Love bombing is an attempt to influence a person by demonstrations of attention and affection. It can be used in different ways and for either positive or negative purposes.
Members of the Unification Church of the United States (who coined the expression) use it to convey a genuine expression of friendship, fellowship, interest, or concern. Psychologists have identified love bombing as a possible part of a cycle of abuse and have warned against it. Critics of cults use the phrase with the implication that the "love" is feigned and that the practice is psychological manipulation in order to create a feeling of unity within the group against a society perceived as hostile. In 2011 clinical psychologist Oliver James advocated love bombing in his book Love Bombing: Reset Your Child's Emotional Thermostat, as a means for parents to rectify emotional problems in their children.
Origin of the term
The expression "love bombing" was coined by members of the Unification Church of the United States in the 1970s and was also used by members of the Family International. In 1978 Sun Myung Moon, the founder and then leader of the Unification Church, said:
Unification Church members are smiling all of the time, even at four in the morning. The man who is full of love must live that way. When you go out witnessing you can caress the wall and say that it can expect you to witness well and be smiling when you return. What face could better represent love than a smiling face? This is why we talk about love bomb; Moonies have that kind of happy problem.
A basic human need is for self-esteem.... Basically [love bombing] consists of giving someone a lot of positive attention.
As soon as any interest is shown by the recruits, they may be love bombed by the recruiter or other cult members. This process of feigning friendship and interest in the recruit was originally associated with one of the early youth cults, but soon it was taken up by a number of groups as part of their program for luring people in. Love bombing is a coordinated effort, usually under the direction of leadership, that involves long-term members' flooding recruits and newer members with flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark. Love bombing – or the offer of instant companionship – is a deceptive ploy accounting for many successful recruitment drives.
The expression has also been used to describe the tactics used by pimps and gang members to control their victims. Modern social media can intensify the effect of love bombing since it enables the abuser with nearly constant contact and communication with the victim.
One of the signs of love bombing in the start of a relationship is much attention in short time and pressure for very rapid commitment. Psychologist Dale Archer identifies "The Phases of Love Bombing: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard (Repeat)." He advises: "Stop, Look, and Listen" to avoid love bombing and to break off contact with the abuser, if possible, and seek support from family and friends.
Excessive attention and affection does not constitute love bombing if there is no intent or pattern of further abuse. Archer explains:
The key to understanding how love bombing differs from romantic courtship is to look at what happens next, after two people are officially a couple. If extravagant displays of affection continue indefinitely, if actions match words, and there is no devaluation phase, then it’s probably not love bombing. That much attention might get annoying after a while, but it’s not unhealthy in and of itself.
In the 2010s British author and psychologist Oliver James recommended love bombing as a technique for parents to help their troubled children. He described it as, “dedicating one-on-one time spoiling and lavishing your child with love, and, within reason, pandering to their every wish.” A reporter for The Daily Express tried the technique with her son and reported:
It’s not rocket science that showering a child with affection will impact positively on their behaviour but what surprised me was how much my behaviour changed. Love bombing enabled me to see my child through a fresh lens, my disposition towards him softened and he seemed to bask in the glow of positive attention.
Evolutionary Psychology analysis
Geri-Ann Galanti (in a sympathetic article) writes: "A basic human need is for self-esteem. . . . Basically [love bombing] consists of giving someone a lot of positive attention."
Keith Henson has attempted to explain in evolutionary psychology terms how love bombing works. It is based on the idea that the brain evolved in a social context and that attention from others acts as a reward for reasons rooted in stone age evolution.
"It should come as no surprise that this powerful reward mechanism can be taken over by drug-induced rewards, but this is not the only way the brain reward system can be hijacked. Memes . . . which manifest as cults and related social movements have "discovered" the brain's reward system as well. Successful cult memes induce intense social interaction behavior between cult members. This trips the attention detectors. Tripping the detectors causes the release of reward chemicals . . . . Anyone who has ever had the feeling of being higher than a kite after giving a public speech is well aware of the effects of attention.
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- California State University profile Archived 2002-06-17 at the Wayback Machine
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- Dale Archer, The manipulative partner’s most devious tactic, Psychology Today, March 6, 2017
- Lindsay Dodgson, what is love bombing?, Business Insider, July 30, 2017
- Love bombing kids to get happy results, The Daily Telegraph, February 22, 2011.
- 'Love bombing' reminds parents how much fun it is to be with kids, The Australian, March 2, 2013.
- It took one day to change my son’s bad behaviour, The Daily Express, June 30, 2011.
- Quoted in Hijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot Machine By SANDRA BLAKESLEE, New York Times February 19, 2002.
- From Sex, Drugs, and Cults. An evolutionary psychology perspective on why and how cult memes get a drug-like hold on people, and what might be done to mitigate the effects, The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 343–355