Influence and The New American Wing
Robert Cialdini's book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, describes many of the ways in which people influence each other. At first glance, I thought the book was about marketing, and about the techniques used by sales professionals to cause people to buy their products. However, a friend of mine repeatedly praised the book as a great tool for understanding some of the dynamics within cults, and so I finally broke down and read it. I was not disappointed - the book is excellent, and it illuminated many different aspects of my own cult experience.
From 1991 to 1994, I was an active member of The New American Wing (NAW), a consciousness cult based on the ideas of G.Gurdjieff and P.D.Ouspensky. After having been a fan of Ouspensky's "Fourth Way" books for a couple years, I was excited when I first discovered this group, and began by attending meetings twice a week. After about a year of increasing involvement, I moved into a house with other "students". After another year, I moved to the NAW's headquarters: a small farm outside Lexington, Kentucky. My responsibilities within the group had steadily increased with time, and by this point I was spending all my available time (outside my day job) with this group. I lived with them, paid them a great deal of money, believed in much of their dogma, and participated in various recruiting activities. My mental and physical life was consumed with their ideas and practices.
But my commitment was not complete. In fact, this was very clear to me throughout those years because I saw it as a weakness, as a failure to devote myself entirely to the one thing in my life which really mattered. Now, looking back, I cannot be more grateful for this "weakness", because I know recognize it as the voice of reason that finally allowed me to leave. There were others who were more completely devoted to the group and its leaders, and I wonder what kind of drastic miracle would be needed to shake them from their dream now.
The NAW is a "cult" in the truest sense of the word. Even though many dictionaries define "cult" as a religious community, it is coming to be understood in terms of a particular kind of group behavior rather than in relation to any professed dogma. In other words, a cult does not necessarily imply some kind of mystical or spiritual orientation, although the NAW certainly has its share of these. The NAW can be called a cult because of the nature of the relationships between everyone involved, particularly the relationship between the "teachers" and the "students".
This is where Influence becomes so valuable. A participant in such a cult is constantly under pressure to align their thinking with the group ideals, and Cialdini's book shines a light on many of the subtle forms used in this process of persuasion. In the following sections, I will discuss a few of his insights and how they relate to my experience in the New American Wing.
Commitment and Consistency
You can use small commitments to manipulate a person's self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into "public servants", prospects into "customers", prisoners into "collaborators." And once you've got a man's self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself. (page 74)
This sums up the key technique in the process of cult indoctrination: the more I define myself in terms of the group, the more complete is my devotion to the cause. And once this occurs, it is requires no further effort on the part of the group - I will do whatever is asked precisely because I see myself as the kind of person who is committed to these sorts of things. Cialdini describes several ways in which this shift in identity occurs.
One idea is that we generally judge people by how they act, even ourselves. And therefore, if we repeatedly find ourselves acting in a particular role, we will gradually come to identify with that role and will eventually see it as a natural and immutable expression of who we are. Experiments have shown that this process can occur even while we consciously subscribe to beliefs opposed to the role we are playing.
There are various ways to encourage a person to take on a new role, and one involves writing. Cialdini describes how this technique was used by the Chinese against prisoners captured in the Korean war:
Writing was one sort of confirming action that the Chinese urged incessantly upon the men. It was never enough for the prisoners to listen quietly or even to agree verbally with the Chinese line; they were always pushed to write it down as well. So intent were the Chinese on securing a written statement that if a prisoner was not willing to write a desired response freely, he was prevailed upon to copy it. ... But, oh, those "harmless" concessions. ... Not only was it a lasting personal reminder of his action, it was also likely to persuade those around him that the statement reflected his actual beliefs. (page 76-77)
Writing was also very important within the NAW. During formal meetings, each student was absolutely required to take written notes. The rationale was this: by writing down the information, I involve both my mental and physical sides, and therefore have more of a chance of acquiring the knowledge because I am attempting to assimilate it with my whole being. However, even while my intellect may have retained some sense of critical thinking, I was also experiencing myself as "a person who finds these ideas important enough for written notes".
Our writing did not stop with simple note-taking. We were also required to make written "observations" throughout the day, as we attempted to "verify the ideas". (Notice the presumption of truth in the phrase "verify the ideas", as though the only thing stopping me from accepting them was my own lack of effort - it does not allow the possibility that the ideas themselves may be flawed.) Most of the students carried small, pocket-sized spiral notebooks for these observations, and I personally went through about fifteen or so over my three-year stay.
Every few months we were required to write an essay concerning some aspect of "the Work" (a somewhat grandiose but popular name for our studies). Generally, this report (officially called "a pondering") would be several pages long, typewritten, and eventually presented orally to the rest of the group. Unlike the prisoners of war described above, the other students and I were actively trying to learn these ideas and apply them in our lives. Thus, these essays invariably presented some idea or another as absolute truth, backed by various anecdotal evidence.
