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Psychological Cloning

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 20 - May 1997

Dolly the smiling sheep has her fetching photo on the front page of almost every newspaper I have seen recently, and the usual media pundits are discussing cloning everywhere I look. All this talk about the ethics and dangers of biological duplication are necessary and desirable; for myself, however, I am more inclined to ponder over the perhaps more pernicious and widespread phenomenon which could be called "psychological cloning".

Two or more people with the same ideas, thought processes, feelings, values, inclinations, all the way down the line. Or even more dangerously, a group of such identical clones, all with the same overwhelming fixation.

On the most basic level, we all learn from others, usually the older, stronger, important people in our lives. And we inevitably gradually begin to imitate their actions, and "identify" with them. With varying degrees of awareness, our behaviour becomes modelled after their example. According to Freud, this kind of Identification or imitating the style and behaviour of another person, as for example, a son becoming a carbon copy of his father, is the natural and unavoidable way in which a boy becomes a man, a real man.

Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt Therapy), on the other hand, pointed out the dangers and limitations of this process. He called it "Introjection" – swallowing indiscriminately whatever is offered from others. The "victim" doesn't understand and nor does he assimilate what he is taking in (it's a bit like cramming for an exam the night before; one swallows the information whole without integrating it or comprehending what it's all about). Perls believed that the problem with this – identification or introjection, whatever one calls it, is that it limits oneself. The more undigested bits of some foreign organism one swallows, the less space remains for one's own Self. By being overly influenced by some other person, who is usually a stronger, over-powering figure, a person develops into a mere copy, psychologically speaking, with diminished prospects for growth.

According to Paul Goodman, Perls' critique of the Freudian concept of identification as a positive structure for human development was one of his main contributions to psychology and psychotherapy. A boy does not need to identify with his father to grow up into manhood; better to get rid of the "father introject" and become his "own man".

So it is clearly a fairly common event that one person unwittingly becomes a kind of "psychological clone" of another. One observer compares it to the movements of planetary bodies: a large body such as the Sun pulls the Earth into its orbit; and the Earth likewise dominates the movement of the Moon. The smaller ones gravitate into the field of the dominant body. Such is the world of the astronomer. In the everyday social world of the psychological observer, one might describe it like this: Some people have a reverberating effect on others in a social setting; for example, whenever big John comes into a room (he's one of those people who "make the weather", one might say), he has an immediate effect on the social behaviour of both Sally and Sam, who come over and pay homage to him reverently at once. One could say that his stronger gravitational force draws them into orbit around him.

Perhaps "charisma" is another way of putting it. Some people possess this quality, and thus are able to influence others around them to the extent that they may become slaves to the master, or clones...

In a more sinister vein, some people deliberately set out to dominate and mould other individuals into copies of themselves. What comes to mind just now is the example of cults. Many of these cults, which are growing as we approach the millennium, are directed by a powerful and charismatic figure who has the goal and the ability to dominate the other members of the group in a kind of master-slave relationship. The keynote of such cults is that everyone must think alike and look alike – think of the Hare Krishna unique hair styling and the coloured robes uniform, for example. Today in the news is the shocking story of the Heaven's Gate cult in San Diego, USA, which culminated in the group suicide of 39 members and its leader. Note that they all had the identical costume – black clothes, black sport shoes, etc. and of course shared the same clipped hairstyle.

Complete regimentation and domination by the leader, in this case, a Mr Applewhite. Men and women were identical...100% regimentation to the end.

From Waiting for Godot to Waiting for the Comet.

Here was the ultimate example of human cloning, the feckless followers of Mr Applewhite had adopted all of his weird belief systems, including the notion that there would be a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet which would transport them all to a better world. Simple logic doesn't work any more at this level of introjection.

This, of course, is an extreme example, but group cloning may be found in more benevolent contexts. Some therapy groups unfortunately aim for a kind of cloning by eliminating any sign of individualism. They may use such soft tactics as the leader announcing: "Now, everyone embrace each other", etc. Some people may not wish to do so, but follow orders anyway, thus swallowing the authority figure and diminishing their own growth. A skilled therapist always seeks to avoid such group pressure by allowing individuals to express their "No" and resistance to the group norm. Persuading everyone to think and act alike is inimical to true group therapy and only aids the self-diminishing process of introjection and "group cloning".

More commonly, we see psychological cloning within the family group. A few days ago I was on the bus and couldn't help noticing a mother and her son. The boy, around 14 or 15, was already beginning to resemble his mother to a great extent. In addition to the same face and voice – he complained and whined in the same high-pitched tone as his mother (it was uncanny), he had developed his mother's pudgy, round body shape, enormous hips for a small lad. Whether this was due to genes or as a result of introjection in this instance, I had no opportunity to assess, but similar sights can be spotted every day. People who live together tend to resemble one another; many men I know, as they get older, begin more and more to look like their mothers.

Some psychologists have coined the phrase "identification with the aggressor", to refer to those special circumstances in which a person imitates exactly the style and behaviour of the stronger one that has power over him. Similar to the everyday notion – if you can't beat them, join them. Thus do prisoners become like their guards. The hated one is annihilated by swallowing and blotting out the environment. This probably only works up to a point; as the identification intensifies, then the energy is turned against the self, or one eventually becomes free.

This reminds me of a passage I read in a recent book on Wittgenstein, who was a rather dominating soul. A man describes meeting him and later states: "Meeting Wittgenstein was the most exciting day in my life, and I wouldn't want to meet him one more day". Here one senses a man drawing back from the possibility of being too easily influenced by the genius of a powerful mind.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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