Cults, Coercion, and Contumely

Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 9, Number 2, pages 163-189

Cults, Coercion, and Contumely

Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.

University of California, Berkeley

Marsha Emmer Addis

Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center

University of California, Los Angeles


This article, originally written as part of a festschrift in honor of Dr. Louis Jolyon West for his contributions in a wide area of psychiatry, shows how West's interest in cults evolved naturally out of three lifelong pursuits--his studies of the physiology of emotions, his studies of how human interactions impact on physiological reactions and lead toward health or illness, and his sense of social responsibility as a physician. West's intellectual foci serve here as a framework for addressing the definition of exploitative cults and the scientific basis for understanding cults' thought-reform techniques as a coordinated program of coercive influence and behavior control. The article also addresses 14 cult-related myths that have been promoted and perpetuated by cult apologists. Today, with the continuing growth of the cult phenomenon and with such tragedies as Jonestown and Waco behind us, we can perhaps see more clearly why cults are a public health concern.

Rather than focusing on one particular biological, social, or psychological aspect of Louis Jolyon West's professional career so far, we synthesize several of his intellectual foci, as he did, to show the logical path that drew his interest to the challenging, and controversial, world of modernday totalistic groups (e.g., cults). We have chosen that background as the framework around which we deal with the systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence procedures variously known as thought reform, coercive persuasion, and brainwashing.

West formulates his opinions within the domain in which he was trained--that of a physicianpsychiatrist. From that vantage point, he never loses sight of the verity that all life is a living, interacting process. Thus, his psychosociopolitical observations are those of a physician who thinks in terms related to health and illness, pain and its alleviation, and individual and public health within the ecosystem of health and illness.

West's research on hypnosis, on how social interactions alter physiological responses, and his studies of prisoners of war and other intense influence experiences, combined with his studies of the psychological components of social movements, led him to recognize the social and psychological phenomena that he and others saw in many persons emerging from totalistic groups. He recognized the generic group influence procedures that were being used and he knew their social, medical, psychological, and public health consequences.

For years we and our colleagues have struggled to define totalistic groups with destructive potential so that it is clear to others how these organizations differ from various groups whose activities represent less potential to harm their members. In 1985, as a result of the Wingspread Conference on Cults and Society (which West directed), a definition was written that clarifies the cult:

Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control . . . designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the possible or actual detriment of members, their families or the community.1

This definition focuses on three elements: (1) excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leaders of the group by the members; (2) exploitative manipulation of members; and (3) harm or the danger of harm.[1]* Therefore, totalist cults can be distinguished from unorthodox, but relatively benign, groups by their actual practices rather than by their beliefs. The definition is meant to acknowledge that groups may change their characteristics, becoming more or less cultlike over time, so that each of the three foregoing elements may exist to varying degrees at any one time.


West's interest in cults evolved naturally out of three lifelong pursuits--studies of the physiology of emotions,5-9 studies of how human interactions impact on physiological reactions and lead toward health or illness, and his sense of social responsibility as a physician.

His work on cults represents a confluence of his scientific inquiry into dissociation and hypnosis,1014 sleep deprivation,1518 mind-altering drugs and hallucinations,1924 military survival training,2533 and the psychological sequelae of social movements.3438 This earlier work has led him in his studies of totalistic groups to analyze the effects of cults on individuals and on society as public health problems.

West's interest in psychosociopolitical issues (e.g., racism, the counterculture, cults, violence, drugs, terrorism and torture) has always had a two pronged focus--on the affected individual and on society as a whole. He believes strongly that psychiatry should play a leading role in breaking through the bonds of human suffering (a recurrent theme in his writings). In 1969, in "Ethical Psychiatry and Biosocial Humanism,"39 he wrote:

If human misery is termed "bad," and health "good," then slavery is unethical -- it is "logical and fitting that [psychiatry), growing out of man's decision to care for his most tormented brothers, should . . . provide a matrix for the development of a new, more comprehensive ethical system, for which [I propose] the term "biosocial humanism."

His studies of the counterculture of the 1960s and of the civil rights movement of that same decade explained both the individual's needs to participate in what West and Allen termed the "Three Rebellions: Red [the New Left], Black ["Negro" revolt], and Green [Hippies]"36 and also society's reaction to them. West and Allen noted, "While many hippies are highly intelligent, it is not an intellectual movement . . . it is a spiritual movement."36 Many of the same issues West highlighted in the 1960s are relevant to our understanding today of the rise and expansion of totalistic groups.

