Picture this: You walk into a room full of people waiting to see a magician. The loud speakers are pumping with a dub-step based song with voiced-over inspirational statements from the upcoming presenter interspersed. The crowd is excited, and it’s hard for you not to feed off that excitement.
When the magician finally comes out, there are flashes of lights and a puff of smoke. He seems to appear out of nowhere. The crowd goes wild. With a wave of his hand, he quiets them down and as the show progresses, he demonstrates a seeming psychic clairvoyance about people in the audience and playfully induces a few to cluck like a chicken on stage for him.
You leave the venue awed by the magician’s seeming omniscience and omnipotence.
This scenario would be an illustration of the second criteria that Lifton identified in working with survivors of thought control: mystical manipulation. It can take many forms, but it generally has to do with the manipulation of consciousness or experience to produce a certain effect.
Within the illustration above, there are several techniques. The music before the performance was designed to pump up the audience emotionally, getting them excited. The beat of the music could induce a slight trance-like state, decreasing the critical thinking components of the attendees and increasing the suspension of disbelief.
Even the energy of the crowd was a manipulation in itself, encouraging your body and emotions to sync up with theirs.
During the performance, various things from knowing information about others (whether it was pre-gathered or they were actors in the audience is hard to say) and hypnotizing and manipulating the behavior of some (again, real or acted?) increased the sense that the performer was godlike or at least had powers beyond the audience.
Was this man an entertainer or conman?
To some extent it probably depends on the context.
Mystical manipulation is not, in and of itself, exclusive to cults, but consent plays a big part in the ethicality of how it’s used.
When you know that you’re going for that, you probably don’t mind. Buying tickets to see a magic show, for instance, involves a certain amount of consent and expectation and a willing suspension of disbelief. You expect to be wowed—for the magician to seem all-powerful/all-knowing—while also realizing that the magician is just working a fancy trick on you.
If you go to a church service and this is happening, you’re not warned about how it will affect you, and the person on stage is using this to gain your allegiance or to actually convince you that he is as magical as he claims, the manipulation becomes nonconsensual and potentially dangerous as demands are made on you to commit to something or give money towards something while your critical thinking skills are impaired.
What I described is probably a bit over-the-top when, in actuality, milder forms of manipulation are all over society.
Advertisements are notorious for using “peripheral” persuasion, subtle ways of using association and emotional induction to convince people that certain products will produce happiness, create beauty, provide sex, and do a bunch of other things that the company could never explicitly claim for its product.
You’re walking through a store and you suddenly think you NEED such-and-such a product and you don’t know why. The idea seems to come from you. No one is standing there telling you to buy it.
But in reality, you’ve been primed to think of that particular brand first and to associate that product with desires and drives beyond what the product does.
Mystical manipulation can also be used through more common spiritual or cultural practices. Margaret Singer describes the way that chanting or panting (or any exercise that decreases oxygen supply sufficiently) can induce a physiological reaction in a person which can later be interpreted by a group to indicate a spiritual experience that verifies their beliefs.
In reality, it’s a physiological trick akin to pressing the backs of your hands against the door jamb for thirty seconds and then feeling them involuntarily rise when you stop.
Other types of manipulation can be more subtle but just as effective. I mentioned priming earlier in regard to advertisements, but there is also prophetic priming whereby a person such as a fortune teller, preacher, or some other figure claiming to have knowledge beyond others will declare something along the lines of, “Something tragic will happen in the coming weeks. And when it does, you will remember my words and know that what I am saying is true.”
The trick is that it’s vague enough that it’s impossible for it not to come true; when it does, the speaker has already primed the person to associate the incident with a prophecy, once again lending that sense of omniscience and omnipotence to the “prophet” or their message.
Mystical or unusual experiences can be an important part of connection and meaning making, but they can also become weapons used to convince a person to join a cause without sufficient information or surrender their autonomy to someone else.
Being aware of how mystical manipulation can play out is a major component of not being blindly influenced.
If you walk into a venue with the scene described above and you know that the pumping music and emotional crowd will likely affect you, you’re prepared for and informed about the changes that may happen. You don’t suddenly think it’s because the person coming on stage is so damn wonderful, powerful, and all-knowing.
Being aware that you’re feeling the way the environment is designed to make you feel frees you to think critically about whether you consent to that environment and what the agenda of the people involved might be.
For further reading:
Robert Lifton: Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism
Margaret Singer: Cults in our Midst
Videos on the effects of music in regard to cults/recovery