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Group Influence and Psych of Cultism within

Cultic Studies Journal, 1996, Volume 13, Number 2, pages 171-193

Group Influence and the Psychology of Cultism Within Re-evaluation Counselling: A Critique

Dennis Tourish, M.Sc., Ph.D.

University of Ulster

Pauline Irving, M.Sc., Dip.C.G., C.Psych., Ph.D.

University of Ulster


Re-evaluation Counselling (often known as co-counselling, or simply RC) has recently been described as an “innovative” form of therapy, despite the fact that it has existed for over 40 years. It has also been suggested that it is, or is becoming, a psychotherapy “cult.” This paper discusses the key theoretical ideas of Re-evaluation Counselling and assesses the extent to which some of these ideas could enable unscrupulous therapists to engineer artificial consent and impose their own belief systems on clients. RC’s strong reliance on group-based activities is also explored, and the extent to which this facilitates unthinking conformity is considered. Finally, guidelines are discussed which enable therapists and would-be clients to assess more clearly the potentially negative effects of involvement in groups such as RC.

There has been an explosive growth in “alternative” or “innovative” therapies over recent years, many of them accompanied by grandiose claims for their effectiveness. A handbook on the subject edited by Rowan and Dryden (1988) lists 11 such therapies, including RC, without claiming to be in any way comprehensive. Many of these approaches lack the deep theoretical foundations and empirical support of the more established therapies. Partly, as Rowan and Dryden suggest, this may be due to their relative newness: there has not been sufficient time to extend the original insights or systematically compare outcomes between different schools of thought. However, it is also possible that some emergent therapies have a built-in resistance to empirical verification and its obvious corollary: falsification. Indeed, at the more general level of counselling research, Hill and Corbett (1993) point to a consistent pattern in theory development where research lags behind developments at a practical level. Consequently, even with the more established therapies, the loyalty of enthusiastic proponents is often based on ideological rather than empirical grounds.

This paper focuses on one alternative therapy, Re-evaluation Counselling (RC), where such ideological loyalty seems particularly pronounced. It is argued that the techniques used in RC, the organisational structures through which it is expressed, and its reliance on one particular leader place obstacles in the path of realising the humanistic intentions which its theory promotes. In particular, it has been argued recently that RC is, or is becoming, a psychotherapy cult (Study Group on Psychotherapy Cults, Belgium, 1992, henceforth called “Study Group”), with a consequent increase in the abuse of participants, violation of RC’s own rules regarding relationship boundaries, and an institutionalised refusal to discuss criticisms of its theory, organisation, and leadership (Lyons, 1993). Destructive cults have been defined as organisations which remold individuality to conform to the codes and needs of the cult, institute taboos that preclude doubt and criticism, and generate an elitist mentality in which members see themselves as heroes struggling to bring enlightenment to the hostile forces which surround them (Hochman, 1980). They devise their own exclusivist jargon, claim a privileged insight into society’s problems, and eliminate feelings of uncertainty on the part of their members. It has, incidentally, been estimated that there are around 500 religious, political, and psychotherapeutic cults active in Britain today (Haworth, 1993).

The evidence reviewed here is inconclusive on some of these points. There is little doubt that many people feel RC has brought them significant therapeutic benefits. Nevertheless, it also creates major problems for many of its adherents, problems of which some sympathetic accounts of the process seem unaware (e.g., Evison & Horobin, 1988). This paper will, therefore, examine the most pertinent aspects of RC theory, put these theories in the context of what is known about cults, and consider the extent to which it is possible or useful to conceptualise RC in this manner. Finally, some implications for therapeutic approaches which make intensive use of group-based counselling are considered.

What is RC?

RC promotes a form of egalitarian counselling between two people who exchange the role of counsellor and client (Evison & Horobin, 1988). For this reason it is often known as co-counselling, and adherents use the two terms interchangeably. Basic counselling skills such as listening and reflecting feature prominently in the behaviours of the person employing the counselling role. Its principal claims to distinctiveness are as follows:

(1) Emotional hurts are characterised as dysfunctional, repetitive “distresses” or “patterns” (Jackins, 1973, 1987). The possibility that feelings of hurt might be a perfectly natural and even sane response to an immediate external crisis such as losing one’s job or a divorce is downplayed. Instead, such feelings are viewed as “restimulations” of original trauma, usually experienced in early childhood (Jackins, 1965). These interfere with the natural zest and creative intelligence of the person. In common with other humanistic approaches such as client-centred counselling it is assumed that people possess an inherent personality which is good, co-operative, and highly intelligent. Obviously, many people display behaviours which are far from positive. RC characterises these as socially engineered distress recordings and invites people to rid themselves of them through the process of discharge--that is, cathartic re-enactments of the emotion concerned. Again, this is in part similar to the client-centred concept of conditions of worth, and in part to Freud’s notion of repression.