In another series of articles,2533 West almost singlehandedly undertook to educate first the military establishment and then mental health professionals and the general public about the psychological and sociological implications of "brainwashing." In his efforts to expose the myth that American soldiers were not tough,32 West tackled squarely a national movement that scapegoated American soldiers by using studies of prisoners of war behavior to create anticommunist hysteria. That process led him to integrate his own findings with the observations of others** and, with colleagues, to add his own analysis of the key elements in controlling the behavior of others--debility, dependency, and dread (the DDD syndrome).27

Looking at how individual or group behavioral pathology is dealt with by society, West has recently emphasized two ways that humans avoid understanding and thereby avoid taking responsibility for pathological behavior that threatens society: (1) blaming the victim and (2) trying to understand a group phenomenon by emphasizing its similarities to characteristics of other groups, rather than analyzing the crucial differences between them (e.g., totalist cults compared to established religions).

West has had no trouble throughout the years separating the dangers of exploitative cults from the positive effects of healthy group experience. He and Singer40 clearly specified the differences between cults and communes. A week after the Jonestown massacre, West and Delgado noted that it is possible to distinguish dangerous cults from other organizations:

In fact few, if any, social institutions claiming First Amendment protection use conditioning techniques as intense, deceptive, or pervasive as those employed by many contemporary cults. . . . The distinction between established religions and new religious groups is not difficult to make --religions are created for the good of their members. Cults -- appear to exist for the good of their leaders.41

Not only must the potential to exploit be present, but exploitation must be used for a group to be classified as a "cult" under West's definition.

In the discussion of his chapter "Cults, Liberty, and Mind Control,"42 West explained why we blame rape victims and other victims for what others have done to them, using the People's Temple as an example. If harm can hit anyone randomly, then we all are potential victims. However, if the victim was responsible for bringing the harm to himself, he is different from us, so we feel safe from harm. In trying to help people understand that Patricia Hearst was a victim rather than a spoiled little rich girl who enjoyed her rebellious time with the Symbionese Liberation Army, West often points out that she was guilty of three things: being a Hearst, being a woman, and surviving her ordeal. To this day, some publications in the cult literature,43-45 base their hypotheses on the assumption that people join cults willingly, under conditions of fully informed consent, thus, becoming themselves responsible for the harm to them that results from cult involvement.

Having struggled with these issues intellectually for some time, the opportunity to put the disparate concepts into a cohesive theory came about in 1981. West and Emmer Addis were invited to Bonn, Germany, to participate in the International Conference on the Effects of New Totalitarian Religious and PseudoReligious Movements on Society and Health. Addis had completed her paper before the trip commenced. West, in his characteristic fashion, had not put one word on paper in preparation for his presentation. About 8 hours into the 11hour flight, West pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and jotted down the outline for his paper, "Cults: A Public Health Approach," which he presented as a summary of the conference, and which was published initially in German in the conference proceedings.46

Jolly West's facility with the language, his use of alliteration as a mnemonic device, and his ability to organize his thoughts were apparent in the outline. Under the three headings of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Prevention, he included four topics each (see Table 13.1). To this day, no one has conceptualized the psychosocial problem of cults and how to deal with them as clearly and concisely as West did in that paper, a revised version of which was subsequently published by the American Psychiatric Association.47

Table 13.1. Cults: West's public health prevention model.

Coercion: The Current Controversy

Nearly 40 years ago, after Mao's revolution in China and the Korean War, studies of coercive influence and behavioral control programs began to appear. They described the power of these programs to influence cognition, behavior, and the mental health status of Chinese nationals following the revolution in 1949; of United Nations military personnel captured by North Korean forces; and of Western civilians interned in China. The programs were applied to persons in prison settings, universities, work places, and other social settings. Neither a jail setting nor physical brutality was necessary to achieve the desired end. The topic was reported and studied under names such as "brainwashing,"48 "coercive persuasion,"3 and "thought reform" (see Table 13.2).2,27

Table 13.2. Terms and concepts relevant to thought reform.

Coercive Influence and Behavioral Control

The names given to the techniques for coercive influence and behavioral control are problematic, even though the scientific study and understanding of them is not. In the current context, brainwashing is probably the least satisfactory name for the phenomenon of apparent mental or behavioral change resulting from programs of coercive influence because of its popularized and loose colloquial usage. The term coercive persuasion, although superior, is also somewhat misleading. The word coercive has been misconstrued to imply that physical coercion is required, rather than a broader range of social, psychological, economic, and physiological means that can be used, either individually, or in combination, to influence someone to change his or her behavior. Had Schein3 used a term such as exploitative persuasion, there might be a more clearly understood current use of the term.

