The Conversion Process
From AFF Home (http://www.csj.org/)
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Farber, Harlow, & West (1957) coined the term "DDD syndrome"
to describe the essence of Korean war thought reform with prisoners
of war: debility, dependency, and dread. Lifton (1961), who also
studied thought reform employed in Chinese universities, demonstrated
that the process did not require physical debilitation. Contemporary
cultic groups, which do not have the power of the state at their
disposal, have more in common with this brand of thought reform
than with the POW variety, in that they rarely employ physical coercion.
In order to control targets, they must rely on subterfuge and natural
areas of overlap between themselves and prospects. As with all Korean
era thought reform programs (those directed at civilians and at
prisoners), however, contemporary cultic groups induce dependent
states to gain control over recruits and employ psychological (sometimes
physical) punishment ("dread") to maintain control. The
process, in my view, can be briefly described by a modified "DDD
syndrome": deception, dependency, and dread.
Although the process here described is complex and varied, the
following appears to occur in the prototypical cult conversion:
- A vulnerable prospect encounters a cultic group.
- The group (leader[s]) deceptively presents itself as a benevolent
authority that can improve the prospect's well-being.
- The prospect responds positively, experiencing an increase in
self-esteem and security, at least some of which is in response
to what could be considered "placebo" The prospect can
now be considered a "recruit".
- Through the use of "sharing" exercises, "confessions,"
and skillful individualized probing, the group [leader(s)] assesses
the recruit's strengths and weaknesses.
- Through testimonies of group members, the denigration of the
group's "competitors" (e.g., other religious groups,
other therapists), the tactful accentuation of the recruit's shameful
memories and other weaknesses, and the gradual indoctrination
of the recruit into a closed, nonfalsifiable belief system, the
group's superiority is affirmed as a fundamental assumption.
- Members' testimonies, positive reinforcement of the recruit's
expressions of trust in the group, discrete reminders about the
recruit's weaknesses, and various forms of group pressure induce
the recruit to acknowledge that his/her future well-being depends
upon adherence to
- the group's belief system, more specifically its "change
- These same influence techniques are joined by a subtle undermining
of the recruit's self-esteem (e.g., by exaggerating the "sinfulness"
of experiences the recruit is encouraged to confess"), the
suppression or weakening of critical thinking through fatiguing
activity, near-total control of the recruit's time, trance-induction
exercises (e.g., chanting), and the repetitive message that only
disaster results from not following the group's "change program."
These manipulations induce the recruit to declare allegiance to
the group and to commit to change him/herself as directed by the
group. He or she can now be considered a convert embarking on
a path of "purification", "enlightenment",
"self-actualization", "higher consciousness,"
or whatever. The recruit's dependency on the group is established
and implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledged. Moreover, he/she
has accepted the group's authority in defining what is true and
good, within the convert's heart and mind as well as inthe world.
- The convert is next fully subjected to the unrealistically high
expectations of the group. The recruit's "potential"
is "lovingly" affirmed, while members testify to the
great heights they and "heroic" models have scaled.
The group's all-important mission, e.g., save the world, justifies
its all-consuming expectations.
- Because by definition the group is always right and "negative"
thinking is unacceptable, the convert's failures become totally
his or her responsibility, while his or her doubts and criticisms
are suppressed (often with the aid of trance-inducing exercises
such as meditation, speaking in tongues, or chanting) or redefined
as personal failures. The convert thus experiences increasing
self-alienation. The "pre-cult self" is rejected; doubts
about the group are pushed out of consciousness; the sense of
failure generated by not measuring up to the group's expectations
is bottled up inside. The only possible adaptation is fragmentation
and compartmentalization. It is not surprising, then, that many
clinicians consider dissociation to lie the heart of cult-related
distress and dysfunction (Ash, 1985).
- The convert's self-alienation will tend to demand further psychological,
if not physical, alienation from the non-group world (especially
family), information from which can threaten to upset whatever
dissociative equilibrium the convert establishes in an attempt
to adjust to the consuming and conflicting demands of the group.
This alienation accentuates the convert's dependency on the group.
- The group supports the convert's dissociative equilibrium by
actively encouraging escalating dependency, e.g., by exaggerating
the convert's past "sins" and conflicts with family,
by denigrating outsiders, by positively reinforcing chanting or
other "thought-stopping" activities, and by providing
and positively reinforcing ways in which the convert can find
a valued role within the group (e.g., work for a group-owned business,
sell magazines on the street).
- The group strengthens the convert's growing dependency by threatening
or inflicting punishment whenever the convert or an outside force
(e.g., a visit by a family member) disturbs the dissociative equilibrium
that enables him or her to function in a closed, nonfalsifiable
system (the "dread" of DDD). Punishment may sometimes
by physical. Usually, however, the punishment is psychological,
sometimes even metaphysical. Certain fringe Christian groups,
for example, can at the command of the leadership immediately
begin shunning someone singled out as being "factious"
or possessed of a "rebellious spirit." Many groups also
threaten wavering converts with punishments in the hereafter,
for example, being "doomed to Hell." It should be remembered
that these threats and punishments occur within a context of induced
dependency and psychological alienation from the person's former
support network. This fact makes them much more potent than the
garden-variety admonistions of traditional religious, such as
"you will go to hell if you die with mortal sin."
The result of this process, when carried to its consummation, is
a person who proclaims great happiness but hides great suffering.
I have talked to many former cultists who, when they left their
groups and talked to other former members, were surprised to discover
that many of their fellow members were also smilingly unhappy, all
thinking they were the only ones who felt miserable inside.