Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns

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Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns

Post30 Jul 2012

Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns by Linda O. Blood

Hilly Zeitlin, a counselor with the Berkeley-based Options for Personal Transition, began his fascinating and informative talk by distinguishing between classical "authoritarian" hypnosis and the communication patterns used by cults to induce trance states. He traced the development of hypnosis from the “animal magnetism” of Anton Mesmer, through Freud’s use of “free association” and directional trance induction, to Milton Erickson’s emphasis on the transactional, interactive basis of hypnotic communication. As Erickson stated, we all experience natural trance states, such as daydreams, when our attention is focused inside ourselves. But in our normal waking states, our attention is predominantly outer-directed. Hypnotic communication, however, tries by both verbal and nonverbal means to direct our attention inward to create a trance state.

People resist authoritarian hypnosis, but cults use techniques that seem "natural". The cult recruiter's exaggerated friendliness quickly establishes rapport, and the repetition of obvious, universal statements (known as "yes-sets") creates an atmosphere of agreement in which the indoctrination can take place. Zeitlin demonstrated a frequently used technique known as "pacing", in which the subject’s attention is directed to what is happening at that moment. A recruiter describes to a group their own sensations, feelings, and thoughts as they sit listening to him. Then he gradually begins to direct those thoughts and feelings toward the cult’s belief system, all the while carefully pacing his words and gestures to his prospects' own inner processes so as to make them feel that these beliefs are originating within themselves.

Our natural limitations lead us to habitually choose what we pay attention to out of the available field of information. Cults twist this by saying, "There is a part of you of which you are not aware, but which can become so much more ... you are using only a fraction of your brain ... just let go and feel". The recruit is urged to dissociate himself from his own thoughts and to experience these unfamiliar feelings in the light of the cult’s doctrine. (In deprogramming, one of the first tasks is to find out on what beliefs the victim’s inner absorption is based, and then to gain his attention in order to begin to affect that absorption.)

Zeitlin pointed out that cult leaders tend to believe that they alone know what is right for everyone else. They feel that others have nothing at all to offer them and refuse to see their fellow men as individual human beings. Consequently, they show little concern regarding the morality of the means they choose to impart their "absolute truths". But as human beings we have both universal and relative standards of judgment, the latter relating to who we are and what we can reasonably expect of ourselves. Therapy tries to expand the limits of these expectations, but cults eliminate the limits altogether and demand that the member expand his personal expectations into the Absolute ("God expects you to be perfect!")

The question period centered on the relative responsibility of cult and recruit in the hypnotic communication transaction. Zeitlin explained that while most of these techniques have been implicitly known and practiced for centuries, they are just now becoming explicit and systemized as part of a "technology". Since all encounters involve expectations, in determining responsibility it is important to know just what the recruit has been led to reasonably expect and whether those expectations have been fulfilled. (A member of the audience pointed out that in legal cases it is best to emphasize the responsibility of the initiator – the recruiter in most cases – in this issue, and to emphasize the deliberate employment of hypnotic techniques rather than the transactional characteristics.)
Yes Sets

In conversational hypnosis, like in any other hypnosis session, the hypnotist must first perform an induction to get his subject into a trance state before offering his suggestions.

One technique is called the "Yes Set" where the hypnotist asks a series of questions with the goal of getting the subject to say "Yes" many times. Examples would be:
    Are you sitting in that chair?
    Is today Friday?
    Did you have lunch today?
    Is your shirt blue?
The yes set on its own is not powerful enough to induce a deep trance. You cannot just ask someone a bunch of yes-questions and expect him to accept your suggestions without also using some other technique, but it's defintely useful to help build rapport and break down potential resistance.


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Re: Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns

Post30 Jul 2012

The power of Hypnosis is amazing and at the same time underestimated ...

I do not doubt even for a second that cults use this tool, directly or indirectly and to varying degrees, to influence and control followers and also potential followers and engrave in their subconcious whatever teachings they want to transmit and convey ..!!
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Re: Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns

Post01 Aug 2012

dany wrote:The power of Hypnosis is amazing and at the same time underestimated ...

I have to agree with you but I think it is not consciously taught as such within the BKs and neither is the oft described "love-bombing" consciously instructed. The guided meditation tapes/CD/downloads which have been popularised since the 1980s are very similar to hypnosis tapes and I wonder when the practise was started?
From ICSA: The Manipulation of Spiritual Experience: Unethical Hypnosis in Destructive Cults by Linda Dubrow, M. A. Steve K. Dubrow Eichel, M. S.