Thought reform programs work without having to resort to physical abuse and imprisonment.2,3 The social psychology literature clearly supports such a view. In fact, this concept is so wellknown that it is exemplified in the old adage "You can attract more flies with honey than you can with vinegar." The basic effector mechanism of any program of exploitative persuasion involves the manipulation of emotion (e.g., fear, guilt, shame, anxiety). The effector of the manipulation is a persuader who seeks to get the persuadee (without the persuadee's knowledge of the real goal or consent to the process) to comply with the persuader's goals in order to gain power, money, labor, or whatever else it is the persuader seeks.

West's early writings showed that "pain is not an exclusive precondition of fear or anxiety."7 Threats (e.g., of loss of emotional support, or of eternal damnation) are powerful control mechanisms. West also clearly differentiated the group political indoctrination process known as "thought reform" from forceful interrogation and torture, which was applied to certain prisoners of war (POWs) (usually Air Force personnel) in order to secure propaganda statements during the Korean War. In his 1963 article for The Encyclopedia of Mental Health,30 West explained:

The thought reform technique relies heavily upon small group dynamics, the group structure, the relationship of the leader to the group, the relative initial psychological isolation of each individual from the other members of the group as individuals, and the evolution of a growing group identity and group pressure to bring the tardy or errant members into line. . . . Thought reform is defined by the word "indoctrination" in which certain specific ideas and attitudes are inculcated deliberately and without the merits of competitive doctrines being offered.

The theory of thought reform is based on accepted and decadesold material from the disciplines of clinical and social psychology. These general techniques of social and psychological influence, ways of patterning and sequencing them, are verified in the scientific literature.4957

Because the terms thought reform, coercive persuasion, and brainwashing have become so intermingled in everyday language that their distinctions are an artifact of history, Ofshe and Singer58 coined a new term "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control." This term also avoids any erroneous historical connotation suggesting that a "gun at the head" is necessary to control effectively a person's decisions, behavior, or expressed attitudes.

Many situations include planned influence procedures (e.g., sales programs, recruitment programs, political campaigns). However, there are specific differences between these and a coordinated program of coercive influence and behavior control (or, as we have suggested here, exploitative persuasion). In the latter:

1. Intense and frequent attempts and contrived environmental settings are employed to undermine a person's confidence and judgment.

2. Intense and frequent attempts and environmental manipulation also are used to cause people to reevaluate themselves, their values, and their prior conduct in negative ways.

3. Efforts are made to establish considerable control over a person's social environment and sources of social support. Isolation from previous social contacts is promoted. Contact with family and friends is abridged, as is contact with persons who do not share groupapproved attitudes. Economic and other dependence on the group is fostered.

4. Disconfirming information and nonsupporting opinions are prohibited in communication within the group. Rules exist about permissible topics to discuss with outsiders. Communication is tightly controlled.

5. Nonphysical punishments are used (e.g., humiliation, loss of privilege, social status changes, guilt manipulation, and other techniques for creating aversive emotional arousals).

6. Social, psychological, and spiritual threats (real or implied) are present, the implications of which are that failure to adopt the approved attitude will lead to severe punishment or dire consequences (e.g., damnation, physical or mental illness, drug dependence, economic collapse, divorce, failure to find a mate, rejection by the group, etc.).

Recovery of Damages

One of West's 12 "Rs"--recovery of damages--has provided the forum for controversy around the meaning of thought reform. In recent years an increasing number of excult members have instigated legal suits against totalist groups, alleging harms they suffered as a result of membership in those organizations. Many of these lawsuits have resulted in judgment for the plaintiffs, although recovery of damages is slow because of extended appeals processes that sometimes continue to the U.S. Supreme Court.*** Naturally, this has caused concern to the organizations that must pay the damages. Consequently, a concerted effort appears to have been undertaken to discredit the theoretical underpinnings of the explanation of how these organizations entrap and hold their members by totally misrepresenting the literature on social influence and thought reform. At the same time, apparent efforts to discredit experts such as West, Singer, Ofshe, Clark, and others have taken the form of attacks on their characters using distortions of truth and outright misrepresentations.


