03 January 2008

Abuse and Cognition - The Burks Study, Part 2

His study instruments included a test for dissociative symptoms [the Hopkins Symptom Checklist dissociation screen], a test for depression [Beck Depression Inventory], and a test for exposure to abusive group dynamics [Group Psychological Abuse Scale].

This third scale, the GPA Scale, is the centerpiece of the work in terms of defining the emotional abuse experienced by his study subjects. He describes it as follows:
"The GPA is a 28-item scale that seeks to examine four factors associated with abusive group environments: compliance, exploitation, mind control, and anxious dependency.  It was developed as an attempt to differentiate between groups that use practices or combinations of belief and practice that seem to be associated with deceptive persuasion techniques and those groups that do not. In the GPA, participants are asked to respond to each item in a sense of how characteristic it would be of their group.  The items are scored on a 5-point scale ranging from Not at All Characteristic (1) to Very Characteristic (5).  Total scores range from 28 to 140.  The GPA’s four subscales: Compliance, Exploitation, Mind Control, and Anxious Dependency are totaled to arrive at a Summary scale.  This scale was utilized in this study.
                The GPA is a narrowly focused instrument, designed solely for members and ex-members of groups suspected of using thought reform techniques and there is little information available on its reliability and validity.  Internal consistency ranged from .70 on the Mind Control scale to .81 on the Compliance and Summary scales.  To determine the criterion validity of the GPA, The authors compared the scores of former members of groups suspected of being cultic to the arithmetic midpoint of each of the subscales and the Summary scale.  Former members of cultic groups scored higher than the midpoint on all scales and significantly higher than the midpoint on the Summary scale.  Langone. (1999) found that former members of the Boston Church of Christ, a group alleged by its ex-members to have cult-like tendencies, scored higher on the GPA Summary scale than former Catholics or former members of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a much smaller group considered to be an intense but innocuous campus ministry.  The instrument seems to have concurrent criterion validity, that is, it is capable of fulling its purpose for this study, to provide a means of differentiation between the experiences of ex-members of cults from those of ex-members of other groups."
Let's reiterate the four subscales of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale:

-Mind Control, and
-Anxious Dependency.

These four characteristics are associated with deceptive persuasion techniques. The first three are tools used to manipulate people dishonestly - and anxious dependency is an emotional state that's induced in people to make them easier to manipulate. Who's easiest to manage? Someone who desperately needs what you offer, and is terrified of losing it. Dependent and anxious.

A group that displays these four characteristics - whether it be a religious organization, a family, or the Accounting Department at XYZ Widgets - is cultic in nature and, depending on the extent to which these characteristics are expressed, abusive.. Conformity is demanded, certain people are taken advantage of, group members are told what to think and feel and how to react to situations and events, and the members feel a strong need for, attachment to, dependence on the group - and fear being separated from it or from other members.

In addition to these tests for emotional harm and abusive past environment, Dr. Burks also had his study population take a standard test of cognitive impairment. This was the Neuropsychological Impairment Scale, which is commonly used to assess cognitive impairment and recovery of cognitive function following traumatic brain injury, disease, or stroke.

The people in his study were tested both before and after two weeks of intensive psychological treatment at the study center. By comparing the 'group abusiveness' [GPAS] scores to the Neurological Impairment scores, he was able to see the extent to which abusive group dynamics [and their intensity] connected to cognitive problems - mild, medium, or severe - in ex-group members.

What did he discover?

He found a small positive correlation between 'intensity of thought reform environment' and cognitive impairment. Between the brainwashing type of abusiveness demonstrated by a cult, and difficulty thinking clearly, retaining information, and so on.

In other words, in this small study,
abusive brainwashing, whether it came from a group, a family, or a significant other, was found to correlate with damage to people's ability to take in, process, and retain information and to reason clearly.
The study was not longitudinal. It was impossible to look at the people prior to their abusive experience to determine the extent of harm to their reasoning faculties. It wasn't able to tell the extent to which they might have 'self-selected' for cults whose reasoning patterns matched their own, and thus had pre-existing problems amplified by their cult experience. It also looked only at people who had been definitely harmed, and were harmed significantly enough to be seeking help; thus, the sample of volunteers was biased by definition. It wasn't designed to evaluate the length of time any damage might persist, or how well and quickly people recover with treatment vs. without.

The results of this study cannot be used as a basis for believing that cognitive effects of abuse are permanent, and they don't predict the extent of any damage.

But these results do carry a strong message that abuse is nothing to be taken lightly. Nothing to be tolerated, shrugged off, ignored when it is happening to someone else.