The following paper was initially presented to the Association of Advance Ethical Hypnosis Twenty-Ninth Annual Convention Boston, MA October 26, 1984 © 1985 Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network


The process of cult and mass therapy indoctrination may involve repeated inductions of trance-like states of consciousness similar to hypnosis. Environmental (milieu) control, social manipulation, isolation and the use of prescribed consciousness-altering techniques (e.g. repetitive and/or continuous chanting, meditating, or praying) are some of the methods employed by cults to produce these altered states of awareness. Recent studies suggest that memories, emotions and even spiritual experiences can be manipulated while in hypnosis. Lack of informed consent and questionable concern for individual needs and wishes makes the use of these hypnotic techniques unethical. Being subjected to repeated and prolonged hypnotic inductions can impair the convert's ability to make decisions and evaluate new information; moreover, the convert's altered awareness can "lock in," and become a conditioned personality response pattern. One result can be periodic episodes of unwanted trance experiences ("floating") that occur for months or even years after a cultist exits his/her group.

The growth of controversial new religions and mass therapies (hereafter referred to as "cults") has generated considerable amount of concern and debate. These groups raise some important practical and ethical questions for professional hypnotists and counselors. Cults have produced drastic behavior and personality changes in a decidedly intelligent, educated and usually affluent population of converts. Typical cultists are not ignorant, weak-willed or emotionally disturbed (Clark, Langone, Schecter & Daly, 1981) this phenomenon of sudden personality change under stress, labeled "snapping" by authors Conway and Siegelman (1978) has sparked a renewed interest in methods of environmentally engineered attitude change, coercive persuasion and disguised hypnosis.

A large part of the cult debate is concerned with whether or not these techniques constitute an objectively verifiable process of mind control. Behavioral scientists Clark and Langone (1983) claim they do; they have stated that "social psychology research ... demonstrates rather conclusively ... that environmental variables can influence behavior in remarkable ways ... that mind control sometimes occurs in cults (p 28). Sociologists Bromley and Shupe (1981) are among the academicians claiming that cults are not particularly dangerous. Our clinical work with the Re-entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network (of Dubrow Eichel, Dubrow Eichel, & Eisenberg), as well as our interviews with hundreds of former cultists, leads us to accept the contention that some new religions and mass therapies are destructive to many (if not most) individual cult members.

Rather than attempt to deal with an extremely complex issue in its entirety, however, this paper will concentrate on one aspect of destructive cultism the unethical use of covert communication, persuasion and behavior-influencing techniques (including hypnosis), and their role in the manipulation/indoctrination process.

Cults, Hypnosis and Thought Reform

Some theories explain sudden cult conversions in terms of the social pressures exerted when a recruit is subjected to total environmental (milieu) control, while others single out the control of information flow as being the most important factor. Psychiatrist John Clark has proposed that cult brainwashing involves repeated inductions of trance-like states of consciousness, and that these states then become prolonged well beyond what we're used to thinking of as the average length of time in trance. Clark (1979) states that all the other characteristics of cult life (milieu control, the constant demand to be perfect, the constant expectation to confess transgressions, the belief that the cult's "truth" is absolute, use of buzz words and other language-loading techniques, deception, authoritarian structure) act together and contribute to a "continued state of dissociation." This state is marked by "focused attention" in which "new information is absorbed at an accelerated rate and rapidly becomes integral ... to the mind." The convert then becomes dependent on the cult for definitions of reality (p 280).

Dr. Clark's explanation poses some interesting questions. How do cults induce and maintain such prolonged trance states? How do cults make their suggestions so compelling and relatively impervious to the effects of time and feedback (e.g.. "reality testing")?

Cult Induction Processes

Many cults seem to induce trance using disguised, non-direct methods. The pre-hypnotic strategies available to, and often utilized by, destructive cults include singling out someone and giving him/her a great deal of positive, special attention which then increases compliance to authority, and the use of group pressure and/or the demand that one "take center stage" and perform something in front of others (who are expecting a specific kind of performance). This tactic, called "love-bombing", is almost universally employed by cults. Isolating a recruit in new and unfamiliar surroundings increases hypnotic susceptibility, as has been experimentally confirmed in a study by Dr. Arreed Barabasz (1994). Continuous lectures, singing and chanting are employed by most cults, and serve to alter awareness. The use of abstract and ambiguous language, and logic that is difficult to follow or is even meaningless, can also be used to focus attention and cause dissociation (Bandler & Grinder, 1975). Information overload can occur when subjects are presented with more new data than they can process at given time, or when subjects a re asked to divide their attention between two or more sources of information input or two or more channels of sensory input; this tactic is almost identical to the distraction or confusion induction methods in hypnosis (Arons, 1981).

