Be a Self or Be Swept Away: Regulators of Behavior in Social Systems

A special thanks to my grandson, Alex Mauboussin for asking me the question: “Was it Hitler or was it the circumstances that made Hitler the person he was?” Right after he asked this Osama bin Laden died. That made it more important to think deeply about such a question. How do you talk to your children and grandchildren about what happens in families in society? Alex is a rower so he knows about the forces of nature and what it takes to pull ahead. Here is one more try at figuring out what goes on in social systems.

You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.

Herbert Spencer

If society can make the man, the question becomes, how can “I” be a thoughtful, more principle driven individual in a society that just might like to make me into its image.
Is it possible that under the right conditions, any of us can be swept away by the emotions in society, becoming part of a group effort to redistribute anxiety and blame others?

Possibly our behavior is shaped more than we like to see, by the social context in which we find ourselves. Society pressures us to join the group and believe and do as the group does. This happens in families and in nations. The history of how we have been influenced can be seen. For example, consider what you felt or said in 2001 and how you reacted ten years latter to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden. As a society we continue to struggled to make sense of terrorists and how they mange to create a dangerous and seemingly blind following.

Curiously both Hitler and Osama’s deaths were announced on May 1st in different years of course. A coincidence, yes, but also a reminder, a warning if you will, of how societies, “allow evil”, in this case other focused, blaming leaders, to emerge in times of chaos and uncertainty. We may debate how they emerged but clearly each man led large segments of the population to join in blaming others for societal problems. The result in both cases was genocide, albeit on different scales.

Look around the world today and you will see people being swept away by anger, madness and fear. Leaders arise but whom can we trust? If it were possible to know the early warning signs of emotionally dangerous people would there be a way to take a stand in stopping these kinds of “social inflammations”?

This is difficult to do, even in small families, much less society. But by thinking about the family and how one person becomes a terrorist, or depressed, or takes on some other symptom, we might see how the other family members are sensitized to react and then look for someone to blame or someone to hurt, or even kill. We saw this unfold in California also on May first, of this year, as a ten-year boy shot and killed his neo Nazi father. 1

It is not too hard to see that a similar process happens in and between nations. Just as in a family, passions are activated by threats. A segment of the population feels “wronged” and feels entitled to take over, dominate and/or take the resourses of another country, and so begins the symptoms of war and retribution. Sometimes one nation focuses on the other as the problem, just as parents do towards a difficult child. A country (or a parent) moves in on the “offender”, reducing autonomy and attempting to “fix” them. Predictably, both children and nations rebel and war begins. Nations, like parents can also misinterpret and often project anxious fears on others. For example during the cold war the United States misperceived the economic strength and the military power of the Soviet Union.

In a mature family people make an effort not to control and dominate others. They make statements like, “I am going to do this, or this is my plan, I hope you can hear this as my action without it threatening you.” However under stress people start saying things like, “You stop doing that, you make me feel bad, it is your fault that I am not happy, well to do, safe, etc. Then there are the threats: Why don’t you do what I want you to do? If you do not do it my way I will….

How do we see what is going on in the social world? The challenge is that our perception is skewed by stress.

It becomes more difficult to have a direct perception of reality. We see reality as it becomes emotionally presented to us.

We might think about this as the problem of perception under stress. In the innocent example below we can imagine being under pressure, so we only have time or ability to see the tree. Then if we were to be able to self regulate and calm down, we could focus to see the bird in the tree clearly.

In this blog I am pointing to the use of intense emotions like fear and blame making it difficult to perceive what is going on right in front of us. Without awareness of the triggering impact of emotions, we become swept away and have no opportunity to see.

The main clue allowing us to become aware of the emotional state of people in our family or leaders in society is to consider how much people blame others. Blame is the single best barometer to determine how much are people able to take responsibility for self and how much are they other focused and pointing the finger at others as the cause, leaving self out of the equation.

When anxiety goes up in society or in families there is a togetherness-oriented, other-focused, blaming behavior, which is precisely the opposite of the effort to figure out answers for oneself. More mature people say, “What can I change about me to deal with them or to deal with this situation?”

