Cult Behaviours: Dependence on a Leader – Reviewing Prof Arthur J. Deikman’s Work

This is the second part of a review and digest of the work which Arthur Diekman published on cult behaviours manifest in every day life. As a professor of psychology he stressed how cult behaviours are intimately woven in the human’s psyche and actions arguing that for healthy, stable and constructive societies awareness of these facts was imperative.


Having developed a keen interest in the psychology of dehumanisation and dementalisation processes in my sociological studies I found that Deikman’s work directly intersected with these fields of research offering an illuminating perspective on ingroup/outgroup behaviours. At a certain point I decided that the ideas which Deikman laid out were of high public value and so I decided to do an in depth analysis and digest of them. This is part of that study.


This second instalment of the digest of Deikman’s book ‘The Wrong Way Home’ focuses on the attribute ‘Dependence on a Leader’. In the book he takes the reader through a case study of a situation where people had become deeply embedded in a cult and where he as a psychologist worked with those individuals as they exited the cult. The book then goes on to examine the key attributes which Deikman identifies as producing cult behaviour; the four attributes he writes about are:


Compliance with the Group

Dependence on a Leader

Devaluing the Outsider

Avoidance of Dissent


In this article exploring ‘Dependence on a Leader’ I have included a section from his preface to help introduce the reader to the over arching message which he intended. As you will see in what follows he points out that we find cult behaviours in business, religion, education, medicine, and institutions, as well as family life, friendship networks and community contexts; all are fertile places for troubled kinds of behaviour.


His work offers a timely and profound reminder to be thoughtful and aware of the behavioural trends which we and others are feeding into, be it in the workplace, in the social spaces, in institutional realms, or in the familial context.



Since this book was first published, events in Waco, Texas, refocused American attention on the prevalence of cults in our society. There, in an eerie parallel to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, a group of devotees was immolated at the command of its leader. Amid all the horror and drama, few people identified with the cult members or compared the cult to groups to which they belonged. They should have, because cults grow out of behaviours intrinsic to the human condition, behaviours that are present in all of us. Wherever there are groups, including those not thought of as cults, cult-like behaviour will be found.


This is a hard fact for us to face and it is generally resisted. We wish to separate ourselves from the behaviour of the Branch Davidians, or the People’s Temple, or the less dramatic but alien groups soliciting in airports and street corners. We don’t want to recognize our own cult behaviour because we take pride in being independent; we defend our own group’s rationality and purpose. Yet, as this book demonstrates, certain basic cult processes are present in the familiar and legitimate activities of our established religions, large corporations, government, the media, and the professions.


The refusal to recognize the connection between the extreme behaviour of cults, such as the Branch Davidians, and less obvious tendencies of our own can be costly. Consider that in Waco, Texas, the behaviour of the FBI and the media themselves demonstrated a specific cult process: devaluing outsiders, in this case David Koresh and his followers. The FBI treated the group as it would a criminal organization—not as a religious group with a leader worshipped by disciples.


Had the FBI been more willing to label the group a religion, albeit one with a self-righteously grandiose leader, it might have sought out an appropriate religious leader to talk with David Koresh and work out a religiously based rationale for surrendering the compound. Instead, it employed an assault team to “rescue” the “hostages.” I suspect this reluctance to categorize the Branch Davidians as a religious group also may have prevented the FBI from seeing that Koresh would never submit to an inglorious conclusion to his story and that his followers would obey him even to the point of losing their own lives.


The national media displayed a similar reluctance to draw parallels between the Branch Davidians and mainstream groups. During the period of the Waco siege and its aftermath, I was interviewed a number of times for TV news programs as an expert on cult psychology. On two of those media occasions, I pointed out that the behaviour of some anti-abortion groups in harassing patients and staff of abortion clinics, which culminated in one case in the murder of a physician, reflected cult thinking not fundamentally different than what had taken place among the Davidians. These comments were edited out and did not appear during the broadcasts of the interviews.


Being able to see cult thinking at work is becoming increasingly important. Fundamentalism is on the rise all over the world, including in the United States. Fundamentalist groups avoid dissent and devalue the outsider, two principal cult behaviours. Yet, despite the fact that the worst violence against human beings has been committed by self-righteous people citing God as their authority, we continue to avoid scrutinizing followers of “normal” religions with the same critical eye we cast on those whose religious form is alien and whose leaders are grossly megalomanic.


Similarly, non-religious social institutions that form part of everyday society require our examination. Do we really believe that the men and women in government and large corporations are immune from the same forces that in extreme form brought death to the followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh? Study of the history of government and corporate disasters indicates otherwise. There, too, cult behaviour is costly. It is my intent in this book to make visible the cult-like behaviour that operates throughout society, not just in isolated sects. Being able to see cult behaviour when it occurs in oneself and others provides protection against its influence. Recognition is the key.




Dependence on a Leader

All groups have leaders, and the primary family group is no exception. Whether the leader is formally recognized or not, someone makes the decisions, someone leads while the rest follow. The first leader we encounter is most likely to be a parent, usually our mother, the one who gives or withholds food, affection, praise, and security. Later, the father and/or other family members may take similar dominant positions in our life.


Biological survival requires that we become adept at pleasing these powerful people, so as children we try to win their love and care, to avoid their wrath and control, their comings and goings as best we can. As adults, we bring to other groups the attitudes and behaviours we learned so early, directing them toward new leaders who, in the psychological sense at least, stand above us. A cult leader exploits this tendency.


Attachment Theory: The work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth may be relevant in some ways to thinking through the ideas of Arthur Deikman on cult behaviours in everyday life.  Bowlby and Ainsworth are two key thinker who developed the psychological theory examining how the bonds between young children and primary caregivers in early years shape their social and emotional development throughout their life.