Jolly West's career has been noteworthy for (among other things) his willingness to put himself on the firing line by espousing well-reasoned views unpopular at the time (e.g., the equality of all men and women regardless of race, creed, or color). At least some of these views, however, have eventually become generally accepted by society. This is certainly true in the area of cults and their abuses. In the process of educating fellow professionals and the public about the techniques used by totalistic cults, West has been outspoken. As a result, various campaigns to discredit him have been conducted over the years.**** These have included false charges that he was an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that he advocated performing "psychosurgery" on prisoners, and that he was "antireligious." All of these charges have taken the form of vicious attacks on his personal and professional life and, for a lesser person, would have been insulting and humiliating. But West's guiding principle is contained in a framed quotation he keeps in his office:

Those who would carry on the great public schemes must be proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults, and worst of all, the presumptuous judgment of the ignorant upon their designs.

--Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Even outrageous lies can be believed, however. As Hitler said in Mein Kampf, "the great masses of the people . . . more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one."64 Goebbels elaborated when he wrote in January 1942, "Propaganda must . . . always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run, basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.@65 In sum, if a lie is big enough, told loudly and often enough, people will believe it. Because checking the facts often requires time and resources, it is easier to use repetition of information as confirmation of fact.

Perhaps the best current example of the use of institutionalized propaganda to attempt to suppress criticism is found in the Church of Scientology's codified principle that any "suppressive person" (i.e., one who speaks out against the Church) is "fair game" to be vilified, pilloried, or worse in an attempt to prevent that person's criticism in the future. Scientology's "Ethics" course includes the following policy:

SP (Suppressive Person) Order: Fair Game. May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued, or lied to, or destroyed.66 *****

The Church of Scientology has been accused of using private detectives, attorneys, and the legal system to harass critics in attempts to silence them.6770 Thaler Singer appears to have been a systematic target of harassment by some groups: Dead rats have been placed carefully on her doorstep; her home has been vandalized, and she has personally caught a stranger entering her home through a window; dozens of her research interview tapes have been stolen; she was detained by immigration police in a foreign country on a false report lodged by one of the cults that she was a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In sum, using "the big lie" in an environment that promotes "fair game" is the modus operandi of some current groups that have much to lose and little to gain by allowing their practices to be exposed to the public. Our purpose here is to expose some of the deceptions, distortions, and dissimulations propounded by "cult apologists."71 The apparent goal of cult apologists seems to have been to misrepresent the issues, to distort or deny the existence of the scientific and legal literature, to make false attributions to critics of totalistic groups, and to create a false sense of social danger to direct attention away from the real dangers inherent in totalistic groups.

Deceptions, Distortions, and Dissimulations

For brevity, in the following discussion we use the descriptor "distortion" to introduce each issue. The distortions listed here are merely examples of attempts in the literature and in public forums to confuse the issues raised by the practices of many exploitative groups. West's conceptualization of these practices as public health issues is a helpful reference point.

Distortion 1: Brainwashing Does Not Exist, or if It Does, It Cannot Be Proved

The assertion that brainwashing does not exist or that it cannot be proved is a core, though incorrect, assertion. This chapter has already reviewed the scientific basis for what we are calling "exploitative persuasion." It would be very easy if the "technology" of thought reform could be reduced to a simple equation that says "If you do a, b will happen; if you do x, y will follow." However, we are dealing with intrapsychic and psychosocial aspects of being human, and such reductionist approaches are simplistic and impossible. The vast literature already cited that, together, makes up the theory of thought reform has a significant common thread; it documents techniques that influence behavior and attitudes. These techniques do not depend on physical coercion to effect the behavioral or attitudinal changes.

The scientific and anecdotal documentation of techniques that can influence behavior and attitudes is so threatening to some groups that their representatives have launched an unfounded and contrived campaign to get the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association to declare that coercive persuasion and thought reform do not exist. Cult apologists allege that experts on exploitative persuasion are unreliable; therefore, they (the apologists) must reinterpret what the experts mean. In doing so, cult apologists rewrite history and distort facts to support their contention. Two (of many) examples follow.

One author blatantly misrepresented the written record when he wrote, In discussing the brainwashing theory of Communist influence on Koreaan [sic] P.O.W.'s, [LJ] West repeatedly argued that this theory was a "hoax" (p. 143).72 In fact, West32 was not stating that brainwashing was a hoax but that the "hoax" was the myth that American military personnel had been weak, passive, and cowardly. West cited numerous studies indicating that "According to all available evidence, the behavior of the [American] fighting men in Korea during combat and during subsequent captivity upheld the military and moral standards of our fighting forces at least as well as it has in any previous war."32

The same author says, "Singer is arguing that brainwashed cult converts have been hypnotized and remain in hypnotic trance through their stay in the cult" (p. 160).72 In fact, Singer does not believe this and has never made such a statement, in print or verbally.