Yes, it is very difficult to take a stand for self, but the other option is to go along with the other focus, the blaming and the reactivity. Many will go along with the popular ones, the popular viewpoint or the “authority” and NOT hold self and/or others responsible.

But for those who do not want to be folded into the emotional soup of the group they are in, one answer is to practice being more separate from emotional forces. First, one has to separate oneself from the emotional forces in one’s own family, since that is the genesis of our greatest sensitivity and vulnerability. Then we can begin the effort to take a different position for self at work and in the bigger institutions in society. One can think of this process as differentiation of self or as building an emotional backbone through the experience of being a more thoughtful, self-defined individual.

All social systems are highly regulated so one has to manage the natural resistance to change in any system if one wants to move forward with the effort to be more of an individual. There are implicit “rules” and expectations in every group that no one needs to be “aware” of. Each individual is automatically oriented to knowing what the important others are doing and what is expected of each member of the group. So if anyone is not behaving, as they “should” or as we would like, then someone in the system will prod them into behaving in the expected way for the social system. Much of the time the rules and expectations of the group are useful. But at other times the problem of blaming others appears. Hopefully, if at least one person can stop and see that there is too much pressuring of others to conform or going along with the behavior of others, then perhaps that person can be a kind of “brake” on the rest of the group, preventing it from becoming a herd that is heading for trouble

So how can we make a difference in the process that can fold us all into agreement? What do we have to know to move towards a more differentiated self? One of the first steps is to figure out what we believe are worthwhile principles? What instinctual forces might be operating on us as individuals? How can we look at our thinking and our relationships in a more objective way? How connected are we to our extended family? How do we think about the effort to change ourselves in relationships with other?

All of these are important guiding points are on our differentiation of self (D.O.S.), compass. If we notice that a social situation is too uptight or just plain wrong, and if we are more separate, then we can tease and laugh with others. And if we are good at it, we can offer other ideas and not try to force others to change. We can simply provoke, offering paradox ideas and perhaps upset the apple cart.

Some people might see playfulness as a weak response to other’s blaming reactive states. However, playfulness with purpose can create emotional space that may allow new ideas to emerge. Playfulness in the face of other’s habitual responses can help us build our own internal strength and flexibility. But differentiation requires a long-term commitment to working on self and relating to others without forcing them to behave in ways that makes us comfortable. What a paradox. Mange self to let others be free to choose. It is a hard sell but it is a worthy effort for those who can see into the future.

With these ideas about being separate and what it takes, let’s look at what happen in the world according to Osama bin Laden and Hitler, two men known for their ability to weave a togetherness oriented group around them.

Any good explanation of how Hitler or bin Laden rose to power would factor in their early experiences in their family life. Such explanation would look for ways in which the family relationships failed them and how they developed compensating belief systems, allowing them to become charismatic bullies recruiting others into an intense, negative focus resulting in genocide.

Let’s take a look at their families and consider what factors led to the reactive stance each mistook for being a self in their life. There are clues in each family history but nothing appears to be causal or helps account for how an individual becomes a killing machine due to specific pressures in his family history.

Just as a swarm of males emerge from the bee’s nest looking for the queen who has been chosen, so too do upheavals in society create the conditions in which one person emerges who can provoke and organize a segment of society. The cry for war emerges and one of the bullies who is ready to lead, emerges at the head of the pack. What are the factors we might find in the stories about Obama and Hitler that might alert us to how intense hatred is formed? If we are aware of these forces, we may be have a better understanding of how we as individuals and as a society give way to charismatic bullies.