However, the theory of restimulation also contains many ingredients of individual and group manipulation. Cults and destructive groups in general attempt to reshape the consciousness of members by reframing their most personal experiences in cult jargon and ideology. Cushman (1986) points out that many cults compel members to recall the past so that it can be reinterpreted in the light of the group’s totalistic ideology, thereby escalating members’ emotional commitment to the group. Of course, this eliminates the autonomous self, and is a particular danger in the context of psychotherapy. There is, for example, some testimony from former RCers to the effect that ideas or experiences which do not fit neatly into RC’s theoretical framework are dismissed as “restimulations” of past trauma, rather than addressed in their here and now validity (Rosen, 1978). This inflicts a triple body blow on independent thought: the client’s perception of reality is invalidated, their right to express their own ideas is rebutted, and their attention is directed inward to old traumas rather than current observation and analysis. Clearly, it may be necessary for people to pay some attention to past experiences which influence feelings of distress--for example, the reality of sexual abuse in early childhood. However, it is also possible that therapies which seek to frame all current experience within a simple causal nexus of past to present influence will miss opportunities for “present time” change, while disabling people’s ability to challenge therapeutic theory or practice.

(2) Furthermore, it is postulated that people instinctively strive to rid themselves of their patterns through the natural “discharge” process of non-repetitive talking, shaking, laughing, or crying. This catharsis is interrupted in most human cultures, which equate discharge with the actual hurt itself.[2] For example, crying is seen as a problem behaviour to be interrupted rather than a release mechanism to be facilitated. Hence the need for a counselling process. All humans have the potential to become expert at facilitating this discharge process. Relatively simple training means that most of us can exchange the roles of counsellor and client in a relationship free from the power imbalances often found in more conventional approaches. The main goal of the counselling session is to induce discharge. Simply talking around a problem or a set of feelings is insufficient.

However, it should be noted that the central role allocated to discharge is precisely one of the features of RC which makes it most vulnerable to allegations of abuse and manipulation. Strupp and Blackwood (1980) have pointed out that many of the newer therapies are characterised by “the supremacy of experience for the sake of experience...and often the wholesale rejection of reason and contemplation as viable forces in solving human problems” (p. 2234). Artificially engendered peak experiences have been long known to induce extreme conformity, an outcome which Lifton (1961) characterises as “ideological totalism.” People see-saw between disorientating and mutually opposed emotional states. Feelings and ideas lose subtlety, shade, and colour. The person hurtles along an emotional roller coaster, and has an increased prospect of retreating Ainto doctrinal and organisational exclusiveness, and into all or nothing emotional patterns more characteristic...of the child than of the individuated adult” (Lifton, 1961, p. 435). Paradoxically, they may feel tremendously liberated and endowed with superhuman insight into themselves and the surrounding world, rather as some drunks seem to imagine that they are on the verge of startling new insights into the human condition. The reality of what is on offer is invariably rather different.

In the case of RC this supremacy of experience over thought means that the discharge process is exalted as the most important part of the counselling experience. Yet research has long suggested that when people engage in embarrassing behaviours in front of a group they subsequently exaggerate the benefits to be gained from group membership (Aronson & Mills, 1959). Arguably, RC’s emphasis on counselling individuals in front of large crowds at workshops, while encouraging the strong display (or dramatisation) of extreme emotion, is an example of this adjustment process within RC. It is also questionable how “distinctive” this particular approach actually is. As Rosen (1978) points out, it has many similarities to the notion of primal in Primal Therapy.

