Flirtation with the Cult/LGAT
So I recently attended a recruitment meeting for an LGAT- a Large Group Awareness Training. These cult-like groups don't really have a compound and make you live there; they are mostly about getting your money by charging you absurdly huge amounts of money for seminars that use some very shady tactics.
I had presented a speech the night before at my school, discussing the ways that cults and LGATs hook people and their similarities to hypnotic techniques.
So I went the next night to actually observe what went on and see what happens. Here's the story:
The first thing was that I signed in to a table outside the hotel ballroom. Several of the seminar leaders were standing by, dressed immaculately. I approached one, smiled, and signed in and was given a name tag. The man recognized my name (I had been emailing him) and introduced himself, asking who had brought me. I told him nobody.
Tonight's event was the "Graduation" from the initial seminar, which had taken place over 4 days and cost a shade under $500. To celebrate the graduates, all the participants who'd made it through the four days were invited to bring their friends and family along. As the crowd mingled, the grads and guests mingled and chatted with Seminar employees who strolled around, making introductions.
None of them attempted to talk to me- the lone guy ambling around, talking on my cell phone periodically, taking notes here and there.
Finally we were let inside to the ballroom where the meeting was being held. We took our seats. Some seminar people went around the room, still talking to people, working the room.
The man I'd been emailing came to the front, introduced himself, proudly pointed out the grads, and asked us all to give a big hand to celebrate their achievement. I glanced around the room- the grads all looked so excited, so happy, but it was nothing next to when the speaker introduced the man who'd actually led the entire seminar.
When he came bounding up on stage and took the mike, the grads went wild. It was spooky- it was like Elvis inciting a flock of girls. The grads even gave him a standing ovation, and, as he spoke for the next hour or so, the grads' glee didn't diminish- they kept giggling in bliss and ecstasy.
The moderator spoke at length, again congratulating the grads, at first admitting a couple of things- first off, how odd this must all seem to the guests. "You get BEGGED to come to this by your friends or family, and now you're here, hearing all this, right?" Pretty much.
"And you must think its kinda weird, right? They're telling you 'You gotta come to this! BUT- I can't tell you what it's about!" The grad next to me giggled. "Well, let me tell you: it's not a cult. No. We're here to help you, to get you to achieve your full potential…." He went on; talking about what the course could do for you, but in very vague terms. "Nobody's forcing you to attend, right? We're all here on our own free will, are we not? We all have the choice to accept or decline." I nodded, but my stomach was turning. This is exactly the 'illusion of choice' that a cult would present.
The moderator went on to tell a little about the seminar, but even he admitted it was hard to put into concrete terms- that it was really something that must be experienced, because there were so many group exercises; that it was very 'experiential.' I wanted to hear more about this, to find out what the exercises were like, but he would only say it was like a taste of steak; that the only way to see it was to actually go through with it.
One of the more disturbing moments was when he presented a 'theory of mind' on the board to illustrate how our minds work. It bothered me because it was similar to part of the hypnotic induction process in how you describe the workings of the mind and how hypnosis works, just before you actually perform it. Basically, 'you first describe, and then you perform.' He prattled on about it, and I nodded my head, pretending to be intrigued instead of horrified.
He next had all the grads come up on stage as we applauded them. The mod continued heaping all the adulation and praise onto him that he could, recognizing them for being on the pathway to success and overcoming their personal limitations. He gave them diplomas and read them on stage, which pretty much just reinforced or repeated what he'd said a minute ago. Then he asked the grinning grads to tell us all about how much they loved the program and their experience, to tell us how great it was. "Just try to sum it up in one word, " he challenged them.
They thought a moment and then you heard them say things like "enlightening", "success", "learning", "magical", etc.
Now came another creepy highlight.
"And how many of you had resistance at first, when you came in here, all but kicking and screaming, at the start of the first day?"
Almost all raised their hand. "How about at the end of the first day?" Most hands stayed up. "And the second day?" About half the hands were still up. "How about the third day?"
ONE hand remained in the air.
Jesus Christ, I thought. This is how it works- the first two days are spent in long exercises designed to break, embarrass, or humiliate these people, and the second two days are about building them back up.
It was pretty insidious. One thing a cult or LGAT would do is shower the individual with love and acceptance. But this group went one better- start with ridiculing them or tearing them down. It actually makes sense- in one hypnotic induction, we create relaxation by first inducing some stress, and when that's absent, the relaxation is more powerfully felt. And likewise, how best to show love and acceptance? By first creating its opposite experience….
But why would nobody walk off after the first few hours of abuse? Simple; they've heard the promise of personal benefit if you stay in for the full four days; plus, you're not eligible to get your money back for any reason if you don't complete the course in full.
After this, the moderator showed the schedule for the next seminar (four days- 2 days of 6pm to midnight, and 2 days of 10am-8pm) and presented the cost and where we could sign up, also saying if we had any doubts, just ask around tonight, and to take it, since we could always get our money back if we were dissatisfied (provided we completed, of course). He closed by suggesting we now turn to the person who brought us here and ask them why they so badly wanted us to take this seminar.
I turned to the man next to me, "A", I'll call him, and began asking questions. I talked to him for a while, learning that a friend had gotten him into this almost a year ago. At first he had declined but I guess the friend had badgered him enough and he finally took it. I also learned he was new in town and I wondered why he'd waited till he'd moved to take it, but didn't ask him.
He told me that he'd always been into reading about religions, philosophy, self improvement, and the like. Off the bat, he also admitted that this seminar was like a religion and wasn't- it was definitely an organization, and they were out to make money, plain and simple. That said, he felt like it benefited him quite a lot anyways.
I moved on to my next question. "I understand this stuff is a lot of group exercises; that you learn a lot in there."
"Oh, yes, definitely, " he nodded vigorously.
"But what was it like? What did you guys do?"
He looked blankly, as if he'd lost his train of thought, finally saying. "It's hard to describe. We did so many…” and trailed off- it was as if he couldn't remember any! Why couldn't these people describe what had gone on? It wasn't like they were being coy or secretive about it; it's more like they just couldn't retrieve the memory!
He finally told me an odd one about the inner child or intuition, being in groups of 2, where one person describes a sick friend, giving somebody a few clues, asking them to come up w/ whatever they intuit about the described person. "A" claimed 90% accuracy rate in the facts the intuition drags up and looked at me, wide-eyed, for my reaction. I saw through this (vague-speak, like an Oracle; can be interpreted so widely that it could apply to nearly anything) but he was amazed by it. I feigned amazement, too.
"What else did you guys do?"
I really had to pry it out of him- you'd think in four days of doing mainly exercises, he'd be able to remember much more, more readily, but no. Finally he came up with another, and it was sad.
I'd had heard of this one before: the "broke your word" thing, designed to make everybody see their flaws and play that up. "A" described how he seemed to have done the best, seeming to have kept his word the most faithfully, for a full week, until the mod turned it on him, saying he didn't believe it; either A had lied to him, or A had broken his word to himself. When confronted with that, A said he felt shocked, and reacted in an astonished manner, as if he were still stunned by it. He even described hearing that as a "slap in the face." Of course, this same point was driven in, in many ways, to all the graduates in those first 2 days.
At end of our conversation, I asked if he had any last things to tell me about it, and he advised me to "take the jump" and just try it out. He thought I'd get a lot out of it, that I was curious and smart. He hoped it would help him succeed farther, especially to get over his shyness, loner tendencies, and to help him become a leader- after all, he'd signed up for the next 2 courses, which probably cost $6, 000 to $8, 000.
I kind of wanted to hear more about this and track his progress, so I exchanged phone numbers with him and left, wondering what I'd hear next. As I stood up to go, I noticed nobody ever asked me directly to sign up, which was kind of a nice sign, but then again, when I looked around, I saw all the seminar people were busy talking to the grads and their guests.
So what hypnotic techniques and methods did I observe? I'll detail them in the next blog.
Oh- and if you don't think these people are out to take your money, if you really think they're beneficial- I just have one question for you:
If this group does so much good, and there's nothing sinister or shady about their method, and that it really WILL change you life, well, why can nobody who goes through the program seem to be able to tell many details of it?
Surely something so important, so groundbreaking in one's life would be a bit more memorable, wouldn't it?
How the Cult Works: Hypnotic Secrets
So here's my expose on how and why the group worked:
One of the really ingenious tactics they used was not to use any kind of promotion except for the very best of all: word of mouth. Everybody knows how strong word-of-mouth is, and anybody can tell you that's going to beat any paid advertisement. But these people went a step further- they had instilled it into their grads that they absolutely HAD to share this path to success with whoever they loved and cared most about.
I thought that was pretty smart. Just think: if your closest friends and most beloved family members came begging you to do something, you'd surely listen to them and consider it over just about any other source in the world, wouldn't you? I mean, what if it was your parents? Your wife or husband? And that's exactly what I saw. One woman even brought her 8 year old daughter.
As further proof that the seminar leaders found this angle to be absolutely critical, remember that nobody approached me before the meeting to give me a friendly hello. Why? Because I'd come alone- they had no convenient grad to use as an opportunity to springboard through to me. No, they concentrated on talking to the grads and getting through to THEIR guests. They knew full well that those people were the ones to work on, because they already had a very solid 'in'. Remember also that the lead guy took notice of me when I signed on and his first question was to ask who brought me.
The Moderator: He was definitely 'built up' in the grads' mind as an authority figure; unquestioned, blindly accepted, and acknowledged as somebody who had total control and commanded total admiration of the group. Again, it was creepy to see the unabashed adulation for the guy- standing ovations, big vacant smiles and laughs at whatever he said.
The moderator was also quite smart early on in his speech to disavow that the group was a cult or that it was shady, all the while acknowledging it was mysterious, wasn't it? In hypnosis, one great tactic is basically to acknowledge whatever the client says; all the while you lead them in the direction you want. He also made sure to let everybody know that they had a choice to say yes or no to this, but to request that you at least give a chance and listen with an open mind. Doing this puts the guests at ease and calms them, as well as creates an "illusion of choice." If you believe you have a choice, it relieves the pressure and you remove your mental blocks and defenses to whatever you're about to hear.
Also, this talk was similar to our hypnotic pre-induction speech, in which we give to tell the client what is going to happen, what to expect, and demystify the process, etc.
Most of the talk was quite vague and nebulous- the moderator almost never gave concrete ideas or facts, but rather couched everything in metaphoric and indistinct terms- these is completely the language of trance, especially that method practiced by Milton Erickson, who could basically hypnotize somebody without them really being aware of how it was working. The way it works is that the mind of the subject is distracted, trying to address and make sense of the vagueness, while the speaker continues, throwing out more stuff, slowly overwhelming the subject's critical mind and thought processes, until they just want to escape, which they do- into hyper suggestibility and hypnosis.
The Theory of Mind diagram was more of the same- misdirection, vagueness, and giving an explanation of how the mind works. Again, we do something almost identical in hypnosis. It's part of the standard process.
Bringing Up the Grads: This was just more of the adulation and praise and attention lavished on those who succeed in the group's terms. If they deviate or fail, they are punished, ridiculed, but once they make it through, they are accepted and rewarded by the group. These people who did stick it through probably have some issues on where they belong, or are looking for a place or group to have an identity with (In fact, the man I'd later talk to would tell me as much, saying that he was new in town, didn't have any friends, and was sort of lonely. I also thought it was curious he waited for a year to take the class, it was as if he had come at a more vulnerable time).
Also, with this praise/reward, it becomes even more powerful when it's contrasted against earlier punishment methods- again, what better way to make somebody feel loved or appreciated than to first put them down?
RESISTANCE: The major creepy moment. In the first two days, the grads admitted resistance to the group's exercises, but almost none for the 2nd two days. This suggests that the first couple days were completely about breaking down the grads, showing them they were insignificant, wrong, and fundamentally incorrect and deeply flawed. Of COURSE there would be resistance to that. Incidentally, in almost ANY hypnosis, there is resistance of some sort, even for very positive therapy, because the subconscious is grappling with suggestions for change and there's a consequent struggle as it grapples with integrating the hypnotherapist's suggestions. And hypnotherapists actually take resistance as a positive sign, because it means that the course of therapy is working...
So 'resistance' means that the lessons are sinking into the grads, and after two day's worth of these exercises they're open to all sorts of things, reflecting sadly over this deeply vulnerable self that has been exposed and open. They go home, probably feeling broken and beaten down. But there's not much time to reflect on that and think too critically about it, because after the second day ends (at midnight), they're back at 10am the next day for another round. So they have just enough time to sleep before they return- this limits the chance they have to think too much about it and try to get out of the seminar, which they probably won't, because they can't get a refund unless they tough it out for the full four days. So they reluctantly trudge back to the group, likely expecting more abuse and breaking-down exercises.
But when they come back, there's a change: the group is using a new tactic! Now, they're focusing on acceptance, more positive things, likely telling them that they can change and have all they could ever want if they take the next courses and learn more what the group has to offer. And that day and the next are devoted to showing them acceptance and love, as well as heavily pitching their higher levels of courses.
In fact, I'd suspect that the group doesn't really impart much, if any, lessons for success in the first seminar. I bet, as the first session in hypnosis is really to condition the subject for more hypnosis, that the group is really just priming the individual client for more and more sessions and seminars.
Another thing that contributed to breaking down the individual's willpower and opening their suggestibility was the long hours. There are many ways to go into trance; the best known of which are things like dancing, chanting, singing (which I heard there was singing going on at these), and doing this for long periods of time. However, a lesser-known way of increasing suggestibility is by controlling the diet. Not just by fasting, but by affecting the blood sugar levels, by not eating, or eating too much. If you control the diet (which seems likely, since the first two days were held during typical dinner hours), you could affect blood sugar, making it drop and creating a subtle anxious, hyper suggestible state in your subjects.
That said, when all was said and done by the 4th day, they had created 30 people who had 'learned' that this group was the key to success and changing their lives, and were also told to share this wondrous revelation with all the loved ones in their lives. This was reinforced again after the moderator finished talking and suggested that we turn to the people who brought us and ask them why they wanted us to take the class so badly. Again, they're using the power of word of mouth (from loved and trusted friends and family) to convince and tantalize the guests, so they can continue the cycle.
So there you have it- of course, many different walks of life use these methods, but before you dismiss it, you have to admit that when a group is using all sorts of hypnotic manipulation tactics, whether or not they intend to, then they consequently must be practicing hypnotic manipulation, whether they intend to or not.
I think I've made a pretty strong case that's what this group is obviously doing and using that leverage for the sole purpose of making a lot of money from their seminars.
Oh, and here's another bit of evidence why I doubt their sincerity: Part of their name/motto is about people working synergistically together. You'd think with a focus like that, what better synergy could you get than a couple of their grads partnering up? Or better yet, a big group of them networking within each other, buttressing and backing each other up? What a strong, powerful bond, right?
But when I asked "A" if he was going to stay in touch with his fellow grads, who we had just been hearing had some sort of collective epiphany all together, he reacted like the thought had never really occurred to him. "Hm, I guess so, that might be good, " he said hesitatingly.