Brought into the fold

Scientology as a case study on influence and persuasion in religion

Skeptic/November 2, 2000
By Daniel E. Martin

The use of techniques of influence and persuasion on potential religious recruits is as old as religion itself, and the reason is obvious - in order to survive and compete religions must gain adherents. This process of influence and conversion serves two primary purposes. (1) It satisfies the need for social proof. "We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it," observed the social psychologist Robert Cialdini in 1993.* Social proof can facilitate a wide variety of behaviors and activities, including group cohesiveness, profiteering, social support, and expansionist ambitions. And (2) new recruits continue the traditions of their religion and further the goals of their mentors.

Religious history is filled with examples of the use of influence techniques, from the brutal tortures of Spanish grand inquisitor Torquemada, to the use of group dynamics by countless Protestant sects, and the mass rallies of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. As time passes the more extreme examples of persuasive techniques (pouring molten lead down the throats of "infidels," drowning innocents to prove they weren't witches, stretching victims on the rack to coerce a confession or conversion) have been replaced by more subtle means that can be just as effective.

Psychology has developed a number of models to analyze tactics used by individuals and groups to influence and persuade others. I explored the use of techniques employed by the Church of Scientology, using a social psychological model known as the Elaboration Likelihood Model, developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo in 1986.*

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) suggests that persuasion occurs in two different ways, depending on the amount of cognitive effort (elaboration) required. The first is called the central route of persuasion and the second the peripheral route of persuasion.

The central route occurs when the subject finds the religious message interesting, important, and personally relevant. In this scenario the subject has the capacity to consider the message carefully, thoughtfully weighing the argument presented. If the message is interpreted favorably, the subject's attitudes and beliefs can be changed, persuasion having occurred.

The peripheral route occurs when the message itself doesn't interest the subject, but other aspects presented with the message elicit positive feelings, respect, or sense of responsibility. For example, attractive female models have nothing to do with cars, but studies have repeatedly shown that men who saw new car advertisements that included a seductive woman rated the car as faster, better designed, and more appealing than those who saw the same ad without the model.* The same effect occurs when breathtaking natural scenery or celebrities are shown with an unrelated product (e.g. Angela Lansbury pitching Bufferin aspirin). Thus, the message itself isn't the important factor in the peripheral route, it's what is presented along with the message that persuades.

To test the ELM as an adequate description of the use of influence and persuasion techniques I called the Washington D.C. office of the Church of Scientology, in the northwest quarter of the city, and made an appointment for the 16th of April, 1997. The receptionist explained that the church was open from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm daily, and that one could view the orientation movie and talk to a "counselor" at any time during those hours.

The influence tactics utilized during my visit were of four types.*

  1. Social Validation,
  2. Friendship/Liking,
  3. Authority,
  4. Reciprocation

Social Validation is based on the premise that we are generally more willing to comply with a request if the compliance is consistent with the performance of others with whom we identify. Friendship/Liking is the principle based on the use of people's attractiveness, friendliness, and similarity to gain compliance in any type of interaction. We are more likely to comply with requests from friends and family and those we perceive to be friendly or those with which we identify. Authority is based on the principle that people value experience, trust and expertise. Therefore, we are more willing to comply with requests that come from an authority or perceived authority. Reciprocity states that we are more willing to comply with the requests of people who have previously provided us with a favor than to people who haven't.

The moment I stepped into the historic beige and white Victorian building housing the Church of Scientology, I was impressed by my surroundings (peripheral route). The entryway was large, with an immaculate parquet floor and clean white walls accented with ornate wooden trim. Live green plants filled the space and added to the inviting ambiance. On each side of the room two beautiful wooden staircases ascended to an upper level. The sounds of an audience cheering and clapping drifted down from above. I climbed the stairs to the landing and observed a small auditorium filled to overflowing with about 40 well dressed, smiling, multi-racial people. Those who couldn't get seats stood in the back of the room and others crowded around the doorway to hear the speaker inside.

They were listening to an immaculately dressed African American man who was speaking enthusiastically about the misunderstandings between the Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology. I was given a bright and inviting smile by the attractive (even more so than one might expect from social norms) receptionist, who wore what could best be described as a burgundy Marie Callendar's waitress outfit from the late 70s (sans ruffles). I approached her and asked if I could see the video presentation that the phone operator had told me about. She said she wasn't sure when it was scheduled to be shown, and invited me to stay and watch the rest of the gentleman's presentation while I waited.

