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Building a Life after Leaving a High-Control Religion

Amber Scorah’s “Leaving The Witness”

A good writer can hook and hold you from start to finish with a well-told story, which is definitely how to describe Amber Scorah’s new book, Leaving The Witness. However, it is much more than that, too. Amber’s memoir is both a heart-wrenching recollection and a riveting educational experience about the workings of institutionalized undue influence and the crisis one faces in even thinking about breaking free from a high-control religious group. In her case, this was a group whose eight million members, her friends and family included, hold their beliefs with absolute and exclusive certainty.

Amber articulates her past with generous clarity, and Leaving The Witness offers a smorgasbord of goodies for anyone searching for personal truth. Just a few of the poignant snippets from her transformational experience read as follows:

“It’s not the kind of religion that lets you walk away, because the people in it think that by walking away, you have lost your mind and interventions will bring you to your senses.”

“I was afraid of the book, Crisis of Conscience. To me … an alive thing, that its pages would creep out of the cover and slice me up, then throw me out onto the street, worldly and alone.”

“I had performed mental contortionism to reconcile the irreconcilable so that I could feel comfortable. I had been ‘in the truth’ because I was afraid of the truth.”

“Curiosity is a bad quality for the preacher. You preach because you are sure. You preach to people who don’t need to hear it, because possibly you are the one who needs to be saved.”

Amber Scorah

Amber Scorah

Amber summarizes her successful search for personal autonomy in the last paragraph of her memoir, penning an epiphany that Mark Twain would have championed for its content and style. It is one of those gems you can look forward to reading again and again, a parting gift to readers as the culmination of what will be a cherished account for others who have left similar environments and those who care about them.







Leaving the Witness on Amazon

Cognitive Dissonance at Work

Knowing how cognitive dissonance works is the key to understanding why the human brain is so really bad at responding to ideas that conflict with a person’s core beliefs, regardless of how nonsensical they may be.

One educator describes cognitive dissonance as, “The brain attacking information that conflicts with its beliefs, just like the immune system fights off viruses.”

Why is the brain so closed minded? What must one do to recognize cognitive dissonance in action if they want to increase their tolerance and promote real conversions across different ideologies?

If you are interested in finding answers to those questions, we invite you to listen and watch the following 5-minute primer on cognitive dissonance and free speech at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FafR7zC0ex4&feature=youtu.be

How Easy is it to Trick the Brain?

Psychological studies have repeatedly shown how easily rational thinking is bypassed. Our perceptions are limited, and we interpret the meaning of those perceptions automatically. We “fill in” reasons for events that are hard to understand. We focus on what we expect to see, or what we are prepared to see.

This opens the door to sleight of hand tricks by magicians, hypnotists and street con artists, as well as the hocus-pocus of demagogues, whether political or religious in their claims, and recruiters for authoritarian groups who have been manipulated to be true-believers.

In one celebrated experiment, participants are asked to count the number of passes made in a basketball video. Focused on the passes, the majority – about 80% of participants – fail to notice the man in a gorilla suit who walks across the court. This phenomenon is dubbed “inattentional blindness.” It shows how highly selective our normal perception can be.

There is a boundary between what we actually see and what we fill in. If a red card is held at the periphery of vision – the back of an ordinary playing card will do – people are generally surprised that they cannot discern its color, because color vision does not extend to the edge of the visual field. The card can be clearly seen, and once its color is known it will then be seen in the right color.

It is a surprising truth that we all live in a world that is partially imagined. Some part of every perceived reality is actually virtual. This is well-known to stage magicians, whose art depends upon directing the imaginative power of an audience.

Police in Moscow were baffled by a new crime where a grifter requested directions from a stranger before asking for his wallet. About two thirds of people handed over their wallet without reflection. The problem for the police is whether a crime has been committed.

The problem for us all is our inborn compliance with authority: Derren Brown demonstrated this behavior in one of his TV shows (http://derrenbrown.co.uk/). He walked up to a stranger and asked for directions, at the same time urging the stranger to take a bottle of water from him. Brown created confusion by splitting the stranger’s attention. Into that moment of confusion, Brown slipped the request for the subject’s wallet, keys and phone. The victim of this hoax took several steps before the penny dropped. Our attention is far more controllable than we like to believe.

The dream state which exists in the background of the mind is vital to understanding different states of consciousness. In dreams, we do not question the accuracy of our perception, even though objects can change from one moment to the next. A baby becomes a briefcase, with no perplexity on the part of the dreamer.

The sense of judgment is suspended, and we do not even question our nonsensical imaginings. This innocent belief can carry over into the waking state, so that beliefs are asserted as “knowledge” without any need for evidence.

We are bombarded by a constant flow of data, from our environment and from within our own bodies and minds. We can only focus on a fraction of it, so we are never fully aware of everything that does register. This is the simple basis for positive suggestion.

