A Forensic Psychiatrist Evaluates ESP

February 2003
By John Hochman, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences
University of California Los Angeles


I have reviewed a manual for a 16 day, ten hours per day; large group awareness training called "Executive Success Programs," which also calls itself "ESP."

I address the following questions:

  1. Is mind control involved in this training?
  2. Is the course curriculum "cult-like" in some way?
  3. What negative effects or consequences might such a program produce?

I also viewed the ESP website. The website had a limited amount of material, some of which was helpful to me in forming my opinions.

There is much in the content and format of ESP that is not at all original, and is quite similar to aspects of a number of cults and cult-like organizations with which I am familiar.

Mind Control and the ESP Intensive

Mind control represents indoctrination without informed consent. It relies on calculated strategies to mislead and to misinform. It particularly relies on emotional manipulation.

Long hours: A group using mind control will attempt to maximize the influence of group leaders on participants, at the expense of any ongoing influence of friends and relatives. One way to quickly effect this change is to maximize the amount of time that group participants are with group leaders. ESP Intensive participants are signing up for sixteen ten-hour days, which will either be experienced successively, or in five-day segments. Although three hours a day are allotted for lunch and dinner breads as days go on.

Of further concern, the manual states in Italics, "We find our students don't want to leave at the end of the day!" Since participants have been experiencing a day scheduled to start at 8 AM and end at 10 PM, under usual circumstances, most participants would be tired and eager to go to see friends and family, and get a night's rest to prepare for another long day starting at 8 AM. This suggests to me that emotional appeals or other manipulation may occur to get everyone to stay around even longer.

Limitations in ability to get feedback from friends and family: Participants are told to promise not to tell non-participants of what they learn in the Intensive, as well as its methods. They will be unable to respond to routine questions they would be expected to receive, such as, "What did you learn today?" or "What's going on at the seminar you are attending?" This serves as to distance the participant from his ongoing relationships. It also serves to prevent the participant from getting any feedback about what he is experiencing from people in the outside world, some of whom care about the participant very much.

Secrecy: Participants are told to promise not to share with non-participants their recollection of content or methods of the Intensive. Participants are mislead into feeling guilty for being a "promise breaker" if they talk about their personal experiences over the course of many hours. This effects a partial shutdown of communication with friends and family, and serves to strengthen a common bond with the other secret-sharers.

Effect of idiosyncratic vocabulary on communication: Further communication shutdown with friends and family occurs as numerous English words are redefined to fit the peculiar meanings of group leaders. The result is communications that are near incomprehensible to outsiders (e.g.: The mission of the human team is to build value and to uphold each other). This serves to embed the participant into the group and isolate him from outsiders.

Pre-emptive neutralization of criticism of the group by participants and their family/friends early on: What the group calls "shifter strategies" is given much attention in the Intensive. It is clearly taught that these represent undesirable behaviors that should be met with disapproval by other group members. Then end result is that if a participant criticizes things that the group does, he is a "suppressive." Since it is likely that group outsiders will perceive aspects of the group's activities as "manipulative" or as a "cult," these two words are used as the sole examples of "abstract terms" that a Shifter will use. The clear purpose of this didactic exercise by the group is to encourage participants to ignore friends and relatives who are likely to criticize the group using these exact words. Finally, the Intensive attempts to impart a sense of superiority to participants simply for learning Espian theory ("Espians understand the model, but non-Espians do not"); such a sense of superiority would encourage participants to discourage criticism of their activity from others.

Paramilitary rituals and regalia: Paramilitary structure enhances the ability of leaders to control participants through a "chain of command." [Keith Raniere] the leader's title as "Vanguard" is a word with military origins, and participants are routinely expected to "thank" Vanguard at the end of each and every session. One's rank in the group is constantly visible by scarf color and number of stripes on the scarf, and this is reinforced by a ritual two-handed handshake where the higher rank person's hands go on top. Advancement includes ability to be a "coach," which appears to be a monitor, (sometimes-daily monitor), for members lower in rank. Clearly a submissive relationship of sorts to one's superior in rank is promoted.

