The Psychology of Authority

 Posted by on 2 April 2003 at 8:25 am  Uncategorized
Apr 022003

The news coverage of the Elizabeth Smart case been completely overshadowed by the war. Nevertheless, the question of why she didn’t attempt to escape (and even seemed to resist rescue) is an interesting one from a psychological perspective. The best explanation I’ve run across was posted on the Nathaniel Branden Forum by Mike Lee. He was kind enough to let me repost it.

I don’t have specific knowledge of the case, but I was raised Mormon, lived in Salt Lake City for several years, and I’ve known several of these Mormon fundamentalist/polygamist crazies–they’re thick on the ground there. They frequently seek young teenage girls as wives, carrying on a tradition practiced from the time of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon church in 1830. Smith used to get revelations commanding church members to hand over their teenage daughters to him for plural marriage. Elizabeth Smart isn’t the first girl in Utah (even this year) to be told that God wants her to marry some old guy, and she’s not the first to meekly (or eventually) accept her fate. This case is different because her family wasn’t in on it, and complained loudly.

The Smart family appear to be mainstream Mormons, who repudiate polygamy and consider the fundamentalists an extreme embarrassment to the faith. But Mormon girls are raised to be obedient to patriarchal authority, and I don’t find it at all strange that Elizabeth would be easily subverted and subjugated, since she had already been conditioned to this very kind of obedience, and her kidnaper was using the same cues as those used on her in her normal environment (i.e., invocation of priesthood authority, scripture, etc.) The Smart family would be horrified and offended by my analysis, considering it anti-Mormon extremism. Yes, it’s anti-Mormon, but I don’t think it’s extreme.

The Smarts appear to be nice people, who admirably kept the pressure on to get their daughter back, held up well under extreme stress, and deserve applause. Their invocations of their faith and their religion as the reason they got her back are ironic, at best, since people familiar with Utah know that their daughter’s abduction was religiously-motivated (or at least religiously-justified).

The Mormon church, and the Smarts, as sensible Mormons, will try their best to keep a lid on the actual process whereby Elizabeth was pacified and did not try to escape. You’ll hear a lot about the Stockholm Syndrome, and they’ll try to keep details private. But, sure as hell, whatever brainwashing was done was steeped in Mormonism and a theology and authority that had her 90% brainwashed before she was taken.

Very interesting! (Robert Cialdini’s amazing book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion has a chapter on the influence exerted by genuine and fake authorities.)

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha