Home » Exploitative Techniques » Undue Influence

Teaching Teenage Students about Undue Influence

We are always on the lookout for best practice examples of educating teenage students about the prevalence and dangers of coercive manipulation in the modern world. The following story definitely meets that criterion:

While a middle school class was learning about the Salem Witch Trials, the teacher explained that as part of the learning experience the students would have to play a game.

He went on to say, “I’m going to come around and whisper to each of you whether you’re a witch or a normal person. Your goal is to build the largest group possible that does NOT have a witch. At the end, any group found to include a witch gets a failing grade.”

The students quickly began grilling each other. One fairly large group formed, but most of the teenagers broke into small, exclusive groups, turning away anyone they thought showed even a hint of guilt.

“Okay,” the teacher said. “You’ve got your groups. Now it is time to find out which ones fail. All the witches please raise your hands.”

No one raised their hands.

The kids were confused and told the teacher that he had messed up the game.

“Did I?” Was anyone in Salem an actual witch? Or did everyone just believe what they were told?”

Now that’s how you teach teenage students about how easy it is to
unduly influence and divide a community.


PS – The aforementioned classroom story has been circulating on Facebook and the Internet for the last ten months. We do not know for sure if it is a true story or the product of a very creative and well-intentioned writer and educator. Either way, we are grateful for the effort and pleased to share it.

Nothing but PRAISE for Educated

USA Today praises it, saying, “Educated is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, best-in-years memoir about striding beyond the limitations of birth and environment into a better life…. Four stars out of four.”

The Atlantic reports, “(This) one of a kind memoir is about the shaping of the mind.”

The New York Times Book Review proclaims, “Heart-wrenching…. A beautiful testament to the power of education to open eyes and change lives.”

Bill Gates gushes with praise, telling potential readers, “It’s even better than you’ve heard; an amazing story, and truly inspiring.”

Eric Kodicek, in his Amazon Book Review, shares more definitive praise: “Tara Westover wasn’t your garden variety college student. When the Holocaust was mentioned in a history class, she didn’t know what it was (no, really). That’s because she didn’t see the inside of a classroom until the age of seventeen.

“Public education was one of the many things her religious fanatic father was dubious of, believing it a means for the government to brainwash its gullible citizens, and her mother wasn’t diligent on the homeschooling front.

“If it wasn’t for a brother who managed to extricate himself from their isolated—and often dangerous—world, Westover might still be in rural Idaho, trying to survive her survivalist upbringing.

“It’s a miraculous story she tells in her memoir Educated. For those of us who took our educations for granted, who occasionally fell asleep in large lecture halls (and inconveniently small ones), it’s hard to grasp the level of grit—not to mention intellect—required to pull off what Westover did.

“But eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University may have been the easy part, at least compared to what she had to sacrifice to attain it. The courage it took to make that sacrifice was the truest indicator of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned. Educated is an inspiring reminder that knowledge is, indeed, power.”

We at Open Minds were moved with a cathartic moment in Tara’s life, while she attended a class lecture at Trinity College. She didn’t totally understand what the professor was saying, but she carefully scribbled his message down in her notepad: “Positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.”

Tara was still struggling to grasp the kernel of truth in that message, when she received a song via email from a good friend. It contained lyrics, two lines, from a Bob Marley song and bingo; she discovered the missing puzzle piece. Suddenly, it all made sense to her and she listened to those two lines over and over again in her mind. It’s a truth we at Open Minds Foundation wholeheartedly embrace:

            Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
           None but ourselves can free our minds


By Open Minds Editorial Staff


Follow this link to Educated: A Memoir



Questioning our Unquestionable Assumptions

If we can be patient with our feelings of unease, and learn to question our assumptions, no matter how rigid they have become, and no matter the reverence we feel for the authority figures who taught us these assumptions, then we can transform ourselves and our society.

As prejudice is the foundation of human conflict, understanding how to resolve conflicts within ourselves, rather than on the battlefield, is probably the most important paradigm shift that we can achieve.

By learning to calm our emotional responses to such things as suicide bombings and mass shootings, we can help make our world a much safer place to live.