Distortion 2: If Brainwashing Does Exist in Cults, It Is Suffered Voluntarily

In addition to belying scientific documentation to the contrary, the assertion that brainwashing, if it does exist in cults, is suffered voluntarily puts the action in the transaction between cultic systems and their members completely on the shoulders of the individual member. This emphasis accomplishes three goals for the cults.

First, it avoids assigning group or leader responsibility for building systems of influence that produce and guide the unethical (and sometimes illegal) acts perpetrated by group members, including those related to charity status and tax exemptions, labor and social security laws, infringement of personal freedoms, physical and psychological damage, fundraising practices, deception in recruitment and immigration laws, spurious lawsuits, and others.47

Second, it blames the victim for actions he or she would not have taken had it not been for the influence of the group.

Third, it avoids taking group responsibility for deceptions in recruitment and implies that people seek out totalistic groups to join, an implication that victims of this deception vociferously deny.

Distortion 3: Belief and Behavior Cannot Be Separated from Each Other in Scientific Examination

The assertion that belief and behavior cannot be separated from each other in scientific examination is used to attempt to obfuscate the welldocumented scientific literature on social influence and the centuriesold legal separation of belief from behavior.

Distortion 4: New Religions Hold Their Converts by Nothing More than Preaching

The Unification Church (whose members are often called "Moonies") preaches "heavenly deception"; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (whose members are known as the Hare Krishna) preaches "transcendental trickery."43 Both of these practices are the justification for lying to potential recruits and to those from whom members are soliciting funds. Are these concepts merely beliefs that are preached? Or are they instructions to behave in deceptive ways?

Of equal interest in examining the distortion that new religions hold their converts by nothing more than preaching is: What is the emotional goal of the preaching? Congregation-oriented preaching is designed to benefit positively the listeners' earthly and spiritual lives. Exploitative preaching, in contrast, creates strong feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear to manipulate the congregation for the preacher's benefit.

Distortion 5: Cult Is a Pejorative Term and Should Not Be Used to Describe "New Religious Movements"

The term cult is merely descriptive of the power structure and the control of decision making in a group; it has nothing to do with belief systems, religious or otherwise. Further, many cults are not religious in content, but are based on psychological, political, health fad, or other themes. So why are cult supporters so concerned? The answer may be in the classic 1984.73 One of Orwell's main themes in his novel was that if language can be controlled, anything can be controlled, including behavior; therefore, control of language can enable one to rule. Cults understand this principle well, as seen in the consistent practice by cults to redefine commonly used words and to create new ones. Their efforts to ban the term cult and relabel such groups appear to be a Madison Avenue-type attempt at image improvement.

Distortion 6: Critics of Religious Cults Must Be Antireligious

Once more the distinction between creed and deed is essential. The First Amendment clearly distinguishes between the protection of belief and the protection of conduct.74 Protection of belief is absolute, but conduct must follow legal rules. Thus, criticism of cultic behavior that is illegal or detrimental to the health and welfare of cult members does not attack a person's right to believe.

Distortion 7. Any Aberrant Act by a Member of a Cultic Group Is the Responsibility of the Individual; the Group Process Is Irrelevant

The assertion that any aberrant act by a member of a cultic group is the responsibility of the individual, and that the group process is irrelevant, belies the facts and blames the victim again. It seeks to ignore the control held by leaders over the members, thereby avoiding ultimate responsibility. It explains away the Jonestown massacre as "revolutionary suicide,"75 as if none of the 912 followers were coerced to drink the poison. It ignores the armed guards, the brutality, the actual homicides, and the fear endemic to the members of the People's Temple. This assertion ignores cult-promoted murders76,77 and attempted murders,78 many of which were instigated by the cult leader. It ignores leader-required forced prostitution practiced as a means to gain new members and funds.79 It even ignores children beaten to death in cults.80,81

Distortion 8: Charges of Cult Abuses by Ex-members Are Lies and Distortions of Truth, Whereas Current Members Are Always Truthful

Stories related by cult members after they have separated from the group consistently reveal harsh and bizarre conditions. They also point clearly to the power cult leaders exert. Cult supporters must deny these stories; if they do not, their silence validates the stories. Thus, the false accusation that exmembers fabricate serves the purposes of the cults and their supporters well. However, practices such as "heavenly deception" and "transcendental trickery" would make one suspect that projection is behind this often-repeated myth.