Osama bin Laden (Multiple Sources)

Osama was the 17th son of his father, and the first son and perhaps the only child of the last and youngest of his father’s ten wives. He was one of the youngest of 53 siblings (16 brothers, 36 sisters). We do not know much of his family life, but we know that all of the Bin Laden children were required to work for the family company. Osama spent summers working on road projects. Osama lost his father when he was about 9. The family patriarch was killed in a plane crash caused by an American pilot in the Saudi province of Asir. (Five of the Sept. 11 hijackers would come from that province. His brother was later killed in a plane crash on American soil.) Osama revered the father he rarely got to see and adored his mother. As a teenager, he “would lie at her feet and caress her,” a family friend told Steve Coll, for his definitive biography “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.” 2

When Muhammad bin Laden died, each sibling inherited millions allowing Osama to lead a life of near-royalty. Osama — the name means “young lion” — grew up playing with Saudi princes and had his own stable of horses by age 15. Yet many say Bin Laden was a misfit. His mother, the last of his father’s four wives, was from Syria, the only wife not from Saudi Arabia. The elder Bin Laden had met her on a vacation and Osama was their only child. Within the family, she was said to be known as “the slave” and Osama “the slave child.” The world’s most threatening terrorist was also known to submit to public criticism by his mother.

Within the Saudi elite, it was rare to have both parents born outside the kingdom. In a profile of Osama bin Laden in The New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver quoted a family friend who suggested that he had felt alienated in a culture so obsessed with lineage. “It must have been difficult for him,” the family friend said. “Osama was almost a double outsider. His paternal roots are in Yemen, and within the family his mother was a double outsider as well — she was neither Saudi nor Yemeni but Syrian.”

According to one of his brothers, Osama was the only Bin Laden child who never traveled abroad to study. A biography of Bin Laden provided to the PBS television program “Frontline” by an unidentified family friend asserted that Bin Laden had never traveled outside the Middle East. Bin Laden had been educated — and, indeed, steeped, as many Saudi children are — in Wahhabism, a puritanical, ardently anti-Western strain of Islam. Even years later, he so despised the Saudi ruling family’s coziness with Western nations that he refused to refer to Saudi Arabia by its modern name, instead calling it “the Country of the Two Holy Places.”3

By most accounts bin Laden was devout and quiet, marrying a relative, the first of his four wives, at age 17. He became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamic radicals who believed that much of the Muslim world, including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, lived as infidels, in violation of the true meaning of the Koran.

Did Bin Laden find men who could offer him some kind of fathering which gave him an opportunity to feel at least “equal” to his siblings within his family? Is it possible that if bin Laden had had a father figure who provided guidance, and a willingness to take on his mother, his life might have taken a different turn?

Hitler (Quoted from The University of North Dakota internet source below)
“In the evening of April 20, 1889, Hitler was born. His crusade to rid the German people of the Jewish people may have reflected the distain he had for his own family history, just across the border from German Bavaria. His family was a lifelong source of embarrassment.

Hitler’s father, Alois, was the illegitimate son of Maria Anna Schicklgruber and her unknown mate, which may have been someone from the neighborhood or a poor millworker named Johann Georg Hiedler. It is also remotely possible Adolf Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish. Maria Schicklgruber was said to have been employed as a cook in the household of a wealthy Jewish family named Frankenberger. There is some speculation their 19 year old son got her pregnant and regularly sent her money after the birth of Alois. Adolf Hitler would never know for sure just who his grandfather was.

He did know that when his father Alois was about five years old, Maria Schicklgruber married Johann Georg Hiedler. The marriage lasted five years until her death of natural cause, at which time Alois went to live on a small farm with his uncle. At age thirteen, young Alois had enough of farm life and set out for the city of Vienna to make something of himself. He worked as a shoemaker’s apprentice then later enlisted in the Austrian civil service, becoming a junior customs official. He worked hard as a civil servant and eventually became a supervisor. By 1875 he achieved the rank of Senior Assistant Inspector, a big accomplishment for the former poor farm boy with little formal education.

After his success in the civil service, his uncle convinced him to change his last name to match his own, Hiedler, and continue the family name. However, when it came time to write the name down in the record book it was spelled as Hitler. And so in 1876 at age 39, Alois Schicklgruber became Alois Hitler.