I accepted the invitation and observed the reactions to the speaker. Shouts of "Alleluia!" and "Amen!" filled the air. When one member would shout, the next would join in a sort of self-perpetuating chorus of chanting and yelling. Smiles abounded (again, a peripheral route into persuasion). I seemed to be the only visitor at the time, and was certainly the only one not clapping or yelling. I was reminded of television laugh tracks, and of the custom of planting confederates in an audience who begin applause, or who leap to their feet to inspire a standing ovation. I was also the only one (printing error) women wore "dressy" office attire.

As soon as the presentation ended we all adjourned to a wood-paneled study featuring several trophy cases full of the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, including Dianetics and Dianetics Explained by the Worlds Greatest Religious Scholars (influence based on the symbols of authority).

People chatted among themselves about spreading the message of "Ron" by teaching the illiterate to read, fostering love for all people, and creating more Scientology churches. A speaker told the group about 50 new recruits who were on psychotropic drugs who could be rehabilitated by becoming "clear" (a state of mental clarity brought about by completing classes offered by the church). Coffee and pastries were served (reciprocation, peripheral route). The receptionist sweetly (liking, peripheral route) let it be known that the movie was being set up for a group viewing. The "group" consisted of myself and one other person, an older lady. We were led downstairs to a plush waiting room with modern wicker furniture, more plants, a few desks, computers, and telephone banks.

Invited to sit for a while, I read a newsletter called "When life becomes a battleground, your MIND is your best weapon"* The newsletter criticized psychology by saying that it only labeled people's disorders rather than helping them overcome problems, and stated the "fact" that psychiatrists "believe the mind is a physical organ-a theory with no scientific basis." It went on to detail the difference between the two parts of the mind, the analytical mind ("like a computer") and the reactive mind ("like a computer with a virus"). The newsletter then said that we could gain control of the negative reactive mind in order to take control of our lives and achieve for ourselves whatever we might define as success.

While the film was set up we were introduced to Haliva, who offered to answer questions after the movie. We were then both led into a screening room that held about 20 velvet chairs and a pair of huge speakers placed at the front of the room. The lights went out, and a rumbling "THX" theater introduction rocked the room. The screen brightened to reveal the word "ORIENTATION." An average looking middle aged white man, wearing a suit, came on the screen, and pictures of all of the church's headquarters started flashing around the screen: the Dianetics University in England...the Celebrity Center in Hollywood...the fabulous Freewind...the Dianetics Resort Cruise ship.

To prove that Dianetics is a religion examples of court cases throughout the world were read in English-but with the accent of the country in which the decision was rendered. While the confirming decisions scrolled across the screen international flags snapped in the wind and gavels pounded down behind the writing, hammering out with finality the idea that Dianetics was justified to call itself a religion (influence through authority).

The movie went on to explain the unique internal organization of the religion. For example, Scientology has internal dispute counselors so that any grievances between members can be resolved privately within the church, rather than before the public in outside courtrooms. The narrator pointed out that every church has a special workroom set aside for "Ron," who was said to be technically proficient in over 30 career fields (influence based on authority). Toward the end of the movie, famous people such as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Chick Corea delivered endorsements for Scientology. A host of other people of every race and background also gave testimonials (more authority influence).

Finally, after ten minutes of endorsements, the middle-aged man was back, talking to an attractive young lady in a Dianetics bookstore. "What do you suggest these good people in the audience should start with in their exploration of Dianetics?" he asked. She replied with a confused look, "The start up book pack, for starters, is perfect, you can buy it in the lobby." She went on to say that all of Ron's books were excellent, and they could be ordered through either of the Church's presses. She then admonished the viewer to be sure to buy the books, and wished them the best on their voyage through Dianetics.

The scene faded, and the middle-aged man stood before two large wooden doors, explaining the fundamental choice the viewer now had to make. We could either choose to "Shiver through one trillion years through the cold abyss" (fear tactic, peripheral route) or "Use our lives to live forever." He let us know that it was our decision, though he said they would be very happy to see us become Scientologists. He assured us that we'd be very happy as Scientologists. He warned that if we rejected this opportunity we must realize that we alone would be responsible for our negative decision.