In this theory the behaviour of infants is to seek proximity to attachment figures in stressful situations; children go on to use attachment figures as a secure base to explore, experiment and return to.  The parental responses create patterns of attachment informing the internal world of the individual in later relationships.


It is customary to think of cult leaders as powerful personalities who inspire, even hypnotize their audiences. Charismatic leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler have been described this way. But a cult leader need not be that impressive. Authoritarians emphasize obedience, loyalty and the suppression of criticism. In the groups they lead, hierarchies of rank are emphasized and autonomy discouraged.


If we are sophisticated, we may reject, criticize, or look down on any public leader, but the wish remains of engendering seldom noticed fantasies of someone (or something) who observes our behaviour and rewards or punishes.


In our society, the tendency to look up to others while feeling small oneself is expressed in the enormous number of celebrities that clutter our minds. Statesmen, movie stars, sports figures, socialites, and the super-rich are given larger-than-life status by television and movies, by newspapers and magazines, all of which cater to this fantasy.


Our predilection for inequality has even more prosaic expressions. I believe that “ageism” is not just fear of growing old, but also reveals the hidden wish to maintain a child’s parental world.


We can trace our susceptibility to authoritarian leaders to the family structure.  Within the family parents and other elders are in fact superior in knowledge, experience, and strength to the children who depend on them for protection and satisfaction of needs. That parents command and children obey is realistic because of the large discrepancy in their respective capacities.


In a healthy family, as children mature and become more responsible and capable, the hierarchical, authoritarian structure moderates and becomes more democratic. Children are given appropriate responsibility and choice, which acts to reward competence and stimulate further growth. Eventually, the child’s relationship to the parent reaches eye level psychologically as well as physically. This eye-level perspective is the hallmark of the mature adult. Such a perspective does not imply a denial of another’s superior ability and knowledge; rather, feelings of appreciation and respect replace fear, awe, and dependency.


Just as the mature parent welcomes the child’s ascent to equality and supports his or her maturation, the mature leader can and should exercise a similar function, according subordinates increasing responsibility, choice, and authority as they become capable. If this does not take place, subordinates remain in the position of children while the leader plays out the role of omnipotent parent. Thus, the key issue is not the strength of the leader, but the development or suppression of autonomy.


From this point of view, a hierarchical structure is not inherently bad; it can contribute to learning and is necessary when real differences in capacity exist. Furthermore, groups usually require a hierarchy for efficient performance of tasks. But a truly authoritarian leader is repressive and regressive.


The structure of cults is basically authoritarian; obedience and hierarchical power tend to take precedence over truth and conscience when they conflict, which they often do. Unfortunately, certain psychological benefits can make authoritarian groups very attractive—they provide the opportunity to feel protected and cared for. As noted earlier, the wish for parents does not disappear, but just goes underground when we become adults.


Mainstream politics provides many examples. Often, the key to a politician’s popularity is the capacity to present the image of a strong, good parent, to convey an optimistic, sincere self-confidence, to communicate belief in a golden future. Apparent self-confidence and freedom from doubt are characteristics of all successful cult leaders because these postures resonate so strongly with the universal fantasy of a powerful, benign father or mother who will remove all difficulties and reassure the frightened child.


As was widely remarked during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the capacity to evoke this image provides a leader with a “Teflon coating”; unpleasant, discordant facts about the leader’s actions do not stick, are not held against him or her, but are pushed aside to preserve the good feelings he or she can arouse. As adults most of us leave the conduct of public affairs to others whom we prefer to believe are superior in some way because to do so is less anxiety-producing. The reality may be quite different.


A poignant comment on this situation comes from an enterprising journalist, Craig Karpel, who gained access to the 1980 Bilderberg Meeting, held at Aachen, Germany. This exclusive, little-publicized summit conference of the West’s power elite gathers every year to deal with whatever urgent problems face the United States and Western Europe. As Karpel points out, if the world were secretly run by someone or something, it would be the Bilderberg group. This particular meeting included David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, Helmut Kohl, Helmut Schmidt, Lord Home and a host of others comprising one hundred influential leaders in the fields of government, banking, publications, and industry from the various countries of the Western Alliance.


The 1980 meeting took place at the beginning of a deep rift in European-American relations occasioned by Jimmy Carter’s requests for sanctions against Iran and retaliation against the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan. There was also the matter of 16,000 Warsaw Pact tanks poised at the border of West Germany. The agenda for the meeting was entitled “America and Europe—Past, Present, and Future.” Expecting that the men who ran things would plan a stealthy strategy of manipulation and control, dictating the future, Karpel was disappointed.


One might imagine that the goal of Bilderberg must secretly be to attempt to shape future events and seek to profit from them. But in practice the purpose of the meetings is to assess what has already happened and to figure out how best to respond to it, with a view to hanging on to past gains. Karpel concluded that the participants were not leaders, but managers devoted to stability and self-preservation. He concluded:


“It is not inherently sinister to convene an assembly of wise men, led by those whom the wise believe to be the wisest. But one feels a certain queasiness when, like Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, one pulls aside the curtain and discovers that wizards haven’t the slightest idea what to do. To insinuate oneself into such company, and to return then to the realm of roller disco and headphone radios, is like slipping up the spiral stairway of a transoceanic 747 and into the cockpit only to discover that there is no one there. The night is dark. A howling storm lies ahead. You descend to the main cabin. The dinner service has been concluded. A number of passengers are noisily airing petty complaints. The lights dim. The movie is about to begin …And so the secret, the hideous grisly secret of Bilderberg is revealed. There’s nobody at the controls, folks. We’re flying blind. Let’s hope there’s foam on the runway, friends and neighbors, ’cause we’re coming in on a wing and a prayer.”


