The psychological state of fervor and the emotion of awe might not come to mind when thinking about how cults recruit and control their members. However, cult indoctrination and control depend on the exploit of emotions, particularly in the initial stages. Emotions are the drivers for all human behavior, such as attraction or aversion. This new model is particularly needed in this moment of strategizing how to amplify cooperation and trust but understanding how people’s minds can get hacked.

My colleague, Dr. Yuval Laor, has a background in evolutionary biology, history and philosophy. We met at the Getting Clear conference on Scientology in Toronto (2015) and crossed paths again at the 2019 ICSA Conference in Manchester, England where I attended his presentation on this model. In his PhD thesis, The Religious Ape: Love, Fervor, and the Evolution of Religion, Dr. Laor presents an evolutionary approach for explaining the human phenomenon of religiosity.

Expanding Emotional States, Including Fervor and Awe, In the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control

After delving into Dr. Laor’s explorations of the role of emotion in both religion and cults, I came to realize that the development of my BITE model of Authoritarian Control has a cognitive-bias, and more emphasis on importance of emotional states is needed. Most of the emotional states that I use to describe cult control tactics in the BITE Model are what could be characterized as negative emotions such as guilt, fear, self-doubt, phobia programming, etc.. Dr. Laor’s work has prompted me to think more deeply about the role of emotions in cult recruitment and control and to expand the information on emotional control used by cults. Adding awe and fervor to the Influence Continuum assessment tool is important. These two emotions can fall anywhere along the Influence Continuum.

Fervor is a psychological state similar to what is referred to as “being in love.” This is a state in which the object of fervor is seen with “rose-colored glasses,” and high sensitivity to any criticism of the love object is present. This state can be induced quickly and can easily overcome any rational decision-making ability. Honey trapping is a common tactic used by criminals and authoritarian cult recruiters.

On the other hand, fervor and awe can be extremely positive emotional states. Traditional religious experiences, for example, often involve awe and induce fervent devotion. When experienced within a framework that is not designed to manipulate believers, awe can provide a great deal of spiritual and emotional support. Unfortunately, numerous authoritarian cults (Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two major examples) use awe and fervor as a way to recruit as well as control their members.

Dr. Laor uses the numerous documentaries and stories of ex-members of Scientology to highlight the lack of attention to the role that fervor and awe play in cult indoctrination. Awe is rarely mentioned in the material relating to Scientology. However, the training routines (TRs) of Scientology, which induce strong awe experiences, are very informative. One routine involves staring into someone else’s eyes for very long times, perhaps several hours. This experience is hypnotic. It can produce feelings of floating and vastness and can even induce hallucinations, all of which reflect traditional religious expression.

Another method of cult recruitment that depends on an emotional response is the use of flirtation as an inducement. The cult hopes the recruit falls in love and becomes “blinded” to what’s going on. That is what happened to me when I was recruited into the Moonies. Three females approached me and began flirting with me. I was in a vulnerable emotional state, having just been dumped by my girlfriend. I was attracted to them, and it was that initial attraction that led me to be willing to find out more about the Moonies.

These feelings introduced early in the recruitment and indoctrination process create an intense attachment to the group. The experience can be compared to a conversion experience that leads to the state of fervor. Fervor generally lasts no more than a few years, but it gives the cult a “window” within which to enact other forms of control, such as separation from family, isolation, and instillation of negative emotions such as guilt. Fervor may eventually lessen significantly, but it is too late if the cult has successfully isolated the member from any supports or belief systems, and conditioned them to rely only on the group itself.

Charisma as an Element of Celebrity

Different types of love (parental, romantic) have different triggers, and so does the emotion of awe. Dr. Laor’s current thinking is that awe is triggered by something that is seen as anomalous (abnormal or unexpected, something that cannot be easily classified). What is seen as an anomaly depends on what is considered “normal.” Normal is sometimes a construct of nature (humans have one head, two would be an anomaly), but sometimes it is established through social mores or shared beliefs.

Rainbows are generally singular, but sometimes a double rainbow appears. To some, this might be an unusual occurrence, but not out of the realm of scientific possibility. Others, however, might interpret this as a miracle. When something is considered “miraculous,” it can induce feelings of vastness and other somatic reactions. When cult recruiters manipulate experiences of awe, it can lead to an intense feeling of “love” for the group.

This phenomenon also contributes to perceptions of celebrities. We live in a celebrity-obsessed society. There are genuine celebrities whose status has been earned legitimately through hard work and commitment to a particular ideal or craft. But so many who are considered celebrities are essentially famous for being famous. Charisma and celebrity are closely related. It is crucial to understand that charisma and celebrity are not inherent qualities of the person they are attributed to. They are, rather, an emotional perception in the brains of people who consider them a celebrity.

The rise of Donald Trump to the presidency is an example of celebrity being used to create false perceptions in order to recruit and control followers through bluster and manipulation of emotion. Dr. Laor’s work provides a fascinating look into the ways that positive emotions can be manipulated and used for negative purposes. His work is an important contribution to understanding how even the most rational person can be seduced into authoritarian cults.

Video Discussion: Dr. Steven Hassan and Dr. Yuval Laor

Additional Resources

Video interview with ex Scientologist Jon Atack and Yuval Laor on Belief and Fervor

About The Author