Some cults use classical inductions, albeit under ambiguous labels like "meditation", "guided imagery", "awareness exercises", "processes" etc. For example, the early research suggesting that TM (transcendental meditation) is different from and superior to ordinary self-hypnosis has now been discredited; there is no discernible difference between meditative and hypnotic states (Royal College of Physicians, 1982).

Prolonged Trance States

In the office of the professional hypnotist, hypnosis occurs within a time-limited, place-limited context. In cults, the exact opposite may be true. The environment is controlled and often seems to have been engineered expressly for the purpose of maintaining and prolonging trance. The cultist is often subjected to sleep and nutrient deprivation, and he or she is taught methods of trance self-maintenance. These methods may include near-continuous praying and chanting, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), prolonged meditation, repetitious scriptural readings or recitations, and other monotonous, repetitive activities. Most published accounts of cult life indicate that cultists are admonished to continuously concentrate on the words, teachings or actual physical experience of the cult leader. Failure to maintain trance is often followed by considerable guilt and self- or cult-inflicted punishment. Cultists are usually taught that any doubt or deviation from the cult's rigid doctrine is evil or Satanic, or in some other way catastrophe-invoking. Similarly, any prolonged interest in people, activities or subject (e.g. music, art, science) that does not involve a strong concurrent focus on the cult is belittled and/or strongly discouraged; thus the cultist's attention is always divided, and trances become reinforced and automatic, like a habit.

Trance is characterized first and foremost by heightened suggestibility followed closely by diminished critical thinking or reality testing, what Shor (l969) refers to as receding of the "generalized reality orientation." Repeated induction often result in still greater degrees of suggestibility and deeper hypnotic states (Arons, 1981). By prolonging trance states, and with the use of repeated inductions, the cultist may become more and more pliable, less critical, more dissociated from him/herself and more apt to accept spurious and even preposterous notions as "facts". For example, distorted information processing as a result of prolonged trance may be responsible for the belief among Krishnas that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon and that the female brain weighs half as much as the male's. This process of reality distortion may not be very different from that use of hypnosis by surgery patients who while in trance are able to discount the rather pressing information that they are being cut with a scalpel without anesthesia and should therefore be feeling considerable pain.

Prolonged over a long enough period of time, trances tend to persist and return involuntarily even after the subject is removed from the hypnotic situation. There is a well-documented tendency for former cultists to spontaneously re-enter a trance-like state, especially when faced with a situation that would have been met with chanting praying or some other form of self-hypnosis while in the cult. This phenomenon. called "floating" can occur in almost any situation that the cult considers evil or threatening: examples include situations that call for independent decision-making, critical reasoning or the handling of everyday stresses and impulses such as anger or sexual desire. In clinical practice, former cultists have been known to enter into a trance (float) when faced with making relatively uncomplicated decisions or when faced with a need to assert themselves in everyday situations. Clark is convinced that prolonged trance states can sometimes result in long-lasting or even permanent impairment of thinking abilities, critical judgment, and/or emotional responsiveness and range. Psychologist Margaret Singer (1979) and therapists William and Lorna Goldberg (1982) have also documented long-term psychological damage caused by prolonged trance-states. Others have reported physiological changes such as a decreased facial hair growth in men and cessation of menstruation in women (Clark 1979).

Informed Consent, Manipulation, and the Validity of Spiritual Experience

When an individual signs up for an est seminar or a Unification Church leadership retreat, what does that person need, want, and expect? To what degree does that person give informed consent (i.e. permission with reasonably complete understanding of what he or she is getting into) when agreeing to attend a cult activity? The medical and psychological professions have been seriously grappling with the issue of informed consent for years now ; the result has been an evolving written set of guidelines mandating that the health professional provide the consumer with information that details both the expected advantages and the possible adverse effect of a given procedure.