In recent times, we have been subjected to the War on Terror. It is always dangerous to solidify an abstract concept – to reify thoughts or emotions into concrete realities. Roosevelt said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but now we are fighting a war against fear, which is the very opposite of Roosevelt’s dictum.

We have been deftly moved from the fear of nuclear annihilation to the fear of terrorism: the fear of fear itself.

This war has led to immense and irrational prejudices against Muslims. The terrorists belong to tiny factions, yet the media continues to call the few militant Wahhabis of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State “Sunnis” (or simply “Muslims”). While the Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, the fundamentalist Wahhabis represent perhaps one per cent, and most of these do not belong to terrorist factions.

Similarly, only a fraction of Shi’ites – the other major branch of Islam – are involved in terrorist activity. But all of Islam is seen as threatening, through media manipulation or simple ignorance.

After the July 2005 bombing in London, one of my friends insisted that “Muslims” should apologize for this crime. This is like saying that Christians should apologize for the torrent of hate speech that pours out of the Westboro Baptists. However, cognitive dissonance tends towards generalization.

It is only by recognizing our frailty that we can become strong. The unconscious mind is easily directed, and thoughts are easily led. By understanding this, we can improve our ability to learn and strengthen our defenses against manipulation and undue influence which have become commonplace in today’s world.


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds, a primer about undue influence and how the unconscious mind works, a book scheduled for release in the fall of 2019




15 Years Later – Undoing the Undue Influence

I was a Jehovah’s Witness from childhood to my late twenties. I officially disassociated myself from that organization in the year 2004 and here I am 15 years later writing about it. But here’s what is going to blow your minds: I’m here 15 years later writing about this high-control group and the damage done to me was minimal compared to the many Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses I have met since I’ve left, minimal compared to the countless stories you will find online.

I created a forum for Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses that started in MySpace in 2006 and ran until 2018 on Facebook. I’ve attended and even organized many meet-ups with former members. Through these mediums I learned a lot about brave warriors. Some are acquaintances. Some have become the best friends I could have ever asked for. Others I’ve collaborated with, like the time I helped promote a documentary that a former Jehovah’s Witness friend made. And I’ve had romantic relationships with former members as well. I’ve seen this community go from the few voices to the voice of many.

What I am saying here is that there is this thing called the Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Community. There may not be some official badge, but I’ve been “in it” for many years and a very vocal component at times.  

If you are leaving a High Control group, I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, and it’s not easy. Our experiences may vary, but we all left a whole world behind. Whether it was family members, ideology, or friends, we all lost something. To move forward from there takes a tremendous amount of courage.

15 years later…I’ve picked up on a few things about life after leaving a high-control group from personal experience, from listening to the experiences of others, and from the few nuggets of wisdom you’re gifted for putting a little energy into growing as a person. And now I’d like to share what I’ve learned. They are:

You are not alone: Quite literally there are many thousands of people who have been in your position of leaving, and there are people that can empathize with your story. You are not the only one. There is nothing like the comradery of someone else saying, “Yes, I know exactly the way you feel.” Whether ousted or leaving by choice, you are thrown into a “world” you don’t’ know. It’s helpful to find others in that world outside of your experience, who get you, who understand your specific struggles. It is incredibly validating and helps you heal.

You will not be the last: You may have lost friends and family when leaving, but as time passes, more than likely, you will be reunited with others you knew. This is true when it comes to cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their retention rate is extremely low. I mean bad. Wait, squash that, it’s the worst. According to pewresearch.org among all U.S. adults who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, two-thirds (66%) no longer identify with the group. It’s a matter of numbers. Expect to see some of your former tribe to join you in this marvelous world and don’t forget to be there for them and to tell them they are not alone.

You can leave a cult but the cult has to leave you: Leaving a group or being ousted by a group doesn’t mean the group mind-set has left you. I am not talking doctrinal beliefs. I’m talking about how you’re wired. It takes a lot of work to undo the undue influence. Don’t you dare think for a moment that this is something that happens automatically. Little by little, you will start noticing that some of your stances, some of your behaviors all stem from your experience with a coercive group. How could it not? Be willing to unlearn, be willing to grow.

Don’t be too hard on yourself: Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. It’s not easy trying to find autonomy. The last person who should be hard on you is yourself. Recognize the courage it took to get to the point you’re at now. You’re a rock star for that alone. You chose to be the authentic you and not part of some unduly influenced herd.

