Cults in Our Midst

Excerpts from "Cults in Our Midst", Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., Copyright 2003. Utilized under applicable "fair use" doctrines.

Back to





Psychological Persuasion


Naturalistic Trance Induction

Guided Imagery

Indirect Directives

Peer Pressure and Modeling

Emotional Manipulation




Psychological Persuasion [top]

Cult leaders do not have schools of persuasion to attend. They become masters of the folk art of human manipulation through testing and observing what works. They modify their approaches and techniques and use centuries-old manipulative devices to lead people to change. There is no school of persuasion, but there are many ways to learn how to manipulate people. You can go to the library and read how confidence games are run and how street scams and hustles are worked by bunco artists. You can learn from reading newspapers and the popular press and from watching how salespeople operate and how street-smart people lead and hustle others to do their bidding. If you want to study more academic sources, there are good books in social psychology spelling out how influence is manipulated and how group process affects behavior. You can read the classic works on thought reform and brainwashing and catch on to the use of "struggle groups" and the mobilization of peer pressure. Indeed, the folk art of human manipulation and persuasion can be learned and perfected.

 There is no end to the ways a person can learn to manipulate others, especially if that person has no conscience, feels no guilt over living off the labors and money of others, and is determined to lead. As parents, teachers, clergy, and others who attempt to get people to change their behavior are painfully aware, however, simply suggesting or hinting to someone that he or she should do something, and even ordering or telling someone to do something, may not evoke that person’s cooperation. Even threats may not gain compliance. So how do some cult leaders manage to manipulate people so successfully?

 They use a combination of persuasion techniques: the physiological ones outlined in the previous chapter and the psychological ones described in this chapter. Here, we explore the use of trance and hypnosis, trickery, personal history revision, emotional manipulation, and the all-important peer pressure. No matter which techniques are used, the resultant behavioral change, as we saw in Chapter Three, continues to be accomplished in small incremental steps.


Hypnosis [top]

 Hypnosis is classed as a psychological rather than a physiological method because it is essentially a form of highly focused mental concentration in which one person allows another to structure the object of the concentration and simultaneously suspends critical judgment and peripheral awareness. When this method is used in a cultic environment, it becomes a form of psychological manipulation and coercion because the cult leader implants suggestions aimed at his own agenda while the person is in a vulnerable state.

A trance is a phenomenon in which our consciousness or awareness is modified. Our awareness seems to split as our active critical-evaluative thinking dims, and we slip from an active into a passive-receptive mode of mental processing. We listen or look without reflection or evaluation. We suspend rational analysis, independent judgment, and conscious decision making about what we are hearing or taking in. We lose the boundaries between what we wish were true and what is factual. Imagination and reality intertwine, and our self and the selves of others seem more like one self. Our mental gears shift into receptivity, leaving active mental processing in neutral.

Trancelike states can occur during hypnosis, during complete absorption in reading or hearing stories, and during marked concentration. They are sometimes referred to as altered states of consciousness. While in an altered state, for the most part we experience an absence of our usual generalized reality orientation (GRO) -- that is, we are not actively noticing or aware of our environment and our part in it. In normal waking life, our GRO is our frame of reference, serving as background to our ongoing conscious experiences, our awareness. Our GRO shapes a context within which we interpret what is going on. This frame of reference can fade away under certain circumstances: hypnosis, meditation, guided imagery, drug use, fatigue, and sensory deprivation. When our GRO is weakened, we become both more suggestible to outside influences and more influenced by inner fantasies.

A number of cults use techniques that put people into an altered state of consciousness, making them more compliant. I am not saying that cult members walk around mesmerized, tranced out, and hypnotized for years on end. What I am saying is this: many cults and groups that use thought-reform techniques engage members in a fair amount of behavior that induces trances, as evidenced by the types and quality of the lectures and sermons and the required activities, such as prolonged chanting or meditation, and repetitive rote behavior. When transient trance states are induced, they may be inadvertent by-products of the group's exercises and methods of using language, or they may well be induced by design, although often not identified by the group as trance-inducing techniques. The most common procedure used is known as naturalistic trance induction, and many cults have relied on this technique.

One of the best explanations of how to go about inducing human cooperation and compliance in certain settings grows out of studies done of such naturalistic trance inductions. In the professional world of psychology, these indirect trance inductions were designed to bypass the usual resistance of patients who sought help but also resisted change when given direct instructions or suggestions. Naturalistic trance induction is also the model for some of the maneuvers used by cult leaders to change the attitudes and behaviors of their followers.


Naturalistic Trance Induction [top]

The work of Milton Erickson, a renowned medical hypnotist, and his colleagues provides an excellent compilation of the methods and techniques that can be used to elicit cooperation and decrease resistance to change. A number of these techniques are among the processes we see used in cults.

Milton Erickson was interested in hypnosis and trance in a very special way. As both a researcher in hypnosis and an experienced psychiatrist, he knew how difficult it is to help people change, especially when they must change their habit patterns. Dedicated to helping people, Erickson devised a unique way of treating his patients, and his work offers one of the clearest explanations of how ordinary words, conversational style, and careful pacing and leading of an interaction can bring one person to the point of being able to secure the cooperation of another person without using pressure, high-demand announcements, or commands.

Until Erickson's work became known, most persons who employed trances -- whether they were stage hypnotists, scientists studying hypnosis, or dentists and others using it to reduce pain and anxiety -- relied on formal trance inductions, procedures clearly announced to the patient -- "I am going to hypnotize you. Please close your eyes and relax." Erickson redefined hypnosis, seeing it as an interchange between two people in which the hypnotist gains the subject's cooperation, deals in various ways with resistance to cooperation, and promotes acknowledgment from the person that something is happening. Through this process, the hypnotherapist indirectly suggests the behavioral changes the patient comes to make.

During Erickson's naturalistic inductions, he did not announce, "We are now doing hypnosis." Nor did he even mention that "this is hypnosis." Instead, he "paced and led" the person he was working with into whatever levels of trance the person could attain at a particular time. People who went to him knowing his fame as a medical hypnotist found themselves sitting talking with him, hearing him tell tales and chatting along disarmingly, unaware that what was transpiring between them was producing trances of varying depths. As a result of these interactions, the patients' attitudes toward themselves and life were changing. Erickson's development of naturalistic trance induction was a major contribution to therapeutic intervention.

A critical difference between Milton Erickson's work and cult leaders' methods is that Erickson kept the best interests of his patients foremost and did nothing self-serving with what he recognized as a very powerful means of changing people. He used influence techniques to help his patients change for their own betterment and based his treatment methods on decades of astute and careful observations of patients. Nevertheless, Erickson's carefully noted observations on influence help us recognize and label the techniques put into play in cults and thought-reform groups. In Chapter Three, I outlined what thought reform is and the three stages unfreezing, changing, and refreezing a person's attitudes and behavior. Erickson's work gives us a way to understand the context in which the moment-to-moment alterations take place and the methods used during the process of change induction.

It is the naturalistic trance induction that is likely to occur in cults, thought-reform groups, and some New Age groups. Most leaders of these groups probably do not consider what they are doing as trance induction. However, even when trances per se are not produced, the activities of skilled recruiters and cult leaders capitalize on the essential ingredients of pacing and leading, exploiting positive transference (discussed later in the chapter), and making indirect suggestions, all of which are central to the processes of hypnosis and trance.

It is my contention that a number of speeches given by certain cult leaders, and some group chants, fit the criteria for producing transient levels of trance. For example, one of my graduate students made a comparison of the taped speeches of charismatic cult leaders, television evangelists, and mainstream church leaders, looking for persuasive and trance-inducing qualities. Her findings, based on the evaluations of trained raters, showed that the speeches by cult leaders and fundamentalist evangelists had more hypnotic qualities than those of the mainstream church leaders.

Cult members are also trained and rehearsed in certain styles of presentation and taught to look for the desired effects in as many listeners as possible. For example, a man who had become an elder in a Bible cult was presented with typed-out lectures and instructions from his leader in how to repeat phrases over and over in specially cadenced singsongs. The leader taught him how to make a short one-page lecture with biblical quotes stretch out for an hour or longer. An informal survey of ministers and people familiar with giving public speeches shows that a similar page would take them about three minutes to present aloud, even a bit slowly. The man said he knew church members were being "tranced out" as he spoke, and he was given great prestige in the group because he followed the coaching well and could imitate the leader's ways of giving the sermons.

One widely used trance induction process, described in the work of Hillel Zeitlin, is to evoke universal experiences, as is done in these words: "Who among us has not stood on a hillside, looking out over a valley...and felt some mysterious emotion welling up in our heart?" Evoking a feeling or universality in a person helps the speaker solicit cooperation from that person.

Sometimes the induction method is speech filled with paradox and discrepancy -- that is, the message is not logical and you are unable to follow it, but it is presented as though it were logical. Trying to follow what is being said can actually detach the listener from reality. A good example of this technique comes from cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's comments at an initiation ceremony in which he gave each disciple a new name along with directives to wear first orange- and then plum-colored clothing and a necklace with his picture on it. Reading what Rajneesh said can give you a feeling for what words can do to cause a person to enter a light trance, or space out.

First, the picture is not mine. The picture only appears to be mine. No picture of me is really possible. The moment one knows oneself, one knows something that cannot be depicted, described, framed. I exist as an emptiness that cannot be pictured, that cannot be photographed. That is why I could put the picture there...The more you know the picture -- the more you concentrate on it, the more you come in tune with it -- the more you will feel what I am saying. The more you concentrate on it, the more there will not be a picture there.

Rajneesh perhaps was aware of the common human response to doing something repetitively: the repeated act can lose meaning. Children catch on, for example, to how they can say their names over and over until they have no meaning. In the quotation, Rajneesh is capitalizing on the way words commonly lose meaning through banal repetition. In relation to a trancelike state, he is also implanting the suggestion that "the more you concentrate on it, the more there will not be any picture there."


Guided Imagery [top]

Indirect trance induction also grows out of storytelling and other verbal experiences. Cult leaders often speak repetitively, rhythmically, in hard-to-follow ways, and combine with these features the telling of tales and parables that are highly visualizable. They use words to create mental imagery, commonly called guided imagery.

In these guided-imagery exercises, the listener is urged to picture the story being told. The speaker may say, "Stop reflecting. Just go with the picture." Those who do stop reflecting on their nearby circumstances and go with the picture suddenly feel absorbed, relaxed, and very focused. And guided-imagery stories lead many people to experience altered states of consciousness.

A considerable number of different guided-imagery techniques are used by cult leaders and trainers to remove followers from their normal frames of reference. One technique is to tell long detailed stories that hold listeners' attention and get them absorbed, while lowering their awareness of the reality around them. As a result, they enter a trancelike state in which they are more likely to heed the suggestions and absorb the content of what is being said than if they were listening in an evaluative, rational way. The leaders who use guided imagery and other verbal techniques navigate through these exercises according to how much the listeners seem to be attaching to the words, how submerged and quiet they become.

For many persons, entering a trance state is pleasurable. It provides a respite from thought about the woes of everyday life. Thus, for example, about sixty years ago, people used to get together to read trance poetry. This poetry was an aspect of Romanticism, a nineteenth-century literary, philosophical, and artistic movement that was a reaction to an earlier neoclassical movement focused on intellectualism. Among the influences on Romantic poetry were mesmerism, the opium-induced hallucinations of British writer Thomas De Quincey, and Germanic authors' stress on imagination. When read aloud under suitable circumstances, a number of poems from this period have a decided trance-inducing effect. Poems such as Poe's "Annabel Lee," Gray's "Elegy," Tennyson's "Bugle Song," and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are of this type. Early in this century, groups would gather to have a good reader read such poetry aloud in order to induce a condition of rapt attention and intense emotional responsivity in a sizable portion of the audience. Some reported the experience was intense enough to be called "sublime ecstasy." These group readings, as well as solitary silent readings of certain kinds of poems, produced what are best called trance-augmented aesthetic experiences.

Students of this phenomenon have listed six qualities of trance-inducing poetry: (1) freedom from abruptness, (2) marked regularity of soothing rhythm, (3) refrain and frequent repetition, (4) ornamented harmonious rhythm to fix attention, (5) vagueness of imagery, and (6) fatiguing obscurities. It is these very qualities that can be identified in analyzing the speech of many cult leaders, particularly when they are addressing groups of members and sympathizers.