What people "want" or "need" is always open to much interpretation. Needs and wants can also be influenced to a significant degree. Self-awareness and spirituality have become consumer goods on an open personal transformation marketplace complete with multimillion dollar packaging and advertising campaigns. Relatively basic needs such as the need for love and intimacy can be reinterpreted and intellectualized into abstract and metaphorical needs; the "lonely" person becomes the "spiritual seeker" in search of "true meaning in life," "self- actualization" or a "sense of oneness with the cosmos." With cults and mass therapies, the question of informed consent becomes a more difficult one to answer than it first seems. Considerable caution on the part of those groups offering "enlightenment" seems indicated.
To some degree the American public has become so enamored with quickly finding "the answer" and achieving "the goal" that the search for personal meaning has become devalued. Thus, in asking for instant awareness, we to some degree relinquish our ability to give informed consent. It does not seem possible to gain "instant awareness" or "instant spiritual experience" without being manipulated. Moreover, there seems to be a positive correlation between the amount of manipulation and covert hypnosis and the degree of perceived "satisfaction;" the more some people are pressured and influenced the "deeper" their insight or the more "intense" their spiritual experience.

The validity of spiritual experience is even more difficult to judge than the validity of psychological insights. Spiritual experiences can be secularly produced rather than divinely inspired, especially with the aid of a willing subject and a reasonably facile natural or trained "hypnotist". Former charismatic fundamentalist preacher, Marjoe Gortner demonstrated this fact quite well; he "saved" thousands using calculated and decidedly secular manipulative tactics (Kernochan & Smith, 1972). There are several well-documented instances of "UFO visits" that have been proven to be the products of hypnotically-enhanced imaginations (Klass, 1981). There is now a heated debate within experimental/forensic hypnosis as to whether or not hypnosis produces enhanced fantasizing and firmly believed but possibly distorted memories (Hilgard, 1981) Sensations, visions, memories, insights, and emotions experienced in hypnosis are typically more vivid and detailed than when experienced or thought about in the waking state and hence they are often felt by the subject to be especially valid, independent of whether or not these experiences are indeed valid. True spiritual experiences may occur. However, since spiritual experiences cannot usually be objectively validated (we cannot ask God for His written opinion). they're especially prone to "emotional" validation (i.e. "it's true if it feels true" ). It is just this sense -- the feeling that an experience is "true" -- that can be so easily manipulated in the state of heightened suggestibility known as hypnosis. Manipulated pseudo spiritual experiences may be the rule in cults.


Years of research have given plausibility to the claim that there is a technology of systematic, rapid and radical attitude/behavior/personality change and control (mind control); these thought reform techniques seem to work best when the subject are either motivated to cooperate or manipulated into believing they have some degree of free choice. (Cunningham, l984) Hypnosis is a powerful tool. In thought reform it seems to be most effective when used in disguised and/or nontraditional forms.

Many cults appear to systematically and unethically employ consciousness-altering techniques and rituals in their efforts to manufacture spiritual experiences, increase suggestibility, maintain long-term dissociative states and reinforce mystical thinking. In cults, "trance can become a conditioned [behavior/personality] pattern ... a way of calming disturbing thoughts and censoring the mind ... trance cuts off the input of sensory information." (Appel, 1983. p. 133) Clark (1979) summarizes the power of prolonged use of cult-induced hypnosis and self-hypnosis: "It becomes an independent structure ... [the] basic controls of the central nervous system seem to have been altered (p. 210).


Any organized attempt to influence human behavior and experience should follow basic guidelines designed to protect the worth and dignity of the individual; the needs wishes and interests of the client should always be the primary focus of these relationships. These concepts are central to ethics codes in the social services and sciences (cf. American Psychological Association, 1983; American Association for Counseling and Development, 1982). Hypnotists are also reminded that "the desires of the subject shall always be respected" and that suggestions should only be employed to meet the needs of subjects and maintain their right to make their own decisions (Association to Advance Ethical Hypnosis, 1978). The question, of course, is who defines what is in an individuals interest or "welfare".

When a person is bleeding profusely from a deep cut, it is easy to see what is in the person's best interest; it becomes considerably more difficult to decide such matters when dealing with something as nebulous as person's "soul" or "spirituality." When someone other than a client him/herself makes that judgment, that person should be very hesitant to act on that judgment, especially without obtaining informed consent. This caution should be taken even more seriously when considering the use of very powerful techniques for altering awareness. We need to remember who pays the price when judgments, no matter how well-intentioned turn out to be wrong.

Physicians, psychotherapists and hypnotists are or should be held responsible when they misuse hypnosis. One wonders if cult and mass therapies should be any less accountable.