Looking up to a leader may be the result of a need to maintain a fantasy of the leader’s superiority Ronald Reagan was particularly attuned to fantasy’s attractiveness to the public. James Barber, professor of political science at Duke University, commented in the New York Times:


“President Reagan’s indifference to reality is hardly news. His criterion of validity is drama, not empiricism. As David Stockman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, once summed up the White House system: ‘Every time one fantasy doesn’t work they try another one.’ Mr. Reagan, told by a reporter that one of his favourite, endlessly repeated anecdotes— how a black hero at Pearl Harbor ended segregation in the armed forces—was total fiction, replied: ‘I remember the scene. … It was very powerful.’ What matters to him is the grace and theatrical force of a performance; as a lifelong practitioner of illusion, he is in no way embarrassed by its victory over the facts.”


As Barber goes on to note, the contradictions ignored by the public are striking indeed. Advocating law and order at home, Reagan violated international law and order by mining Nicaragua’s waters. He blithely hailed dictators as “friends of democracy” and compared the Nicaraguan contras to the founding fathers of the United States. He secretly sold arms to a terrorist nation and lied about it when the story first broke.


In the “Baby Jane Doe” case, the Reagan administration tried to force hospitals to care for hopelessly defective infants while cutting the federal funds hospitals would need to provide such special services. Similarly, Reagan opposed abortion and at the same time endeavoured to slash the budgets of agencies that would provide care for unwanted infants. It didn’t seem to matter. People regarded President Reagan as a nice guy, warm-hearted, sincere. He survived the Iran-contra debacle.


While Reagan’s supporters ignored many of these contradictions to preserve the fantasy, his opponents erred in making Reagan a “bad father.” Assigning him an evil capacity and intent, they often didn’t consider that in believing his own fictions, wilfully ignoring facts, rationalizing, accepting the reassurances of the friends who surrounded him, and preferring agreeable fantasies to disagreeable facts, Reagan behaved much like the rest of us.


A leader’s role is more complex than it might appear. As powerful as he or she might seem, a leader is also the captive of the group and may not fail the group’s expectation or waver on the pedestal. If a leader does, the group may annihilate him. And so the eminence initially sought by the leader can become a prison; the tyrant is tyrannized. Leader and follower alike to some degree enact a dependency fantasy that requires an all-powerful parent who protects and rewards and a group of children who have no responsibilities other than obedience. The leader, as much as the group members, wishes to believe that an omnipotent, perfect parent is possible. And when a person assumes the mantle, he or she participates in the fantasy as faithfully as does the follower. Yet it IS still a fantasy.


Margaret Rioch comments that we do indeed long for a shepherd who will guide us into green and safe pastures. The trouble with this simile, when applied to human beings, is that the shepherd is another sheep. He may be dressed up in a long cloak and accompanied by a tall staff with a crook on the end of it or by other formidable symbols of high office. But underneath the cloak is one of the sheep, and not, alas, a member of a more intelligent and more far-seeing species. But the wish, and sometimes, the need, for a leader is so strong that it is almost always possible for one of the sheen to play the role of shepherd of the flock.


Rioch, M. J. (1971). “All We like Sheep-” (Isaiah 53:6): Followers and Leaders†. Psychiatry, 34(3), 258–273. doi:10.1080/00332747.1971.110236


For Alex Monroe, leader of the Life Force movement [case study of a cult which Deikman uses in his book], the need to maintain the status of a superior, omnipotent being was a key factor. Carried away by grandiose wishes, Alex expanded his activities, publishing an ambitious magazine and establishing multiple training centers. At the same time, he was unwilling to share his power; he had to supervise and decide everything. Alex could not manage all these tasks, and he dealt with his failure by projecting blame on everyone; as a consequence, his paranoid thinking accelerated.


It should be noted that his followers supported this process because they chose to overlook the contradictions between the mystical teachings he espoused and the dishonest, cruel behaviour he—and they—engaged in. For his followers, to recognize what was actually taking place would have been to cease to believe in Alex as a powerful, wise parent and themselves as his disciples/children pursuing an ennobling, special path. Neither Alex nor the group wished to give up the fantasy. A study of history reveals numerous leaders overreaching themselves, becoming inflated with an omnipotent dream they share with their followers.


Perhaps because of the behaviour of their emperors, the ancient Romans had an awareness of the problem of grandiosity. As a victorious general on his day of triumph rode past the cheering crowds, leading a long procession of soldiers, captured slaves, and booty, a man would stand behind him in the chariot continually whispering, “Remember, you are mortal.”


Of course, it takes some doing to maintain the fantasy of riding in the back seat of the car. [Deikman likens cult behaviours to being a passenger in the back seat of a car; this situation offers the comfort of not thinking where you are going or what you are doing, you are being taken somewhere and being told what to do – you dont have to question who is driving or think about what your responsibilities are]. Frequently, I find that a patient has refused to exercise his or her full strength, fearing the loss of a feeling of protection, of being watched over by a parental force (even a cruel one) that stands between him or her and an imagined chaos. This tendency is widespread.


When a leader’s actions conflict with the group’s principles, standards, or values, followers may twist words and meanings to reduce cognitive dissonance and maintain the fantasy. According to published accounts, one well-known Eastern guru with a propensity for drunkenness became angered at a visiting couple who had withdrawn from a wild party (held during a retreat) and secluded themselves in their room, refusing his commands to appear. He ordered his guards to bring them by force—which they did, breaking down the door and engaging the man in a fight during which he wielded broken glass as a weapon, wounding one of the guards.