Distortion 9: Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Social Scientists, and Attorneys Who Participate in Legal Actions against Cults and Their Leaders Make Huge Sums of Money from These Activities

Rather than speculate on why it is alleged that expert witnesses testifying against cults and their leaders make huge sums of money, we note that the facts are clear. In most cases with which we are familiar, attorneys representing exmembers do so on a pro bono or contingency basis. If they did not, the cases could not proceed. In the cases with which we are familiar, expert witnesses who are mental health professionals usually charge their normal hourly rates for therapy; social scientists charge their usual hourly rates for consulting. In both cases, these professionals also have downward sliding scales for those who have less financial resources, even providing free services when needed.

Distortion 10: Criminal and Tort Actions against Religious Cults Violate the First Amendment Provision for Separation of Church and State

While using the First Amendment to try to prevent the exposure of wrongful acts under the guise of religion, these same critics eschew the First Amendment's protection of speech when they attempt to silence those who are critical of them. In any case, as noted several times in this chapter, the criticisms of totalistic cults relate only to their practices, which are not protected absolutely by the First Amendment.74 Legal actions against such groups, whether civil or criminal, are focused on issues of conduct, not belief, even though cult supporters write as if beliefs were on trial.72,82

Distortion 11: Successful Criminal and Tort Actions against, or Legal Restrictions on, Religious Cults Will Result in WitchHunts against Unpopular Religions

History does not bear out the claim that successful criminal and tort actions against, or legal restrictions on, religious cults will result in witchhunts against unpopular religions. Although successful criminal prosecutions and the enforcement of certain statutes have interfered with various religious practices (e.g., Synanon's leader, Charles Diederich, was prosecuted successfully for implementing Synanon's "new religious posture," which called for beating Synanon's supposed enemies; Reverend Moon has been jailed for tax evasion; the Mormons have been prevented from practicing polygamy; Jehovah's Witnesses have been given courtordered blood transfusions, which were proscribed by their faith, etc.), and although successful tort actions have been brought against the Hare Krishna, Church of Scientology, Church Universal and Triumphant, and other groups, no witchhunt has ensued, and there is no reason to believe that one will in the future. This myth is an excellent example of "the big lie," which preys on people's emotions.

Distortion 12: There Is a Large, Powerful "Anticult Movement" in the United States

Contrary to the distortion that a large, powerful "anticult movement (ACM)" operates in the United States, the few grassroots organizations (e.g., Cult Awareness Network and its affiliates, the American Family Foundation) are constantly threatened with dissolution, which is due to lack of funds. In each case, the organizations have only a few fulltime paid employees. The rest of the activities are conducted by volunteers who work at non-cultrelated jobs for their livelihood. The implication that these organizations represent a large and powerful network that threatens totalistic groups whose tenets require members to bring in large amounts of money that can pay for, among other things, huge attorneys' fees, is not supported.

Distortion 13: There Is a Small VigilanteLike Antireligious Band of Persons That Mistakenly or Cynically Criticizes or Makes Up Accusations Against Cults

The dissimulation that a small, vigilantelike antireligious band of persons mistakenly or cynically criticizes or makes up accusations against cults is a direct contradiction to the preceding one. To keep it going, the apologists must ignore (1) consistent reports by the press and other sources of cult abuses;7581 (2) millions of parents represented by the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), which, in 1982, resolved to provide educational programs about cults in the public schools; (3) the 1984 resolution of the European Parliament that expressed concern about a comprehensive list of cultrelated activities; and (4) other written expressions of concern by religious and secular organizations.83,84

Distortion 14: Anticult Hysteria Has Swept the Nation

The myth that anticult hysteria has swept the nation also belongs in the "big lie" category. As anyone who brings up the topic of cults knows, the most predictable and consistent question that is asked is, "Are cults still a problem?" Unfortunately, the efforts of cult sympathizers often deflect attention away from concrete problems, especially from the sometimes devastating effects of life in destructive cults on adherents and their families during and after membership.8589 Not everyone who leaves such groups suffers the same kind or extent of problems when reentering mainstream society. Individuals, their experiences, and their responses vary. However, the continuous stream of people who appear in cult clinics or who seek help from psychologists, psychiatrists, pastors and rabbis, other exmembers, counselors, and teachers suggests that there are enough victims of exploitative groups to demand a helpful response rather than a condemnation. The recent public exposure and trials of a number of television evangelists' deceits, scams, and shenanigans have alerted many citizens that cult deceptions, abuses, and illegalities are still occurring.

