Panelists at a convention session on hatred asked APA to form a task force to investigate mind control among destructive cults.
Holding a briefcase filled with the explosive C4, Kerry Noble entered a church for gay men in Kansas City, Mo., in 1984 with intentions of blowing it up. He waited for his opportunity as he sat among a crowd of about 60 people.
“All I had to do was hit the timer and walk out,” Noble said. “About 10 or 15 minutes later, there’d be an explosion, and everyone would die.”
Noble thought he was going to start a revolution. As a cult leader of the Covenant, Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), he was on a mission for his organization, which had come to hate homosexuals, blacks and Jews.
But as Noble sat among the crowd, he put a face to his enemy. And his “enemy” appeared no different than anyone else. He thought of the consequences—of what would have amounted to the largest terrorist attack in America at the time. Then, he picked up the briefcase and left.
Noble joined other former cult members and experts at APA’s 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago during the session “Cults of Hatred” to speak out on the effects of mind control and destructive cults. Panelists made a plea to the association to form a task force to investigate mind control among destructive cults.
“Extreme influence [such as mind control and cults] has remained dormant in the field of psychology,” Alan W. Scheflin, professor of law at Santa Clara University, told the audience.
Mind control, or “brainwashing” as it’s commonly referred to by the media, is often viewed by many psychologists as science fiction. However, panelists stressed that mind control is being used by cults to recruit and maintain followers and can have dangerous and lasting psychological consequences.
Cults that use mind-control techniques “have been able to do so with impunity, and the people who are victims of these techniques get no treatment, Scheflin said.
In fact, psychologists who do treat someone claiming to be a mind-control victim from a destructive cult might face a malpractice action. “There are no legitimate treatments that are scientifically validated that appear in peer review journals, although they are effective clinically,” Scheflin said. “Therefore, they are vulnerable to challenge in the courts. That has to stop. There is no reason why people who are true victims of mind control or people who think they are victims and are wrong should not receive treatment when they need it or want it.”
The time is now for psychologists to investigate cults and their impact, Scheflin said, especially in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. To fully understand the psychological factors that lead to terrorism, he added, the answers might lie in understanding cults.
The Cult Mentality
Panelist Deborah Layton also encouraged more help for mind-control victims. “It can happen to the best of us,” Layton said.
At age 18, in the early 1970s, Layton’s need for belonging attracted her to the Peoples Temple, a group that offered her a sense of comfort and answers to life. The leader, the Rev. Jim Jones, made her feel like she was joining the Peace Corps. A few years later, Layton went to Jonestown, the Guyana village where Peoples Temple followers went to escape racism and persecution. However, the peaceful settlement appeared more like a “concentration camp,” surrounded by armed guards, where food was scarce and followers were required to work long hours.
She escaped from Jonestown in 1978 and reported to police about activities there, such as mass suicide drills and people being held against their wills. Her prediction of a mass suicide came to fruition a few months later when 913 followers drank lethal cyanide punch or were shot to death.
Layton felt ashamed at being warped into a cult. “If I could tell this story and explain it to the world, then maybe I could take myself out of the muck of shame, Layton said.
Steve Hassan, a former cult member and licensed mental health counselor who specializes in helping those in destructive cults, says recovery from a cult’s mind control can be facilitated if victims attain the proper information, support and interventions from former cult members.
As for Kerry Noble, the CSA cult grew out of a small pacifistic church he joined in 1977, which over four years gradually changed its religious philosophy. In 1978, the organization spent $52,000 on weapons. By 1981, the church had become an armed, extremist hate group.
Noble had a four-day armed standoff with the federal government in 1985 and spent two years in prison. But, he said, understanding the psychology behind mind control helped him in his eight-year battle to recover. “I’ve learned that hate is a learned behavior,” Noble said.
Cults often use behavior modification on followers, such as thought-stopping techniques and instilling an “us-versus-them” mindset, Hassan said. With thought-stopping techniques, members are taught to stop doubts from entering their consciousness about the cult, often with a key phrase they repeat. Phobia indoctrination is also used, where cults play on a person’s irrational fears, with threats such as the person will develop cancer or go insane if he ever leaves or questions the group.
“Just as we can do short-term deep effective therapy to teach people about phobias and help them to get over their phobia, we can do the same with cult mind-control victims,” Hassan said.
A destructive cult is an authoritarian regime, which uses deception when recruiting as well as mind-control techniques to make a person dependent and obedient, he said.
Al Qaeda fulfills the criteria for a destructive cult, Hassan said. “We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism.
A Legitimate Field of Study?
In 1986, a group of psychologists formed a task force—Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC)—and submitted a report to APA that condemned cults for using brainwashing. But APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology found the report “unacceptable,” lacking in scientific evidence, relying too much on sensational anecdotes and providing insufficient information for APA to take a position on the issue.
But Scheflin maintains that for the last 100 years society has been given clear signals that this is a legitimate field of study, and psychology needs an organized response. For example, in the 1880s and 1890s, hypnosis was found to be used to implant false memories. In the 1920s, police were believed to use “third-degree” interrogation techniques, where pain and suffering was inflicted on criminal suspects. During the Moscow Trials in the 1930s, innocent political ideologists were forced to confess to being traitors. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese Communists allegedly used brainwashing techniques during the Korean War.
“These subjects are incredibly unappetizing and very difficult to grapple with, but they are an essential part of the psychology of the human mind,” Scheflin said. “We need to stop this germ from spreading.”
In a 1980 survey, 54 percent of high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area reported at least one recruiting attempt by a cult member, and 40 percent reported three to five contacts, according to a study of more than 1,000 students by APA President Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D. and Cynthia F. Hartley. Those numbers are expected to have increased with electronic media growing as a recruitment tool for cults.
Cults exist at every layer of society, said Stephen J. Morgan, a faculty member with the American Management Association/Management Centre Europe in Brussels, Belgium. Morgan was an international leader for an extremist political cult in the 1980s, which operated in 31 countries with 25,000 operatives. While holding office in the British Labour Party, Morgan worked as a spy in carrying out activities against the state.
About 10 years ago, Morgan left the organization and regained his self-identity. Today, he lectures all over the world on mind control by terror cults. At APA’s convention, he stressed the importance of a deeper understanding of cults in understanding terrorism. Cult leaders are usually psychopaths with a desire for power and often take ideas from politics, religion and psychology to fulfill their purpose, he said. Through mind control, they are able to filter their thoughts and behaviors into “fanatical faith and belief” among followers.
“We need to bring the panelists’ experiences together with your expertise, “ Morgan told psychologists in the audience. “It is a question of our health and safety as a nation.”
Hassan, S. (2000). Releasing the bonds: Empowering people to think for themselves. Somerville, Mass.: Freedom of Mind Press.
Layton, D. (1999). Seductive poison: A Jonestown survivor’s story of life and death in the Peoples Temple. Anchor Books.
Morgan, S. (2001). The mind of a terrorist fundamentalist: The psychology of terror cults. Belgium: Institute Spiritus Vitus.
Noble, K. (1998). Tabernacle of hate: Why they bombed Oklahoma City. Voyageur Press.
Scheflin, A., Brown, D. and Hammond, C. (1999). Memory, trauma treatment and the Law. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
On the Web
This article was originally published in the Monitor on Psychology, November 2002. It is reprinted with permission of the American Psychological Association.