The couple was finally brought to stand before the guru, who then ordered that they be stripped naked. The woman and man were thrown to the floor and their clothes torn off. The woman called for help but only one onlooker came to their defense (and he was struck). The nude couple were then brought to stand before the guru. Shortly thereafter, everyone at the party stripped. The guru’s actions were later justified by a follower: “. . .vajrayana teachings are ruthless; compassion takes many forms.”


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Calling the drunken guru’s behaviour compassion is an example of what George Orwell, in 1984, called double-speak, manipulating the abstractions of language to suggest a meaning and value opposite to the real situation. This is one way discrepancies means of doing this. As in Clara Robinson’s case [Deikman’s case study of a cult in the book], if a group member voices objections or criticism, he or she may be attacked as ignorant, unworthy, selfish, elitist—whatever term is used to define badness. Groups, as well as leaders, may punish dissent or deviation when maintenance of the superparent fantasy requires that no imperfections be revealed lest the whole structure be put in jeopardy. Seldom does anyone stand behind the leader to whisper, ‘Remember, you are mortal’.


In a cult the leader is accepted as having special powers and or semi-divine status which places him or her outside the behaviour norms of the ordinary person. As we have seen, similar exemption from the rules and the accompanying claim to infallibility enables many a leader to perform unethical acts that would otherwise not be countenanced. In ordinary life traces of this dynamic can be seen, although the situation is seldom as stark as in extreme cults.


When facts become impossible to ignore, the leader is dethroned; but all too often the dependency fantasy continues; a new “parent” is found. Idealism can be exploited as a source of a leader’s power; he or she need only inspire and mobilize the readiness for self-sacrifice which exists within many people. Sometimes the meaning may not seem very profound to an outside observer.


Charles Edward Wilson, president of General Electric from 1940 to 1950, created a strong impression on Reginald Jones (who himself later became president of the company). “I still remember Charlie Wilson, the very epitome of the inspirational leader. He told us, in the Town Hall, how Westing- house planned to surpass us in sales and earnings. ‘They should live so long!’ he roared. ‘Their grandchildren should live so long.’ And then he got us out behind the marching band, and they led us out to the flagpole playing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ At that moment, I would have followed him anywhere on earth—and beyond if necessary.


Even if the summons is for political or economic goals rather than religious ones, the energies mobilized will be the same and the final result is declared to be for the greater good, creating paradise on earth, saving the world.  What matters is that people’s deepest desires for the Good be mobilized.  That is why the most effective leaders inspire rather than overpower. This was the conclusion of a study of audience reactions to a charismatic leader:


“They were apparently strengthened and uplifted by the experience; they felt more powerful, rather than less powerful or submissive. This suggests that the traditional way of explaining the influence of a leader on his followers has not been entirely correct. He does not force them to submit and follow him by the sheer overwhelming magic of his personality and persuasive powers … he is influential by strengthening and inspiriting his audience.”8


Anyone who has watched films of Hitler’s speeches and the crowds’ reactions would agree. Hitler transformed by his own fantasies, brought his audience’s fantasies and wishes to life, made them seem possible. He whipped his listeners to intoxicating heights of emotion, restoring significance to their lives, asking for sacrifices.


This appeal to the perception of a larger reality, to unsatisfied idealism and the wish for meaning can be very powerful, and it can be put to good or bad use.


Authoritarian leadership tends to become established in large corporations where power has become overly centralized. Harold Geneen, who ran ITT like a potentate, knows whereof he speaks: “The authority vested in the chief executive of a large company is so great, so complete, and the demands made upon his time are so consuming, that most chief executives slip into authoritarian roles without realizing that the process is going on.”


John De Lorean, former General Motors executive, describes the increase in authoritarianism at General Motors in the years following the departure of Alfred Sloan, who had been chairman of the board: “I watched GM’s operations slowly become centralized. The divisions gradually were stripped of their decision-making power . . . The guiding corporate precept of centralized policymaking and decentralized decision making was totally and purposefully ignored . . . There was no system of checks and balances. The divisions reported to The Fourteenth Floor. But The Fourteenth Floor reported only to itself.”


The authoritarian attitude results in an emphasis on punishment and the manifestation of power by saying no. The veto is safer and more impressive than granting permission. Mistakes are usually punished despite their being the inevitable price of developing a new approach or a new product. Peters and Waterman, in reviewing the problem, came to the conclusion that this behaviour reflects the same superior-/inferior perspective that Erich Fromm emphasized in his study of authoritarian political behaviour.


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Fromm on authoritarianism – a talk with Chris Shelton


“Central to the whole notion … is the superior/subordinate relationship, the idea of manager as ‘boss,’ and the corollary that orders will be issued and followed. The threat of punishment is the principle implied power that underlies it all.”


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Erich Fromm – Disobedience: A Moral or Psychological Problem (1962)


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Erich Fromm on Productiveness, Destructiveness & Authoritarianism (1964)


The hierarchical emphasis is underlined by corporate class distinctions. The executive washroom, the special dining room for upper management, superior furnishings and more space are all indicators of a higher position. Indeed, the top executives usually will be found on the highest floor. This institutionalization of the upward gaze is accepted almost everywhere and seldom questioned any more than is the assumption of parents having the largest bedroom in the home, a separate bathroom, and other special prerogatives.


Even when the chief executive officer wishes to make the organization less authoritarian, the task is not easy. Cornelle Meier, former CEO for Kaiser Aluminum recalls a lesson he learned when his corporation began to decentralize decision making.


“As we started giving more authority to our operating divisions an interesting thing happened … all of the managers working for me felt that they should have a lot more authority in their decision-making: capital spending, personnel moves— what have you. That wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was that nearly all of them felt that the people working for them shouldn’t have more authority! . . . They wanted a lot more authority but they didn’t want to give that authority away. Nor did they wish to give up the symbols of elevated status they had acquired as part of the superior/inferior authoritarian world.”


The  CEO’s power to hire, fire, reward and punish is very great and in the hands of an authoritarian personality this power can result in a suppression of critical thinking within the corporation and a mindless conformity and fawning support for whatever the CEO believes and decides to do. Sometimes this behaviour extends to a slavish copying of the style of dress and behaviour of the boss. In his book, ‘The Fanciest Dive’, Christopher Byron gives an amusing description of the antics that took place at Time, Inc. when a new boss, Richard Munro, entered the scene:


“No sooner did word spread that the company’s new president ate breakfast early most mornings at the Dorset Hotel on West Fifty-fourth Street than numerous subordinates began doing the same. It was there, one hot September morning in 1982 that Munro, having breakfast, stood up and removed his suit jacket to be more comfortable; all around the room Time Inc. executives promptly rose and did the same. . . . And when Munro took to carrying a red bandana with a corner flapping loosely from his hip pocket, the corridors of the Big House were soon ablaze with red bandanas waving jauntily from the hip pockets of hopeful executives.”


Like similar leaders everywhere, authoritarian executives can easily end up valuing the conformity, loyalty, obedience, and subservience of subordinates more than actual performance. A boss wants to trust his or her subordinates, to count on their loyalty, to know they fit in and will not cause trouble. Subordinates who conform to the boss’s own style of dress and behaviour evoke in him a sense of support and comfort. The boss feels he knows where his subordinates stand and can rely on them to perform as he would in unsupervised situations.


In turn, the employees know that salaries, promotion, and assignments within the company lie in the hands of their boss. When obedience, loyalty, and conformity matter more than performance, cult-like behaviour takes place all along the hierarchy. Secrecy about salaries, competition for the boss’s favor, and fear of being left behind can create an atmosphere reminiscent of that which occurred in Life Force [the case study of a cult in Deikman’s book].


As one manager described: “A big fear complex that operates within GPI because there are so many people who are, or will, or might be your boss or might be or do have an influence on you one way or the other. The fear syndrome keeps you from speaking up and it works in the compensation area as well. While you may know your salary, obviously more money is at the whimsical beck and call of your boss and his boss and a few other people perhaps.”


Saint John maintained that knowledge of God cannot be expressed in terms of this world, cannot be articulated by using the images and concepts of everyday life: family, mother, father, children, reward, punishment, etc. Similar statements about the un-knowability of the Godhead have been made by mystics of widely differing cultures throughout history. They are very consistent. Nevertheless, formal religions tend to use the familiar relationship of parent and child as the model for a human being’s relationship to the divine. This model inevitably creates cult dynamics in religious organizations [and arguably within family structures].


In part, the problem arises because the listeners took the meaning literally. Thus, religions end up teaching, Be good (obey God’s wishes) and you will be rewarded (enter heaven or nirvana); if you are bad (disobey God) you will be punished (with hell or reincarnation). The dependency wish usually requires tangible authority figures and they are seldom in short supply. Mohammed abolished the priesthood but equivalent ecclesiastical officials, the mullahs, arose after his death and in some areas, such as Iran (now a theocracy), the chief mullah rules with more authority than the present day Pope.


Another example is provided by Hinduism. Although the Upanishads preach the oneness of all being, the Brahmin priests whose function it is to transmit Hindu teaching have maintained the caste system and their superior status within it. It took all the power of Gandhi to begin to crack the caste barriers enclosing the untouchablest of India. Theistic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, are intrinsically authoritarian, expressing the belief in God as a Supreme Being who transcends the material world, is infinitely superior to human beings, and to whom we owe obedience.


God’s absolute superiority in power, goodness, and knowledge may be used by religious leaders to justify their own authority and to legitimize their demands for submission. For the most part, theistic religions teach that compliance with God’s will, coupled with an appropriately humble attitude, will be rewarded by protection and help for the supplicant: that pride (putting oneself at eye level with God) is a sin and submission a virtue. The greater the emphasis on the supreme god (the superparent) versus the inferior follower (the child), the more the stage is set for cult behaviour in any religion, orthodox or not.


Thus, as in any authoritarian system, the basic perspective of most religious groups is one of superior/inferior relationships; as obedience is the prime virtue in all authoritarian systems, so obedience to God’s commandments is a prime virtue in theistic religions. This is espoused most rigidly by fundamentalists.


Of course, the critical issue is not obedience, per se, but why we are obedient and to what or to whom. Blind obedience leads to totalitarianism, refusal to obey anything leads to chaos. Free will (as distinguished from impulsivity) combines obedience with choice; it is “the experience of being the author of the law you obey.” Being the author means to choose the values expressed in the law, to freely assent to them based on one’s judgment, experience, and sense of the Good.


The best religious leaders teach that a truly spiritual choice is an expression of one’s self and not an expression of fear (of punishment), or greed (for reward), or vanity (being one of the chosen few).  A story from the Sufic tradition, here told by Idries Shah, addresses this issue:


There was once a powerful conqueror who had become emperor of a vast territory peopled by representatives of several beliefs. His counselors said, ‘Great king, a deputation of thinkers and priests from each persuasion, is awaiting audience. Each hopes to convert you to the way of thinking of his school. We are in a quandary, because we cannot advise you to accept the ideology of one part, since it would alienate the goodwill of all the rest.’

The king, for his part, said, ‘Neither is it fitting that a king should adopt beliefs for political reasons, and without thought for his own higher dignity and well-being.’

The discussions continued for several hours, until a wise dervish, who had attached himself to the king’s retinue many months before and had been silent ever since, stepped forward.

