What causes prejudice, religious wars, terrorism and genocide? In fact, what are the psychodynamics behind extremism, absolutism and all insidious forms of polarization? On some level, the answers all relate to human beings’ inherent fear of death and their need for psychological defenses to deny or ease the endemic pain of the human condition. The primary defense, which I call the Fantasy Bond, offers comfort and security against existential angst, but at the same time predisposes alienation from others with different customs and belief systems. Often the differences are perceived as threatening.
The breeding ground for the development of a Fantasy Bond lies in conditions of physical and emotional deprivation, such things as starvation, poverty and fear on the one hand and prejudice, humiliation and disenfranchisement from power on the other. It is an attempt to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by these sub-standard conditions by creating an illusion of fusion with other individuals, an intense exaggerated form of group identification.
There are several significant characteristics of the Fantasy Bond that apply to group dynamics. As noted, these fantasies help to allay the pain of emotional trauma and death anxiety. Participants share an illusion in common that inspires a sense of safety and immortality. There is a marked tendency toward idealization of the “in” group and a denial of any negative aspects or wrongdoing. Members project critical, hostile attitudes onto the “out” group, resulting in demonization of the outsider. This is best exemplified by the concept of ethnic cleansing where the “in” group is considered “clean” and the “out” group “dirty.” Rage is directed at any threat to their cause or belief system. Once this aggression is acted out, there are real grievances and hatred between the opposing parties that are self perpetuating.
Nowhere are the characteristics of the Fantasy Bond more obvious than in the examples of Al Qaeda and ISIL. Most importantly, members believe in the illusion of immortality as a reward for their sacrifice. There is both a disowning of “in” group failures and vilification of the opposition. On an unconscious level, there is also a self-destructive element based on an inner sense of unworthiness. Lastly, there are feelings of anger and violence toward the perceived threat from outsiders.
I have developed and elaborated upon the concept of the Fantasy Bond as a core defense in over 50 years of working with schizophrenic patients, troubled individuals in psychotherapy, and groups of people concerned with developing more fulfilling personal lives. The process of forming Fantasy Bonds originates in the early years of a child’s development and is a widespread phenomenon. Fantasies of fusion originally arise to cope with interpersonal pain and separation anxiety as early as during infancy. The Fantasy Bond must be distinguished from the healthy emotional bond of love and loyalty provided in an adequate parenting situation that is both affectionate and nurturing. In contrast, this imagined connection is utilized to compensate for the emotional trauma children experience due to parental ignorance, misattunement or actual aggression. The intensity of compensatory fantasy is proportional to the degree of suffering.
The hurt or rejected child attempts to idealize the parent at his/her own expense. It is too threatening for children to face the fact that their parent may be inadequate, rejecting or hostile. Instead, children internalize the feeling that somehow they are unlovable. The latter causes a predisposition toward self-critical attitudes, micro-suicidal tendencies and, in extreme cases, suicide. Because they are totally helpless and dependent and rely on their parents to sustain their lives, the need for this defense becomes a matter of life and death. In order for the defense to work, the negative traits or abusive behavior of the parents must be displaced or projected onto the world at large. The resultant distortion predisposes anxiety, aggression and maladaptation for the child and later for the adult.
As the child becomes increasingly aware of the fact of his or her mortality, he or she relies more heavily on the original Fantasy Bond. This is also true of adults faced with death salience. The illusion of connection, which at first served as a defense against trauma in the family, later comes to offer relief from the pain and anguish associated with death’s inevitability.
The Fantasy Bond within the family leads to attitudes of superiority. Families come to believe that their customs, religious beliefs, and lifestyle are better (more right or proper) than those of their neighbors. Stereotypes, prejudice and racist views represent extensions of these distortions into a cultural framework. The more painful the original circumstances were in the family, the more tendency there is toward extremism.
The original Fantasy Bond extends to one’s neighborhood, community, religious affiliation, political party, etc. People are even capable of physical violence over their favorite sports teams. Terror Management Theory research has indicated that death fears lead to an increase in group affiliation and alienation toward outsiders. The same factors that increase people’s comfort and security have a negative impact on their relationships with people of different groups or ideologies. On a societal level, we tend to be antagonistic toward other groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, different customs or worldviews. Tragically, this phenomenon is a precursor to more oppressive and dangerous forms of polarization.
Just as the imagined merger with one’s family provides family members with an illusion of immortality, group identification offers individuals immunity from death through an imagined fusion with the membership. In merging one’s identity with that of a group, each person imagines that although he or she may not survive as an individual entity, he or she will live on as a part of something larger that will continue to exist after he or she is gone. The fantasy of invulnerability may be conscious or completely unconscious, but in either case there is anger and hostility if the Fantasy Bond is threatened. Because these projections are related to a core psychological defense against the fear of death, they stubbornly persist in the face of logic and contrary evidence.
In conclusion, societies and cultures to a large extent represent a pooling of individual defenses. Unique Fantasy Bonds are formed that can evolve into deadly destructive behavior. There is obviously no simple solution to this state of affairs, but by understanding the psychodynamics involved and adopting a rational approach to human differences, progress can be made. Insight offers an opportunity to take power and effect change.
Perhaps the most productive approach is for humanistic attitudes to prevail that insure people’s need for equality, self respect and basic economic security. Since Fantasy Bonds are essentially “immortality projects” that attempt to defend against death fears, one can learn better methods to cope with the terror. The author suggests that (1) people can be taught to communicate their fears openly about the subject with a person close to them or in a group format. This type of communication affords a certain relief from the pain; (2) they can develop the ability to express the full range of their feelings in an emotional catharsis; and (3) people can strive psychologically and philosophically to live in the present and significantly value the unique gift of life, despite the hardships.
Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org