There are signals of large group regression, says psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, who has for many years studied the psychology of national, political, and ethnic conflict around the world.
To "regress" means to revert to primitive modes of expressing oneself and relating to others. It entails less impulse control, a diminished tolerance for anxiety, and a reduced capacity for rational thinking such as the ability to make sound decisions. Regression is a response to anxiety and the internal signal that there is an imminent threat or danger. Groups have a tendency to regress and behave more primitively than individuals do.
Not all the following signs need be evident for a society or group of people to be considered regressed, says Volkan. While these are guidelines for recognizing such collective behavior, the particular group and its historical context make each case unique.
1. Loss of Individual Identity. During group regression a person loses touch with his or her individual identity, what Volkan describes as his or her “stable gender and body image, and of continuity between past, present and future.”
Through the process of emotionally bonding with others in the group, large-group identity becomes more important than individual identity. Differences among members of the group are erased and a level of sameness in self-regard and self-expression predominates. This is so for both the in-group and the enemy or out-group; individual distinctions are erased for both. One group sees the other as if they were one person, devoid of the individual differences among people assigned to that group. The more regressed the collective, the less emotional separation among group members.
Volkan gives this example: In any army deployed for military purposes, there are some elements of regression. However, in non-regressed societies, a soldier does not lose his or her individuality altogether, and soldiers, as well as civilians, still maintain freedom of speech and may openly express opinions that contradict those of the ruling regime or government without jeopardizing their role in the military or status as a civilian.
2. The Us/Them Split. The group creates a sharp "us and them" division between itself and one or more "enemy" groups. One side of the division personifies all goodness, and the “other” represents badness and all undesirable attributes. The use of shared symbols or stereotypes dehumanizes members of the other group and often depicts them with progressively more subhuman traits: They are a disease, dirty, vermin. Nationalistic, racial, or ethnic hatred becomes a spiraling regression of collective sentiments.
What’s important psychologically is that this conflict comes not only from a group’s relationship with an external enemy but from group members’ internal representations of them. In other words, the creation of an enemy refers to a division in the internal world of group members. Another way of thinking about this is the experience of an enemy reflects the externalization onto another of a bad internal object. The original creation of an “other” or enemy comes about with the stranger anxiety of the infant in the first year of life. This is an early form of a later split such as the political, racial, and nationalistic one between the Aryan vs. the non-Aryan in Nazi German.
The us/them split between neighboring countries is often expressed geographically through the preoccupation with national borders. This can be seen in the proposed wall along the Mexican border and the Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant and asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border at Case Padre.
3. Cutting Family Ties. The relationship between children and parents is the strongest social tie most people experience in their lifetime. A regressed society undermines familial bonds, the basic trust between a child and parent, and the normal course of childhood development. Erik Erikson wrote about how an infant, in the first years of life, confronts the crisis between trust and mistrust. A child learns to trust that their caregivers will respond to meet their basic needs. When basic needs go unmet, the child experiences the world as certain, insecure, and unpredictable.
Totalitarian regimes undermine the authority of the parent over the child and replace basic trust in the parent with allegiance to the nation. The Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany indoctrinated children into National Socialist ideology with songs marches and weapons training. It replaced the bonds of family with propaganda and encouraged religious-like devotion to the Führer. Children were removed from the influence of their parents and some children betrayed their parents to the Third Reich. Former Nazi Youth member, Alfons Heck, recalls, “I belonged to Adolf Hitler, body and soul.”
4. The Perversion of Morality. Under the forces of regression, a group develops a new shared ‘morality,’ one that is unusually rigid and absolute. Brutal and sadistic behavior is rationalized toward anyone outside the group who opposes the belief system. When the in-group experiences a second group as a threat to its identity and worldview, a new morality is used to justify atrocities against members of the outside group. There is what Volkan calls an “entitlement ideology,” a sense of entitlement to revenge and intense aggression toward others in order to maintain and protect the group identity and its way of being in the world.