Required daily contact with superiors is framed as personal growth: Since the paramilitary regalia makes it clear who is superior to who in rank, ongoing participants are required to make a daily brief phone call to "check-in" with a "coach." Promotion to a higher level scarf cannot occur without approval from one's coach, who becomes part of the group's eyes-and-ears to see if participants are, for example, becoming suppressive. Moreover, promotion in this group is iced over with the title of showing "persistence" to a "long-term commitment." Since daily checking in like this is an unnatural thing to do for most grown-ups, any discomfort will most certainly be met with the confrontation that they "need to be able to keep a long-term commitment."

Cult-Like Elements of the ESP Intensive

Pretensions to Science: In an attempt to instant credibility in this era of technology triumphs, this group describes its activities as "technology" and "science." (Other groups have done the same in the past). Yet there is no evidence of any validation using scientific methods of anything the group does. The group does make use of "pop psychology" theories, tips for greater efficiency, gimmicks to impress others, and other notions that have already been widely publicized in seminars and books over the decades - so this is hardly technology that the group can claim credit for. The group also presents gross oversimplifications of psychological theory and of the human condition (e.g.: "All anger is created as a result of a conflict in values.") The group's leader may have coined some maxims with a ring of truth, but again, this is not science.

Unsubstantiated extravagant claims: As "proof" of the value of their "technology," the group claims unprecedented results training over 400,000 individuals. Yet their website only comes up with a few dozen testimonials. That's about one testimonial for every 10,000 participants.

Self-Serving Morality: Whether cult-like organizations claim to be religions, philosophies, etc., each one has it's own self-created moral system, which is typically self-serving. The emphasis here is on how violating the pledge involves the participant in hurting himself by telling others anything about what he has been doing and learning for hours on end. The participant is counseled that to tell others is "compromising [his] inner honesty and integrity." There is no mention of how this secrecy essentially benefits the group leaders, who are shielded from criticism from outsiders when no one knows exactly what they are doing.

Messianic pretensions without discussing the obvious profit motive: "The mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward to remove fear-based activities from the world." ESP is presented as a means of saving the world from "hunger, theft, dishonesty, envy and insecurity." After stating this, participants are urged to "pledge" to enroll people in ESP. Good intentions are praise-worthy, but only to a point. Prior to the world being saved, the only guaranteed result of recruitment and continued seminar enrollment is up-front revenue generation. The fees are high, and speak for themselves. Members are encouraged to advance in "rank," which requires, among other things, more courses, which means more fees for ESP.

Self-coronation of leaders: Participants are instructed to address the founder of ESP as "Vanguard." The manual I reviewed implies he is the source of all the "technology" that the group has, since no one else is mentioned. There appears to be no dissenting views, and his philosophies are often presented in the third person plural "We believe." The ESP website suggests there is now a queen bee of sorts, as a Ms. Salzman, who was a Senior Proctor in this manual, as being upgraded to be the group's sole "Prefect." All of this is soft peddled to participants as analogous to calling your dentist (who finished a universally recognized course of study) by the title "doctor."

Success in the Executive Success Program is about becoming a more thorough Espian and not an Executive: Although the program seems to promote skills so that participants could become executives if they wished, the thrust of the program is clearly to get participants to spend continuing hours taking ESP courses, signing up friends and family to attend seminars, gaining scarf-status in the Espian world, adopting Espian meanings to English words, etc. All of these achievements are essentially irrelevant to goings on in the "real world." Calling friends and relatives to set up appointments to recruit them into ESP is presented to participants as the way to practice getting "a real edge in relationships" and "impressing a special person."

Possible negative effects of the ESP Intensive

The ESP Intensive appears to be a gateway that encourages participants to attend further training sessions or seminars, and get friends and family to do the same. In a general sense, the goal is integration of individuals into a subculture - however, a particular kind of subculture. It is a kingdom of sorts, ruled by a Vanguard, who writes his own dictionary of the English language, has his own moral code, and the ability to generate taxes on subjects by having them participate in his seminars. It is a kingdom with no physical borders, but with psychological borders - influencing how his subjects spend their time, socialize, and think. Increasing involvement serves to increasingly distance participants from their relationships in a manner that is slow and subtle, and thus not at all obvious to them.

Copyright © 2003 John Hochman, M.D.

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