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Cult Influence Tactics

(This page is written by my colleague Dr. Brad Sagarin
who researches resistance to persuasion. Thanks, Brad!)

The previous page introduced a single influence technique--one of many--used by cults to retain members. Cult influence tactics are powerful tools which, in the hands of an unscrupulous cult leader, can elicit extreme, and in some cases fatal, levels of compliance.

But we are far from defenseless against assaults on our minds. This page discusses four defenses we can bring to bear against cults: 1) detecting the warning signs of cult influence, 2) asking key questions to determine if an organization is a cult, 3) knowing how to protect ourselves at meetings we suspect may be cult recruitment attempts, and 4) understanding deprogramming and exit-counseling, the modern methods of escape.

Before jumping into the specifics, I'd like to briefly discuss an insidious psychological process called the "Self-serving Bias." This bias leads us to believe that we are immune to the influences that affect the rest of humanity. I run into this bias all the time when describing my work on resistance to persuasion: "I think it's great that you're trying to help people resist television ads. Of course, TV ads don't persuade me..."McInvulnerable's

The self-serving bias has been demonstrated countless times: the majority of Americans believe they are smarter and better looking than average; most drivers (even those hospitalized for accidents) believe themselves more skilled than the average driver; most smog-breathing Los Angelinos believe themselves healthier than their neighbors; most college students believe they will outlive their predicted age of death by 10 years, and so on.

The most ironic example of the self-serving bias that I've ever heard appeared in a social psychology paper written by one of Kelton's students. After the self-serving bias had been discussed in class, this student wrote:

"I don't understand why they say the self-serving bias is universal. I mean, I see it in other people, but I personally don't have a self-serving bias."

I'm not kidding, the student really wrote that!

The self-serving bias often manifests in innocuous or amusing ways, as in the examples above. But in the context of cult influence, this bias leaves us with a dangerous illusion of invulnerability: "I'm not the kind of mindless zombie who joins a cult." But very few mindless zombies join cults. Instead, as discussed on a previous page, the vast majority of cult recruits are normal, productive people--people confident in their ability to shrug off cult influence tactics. So, if I had to name the single most important defense against cult influence, it is the realization that we are all vulnerable--our friends, our families, and ourselves. (Note: Dr. Singer argues convincingly that false perceptions of invulnerability leave us particularly vulnerable, but this address will take you out of the Social Influence Website, so you may wish to bookmark this page before you leave.)

Two books were instrumental in providing material for the rest of this page: Steven Hassan's Combatting Cult Mind Control, and Margaret Thaler Singer's Cults in our Midst (they're in the bibliography). Both are highly recommended for those who want additional information.

The Nine Symptoms of Cult Influence

In the same way that a doctor looks for symptoms to help detect a disease, the following symptoms warn us that a family member or friend may have come under the influence of a cult. Of course, not all of these show up in every case, but they provide a red flag that something may be wrong. No single symptom may be conclusive, but you should be suspicious if you see several of the following symptoms together--and remember that the more quickly cult influence is detected, the easier the rescue.

  Personality changes: Do you find yourself saying, "He's a different person," or, "I don't know her anymore"? Destructive cults successfully replace their members' personalities with new identities.
 2 Dramatic shifts of values or beliefs: Of course, values and beliefs change gradually over a lifetime--but psychological research has shown that beliefs and values are highly resistant to dramatic short-term change. Such radical changes require extreme situational influences such as those provided by skilled cult leaders.
 3 Changes in diet or sleep patterns: Cults will often restrict the diet and sleep of members, possibly in an effort to hamper normal, rational thought processing. In addition, the vegetarian diets commonly required by cult leaders allow the cults to feed members cheaply.
  Refusal to attend important family events: Family members pose a strong threat to the influence of the cult. As such, many cults refuse to allow members to attend family events such as marriages, sick relatives, graduations, etc.
  Inability to make decisions without consulting a cult leader or guru: One of the signs of dependency upon a cult leader is the loss of personal autonomy.
 6 Sudden use of a new ideology to explain everything: Like a harpist playing an instrument with a single string, a cult member uses his or her new ideology to explain the entire world--even when it's wildly inappropriate.
  Black and white, simplistic reasoning: Underneath all the complicated jargon, you'll find a cult recruit dividing his or her world into 'good' and 'bad'. The shades of grey in which we all live are usually intolerable to a cult member.
  New vocabulary: Is the person suddenly using complex jargon to obscure irrational or simplistic thinking? (Although this could merely be a sign of attending graduate school!)
 9 Insistence that you do what they are doing: Recruitment is one of the first duties a new cult member is given. It consolidates the recruits beliefs while it inflates the cult's ranks.

Detecting destructive cults: The key questions to ask

If you've encountered an organization that has raised your suspicion, Steve Hassan recommends a number of questions you can ask to determine if the organization may be a cult.

QuestionWhat's the background of the leader of the organization? Does the leader have a criminal record?

Here are some previous professions of cult leaders: carnival barker, used car & encyclopedia salesman, science fiction writer. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with these occupations, but they provide an unusual resume for a spiritual leader. What all these occupations have in common, however, is that they're influence professions. Many cult leaders learned the tricks of the trade in a previous career. Some have run afoul of the law.

Question What's the power structure of the organization?

Unlike most established religions which employ a broad power structure with checks and balances, cults often have a pyramid structure, with one leader at the top demanding complete subservience from subordinates. Destructive commercial cults are often characterized by a similar pyramid structure with those at the top profiting from the work of those below.

Question Does the organization use deception to recruit new members?

Many cults use respectable sounding organizations as fronts. For example, what do the Freedom Leadership Foundation, the International Cultural Foundation, and Narcanon have in common? They are all fronts for cults. The Freedom Leadership Foundation and the International Cultural Foundation are owned by the Unification Church, while Narcanon is run by the Church of Scientology. Even more ominous is the Church of Scientology's recent acquisition of the Cult Awareness Network, previously a clearinghouse for crucial information about destructive cults.

Question Are you trying to recruit me?

This will work frequently, but not always. Some cults instruct their members to immediately deny a recruitment attempt. (However, I've found a similar question works wonders with telemarketers, too!)

Into enemy territory:
Resisting cult influence techniques on their home turf

Often, a new recruit will be encouraged to invite family and friends to an introductory meeting. If you receive such an invitation from your child, you've been given a valuable but risky opportunity to help your loved one escape. Once you're at the meeting, the cult members will probably try to isolate you from your child. This separation can be accomplished quite subtly: One minute you're sitting next to each other; the next minute, each of you is approached by a cult member who engages you in separate conversations, gradually moving away from each other until you're physically across the room from your child. Cults will often try to control your means of transportation, turning a two hour seminar into an overnight. Make sure you have your own way to leave - and approach with particular caution a group that refuses to let you drive to their meeting place.

And now, for a change of topic, Frames . . .

See Dr. Sagarin's Home Page here.
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