 Confusion, repetition, fixation and mimicry will all bring about hypnotic-like states. The professional hypnotist uses these techniques to control attention and brings about a collaboration where the subject “fills in” the context. This can create experiences that are every bit as believable as dreams. And we live in a world where people are eager to suspend belief.

An interesting video and test to see how the brain works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo&feature=youtu.be


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019



Open Minds would like to give a shout-out to bestselling author Cass R. Sunstein and his new book, Conformity.

In the book, “Sunstein argues that the key to making sense of living in this fractured world lies in understanding the idea of conformity―what it is and how it works―as well as the countervailing force of dissent.

Conformity by Cass Sunstein“An understanding of conformity sheds new light on many issues confronting us today: the role of social media, the rise of fake news, the growth of authoritarianism, the success of Donald Trump, the functions of free speech, debates over immigration and the Supreme Court, and much more.

“Lacking information of our own and seeking the good opinion of others, we often follow the crowd, but Sunstein shows that when individuals suppress their own instincts about what is true and what is right, it can lead to significant social harm.

“While dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, dissent is actually an important means of correcting the natural human tendency toward conformity and has enormous social benefits in reducing extremism, encouraging critical thinking, and protecting freedom itself.”

For a great review of this must-read book, please check out Ira Chaleff’s post at https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/conformity


The Paradox of Undue Influence

The great problem with undue influence is that it has a before and an after, but no during. While individuals are under the coercive influence, they will swear blind that they are acting out of their own free will. They choose to be overworked, undernourished and frantic, to accept the domineering alpha behavior of their overlords (or overladies). The moment the veil lifts – which can take decades – they are usually without the strength to do anything but crawl away and weep, covered in wounds which need a great deal of licking.

The vision of the embittered “apostate” currently trumpeted by Scientology and Jehovah’s Witness mouthpieces is a falsehood; fully 99% of departees are not able to make any protest, because they are terrified of being subjected to the “fair game policy”, where they can be sued, harassed, cheated, deceived, and, as Ron Hubbard openly said, “destroyed” or “ruined utterly” without their persecutor being restrained by the group. They are not embittered so much as terrified.

Authoritarian groups with religious pretensions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will threaten the member’s eternity. Many leave Scientology with the terror of “losing their immortality” – the belief that they will fall into the abyss and be lost forever. With this phobia, the member’s fate is sealed.


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influencescheduled for release in the fall of 2019

Open Minds On Air 7 – Communication or Miscommunication?

This month, Christian Szurko of the Dialog Centre returns, joining Jon and Pearse in this informative, witty, and often hilarious discussion. They start with the idea of how communication is used – or, rather, misused – as a means of control in recruitment and indoctrination, and the impact this has in the recovery of those leaving authoritarian relationships. They move on to explore how the misuse of communication plays out in groups such as cults and gangs, as well as in everyday relationships. They also take a hard look at how our education system can act as the foundation for this type of control, and discuss how redefining words and phrases has long been used by authoritarian groups to exert control.

If you wish to download as an Mp3, use this link.

What do you think about this interview? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a misuse of communication that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Open Minds on Air – the Manipulative Power of Awe

Join hosts Pearse Redmond and Jon Atack as they discuss the concept of awe and its manipulative power with Yuval Laor. They talk about the psychological effect awe can have on an individual, and explore how this can be exploited by cult groups and toxic individuals in order to gain control. Yuval and Jon also discuss how all of us can be susceptible to the manipulation of our natural sense of awe, and the importance of cultivating healthy awe experiences in our life.

Masked Membership – an Excerpt from “Opening Minds”

For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.

In 1985, the Boston Church of Christ asked Flavil Yeakley, a personality test expert, to make a study of its members. Critics insisted that the group caused unhealthy transformations of personality in its members. The Boston Church of Christ was accused of being a ‘cult’ that was ‘brainwashing’ its members.

Over 900 members filled in extensive questionnaires. Yeakley also administered the Meyers-Briggs’ Type Indicator to 30 members each of six groups generally regarded as ‘manipulative sects’ – Yeakley’s expression – including Scientology, The Way, the Unification Church (or Moonies), the Hare Krishna Society, Maranatha and the Children of God, and to 30 members each in five mainstream churches: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian. The same personality test was filled out three times by most of the subjects – as if it were five years earlier; from their present perspective; and how they anticipated they would answer five years into the future.

In Yeakley’s words, ‘Changes in psychological type do not indicate normal healthy growth. Such changes indicate some pressure in the environment that causes people to deny their true type and try to become like someone else.’[i] There were no significant deviations in personality type over time among members of the five mainstream churches, but all of the ‘manipulative sects’ showed significant movement, including the Boston Church of Christ, in direct opposition to its leader’s conviction that his group was not a cult.

sects were changing the personalities of their membersYeakley found that there was a convergence towards a particular personality type within each manipulative sect, but that the type varied from group to group. In other words, the ‘manipulative sects’ were changing the personalities of their members, each towards its own specific type. The effect has come to be known as ‘cloning’ and is a substantial proof that thought reform occurs in some groups.[ii]

This work is supported by a study made by Paul Martin and Rod Dubrow-Marshall, who sampled 567 former members and demonstrated significant effects relating to depression, dissociation and anxiety induced by cult membership.[iii]

The term personality comes from a word meaning ‘mask’. There is significant disagreement about the nature of personality. A few experts are convinced that the individual is naturally a multiplicity of personalities, but it is easy to mistake changing moods for discontinuous personalities. When they are sad, people find it hard to recollect happy memories, where happy people have difficulty remembering sad memories. This does not mean that their personalities have changed, only the mood through which personality is expressed.