(3) The roots of distress can be traced to a repressive society. Although clients derive benefit from discharging existing distress the oppressive society will reimpose new distress daily, through classist, sexist, and racist institutions. The personal is political. What RC refers to as “reemergence” from distress thus ultimately requires participation in movements to change society, movements which will incidentally proceed more effectively if they employ the techniques and insights of RC, at all levels. There is in consequence considerable pressure on participants in RC to proselytize their beliefs, commonly termed in RC literature as “building the RC community.” This idea has led proponents to work within RC in groups which experience oppression with a view to developing a liberation theory for each of them, which can then be promulgated in what they term “the wide world.” One outcome is a proliferation of RC journals, each recycling identical ideas and inducing in the reader the same feeling of deja vu that one gets while watching endless repeats on TV. As of 1994, we are aware of some 32 irregularly published journals, plus the organisation’s central quarterly journal, Present Time. Another consequence is increased stress on the necessity of widespread social change. This may or may not be defensible. However, it suggests that RC is evolving into a movement whose primary purpose is social and political transformation rather than individual recovery from emotional distress (Jackins, 1990). These broader social issues are often raised with great urgency. In the text just cited, for example, Jackins suggests:

The survival of the human race is now crucially dependent on the transformation of the present society to a rational one, world-wide. (p.11)

Failing this, nuclear holocaust and incalculable horror is in prospect. Furthermore, it follows that the rapid growth of RC, or at least the spread of its influence in important “wide world” organisations, is necessary to prevent catastrophe. This doom-laden analysis, with the implication that the current small group of RC activists bear an inordinate responsibility for saving the planet in the immediate future, is characteristic of all cult organisations, and is a primary lever for extracting maximum commitment (alongside a minimum critique of the group’s analysis) from the members.

It should be noted that many of these propositions resemble other more mainstream therapy approaches. The concept of discharge is rooted in psychoanalytic theory, and has found a more dramatised echo in Primal Therapy. It has already been noted that the assumptions regarding the inherently positive nature of human beings and the development of conditions of worth are reminiscent of the ideas of Rogers (1951). Despite this, RC repeatedly insists on the uniqueness of its theories. For example, Jackins (1973) lists 35 traits of RC which he claims are distinctive, and asserts:

Re-evaluation Counseling attains and requires logical consistency in its theory and practice and does not borrow from, nor hybridize with other theories and practices, even though there may be superficial similarities to them. (p. 20)

Its leaders have therefore kept their organisation apart from other approaches with which it might reasonably be assumed to have a lot in common (Rowan & Dryden, 1988). A considerable number of its ideas would be non-problematic for humanistic-inspired therapists, while its concepts of liberation, although perhaps unusual in a therapeutic context, would find favour with many people critical of existing social structures. However, the organisational form that RC takes, its enormous reliance on group-based interaction for participants, and the problems this gives rise to have led some people to propose that RC now be regarded as a cult organisation. The central role of group activity in determining strong identification to cult codes has been noted by Hochman (1984), who suggests a process of “splitting, where cult members see themselves as an elite surrounded by unenlightened, and even dangerous, outsiders” (p. 367).

It will be argued that the existence of some positive ideas does not inoculate an organisation against cultist tendencies, and that a greater awareness of social influence in group contexts is required to guard against manipulative behaviour by leaders and therapists of all theoretical orientations. Similarly, Kriegman and Soloman (1985) argue for the importance of an understanding of transference and countertransference processes in developing a healthy and nonexploitative group leadership.

RC as an Organised Activity

RC originated as a result of the work of Harvey Jackins in the early 1950s, and the RC community remains centred around him today. Jackins asserts that RC began as a result of accidental learning he experienced in the course of helping a friend (Rosen, 1978). However, the Study Group presents clear evidence that RC emerged as an offshoot of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics Institute, which later evolved into the semi-religious cult of Scientology, and that Jackins was for a time one of Hubbard’s close associates. Many RC assumptions, such as the central importance of the discharge process, are identical to dianetic ideas developed many years earlier by Hubbard, despite the repeated insistence of Jackins and his followers on the distinctiveness of their ideas. There have been several organisational schisms from RC, leading to looser associations of people committed to the core concepts of co-counselling but distanced from the influence of Jackins (Heron, 1984; Evison & Horibon, 1988; Study Group, 1992).

RC as a movement resists publicity, and therefore information about its influence and membership is not readily to hand. Such control of information has been noted by Conway and Siegelman (1982) as a core cult tactic: potential recruits are given hints of a deep lore of transformational knowledge, which they can only access by escalating their involvement with the group. Once in, information is drip-fed to them so that many will never know the full extent of the group’s belief system, its organisational structure, or its past mistakes. However, the main RC journal, Present Time, routinely lists what are termed RC reference persons, who are designated leaders of organised regions, and where they operate. As of July 1994 this points to a presence in over 49 countries, with the biggest concentration of accredited teachers and regions in the United States, and a considerable number within the United Kingdom.

