Articles‎ > ‎

Can Hypnosis Explain Cult Conversion

Can Hypnosis Explain "Cult" Conversion? Evidence from Science and Practice

The following is a summary of a paper presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), under the sponsorship of Division 30 (Psychological Hypnosis).

Professor Emeritus (University of Pennsylvania) Arthur Dole, Ph.D. chaired the symposium. Participants included: mental health counselor/hypnotherapist and cult expert Steven Hassan, and psychologists Linda Jayne Dubrow and Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel. The Discussant was Edward Frischholz, a former President of Division 30 and currently Scientific Editor of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.

Below you will find the General Statement and individual presentation abstracts submitted to APA.

General Statement

According to renowned psychiatrist and social critic Robert Jay Lifton, 21st century societies will be faced by ongoing threats of violence at the hands of relatively small extremist movements and ³cults.² These groups typically eschew overt physical coercion and instead maintain group purpose and obedience by relying on more subtle yet powerful means of social and psychological influence.

Psychologists remain at a loss for a comprehensive theory that explains cult conversion and membership. Many believe that hypnosis plays a role in facilitating and maintaining these conversions. Some consider hypnosis to be the central and most salient process in cult indoctrination. Others believe hypnosis plays an ambiguous or relatively small role. Still others point to the large number of conversion/indoctrination failures and other anomalies of cult conversion as proof that hypnosis is obscures our understanding of conversion experiences.

This symposium considers the role of hypnosis in cult conversion from several viewpoints. The misuse of hypnosis is explored in one large cultic group founded by a science fiction writer and stage hypnotist. Its indoctrination methods liberally incorporate covert as well as overt hypnotic methods. The interaction of hypnosis and iatrogenic group process in a psychotherapy cult is presented next. The leaders (who recently surrendered their licenses following a series of malpractice and ethics complaints) used hypnotic techniques in group settings in which strong group pressure produced memories of childhood satanic abuse. They also induced and utilized prolonged trance states.

The third presenter asks if hypnosis is a too-convenient label applied haphazardly and uncritically to a range of phenomena that are better understood by employing more parsimonious social psychological concepts. Describing cultic indoctrination processes as ³hypnosis²may oversimplify the cult phenomenon. Research suggests that cultic groups employ a broad range of influence strategies, some mundane and others exotic, and that cultic groups vary considerably.

[Introduction by Steve Dubrow-Eichel]

The Misuse of Hypnosis in Destructive Cults

Cult critics have long held that the dramatic and seemingly unyielding changes induced during cult indoctrination and conversion are due to the misuse of hypnosis. Although hypnosis may not explain all the dynamics underlying cult conversion experiences, it may explain a great deal of it, and it is often an important mechanism in the indoctrination process. This presentation explores the consolidation of overt, covert and³extended² hypnosis into a paradigm for understanding behavior and belief change in cultic groups.

My presentation considers the misuse of hypnosis by cultic groups in general, with particular emphasis on its employment by one large, well-known organization labeled ³cultic² by its critics. The founder of this organization, L. Ron Hubbard, was a science fiction writer and stage hypnotist who later included a host of hypnotic methods to induce trance and alter peoples¹ identities, beliefs and values. Hubbard initially embraced hypnosis as the basic methodology of Dianetics counseling and later liberally incorporated covert as well as overt hypnotic methods in developing the personal growth ³technologies² employed by the Church of Scientology. In this program, I will explain and demonstrate some of the exercises, techniques and methods used systematically by this group.

Understanding how intelligent, educated people can be covertly hypnotized and then indoctrinated provides considerable insight into how psychologists can assist those who wish to critically evaluate their experiences within cultic groups. The ³Strategic Interaction Approach² (SIA) is a counseling strategy based in part on a hypnosis paradigm of behavior and belief change. My presentation concludes with an introduction to SIA.

[Steven Hassan]

Where Does Hypnosis End and Iatrogenic Group Influence Begin?

Sometimes, licensed psychotherapists conduct their practices in ways that resemble destructive cults, and employ techniques of undue influence with their clients. Criteria for psychotherapy cults (Temerlin & Temerlin, 1982) have included the following characteristics: The leaders are therapists with charismatic, authoritarian, dominating personalities with narcissistic, grandiose and paranoid features; followers are patients who idealize their therapists, consider them geniuses or supreme authorities; the patients become ³true believers,² accepting therapists¹ theory and therapy superior to all others; rational-empirical research into the therapy¹s methods is disparaged; the therapists keep love, veneration and allegiance directed toward themselves; and idealized transference is encouraged rather than analyzed. In addition, the group is suspicious, fearful, and hostile toward other professionals, with the therapists controlling or interpreting for members all contact with other professionals; dependence and submissiveness among patients is increased, with a corresponding decrease in critical thinking.

This presentation will summarize the forensic evaluation results of former members of a psychotherapy cult led by two psychotherapists who surrendered their licenses following a series of malpractice and ethics complaints. The presenter will consider how hypnosis and coercive group dynamics interact in converting patients to the psychotherapy cult¹s world view. The tactics that were featured prominently in the malpractice complaints included: The use of hypnotic techniques employed in group settings in which agitated physiological and emotional states were manipulated and patients were directed to make specific responses; strong group pressure to produce memories of childhood satanic abuse; and the induction and utilization of prolonged trance states.

Factors in helping patients to exit the group will also be summarized. The manner in which the characteristics of the psychotherapy cult leaders enhanced their abilities to effectively hypnotize patients/followers within individual and group therapy sessions will be examined. Supplemental examples will be used from other psychotherapy cults.

[Linda Dubrow]

"Hypnosis happens" but Does Not Explain Cult Conversion

The issue of hypnosis in cult conversion epitomizes a great controversy among its researchers and practitioners: Is hypnosis a phenomenon that is discrete and can be reliably differentiated from other forms of human behavior and experience? Or is the term ³hypnosis² merely a too-convenient label applied haphazardly and uncritically to a range of phenomena that are better understood by employing more parsimonious social psychological concepts? By describing cultic indoctrination processes as ³hypnosis,² are mental health practitioners and social scientists themselves engaging in a form of ³thought-stopping² that at best oversimplifies the cult phenomenon, and at worst uncritically condemns it? Are we contributing to the generally negative view the public has of hypnosis as a ³mind control² technique to be feared or worshipped?

Cultic groups employ a broad range of influence strategies, some mundane and others exotic. These groups in and of themselves vary considerably. In fact, some research suggests there may be more variability among groups labeled as ³cultic² than there is between ³cults² and groups considered non-cultic. Nevertheless, many cultic groups do seem to employ methods that can be perceived by observers and participants as ³hypnosis.² Using research on overt, covert and ³extended² hypnosis, I will critically consider the employment of hypnosis in cult conversion, and will consider whether it should be accorded a minor role at best in explaining cult conversion. I will conclude by evaluating the ways in which the phenomenon of cult conversion informs us about the discrete ³reality² of hypnosis.

[Steve Dubrow-Eichel]

Reprinted with the authors’ permission.