Some leaders combine storytelling imagery with shouting, rhythmic clapping, and dancing to induce altered states. These processes, the reader will recognize, combine both overbreathing and trance induction in one event. So not all guided imagery is quiet, and surely not all cult leaders know the details of how trance induction through absorption works or the intricacies of hyperventilation. But from what has been described to me and others, I believe that the successful cult leaders monitor, observe, and learn from what they try and, as needed, revise and reformulate the folk art of persuasion.

One leader of a Bible cult repeated long, colorful tales of his childhood as the content for his guided imagery. The history he told was later found by ex-members to be mostly fictional. The main thrust of his tales was to point out how pure and clean and innocent he was as a child. He explained that these traits led him to his special mission as a leader. Ex-members recalled that they spaced out during his tales and left the meetings feeling subdued and obedient. Interestingly, they said his guided imagery often was about achieving a mind such as he had had as a child: "Get your mind as it once was, the mind of a child, free and innocent, not a thought in your mind. Let me think for you."

Some of the psychotherapy cults and thought-reform groups use guided imagery to regress members back to childhood. The purpose is to stir up recall of past pain and loneliness and, at the same time, induce members to blame their parents for allowing them to be alone and neglected when they were children. The following brief sample of a regression technique comes from a man who had been in a group that used a great deal of visualization. He was told:

Close your eyes and go back in time to your childhood. See yourself at about age six. It is like a dream. you see yourself in a woods. You are you young and all alone. You walk between the trees to a clearing in the center. You see an old wall with a wooden gate that opens easily. You step inside, look around. you see some toys from when you were very young. The stuffed animal you loved, but it's cast aside, all alone and neglected. You look over across the way and see some clothes torn. You see the blanket you used to take to bed with you. You see your old bed across the way. You begin to feel as lonely now as you did as a little kid in bed, all alone. Who did you long for? Did they come? Why are you crying all alone in your bed? Think about all those lonely times and all those broken promises. Dad forgetting to come home to play, Mom not coming to put you to bed. All those broken promises. They are still deep inside, pulling at you, you are crying out alone and no one comes.

This guided imagery has the psychological goal of stirring up emotions, causing you, the group member, to return to childhood memories and recapture sadness. It also has the goal of implying that there are even more painful memories yet to be found, intimating that your parents caused all the miseries in your life. This allows the leader then to show you the way to happiness through learning his message and way of life: to come to find your new family and to feel loved here, blame those awful parents and don't go near them.

Guided imagery can have any content, and the group process of hearing others cry and sob as they recall past traumas has a powerful impact, for it induces a contagion of feeling and participation that can be heady for most persons.


Indirect Directives [top]

Cult members often say to their families and friends, "No one orders me around. I choose to do what I do." Getting members to think that way is one of the manipulations mastered by cult leaders who have become skillful at getting acts carried out through indirection and implication. Accomplishing this task is easier when the member is in an altered state, fatigued, or otherwise anxious or under stress.

Indirect, or implied directives are not found only in cults but are commonplace throughout society. For example, recently the Los Angeles Times was about to enter a photo for a Pulitzer Prize but withdrew the picture as a "fabrication" after rumors circulated that the picture had been staged. The photo showed a firefighter dousing his head with water from a swimming pool while a luxurious home was consumed by flames. There was no longer water pressure to fight the fire, nothing to spray on the flames. The paper tracked down the firefighter, who said the photographer had suggested that he go to the pool and pour water on his head. The photographer defended himself by saying, "I deny categorically asking or telling any fireman to pose for me in front of a pool. I may have been guilty of saying this would make a nice shot, but to the best of my recollection, I did not directly ask him to do it." This photographer got cooperation in the same way that cult leaders do: namely, imply that something should happen, and it does. Especially if the person hearing the suggestion is generally cooperative, tired, and does not quite know what to do next. What a frustrating and worn-down state the firefighter must have been in -- facing a raging inferno of flame and having no water with which to fight it. In such a suggestible and vulnerable frame of mind, the firefighter took the photographer’s hint as a directive.

