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OMOA Undue Influence in Pop Culture – Cult Recruitment and Exiting

In this month’s episode, Pearse and Spike take a look at two cult-related episodes from the popular cartoon shows, The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

In The Simpsons episode entitled “The Joy of Sects,” Homer joins the Movementarians, who promise their followers a life of Bliss on Blisstonia – if only they give up all their money and follow their Leader, by toiling in the lima-bean fields. The whole town falls under the group’s spell until Marge gets the family out. Spike and Pearse discuss the inaccurate Hollywood “cult” tropes – and consider the few bits the episode got right – as well as dissecting the extremely erroneous “deprogramming” of the Simpson family.

Moving onto the King of the Hill episode “Fun with Jane and Jane,” Pearse and Spike explore what makes this a much more accurate picture of a high-control group – and which tropes weren’t so accurate. In particular, they discuss the excellent job Hank does in helping Peggy and LuAnne leave the group on their own terms, in sharp contrast to the forcible kidnapping and deception Marge employs to “rescue” her family in the Simpsons episode.

Before you tune into this informative and high-spirited discussion, we encourage you to watch the shows so you have them fresh in your mind. Also mentioned in this podcast is a former episode with Christian Szurko, available here.

You may also upload the episode as an mp3 here.

What do you think about this podcast? Do you agree? Do you know of a movie, television or book demonstrating undue influence that you’d like to see us tackle next? We’d love to hear from you! 

Jon Atack and Yuval Laor Discuss “Wild Wild Country” with Kirk Honda


Jon Atack, our Director of Projects and Managing Editor, and Yuval Laor, our Review Board Research Coordinator, visit Kirk Honda’s popular “Psychology in Seattle” podcast to discuss the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country,” a look at the controversial interactions between the Rajneesh cult and the small town in Oregon where they settled. Jon, Yuval and Kirk talk about what they liked about the documentary, what they felt could have been done better, and the actual mechanics of the process of indoctrination into high-control groups. This fascinating interview is filled with compassionate humor and thought-provoking insight. Enjoy!

The Talisman-Seller – Busting the Bubble of Sky-High Claims

Two women, perusing items at a flea market, came across the table of a man who was selling good luck charms and talismans. Calling out to them, the man drew them in with his sales pitch: “This medallion guarantees great happiness to its owner, and here – this statuette, placed in your home, will protect it from thieves. And this talisman will bestow unlimited wealth and power to anyone who holds it.”

One of the women was interested in the man’s wares, but the other pulled her friend away with a laugh, saying: “If his talismans and charms actually worked, do you think he would be selling them here? He could simply use one of his own charms, and be wealthy and powerful – yet instead, here he is, a flea market vendor.”

Of course, no magical talisman guarantees wealth and power to its possessor, but even when the claims are less fantastic, it is always good to take a hard look at what you are being promised – and the facts about the person or organization promising you a wonderful outcome. From the psychic who keeps shop in a shoddy “strip mall” and drives a junked-out car, to the “expert” on child-rearing whose grown children won’t speak to him, many charlatans are easy to spot: you only have to compare their own life with the happiness and prosperity they claim to be able to summon for you, and the scam falls flat.

Some fraudulent people and groups are more clever, and you might have to research a little more thoroughly to see the inconsistencies: you would have to attend several meetings at a Kingdom Hall before the façade of “the Happiest People on Earth” fell away, revealing that Jehovah’s Witnesses are prone to the same troubles as everyone else – if not more, for being in a high-control group. Similarly, those in the upper levels of Scientology are directed not to “show off” the superhuman powers they have gained from their courses, supposedly so they do not scare lesser mortals, but really to hide the fact that they have no special powers whatsoever, except perhaps the ability to keep donating money to the mother cult. An abusive spouse will swear that no one else could possibly love you the way they do, knowing that it will take many years of dating and self-healing before you realize that they never really loved you at all.