It does damage. It wounds not only hearts and souls, but can affect people's very minds.

The concept of abuse affecting cognition also helps me to understand two important issues about abusers and their 'sidekicks'.

First, it may explain why some otherwise decent-seeming people are unable to draw the most obvious conclusions about an abuser's true character. If they have been abused themselves, if they are fully committed members of the abuser's cult, it is quite possible that they simply cannot think clearly about what they are experiencing, or about what is happening to anyone else around them. This cognitive disruption is to be pitied, not condemned. This is something to make onlookers rend their garments and sit in the ashes, weeping, once it is truly, deeply understood.

Second, it almost certainly explains why abusers so often openly sneer at and deride obviously intelligent people - people who reason clearly and lucidly, people who know 'how things work', and especially people who want to share what they learn with others.

Abusers, being predators, regard other people as prey. Purely and simply. We're not friends, we're not family. We're fodder.

And it's much easier to prey on people whose reasoning powers are muddled, confused, emotionally disrupted - especially if they can also be kept anxious and dependent on the very people who prey on them.

Rational, intelligent people make lousy prey. They resist allowing abusers to disrupt their thought processes. They are the people that abusers can't control. They ask the embarrassing questions, notice the telltale inconsistencies, see the patterns in the behavior, put the evidence together, draw conclusions. And then they talk about it.

Abusers don't want them talking, sharing, thinking. They don't want their prey to see any of these things as 'good'. Because these things model independent thought, and fodder is not supposed to think.

Abusers are well aware that the people who refuse to be lied to and led are the ones who get away, and often do everything in their power to take others with them, into freedom.


Blogger CZBZ said...

"First, it may explain why some otherwise decent-seeming people are unable to draw the most obvious conclusions about an abuser's true character. If they have been abused themselves, if they are fully committed members of the abuser's cult, it is quite possible that they simply cannot think clearly about what they are experiencing, or about what is happening to anyone else around them. This cognitive disruption is to be pitied, not condemned. This is something to make onlookers rend their garments and sit in the ashes, weeping, once it is truly, deeply understood."

Unfortunately, Stormchild, what makes you and other people weep, makes predators and abusers salivate. I've born this awareness ever since leaving an abusive marriage. Though most of us are prone to forget how we felt, thought and acted ‘in’ the abusive environment, my compulsion to write left an undeniable trail of my inability to think clearly. I still struggle breaking through childhood conditioning which no doubt led to remaining in a relationship I could not ‘reason’ my way out of.

It’s been a slow, hard climb out of a deep pit of perceived helplessness and silence.

What pains me just as much as an opportunist preying on the abused is the heartless judgment of bystanders and on-lookers. We climb to the top of the pit and rather than a welcoming committee honoring our persistence and courage, we’re met by critics and judges rating our performance and telling us we ‘chose’ to dive head-first in the pit.

Now I know my thinking was not very clear a few years ago; and I know I fell into a GroupThink environment shortly after ending my marriage. But niggling emotions kept trying to connect with my fuzzy brain…even though I could not articulate ‘why’ something was wrong with the group, nor ‘why’ I felt compelled to separate myself.

My Inner Knower persisted in sending messages anyway.

Maybe it’s because the group scenario felt similar to my marriage and I didn’t want a repeat performance as an understudy in my own life story. Ha! Whatever the reason why I began to question the party line, I still acted on my intuition without realizing the implications of that decision.

I was stunned to be castigated, blackballed, maligned and punished for merely having the audacity to question the status quo.

Its no wonder people are afraid to leave or even question GroupThink. There are consequences---and even if we cannot think clearly enough to predict those consequences, we know it in our gut. Lifetime experiences teach the perceptive person all about Power and Control. We might not be able to articulate coherently, or even define it---but we know what happens to people when they ask ‘forbidden’ questions.

I think our fear of isolation is so overpowering that we must not see what we already see…and we must not talk about it. Ever. It’s very hard to face ‘a shunning’ but surprisingly, many of us do it without being able to talk about it. We may not even know what we’re doing but we follow an internal compass pointing towards freedom anyway.

By the way, writing is a tool that helps abused people start thinking more logically and rationally. Even putting a sentence together was a daunting challenge six years ago. As abused people continue making an effort to write coherently, we restore confidence in ourselves and build up a little brain muscle at the same time.

We Can Heal from Abuse. Even childhood abuse. But it will not happen without self-discipline, consistent effort and repetitive attempts to speak the unspeakable. Time does not heal all wounds. Only faith in our self-worth and the audacity to insist our lives are valuable---no matter what our residual wounds may be.


09 July, 2008 12:24  

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