsciously produce thinking and behaviour that is cult-like and no longer serve us well. They are too crude. Fortunately, millions of people have evolved enough to realise this.

Cults provide a useful mirror for viewing aspects of group behaviour in the wider society – the process by which the norms, values, ideas and shared perceptions of a society are passed down from generation to generation: in conforming, we become ‘cultured’. Alongside practical advantages in conforming there are certain disadvantages in doing so. No group or country is one static culture, but is a special mix of interrelating smaller cultures. The streetwise homeless in Britain today, for example, have a different culture from a British farmer, accountant or nurse. But simultaneously, all British people share elements that are distinctively different from those of, say, a South American, African or Middle Eastern culture. In other words, each country’s mix has a distinct ‘flavour’. However, some people involved in tribal political cults cease to think realistically, begin to suppress any healthy dissent, give up their autonomy, devalue outsiders and accept authoritarian rule over their daily lives. Deikman sees these pervasive patterns throughout society as threats to our need for personal volition because, “The price of cult behaviour is diminished realism.” Real spiritual development, of course, pulls one in the opposite direction – towards greater realism of the true situation.

The true situation of peacemaking is that we can go on as we have done, effectively waiting for a set of almost random factors to align for mediation or a peace effort to succeed. Or, we can improve our chances of success by looking directly at the obstacles thrown up by human nature and our psychology, as discussed above, and that, if better understood and managed, could be the very path towards less conflict and a more peaceful resolution of political differences. Mutual needs satisfaction, based on a fundamental understanding of our innate needs (Human Givens), is the means of achieving sustainable peace.


Ivan Tyrrell is an author and the Director of Strategy at The Conciliators Guild. He is also the Director of Human Givens College and is a co-writer with Joseph Griffin of Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking and Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang as well as other groundbreaking titles and monographs on mental health and psychotherapy.

The above article will be published in a Fall 2020 special issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy on the Psychological Dimensions of Peacemaking. 

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