‘Majesty,’ he said, ‘I am prepared to advise a course in which the interests of all parties will be safeguarded. The applicants will be abashed, the courtiers will be relieved of their anxiety to find a solution, the king will be able to retain his reputation for wisdom, and nobody will be able to say that he holds sway over the king’s thoughts.’

The dervish whispered his formula into the royal ear, and the king called the deputation to enter the throne-room.

Receiving the clerics and thinkers with all courtesy, the king said to them:

‘I shall hear first of all the arguments of those among you who do not say ‘Believe or you are in peril’; or ‘Believe because it will give you happiness’, or ‘Adopt my beliefs because you are a great king.’ The applicants dispersed in confusion.


Obedience to the literal scriptures, to the form rather than the essence, opens the door to cult processes. This problem of form taking precedence over content is one that plagues all religions and is defined as idolatry. Anything can be idolized, including rules and rituals, and the resulting behaviour may contradict the values that the religion espouses. A Benedictine prioress reflected on the reversal of priorities that marked religious life during her early years with the order:


“Formalism and legalism had completely replaced either spiritual direction or blessing. Every day life got smaller. Religious life had become the celebration of the trivial. While McCarthyism raged, I was told to guard myself from spiritual distraction by not listening to the news. While Martin Luther King began black sit-ins of white lunch counters in a country that routinely lynched blacks, I believed it when they said that had nothing to do with religious life and concentrated on darning my socks, a real sign of poverty, I was told.”


When a religion’s texts are regarded as literally true and infallible, a likely next step is that the leader’s interpretation becomes what is true and sacred. Then a member’s obedience is transferred to the priest, rabbi, mullah, or minister; this is the lowest level of obedience, most likely to lead to overt cult behaviour. Rev. R. G. Puckett, the Baptist evangelist who heads Americans United, warned of this development taking place in American Christian fundamentalist churches.


“The church is centered in the pastor. He is the authority, the ruling force. Falwell, Robison, Robertson, all the rest—these are personality cults. People follow the person, the pastor, not Jesus Christ. He may say he is not telling anyone how to vote or how to live, but the very climate and mentality of the whole church says: what the pastor wants is what we do.”


Such preachers do not claim divinity, only that God speaks to them, inspires them, guides them. That claim may be quite enough to demand complete obedience and to brand disagreement with their views and wishes as a sign that the defiant member is lost to salvation. Religious leaders may be as attracted to the security of certainty and surrender as are their followers. Many really believe they are commanded by God, that they have become instruments of his will, and that their pronouncements are beyond error.


Surrender is a basic feature of the spiritual life. As an acceptance of selfless goals in place of self-centeredness, it is something most recognize as inherently desirable. Yet the call to surrender can become a tool for manipulation and control when critical judgment is set aside. There is no place in such groups for reasoned, independent judgment; no free will, no responsible choice, only literal adherence to sacred text as selected and interpreted by the church leader or organization. With surrender, the authority of the leader is maximized, the follower feels relieved of uncertainty and choice and can then experience the “bliss” of someone who has “returned home.”


Since most of the examples I have cited are from the fundamentalist and conservative wings of established religions, some readers may feel my conclusions do not apply to them because they are involved in less doctrinaire, more moderate, more sophisticated beliefs and practices. I would respond that it is a matter of degree and that each person needs to assess the extent to which cult behaviour and the dependency fantasy are operative in his or her religious life.


To stimulate fear of punishment, greed for reward, or vanity at being among the saved versus the damned, is to stimulate a self-centered orientation. These powerful motivations are not in the service of spiritual development. This is why one saint declared: O Lord! If I worship you from fear of hell, cast me into hell. If I worship you from desire for paradise, deny me paradise.


Dependence on a leader/parent can be doubly destructive in the sphere of religion. Not only does it impair ordinary judgment and create a regressive pull on members and converts of religious groups, it prevents them from progressing beyond a self-centered orientation. This blocks the perception of the spiritual force that is ministered by religious institutions throughout the centuries. Cult behaviour is largely an interior problem in which form (doctrine and authority) dominates content (the experience of the Real), producing idolatry.


Understanding the nature of the problem facilitates an attitude vitally different from the authoritarian. A School Sister of Notre Dame comments: “Although as a woman religious I am identified with church institutions, in the final analysis, God, not any institution, is paramount. To associate with and to preserve any structure at the expense of serving God and humankind is idolatry. To follow God’s call rather than an institutional call, if the two are in conflict, is a moral imperative. I pray always for the grace and the insight to discern God’s call.”


Certainly, if a religious group provides us with security and identity, we will not see its cult features very readily. One’s own group is thought to be above such behaviour; a cult is seen as something that you yourself don’t belong to. But perhaps in some ways you do. It just isn’t obvious when measured against Jonestown or the Life Force Institute.


My own profession of psychiatry is not immune from cult behaviour. To begin with, the psychotherapeutic situation itself encourages the emergence of a dependency relationship. In psychoanalysis and analytically oriented psychotherapy, the therapist reveals almost nothing while the patient is expected to reveal all.


Since the therapist is calm, reticent, and an authority while the patient is distressed and seeking help, a parent/child feeling quickly develops. With time, the unique character of the patient’s early relationship to his or her parent or parents tends to be transferred to the therapist. In fact Freud emphasized the importance of this transference in helping the patient and saw the intensification of the parent/child fantasy as a desired effect of the psychotherapeutic situation.


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Nevertheless, it should be recognized that Freud intended that the patient reclaim the power he or she bestowed on the therapist. He hoped that analysis of the transference would give to the patient an eye-level perspective toward the analyst, as well as toward others. I know of no other profession or institution that has established a goal of relinquishing authority and built in comprehensive techniques for its accomplishment. Even though the return of power takes place only imperfectly (and in some cases not at all), dedication to an eye-level relationship is a direct counter to cult-like behaviour and offers hope for a more mature society.


Regrettably, the ideal may be preached but not always practised. Psychotherapists may exploit their position in the same fashion as do cult leaders. This can take place in several ways, from automatically interpreting a patient’s criticism as neurotic, dismissing any questioning as projection or acting out of the transference, to outright sexual seduction.


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I remember a cartoon about psychiatry with the punch line “This is the only business where the customer is always wrong.” The patient is not always wrong in his or her perceptions of the therapist. It is crucial that the therapist be able to see in what ways the patient is correct, acknowledge and support the patient’s perception and go on to investigate what the therapist’s error or limitation means to the patient. Competent therapists do this, but only an ideal therapist is completely free from defensiveness and denial.


Therapists, like other leaders, often are flattered and idealized by their patients, who wish them to be omnipotent, omniscient, surrogate parents. Resisting this seduction is particularly hard for a psychotherapist because he or she is likely to have entered the profession with the very fantasy of being an ideal parent, one who “saves” grateful patients. (In this context, the patient may represent the therapist as a child or the therapist’s parent, whoever needed saving.) Having become a therapist, one may fall in with the patient’s wish when it supports the saviour fantasy. While the patient is not officially a follower, nor is the therapist a cult leader, the dependency needs of the former and the omnipotent fantasies of the latter can create cult-like behaviour.


Actual cults may develop in therapeutic situations. Although this is rare, there have been instances of therapists who develop relationships with their patients in which they occupy the roles of colleagues, teachers, lovers, friends, and employers simultaneously. Such a violation of professional ethics and psychiatric principles is not necessarily due to substandard psychiatric training. In one study of five such “therapeutic cults,” two of the leaders were psychoanalysts, members of the prestigious American Psychoanalytic Association, yet these therapeutic cults functioned almost like religious cults. Although actual cult formation by psychiatrists is unusual, there are two areas where covert cult-like behaviour is significant.


Temerlin, M. K., & Temerlin, J. W. (1982). Psychotherapy cults: An iatrogenic perversion. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 19(2), 131–141. doi:10.1037/h0088425


In the 1950s and 1960s, psychoanalysis was in its heyday of acceptance and power. The heads of departments of psychiatry in medical schools were usually psychoanalysts; it was assumed that the best psychiatry residents would become psychoanalysts—the second-best would have to settle for something inferior. Indeed, as a psychiatric resident, I was told that only psychoanalysis offered a patient real change, real treatment; psychotherapy was a patch-up job.


Psychoanalytic institutes, where psychoanalysis is taught, are not cults, but cult behaviour does take place in them. Cult features have been so prominent that noted analysts have remarked on the similarity between psychoanalytic institutes and religious organizations. Otto Kernberg, training analyst at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, points to features of psychoanalytic education that justify its designation as a system of religious beliefs:


The religious assertion of faith in the existence of the deity and the essentially irrational nature of such a faith are not unlike the sense of conviction about the truth of psychoanalytic theory, particularly about the unconscious. This sense of conviction is usually traced to an emotional experience connected with the discovery of the unconscious in oneself and the experience of psychological change following this discovery. In both instances a highly subjective personal experience, an emotional encounter with the unknown rather than rational analysis, constitutes the anchoring pillar of the educational program.


Kernberg, O. F. (1986). Institutional Problems of Psychoanalytic Education. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 34(4), 799–834. doi:10.1177/000306518603400403


Kernberg goes on to point out further similarities: In addition, this deeply transforming emotional experience is carried out in the context of an intense relation to another person, idealized and experienced as a spiritual guide . . . complemented by other mentors who focus on the limitations, shortcomings, mistakes, and inadequacies of the student’s performance, while sustaining the assumption that they are working at a higher level, which the student must reach through ongoing self-exploration as well as learning about the formulations of the masters, in the end, the original master of the school, Freud.34


Arlow further notes that psychoanalytic training is experienced as a prolonged initiation rite. During a long course of tests which the initiates undergo (personal analysis, admission to courses, first case, second case, etc., graduation), the training analysts serve the double function characteristic of all initiators. Some intimidate the candidates; others act as sponsors and guides . . . anxiety propels the candidate into effecting an identification with the aggressor; the initiate remodels himself after the image the community holds up as the ideal.


Irving Janis, a psychologist who studied the effect of group process on presidential advisory groups, pointed to the important role of shared illusions in disasters such as the attempted invasion of Cuba. One was “the illusion of invulnerability.” People believe that if their leader and everyone else thinks a proposal will succeed, then it will, even if it is risky and requires luck. An air of omniscience and invulnerability is fostered by political leaders as well, in part because the public demands leaders who are forceful and confident; unwavering optimism is preferred to doubts and uncertainty.


The fantasy of invulnerability is identical in cults, where it may lead to disaster. One cannot understand the phenomenon of authoritarian behaviour in democratic presidents without appreciating the attraction for both leaders and followers of a superior/inferior, parent/ child perspective.


I have a vivid memory of an incident that occurred during a Tavistock Group Relations Conference. Participants were divided into several large groups and each group was asked to relate to the other groups by appointing suitably empowered representatives. No group leaders were designated, no goals or structure provided. In the absence of authority and direction, anxiety built up rapidly. Everyone talked at once. I tried to reduce the chaos by establishing leadership.


“Make me leader!” I pleaded. The group would not appoint any one to that power position. The disorganization and tension increased. Finally, I stood up; shouted, “I’m taking command!” and began appointing people to assume the functions of doorkeeper, ambassador, and so forth. The same people who would not voluntarily delegate authority now obeyed with alacrity. The conference conditions had intensified our primitive impulses and we behaved like a group of sibling children, no one willing to take the adult action of delegating power. When my discomfort drove me to take the role of dictator/parent the others readily submitted, for they were then freed of responsibility.


