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Cult Influence Tactics

From my perspective as a long-time student of influence, let me state--with disappointment--that I can find nothing magic, supernatural, fantastic, or even extraordinary in the way that members are attracted to and kept in cults. I'm as fascinated with "magic bullet" theories as anyone, and yet I can find almost nothing in the cultist's repertoire that isn't already in the social influence literature.Marshall Applewhite

I'm reminded of an old German education teacher I had in college who also happened to be a magician. He would sometimes entertain us with an unexpected magic trick during class. If you happened to compliment him on his ability, he'e mumble, "Keine Hexerei, nur Behändigskraft." Which he taught me means: "No magic, just craftsmanship." And that is exactly the case with cultic master manipulators like Applewhite, pictured to the right. They use a powerful mix of tactics--an unethical craftsmanship of influence, if you will--the great majority of which are widely known and studied by social psychologists. No magic, just craftsmanship.

I've been able to identify about 30 influence tactics (depending on how finely you make the divisions within types), which are used to varying degrees in cults. They appear to group themselves into two types: the first set are used to attract recruits (I call these get-tactics), and the second set are used to keep members (I call these keep-tactics). There's considerable overlap between the two, but I make the distinction because the keep-tactics are largely unpersuasive to a new recruit, while the get-tactics are too time-consuming, subtle, and effortful to maintain control of committed members.

I'll only discuss a single keep-tactic at this website. I would certainly never want this website to be considered a source of cult influence tactics, and the single tactic that I do present is a common one, already known by any cult leader worth his salt.

The Hot-Seat Technique. Imagine you enter a dimly-lit room inside the cult compound and you see the cult members sitting in a large circle around a centrally-located chair. At the summons of the leader, an individual cult member slowly rises, walks toward the chair, and sits. The leader says, "Tell us your shortcomings this week, Aaron. Purify yourself by confessing to us all." And so Aaron thinks, and then begins to speak. "Well, I doubted our teachings about the afterlife for a few moments on Monday. And I felt base sexual desire toward a woman on Tuesday. . ." and so on. His confession is met with a combination of alternating disapproval for his confessions and praise for "coming clean" by the rest of the group. As Aaron becomes overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of his hideous sins, he begins to weep, and is exhorted by the leader to improve himself, to resist doubts and base urges, etc., and redirects Aaron's confessional into an extemporaneous exhortation to the group, which largely humiliates Aaron, while simultaneously lauding him for his confession.

The primary purpose of this exercise is to reduce self-esteem. It's an excellent example of a social influence principle that states the following: A person with low self-esteem will be more persuadable than a person with high self-esteem when the advocated message is weak. Notice the important qualifier: "...when the advocated message is weak." There's no simple linear relationship between self-esteem and persuasion. Self-esteem Graph

The prominent persuasion researcher William McGuire first proposed the relationship between the two variables in 1969. He reasoned thus: a person low in self-esteem will be more accepting to persuasive messages because they place more credence in other people. On the other hand, he reasoned, they should also be less attentive to persuasive messages, since low self-esteem and depressed people tend to be more inwardly focused. McGuire predicted the opposite for the other end of the curve: people high in self-esteem should be less accepting but more attentive and thus better able to comprehend a message. Given that both low-and high-self-esteemers have some sort of barrier against persuasive messages, the two should appear somewhat similar in terms of persuasion. The most persuadable people, McGuire reasoned, would be those in the middle of the self-esteem scale who were outwardly-oriented enough to receive and comprehend the message but not so self-confident that they dismissed a new idea out-of-hand. Indeed, a meta-analysis conducted by Rhodes and Wood (1992) confirmed this curvilinear relationship.

But there's a qualification: when the message that's being advocated is weak and without merit or reason, the message will be rejected by both high- and moderate-self-esteemers. Thus, with an inherently unpersuasive message--such as the fantastic and bizarre inventions of cult leaders-- members who regularly have their self-esteem deflated will remain convinced. And how better to do that but in a public display of culpability.

Now that you know how the principle works, listen to a bit of conversation I transcribed from a Prime Time "Live" [sic! It was all pre-recorded!] program interviewing Rio D'Angelo, the 40th member of Applewhite's UFO/Heaven's Gate cult who did not commit suicide. When asked about the cult's "Individual Needs" department, which procured basic supplies, D'Angelo responded with the following quote. As you read it, look for evidence of lowered self-esteem.

L.Quo."If I were to write an note to Individual Needs, for deodorant, for example, or a toothbrush, or something, I would say that um, um, 'I may be wrong but it seems that my deodorant may running out.' Now the reason for that is because we have been taught to not be so confident in what we're saying to be true. For example, there may be some possibility that my deodorant isn't running out. And I may have the wrong deodorant."

Here's clear evidence of lowered self-esteem in the remaining member of the UFO/Heaven's Gate cult. In fact, D'Angelo admits to having been trained to "not be so confident!" Social influence works; in this case, the principle of lowered self-esteem in combination with an otherworldly set of beliefs helped retain D'Angelo in the cult--even after 98% of his fellow members were dead! "Who am I to say they're dead?" a devout member might reason. "There may be some possibility that they aren't dead. Or I may have seen dead people from the wrong cult. Who am I to say?"

Continued . . .

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

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