During the holiday break, I had a chance to watch HBO’s The Vow, a docu-series about NXIVM.  While watching the series, many thoughts about the power of perceived authority, fear, and loss of identity came to mind.  I have worked with clients across the spectrum – those who abuse power, those who manipulate others, those who become powerless, and those who lose a sense of identity.  In this series, I want to educate readers on power and control, and help them recognize the “red flags” that are often overlooked or excused. 

Part 1: How NXIVM Misconstrued the Standford Prison Experiment

Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM who was imprisoned for 120 years, misconstrued the outcomes of the Stanford Prison experiment to NXIVM members, as seen in HBO’s The Vow.  He stated that the experiment was a metaphor for men and women, suggesting that women were prisoners and gave into men, the prison guards.  Ironically, Raniere suggested a metaphor for NXIVM, as women were prisoners within this cult. 

For those unfamiliar, The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo.  The experiment was conducted as a two-week simulation of prison, in which participants were assigned the roles of prison guards or prisoners.  All participants were male, and all were paid to participate in the study.  Zimbardo’s goal was to observe the behaviors and reactions of the prisoners.  It was reported that during the experiment, some of the guards displayed sadistic behaviors in the form of brutality towards the prisoners (e.g., refusal to allow prisoners to use the bathroom, denying food, the use of fire extinguishers to assert control, etc.). As a result, some of the prisoners showed symptoms of distress (e.g., crying, emotional breakdowns, etc.), while others rebelled (e.g., refusing to leave cells, insulting guards, etc.). 

This experiment is not a metaphor for men and women.  Rather it was a somewhat controlled environment, which demonstrated the power and control individuals in perceived power could achieve. It revealed the level of manipulation of which many victims are unaware and the fear that can be developed. Over only a few days, prison guards became dictators. The perceived power they held during this experiment allowed them to believe they were permitted to abuse people. Some of the prisoners became fearful and helpless, which led to psychological breakdowns, despite volunteering for the experiment and knowing that they were not criminals in real life. In fact, one prisoner had to be removed from the experiment, and Zimbardo needed to assure him of his real identity. 

This leads me to today and the power of control and the human psyche.  I often hear beliefs that current generations are different as if they are better, more aware, and less likely to experience this level of powerful manipulation.  Unfortunately, as stated above, I’ve worked with individuals across the spectrum and have seen these personality traits.  Power, control, and manipulation are often traits of personality disorders (i.e., narcissism and antisocial/psychopathy/sociopathy), and many individuals in relationships with people with such personality disorders become victims.  The tactics used by those with perceived power can lead to victims’ experiences of ostracism, imprisonment, forced obedience, deindividuation (i.e., loss of awareness and identity), and depletion. 

Through education readers, one can develop improved critical thinking and awareness of such dangers that are present in society.  As the series continues, I will discuss research and cases highlighting power, control, and manipulation, to shed light on the subtleties that cause many to overlook and deny red flags. I will also discuss how this behavior leads to identity crises and sometimes the loss of identity. 

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please consider seeking help.  Seek counseling or call the National Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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