By William Goldberg
(A response to “When Critical Thinking Doesn’t Help: Why It Fails and How to Make It Happen,” by Millard J. Melnyk, 6.3, pp. 8–11)
In his article “When Critical Thinking Doesn’t Help: Why It Fails and How to Make It Happen,” Millard J. Melnyk makes some valid points about attempting to intervene with cult members and to show them that they have been manipulated. However, Mr. Melnyk’s article is a bit unfair to those of us who advocate the use of critical thinking when one is working with former members and families.
Mr. Melnyk’s recognition of the importance of beginning where the cult member is and not talking down to the cult member are sound guidelines, but his assertion that critical thinking is antithetical to these guidelines is inaccurate. I agree with Mr. Melnyk that speaking to someone in a cult in a bullying, adversarial manner is counterproductive, but he conflates critical thinking with being adversarial or with speaking critically. Sound, critical thinking is compatible with friendly, supportive exchanges.
Mr. Melnyk describes the critical thinker as evaluative, challenging, and objectively detached. The image that he creates is of a stern, Spock-like, humorless know-it-all. Some family members, and even some professionals, may speak from this position. I would argue, however, that this approach applies the critical thinking of the physicist to the arena of relationships. Thus, I agree with what Mr. Melnyk compellingly demonstrates in his article: When two parties do not appreciate the complexity and subtlety of each other’s approach to life events, conflict may escalate rather than decrease.
I maintain that the psychologically aware critical thinker is accepting of humanness, is engaged, and is humble. The critical thinker is not unwavering, certain, overly self-assured, or under the delusion that he is infallible. The critical thinker recognizes that we all are wrong sometimes, and that we all can be fooled. The critical thinker recognizes what poor data-collection devices human beings are and tries to guard against the intuitive, emotional thinking that leads to unwarranted certainty.
Critical thinking is an adaptive, creative, liberating, and positive mental attitude that helps us to recognize human fallibilities and to guard against them. Critical thinking, when presented properly, is filled with warmth, shared humor, and acceptance. It is a celebration of our common humanity, not an indictment of our frailties.
Critical thinking is a defense against the powerful forces that contribute to our propensity for self-delusion. It liberates us from our self-delusions. Mr. Melnyk states that critical thinking conflicts with the imaginative validation- and connection-seeking interests of those attracted to societal fringes, but the point he misses is that those interests are common to virtually all people. Those common human needs are magnified and exploited by cults in their recruitment and retention of their members.
Mr. Melnyk is accurate when he states that cult members want to affirm, appreciate, and celebrate what critical thinking brings under scrutiny. But this tendency to bypass our critical faculties, which we all have, is exploited by destructive cults.
Validation- and connection-seeking interests are qualities that we are born with. We are highly evolved, intuitive and emotional beings. Critical thinking has to be learned. It is a proficiency that helps us to recognize our vulnerabilities and to arm ourselves against them. When we hear something that we want to believe is true because it fits with our preconceived notions or is so satisfying of our emotional needs, critical thinking teaches us to be doubly skeptical of ourselves, and to demand more proof before we commit. This technique safeguards us and can be presented as self-protective rather than being used as a cudgel with which to beat people over the head.
Mr. Melnyk points out that recruits who are fooled into joining manipulative groups have learned not to accept critical thinking. Indeed, they are often warned that logic, science, and critical thinking are examples of wickedness, selfishness, or delusion. I, therefore, agree with him that an approach that focuses on these qualities will not usually be helpful in the honeymoon stage of cult involvement. However, the concept of critical thinking is helpful in warning the general public and potential targets of cults about the tactics used in cult recruitment, in recognizing manipulation when someone is in a cult, and in putting the cult experience into perspective after someone has left. Almost all former cult members with whom I have worked have told me that they had doubts about their involvement in the cult, but that they learned to squelch those doubts with some form of mind-numbing activity, or with the employment of what Lifton called the thought-terminating cliché. Forearming individuals with critical-thinking skills, or helping them to take another look at how they came to adopt their present belief system, can help to mitigate the cults’ emphasis on trust, hope fulfillment, connection, and blind acceptance.
Again, much of what Mr. Melnyk writes is valid. He is correct that people usually do not get involved in these groups by means of a disciplined process of rational thought but instead because of a nonrational, emotional appeal. As Mr. Melnyk states, cult members often rationalize that it was the logic of the cult arguments that won them over, while it was really the sense of fellowship. Mr. Melnyk’s suggestion to introduce critical thinking to the cult member by modeling it in questions put to the cult member (which Hassan also has suggested) is a constructive approach. And the way he develops that theme in his article is useful.
His critique of critical thinking viewed as rational argument stripped of all emotional contexts is also helpful, for it exposes the limitations of those who approach critical thinking without any psychological context. Those of us who work regularly with families understand this perspective well, for one of our major goals in this work is to help families recognize that critical thinking applied to relationships requiresa psychologically sensitive perspective.
My primary disagreement with Mr. Melnyk, then, is that his view of critical thinking is applicable to the physical sciences, whereas my view of critical thinking applies to the psychological sciences. I believe it is important to make this distinction so that readers, when they encounter the term critical thinking, will realize that the term may have more than one meaning. Critical thinking, as I use the term, is pivotal to the creation of the atmosphere of mutual respect that Mr. Melnyk endorses.
About the Author
William Goldberg, MSW, LCSW, a therapist in private practice, has co-led a support group for former members with his wife, Lorna, for more than thirty years. He retired in 2008 from his position as Program Supervisor for Rehabilitative Services for the Rockland County (NY) Department of Mental Health. He is presently an Adjunct Instructor in the Social Work Department of Dominican College.