It does no harm to ask questions and do a little research before buying either a talisman or a destructive belief system, or as the old adage has it: we should look before we leap. When considering the claims of any person or group – whether they are merely offering us an improvement in life-skills or eternal life and happiness – we should remember this fable from Aesop, and look at not only their promises, but also at their own achievements – and apply healthy skepticism in judging just how likely it is that they can keep those promises.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

The Giraffe and the Leopard

A young Giraffe was startled to meet a Leopard at her favorite watering-hole. She was about to run for cover when the Leopard called out to her in a soft, sweet voice: “Don’t you recognize me?”

Startled and confused, the Giraffe paused. “Do I know you?” she asked.

“I’m your father’s cousin,” the Leopard said reproachfully. “Can’t you see that you and I have similar coats? We are both tawny yellow, with brown spots.”

“Well, yes, but that hardly means –”

“Don’t interrupt, youngster. Your father and I were dear friends, long before you were born, but I had to leave the Veldt. Now I have returned in my old age, and I am overjoyed to see how you have grown into such a fine young giraffe.”

The Giraffe, a little mollified, said: “Well, then, if there is anything you ever need, you just let me know.”

The Leopard laughed and answered: “I am an old Leopard, and proud of my self-reliance. I have given up hunting, and spend my days in prayer and contemplation. I hope to see you more often here, and you can tell me all about your family – consider me part of your family, in fact: come give me a hug!”

The Giraffe thought to herself: “This is a pious Leopard, indeed! Surely I have nothing to fear from him.” And she gladly bent down her long neck for the Leopard, who struck her down with a single blow.

Although we can easily see how foolish the Giraffe was to offer her neck to the Leopard in this old Hindu fable, the love-bombing, claims of piety and protestations of familiarity that predators use to lure us in aren’t so transparent in the real world. Too often, we think: “These people can’t be in a cult – they’re so nice!”, forgetting that, in fact, the real tragedy of destructive groups is that “nice” people can and do become entrapped, ending up recruiting for the very organization that keeps them imprisoned.

But even those who are not so nice – fraudsters, groomers, and all sorts of predators – will confuse us with their charm, and disarm us by telling us how very much like us they are, using a combination of the Unity and Liking principles of persuasion outlined by Robert Cialdini.

From a politician dressing in workers’ coveralls to seduce votes at a factory, to the long lost “schoolmate” reaching out to us on Facebook, it is always a good idea to use healthy skepticism, and make sure that your new “best friend” really is a friend, and, if a strange Leopard offers you a hug, to simply say, “no thanks!” and save your neck.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about love-bombing that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

New Goats and Old: Generosity, Love-Bombing, and Spotting a Predator

One of Aesop’s lesser-known fables involves a goatherd, who, leading his flock to the barn before a great storm, finds a dozen wild goats mixed in with his own animals. Thinking to increase his herd, he entices the wild goats to take shelter with the rest in his barn, which they are more than willing to do. Once they are locked in the barn, weathering the storm, he gives extra food to the wild goats, hoping that they shall remember his generosity and consider joining his flock for good. However, the storm lasts longer than expected, and, running short on food, the goatherd begins to ration the supplies, giving the newcomers twice as much, but almost starving his tame animals to keep the wild goats fed.

how long before the new goats are treated like old goats?When the storm passes, he reminds the wild goats of his generosity, asking them to stay. However, they refuse, saying: “we saw how little you were feeding your old goats; how long would it take before we, too, were starved, the better to lure newcomers to your barn?”

Those who study high-control groups and abusive relationships are familiar with the manipulative technique of love-bombing, where a new recruit or love interest is flooded with affection and positive feedback. Often, the newcomer is too overwhelmed by love-bombing to notice how the more established members are treated; in the case of a romantic predator, we believe the tales of their “evil” exes, ignoring the warning signs of how many people have been discarded by our new love. In a high-control group, if we notice the shunned or disfellowshipped member being punished by the group, the amount and intensity of positive feelings poured on us will fool us into thinking that the people in bad standing with the group must deserve their punishment – certainly we could never sink so low! Sadly, those experiencing the bad treatment of an abuser have often been gaslighted into believing that they deserve it, and so the warning value of seeing any bad treatment is diminished, swept under the rug as our focus is brought back to the love-bombing.

But, like the goats in the fable, it is better to pay attention to the warning signs around us – including how potential romantic partners talk about their exes, and how a group treats its not-so-new members. Those who practice healthy skepticism will pay close attention not only to how they are being treated, but how others are treated, too – and, like the wise wild goats, avoid the trap of being seduced into an abusive situation.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novelDo you have a story about spotting love-bombing that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Reciprocity – a Sweet Study with Sour Implications

Reciprocity might sound like an algebra term, but in the world of undue influence, reciprocity is a very real tool that predators use when trying to convince us to act against our better interests.

When our Board member Robert Cialdini, the author of Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, ran his eye-opening study of our tipping behavior at restaurants, he found that we will often give a better tip to a server if they first give us something – usually a piece of candy – along with the check. More surprisingly, he found that if the server pauses, then doubles the amount of candy, remarking on how “nice” we are, we will dig deep and tip even better. It’s not just the giving of the trifle, it’s the compliment – and the implied social bond to a relative stranger – that prompts us to give more.

Although Cialdini’s work focuses on the positive aspects of how people can work together better through ethical persuasion, it’s important to keep in mind how the simple giving of a gift and a compliment can be powerful stuff indeed – and a dangerous tool in the hands of a predator or recruiter for a high-pressure group. Pedophiles use reciprocity to groom their victims by buying them expensive gifts, and timeshare scammers will act as if they are your new best friend, plying you with free drinks and food – and plenty of compliments. Many cults engage in “love-bombing”, bombarding recruits with attention and shows of friendship. An abusive spouse will shower his (or her) partner with romance and gifts to seduce them, or to keep them from leaving. Members of criminal gangs and terrorist cells will foster a “family” dynamic, surrounding their recruits with love and the assurance that no one else could understand them the way the group does.

We all want to feel good about ourselves, to feel accepted and loved by those around us. The feeling of belonging is a powerful incentive, and the reciprocity of giving something to receive something back is as old as civilization itself. However, it’s important be wary of those offering too much love, too soon – and to remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about reciprocity 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!

The Open Minds Foundation: a New Resource to Impede Terrorist Recruitment

Members of the Open Minds Foundation are attending the 11th annual conference of the Society for Terrorism Research at New York University on August 14-15th. Yuval Laor, PhD, will present a paper, and Leanne Smith and Chelsea Brass will be available to talk about the implications of their research into recruitment.

Terrorist recruitment has much in common with other forms of authoritarian seduction. Recruiters are predators, who depend upon the psychology of compliance, the use of thought reform techniques and the induction of awe and fervor to weaponize recruits to commit terrorist acts.

At the Open Minds Foundation, we show how to recognize human predators and their methods. In the context of terrorism, this can be called “preradicalization” – we can proof people against recruitment into authoritarian groups through an understanding of well-established principles garnered from the social sciences. We translate these principles into accessible materials for the public at large. They apply directly to those preyed upon by terrorist recruiters.

Open Minds has drawn together experts from many disciplines. Our Advisory Board includes leading psychologists Philip Zimbardo, Robert Cialdini and Anthony Pratkanis. We also include cult experts and counselors, as well as experts on terrorism, human trafficking and coercive control in families. We are drawing together every discipline that can offer a broader solution to each of these problems.

Our focus is to expose the use of deliberate manipulation or undue influence upon vulnerable people (and at the wrong moment almost anyone can be vulnerable). We tackle the problem by giving readily comprehensible information about thought reform and the induction of fervor.

Leanne Smith - Advisory Board Member - Legislative Coordinator at Amnesty International - Washington, USA

Leanne Smith

Chelsea Brass - Advisory Board Member - Texas, USA

Chelsea Brass

Terrorist groups have much in common with other authoritarian or totalist cults. Chelsea Brass and Leanne Smith, who will attend the Society for Terrorism Research conference on behalf of Open Minds, have corroborated the research of Professor Carmen Almendros of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

Many terrorist groups have been political or secular in nature – for instance, the PKK, ETA, the Red Brigades, the Tamil Tigers and Sendero Luminoso. The Group Psychological Abuse Taxonomy produced by Professor Almendros and her team confirms that terrorism is not a religious, Islamic or Christian problem. This research shows that a significant reason for the success of terrorist recruitment – or “radicalization” – is the psychological abuse applied by terrorist leaders, who manipulate and unduly influence followers to commit destructive acts.

Professor Almendros and her team have investigated six forms of psychological abuse:

  1. Isolation
  2. Control and manipulation of information and language
  3. Control over a member’s personal life
  4. Emotional abuse
  5. Indoctrination in an absolute belief system, reducing everything to black and white thinking
  6. Imposition of a single and extraordinary authority

Chelsea Brass and Leanne Smith will be available to discuss their work in this field. Chelsea is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is studying for a PhD in interpersonal communications with a planned emphasis on public health and safety campaigns, as well as possibly designing clinical interventions for trauma center patients deemed at-risk of highly-controlled domestic violence. Leanne Smith has been a legislative co-ordinator for Amnesty International since 2005.

Yuval Laor, Ph.D. - Review Board Research Coordinator - Author & Filmmaker - Colorado, USA

Yuval Laor

In his talk, Yuval Laor will describe the model of awe and fervor he has developed, and which applies to all authoritarian organizations, including terrorist groups. By understanding the methods that are used to induce compliance through awe, individuals are much better equipped to recognize and resist those methods.

At the Open Minds Foundation we are developing free, online interactive courses for our website. We will also make the site available in as many languages as possible: the Dutch site is about to go live. Open Minds is creating nodes around the world to make information broadly and freely available.

We have 501(c)3 non-profit status in the US and charitable registration in Holland. We are also active in the UK and about to launch a Belgian outpost. We are planning seminars in North America, Australasia and Europe in the coming year.

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

The Frog in the Pot – How Predatory Recruitment Works

The question I am asked most often is, “But how do people get into these groups and relationships? How can anyone believe something so stupid?”

Well, when looking at why anyone has “let themselves” be fooled into joining an abusive group or dating an abusive person, we must remind ourselves of the old, classic example of the frog in the pot of water: If you put the frog in the pot when the water’s already hot, he will hop out. But if you start with cold water and then raise the heat, you’ll end up with frog soup. We haven’t actually tried this, so cannot assure our readers that it is scientifically true (and we don’t want you to try it at home, either, but, as a metaphor, it is worth considering).

A destructive group – or an abusive or narcissistic romantic partner – won’t start off with the crazy stuff. An abusive relationship, whether it’s with one other person or with a group, usually starts out great – everything is love, light, and peace for all Mankind. Only later do you find out that, “Oh, by the way, you can’t do this, and it’s dangerous to do that, and here’s a list of rules you’ll want to study and be very careful to observe…”

So, why do we stay? We humans keep moving in the same direction, once we’ve chosen which way to go. Once we’ve invested time and energy, inertia often takes over – as shown in Cialdini’s consistency or commitment principle. The more time and energy we spend, the less willing we are to bail when things start getting strange.

If we are warned off by friends and family and told that what we believe doesn’t make sense or even sounds “crazy”, then cognitive dissonance comes into play: no matter what evidence we’re offered to show us it’s crazy, we will use the full weight of our intellectual faculties to explain it – and the more intelligent we are, the more clever the examples we can develop for believing absolute nonsense. Conditioned to the warming water, we stay in the pot, believing that that the increasingly hot flashes are good for our health.

How to Prevent Radicalization

Radicalization – the use of undue influence or manipulation to create terrorists – is widely misunderstood as an aspect of the Muslim faith. This simply is not true: the vast majority of Muslims abhor terrorism. In fact, militant Wahhabi “Islamists” make up less than half a percent of the Muslim population.

Daesh/ISIS and Al Qaeda want to generate hatred of Muslims in the western world, to make radicalization easier. Anyone who mistakes their actions for those of the Muslim community is simply feeding radicalization.