In 1885, after numerous affairs and two other marriages ended, the widowed Alois Hitler, 48, married the pregnant Klara Pölzl, 24, the granddaughter of uncle Hiedler. Technically, because of the name change, she was his own niece and so he had to get special permission from the Catholic Church. The children from his previous marriage, Alois Hitler, Jr. and Angela, attended the wedding and lived with them afterwards. Klara Pölzl eventually gave birth to two boys and a girl, all of whom died. On April 20, 1889, her fourth child, Adolf was born healthy and was baptized a Roman Catholic. Hitler’s father was now 52 years old.

Throughout his early days, young Adolf’s mother feared losing him as well and lavished much care and affection on him. His father was busy working most of the time and also spent a lot of time on his main hobby, keeping bees. Baby Adolf had the nickname, Adi. When he was almost five, in 1893, his mother gave birth to a brother, Edmund. In 1896 came a sister, Paula.

Hitler’s father, now 58, had spent most of his life working his way up through the civil service ranks. He was used to giving orders and having them obeyed and also expected this from his children.

The oldest boy, Alois Jr., 13, bore the brunt of his father’s discontent, including harsh words and occasional beatings. A year later, at age 14, young Alois had enough of this treatment and ran away from home, never to see his father again. This put young Adolf, age 7, next in line for the same treatment.

One day, young Hitler went rummaging through his father’s book collection and came across several of a military nature, including a picture book on the War of 1870-1871 between the Germans and the French. By Hitler’s own account, this book became an obsession. He read it over and over, becoming convinced it had been a glorious event. “It was not long before the great historic struggle had become my greatest spiritual experience. From then on, I became more and more enthusiastic about everything that was in any was connected with war or, for that matter, with soldering.” – Hitler stated in his book Mein Kampf.

Adolf’s little brother Edmund, age 6, died of measles. The little boy was buried in the cemetery next to their house. From his bedroom window, Adolf could see the cemetery. Years later, neighbors recalled that young Adolf was sometimes seen at night sitting on the wall of the cemetery gazing up at the stars.

By now, young Hitler had dreams of one day becoming an artist. He wanted to go to the classical school. But his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a civil servant and sent him to the technical high school in the city of Linz, in September, 1900. There were fights between young Hitler and his father over his career choice. To the traditional minded, authoritarian father, the idea of his son becoming an artist seemed utterly ridiculous.

Hitler’s father had worked as an Austrian Imperial customs agent and continually expressed loyalty to the Hapsburg Monarchy, perhaps unknowingly encouraging his rebellious young son to give his loyalty to the German Kaiser. There was also a history teacher at school, Dr. Leopold Pötsch who touched Hitler’s imagination with exciting tales of the glory of German figures such as Bismark and Frederick The Great. For young Hitler, German Nationalism quickly became an obsession.

In January 1903, Hitler’s father died suddenly of a lung hemorrhage, leaving his thirteen year old son as head of the Hitler household.

Hitler’s World War I Service
When World War I was touched off by the assassination by a Serb of the heir to the Austrian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Hitler’s passions against foreigners, particularly Slavs, were inflamed. He was caught up in the patriotism of the time. In October 1916, he was wounded by an enemy shell and evacuated to a Berlin area hospital.

Soon after the war Hitler was recruited to join a military intelligence unit and was assigned to keep tabs on the German Worker’s Party. At the time, it was comprised of only a handful of members. It was disorganized and had no program, but its members expressed a right-wing doctrine consonant with Hitler’s. His blossoming hatred of the Jews became part of the organization’s political platform.

The turning point of Hitler’s mesmerizing oratorical career occurred at one such meeting held on October 16, 1919. Hitler’s emotional delivery of an impromptu speech captivated his audience. Through word of mouth, donations poured into the party’s coffers, and subsequent mass meetings attracted hundreds of Germans eager to hear the young, forceful and hypnotic leader.

In July 1921 Hitler became chairman of the party. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops marched into Germany to settle a reparations dispute. Germans resented this occupation, which also had an adverse effect on the economy. Hitler’s party benefitted by the reaction to this development, and exploited it by holding mass protest rallies despite a ban on such rallies by the local police.