Typically, people will encounter RC through personal contact with other participants. They will be invited to join what is called a “fundamentals class.” At this stage the attraction is clear: low-cost help for people in distress, alongside the opportunity to learn some simple communication skills of wider social use. The introductory fundamentals class will meet once a week for tuition in co-counselling techniques, demonstrations of counselling in front of the group by a teacher accredited by the RC organisation, and for informal co-counselling sessions between class members from week to week. By its nature, much of this activity is harmless or even downright helpful. RC acknowledges the benefits obtained by creating a context in which people are listened to respectfully. A great deal of such activity occurs in RC classes, and at this level provides a considerable amount of support.

During and after fundamentals classes, participants will be invited to local, national, and international workshops. They will also be invited to attend ongoing classes, “support groups” organised around themes such as resistance to women’s oppression, religious and age discrimination, and distresses experienced in a variety of work occupations. Its recruitment methods are, in essence, similar to those described by Conway and Siegelman (1982) as being typical of cults.

In each locality, groups of co-counsellors will meet more or less regularly as an organised community, headed up by an appointed area reference person. Groups of such districts are formed into regions, under the tutelage of an appointed regional reference person. Every four years there is an international conference, and between conferences total authority to dissolve regions, areas, and to accredit or remove accreditation from teachers is vested in the International Reference Person. This post is held by founder Harvey Jackins, now in his late 70s, who has nominated his son Tim Jackins as his deputy and heir apparent.

This structure is elucidated in mind-numbing detail in the RC community AGuidelines,” which are regularly updated by world conferences and issued to all members. The latest edition of these guidelines dates from 1992. It spells out a structure which emphasises common action to defend RC theory publicly and the vesting of enormous power between conferences in the organisation’s leadership. To a considerable extent, this mirrors the “democratic centralist” or authoritarian structures of old style Communist Parties in Eastern Europe. The implications of this for what we would term the engineering of consent are discussed below.

The key activity of co-counselling is, in theory, one-to-one sessions between members. However, an enormous amount of time is also spent in the group-based activities, and it is on the negative effects of such practices that this paper wishes to primarily focus. In particular, it is necessary to consider the extent to which RC bears some resemblance to destructive cults which have now emerged in such varied environments as the religious, political, and psychological fields (Hassan, 1988).

The Engineering of Consent

Consent or agreement with a certain theoretical orientation, freely given, implies that people retain the right to ask questions, examine alternative sources of information, and review their initial commitment to the organisation concerned. What can be termed the engineering of consent threatens all these basic knowledge and action levels, undermining the right to withdraw consent and leave. Agreement is extracted through pressure, the right to question leaders is withheld, alternative sources of information are absent or ridiculed, and people are systematically pressurised into escalating their level of involvement.

What has been termed “mind control” operates by taking such aspects of social influence and exaggerating them to the extent that people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are manipulated to the greater gain of the manipulator, at the expense of the person being influenced (Zimbardo & Anderson, 1993). Clearly, most human interaction consists of attempts to influence the cognitions and behaviour of others, while interaction within a positive reference group is inherently inclined to encourage the development of shared norms and behaviours (Turner, 1991). However, cults are characterised by attempts to close down choice, restrict information flow, discourage the expression of dissent, focus group norms along narrowly prescribed lines, exaggerate participants’ sense of commitment by extracting public statements of loyalty (often after participation in faintly humiliating rituals), and dominate the normal thinking process of affected individuals (Hassan, 1988). Conway and Siegelman (1992) describe the communication techniques of American cult leaders as follows:

Most rely on the use and abuse of information: on deceptive and distorted language, artfully designed suggestion and intense emotional experience, crippling tactics aggravated by physical exhaustion and isolation. (p. 86)

Similarly, lies or even “being economical with the truth” appear designed to recruit people through a process of extracting commitment and then forcing a decision. For example, RC initially offers low-cost, peer group counselling. The full extent of the group’s organisation and programme is not immediately made clear. Nevertheless, a commitment to some form of counselling activity is obtained, and sounds on first hearing much more acceptable than joining a crusade to save the world. A person is likely to imagine that they have delayed a decision to make such a total commitment, perhaps indefinitely. However, they soon find their initial levels of activity rising: “come to one more class,” “attend one more workshop,” “read an extra pamphlet this week.” Whether they have consciously decided anything becomes irrelevant: a real commitment has been made to the organisation. They may then find that their attitudes are changing to come in line with escalating levels of commitment, and will eventually reach such an intense pitch that a formal decision (if it needs to be made at all) is only a small final step--a classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance theory (Turner, 1991). The manipulation of this process is, of course, a hallmark of salesmanship in general, whether the products are second-hand cars, encyclopedias, or global salvation.