Conclusions and Summary

Some people attempt to go through their lives with low profiles by avoiding conflict. Some even avoid reaching out to help others because their act might stir controversy. Dr Louis Jolyon West has never hesitated to bring whatever aid, comfort, and support he could give to those suffering from psychological, psychiatric, or social ills. He has not shied away from speaking out on issues to which he felt he must bring reason, humane treatment, honesty, and fairness, even at the risk of physical harm to himself. One of West's greatest contributions has been to demonstrate repeatedly how the role and perspective of a physician as a healer and scientist can synthesize psychological, social, and political issues.

This chapter [article] discussed exploitative cults, the scientific basis of psychological coercion (exploitative persuasion), and cultrelated myths (some of which take the form of contumely against critics). Exploitative cults do exist. The issues related to their existence (e.g., help for victims, lies and distortions of fact about cult critics by cult defenders, exposure and prosecution of illegal acts perpetrated by totalistic groups that practice exploitative persuasion, and the further study of exploitative persuasion in today's environment) are all parts of a complicated psychosociopolitical arena. West's contributions to this challenging and controversial arena result from the nexus of three of his life-long professional concerns: studies of the physiology of emotions, studies of how human interactions have an impact on physiological reactions and lead toward health or illness, and his sense of social responsibility. His rational conceptualization of cults as a public health issue provides us with a dispassionate, logical, and legitimate framework for thinking about what steps a society can take to deal with the issues involved. West's own words best summarize his work and his perspective; they also express the views of others who are involved in giving aid to exmembers and their families and in trying to prevent cultrelated harms before they occur.

Without apology, as a physician, I look at the cult problem with health and disease in mind. Many people in cults are at risk. Some are already sick. Some are dying. Some are dead. The stress upon their families generates additional casualties. A public health strategy is called for. It is my profound hope that such a strategy "will soon be put into effect. Great suffering might be prevented as a result.

The persuasive techniques used by totalist cults to bind and exploit their members, while not magical or infallible, are sufficiently powerful and effective to assure the recruitment of a significant percentage of those approached, and the retention of a significant percentage of those enlisted. . . .

Such cults are a genuine menace to society because they cause harm to persons, families, and the community. Whatever good they do could be done as well or better by other organizations (i.e., benign religious groups, legitimate health professions, and so on) that do not pose the same types of risks to individuals and to the public.

The extent of cultrelated harm during the past 20 years is sufficient to justify describing it as an epidemic, and calling for a public health approach to the problem.

The exercise of such an approach should reduce the number and power of cults, and thus reduce the amount of harm they do, without posing any risk to freedom of religion or to nontotalist organizations. (pp. 188-189)47


  1. The preceding definition owes much of its heritage to Robert J. Lifton and Edgar H. Schein, whose seminal reports of thought reform and coercive persuasion in China2,3 helped us explicate the social and psychological processes used in modern destructive cults. In fact, Lifton has applied his concept of ideological totalism to some cult situations.4

  2. **The body of literature from the 1950s and 1960s on the effects of thought reform programs on civilian and military populations both inside and outside of prison settings is voluminous. Readers are referred to the works of Albert D. Biderman,50 Lawrence E. Hinkle3, Robert J. Lifton2, Edgar Schein3, Julius Segal3, Margaret Thaler Singer89, Martin K. Whyte3, and Harold Wolfe.3

  3. ***Many of these cases are settled out of court in favor of the plaintiff. As a condition for payment of damages by the defendant group to the plaintiff, groups often insist that the court records be sealed. Thus, the general public is unaware of the extent to which ex-cult members have been awarded damages as compensation for harm they suffered from their involvement in totalist groups.

  4. ****As noted in this chapter and elsewhere,5963 others who have bravely spoken out about the dangers of totalistic groups have also been recipients of deceptions, distortions of fact, and dissimulations, all designed to discredit them.

  5. *****In 1968 and again in 1970, the Church of Scientology issued a new order stating that "Fair Game" would no longer appear on any written policy documents. However, some believe that the "Fair Game" policy appears to continue as a means to suppress criticism of the church. As recently as 1984 and 1989, justices in U.S. and London courts ruled that "Fair Game" practices had been applied to plaintiffs in cases that appeared before them.63


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3. Schein EH. Coercive Persuasion. New York: WW Norton; 1961.