The Nazi party began drawing thousands of new members, many of whom were victims of hyper-inflation and found comfort in blaming the Jews for this trouble. The price of an egg, for example, had inflated to 30 million times its original price in just 10 years. Economic upheaval generally breeds political upheaval, and Germany in the 1920s was no exception. ” 4

What Happens to Extinguish Empathy?

Another way to understand how a few bad seeds can gain control over others can be seen in the book, Zero Degrees of Empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen clarifies how the lack of empathy enables some to gain power from being cruel and dehumanizing others. 5

The evidence supports the involvement of some genetics. Of course experience in both one’s family and in the social system acts to alter circuits in the brain. Terrorists obviously lack empathy for their intended targets but not necessarily for their own families or members of “their group”. They see others as objects to manipulate for personal gain and have lost the ability to self regulate the way they treat others.

This dynamic occurs in milder forms in any group at school, at work or at home. It happens whenever one person becomes a bully, even a passive bully, taking advantage of others and forcing them into submission.

People do all kinds of things that impinge on others. You can make the case that most relationship systems keep some kind of balance between doing for others and doing for self. When people feel hurt they seek revenge. Sometimes the feelings of being hurt are far below the surface but in looking at the life story of people we can find reasons that might inspire or lead them to revenge People who are empathetic may drive the system towards doing for others, whereas those who have been hurt and are resentful tilt the system towards revenge.

Regulate Self and Rebalancing the System

Just in case anyone thinks they are above revenge oriented behavior let me say that bits of revenge and lack of empathy are in all of us. Yes, even “nice people” can be coercive. You don’t have to be a Hitler or Ben Laden to have a negative effect on people. The following example was chosen for its mildness and innocence. It demonstrates how one person can lead others astray, resulting in increased anxiety in a system, where some are suffering and others are benefiting. People can blindly and innocently gain control over others in a passive, not aggressive manner.

A wife can see that her husband is doing small things to undermine her, e.g. being late to dinner, forcing her to wait for him, encouraging the children to keep on playing instead of coming to dinner thereby aligning himself with his children as allies against their mother (his wife). The mother who is able to see this dynamic, without blaming or trying to force anyone to change, can comment on the dynamic as she sees it. She can confess her temptation to “force” others to behave, and/or encourage her husband and children to have fun cooking dinner while she goes to a movie whenever they are ten minutes late.

Cruelty and the Role of Neurotransmitters

Evidence exists to demonstrate that there are events in people’s lives that blunt the ability to be empathetic in relationships. Unfortunately bullies derive satisfaction and neurotransmitter rewards for being cruel. Cruelty is rewarded by increases in the neurotransmitters regulating pleasure.

Simon Baron-Cohen point makes the point that empathy exists in the general population on a continuum. We are all vulnerable to having this capacity extinguished when families or populations undergo extreme and seemingly unrelenting stress. 6

In Every System There is Vulnerability and Resiliency

This lack of empathy and the willingness to use others to gain power is also of great concern to the armed forces. In “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man”, Luke Morgelson describes how this operates in small groups of fighting men in Afghanistan. He reports on the killing of three Afghan civilians and the state of mind of the soldiers charged in their premeditated deaths. He describes how muted one’s own values become when threats from authority and those within the group blame others and then overly influence people to follow a confused but revenge-oriented leader.

Bowen described the problem of submission to others and the lack of empathy and or the ability to observe and take responsibility for self-regulation in the following way. This was his observation of families in his research project at National Institutes of Heath in 1956-60.

The relationship was conceptualized as locked in responsiveness that required the complete submission of one for the comfort of the other, and that neither of them wanted this self-perpetuating enigma in which either could block the effort of the other to free self.

The hypothesis further stated that the patient’s life growth force had been blunted in this intense relationship and that the growth force could be freed in a specific therapeutic milieu that toned down the tugging between mother and patient. This hypothesis was designed to help the therapist understand the mother patient relationship as a natural phenomenon for which no one is blamed, even by inference.

The concept – a tension system between two people will resolve itself in the presence of a third person who can avoid emotional participation with either while still actively relating to both, is so accurate that it can be used in family psychotherapy with the less severe problem.