Temerlin and Temerlin (1982) list a number of characteristics which they argue are common to psychotherapy cults, and which in terms of the above discussion can be construed as mechanisms for engineering consent. Summarised briefly, the following are the suggested main criteria for the identification of psychotherapy cults:

(1) Charismatic leader figure, with authoritarian and narcissistic tendencies.

(2) Idealising of leader by followers. Frequently the leader is hailed as a “genius,” and is at least considered the supreme exponent of the group ideology.

(3) Followers regard their belief system as superior to all others, and a more rational investigation of alternatives or the empirical verification of key concepts is discouraged.

(4) Followers frequently join group at time of exaggerated stress in their own lives, when confidence in their own independent judgment is likely to be low.

(5) The therapist becomes the central focus of follower’s life. The group concerned absorbs increasing time, energy, and commitment.

(6) The group becomes cohesive. Illusions emerge of superiority to other groups. In particular, much of its energy is focused on idolatry of leader.

(7) The group becomes suspicious of other groups. Links with others are discouraged, ensuring that ideas which do not originate within the group are “translated” for the group’s benefit by leader figure.

It is clear that these processes are particularly applicable to organisations which depend largely on group-based activities. There is considerable evidence to suggest that group attitudes are inherently likely to be more extreme than individual attitudes (Moscovici & Personnaz, 1969). Janis and Mann (1977) have established that groups also have a tendency to develop illusions of invulnerability, an exaggerated sense of optimism, and stereotypical images of other groups, while silencing dissent in their own ranks, compelling members to suppress their own feelings of doubt in order to conform, and develop illusions of unanimity (since outward expressions of dissent are curtailed).

Many organisations and groups are aware of these processes, see them as problems which impair objective decision making, and take steps to counteract their influence (Moscovici & Doise, 1994). Cult organisations, on the other hand, sustain and exaggerate them, since by definition their existence requires uniformly slavish behaviour on the part of members. The problem is compounded because it seems that even as individuals we have a tendency to exaggerate the correctness of our own decisions, mislabel the behavior of others, and imagine that our judgments are more soundly based than they actually are (Sutherland, 1992). This tendency can be manipulated in the context of group membership, to give people an exaggerated sense of the group’s uniqueness and level of insight into the problems which society faces. In contrast, it has been shown (Hirokawa & Pace, 1983) that better quality decisions are reached by thorough examination of options and the setting of rigorous criteria for decisions, alongside systematic examination of the validity of assumptions, opinions, inferences, facts, and alternative choices. It is precisely this iconoclastic approach which cultist organisations discourage. Thus, if we follow a group which reproduces the habits outlined by Temerlin and Temerlin (1982), our capacity for independent judgement is seriously impaired, our attitudes will develop along lines prescribed by the leader of the group rather than what logic, observation, or personal experience might dictate, we find ourselves deprived of sufficient information to choose between a variety of options and it is possible for the leaders of the group to engage in behaviours which to an outsider can only be described as abusive.

Social Influence and Conformity Within RC

Various dimensions of social influence and the dynamics of cult organisations have been examined above. It is useful at this stage to examine the characteristics of RC in the light of this analysis. One approach is to apply Temerlin and Temerlin’s typology, and explore the extent to which their suggested profile of psychotherapy cults is matched by RC theory and practice.

Points one, two, and six can be considered together. RC places enormous emphasis on a founder leader, who is given massive authority over the organisation. All the major RC publications and books are written by Jackins. He is a regular contributor to Present Time, particularly of articles which are billed as articulating landmark developments in RC theory. These are usually followed up in subsequent issues with enthusiastic testimonials from members, asserting that this new theory has been tried by them with outstanding results. The theory is seldom developed in such contributions: rather, they serve the role of emphasising Harvey Jackins’s tremendous insight into human distress. Representative extracts from follow up letters in Present Time in July 1994 concerning two proposals from him are as follows:

What a wonderful, powerful, exciting and flexible instrument the “Reality Agreement” is!

I wanted to tell you that I think the “you and me” direction is incredible. I began to cry as I was reading the letter. I was thinking of you... I feel as though this is the contradiction I have been waiting for my whole life. It is a shaft of light which has finally penetrated the utter darkness of my “feelings” of isolation.

Criticisms of RC Theory Do Not Appear in Present Time

With respect to point three, the superiority of RC over all other therapies is an axiom of the organisation. Its ideas are held to be unique. Furthermore, Jackins claims that “Re-evaluation counselling can be confidently viewed as the very leading edge of the tendency toward order and meaning in the universe” (cited by Study Group, 1992).