That is exactly how cult leaders get many of their wishes carried out. Few need to scream out commands. Here are several cult-related illustrations:


After Synanon leader Chuck Dederich sat musing over his microphone about how greedy lawyers were and how he wanted some of their ears in a glass of alcohol, two young male followers, members of his Imperial Marines, took a rattlesnake and put it in a lawyer’s mailbox. In a media interview, Synanon’s resident PR man said, "No one is ordered or forced to do anything against their will….Dederich may advocate it – yes, he’s a great advocate. But he is very careful not to order it." (This infamous event is discussed further in Chapter Nine.)


One former cult member told me, "I had never been directly told to kill my father, but I knew that if I should see the need to save the group, I would do it without any direction beyond what I knew I must do."


Another former cult member said, "Our leader never told me to whip my son, but I knew that when he didn’t smile when I told him to be quiet that I must spank and spank him until he smiled. I couldn’t get him to, and he was bruised all over his legs and bottom before I stopped. I just knew I must do it."


In another cult, the leader often said during lectures that people who don’t obey must be punished. This was a repetitious theme backed up with many examples. Shortly after such a lecture, during a group work session, one woman began to shake and slap another woman who wasn’t working hard enough. Later she said, "It was his words and how much I wanted him to like me. I saw myself doing as he would. He didn’t have to be there, he didn’t have to tell me when or who or where. I wanted to do just what he wanted, so I began to shake and slap one woman. I realized I was flailing away at her. It was if he and I were one at the moment."


Peer Pressure and Modeling [top]

The old maxim "When in Rome do as the Romans do" underlies much of our adaptation to new social groups. It is both convenient and congenial to adapt. We look around and see models, and we comport ourselves to be like them. Most cults train new members, either through overtly stated policies or by more implicit shaping, to act in ways desired by the group. To increase members’ recruiting potential, typically cults train members to smile, appear happy, be outgoing, and give attention to newcomers.

Peer pressure is an effective means to get people to fit their behavior to group norms. In cults, this works for new and old members alike, going far beyond what is generally seen in society at large. In an atmosphere that states or implies that there is only one way to be and this is it, it is most important to have models around to imitate. Robert Lifton speaks of the totalism of the person meeting the totalistic ideology of a group, an idea that suggests why adaptation filters down to the clothing, the smiles, the language – all the details of behavior that are either approved or shunned.

For example, a number of women, particularly those from religious and political cults, told me that without being aware of it and without ever being told to do so, they slipped from dressing in ordinary clothes into wearing dark colors, long skirts, flat heels, and no makeup. Those who had been in psychotherapy cults tell me they were chastised if they did not provide "deep" revelations from their past. In the section on historical revision earlier in this chapter, we saw the importance of peer pressure and modeling in getting members to conform. Other ex-members have told me of seeing peers write letters to parents and friends based on sample letters provided by leadership. Several cults label some of these model letters disconnect letters.

In these activities, there is no need for cult leaders to full and belabor followers, as parents and teachers are wont to do with children and students. The clever cult leader or mind manipulator manages to use the innate tendencies toward group conformity that we bring with us as a powerful tool for change. No one has to announce the rules to us. Most of us look around and discern what they are and how we should behave. And most cults weed out "bad actors" at the point of recruitment: the disobedient, the unruly, the delinquent, the hard to handle and difficult to influence are turned away. They take too much time and thus are not cost effective to change, and they break up the atmosphere the leader wants to keep in place, the ambience that by fitting in things will go better.


Emotional Manipulation [top]

When leaders do not browbeat members into conformity but instead make use of the way people in groups learn through what they see other group members doing, personal behavioral and attitudinal changes are less noticeable to individuals. As one former cult member after another has told me, "I changed without being aware of it." This unconscious change is partly due to the power of the contagion of mood in groups. Cults induce feelings of guilt, shame, and fear, and use sex and intimacy controls to keep members dependent on the group. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist who studies automatic influence, mindless compliance, and why people say yes without thinking, is interested in how exploiters, cult leaders, con artists, salespeople, and other "compliance professionals" can get individuals to fall into blind patterns of obedience. Some of our tendencies to engage in fixed-action patterns serve us well most of the time, but our propensity for patterned behavior can also be used by manipulators to dupe and control us.

