Wednesday, July 29, 2015

More on the Standford Prison Study

The cult has gotten into a lot of well-deserved, but still incommensurate, trouble for its numerous cases of sexual and physical abuse. As abhorrent as that was, a deeper horror was the underlying framework that the group provided for such abuse to be considered "normal" and even, as grotesque as it sounds, "pleasing to God."

Pulling the "God card" out gave license to all manner of licentiousness and harm. (See Moral Licensing, where I wrote about another aspect of this "righteousness.") Girls were pressured into having sex because "God" wanted them to "share" and "fulfill the needs" of their spiritual brothers. They were taught that it was their God-given duty never to refuse a man. That was just one of many serious flaws in the social fabric of the cult (if I may be forgiven for stating the obvious).

We lived in an atmosphere where we were continually reminded that we were "God's called-out elite army." We were special. We deserved for people to provide physically for us, as ours was a "spiritual" work. Our children were, according to COG doctrine, going to run the world during the Millennium with Jesus and his saints. Our treasure was to be in heaven where we were to be rewarded according to our works, so we were to give and give every ounce of strength and every penny we could to the cause.

That whole delusional bubble of unreality, was, in itself, the problem.

The abusive behavior that the COG/TFI cultivated within its ranks was, in most cases, the result of people acting like they thought they were expected to act. We had our own set of mores that were supposedly superior to those of mainstream society, and our own insulated culture where such behavior was "normal."

One lesson that we can draw from the Stanford Prison Study is that people generally conform to what they think they are expected to do, and much more so when that expectation comes from an authority figure. The COG, with its "God card" employed the highest and most absolute authority of all, God.

"The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors..."*

*The New Yorker, "The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment," by Maria Konnikova, June 12, 2015

Saturday, July 25, 2015


The unspoken human rule of reciprocity worked both to keep members in TFI and keep the donations coming in.

Reciprocation can be defined as the overpowering feeling of social obligation to return favors. In society, it helps promote cooperation and harmony. In the cult, it was a great recruiting method and also worked wonders in the soliciting of donations.

Many people will donate their time to a good cause because they are "good people," and well, that was the backbone of TFI membership: giving of yourself to work hard "for the lord" 24/7 for no pay - just "treasure in heaven." Once that premise was adopted, with deep desire for consistency and aversion to embarrassment or stigma, we remained loyal.

Even more germane is the role reciprocity played as a supremely effective fundraising tool. In addition to being a way to avoid possible taxation issues from overtly "selling" TFI products, like posters, magazines, CDs, etc., we gave them out and asked for a donation to "help cover costs," or the classically vague, "to help with our missionary work." Even if people didn't want what we offered, the likelihood of getting a donation was high because of this ingrained feeling of polite obligation. The stated reason for giving the donation proved not to be as salient as the fact that a reason was given, as was demonstrated in experiments by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer. People simply like being given a reason to comply.

A form of reciprocation applies to another TFI witnessing/fundraising technique practiced by the most successful - concession. The routine went like this: First offer one of the most expensive items, such as a set of videos (back in the day). When that was refused, offer something smaller, like a set of CDs. No? "Then how about a magazine?" No? "Would you like a poster?" No? "How about just giving a donation of any amount you like?" After all that, it was the rare person indeed who didn't give something, and usually something substantial.

Most people consider themselves to be kind. Self-image plays a role in all of our behavior, including the reflex reaction of reciprocity. We tend to behave in a way that is consistent with our internal narrative. "I'm a good person," so of course I want to help with good causes, volunteer, donate blood, recycle, give to help the needy, and of course, return favors.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Age of (Mis-)Information

Stepping aside from cult commentary, I feel compelled to address the availability cascade that assaults and influences us in our daily lives.

As Stephen Pinker so clearly elucidates in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, the world today is much less violent than it has ever been before.  

As well, our moral evolution has made things repugnant today that were accepted as normal in the not so distant past: slavery, public torture and executions, and the subjugation of women, to name just a few of the most obvious.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, there is an encroaching psychological danger in this age that much of humanity is embracing with joy, and that is the ever-increasing availability of information. There are mind-boggling numbers of television channels available, connectivity to the internet is fast becoming ubiquitous, radio shows and podcasts proliferate, and even clothing and bags are emblazoned with brand names, all feeding us with information.

Having the wealth of man's knowledge at our fingertips is a marvelous thing, and I personally am grateful for the internet for the crucial role it has played in my leaving the cult and providing me with access to the multitude of audio courses, books, and scientific studies that have helped me to learn.  

The downside is that news outlets, both spurious and legitimate, have a tremendous, and perhaps, unwitting, influence on us via an availability cascade of stories and memes that give us a very distorted sense of reality, danger, and truth. It follows that the most effective memes and the most attention-getting, share-worthy, stories are those that arouse emotion. This compels writers, both amateur and professional, to write articles and headlines using more and more emotion-laden terms. The more emotion they can arouse in their readers, the more widely their piece is apt to be read and shared.

This feeds the ever-present internet outrage that so many on both sides of the political spectrum seem to revel in, not to mention the pervasive and very questionable health and diet related articles and websites (more often than not written by someone who just so happens to sell health-related supplements, etc.).

One of the daily challenges of the modern world is to be aware of the power of availability to influence us. We naturally deem things that are easily called to mind as being of more weight and importance, especially those that are emotion-laden, but being readily called to mind does not guarantee their value. Take it from one who spent years memorizing inane cult materials that still readily come to mind.

"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Sunday, July 5, 2015


With social proof in play, who, then, starts the snowball rolling?

Dr. Cialdini, in his book Influence, used the Jonestown tragedy as an example. First, Jim Jones moved his "flock" to the jungles of Guyana, removing them from familiar surroundings and forcing the cult members into a situation where the only people they were able to look to for guidance in uncertainty were others like themselves.

With unrelenting propagandizing of how the outside world was their enemy, he further isolated his followers and instilled in them irrational paranoia.

This culminated in his final order to "commit revolutionary suicide" by drinking the poison-laced drink. Who went first? Sadly, a mother and her baby did. She was the bellwether that started the ball rolling. That first person to obey was crucial.

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” Cavett Robert

Berg, also, seemed to have a knack for enlisting that 5% of people who were inclined to be initiators, and he used them to promulgate his wishes. On the Home level, these people were actually called bellwethers, and, like their counterparts in the sheep world, they were to lead the flocks of believers by their actions.

As well, Berg had people in his Home write publications that illustrated correct behavior. "Life with Grandpa" was a comic series that showed daily life in Berg's household so even TFI children could see firsthand how we should behave. "The Story of Techi" was written by the caretaker for Techi, Zerby's daughter by a TFI leader, showing how she cared for little baby Techi.

Without a doubt, though, the pièce de résistance had to be "The Story of Davidito." This was hailed as the supreme guidebook on how to raise children. It used Berg's step-son, Prince Davidito, as prime example, TFI, after all, being "the best place in the world to raise children." The sad reality was that it was a horrendous book that outlined abusive behavior, written by Berg's step-son's childcare worker. The oft-quoted Biblical premise, "Train up a child in the way he shall go, and when he is old he will not depart from it," proved to be bitterly and poignantly ludicrous in the aftermath of "Davidito's" murder of one of his former childcare worker/abusers and his subsequent suicide in 2005 at the age of 29.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Social Proof

One more interesting psychological principle that worked wonderfully for TFI is called social proof. It's a handy mental tool that we use to assess what is the correct behavior for situations. We casually look around to see what other people are doing and adjust our behavior accordingly.

This is great when we want to know which fork to use first at the formal dinner. But in the context of cult life, it was just another manipulative tool. 

This tool works most effectively when we look to the behavior of people that are similar to ourselves. The "them and us" mentality of the cult was the perfect place for it. To make the effect even more powerful, isolation was key, as when isolated, the only people you can observe to see what is the correct behavior are people who are, indeed, very similar to yourself.

When do we use this tool? When we feel uncertain about what to do, of course. We figure that the calm, composed-looking people around us must know more than we do about what's going on, and so we conform to what they're doing.

We don't realize, though, that it is just as likely that the people we are looking to are also in doubt. Perhaps they, too, are trying to appear calm and secretly checking out what others are doing. This situation of everyone looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to what has been called "pluralistic ignorance."

This phenomenon helps to explain why people in crowded places don't stop to help others in need. They naturally conclude, "No one else is showing concern or stopping, so there must be nothing wrong. I don't need to do anything."

In his classic book on persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini illustrates the power that social proof can have on a group by describing how certain Indian tribes used to hunt buffalo. He wrote, "There are two features of buffalo that make them especially susceptible to erroneous social evidence. First, their eyes are set in their heads so that it is easier for them to see to the side than to the front. Second, when they run, as in a stampede, it is with their heads down low so they cannot see above the herd. As a result, the Indians realized, it was possible to kill tremendous numbers of buffalo by starting a herd running toward a cliff. The animals, responding to the thundering social proof around them—and never looking up to see what lay ahead—did the rest."

To me, that says a lot about the herd mentality of cults which I mentioned in one of my first blog posts, The Bandwagon.