An interesting persuasive technique in the movie was its reliance on statements that used confusing double negatives and falsely attributed goals. For example "Evolution doesn't prove that the mind doesn't have a spiritual basis," or "Psychology hasn't disproven the soul." The movie argued that one needn't know psychology, psychiatry, or self-hypnosis to be successful. One only had to understand the Dianetic approach to life and take the classes offered by the organization. At the end of the movie the doors opened, and golden light flooded the screen until the doors dissolved in the glare, and the word "WELCOME" appeared.

The lights went off, and Haliva escorted the two of us to our respective counseling booths. The older woman was led to a booth at the back of the room, while I followed Haliva to the front of the room. She asked me to sit down, and asked why I had come to see the film. I responded that a friend had told me about the presentation (true) and I decided to follow up on it. She asked what I did (Social Psychology graduate student/Research Fellow) and what was troubling me. I replied, "I'm financially strapped" and I told her about the dismal reality of funding at my institution, and the vicious cycle of having to work while in school for basic living costs, but having work limiting academic pursuits, thus extending the time needed to complete my degree.

As we spoke, her verbal and non-verbal behavior began to mirror mine (friendship/liking and similarity). For example, I would say, "that sounds excellent," she would say, "Don (she got my name wrong twice) it's totally excellent!" The chutzpah of an east coast "counselor" trying to emulate my San Fernando Valley dialect was amusing (all in a day's work I suppose). As I thoughtfully rubbed my chin, she did the same. She leaned close, her posture expressing empathy and openness, and maintained steady eye contact. I felt as if I was back in a peer counseling session during my undergraduate psychology training. Constantly touching my leg, she began asking questions that required deep thought on my part, such as "How could you make things better through Dianetics?", then interrupted my answer with interjections such as "I know exactly how you feel" or "It's the same for everyone before they're clear." Haliva seemed insistent on setting up a time for me to come in for a free personality test. We agreed on Wednesday the 23rd at 8:30 pm. She wrote the time down on a piece of paper and said that she would call me (influence through commitment). I let her know I would be there.

Once she knew I was committed to coming back, she seemed in a rush to complete the interview as if she were suddenly short of time. "What do the courses entail?" "They help you clear yourself through auditing" (her most specific definition of auditing was "counseling"). She then asked whether or not I would like to explore one of the training courses. When I said yes she asked if I brought a checkbook. I reminded her that the reason I had bothered to come to explore Scientology was my dismal financial situation, and she countered by asking if I had a credit card, or if I could borrow money from my parents or friends. "It's only $136, Don!" At length she said, "OK, I better go, but before we meet on Wednesday, make sure to call some friends, or your parents to see about getting some money together for the classes."


The experience supported the hypothesis that influence techniques are used to recruit new members for the Church of Scientology. Scientology is very aggressive in its use of the following tactics:

Friendship/Liking: The principle of influence which uses people's attractiveness, friendliness, and similarity to gain compliance in any type of interaction. For example, the incredible warmth and sincerity of the Baptist minister, receptionist, and Haliva encouraged the perception that they were honest and trustworthy.*

Reciprocity: We are more willing to comply with the requests of people who have previously provided us with a favor than people who haven't provided a favor. For example, the sharing of food, a gracious welcome, offering written materials, and the viewing of a wholly entertaining movie made me feel as if I should at least return the favor of giving my address and telephone number (I didn't!).*

Social Validation: The premise that we are generally more willing to comply with a request if this action is consistent with others that we identify with who are performing it. For example, all the well dressed people chanting and hollering in the lobby, the use of celebrity endorsements, the film that showed large groups of successful high achieving Scientologists, and all the kind, concerned counselors who boasted of their clarity.*

Authority: The use of legitimate or non-legitimate (phony) authority to bring about compliance. For example, the speech about L. Ron Hubbard's proficiency in thirty professions, the uniforms used by the Scientologists, the trappings of authority (huge ornate house, bookcases filled with medals and certificates, plaques) the formal titles given to Scientology members of counselor, chief, etc.*

Further research is needed, and observation for more extended time periods should produce additional information on more subtle tactics. Also, comparisons between Scientology and older religions would be helpful, especially now that Scientology seems to be working toward establishing its reputation in the public's mind as a legitimate religion. Emphasis on conversion and validation is an early developmental phase of all religions. It would be interesting to see how Scientology's persuasion techniques change as it matures.

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