According to Cialdini, the majority of the thousands of different tactics that compliance professionals use fall into six categories, and each category is based on a psychological principle that directs human behavior. These six principles are:

  1. Consistency. We try to justify our earlier behavior.

  2. Reciprocity. If somebody gives us something, we try to repay in kind.

  3. Social proof. We try to find out what other people think is correct.

  4. Authority. We have a deep-seated sense of duty to authority figures.

  5. Liking. We obey people we like.

  6. Scarcity. If we come to want something, we can be made to fear that if we wait it will be gone. The opportunity to get it may pass. We want to take it now – whatever is being offered, from an object to cosmic consciousness.

Looking at this list and thinking about our own behavior makes it easier to see how a manipulative person can move someone along a given pathway – depending on his or her skills and the person’s state of being and circumstances. We can see how transformations occur when the six principles are skillfully put into play by cult leaders and cultic groups. For example:

  1. Consistency. If you have made a commitment to the group and then break it, you can be made to feel guilty.

  2. Reciprocity. If you accept the group’s food and attention, you should feel you should repay them.

  3. Social proof. If you look around in the group, you will see people behaving in particular ways. You imitate what you see and assume that such behavior is proper, good, and expected.

  4. Authority. If you tend to respect authority, and your cult leader claims superior knowledge, power, and special missions in life, you accept him as an authority.

  5. Liking. If you are the object of love bombing and other tactics that surround you, make you feel wanted and loved, and make you like the people in the group, you feel you ought to obey these people.

  6. Scarcity. If you are told that without the group you will miss out on living a life without stress; miss out on attaining cosmic awareness and bliss; miss out on changing the world instantly or gaining the ability to travel back in time; or miss out on whatever the group offers that is tailored to seem essential to you, you will feel you must buy in now.

Keep these six compliance principles in mind as you read this example of emotional manipulation:

Having graduated from high school in a small town, "Beth" wanted time before her college classes began to get acquainted with the area and the campus, and maybe make a friend or two, so she moved into the large state university dorm early. As she was leaving one morning to go exploring, a young woman sitting in the dorm lobby cheerfully jumped up and began talking with her. Before long, the woman invited Beth to accompany her to a country farm, supposedly sponsored by students in a group studying world hunger.

After a few days at the farm, Beth was tired. She felt bombarded with many ideas that made her feel all wrong and uncertain. Yet she liked the woman who had brought her and felt surrounded by happy, smiling people who kept hugging her, complimenting her, and begging her to stay. At one point, she began to cry over the conflict she felt between wanting to stay at the farm, where it seemed so secure and loving, and going back to the huge university.

The male leader of the group lectured vaguely but emphatically about the ecology of the mind, the restoration of true harmony versus artificiality, and how to be an activist. Beth did know why, but she began to feel inadequate. The abstractions the leader spoke about were not ideas Beth was familiar with, but the other members, almost all women, nodded knowingly and adoringly as the leader lectured.

Before coming to college, Beth had been concerned about being from a small farming town in another state. Now the vague philosophy of the lectures made her feel guilty that her parents could afford to send her to a large, expensive university while there was so much hunger on the planet. Finally, during a lecture on how "educational institutions, even your own families, throw out good food while little children around the world are starving," Beth began to cry uncontrollably.

At this emotional outburst, which she said she was later trained to watch for in newcomers, some of the other group members hugged her and told her feelings were an indication of her great depth of sensitivity. She could become a leader of women, they said. She should spend her time with them and start college later. Beth felt relieved and stopped thinking about leaving. The group made parents sound slothful and cold, and all the new members soon stopped calling, writing, and accepting visits from families and old friends because they were not with "the movement".

Two years later, Beth finally ran away from the farm and called her parents. She had spent the time fund-raising and deceptively recruiting other young persons who worked to support a self-designated messiah who claimed he was appointed "The Guardian." Beth did not find out about the leader’s sexual abuse of some of the women in the group, nor did she question where the money she and others raised in the name of "ecology studies" went until a few months before she finally was able to plan how she would get away from the group.

It takes vigilance, stamina, and unending internal fortitude to live life and use our minds. We must pay heed to what humankind has learned about how free minds and free humans build better worlds cooperatively – something that does not occur under the dominion of a self-appointed exploiter who does not really have our welfare or the welfare of humankind as his central aim but merely his own temporal security and comfort.

[back to index]