The process of radicalization is also misunderstood by some academics. Some experts, including sociologist Scott Atran and psychiatrist Marc Sageman, say that there is no “brainwashing” involved in radicalization. Instead, they propose the “bunch of guys hypothesis”, saying that a group of young Muslims get together to play soccer, go out for pizza and complete their social life with a suicide bombing.

This assessment ignores decades of well-validated psychological research. While it is true that fanaticism can be generated within a culture, it is also true that most of the Islamist terrorists from the West – including the 9/11 hijackers – were not raised in such a culture – they were most often recruited either in university or in prison. And the process of recruitment was far more elaborate than playing soccer and eating pizza.

Actual radicalization is the systematic use of thought reform to divide Muslims from western culture; the process grooms them to hate anyone who does not share their belief system. As with any dangerous cult, radicalized Islamists become convinced that they are superior to anyone outside their group. They believe they have divine permission to commit atrocities.

kirsty boden

Fallen Hero: Kirsty Boden bravely gave her life rushing to save others in danger

In the last few months, we have witnessed a series of terrorist attacks in the UK. Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks were all carried out by fanatical thugs. Thankfully, both the police and the public responded quickly and courageously to limit the damage these thugs were able to make. Australian nurse Kirsty Boden lost her life, because she ran towards the carnage in the attempt to help others. We should recognize and remember her selfless bravery.

But, what can we do to prevent radicalization? Once we recognize that terrorist groups use the methods of other dangerous cults, and their members show the same fervor as any other high demand group, we can proof people against their methods of seduction and recruitment.

A dangerous cult can be defined as:

‘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.’[i]

The processes used by responsible exit-counselors with members of dangerous cults are applicable to terrorists. Jemaah Islamiya was considered Al Qaeda’s outpost in Malaysia and Indonesia. It was responsible for the Bali bombings. It was taken apart when leading member Nasir Abas was exit-counseled by an Islamic scholar who showed him that terrorism has no part in Islam. Now willing to end the violence, Abas gave away the safe houses and the weapons caches of this group.

The process of exit-counseling has proved to be far more effective than the use of torture by US interrogators, yet it has still not been adopted by security services who continue to rely on interrogation rather than exit counseling.

When I am asked what I would say to a group of young Muslims to help them resist the seduction techniques of terrorist recruiters, I say that I would share with them exactly the same principles that I share with anyone who is concerned about fanaticism in high demand groups or abusive relationships.

It took seven or eight years, but, by 1991, I had learned how to disarm the fanatical notions of Scientologists, and members of other socially harmful groups, by engaging them in a conversation that lasted a single day. My interest in terrorist groups began at that time, because I realized that fanatical belief follows the same pathways in any individual – whether it is belief in a religion, a political system, or even commercial or therapy systems: it is human nature. Those principles are explained here on the Open Minds Foundation’s website, and explored in some detail in the book, Opening Minds. I am convinced that normal psychology is the starting point for any understanding of human behavior. We act differently in group or crowd situations than we do as individuals. We respond to emotional cues and are all too easily swept along by our feelings.

Complicating matters further, a few people are highly manipulative and predatory. They care nothing about their victims and have learned to use processes of undue influence, thought reform or radicalization to dangerous effect. In order to prevent radicalization, we have to learn how to recognize these people and their methods, and we need to encourage better critical thinking skills.

The findings of thousands of psychological studies are plain: it is possible to influence people by disengaging their critical process; but this is not taught in our schools and colleges, so young people fall prey to manipulators, including terrorist recruiters.

Deliberate thought reform is most certainly an aspect of the recruitment process. If we teach our children to recognize predators and their methods, we can greatly reduce the power of terrorist organizations. This is our core message at the Open Minds Foundation.

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

[i] Definition formulated, in 1985, at a Conference on Cults and Society arranged by the American Family Foundation, chaired by Professor Louis Jolyon West, M.D., cited by Singer & Addis, Cults, Coercion, and Contumely, published in eds. Kales, Pearce & Greenblatt, The Mosaic of Contemporary Psychiatry in Perspective, Springer-Verlag, NY, 1992. Also cited in West & Martin. See Singer & Lalich, Cults in Our Midst, for a thorough definition of ‘cult’ attributes.
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