Following the Civil War and newfound black economic and political freedom, the southern states sanctioned many lynchings aimed at eradicating competition and re-imposing white supremacy. These atrocities of torture in the public square were a way white southerners tried to maintain, repair, and protect their large-group identity. In Tennessee, six Confederate veterans came together to form the Ku Klux Klan (1865), which catalyzed widespread violence in order to reestablish racial hierarchy and reassert white power over former slaves.
This kind of regressed morality “helps to cement the place of the individual in the group,” Volkan claims, “and not only gives him or her permission to behave in ways unacceptable under ordinary circumstances but obliges him or her to exhibit aggressive behavior in order not to be alienated from the group.”
5. Purifying Rituals. Purifying rituals occur in many forms and practices and their purpose is to repair and enhance the identity of the large group. These rituals can be benign or destructive, as when targeting a specific “other” with attacks. Such is the case with “ethnic cleansing” that eliminates an unwanted other—all individuals among and associated with a hated group.
Another way purifying rituals are expressed is through an intense preoccupation with the notion of “blood” and the desire for a homogenous make-up of the group. The Nazis banned interracial sexual relations and marriages between "Aryans" and "non-Aryans" through The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour (1935). Similarly, in colonial America, anti-miscegenation laws in the United States prohibited sex and marriage between blacks and whites. The "one-drop theory" asserted that anyone with any black ancestry was classified as black and was one way of preventing interracial union.
6. Magnification of Minor Differences. Freud wrote about this idiosyncratic human tendency, “the narcissism of minor differences,” which he understood as an expression of the human proclivity for aggression, one that often fueled intergroup conflict. This term refers to the hypersensitivity of one group to minor details of differentiation between it and another group or community of people that otherwise have many similar traits.
Volkan gives the example of how when relations between Greece and Turkey become tense, emotional antagonisms focus on the differences in how each group makes the dessert baklava and who uses more honey. He describes it this way: “The focus on trivial differences becomes the 'last frontier' for maintaining a separate group identity, which feels the threat of annihilation.” The desire for a distinct identity prevents the acknowledgment of one's resemblance to one’s neighbor. It is too unsettling to recognize group similarities in this context because it endangers a vulnerable sense of group identity and the group's feelings of superiority over another. To avoid this narcissistic injury, a regressed group downplays the similarities with a neighboring group and highlights the variances—which can become amplified into an unbridgeable rift.
7. Destruction of the Environment. Another symptom of collective regression is the degradation of the environment. Whether forests, oceans, fisheries, or swampland, the ability of the environment to sustain life is severely compromised. Another related clue that regression is taking place is when a group has difficulty distinguishing between that which is beautiful from that which is ugly.
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociological study Strangers in Their Own Land gives a compassionate depiction of Louisiana Tea Party supporters. Although Hochschild doesn’t interpret their worldview as regressed, she remarks on this central paradox among the people she interviewed. They reside at the heart of "cancer alley" where chemical and oil companies have destroyed their environment and often the lives of friends and relatives and sometimes compromised their own health as well. But many of these people remain ardent defenders of free market capitalism and vehemently opposed to any protection of their land by EPA regulation. When asked about this paradox, one interviewee responded that if she and her family became ill and died from industrial pollution and toxins from big oil companies, she would live forever in heaven.
Regression in societies fluctuates from one historical period to another. Group regression often occurs in the wake of moral progress. In other words, social evolution advances in waves of progression followed by regression.
Sociologist Eli Sagan reminds us that when there is human advancement there is often accompanying anxiety about such advances and the changes they bring, which in turn leads to a “panicked retreat” and tendencies toward authoritarianism aimed at containing collective anxiety about these new ways of being in the world. In such states of heightened anxiety, the individual turns inward primarily preoccupied with self-preservation and our concern for others wanes. In the cycle Sagan describes, we embark on a period of social evolution that is then followed by anxiety about the progress we have made, the new modes of living together that confront us, and the freedoms that go along with it. This, in turn, leads to a period of regress.
Volkan, Vamik. (2004). Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone.