The Manipulation of Spiritual Experience: Unethical Hypnosis in Destructive Cults

Linda Dubrow, Ph.D. & Steve K. Dubrow Eichel, Ph.D.


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 calculabed 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.



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The preceding paper was initially presented to the Association of Advance Ethical Hypnosis, Twenty-Ninth Annual Convention, Boston, MA October 26, 1984 – before the authors received their Ph.Ds.  It appeared in Hypnosis Reports and is reprinted with the authors’ permission.

© 1985 Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network used with permission

Used by permission of Steve Dubrow Eichel ( and Linda Dubrow ( of R.E.T.I.R.N., 9877 Verree Rd., Philadelphia, PA 19115; 215-698-8900.