One of the leading experts in the field of coercive persuasion was Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In her career, she counseled and interviewed more than 3,000 current and former cult members and their relatives and friends.
Dr. Singer is the author of the book "Cults In Our Midst," which summarizes fifty years of work on the subject. In the 1950s, as a senior psychologist in the laboratory of psychology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, she worked with Dr. Robert Jay Lifton and others who were studying prisoners of war from the Korean War. It was there that she first encountered the forms of coercive persuasion, or thought reform programs, that not only prisoners of war but also civilians in a variety of milieus had been exposed to in the Far East. She also interviewed a number of Jesuit priests who had been exposed to thought reform processes while imprisoned in mainland China.
Because of her early work at Walter Reed, Dr. Singer was familiar with the history of coercive persuasion in many settings throughout history. Later, laboratory studies done by social psychologists, field studies of influence done by anthropologists, and propaganda analyses done by political and linguistic analysts all came to be of use as she studied how current cults and other groups using thought reform processes induce attitude and behavior changes in their members, how they use words to persuade, control and even damage people.
By the 1960s, as Dr. Singer writes in the introduction to Cults In Our Midst:
"I began to hear from families who had missing members -- usually the missing person was young, between eighteen and twenty-five years old, and had become involved with one or another of the cultic groups that were just taking hold in those years. The family, and others who knew the person, told about a sudden change in personality, a new way of talking, a restriction of emotions, a splitting from family and the past. I recognized what sounded like the effects of a thought reform program or the type of intense persuasion and social controls that I had studied for so long, things that until then we thought happened more often in faraway places. But here it was right at home." . In her introduction Dr. Singer defines cults in terms which make it clear that this issue is relevant to all of us:
"There are many definitions and views of what a cult is, and sometimes writers, scholars and even former members avoid the term altogether. The term cult tends to imply something weird, something other than normal, something that is not us. But as Cults In Our Midst will show, cults are far from marginal, and those who join them are no different from you or me. The issues they represent are basic to our society, to our understanding of each other, and to our accepting our vulnerabilities and the potential for abuse within our world.
"In this book I will use cult and cultic group to refer to any one of a large number of groups that have sprung up in our society and that are similar in the way they originate, their power structure, and their governance. Cults range from relatively benign to those that exercise extraordinary control over members' lives and use thought reform processes to influence and control members. While the conduct of certain cults causes nonmembers to criticize them, the term cult is not in itself pejorative but simply descriptive. It denotes a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-appointed leader.
"Cults come in all sizes, form around any theme, and recruit persons of all ages and backgrounds. Not all cults are religious, as some people think. Their reasons for existing may concern religion, life-style, politics, or assorted philosophies. Not everyone who is approached by a cult recruiter joins, and of those who join, not all stay forever. Cults vary in how much financial and political power they wield. Some are local phenomena with only a dozen members. Others have thousands of members, operate multinational businesses, and control complex multimillion- if not multibillion-dollar organizations.
Further in her introduction Dr. Singer compares George Orwell's vision of a negative utopia in his classic work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, to the frightening world inside modern-day cults:
"Modern-day cults and thought-reform groups tend to offer apparent utopias, places where all humankind's ills will be cured. The cults' lure is, if you just come along, all will be fine, and everyone will live happily ever after.
"Down through time, people have written about such promised utopias, but they have also described their downsides, which might be called negative utopias. In 1949, George Orwell wrote about the negative utopia he feared would evolve, perhaps by 1984. Others before him, such as Daniel Defoe, Aldous Huxley, and Jack London, had also written about negative utopias in which political systems gradually curbed and eventually stifled people's most central capacities for reasoning creatively, scientifically, and compassionately. In these real or imagined centralized governments, torture, drugs, and mysterious, esoteric techniques were the feared methods by which people might be controlled.
"Orwell's genius was in sensing that combinations of social and psychological techniques are easier, more effective, and cheaper than the gun-to-the-head methods of coercion. Social and psychological persuasion is also less likely to attract attention and thus is less apt to mobilize opposition early and easily from those being manipulated. Orwell reasoned that if a government could control all media and interpersonal communication while simultaneously forcing citizens to speak in a politically controlled jargon, it could blunt independent thinking. If thought could be controlled, then rebellious actions against a regime could be prevented. Not only in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four but also in his essays on politics and the English language, Orwell emphasized the power of words. Words represent thoughts, and without the capability to express thoughts, people lose access to their own thinking.
"When the year 1984 arrived, various totalitarian governments were controlling and censoring the media and squelching dissenting individuals. And over the years, many versions of Orwell's Big Brother, Newspeak, and Thought Police, some more ominous and subtle than others, have appeared here and elsewhere throughout the world. Orwell's predictions may never come to pass completely because of the wondrous properties of the human mind when it remains free to reason. But his ideas still serve as a warning of the extent to which people's thinking can be influenced.
"Since the 1960s, there has been a burgeoning not of governments but of independent entrepreneurial groups that go into the mind-manipulation and personality-change business. Myriads of false messiahs, quacks, and leaders of cults and thought-reform groups have emerged who use Orwellian mind-manipulation techniques. They recruit the curious, the unaffiliated, the trusting, and the altruistic. They promise intellectual, spiritual, political, social, and self-actualization utopias. These modern-day pied pipers offer, among other things, pathways to God, salvation, revolution, personal development, enlightenment, perfect health, psychological growth, egalitarianism, channels to speak with 35,000-year- old "entities," life in ecospheres, and contact with extraterrestrial beings.
"There is truly a smorgasbord of spiritual, psychological, political, and other types of cults and cultic groups seeking adherents and devotees. Contrary to the myth that those who join cults are seekers, it is the cults that go out and actively and aggressively find followers. Eventually, those groups subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments that block critical and evaluative thinking and subjugate independent choice in a context of a strictly enforced hierarchy
"The wisdom of the ages is that most manipulation is subtle and covert. When Orwell drew oÂn this wisdom, he envisioned the evolution of an insidious but successful mind and opinion manipulator. He would appear as a smiling, seemingly beneficent Big Brother. But instead of one Big Brother, we see hordes of Big Brothers in the world today. Many of them are cult leaders."