    American Association for Counseling and Development (1982) Code of ethics. Board for Certified Counselors.
    American Psychological Association (1983). Ethical principles of psychologists in Pennsylvania Psychological Association 1983-84. Directory and handbook. Pittsburgh, PA: Horizon Press, 34-44
    Appel, W. (1983). Cults in America: Programmed for paradise. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
    Arons, H. (1981) New master course in hypnotism. S. Orange, NJ: Power Publishers
    Association to Advance Ethical Hypnosis (1978) Code of ethics and standards of the Association to Advance Ethical Hypnosis. Constitution and by-laws [as amended 0ctober 1978], 10-14
    Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. (1975) Patterns of the hypnotic techniques of Milton Erickson, M..D. (Volume 1). Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications
    Barabasz, A. (1984, January 4). Enhancing hypnotic response with isolation. Harvard Medical Area Focus.
    Bromley, D. & Shupe, A.. (198l) Strange gods: The great American cult scare. Boston: Beacon.
    Clark, J. Cults (1979) Journal of the American Medical Association, 242, 279-281.
    Clark, J. & Langone, M. (1983) New religions and public policy: Research Implications for social and behavioral scientists. Bonita Springs, FL: American Family Foundation.
    Clark, J. & Langone, M., Schecter, R. & Daly, R. (1981). Destructive cult conversion: Theory, research and treatment. Bonita Springs, FL: American Family Foundation.
    Conway, F. & Siegelman, J. (1978). Snapping: America's epidemic of sudden personality change. New York: Lippincott.
    Cunningham, S. (1984, October). Zimbardo: Coming close to 1984. APA Monitor, [Interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo], p.16.
    Dubrow Eichel, S., Dubrow Eichel, L., & Eisenberg, R. Mental health interventions in cult-related cases: A preliminary investigation of outcomes. Cultic Studies Journal.
    Goldberg, L. & Goldberg, W. (1982. Group work with former cultists. Social Work, 27, 165-170.
    Hilgard, E. (1981). Hypnosis gives rise to fantasy and is not a truth serum. Skeptical Inquirer, 5, 25-33
    Kernochan, S. & Smith, H. (Directors). (1972. Marjoe [film]
    Klass, P. (1981). Hypnosis and UFO abductions. Skeptical Inquirer 5, 16-24
    Lifton, R. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.
    Royal College of Surgeons. (1982). In J. Randi, Flim Flam! Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books
    Rudin, A. & Rudin, M. (1982) Prison or paradise? The new religious cults. Philadelphia: Fortress
    Shor, R. (1969). Hypnosis and the concept of the generalized reality-orientation. In C. Tart (Ed.), Altered states of consciousness. New York: Wiley.
    Singer, M. (1979, January). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today, 72-82.
    Wallis, R. (1976). "Poor man's psychoanalysis?": Observations on dianetics. The Zeletic, 1. 9-24

Copyright Steve Dubrow Eichel and Linda Dubrow of R.E.T.I.R.N., 9877 Verree Rd., Philadelphia, PA 19115; 215-698-8900 E:
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Re: Cults’ use of Hypnotic Communication Patterns

Post10 Dec 2012

See also: Exploring the science behind hypnosis and a website about an Indian born monk called Abbe Faria who studied and developed the practise he called "Lucid Sleep".
Evidence for a hypnotic state and the phenomenon referred to as the "trance stare"

A study has just been published in the high-profile open-access journal PLOS1 purporting to show evidence for a hypnotic state. In it, Sakari Kallio and his colleagues present eye-gaze evidence from a single highly hypnotisable individual which they claim supports the idea of there being a measurable and identifiable hypnotic state.

The researchers were interested in a particular phenomenon of hypnosis, the 'hypnotically induced stare'. This has been described previously by other researchers and is characterised by a glazed look in the eyes and a reduced blink rate. They took advantage of fairly recent advantages in eye tracking technology. They used eye tracking to measure automatic eye movements in and out of hypnosis, and compared the movements from their virtuoso participant to eye movements in a control group.

They found that in hypnosis TS-H's blink rate reduced significantly, and that saccades (involuntary eye movements) were also suppressed. These changes were not imitated by participants in a control group, despite instructions to mimic the effects of hypnosis. Kallio's team argue that their results indicate the presence of a measurable hypnotic state - that the state can be 'turned on and off', that it can be confirmed through objective measurements, and that it doesn't seem to be copy-able by control participants.

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