Assumptions of uniqueness and superiority are a hallmark of cult organisations. These assumptions are repeatedly emphasised to members, and are used to extract higher and higher levels of commitment. Membership is presented as a privileged opportunity and obligation to save the world--a stark example of the persuasive tool of moral appeals (Perloff, 1993). This process is intensified within RC as result of the means by which theory is developed and maintained. Specifically, all of the most crucial RC “insights” are produced by Jackins. However, it seems that these are derived entirely from his own counselling experience rather than from broadly-based and comparative empirical research. Rather, RC leaders (and Jackins in particular) propose refinements of co-counselling techniques which, at best, are explained as having had a positive effect on clients with whom they have been tried.

This is reminiscent of Freud’s exclusive reliance on what he termed “clinical experience”: an approach which, as Masson (1989) argues, reduces the therapeutic intervention to a series of fanciful “interpretations,” grounded in the therapist’s self-perpetuating theoretical assumptions rather than external reality. In the absence of objective criteria or attempts to establish such criteria, the theory becomes a proliferation of untestable ideas which may even be harmful to unsuspecting clients (Gellner, 1992). To date, there has been no independent attempt to verify or otherwise the key constructs of RC theory, and no such attempt has been made by the RC organisation itself. This reluctance to systematically examine key concepts, or to contrast outcomes with those gained by other therapies and control groups, raises of course many long-standing critiques of all psychotherapy research (e.g., Eysenck, 1965). However, the total absence of even nominal research into RC is most striking, and places it on a theoretically- impoverished par with the efforts of ancient alchemists. The absence of empirical research does not by itself prove that RC’s ideas are wrong: on the other hand, it can hardly be held that it inspires confidence in their correctness. In the meantime, participants are continually assured of the theory’s unique ability to transform both their inner lives and the external world around them.

With regards to point four, it can be argued that most people come into contact with psychotherapy or counselling precisely at a time of great personal upheaval in their lives. In addition, the potential for counselling techniques to cause harm have been noted by a number of writers (Bergin, 1963; London & Klerman, 1982; Strupp et al., 1977; Grunebaum, 1986). Hochman (1984) documents four such cases with respect to Feeling Therapy. This potential for harm may have become more pronounced with the decline of cohesive communities, traditional value systems, and extended family networks. The resultant feelings of inner emptiness have been termed “the empty self” by Cushman (1990), who suggests that as self-assurance ebbs, people become more vulnerable to the lure of false nostrums and totalistic ideologies. Clearly, this imposes additional obligations on therapists to refrain from manipulating clients into unhealthy lifestyle choices or commitments, while also enabling those without scruples to create and dominate hyperactive groups of Atrue believers.”

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that many cults deliberately target recruitment efforts on people in emotionally vulnerable circumstances (Enroth, 1977). Hassan (1988) reports, for example, that the Moonies attempt to recruit college freshmen, unused to living away from home and struggling to adjust to new adult responsibilities. Interestingly, their major recruitment technique has been dubbed “love bombing.” The target is vulnerable, lonely, and confused. He or she receives enormous physical affection and positive reinforcement from the cult members. Unable to distinguish between the forms of closeness and its essence, or between public statements affirming noble goals and the real aims of the group, people are swept away on a tide of affection, and fully submerged in cult activities before they realise the full extent of the group’s goals or the extraordinary commitment required of its members.

It is clear that the “unconditional positive regard” at the core of much humanistic counselling can be manipulated by unscrupulous organisations into a form of “love bombing.” RC is particularly vulnerable to such a critique, since many participants testify to overwhelming displays of closeness (e.g., hugging) between total strangers (Lyons, 1993). Evidently, participants in RC are expected to go straight from eye contact to body contact, vaulting effortlessly over all intermediate obstacles. This parody of intimacy is no closer to reality than what we find depicted in the romantic fiction of Mills and Boon. Such behaviours towards people when they are already highly vulnerable manipulates them into signing up for the entire RC ideology and experience, regardless of its real capacity to effect positive change in their lives. By encouraging people to engage in physical forms of closeness that would ordinarily be expected at a much deeper stage of relationship development, it is also possible that RC undermines the capacity of participants to assess the real levels of closeness in relationships within and without RC, thereby rendering them more vulnerable to manipulation.