The personality is made up of many identities, which are adopted according to mood and to context. Who you are speaking to – a parent, a child, an employer, an employee, a waiter or a celebrity, for instance – all these factors colour identity. But these identities are strands of the continuum that makes up personality. In a totalist relationship, all of these identities are subsumed within the mood and behaviour demanded of the member.

What do you think about this excerpt? Do you agree? Have you read Opening Minds? Do you have a story about shifting personality that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!


[i] Flavil Yeakley, ed, The Discipling Dilemma, 1988: http://www.somis.org/TDD-01.html p.27.

[ii] ibid; Yeakley became president of the Association for Psychological Type in 1987.

[iii] Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall, The Influence Continuum – the Good, the Dubious, and the Harmful – Evidence and Implications for Policy and Practice in the 21st Century, International Journal of Cultic Studies. vol.1, no.1, 2010.

Consensus – the Coercion of the Crowd

Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Cialdini's Seven Laws of Persuasion

Consensus is a powerful force, for good or bad: we naturally do what everyone else around us is doing. This is perfectly understandable; for much of our history, separation from the group meant death, and even today we take our social cues from those around us.

As Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, explains, consensus is one of the Seven Laws of Persuasion, an important tool we all use to persuade each other. And one of the best ways to get people to do something is to convince them that everybody else is doing it, too.

Advertisers have used the power of consensus for centuries; this form of peer pressure has been used to sell everything from cars to candy. With little time to research every choice we make, we often fall into the habit of reaching for the number one brand. However, when the drive for consensus is used against us to sway our behavior, the results can be much more sinister than our brand choices.

Akin to the schoolyard bully pressuring a teen into trying a cigarette because “everybody’s doing it”, a predator will play the consensus card to make us believe that everybody wants what they’re selling. And everybody can’t be wrong, right?

The problem arises when we don’t take the time to see that, in fact, all teens aren’t smoking cigarettes, and the advertisement trumpeting “the number one brand” is from a company that isn’t even in the top five.

But even if those claims of popularity are true, sometimes everybody can be wrong. Although we now know that the iconic footage of the lemmings jumping off the cliff wasn’t a naturally occurring event (and was, in fact, faked), there is still a valuable lesson of caution: something that is popular now could turn out be a disastrous choice in the long run, or even be proved to be a dangerous scam.

Generally, a reputable person or organization offering something good won’t need to tell you how popular they are.

Cialdini’s principle of consensus is, of course, an important tool for positive persuasion. But a critical thinker will also remember how the lure of consensus can work against our better interests. It’s up to us to use healthy skepticism, research any claims of popularity – and take a second look at anyone telling us that “everybody’s doing it”.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Robert Cialdini’s book? Do you have a story about consensus that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Breck Bednar – A Mother Turns Tragedy Into Education

Breck Bednar never had a fifteenth birthday. Instead, on that date, his family gathered at his grave.

He had been lured to his death by Lewis Daynes, an older boy he met on the Internet. Daynes, who had spent years grooming a group of boys via an online gaming server, gradually convinced Breck to listen to only him – and ignore the advice of his mother, who had grown so suspicious of Daynes’ relationship with her son that she had gone to the police.

Lorin LaFave, Breck’s mother, did everything “right” to prevent the tragedy which took her son’s life – she talked to the other parents, set clear boundaries for her son online, and even took away his access to the Internet for a week, forbidding him to talk to Daynes. Unfortunately, the other parents were uncommunicative, the group of boys Daynes held sway over took their conversations “underground”, Daynes gifted Breck with a secret cell-phone to contact him – and worst of all, the police ignored LaFave’s concerns about the man she was sure was grooming her son. She would only find out after Breck’s death that, although Daynes had a record of a previous conviction for the rape of another teenage boy, the police dispatcher she shared her concerns with had decided the case was not “serious” enough to pass on to investigators.

If the awareness of how grooming works was better-known – and part of the standard training of police – Breck Bednar might be alive today. As it is, Daynes was able to hijack the boy’s loyalty; his victim delivered himself into his snare, and the deadly predator was able to commit the heinous violent crime which ended Breck’s life.

Lorin LaFave has turned this ghastly tragedy into a positive result: she has founded the Breck Foundation, which works to educate youth and their parents about online grooming and Internet safety, by teaching them to “Live Virtual, Play Real”. We at Open Minds salute LaFave and her courage!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about grooming that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

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