The Power of Persuasion

What do Cults, Tele-marketers and Terrorist have in common?

By Rabbi BZ Kravitz

For years, religious cults have taken advantage of people who have given over their lives and fortunes to charismatic figures that prey on naïve individuals.

People of different faiths usually disagree on theology, but theological differences are not necessarily the determining factor that classifies a group as a cult. A particular group may be considered by others to be a false religion, but it is not a cult in the classic sense of the word or from the prospective of modern psychology.

Legitimate religions encourage honesty, transparency and critical thinking.

Cults and their leaders, on the other hand, use deception for recruitment and fundraising purposes, and manipulation and fear tactics to maintain control of their members. In fact, these characteristics, deception and manipulation, best distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion.

Furthermore, cults and religions often embrace social behavior that is considered out of the ordinary by mainstream society. In and of itself, this is not bad, whether it is a different dress code, diet or language. However, some cults cross the line and have been known to foster bizarre, destructive, and even dangerous social behavior.

It will be helpful to examine some cult behavior that runs the gamut from defying common sense to outright destructive and criminal behavior.

In the 1970’s, followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self proclaimed messiah, supported his Unification Church by standing on street corners for hours selling flowers. These followers, known as “Moonies,” would use misleading “salesmanship” and claim they were raising money for non-existent senior centers or homeless shelters. They referred to this tactic as “Heavenly Deception” and used it to rationalize that it was okay to lie because they were taking money from Satan. It was extreme behavior, but nothing compared to what cult leader Jim Jones would do.

In 1978, Reverend Jim Jones, moved his Jonestown (People’s Temple) cult from San Francisco to Guyana, South America. In an unbelievable show of destructive behavior that would become known simply as Jonestown mass suicide, 913 men, women and children drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died simply because Jones told them to.

No one anticipated the next wave of cult behavior. The first two acts of domestic terrorism were orchestrated by cults. In 1985, members of the Rajneesh guru-led cult, who had settled from India to Oregon, launched the first large-scale biological attack in U.S. history. They poisoned 751 people after sprinkled food in a restaurant with salmonella germs grown in a commune laboratory. Then in 1995, Aum Shinri Kyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, killed 19 people and injured more than 5,500 in two Sarin Nerve-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system.

The power of influence and persuasion Moon, Jones, Rajneesh and Aum Shuni Kyo had over their followers would establish a precedent and training model for the international terrorism of the 21st century.

What powers of influence convinced John Walker Lindh, a young American who grew up in affluent northern California Marin County, to join and fight for the Taliban until he was captured in 2001 by US forces in Afghanistan?

What persuaded Mohamed Atta, an architecture student and son of a lawyer, to join Al Qaeda and follow the instructions of Osama bin Laden to lead the 19 suicide bombers who, on September 11, 2001, killed more than 2,950 people when planes attacked the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington DC?

How does Hamas indoctrinate Palestinian “suicide” bombers as young as 16 years old to murder innocent civilians on crowded buses and pizza parlors?

The answer comes from some of the world’s leading psychologists including Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard psychiatrist noted for his study of North Korean brainwashing, and UC Berkley’s cult expert, Dr. Margaret Singer. They call this power of persuasion “Thought Reform.”

Their research makes it clear that Thought Reform is not that mysterious. Rather, it is a systematic application of organized psychological and social influence techniques within a managed environment. Thought Reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and environmental control processes that do not always depend on physical coercion. The most common tools used to induce a personality change include isolation, hypnosis, sleep-deprivation, dietary manipulation and the programming of phobias.

To the average person Thought Reform does sound mysterious and light-years away from their own reality. However, to some degree we are all being persuaded and influenced, albeit on a less sinister and dangerous level on an almost daily basis.

Social psychologists like Dr. Robert Cialdini have documented the ways we are manipulated, influenced and persuaded to change our behavior in our daily lives.

The average person watches 30 hours of TV per week. Based on that, the average person sees 37,822 commercials per year. That is only television; we also hear and see newspapers ads, billboards, and radio and internet ads. They are produced for maximum impact and manipulate us to buy things we may not need, or behave in a manner contrary to our nature.

Cialdini explains that we often fall victim to a reflexive reaction called “auto-pilot.” We live in a very complicated world where we receive thousands of messages constantly. Normally, if we do not want to be fooled, we carefully examine everything. But we don’t have time to research every decision, so it is impossible for us to go through our lives without using our own auto-pilot; we would never get anything done. Auto-pilot helps our brains work more efficiently.

However, when we don't think things through carefully and allow our minds to take ‘auto-pilot” shortcuts and generalizations our minds become vulnerable to manipulation. Planes use auto pilot as a great convenience... It is basically a computer. But since computers can be hacked into, when we put our minds on auto-pilot mode, manipulators are able to hack into our brains.

The problem is that marketing experts know about “auto-pilot” and take advantage of it. Here is an example of how our minds go on auto-pilot. Take a second and read the following sign:




Most people read “Please keep off the Grass” when in fact it says, “Please keep off the the grass.” We are so used to reading it one way our auto-pilot kicks in and we don’t catch the extra word “the.”

Whether it is canned laughter, embedded messages, placement advertising, stealth advertising, or skillfully-written tele-marketing scripts, marketing experts take advantage of our auto-pilot and attempt to control the way we act and think.

Cults also take advantage of auto-pilot, lack of critical thinking, and the willingness to follow authority figures. Some cults use mental and psychological manipulation to recruit followers. Magic tricks and hypnosis are used to mislead people to believe the cult leader has spiritual powers. Once the leader has been placed on a high pedestal, he or she can even misquote and twist scriptures with impunity. Some Tele-Evangelists have even defended unscrupulous behavior by misquoting the bible, and their unquestioning followers follow blindly.

Terrorist cults are the most destructive and visible examples of the dangers of the growing use of mind control and social thought control techniques. Most terrorist organizations actively study and use the thought reform and mind control techniques first introduced by cult groups. These techniques plant the terrorists’ agendas into the minds of their army of recruits.

Most cult members and terrorists were probably neither crazy nor motivated by a deep hatred originally. They were most likely persuaded into their destructive behavior over an extended period of time.

Few specifics are known about al-Qaida's methods, but cult experts point to the indoctrination of children in fundamentalist religious schools, of adults by extremist clerics, and finally the isolation of selected recruits in terrorist training camps.

Converting new members has less to do with the content of teaching and everything to do with the control of information and silencing critical thinking.

Dr. Margaret Singer speaks of "the five D's" -- deceit, dependency, debilitation, dread and desensitization -- by which cult members are recruited and transformed. According to Singer, "It's a step-at-a-time seduction, so the person hardly notices they are being changed."

Dr. William Sargant in his classic work, “Battle for the Mind,” points out that the best defense against mind-control and thought reform is an awareness of these manipulative techniques and a pre-existing and strong belief system.

In other words, the famous Latin expression Caveat Emptor, "Let the buyer beware," is the best defense again the persuasion of cults, terrorist or unscrupulous marketing ploys.

Developing critical thinking skills needs to start at a very young age. We teach our children to look both ways before they cross the street and we need them to “look both ways” before they are confronted by the numerous seductive challenges that exist today.

Rabbi BZ Kravitz is a crisis counselor and chaplain for several police agencies. He is also training coordinator for the IMS Counter-Terrorist School and a Department of Justice and NRA certified firearms instructor. He is proficient at scuba diving and martial arts. Rabbi Kravitz is the founder of Be-True.org and Jews for Judaism International, a non-profit organization that promotes critical thinking in response to deceptive cults and missionaries.

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