Temerlin and Temerlin’s (1982) fifth point is more difficult to assess. There is little evidence to clarify how much time individual participants in RC spend on counselling-related activities. Various studies suggest that typical cults monopolise the subject’s entire leisure time, thus shutting down their capacity for critical thought and insulating them yet further from alternative sources of information. Conway and Siegelman (1982) surveyed 400 former cult members from 48 different groups. Their study revealed that

Members reported spending time each day in group rituals, including sensitivity sessions, psychodramas, guided fantasies and a variety of emotion-filled confessional activities. Moreover, nearly all...respondents reported spending an additional 20 to 30 hours per week at lectures, seminars, workshops or required private study of cult doctrines. (p. 90)

There is clearly the potential for this to occur within RC regions. An article in Present Time[3] outlines a level of activity which RC leaders plainly feel is necessary to achieve “reemergence.” This includes attendance at a weekly class, at least one and maybe two 2-hour co-counselling sessions per week (filled with discharge), at least four weekend workshops per year, participation in support groups, regular reading of RC literature, and the shouldering of some organisational responsibility for running the RC organisation. It is assumed that these activities will form a long-term commitment. If taken seriously, this is a recipe for therapy as obsession. It assumes that people are living to counsel, rather than counselling to live.

The seventh of Temerlin and Temerlin’s (1982) cult characteristics is evident in RC’s intense insistence on its uniqueness and the translation of concepts shared in common with other approaches into RC terminology (e.g., conditions of worth). By reformulating standard ideas without acknowledging their origins, the organisation seeks to exaggerate its sense of uniqueness, the depth of its insight, and the closeness of its members. For example, the excessive use of a common jargon might jar outsiders, but have the effect inside the group of making it appear that members are much more alike than they are (Whitsett, 1992). The result is stultifying conformity.

Finally, a number of studies suggest that sexual abuse by a variety of cult leaders has occurred (Ritchie, 1991). Within mainstream psychotherapy there is evidence to suggest that professional boundaries have not always been respected. One survey of psychotherapists (Holroyd & Brodsky, 1977) found that 10.9% of respondents admitted to having sexual relationships with clients. The question arises as to whether such boundaries are even more susceptible to pressure within approaches such as RC, which place particular stress on egalitarian relationships and closeness between participants. In principle, the organisation has attempted to address this question. There are strict rules in its guidelines against even normal socialising between members, in order to preserve the primary integrity of the counselling relationship. These also prohibit the development of sexual relationships between co-counsellors, and are considered sufficiently important to warrant a three-page explanation in the Fundamentals of Co-counselling Manual[4], issued to all new participants. However, recent critics of RC (Study Group, 1992; Lyons, 1993) have suggested that some participants in RC have felt themselves to have been victims of sexual abuse. If substantiated, this would suggest practices well in line with the documented activities of many other cults (e.g., Osherow, 1988), but beyond what would be acceptable in a counselling context.

Evidence presented by the Study Group, by Lyons (1993), and gathered by the authors as a result of discussions with people engaged in RC suggests that it is virtually impossible for any of these issues to be discussed within the organisation. A central feature of RC theory is its stress on protecting and defending leaders--the writings of Jackins are replete with warnings that leaders of “progressive organisations” will experience government-inspired attacks on their integrity.

This notion was formulated into a “Policy on Attacks,” adopted by the World Conference of the Re-evaluation Counselling Communities in 1989.[5] As discussed earlier, the theory of restimulation can be easily used to dismiss all criticism as the pattern of the critic, devoid of external validity. Criticism becomes a distress which requires the counselling of the critic, rather than Are-evaluation” on the part of leaders leading to change. For that matter, the same fate may befall ideas which are simply different to those advocated by the leader. This view is obviously useful to anyone attempting to escape democratic restraints on their behaviour: precisely what seems to have led to the policy on attacks. It declares:

Attacks...are not attempts at correcting mistakes, but rather dramatizations of distress.... It is the job of all members of the RC community to interrupt such attacks; this includes the interruption of gossip.

RCers are accordingly prevented from taking a “public position” on their criticisms of RC leaders--that is organising to discuss and advance their views. Thus, if someone were to overhear RC leaders conspiring to detonate a nuclear bomb, they would be prevented from doing anything about it. RCers have indeed found that any criticism is regarded as an “attack” (possibly government inspired), and is met with the expulsion of the “attacker” rather than a discussion of the central issues being raised. Such a phobic response towards debate is in accord with normal cult practice, which places all trust in the infallibility of the leader, and responds to his weaknesses by either ignoring them or by turning venomously on those who attempt to discuss them.

Is RC a Cult?