Where there is loss, there is grief:  Former members of cults will experience grief when they’ve lost loved ones. The worst part is that one has to grieve over someone who is alive. Grief doesn’t have a time limit. You can’t rush yourself, and you can’t rush others. Don’t expect the loss to never hurt again, but it can and will get better over time.

If you’re still cooking, hold off on the love thing:  What do I mean by cooking? I mean growing. I mean the changing that happens in the time after your exit. You left a cult, but as I pointed out before, maybe the cult hasn’t fully left you. Maybe your views on love, on sex, on relationships aren’t necessarily ones you have had the time to mull over wisely.  Maybe it would be a good idea to hold off on the whole relationship thing if you’re still working out who you are.

Not everything is the cult’s fault: Sometimes it’s hard to decipher how much blame the cult has in someone’s behavior. You may have had a father that would beat you and use what the cult taught him to justify what he did. But another person in the cult may have had a totally different kind of upbringing in his or her family. Maybe it’s not just the cult. Maybe there are very dysfunctional people in these cults that use the cult as a tool to do very harmful things.

Stop blaming others and own it: Growing up in a cult, there is always a bad guy you can blame. Maybe it’s Satan. Maybe it’s the bad-association neighbor of yours. Maybe it’s the music. In a culture where you can freely point a finger elsewhere, it leaves you with the responsibility to develop the ability to hold yourself accountable for your own mistakes. Mistakes can be an opportunity for growth. But if you’re pointing the finger elsewhere, you’re not owning it. There will be no learning or growth if that’s what you’re doing.

Learn to disagree: When you come from a group that has the “truth,” and has answers for everything and these questions all have the “right” answers to, there really is no room for debate. But now that you’re out there in this very diverse world, people are going to disagree with you. This could be very uncomfortable at first, and in some cases those feeling will persist. We may be out of the cult, but is that wiring still there? How do we react when someone disagrees with us? Do we lose it? Do we make rash assumptions? Do we run around and smear this person? Do we make it personal, or do we disagree and move forward in a way that’s healthy? One thing helps for sure; accepting that we no longer require that everyone has to agree with us.

Question Everything: Yes, even all of the above. Who am I to be saying all this, right? Challenge me! But whatever you do, do it under the lens of critical thinking. Learning critical thinking skills is huge. Learning about logical fallacies will keep you from being duped again. Learning about undue influence and how it’s not just the cult you came from. Undue influence permeates society at so many levels.

People are constantly being influenced. Sometimes it’s good—due influence—and sometimes it’s bad—undue influence. Your learning experience with groups like Open Minds is not the end all. There’s more to come. You have more waking up to do.

I hope you enjoyed reading some to the things I’ve learned over the last 15 years. And please share it with others if you find it helpful. You are not alone, you are brave, and I wish you all the very best.

The long history of undue influence

Undue influence has been recognized in law for more than 500 years. It is a legitimate legal concept to provide remedy for the victims of swindlers. The law of undue influence was framed because of concerns about exploitative churchmen taking advantage of the deathbed fears of the faithful.


In 1617, a woman who rejoiced in the name of Mrs. Death made something of a media splash, when the eminent jurist Lord Francis Bacon tried her case. The following comes from Lord Bacon’s ruling, and speaks of Mrs. Death’s hapless victim, Mr. Lydiatt:


“An old man about the age of eighty years and being weak of body and understanding and having a great estate of goods and lands … was drawn by the practices and indirect means … to give his house here in London and to come to sojourn with her [and her husband, Mr. Death] at her house in the country … and that she having him there did so work upon his simplicity and weakness and by her dalliance and pretense of love unto him and of intention after the death of her then-husband to marry him, and by sundry adulterous courses with him and by sorcery and by drawing of his affections from … his kindred, telling him sometimes that they would poison him and sometimes that they would rob him.”


A later commentator continues the story: “After she had obtained control of his estate and property, Mrs. Death neglected such attendance of him as she had used before and used him in a most cruel manner reviling him and causing him to be whipped and suffered him to lie loathsomely and uncleanly in bed until three o’clock in the afternoon without anybody to help him so as all the skin of his loins went off, he being not able to help himself by reason he was troubled with a dead palsy and other diseases, and when at any time she did come to help him up she would pinch him and revile him and by such cruel and terrible courses kept him so in awe as that he durst not revoke what before he had done, neither would she suffer his nieces to come unto him lest he should make his moan unto them, for she said if they came there she would scald them out of her house.”