4. Lifton RJ. The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books; 1987:15.

5. West LJ, Greenblatt M, eds. Explorations in the Physiology of Emotions. Psychiatric Research Report No. 12. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1960.

6. West LJ, Niell KC, Hardy JD. Effects of hypnotic suggestions on pain perception and galvanic skin response. AMA Arch Neurol Psychiat. 1952;68:549560.

7. West LJ, Farber IE. The role of pain in emotional development. In: West LJ, Greenblatt M, eds. Explorations in the Physiology of Emotions. Psychiatric Research Report No. 12. Washington, DC; American Psychiatric Association; 1960:119-126.

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10. West LJ. Psychophysiology of hypnosis. JAMA. 1960;172:672-675.

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15. Brauchi JT, West LJ. Sleep deprivation. JAMA. 1959;171:11-14.

16. West LJ, Janszen HH, Lester BK, Cornelison FS. The psychosis of sleep deprivation. In: Sankar S, ed. Some Biological Aspects of Schizophrenic Behavior. Ann New York Acad Sci. 1962;96:2832.

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19. West LJ. Hallucinations. New York: Grune & Stratton; 1962.

20. Siegel R, West LJ, eds. Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, Theory. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1975.

21. West LJ. Discussion. In: Abramson HA, ed. The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy: Transactions of a Conference on dLysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD25). Madison, Wis: Madison Printing; 1960.

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23. McGlothlin WH, West LJ. The marijuana problem: An overview. Am J Psychiatry. 1968; 125:370378.

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36. West LJ, Allen JR. Three rebellions: Red, black, and green. In: Masserman J, ed. Science and Psychoanalysis: The Dynamics of Dissent. New York: Grune & Stratton; 1968;13:99119.

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39. West LJ. Ethical psychiatry and biosocial humanism. Am J Psychiatry. 1969;126:226230.

40. West LJ, Singer MT. Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In: Kaplan HI, Freedman AM, Sadock BC, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; 1980;3:32453258.

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46. West LJ. Die Kulte als Problem der offentlichen Gesundheit. [Cults: A public health approach.] In: Karbe KG, Muller-Kuppers M, eds. Destruktive Kulte. Gottingen, Germany: Verlag für Medizinische Psychologie; 1983:4764.

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This article was originally published as a chapter in The Mosaic of Contemporary Psychiatry in Perspective, edited by A. Kales, C. M. Pierce, and M. Greenblatt (New York: Springer-Verlag; 1992). It is reprinted with permission.


Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., Emeritus Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is in private practice in Berkeley, California. She has counseled more than 3,000 cultists and their families and has written or coauthored seminal articles in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, Psychology Today, and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.

Marsha Emmer Addis is Deputy Director for Administration, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, Los Angeles. She was a cofounder of the Los Angeles Jewish Family Services' Cult Clinic and has chaired the Commission on Cults and Missionaries of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992, Page

[1] *The preceding definition owes much of its heritage to Robert J. Lifton and Edgar H. Schein, whose seminal reports of thought reform and coercive persuasion in China2,3 helped us explicate the social and psychological processes used in modern destructive cults. In fact, Lifton has applied his concept of ideological totalism to some cult situations.4

[2] **The body of literature from the 1950s and 1960s on the effects of thought reform programs on civilian and military populations both inside and outside of prison settings is voluminous. Readers are referred to the works of Albert D. Biderman,50 Lawrence E. Hinkle3, Robert J. Lifton2, Edgar Schein3, Julius Segal3, Margaret Thaler Singer89, Martin K. Whyte3, and Harold Wolfe.3

[3] ***Many of these cases are settled out of court in favor of the plaintiff. As a condition for payment of damages by the defendant group to the plaintiff, groups often insist that the court records be sealed. Thus, the general public is unaware of the extent to which ex-cult members have been awarded damages as compensation for harm they suffered from their involvement in totalist groups.

[4] ****As noted in this chapter and elsewhere,5963 others who have bravely spoken out about the dangers of totalistic groups have also been recipients of deceptions, distortions of fact, and dissimulations, all designed to discredit them.

[5] *****In 1968 and again in 1970, the Church of Scientology issued a new order stating that "Fair Game" would no longer appear on any written policy documents. However, some believe that the "Fair Game" policy appears to continue as a means to suppress criticism of the church. As recently as 1984 and 1989, justices in U.S. and London courts ruled that "Fair Game" practices had been applied to plaintiffs in cases that appeared before them.63