A parallel need—to structure a situation in terms of a child rebelling against a bad parent—was illustrated, for me, when I had to hospitalize an adolescent against his will. A state trooper arrived at my office to take him away. It was clear that the officer wanted to be compassionate and helpful. My patient would have none of this. He resisted, struggled, taunted, and provoked the trooper until the man became angry and, finally, cuffed him on the head with his open hand. Immediately, the young man became docile and accompanied him readily.


It was clear to me that my patient had succeeded in his aim of making the policeman a “bad parent.” Later, a teacher at the boy’s school denounced this “police brutality” and was indignant when I replied that I thought the state trooper was the one who had been brutalized. In each of these incidents, those involved refused or were unable to go beyond the child/parent relationship, and insisted on an authoritarian structure. I see the compliance of the first instance and the rebelliousness of the second as two aspects of looking up at authority.


Like most cults and formal religions, governments cite a higher principle or authority to justify their actions. (This is probably what Samuel Johnson mocked when he said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”) As Alex Munroe’s lies [Figure from the case study Deikman uses in his book to illustrate cult behaviour] were justified as being necessary to advance the work of saving the world, other cult leaders, tyrants, and terrorists invariably defend immoral and violent actions as serving God or truth or country or freedom.


Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s research demonstrated the effectiveness of this reference to a higher authority. People from all walks of life participated as subjects in his studies. An experimenter in a grey lab coat told the subjects that the purpose of the experiment was to advance science, and then instructed them to give increasing electric shocks to a “learner” strapped into an electric chair. (Unbeknownst to the subjects, the learner was a confederate of the researchers and actually received no shocks at all.) The subjects were told that although the shocks could be extremely painful to the learner, they caused no permanent damage.


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As the experiment proceeded, the learner became increasingly vocal, agitated, and desperate, and eventually screamed each time the subject shocked him. He demanded and begged to be released, expressing concern for his heart. Most subjects showed evidence of considerable stress as they were ordered to continue despite the anguished cries of pain, which they could hear from the other room. (In further experiments in which the learner was in the same room with them, the subjects could also see his tortured appearance.)


Contrary to predictions, most subjects continued to administer the electric shock right up to the supposed limit of 450 volts, labelled “Danger: Severe Shock.” When the learner was in the same room 40 percent of the subjects continued to the end of the scale and even when the subject was required to force the learner’s hand down onto the shock plate and hold it there against his struggles, 30 percent applied the most severe shocks possible. To appreciate these results it is important to understand that the acting of the learner was very convincing; follow-up studies confirmed that almost all the subjects believed that shocks were actually being administered and that the man was suffering severe pain.


Many of the subjects showed evidence of great stress as they complied with the experimenter’s instructions. What direct pressure made the subjects continue despite their own distress at what they were doing? It consisted of the following statements, said firmly but politely by the experimenter, using as many of them as might be needed to overcome the subject’s protests and concerns: “Please continue, [or] please go on,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” “You have no other choice, you must go on.” There were no threats, no physical coercion, no other inducements.


Milgram came to the conclusion that in such situations people enter into what he terms an agentic state, one in which they see themselves as agents for carrying out another person’s wishes. This shift from autonomous functioning to submission to a hierarchy of command is considered by Milgram to be art evolutionary development that has enabled human beings to take advantage of the benefits of being in large groups. Unfortunately, it may also lead one to administer suffering on others if it is justified by authority.


The human element behind the agencies and institutions is denied. Thus, when the experimenter says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command. He does not ask the seemingly obvious question, “Whose experiment? Why should the designer be served while the victim suffers?” The wishes of a man—the designer of the experiment—have become part of a schema which exerts on the subject’s mind a force that transcends the personal.


It is easy to see how this type of justification has led to nations’ transgressing human values. In our own country after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, blameless American citizens were dispossessed and forcibly moved into internment camps for the duration of the war because they were of Japanese descent. In the name of national security the fundamental values and principles of our democracy were thrust aside and great injustice done.


Similarly, as a nation (and despite internal dissent), we justified our actions in Vietnam by the concept of “fighting Communist aggression” as we attempted to defoliate the forests with Agent Orange and napalmed civilians. The American government has supported—and still supports—governments whose murderous savagery and sickening use of torture equals, if not surpasses, Stalin’s and, with the possible exception of genocide, rivals that of the Nazis. We are likely to be told that the national interest requires our support. Just as the experiment in Milgram’s study assumed an impersonal, overriding authority, even more so does the national interest. As Noam Chomsky noted in a symposium on human rights:


“The concept of “national interest” [is] a mystification that serves to conceal the ways in which state policy is formed and executed . . . Within a particular nation-state, some groups are sufficiently powerful to exert a major, perhaps dominant, influence over state policy and the ideological systems. Their special interests then become, in effect, “the national interest.” To take again the case of Guatemala: in 1954 the United Fruit Company had an interest in blocking land reform: I did not . . . What was “the national interest”? In practice, it was the special interest of those with the power to influence and execute state policy and to shape the basic structure of the ideological system, including the flow of information.”


We can understand the power of “the experiment,” “the state,” and “the national interest” if we recognize these abstractions as representing Higher Authority: the parent of the dependency fantasy who protects, rewards, and punishes.


Appreciation of the power and ubiquitous nature of the dependency fantasy helps us to understand how, at every level of government and society, people set aside any doubts by assuming that “they” must know what they are doing. Often, “they” are not to be found. Even national leaders can react like small children ready to believe that the driver of the car must be wise. But the “shepherds” are not different from the “sheep.”