[Paleopsych] Tom Hobbs: Cult Influence Tactics
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Sat Oct 15 15:47:38 UTC 2005
Cult Influence Tactics
[Click on the URL and back up the directory tree to get more stuff, if you like
this. There are too many theories about cults, and I have no idea whether this
one is any better than any of the others. Thanks to Laird for this. He follows
cults as well as political extemists.]
Since cults make liberal use of many influence techniques, I find them
fascinating and study them whenever the chance arises. The following
page discusses cult influence tactics, but I think it's important
to first define what I mean when I use the word "cult," and examine
some important issues surrounding the topic before diving in.
"What exactly is a cult, anyway?"
A cult is a group of people who organize around a strong authority
figure. Cults, like many other groups, attempt to expand their
influence for the purposes of power or money. However, to achieve
these ends, destructive cults employ a potent mixture of influence
techniques and deception to attain psychological control over members
and new recruits. This fundamental level of control is known
alternatively as 'brainwashing,' 'thought reform,' or 'mind control.'
A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person's
former identity and replaces it with a new one. That new identity may
not be one that the person would have freely chosen under her own
volition (Hassan, 1990).
There are over 3,000 destructive cults in the US, with approximately 4
million members. They fall into 4 basic types:
* Religious -- the type we hear about most frequently;
* Psychological/Enlightenment -- offering expensive "enlightenment"
* Commercial -- including certain pyramid and multi-level marketing
* Political -- which are organized around a political dogma. Nazism
was originally a cult, and cults can still be found lurking in the
left and right wings of American politics.
Question "What's the difference between a cult. . . and my church, my
service club, or, say, Alcoholics Anonymous?"
There are lots of differences, but the major difference is that of
ultimate goal. Established religions and altruistic movements are
focused outward--they attempt to better the lives of members and
often, nonmembers. They make altruistic contributions. Cults serve
their own purposes, which are the purposes of the cult leader; their
energies are focused inward rather than outward (Singer, 1995). Also,
religions and altruistic movements typically lack the distinguishing
characteristics of overbearing authoritarian control, the use of
deception in recruitment, the use of coercive influence techniques,
and the replacement of one identity with another which would not have
been freely chosen by the individual before joining the group (Hassan,
Upon hearing about cult influence techniques, some of my students
reason thus: if cults use influence tactics A, B, and C, and my church
(or health club or debate team) also uses influence tactics A, B, & C,
then my church (or other group) is no different from a cult.
This sort of reasoning represents the logical fallacy called
"affirming the consequent."
Here's the same type of argument using a different example. Fact 1:
When it rains, the sidewalk gets wet. Fact 2: The sidewalk is wet.
Conclusion: It must have rained. You can see that there are a myriad
of other reasons that might have caused a wet sidewalk, including the
neighbor's garden hose, your leaky can of soda, the neighbor's dog
(yuk!), or a universe of other wetting agents. Similarly, there are a
number of other defining characteristics that make a cult a cult,
aside from the influence tactics they use.
Question "What kinds of people join cults? What's wrong with them?"
In the wake of the UFO/Heaven's Gate cult suicide, I have heard
several media personalities ask these questions of former and current
cult members. The questions make me laugh, because they're a perfect
example of how the wrong questions can frame and obscure an issue.
Even when cult experts correctly point to the powerful environmental
constraints generated by cults, rather than to the personalities and
backgrounds of individual cult members, these media personalities
single-mindedly press the question, "But what's wrong with cult
members?" The answer, for the vast majority of inductees, is that
there was nothing "wrong" with them--at least, not until they were
persuaded to join a cult. Cult Frequencies
For the most part, normal, average people join cults--people like you
and me. Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of cult
members are psychologically healthy people that come from normal
families. The remaining third are likely to have depressive symptoms,
usually related to a personal loss--perhaps a death in the family, a
failed romantic relationship, or career troubles. Only 5 to 6 percent
of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to
joining a cult (Singer, 1995). Cults don't want, and don't recruit,
people with psychological problems or physical handicaps--they
represent a loss rather than a gain of cult-oriented productivity.
Cults prefer intelligent, productive individuals who are able to
contribute money and talent to "the cause," whatever it may be
Here's some psychological background that can provide insight
regarding cult induction--it's somewhat dense, so buckle in and hang
Behavior is a function of both a person's personality and her
situation (those of you who've taken psychology may recall the classic
Lewinian formulation B=f[P,E] which indicates that behavior is a
function of, or an interaction of, both the personality and the
environment). One of social psychology's great discoveries has been
the overwhelming influence that the environment--the immediate
situation--exerts on people's behavior. Yet, when assigning cause,
observers will usually attribute cause to a person's personality, not
the constraints of the environment.
This is such a persistent and reliable human bias--to assign cause to
the person rather than to the environment--that it has been given the
name of "the fundamental attribution error."
The fact is, the environment can easily dominate personality-based
differences among people, making person differences a relatively minor
variable in the equation. In other words, given a powerful and
engaging situation, people often react to it in a uniformly similar
fashion, regardless of personality differences. This truism has been
demonstrated numerous times in the laboratory (Sharif, Asch, Milgram.
. .) and more frighteningly, in real life (Nazism, Bolshevism, Jim
Jones . . .). Enviro vs. Personality
True to this discovery, there appears to be no reliable personality
factor that predicts cult membership. However, certain situational
elements make people more vulnerable to cult recruitment, and they
include: loneliness (as experienced by someone who has recently moved
to a new location); depression (as we feel after a failed
relationship); and uncertainty about how to proceed (as I felt when I
first went to college). These situations create the desire for quick,
simple solutions. Cults provide a myriad of "solutions," which are
more importantly accompanied by structure, authority, and close social
contacts--elements that people want, need, and which most of us take
for granted in the course of our everyday lives.
According to psychologist and cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer,
cults flourish during periods of social and political turbulence and
"during breakdowns in the structure and rules of the prevailing
society." Cults were prevalent after the fall of Rome, during the
French Revolution, and in England during the Industrial Revolution.
Cults arose in Japan after World War II, and in Eastern Europe after
the breakup of the Communist regime. Here in America, cults flourished
during the rule of the 1960s counterculture. Civil unrest, the drug
culture, the sexual revolution, and the weakening of the family left
people looking for answers and assurance--which cults enthusiastically
Question "OK, so how do they do it? How do cults recruit an keep
members, and then get them to behave in irrational and sometimes
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