For a further explanation of the law of undue influence, stay tuned to the Open Minds Foundation blog posts later this month. 


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

When the Alarm Sounds

Imagine you are at work. You are sitting at your desk, engrossed in a task. Suddenly the fire alarm goes off. What would you do?

Most of us reading this probably think we’d immediately get up and evacuate the building. However, research paints a different picture. We are in fact much more likely to try and gather more information, consult with colleagues or attempt to investigate the situation ourselves. Unfortunately, this type of hesitation can come at a great cost.  People have lost their lives because they failed to leave the building at the sound of a fire alarm. Stephen Grosz, author of ‘The examined life’, attributes this hesitation to a fear of a change. A fear so strong that it ‘prevents us from acting when it matters most’.

With some creative license, we can use the fire alarm as a metaphor in coercive control situations. For example, domestic abuse victims might recognize the ‘warning signs’ but worry about what could happen if they leave. Will others believe me? What will my friends and family think when they find out? Where can I go? Similarly, victims of coercive groups experience difficulties and hesitation at the thought of leaving a coercive group, despite hearing the metaphorical ‘fire alarm’ going off.

Recognizing how our brains work and how undue influence affects our lives are the first steps on the road to personal autonomy.


This post was inspired by the 2013 Medium article authored by W.W. Norton, available here.



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

The Journey of the Lost

Many people leaving cults or high-pressure groups understandably say they feel lost.  How could they not? Their entire confidence and identity were associated with the false narrative assigned to them while being unduly influenced. What they thought to be true, they now know is false. The secure path they were on is no longer there.  

The consequence of this experience often leaves one feeling unsure and it can even be outright scary. At one point you have all the answers and now you have few or none. You may feel this has delayed your progress and you resent the fact that you must start over again to find your way. But does it have to be scary? Do you have to resent this detour that has left you stranded?

May I offer you a different perspective?

Have you ever been lost while walking or driving to a destination? I mean truly lost, not just making a wrong turn while following your GPS. When this happens you may ask yourself, how did I get here, and how am I going to find my way? You may feel scared. You may become anxious because you have somewhere to be at a certain time.

Your brain goes into overdrive and tries to find a path to your destination.  As you make your way, you’re learning all about the area you’re in. Maybe you find something there you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. A nice restaurant you’d like to try or a nice park you’d love to visit sometime. And how about that satisfaction when you find your way out? Feels great, doesn’t it? You overcome, you learn – you find another path, you may even end up changing your destination. And if you ever find yourself there again, you’ll know which way to go.

Your journey through life is not so different. Yes, you’re lost, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. No one is saying it will be easy or the process quick, but it can be an exciting opportunity. An opportunity to find your own path. An opportunity to find your own way.  

Along the way, you will experience things you have never experienced before. You’ll learn more than you ever would have if you had not detoured from the road you traveled. Whether your destination was toward joy or meaning, your adventure will be your adventure and so much better than before. And if you ever find yourself lost again, you’ll know which way to go or be confident enough to find your way anew.

Feeling lost can be uncomfortable and scary. But being lost can lead you somewhere better. 

Ruben Ortiz




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

Potential Recruits for Authoritarian Groups

There is a general belief that only weak people are taken in by authoritarian groups, but this simply isn’t true. Authoritarian groups have no interest in recruiting incapable followers; they want the smartest and most capable.

According to research, most members are “fairly well educated” and come from “normal, functioning families.” It is not uncommon to find scientists, doctors and lawyers in an authoritarian group.

    Susceptibility has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence or education.

Most people join a totalist or authoritarian group at a time of transition, such as after a bereavement or break-up, or a move to a new town or a new job. Students in their first year away from home are particularly susceptible, as they are also making the important transition from adolescence into adulthood.

When familiar habits and routines are disrupted, we become more open to new ways, and, when those ways come in a friendly, welcoming package, it is easy to accept them without sufficient reflection.


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




Load More Posts
Go to Top