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Jon Atack: Are cult members — like those in Scientology — unduly influenced?

Jon_AtackJon Atack is the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, one of the very best books on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. He has a new edition of the book for sale, and for more than a year on Saturdays he helped us sift through the legends, myths, and contested facts about Scientology that tend to get hashed and rehashed in books, articles, and especially on the Internet. He was kind enough to send us a new post.

We really have a treat for our readers today. It’s a major new piece by Jon Atack that discusses undue influence in Scientology, a controversial topic in social science that, as Jon says, some scholars resist. With extremism on the rise around the planet, we think it’s time for this idea to get more currency. And we’re thrilled that Jon chose the Underground Bunker to reveal his hard work in this new article. Take it away, Jon…

Those of us who have counseled former cult members find it hard to understand the reluctance of some social scientists to accept the reality of exploitative persuasion. The point is regularly made that members join of their own free will and that nothing compels them to remain within the confines of the cult. But the point is made as if such a belief is factual and natural and beyond any slightest shadow of doubt.

In truth, exploitative persuasion was recognised in law centuries before the term “social science” was first heard. In 1617, a woman who rejoiced in the name of Mrs Death made something of a media splash, when her case was tried, by the eminent jurist and all round genius, Lord Francis Bacon. Some insist that we pronounce her name “De-Ath,” but I’m sticking with “Death.” Let Lord Bacon take up the story of her victim, poor 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 at her house in the country … [along with her existing husband, Mr. Death], and that she having him there did so work upon his simplicity and weakness and by her dalliance and pretence 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 takes up the tale:

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. (Cited by Abraham Nieven, PhD, JD, in his excellent article, Undue Influence in Contract and Probate Law. First passage from Francis Bacon, second from Dawson, John P, Economic Duress — An Essay in Perspective, Michigan Law Review 253.)

Lord Bacon determined that Mrs Death had no right to the property of poor Mr Lydiatt. Since then, hundreds of cases of undue influence have been heard all over the world, yet some social scientists believe that undue influence is a new and unwelcome concept that can be dismissed with a shrug. They are wrong.

It has been accepted for centuries that anyone in authority has a special position. There is a presumption of undue influence. So, if you give a car, a house, or even a box of chocolates to your lawyer, to your priest or to your counsellor, you can claim it back. You don’t have to prove anything, and this law puts aside any need for guilt to be demonstrated. If you gave it away, you can claim it back, because of presumed undue influence. This would surely be true of “donations” to religious organizations, such as the self-styled Church of Scientology.

In Mrs Death’s case, the influence went beyond presumption. She was charged with “express” undue influence, for her use of the lock and the rod, and for the dismal conditions that Mr Lydiatt had suffered at her hands. She did not inherit.
In his excellent article on undue influence, Abraham Nieven, PhD, cites the California Civil Code Section 1575:

1. In the use, by one in whom a confidence is reposed by another, or who holds a real or apparent authority over him, of such confidence or authority for the purpose of obtaining an unfair advantage over him;
2. In taking an unfair advantage of another’s weakness of mind; or In taking a grossly oppressive and unfair advantage of another’s necessities or distress. (Also from Nievod.)

Former Scientologists speak of a ninety-hour week for only a few dollars pay. I have interviewed literally hundreds who at one time or another were reduced to a diet of rice and beans, often for months at a time, while their boss chowed down on pâté de fois gras and quenched his thirst with blue mountain coffee made with purified water. Sea Organization members may only see their children for an hour a day, and that only if they are lucky. Jenna Miscavige Hill was all but abandoned at the age of seven, and sometimes had to wait for months to see either of her parents. She was assigned manual labour for the cult at the tender age of seven, too.

Former members have accused Scientology of human trafficking, but the court has been reluctant to uphold this charge, perhaps because of a confusion over undue influence. So, at least one court believes that Scientologists sign a billion year contract with their free will intact. But they were sold on the notion of perfect health, genius IQ and superhuman powers, not an exhausting and ceaseless round of servitude and hardship.

Scientologists are all trained and practised in the Emotional Tone Scale. Hubbard posited the notion that emotion moves along a linear scale, which in the usual range goes from apathy, through grief and fear to resentment and thence, by subtle gradations, to boredom, interest and the cherished state of “enthusiasm.” (Hubbard extended the Tone Scale below death, asserting that all pre-Scientologists are actually dead. From “enthusiasm” he extended it upwards to “serenity of beingness.” This need not concern us, here, however.) Believers are taught to adopt a “tone” either above or below that of a sales prospect, so as to manipulate their emotions.

Scientologists first find the “reality” of the prospect, which is to say, they are agreeable with whatever the prospect holds true, to gain trust. There is no restriction to prevent the recruiter from dissembling. Indeed, some members are trained to lie convincingly with a drill called “training routine lying.” (TR-L, in the Guardian’s Office Branch One Hat Pack.)

In the dissemination drill, members learn how to persuade a complete stranger to reveal their darkest fear. This is termed the “ruin,” and the recruiter is systematically trained to increase the prospect’s “fear of worsening,” so that Scientology can be sold as a relief for the dreaded condition.

In England, we have a legal “cooling off” period of seven days after signing a contract. It has long been recognised that selling techniques can break down resistance, and that even rational, intelligent people can succumb to the hard sell. It is no coincidence that Scientology employs a hard sell manual, called Big League Sales Closing Techniques. Sales staff are trained in “removing the brick overcoat,” which is to say dissolving any resistance. Without the knowledge or consent of members, sales staff have long bugged sales rooms, so that a “tag team” member can listen in and interrupt at the appropriate moment, or so that the interview can be played back for future reference. Members are generally ignorant of the folder that contains notes from their earlier interviews, which is very useful in manipulating the desires and fears of the prospect.

Scientology sales interviews are notorious. I have recounted elsewhere a thirteen hour interview, attended by not only a registrar but a loan shark, who had a £7000 cheque already signed. I declined the 30 percent interest loan — which under English law happened to be illegal, as the loan shark was not registered — but many did not. Even after leaving, members can face years of continuing influence, afraid to make any repayment claim against the cult. Spokesman Graeme Wilson has said that the cost of the Scientology Bridge — the whole path from groundling to superhuman –is about that of an automobile. In fact, you could buy several Ferraris rather than achieve the dubious position of “Operating Thetan Level VIII.” The wife of an internationally famous publisher told me that she had “donated” over a million pounds to the cult. She had always wondered why every “process” that was charged at an hourly rate seemed to take her far longer than anyone else. I’ve met many people who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on Scientology. I’ve met many others who gave decades of their lives, only to be expelled for questioning some new diktat.

The social scientist who rejects the idea of influence is the newcomer in this time-honoured field. Most of us recognise that we have at times been gulled into buying some useless artefact, because of a sales pitch. The ego is unwilling to accept this, because the illusion of free will is all.

When I first spoke out about the cult’s methods and meanings back in the far off days of 1983, academia frowned upon hypnosis. Few universities even included it in the syllabus. Since that time, it has come to be understood that the mind can indeed be influenced without conscious recognition. The first experimental proof of an “unconscious mind” came relatively late (in 1977, if memory serves), but once it became clear that some part of cogitation takes place beneath consciousness, it was also clear that influence can occur. The reluctance to accept this comes from the desire to protect our liberty, which is a noble desire. It is more comfortable to believe that we are invulnerable, impervious and completely self-determined (as the Scientologists say), but the evidence is powerfully otherwise.

Anyone who doubts the existence of influence is advised to watch a few Derren Brown videos. For the sake of entertainment and illumination, Mr Brown has cast his net wide in search of scams both old and new. He has revisited the tricks of the nineteenth century spiritualist, and shown how innocents can be persuaded to turn tables, make bells ring and write on “sealed” tablets. Brown is an accomplished hypnotist, and in a matter of moments can install a false memory in what appears to be an innocent conversation. In one show, a fifteen-minute conversation was all it took to convince a lifelong atheist of the presence of God — without any theological discussion. In another, four business executives each individually held up a security van at gunpoint before being brought out of trance. Brown also took on the famed objective of the US intelligence agencies, the Manchurian Candidate, a programmable assassin. The CIA had pronounced it impossible, but Brown’s subject fired a gun at actor Stephen Fry, without knowing that it contained blanks.

Galileo had trouble with the astronomers who refused to look through his telescope before he had proved that the Medici stars, the moons orbiting Jupiter, could exist, given the acknowledged presence of the crystal spheres, on which the sun and planets revolve around the earth. (At least in Brecht’s version, Leben des Galilei.) This same perplexity faces the counselor who helps former members gather their wits after departing the cult, when faced with sociologists who believe that cult membership is perfectly normal and healthy.

The no-influence model also stretches the boundaries of credibility when we look at the great mysteries of human behaviour. How could Stalin, Hitler and Mao run concentration camps where so many millions died? After I finally won the legal battle and was able to publish Let’s sell these people A Piece of Blue Sky, back in 1990, I turned my attention to the question of exploitative persuasion. I was fascinated by the work of psychiatrist, William Sargant, who had been declared Scientology’s number one enemy in Britain. (William Sargant, Battle for the Mind. Unfortunately, Sargant’s two later books about exploitative persuasion are long out of print. The Mind Manipulators is well worth finding.) I had the good fortune to make friends with Steven Hassan, Margaret Singer, and Jolly West and to hear about manipulation from pioneers in the field.

In exploitative persuasion, all roads lead to the seminal work of Robert Jay Lifton, who long ago approved the use of his eight criteria of thought reform by the counter-cult world. While these do not provide an immutable scientific law, they do shine light on the practices used by extreme groups to change beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

Immersed in this new science, it soon became clear to me that the dynamics of exploitative persuasion exist in every human society and, indeed, in every human being. We are all subject to groupthink, to following the herd, to grabbing ideas without proper consideration, because we all too easily accept the authority of those who spout those ideas. As L. Ron Hubbard said, all authority relationships are hypnotic. (Hubbard, Research and Discovery, volume 4, p.324; see also Research and Discovery, volume 3, pp. 246 & 248. In both cases, these are the first editions, quickly withdrawn and replaced with censored versions.) Even when it is Hubbard who is granted that authority. As he put it…

In altitude teaching, somebody is a “great authority.” He is probably teaching some subject that is far more complex than it should be. He has become defensive down through the years, and this is a sort of protective coating that he puts up, along with the idea that the subject will always be a little better known by him than by anybody else and that there are things to know in this subject which he really wouldn’t let anybody else in on. This is altitude instruction.

It is also a description of Scientology, which allows only the thoughts of Hubbard, others being incapable of discovering spiritual “technology,” no matter their “altitude.” Hubbard insisted that he alone had made any contribution to the fields of mind and spirit, in 50,000 years. Further…

Any time anybody gets enough altitude he can be called a hypnotic operator, and what he says will act as hypnotic suggestion. Hypnotism is a difference in levels of altitude. There are ways to create and lower the altitude of the subject, but if the operator can heighten his own altitude with regard to the subject the same way, he doesn’t have to put the subject to sleep. What he says will still react as hypnotic suggestion.

Oscar Wilde expressed the problem differently, when he said that “disobedience is Man’s original virtue.” Our ability to question even the toughest groupthink is vital.

After studying a dozen cults in some detail, and taking a long look at the history of religion, from the Mystes of Classical Greece up to the present day, I turned my attention to political and social movements, such as the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

My own departure from Scientology was spurred by historian Norman Cohn’s fine Pursuit of the Millennium, which I read a couple of years before I resigned. It planted the seeds of doubt, because I was witnessing irrational behaviour in my fellow Scientologists which was frighteningly similar to that described by Cohn in the fanatics who destroyed all around them through their conviction that the end of the world was very nigh indeed. I went on to his Europe’s Inner Demons, about the murderous witch craze, and found it no more reassuring.

Sixteen years after I left Scientology, with the new millennium just around the corner, I was fascinated by an interview with Cohn, who, aged over ninety, had returned to the public view to warn of incipient millennarianism. He proved to be right, but thankfully not on the feared scale. In the interview, Cohn explained that, at the end of World War Two, he had worked in the denazification unit, alongside Russian officers. He said that it was apparent to him that the Bolsheviks suffered from the same irrational and driven fanaticism as the Nazis. He readily described them as “cult members.”

I moved on to read about terrorists and gang members, recognising the dynamics of fanaticism wherever I trod. I vainly tried to influence policy regarding militant Islam, but cult experts were not considered relevant by the powers that be (Steve Hassan has thankfully made some inroads, but I continue to be ignored). I was surprised that learned authorities scorned what they called “brainwashing,” even castigating my expert friends by name. They offered up “radicalization” instead, but without giving any explanation of this process, beyond such ideas as the “bunch of guys” hypothesis, which suggests that Muslim lads get together to play football for a lark and the next thing you know, after a quick pizza, they are strapping on suicide belts. Who knew that football and pizza could be so dangerous?

While the work of Mayer, Post, and Atran is full of fascinating information, it stops short of any explanation. For all the light they shine on radicalization, they might just as well have stuck with the tabloid term “brainwashing.” Could it be that the behaviour recorded by Lifton in interviews with survivors of the Chinese thought-reform camps not only applied to cults, but also to terrorist cells? Were these universal human weaknesses that might be exploited by the vicious and the manipulative?

A few years ago, I was bolstered in my thought by Professor Khapta Akhmedova. I contacted her to find out more about her remarkable work with mass sociogenic illness, and was gladdened and surprised to find that she had read my Piece of Blue Sky. It was very reassuring to hear that my book had been appreciated, even in the far reaches of Chechnya. I shared a few chapters of my work in progress — Waking Reason — and was gratified by her response. She was also kind enough to offer a review when the unexpurgated version of Let’s sell these people A Piece of Blue Sky was published, in 2013. What she had to say came as a surprise, and I’ll let her speak for herself. By the way, Professor Akhmedova studied suicide bombers in Chechnya and, more recently, spent four years talking to detainees in Iraq. She said…

Throughout my professional life, I have seen so many victims of poi­sonous ideologies from communism and Scientology to Saddam Hus­sein’s “return to faith” and Al Qaeda’s “martyrdom.” In my attempts to help those sufferers, I applied a lesson learned from Jon Atack’s writings that freedom cannot be delivered, granted, or enforced. The true and complete freedom comes only with the freedom of mind and Jon Atack’s book is the best guide for all who want to achieve that freedom.

It’s good to have friends like that, though perhaps the underlying message is that Blue Sky shows how an apparently intelligent person can be ensnared, by a totalist group. But the essential understanding is that the dynamics of human behaviour are always and everywhere broadly the same. Confirmation bias operates in all cultures. We pay more attention to evidence that supports our prejudices than we do to anything disconfirming and therefore discomfiting. This is the nature of the cognitive dissonance that any disagreement with our values entails. The Scientologist unwilling to even consider evidence that Hubbard was a trickster, despite the massive contradictions in his own work, is in no way different to the fervent Maoist or the convinced drug warrior, because their fervour is an aspect of the human condition. But it is an aspect we could well do without.

There is a significant literature of influence, largely because the US military poured funding into research after World War Two. One expert has determined that over ninety per cent of psychological research in the US in the two decades after the war was sponsored by the military: “Military, intelligence, and propaganda agencies such as the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency helped to bankroll substantially all of the post-World War II generation’s research into techniques of persuasion, opinion measurement, interrogation, political and military mobilization, propagation of ideology, and related questions. The persuasion studies, in particular, provided much of the scientific underpinning for modern advertising and motivational techniques. This government-financed communication research went well beyond what would have been possible with private sector money alone and often exploited military recruits, who comprised a unique pool of test subjects.” (Professor Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion, Communication Research & Psychological Warfare 1945-1960, 1994, OUP, NY: pp.3-4.)

Alongside the secret and life-destroying MK Ultra, MK Naomi and Operation Blue Bird programmes, we owe Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s excellent work to this funding. Perhaps if they hadn’t employed such stalwart liberals, their desire to enslave would have borne fruit.

One of the most researched and most significant explorations was Leon Festinger’s work on cognitive dissonance. It is sixty years since Festinger first proposed the notion that disconfirming evidence usually hardens belief, contrary to common sense. He infiltrated graduate students into a Scientology-related flying saucer cult, accurately predicting that those members who traveled to the pick-up point would leave with a firmer faith when the mothership failed to show. This proved to be the case. (Festinger, Riecken, Schacter, When Prophecy Fails, 1956, University of Minnesota Press.) We face the same difficulty in persuading entrenched social scientists of the abundant evidence that influence does take place, and that exploitative persuasion is a reality. And beyond the social scientists come the politicians. Those generally unscientifically-minded people into whose hands we place the fate of the world.

In a culture that is all spin and superficiality, there is great reluctance to accept straightforward truth. Our political culture is at just as much a risk as the cult groups, should the facts about exploitative persuasion become commonly known. We have become cynical, well knowing that those in power always keep an eye on their popularity, quite willing to pounce on irrelevant but emotionally upsetting issues. With massive unemployment, there will always be a loud focus on scroungers, who have precisely no effect on the common weal, but can be used as a target for ire, to unite the public behind a raging politico. Both Hubbard and Hitler spoke about the need for an enemy to bring about unity among the following. Politicians rarely demur from exploiting this vulnerability, to their own ends.

The great problem with undue influence is that it has a before and an after, but no during. While an individual is under the 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 behaviour of their overlords (or, perhaps, 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” curried by Scientology mouthpieces is a falsehood, because fully 99 percent of departees are not able to make any protest, because they are terrified of being subjected to the “fair game law,” where they can be sued, harassed, tricked, lied to, and, as Hubbard openly said “destroyed” or “ruined utterly” without their persecutor being restrained by the cult. They are not embittered so much as terrified.

Given the liability formula, which all Scientologists will apply at some point, and some many times over, it is surprising that anyone has ever protested Scientology. To complete this “ethics formula,” the Scientologist must “Deliver an effective blow to the enemies of the group … despite personal danger.” Once you leave, you are a target, because you are automatically a Suppressive Person, and you can become the “enemy” casually targeted in a liability formula. I can offer tens of personal examples of vindictive attacks by Scientologists, most of whom have never read a single page of my work. A defecting Scientology intelligence agent told me that several of the spies planted on me had refused to continue their espionage, because I was too nice to be a Suppressive Person. Heartening though this is, it did not stop the cult from bulldozing me into bankruptcy, in 1995. My downfall was met with glee by members of the cult all around the world, reveling in the schadenfreude.

Many leave with a 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. I once counseled a man who had spent twenty years housebound, because Scientology had convinced him that he was a danger to society. It took only an afternoon to help him back to life, but would that someone had helped him twenty years earlier. To suggest that he “chose” to exclude himself from life is an insult to him and to human nature in general. He was a very pleasant man who would not have harmed a fly, so Scientology’s persuasion was entirely misplaced. But then, it often is.

Attempts to force intervention on cult members through the law have too often run aground. There is a danger and a difficulty in presuming the individual incapable of decision, especially when we are speaking of influence, rather than insanity. The US courts convicted Charles Manson of multiple murders, although he was not present at any of them. He was held to have manipulated his followers into committing these horrific crimes, but they too were sentenced, as if his influence was not the reason for their terrible behaviour. This shows our unwillingness to accept a totality of influence, and, in this circumstance, it was probably the best position to take. Manson’s direction mitigated the murderous behaviour he seems to have induced, but it does not forgive it.

But while we should all be held accountable for our behaviour, no matter how drunk, drugged or deluded, those who deliberately manipulate others should also be held to account. If this means that certain practices have to be suspended in the training of monastic novices or rookie marines, then so be it, but the most important aspect of undue influence is probably its esoteric nature. And we can do something about that.

While social scientists disagree with the traditional perspective of undue influence, no progress can be made in teaching schoolchildren how to recognise and overcome such influence. How sensible it would be to teach all children the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance, our susceptibility to Stockholm syndrome and learned helplessness. But the political will is lacking, because politicians are all too often vote-collecting hucksters, ignorant of science and unwilling to tackle popular taboos, lest they lose their authority and their power. While one camp of social scientists decry undue influence in the universities, another camp take their pay from the politicians, to use those same techniques as salaried spin doctors.

In summation, the essential aspect of reform is educational. If you want to reduce the number of terrorists, you must not only seek fairness for the populations they represent, but also provide a general education in the techniques common to advertising, marketing, sales and recruitment. Only if people are aware of these techniques will they lose their potency. And we have the task of spreading that awareness in a world long governed by spin.

— Jon Atack


Posted by Tony Ortega on November 1, 2014 at 07:00

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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ


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