The above discussion has examined some core concepts and organisational practices within RC, in the light of what we know about social influence, conformity, and the documented practices of many cult organisations. It has not been suggested that all co-counselling ideas are harmful. Peer group counselling is an exciting if problematic concept. It requires further research into such issues as the optimum therapeutic competence nonprofessionals may attain in dealing with major emotional trauma, and whether it is in fact possible to maintain traditional professional boundaries between therapist and client when the relationship is founded on egalitarian assumptions. However, it may in principle have the potential to offer low-cost counselling assistance within a supportive environment to many people. Thus, it has been acknowledged that insofar as RC enables people to be listened to, it assists them to improve their lives.

On the other hand, there are crucial aspects of the theory and practice which distract people from practicing such basic listening skills. In particular, the organisation’s reliance on dramatic displays of emotion in group contexts (i.e., artificially-engineered peak experiences) tends to whip up a stampede towards conformity, during which dissent is trampled underfoot. Discussions with RC members suggest that the actual impact of these processes is uneven: there may well be significant geographical areas where RC operates in a much looser fashion, with minimum interference from Seattle, and with its members placing greater stress on simple peer group counselling activities. In such circumstances, it would be premature to suggest that they are embroiled in the full panoply of cult activities, placing them on a par with highly destructive cults.

However, the RC ideas and practices reviewed here suggest that the organisation has at least the potential to move in such a direction, and may have already done so in some parts of the world. A greater awareness of social influence on the part of would-be therapists and clients is required, in order to prevent gross abuses and to enable groups to avoid drifting away from their original purpose. Zimbardo and Anderson (1993) provide a 20-point checklist of Aways to resist unwanted social influence,” which is of great use in this context. Their suggestions include a willingness to step back and reject a conceptual framework before debating specifics; scepticism regarding the instantaneous love of others and an acceptance of the hurt involved in rejecting such love; and a willingness to question authority. It should also be added that organisations which cannot accept discussion of these issues, or which attempt to dismiss them merely as an attack, are guilty of attempting to impose mind control on their members. There is no one right way to raise issues in healthy organisations. For that matter, healthy organisations are characterised by debate and disagreement more than the absence of conflict. Given its hostility to such pluralistic notions of participation and democracy, RC has the potential to become a fully fledged and harmful cult, despite its original humanistic aims.

Thus, it may be more useful, at this stage, to conceptualise the issue of cultism as a continuum. At one end of the spectrum we find voluntary associations of people co-operating to work out their ideas and develop a shared sense of purpose. At the other end are manipulated individuals, compelled to uncritically accept the theories of unchallenged, infallible, and uncorrectable leaders. Organisations and individuals may move back and forth along this continuum. Temerlin and Temerlin (1982) point out that although psychotherapy cult membership may be rare, a psychotherapy cult mentality is not. A desperate need for the reassurance offered by impregnable belief, reliance on instant friendships, and the idealisation of reference groups would indicate the presence of such a mentality and suggest greater risks on the immediate horizon. Our own discussions with a number of RCers and observations of RC events suggest that RC seems to produce such a mentality among many of its supporters.

Psychotherapists who may be referring people to RC-inspired groups will benefit from a much greater awareness of these issues, alongside an enhanced understanding of group influence. People in distress and the therapists to whom they turn have an obligation to respect the right of individuals to access multiple sources of information, to raise criticisms of therapies and therapists with whom they come in contact, and to reverse at any stage their original commitment to a programme of counselling. RC, at this stage of its development and before the current few references to it in the mainstream literature become more voluminous, is already serving as a case study of social influence which oversteps these crucial boundaries of individual choice and personal freedom.

This article was originally published in Counselling and Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1995, pp. 35-50. It is reprinted here with permission of Carfax Publishing Company, P.O. Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom OX14 3UE. Note that we have retained British spelling.
A simple summary of basic RC theory is reproduced on the back page of each issue of Present Time, the organisation’s main journal.
Brown, G., Do you want to get out of your distress? Present Time, 1990, 79(2), pp. 5B8.
Fundamentals of CoCounseling Manual (3rd ed.), 1982, Seattle, WA: Rational Island.
See Present Time, 1990, 21(1), p. 29, for full text and accompanying discussion.


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Dennis Tourish, M.Sc., Ph.D., is a Lecturer in Communication at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He specializes in the study of interpersonal and organizational communication.

Pauline Irving, M.Sc., Dip.C.G., C.Psych., Ph.D., is a Lecturer in Communication at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, researching and publishing mainly in the area of counseling.