psychological projection

The Psychologist Who Played God

UPDATED 02/12/14 (related reading and related posts added)

There’s a story at Slate titled “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Here are some key passages:

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change….

…Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting…. This … led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….

[T]he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity….

In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Rokeach — the psychologist who played God — belonged to a coterie of left-wing psychologists who strove to portray conservatism as aberrant, and to equate it with authoritarianism. This thesis emerged in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who seems sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno … was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

I was first exposed to Adorno’s conservatism-as-authoritarianism thesis in a psychology course taught by Rokeach around the time he was polishing a complementary tome, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (related links). The bankruptcy of the Adorno-Rokeach thesis has been amply documented. (See this and this, for example.) The question is why academic leftists like Adorno and Rokeach would go to such pains to concoct an unflattering portrait of conservatives.

Keep in mind, always, that modern “liberals” are anything but liberal, in the classical sense. (See this and this, and be sure to consult Jonah Goldberg’s former blog, Liberal Fascism.) Modern “liberals” are authoritarian to the core, as is evident in the state to which they have brought us. They nevertheless persist in believing — and proclaiming — themselves to be friends of liberty, even as they seek to dictate how others should live their lives. They deny what they are because they know, deep down, that they are what they profess to abhor: authoritarians.

A classic way to resolve a deep psychological conflict of that kind is to project one’s own undesired traits onto others, especially onto one’s social and political enemies. That, I maintain, is precisely what Adorno, Rokeach, and their ilk have done in The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and similar tracts. And that, I maintain, is precisely what “liberals” do when they accuse conservatives of base motivations, such as racism and lack of empathy. Nothing is more racist than “liberal” condescension toward blacks; nothing is more lacking in empathy than “liberal” schemes that deprive blameless individuals of jobs (affirmative action) and prevent hard-working farmers and business-owners from passing their farms and businesses intact to their heirs (the estate tax). Nothing is more authoritarian than modern “liberalism.”

Milton Rokeach, rest his soul, acknowledged his penchant for authoritarianism, at least  in the case of the “Three Christs.” If only the “liberals” who govern us — and the “liberals” who cheer them on — would examine their souls, find the authoritarianism within, and root it out.

That will be a cold day in hell.

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Related reading:
James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?,” March 2012
John J. Ray, “A Counterblast to ‘Authoritarianism’,” Dissecting Leftism, December 20, 2013
James Lindgren, “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?,” February 2014

Related posts:
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the “Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited