Archive for September, 2012

Anatomy of a Cult

Recently, I read exit counsellor Steven Hassan’s very informative book “Combating Cult Mind Control”, and I have also been researching the characteristics of cults online.

Contrary to popular belief, not every organization that may be characterized as a “cult” is religious in nature.  According to Steven Hassan, there are also commercial, psychology/self-help and political cults.  Many cults, or organizations with cultish characteristics, overlap two or more of the above types.

Last year I had an encounter with a certain Mr. Adam (“SA”), whose organization Alpha Learning (“AL”) certainly fits a number of the characteristics of cults.  I’ve taken various lists of cult characteristics compiled by exit counsellors, cult information groups and research groups and compared the guru and his organization against these lists.

As might be expected, not every individual characteristic listed by cult watch groups fits every single cult/organization, and this won’t be an exhaustive list.

On the surface level, AL is a personal development course, covering subjects such as biofeedback, speed reading, memorizing, note-taking etc.  By itself, that would be innocuous enough.  However, there were significant signs that SA has other agendas that perhaps span all four of the cult types mentioned by Hassan.

The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

One of the first overhead display slides on SA’s “Learning to Learn” course is called “The Dreaded Yeah But”.  There is obviously no point enrolling on a course just to take issue with the content or try and engage the lecturer or trainer in debate before the student has learned a thing about the material being taught.  Such an attitude was described on study skills courses I used to teach as the first barrier to learning.

However, this doesn’t appear to be what SA is trying to teach here.  He is terrified of being challenged on any aspect of the course material, or quizzed closely on the details.  He admitted to me that he will not accept any student on the course who has attended a French university.  According to him, the ethos of their higher education system is based in debate and questioning everything, and he doesn’t want to get into it with them. He considers it to be a waste of his time, and them to be unteachable.

The personal anecdotes he tells throughout the course seem to be designed to put the student in awe of how educated and enlightened this man is.

SA also has a plausible sounding answer to just about every possible question put to him about his own life experiences and skills.

Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Personally, I did not find any of the techniques to be “mind numbing”, but then as someone who has had a very great amount of training in other types of techniques, I am really not the best person to ask.  In fact, SA seemed surprised how my training had apparently bullet-proofed me against hypnotic effects, saying that I had been “taught to resist”.  After that, his line seemed to be generally that “very intelligent people can’t be hypnotized”.

It is ironic that it is my prior training and involvement with another group that has made me virtually impervious to any sort of attempted cultic control.  The (mis)use of NLP, hypnosis etc. simply doesn’t “take”, probably chiefly because I have been trained how to ground myself in the present moment and confront whatever the other person happens to be doing without getting sucked in.

However, an NLP professional with whom I had been in contact recognised numerous classic NLP techniques (pattern interrupts and embedded commands) being run on him by SA when he underwent the training for himself.

SA is totally enamored with the idea of repetition, repetition, repetition: he teaches that the most important datum on the course is Ebbinghaus’ 1848 work on the effect of repeat exposure on memory.  Repetition can be a useful teaching tool if used in an appropriate fashion; used inappropriately, it just becomes hypnotic.

The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

SA made it clear from the beginning that he disapproved of my partner.  I know personally of two other female instructors, one of whom has now also left and the other whom as far as I know is still an instructor, who have broken up from their partners.  SA said something once to the effect that this has happened quite a few times: “It’s always the husbands who don’t approve”.  He also seemed to have a very clear idea of the sort of husband I should be looking for – a rich, high-powered professional type – even though I think such a person would be a poor fit personality-wise for me as a partner.  I’m actually quite bohemian and don’t fit the stereotype of the businessman’s trophy wife.

Personal dress and image are a big deal for SA.  He likes the idea of instructors wearing designer suits with expensive accessories, having perfect Hollywood teeth and coiffed hair, model figures, immaculate make-up, carry herself with the deportment of a catwalk model, and speak with perfect Received Pronunciation.  This, according to him, is so that he can “feel comfortable putting us in front of his Fortune 500 clients”.

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).

SA’s personal hobby horse is allegedly curing dyslexia.  He considers the existing teaching provision for dyslexics to be a money-grubbing bandwagon, and sees his course as being the only viable alternative.  He hoped that, as his potential successor, I would take a much more aggressive stance against the “dyslexia industry”, as he dubs it, and promote the course as a cure.  I had, and have, no interest in doing so.

However, SA isn’t interested in just taking any dyslexic kid (or adult).  All potential enrolees on the course have to take a Wechsler test – an IQ test administered one-on-one by a licensed psychologist – before he will consider their application further.  In his words, AL “is for eagles not for pigeons”, and the potential student must have at least some subtest scores in the 130+ range.  This is so he can allegedly sort out those who simply have an “electrical fault” (which AL can fix) and those who are just genetically too dumb to make it worth his while bothering with.  When an applicant turns out to have a very high IQ, he treats them as if they are an extreme rarity and too valuable to Mankind not to be anything other than an AL instructor, or, in my case, taking over the Institute from him so he could “finally retire”.

At one point he said that I should get my Dad to do the same testing that I’d done, to see if he was where I’d “gotten it from” – an exercise which would have served no purpose other than to satisfy SA’s curiosity.  I think in that same phone call he started asking questions about what jobs my grandparents and great grandparents had held.  This again was fairly pointless so far as trying to establish where the high IQ came from.  I come from a traditional English family, and certain societal values have persisted right up to my parents’ generation – they accepted their lot in life, just got on with it, and questions about the meaning of life would have been resolved by consulting the Good Book.

My grandparents and great grandparents, living in the times that they did, would have taken jobs befitting their social class, no matter how psychometrically outstanding they might potentially have been.  Success, in their day, would have been seen as running the family business, training as skilled craftsmen, or joining the clergy.  There would have been few societal mechanisms in place by which they would have been able to skyrocket to the ranks of the rich and famous, and because of certain social enculturations it probably wouldn’t have occurred to most of my ancestors to even try to find out how to.

SA spectacularly missed this whole historical context in his attempts to investigate my genetic inheritance.

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.

As you might have gathered from the paragraphs above, SA takes the “we’re too smart” thing to an extreme which I haven’t seen even in the High IQ world.  IQ is a constant theme of his throughout the course.  At first, I thought he kept bringing up the subject because he thought he could push my flattery buttons, but then I also observed him going on about it to a group of students from Indonesia when they took the course.

“Alpha Learning is for eagles, not for pigeons.”

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).

SA advocates an open marriage for all.  He sells them the idea that they are not unlocking their mental or personal potential properly unless their bodies are filled with “sufficient” sexual hormones to regulate brain function.  This, in his opinion, means quantity, variety and novelty of sexual experiences.  According to him, if your long-term partner can’t or won’t provide the sort of sexual experiences the client “needs” to unlock their potential, then they should – in his words – “pay a professional”.

The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.

SA gets upset at trivial things, seemingly to induce feelings of guilt.  For example: “You didn’t return my message for two days.  Please tell me what I have done to upset you?”  He blows small things you are supposed to have done out of proportion.

Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.

While SA didn’t ask me to cut any ties with family and friends, at least not up until the point I asked him not to contact me again, he seemed quite keen to speak to members of my family on the phone, I presume to sound them out.  He said on one occasion, “There are 10 people I can think of in the world that you can trust,” those being my immediate family, him and other AL people.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

SA regularly checked in by phone asking if I’d read this or that book that he wanted me to read, or whether I was going to the gym 6 times a week, or whether I had started the Atkins diet (yes really).  When I said one day that I was busy, he said I should be getting up at 5 a.m. to work on these prescribed projects.

Confusing Doctrine – Encouraging blind acceptance and rejection of logic through complex lectures on an incomprehensible doctrine, and Implanting subliminal messages by stressing certain key words or phrases in long, confusing lectures.

SA’s lecturing style consists of lengthy stories and parables, which are often so long-winded and wander off into so many side excursions en route, that it is easy to lose the plot.  Then comes the pop quiz: “What was I trying to explain with that example?”  And then there are the “study assignments” – seemingly irrelevant texts with ridiculously insufficient time to actually digest what is being read, assuming anyone could even read that fast.

Almost mentioned as an aside in the course overview document is the part on “seeing auras”.  SA stands against a wall or some other fairly dark background while the student looks on, then starts moving from side to side, and asks the student if they can see a whitish halo (the visual afterimage).  SA recommended that I read Carlos Castaneda’s “Journey to Ixtlan”, and after I’d utterly failed to see why I would be interested in such a book, he claimed that the important message it was intended to impart was that “some people have auras and others don’t.”  Well maybe, maybe not, but I don’t see how it belongs on a course supposedly about learning.

Uncompromising Rules – Inducing regression and disorientation by soliciting agreement to seemingly simple rules which regulate mealtimes, bathroom breaks and use of medications.

While SA didn’t engage in those specific examples, there were other trivial things which he turned into uncompromising rules and just generally blew out of proportion.  Things like insisting that delegates only travel first class, ladies should only wear skirts and dresses and never trousers, students and instructors should never wear blue jeans (he extends this rule even to his own daughter!), what to eat or drink, etc.  He didn’t like my light reactive spectacles (which I started wearing because I’m sensitive to bright light and used to get headaches if outside all day) and asked that I take them off when we sat outside.

Verbal Abuse – Desensitizing through bombardment with foul and abusive language.

SA’s verbal abuse isn’t necessarily directed at the AL student.  He does however go off into rants about others, particularly rants of a racist nature.

Removing individuality by demanding conformity to the group dress code.

I have described how SA is welded to the whole image thing.  It isn’t just to impress clients, however.  A dress code is enforced right from the first course.  Ladies must wear skirts or dresses, no trousers, and gentlemen must wear suits.  On one course, that (unusually) was run in his home rather than at a hotel conference suite, SA became angry because the delegate wore casual clothes instead of a suit and tie to the first day’s training session.

By contrast, while the C of $ requires that its staff members wear business attire while performing their duties, I never saw any such rules enforced on public members.

Finger Pointing – Creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world and other cults.

SA is very “us and them” when it comes to different racial groups, a standpoint which I find bizarre coming from someone who is allegedly so spiritually advanced.

First, SA started out by saying that he “agreed with everything Hubbard wrote”.  On questioning, it turns out that he has only read his fiction books and not, as claimed on his website, a couple of key introductory Scn/Dn texts.  He wanted me to explain these subjects to him, which I did, and even demonstrated how a basic auditing session would work.  After this whirlwind explanation, which wasn’t enough time to even begin to scratch the surface of the philosophy or cover a tiny piece of the scope of the subject, he decided that he “disagreed” and, based on this couple of hours’ explanation, began a long exposition regarding what the entire subject was doing wrong:  “They allow people onto the upper levels who haven’t made it on the lower levels.”  And this judgement is based on what, exactly?

Flaunting Hierarchy – Promoting acceptance of cult authority by promising advancement, power and salvation.

AL is a business, rather than a religious group, so there wasn’t any discussion of salvation.  However, SA kept talking about how he had nominated me as his successor, and how I was going to take over the Institute after his retirement.  I queried why me, why not some experienced instructor, or why not his daughter, as she was an instructor and it was usual for children to inherit the family business.  He seemed suddenly very sad and pensive, and after a very protracted silence, said, “She doesn’t have the power.”  I didn’t probe further.

However, even as the chosen successor, it seems control of the organization was not unconditional – see discussion under “Fear” below.

Change of Diet – Creating disorientation and increased susceptibility to emotional arousal by depriving the nervous system of necessary nutrients through the use of special diets and/or fasting.

SA advocates the Atkins Diet and repeatedly insisted on a high protein/low carbs diet throughout the course.  I’m not sure whether this was just purely tied in with his obsession with slim figures, or whether the Atkins Diet has mental effects that can be exploited for other types of control.  Further investigation required.

No Questions – Accomplishing automatic acceptance of beliefs by discouraging questions.

I’ve already mentioned “The Dreaded Yeah But”, where SA doesn’t wish to be presented with any opposing view.

The course manual and materials only have articles on discoveries and developments in the field of neuroscience and audiovisual stimulation up to 1994 – if SA ever gave an explanation for this, I don’t appear to have made a note of it.  I now believe this to be because there are a great deal of developments, particularly in regard to equipment, and SA wanted to promote the equipment he uses as being state-of-the-art.

Fear – Maintaining loyalty and obedience to the group by threatening soul, life or limb for the slightest ‘negative’ thought, word or deed.

SA stated on several occasions that he didn’t want whoever took over the running of the Institute to “turn it into a cult”, and he said that given my previous experiences with other, he hoped I would know better.