In the stories of Hitler and bin Laden, both were struggling in their youth to be accepted by family members, teachers and peers. They lived in tensions systems. They rose to power through a charismatic ability to sell to others a “blame oriented” vision in which “others” were the cause of problems. A so called “better future” was simply a false promise that bound up a great deal of anxiety, propelling people to see others as the problem. Organized blame lead to great suffering in families and between nations. Due to the intense and instinctual feeling directed process, people loss any direct perception of reality. They see it the way the leader does or the way the group does. Many were willing and still are willing, to kill those problematic “others, and see it as righteous.”

What can we gain from observing and understanding this kind of instinctual driven madness and suffering?

Perhaps reflecting on this process of “other focused blaming,” can allow us to see how automatic and easy it is to blame, even those we care about. If we can see our humanness and our vulnerability to lose self and blame others, then we will have taken the first step in personal self regulation. One person at a time can dampen down fear and blame and learn to relate to people we are mad at in a different way. When this happens there is greater respect prompted by awareness of impersonal mechanism that regulate social systems. If we can see blame for what it is, just one way to distribute anxiety, that in an of itself can create the possibility of better future for the human.

The significance of great individuals is imaginary; as a matter of fact they are only history’s slaves realizing the decree of Providence.



Murray Bowen quoted in his chapter on Society, Crisis, and Systems Theory

Emotional reactiveness in a family, or in a group that lives or works together, goes from one family member to another in chain reaction pattern. The total pattern is similar to electronic circuits in which each person is “wired” or connected by radio, to all the other people with whom he has relationships. Each person then becomes a nodal point or an electronic center through which impulses pass in rapid succession . . .
Each person is programmed from birth to serve a certain set of functions and each “senses” what is required of them or expected, more from the way the system functions around him than from what is said . . .

There is another important set of variables that have to do with the way the family unit functions together. Each person becomes aware of his dependence on all the other nodal points. To be remembered is that each nodal point is “wired” to the others with two-way circuitry. There is a wide variety of subtle alliances for helping each other, refusing to help or hurting the other. The larger unit can punish a single member and a single member in a key position can hurt the whole unit.

Each person has varying degrees of ability for handling impulses, and an intellectual awareness for understanding the operations of the system.
The electronic model has the potential and the flexibility to accurately account for almost every item of human functioning, except that which is determined by biology and reproduction and evolution.

Murray Bowen,

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pages 420 421)

1) Neo-Nazi Father Is Killed; Son, 10, Steeped in Beliefs, Is Accused

A little more than 12 hours later, the police say, the boy stood near those stairs with a handgun and killed his father, Jeff Hall, as he lay on the living room couch. It was about 4 a.m. on May 1; paramedics declared Mr. Hall dead when they arrived. The police say that the killing was intentional, but that the motives behind it are still not fully understood. Mr. Hall devoted his life to the National Socialist Movement, the nation’s largest neo-Nazi party and had predicted that his political activities — in a world rife with hatred, suspicion and violence — would lead to his demise.

2) “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century,Penguin Press, 4/1, 2008, Steve Coll

3) January 24, 2000 Dept. of National Security ,The Real Bin Laden


5) The Science of Empathy, The Guardian: In examining brains of those lacking empathy it was found a decreased binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotonin receptors. Neuroimaging also reveals underactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and in the temporal cortex – all parts of the empathy circuit.
A novel approach has been to follow up people who were abused as children and scan their brains. It is novel because it is prospective rather than retrospective: the emotional damage was done in childhood and the scientific question is: “What happens to their brain?” Not all of them will be Type Bs, but a significant proportion will be. Such people again have abnormalities in the empathy circuit, such as having a smaller amygdala. This is also true of women who were sexually abused, who later show less grey matter in their left medial temporal cortex, compared to non-abused women. Smaller hippocampal volume is also found in people who experienced a trauma and went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One interpretation of all this evidence is that the early negative experiences of abuse and neglect change how the brain turns out.


7) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, 1977, P 190

8) War and Peace, Tolstoy, L. 2010, Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press Bk. IX, ch.

Once again many thanks to Judy Ball for her help with editing this blog.



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