By Micheal Langone, Ph. D. AFF
A vulnerable prospect encounters a group.
The group (leader[s]) deceptively presents itself as a benevolent
authority that can improve the prospect's well-being.
The prospect responds positively, experiencing an increase in
self-esteem and security, at least some of which is in response to what
could be considered "placebo" The prospect can now be considered a
Through the use of "sharing" exercises, "confessions," and skillful
individualized probing, the group [leader(s)] assesses the recruit's
strengths and weaknesses.
Through testimonies of group members, the denigration of the group's
"competitors" (e.g., other religious groups, other therapists), the
tactful accentuation of the recruit's shameful memories and other
weaknesses, and the gradual indoctrination of the recruit into a closed,
nonfalsifiable belief system, the group's superiority is affirmed as a
Members' testimonies, positive reinforcement of the recruit's
expressions of trust in the group, discrete reminders about the
recruit's weaknesses, and various forms of group pressure induce the
recruit to acknowledge that his/her future well-being depends upon
adherence to the group's belief system, more specifically its "change
These same influence techniques are joined by a subtle undermining of
the recruit's self-esteem (e.g., by exaggerating the "sinfulness" of
experiences the recruit is encouraged to "confess"), the suppression or
weakening of critical thinking through fatiguing activity, near-total
control of the recruit's time, trance-induction exercises (e.g.,
chanting), and the repetitive message that only disaster results from
not following the group's "change program." These manipulations induce
the recruit to declare allegiance to the group and to commit to change
him/herself as directed by the group. He or she can now be considered a
convert embarking on a path of "purification," "enlightenment,"
"self-actualization," "higher consciousness," or whatever. The recruit's
dependency on the group is established and implicitly, if not
explicitly, acknowledged. Moreover, he/she has accepted the group's
authority in defining what is true and good, within the convert's heart
and mind as well as in the world.
The convert is next fully subjected to the unrealistically high
expectations of the group. The recruit's "potential" is "lovingly"
affirmed, while members testify to the great heights they and "heroic"
models have scaled. The group's all-important mission, e.g., save the
world, justifies its all-consuming expectations.
Because by definition the group is always right and "negative" thinking
is unacceptable, the convert's failures become totally his or her
responsibility, while his or her doubts and criticisms are suppressed
(often with the aid of trance-inducing exercises such as meditation,
speaking in tongues, or chanting) or redefined as personal failures. The
convert thus experiences increasing self- alienation. The "pre-cult
self" is rejected; doubts about the group are pushed out of
consiousness; the sense of failure generated by not measuring up to the
group's expectations is bottled up inside. The only possible adaptation
is fragmentation and compartmentalization. It is not surprising, then,
that many clinicans consider dissociation to lie at the heart of
cult-related distress and dysfunction (Ash, 1985).
The convert's self-alienation will tend to demand further
psychological, if not physical, alienation from the non-group world
(especially family), information from which can threaten to upset
whatever dissociative equilibrium the convert establishes in an attempt
to adjust to the consuming and conflicting demands of the group. This
alienation accentuates the convert's dependency on the group.
The group supports the convert's dissociative equilibrium by actively
encouraging escalating dependency, e.g., by exaggerating the convert's
past "sins" and conflicts with family, by denigrating outsiders, by
positively reinforcing chanting or other "thought-stopping" activities,
and by providing and positively reinforcing ways in which the convert
can find a valued role within the group (e.g., work for a group-owned
business, sell magazines on the street).
The group strengthens the convert's growing dependency by threatening
or inflicting punishment whenever the convert or an outside force (e.g.,
a visit by a family member) disturbs the dissociative equilibrium that
enables him or her to function in a closed, nonfalsifiable system (the
"dread" of DDD). Punishment may sometimes by physical. Usually, however,
the punishment is psychological, sometimes even metaphysical. Certain
fringe Christian groups, for example, can at the command of the
leadership immediately begin shunning someone singled out as being
"factious" or possessed of a "rebellious spirit." Many groups also
threaten wavering converts with punishments in the hereafter, for
example, being "doomed to Hell." It should be remembered that these
threats and punishments occur within a context of induced dependency and
psychological alienation from the person's former support network. This
fact makes them much more potent than the garden-variety admonistions of
traditional religous, such as "you will go to hell if you die with
The result of this process, when carried to its consummation, is a
person who proclaims great happiness but hides great suffering. I have
talked to many former cultists who, when they left their groups and
talked to other former members, were surprised to discover that many of
their fellow members were also smilingly unhappy, all thinking they were
the only ones who felt miserable inside.
Farber, Harlow, & West (1957) coined the term "DDD syndrome" to describe
the essence of Korean war thought reform with prisoners of war:
debility, dependency, and dread. Lifton (1961), who also studied thought
reform employed in Chinese universities, demonstrated that the process
did not require physical debilitation. Contemporary cultic groups, which
do not have the power of the state at their disposal, have more in
common with this brand of thought reform than with the POW variety, in
that they rarely employ physical coercion. In order to control targets,
they must rely on subterfuge and natural areas of overlap between
themselves and prospects. As with all Korean era thought reform programs
(those directed at civilians and at prisoners), however, contemporary
cultic groups induce dependent states to gain control over recruits and
employ psychological (sometimes physical) punishment ("dread") to
maintain control. The process, in my view, can be briefly described by a
modified "DDD syndrome": deception, dependency, and dread.
Although the process here described is complex and varied, appears to occur as in the
above-reference prototypical cult conversion.