Many such groups make liberal use of the law in order to harass and keep opponents quiet.  SA’s approach is rather more blunt.  He said that as long as he was alive, and members of his family were alive, they would ensure that the Institute would be continued to run in the same way as he runs it, and this would be enforced by his alleged (fabricated or fantasized?) Mafia connections.

In fact, this whole story of how he will send “the family” around if ex-clients publicly express any dissatisfaction is how SA keeps his “reputation” clean on the Internet.  I have seen evidence that SA has no such connections, either personally or through his extended family, and it is highly unlikely that he ever did.  Although it was these claims of his that made me drop all contact with SA as soon as I had gotten what I wanted out of the training, there is absolutely nothing he has over me that will stop me from telling the truth as I see it.

He also tells people that he comes from a rich family with oil wells in Texas, but there is little evidence supporting this claim – he lives in an ordinary house in a small town outside Edinburgh.  His claims that he can pay for private investigators etc. out of his small change are only to inspire awe and fear in clients and have no basis in truth.

Controlling sources of information

I told SA one day that I felt the reading assignment he had been giving me weren’t really what I wanted to study (novels etc.) and that I should surely be getting a handle on the whole science side of things, perhaps by digging into a college neuroscience textbook.  SA dismissed this as irrelevant and instead referred me back to a mind map in the materials about the hidden meanings in novels.  He believes that writers communicate with each other using their novels as a type of code, and that only the initiated or the very intelligent can decipher the message.  If I read a story and didn’t dig out the message, then I had, in his words, “failed that particular IQ test”.  I’ve frequently written stories purely for entertainment, as I’m sure most writers do.

Where people have previously trained in other philosophies, sciences or psychotherapies, SA is very good at framing it so that their prior experience becomes all but irrelevant.  I felt like he was speaking to me as if I were a complete space cadet, rather than an independent investigator of mental sciences.  When the delegates from Indonesia came over to take the course, SA seemed very keen for the Indonesian business owner in charge of the group to take me to the hotel coffee shop for a private chat about NLP and what it could do.  Now, I don’t mind learning about another science with which I am not familiar from an expert.  However, it sounded like this guy had been primed to talk to me like a raw member of the public rather than someone familiar with other disciplines.

SA was very adamant that I should not attend Dave Siever’s workshop, which was due to take place later in the year.  He said he had tried the David Paradise machine and had felt severely disorientated, and it had taken him three days using his own equipment to feel right again, told me alarming stories about how trying one of these machines would cause so much neural disturbance to a “high performance” brain like mine that it would knock about 50 IQ points off, and referred me to a “double blind study” showing how his equipment could cure dyslexia and the David machine had no such effect.  I didn’t tell SA that I had already been using a David Paradise light and sound machine, and I decided to participate in Dave Siever’s workshop anyway to find out why SA would be so against it.  The reason: Dave is friendly and professional, answers questions, is highly knowledgeable in neuroscience and neurotechnology, has no hidden agendas, and doesn’t promote his personal idiosyncracies as a model for others to follow.  Having met both men and their wives, I know which couple I would rather invite to dinner.

Front Groups

Many cults have all manner of front groups with lots of different names.  Given SA’s continual references to Rajneesh Osho, I have frequently wondered whether the course delivered by the Institute is just a front to get people interested in personal development, and then once SA has them hooked, he wants to get them to embrace Rajneesh’s ideas regarding how to conduct one’s intimate life.

As soon as I had gotten the information I wanted out of the course and instructor training, I no longer had any personal reason to stick around, and so I sent off my resignation email and cut all communication channels.

Closing Comments

Part of my success in finding techniques that work lies in the fact that I am prepared to keep an open mind about where it came from.  I haven’t particularly paid attention to the supposed reputation of the individual or group concerned.  My approach is I go in, evaluate the information and techniques, and once I’ve learned what I need to know, I get out.  You could call it a “smash and grab”.  There are some techniques and technologies that just work too well to leave untouched by any serious research or unused by the general public, purely because of the reputation of the group that holds the copyrights.  The actual techniques of the course and the science behind them is a whole other discussion.

Finally, what is probably the ultimate cult?  Corporatism.  Just run through some of the characteristics above and see just how it measures up.

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