The church I grew up in had a strange habit: Whenever a prospective new convert was introduced, members would virtually smother that person with affection. They would say repeatedly how much they love the person and would shower him or her with gifts, favors, and other tokens of affection that most of us reserve for people we know well. All of this was done to make the new person feel welcomed and part of the family…and it continued unabated as long as the prospective convert showed interest in joining the church. If the person decided this wasn’t the right church for him or her, however, all the love and affection disappeared as quickly as it had started.
It wasn’t until I became a social scientist that I discovered the name for this practice: love bombing. It’s most commonly observed in religious organizations, especially cults, who use the behavior to attract and retain new members. By showering people with attention and affection, love bombing feeds the need to belong—our deep and abiding need for social inclusion. It’s a deceptive, manipulative practice, given that the “love” is always contingent on the recipient’s decision to commit to the organization. Nonetheless, it can be powerfully persuasive, because few of us enjoy rejecting love and attention from others.
Love bombing is an extreme example of something that turns out to be relatively common—something I call “toxic affection.” If affection is the expression of love and fondness, then toxic affection is any such expression that has an ulterior motive. Perhaps I say I love you because I really do, and I want you to know that. Or, perhaps I say it only because I want to sleep with you, want to borrow money from you, or just want you to say it back to me. Using affection as a form of persuasion is often successful for the same reason that love bombing is: we want and need to be loved.
A few years ago, I surveyed a thousand college undergraduates from around the country to see how common this behavior was. I asked the students if they had ever expressed affection to someone when they didn’t really feel it, but had an ulterior motive; and, if so, what their motive was. Nearly 90% of the participants said they had used affection in a persuasive or manipulative way—and of those, more than have had done so at least once within the previous month. There were no effects of sex, ethnicity, or marital status on the tendency to use affection in this manner.
The participants identified a variety of motives for their behavior. Some were relationship-centered motives, such as sustaining a relationship or avoiding conflict. Others were recipient-centered motives, such as expressing sympathy or avoiding hurt feelings. Many, however, expressed self-centered motives, such as eliciting money, sexual access, instrumental help, or forgiveness for a past indiscretion.
These uses of affection differ from love bombing only in degree, not in kind. Toxic affection is so named because it harms recipients by taking advantage of their need for inclusion without actually offering inclusion. When exposed, it erodes trust in the provider and confidence in the relationship. Unfortunately, toxic affection is observed most frequently in those relationships that should inspire trust, such as with close friends and loved ones or in a community of worship.