Group Psychodynamics and CULTS

Readers Digest/December 1, 2003



Robert Berkow, M.D., Editor-in-Chief

Andrew J. Fletcher, M.B., B.Chir., Assistant Editor

Editorial Board

Philip K. Bondy, M.D.
L. Jack Faling, M.D.
Alvan R. Feinstein, M.D.
Eugene P. Frenkel, M.D.
Robert A. Hoekelman, M.D.
Robert G. Petersdorf, M.D.
Fred Plum, M.D.
John Romano, M.D.
G. Victor Rossi, Ph.D.
John H. Talbott, M.D.
Paul H. Tans r, M.D.

Published by


Division of MERCK & CO., INC.
Rahway, N.J.


Ch. 136 Group Psychodynamics (page) 1467

Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology,
University of California, Berkeley
Professor, Department of Psychiatry,
University Of California, San Francisco

Group Psychodynamics


The processes of influence that "occur among individuals, the interactional structures that emerge and the impact that these group processes have upon individual personality functioning.

The Learning of Behavior

We five in the most rapidly changing and complex environment that has ever existed. To cope daily with many and complex social judgments, we often rely on automatic, learned responses. However, because no one person has the knowledge and experience to deal with every decision that arises we allow our behavior to be influenced at times by others and by what is happening around us. Since we are social creatures - born dependent on others, living our lives, interacting with others, we are prepared for group living by learning the language, demeanor, beliefs, attitudes, cultural norms, and social values of those around us.

Social behavior reflects both conscious and unconscious learning, presumably through 4 prime modes:

  1. Observational learning (modeling), in which we watch others behavior and then copy it.
  2. Classical (Pavlovian; respondent) conditioning, in which the pairing of a conditioned stimulus (bell) with an unconditioned stimulus (meat powder) elicits an unconditioned response (salivation). Repetition produces a conditioned reflex in which the bell alone elicits the salivation.
  3. Operant (Skinnerian; instrumental) conditioning, where learning occurs as a consequence of reinforcement. (If response is reinforced, its frequency will increase; if it it is punished, its frequency will decrease.)
  4. Cognitive social learning: i.e. thoughts, feelings, images, and memories -- the person's inner experiences are crucial factors in learning.

Recently, theories of learning have become more interactional, seeing acquired or inherited behavior, internal cognitive factors, and environmental influences operating as reciprocal determinants of each other (i.e. behavior affects the environment and cognitions; cognitions affect the environment and behavior; and the environment influences behavior and cognitions).

Page 1468 Psychiatric Disorders

Modifying Behavior

Historically, the power of certain persons to dramatically influence others was considered supernatural (i.e. the influencer was a magician or witch with secret potions, and arcane knowledge, or had godlike qualities). Some people have always attained complance and influence through coercion, brutality or the wielding of religious, political, or financial power.

Compliance is produced by 3 general methods of persuasion: reason, coercion or subterfuge - used singly or in various combinations, and these can be roughly arranged on an imaginary continuum. At the left end are those efforts to persuade that are characterized by reason and open exchange in which each side looks at all the evidence and attempts to persuade the other. This is the approved method in a democratic society. Moving across the continuum, varying amounts of pressure are applied by the persuader to have his opinion prevail (e.g. forms of advertising are followed by propaganda). At the far right end of the continuum would be placed fascism in Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini and in the USA, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organizations. Here also are the cultic groups in which the persuader resorts to social, psychologic or physical coercion. Since coercive methods make the process of persuasion obvious, subterfuge often is used. The persuader tries to keep his subject unaware of the intention to elicit compliance and less than fully aware of being moved along a preplanned course of action.

We are all influenced to some extent by advertising, or find ourselves "going along with the group" without realizing how influenced we are by merely being in a crowd (e.g. at a rock concert or sporting event), or how our behavior is swayed by a political orator. But there is an almost universal uneasiness about admitting that one is persuaded or influenced by other persons to any marked extent. Such thoughts mobilize unacceptable feelings of powerlessness and dependency. Most persons like to think that their own minds and thought processes, their opinions, values, and ideas, are inviolate and totally self regulated although "other persons" may be weak-minded and easily influenced.

Vulnerability to persuasion tactics: Everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways, but the vulnerability to influence varies. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, distracted, or fatigued. Alternatively a person with a sense of clarity and sureness about his own beliefs and values, with a feeling of being embedded in meaningful relationships with other persons, and with a sense of having a role in life that gives him support is much less likely to be vulnerable to persuasion.

Also affecting vulnerability are the status and power of the persuader. Further, certain persons and groups have been termed "compliance professionals" - high pressure salespersons, con artists, advertisers, fund raisers, and other people who have become skillful at employing some fundamental psychologic principles that underlie the influence process.


(Thought Reform Programs, Intense Indoctrination Programs, Intense Resocialization Programs, New Age Groups, New Movement Groups)

Groups with religious, political, psychologic, and other ideologies at their core, which almost universally offer as their central theme a special new psychologic awareness handed down by an indisputable and arbitrary authority that uses the technic of thought reform (intense indoctrination or resocialization, coercive persuasion brainwashing (i.e., the systematic manipulation of social and psychologic influence distinguished from other forms of social learning by the conditions under which it is conducted and by the technics of environmental and interpersonal manipulation employed to suppress certain behavior and to train others).

The views of cults range from new psychologic theories of conduct sold commercially as training programs, to indoctrinations about religious beliefs, philosophies, politics, and health and eating practices. The groups vary in content, but appear to share certain contextual social and psychologic traits. Several million persons (in the USA, greater than 3 million young people) in the past decade have participated in cultic group experiences.

Most cults reject modern medicine, even considering physicians as enemies because the leaders usually do not want to relinquish any control over their followers. However, physicians receive requests for help from persons traumatized by their cult experiences, or from relatives of cult members puzzled by what his happened. Understanding the social and psychologic features of group influences and their effects on individuals can help in responding to these requests and obtaining assistance from other knowledgeable persons.

Worldwide examples of intense indoctrination experiences in the past 50 years highlight how easily human conduct can be manipulated under certain circumstances. During the Russian purge trials in the 1930s, men were maneuvered into both falsely confessing and falsely accusing. The early 1950s saw the effects of the revolutionary universities in China, an entire nation was subjected to a thought reform program in which millions were induced to espouse new philosophies and exhibit new conduct through psychologic, social, and political coercion technics. In the Korean War, United Nations prisoners of war were subjected to an indoctrination program based on methods growing out of the Chinese thought reform program and combined with other social and psychologic influence technics. At that time, the term brainwashing was introduced into our vocabulary. Since there were no Turkish-speaking brainwashers available, Turkish prisoners of war were left to themselves and hence acquired the reputation of being resistant to brainwashing.

Later, the world was shocked by Charles Manson's influence and control over a small group of middle-class young Californians who were sent out on a murderous rampage. Soon after, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small self-styled revolutionary group in California, kidnapped Patricia Hearst and manipulated and controlled her behavior to the extent that she appeared with them in a bank robbery and feared returning to society, having been convinced by the SLA that the police and FBI would shoot her. By the mid 1970s thousands of families in the USA and Europe were beginning to be puzzled and alarmed as they saw the impact on their offspring of an array of mind manipulators. When Jim Jones led 912 followers to mass suicide in a Guiana jungle on November 18, 1978, attention was called dramatically to the extent of control one man could exert over his followers. Throughout history, cults have arisen when there have been breakdowns in societies' structures and rules. This kind of setting occurred in the USA during the social and political changes of the late sixties (breakdowns in family life, the sexual revolution, the drug culture, civil-rights protest matches, anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the war itself, civil disobedience, and student rebellions). Cults that emerged tended to appeal primarily to the young who felt disillusioned and estranged from their families and " the establishment." These cults offered father or god figures to youth needing such identification. Each self-appointed messiah claimed a simple solution for the complex problems of life and called for commitment, sacrifice, and zeal. Youth Communes flourished briefly but soon faded, for they did not provide the promised security, hope, and structure. Concomitantly, psychologic awareness, the consciousness expansion, and the human potential movement were strongly influencing our values. Youth were told that "mind trips" would bring nirvana. The first wave of cults drew heavily upon Eastern philosophies, in which meditation, yoga, and exotic practices were prominent. Soon these were supplanted by neo-Christian, political, and psychologically based groups.

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