[This is a part of a series on spiritual abuse. You can see other posts in the series here (as they are published.) A lot of this content is from the research of Dr. Lisa Oakley from Chester University. I highly recommend her book with Justin Humphrys if you want to learn more about this!]
This one is for the nerds out there – the folks like me, who want to understand how our brains can be blind to our own participation in abusive systems or be blind to abusive systems around us.
This one is also for the embarrassed out there – the folks who feel ashamed of how they somehow missed it; who woke up like – how did I not see this misuse of power? (Either in themselves or others.)
Scary science: our brains are capable of ignoring our questionable behavior when we are doing it for the ‘greater good.’
Normally, when we lie or cheat or do something we’re not proud of, we experience an inter-tension. It’s often subconscious; a sense of internal conflict. We may not even notice it, but it’s there. In theory – it will show up on a lie detector test, and it will often also pop up on the subconscious radar of others. They may have an uneasy feeling around us – a spidey sense that something is off.
But, get this – when we think we’re doing something for a good purpose, that internal conflict seems to evaporate. We don’t have the usual internal cues that would call us to question our own sketchy behavior. And, those around us have a hard time picking up on it, because their brains can’t sense our subconscious tension that would usually let them know something is off.
Basically – if someone is abusing power or misusing spirituality with ‘good’ intentions – it’s going to be a million times harder for them or us to know it. This is why spiritual abuse often leaves us feeling ‘crazy’ in a unique way that is distinct from explicit abuse. This is why so many of us can be blind to it. This is why so many of us blame ourselves for it.
I first encountered this scary science in the documentary “The Inventor.” Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist from Duke, shared this experiment:
Participants roll a die, but before they roll it they are asked to choose whether the top number will be higher or lower than the bottom number. If they guess right, they get money. But here’s the catch: they don’t have to say their prediction out loud. So it’s pretty easy to cheat, which, based on the stats, is (unsurprisingly) what happened. Participants had to take a lie detector test, and the study found that the lie detector showed people were lying about the same amount that the stats showed they were likely cheating. Cool. Nothing crazy here.
Here’s the twist: the second time they did the experiment, instead of winning the money for themselves, people were able to pick a charity to donate any winnings to. Stats showed two things: (1) the rate of cheating increased and (2) the lie detector could no longer reliably predict if people were being dishonest.
“The lie detector detects tension. ‘I want more money, but I think it’s wrong.’ But if it’s not wrong, why would you worry? If it’s for a good cause, you can still think you’re a good person.”
Basically – when your motives are what you perceive as ‘good’ – you not only feel more justified in being shady, you also fail to experience the usual inner-tension. This makes it harder for you to notice your own behavior, and as a result – it makes it harder for people around you to pick up on as well.
Let’s take this into consideration with spiritual abuse. Right upfront, you’re dealing with a context that tends to be more populated (in theory) with folks who are driven by a sense of ‘the greater good.’ (You’re going to have more people in this field who are able to justify their behavior with ‘pure’ motivations than – let’s say – wall street or sex trafficking.)
Then, add onto that, the intersection of reformed narratives (which we’ll get into more in a later post) and you’ve got a demographic of people who may truly believe that God has put them in their position of power – even if they don’t steward it well. Not only can they feel more comfortable about behavior because their motivation is ‘good’, but they can also wrap skewed sovereignty narratives around any internal tension, effectively smothering any inner conflict. “Even if I did something not ideal – it was the best possible thing for the other person. God will use it for good.”
It. be. a. mess.
So, what do we do with this mess? How can we outsmart our brains and get better at spotting controlling behavior in ourselves or others? Step one – we’ve got to get really familiar with the characteristics of coercive/controlling behavior, rather than just ‘checking our hearts’. (And that’s what we’ll dive into next).