This brings up another issue, the public presentation of one's "beliefs". By standing up in front of the group and reading such an essay out loud, I was publicly declaring my approval of the group ideology. After this, I would feel a greater need to live according to the ideas professed in my essay, to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being a hypocrite.
In other words, like everyone else, I want to see myself as a consistent personality, someone who acts in accordance with my words, a person without conflicting attitudes or behaviors. This acts as yet another force shaping my identity towards the ideal advertised by the cult dogma. Cialdini describes it like this:
Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure - a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us. And because others perceive us as believing what we have written (even when we've had little choice in the matter), we will once again experience a pull to bring self-image into line with the written statement. (page 76-77)
Of course, at the time, I interpreted this pressure as "additional force to carry out my aims". How naïve! Cialdini further describes many experiments which show that "the more public the stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it." (page 80)
The Inner Choice
Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won't get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won't feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment. (page 92-93)
The NAW did not simply have psychological rules, it also had rules which dictated certain outward behaviors. Many of these behaviors became habitual after a while, and, similar to the mandatory-note-taking rule, gradually produced a shift in my identity. Although I occasionally remembered that the behavior originated with a rule, my conscious experience was one of choosing to act that way from my own free will. What had originally been forced upon me was now being seen as my own choice.
For example, there were one or two formal group meetings each week. They would begin with stretching exercises and other physical movements, followed by a more cerebral discussion period. Usually the teachers would lecture on some esoteric subject, and then the rest of the meeting would involve student questions. We were supposed to bring deeply personal issues to these meetings, and ask the teachers for help. (These questions were almost always self-deprecating and felt like confessions of inner shame and failure, but that is the subject for another essay.)
This scene, repeated twice a week for years, had several interesting psychological side-effects. Students were required to ask these questions - not every week, but if we let more than a couple meetings pass without questions, we would be strongly encouraged to find something to ask. It was considered a "weakness in aim" or a "lack of valuation of the school" to not have questions for the teachers. When I first joined the group, I was full of questions, but over time, the ideology took a back seat, and our daily life was dominated by the teachers themselves and the activities going on within the organization. It is almost as though the Fourth Way ideas were a mere backdrop, the setting which provided the justification for the cult-like social structure. And yet the problem remained - I needed to continually invent questions. And because of the incredibly intense peer pressure, I struggled to find questions which would demonstrate the strength of my inner efforts and (ironically) my sincerity. We all eventually came to this. Looking back on those days now, it seems hilarious; all these people asking deeply personal core questions, yet all for show, because it was required, because no one wanted to look as though they weren't "working on themselves". For those who are still stuck there, I don't find it very funny at all.
Before the meeting, I would desperately try to find my question. It should have been an obvious clue that these were not my true "teachers" at all - their answers would always repeat the old clichés, and deep inside, I didn't need their advice at all and even knew what they would say ahead of time. But at the time, I was deaf to that inner voice, or at least it was inaudible in the presence of the overpowering influence of the group. I would go weeks without thinking of something to ask, and each week the others would look at me like some kind of impostor, as though I didn't deserve to belong to such as serious and dedicated group. The funny thing is that although I was painfully aware of their pressure beforehand (when fabricating a question), by the time I asked it in the meeting I had forgotten all that. It felt as though I was asking it for myself, as though I really wanted their opinion.
In other words, I had taken personal responsibility for the action, even though I was really doing it in response to powerful group pressure.
... compliance professionals [i.e. gurus] love commitments that produce inner change. First, that change is not just specific to the situation where it first occurred; it covers a whole range of related situations, too. Second, the effects of the change are lasting. So, once a man has been induced to take action that shifts his self-image to that of, let's say, a public spirited citizen [or a guru's disciple], he is likely to be public-spirited in a variety of other circumstances where his compliance may also be desired, and he is likely to continue his public-spirited behavior for as long as his new self-image holds. (page 97)
There were other requirements placed on students. We were required to watch other students for behavior that seemed to be "mechanical" - that is, lacking conscious intent. If we saw another student breaking a school rule, or behaving in a way that seemed "not useful to one's work", we were required to verbally describe the infraction to them. This was called "giving a photograph", the idea being that we were giving the person an opportunity to see themselves from another's point of view, and also to remind them to redouble their "inner efforts". In fact, the effect this actually had was to greatly intensify the pressure to conform. Thus, if I acted differently than the group norm, I would be explicitly encouraged to bring my behavior in line with their expectations. These "photographs" were almost always negative and delivered with an air of superiority, although people gave lip-service to the concept of "giving the photograph as a gift". Like the forced questions, this behavior became habitual and, in the moment, we usually forgot that we were really doing it because it was required of us. We felt that we were doing it from our own will, to help the other person.
In this type of environment, is it any surprise that people become both incredibly sincere and, at the same time, phenomenally unaware of their own motivations?
The appearance of authority [is] enough. This tells us something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance. There are several kinds of symbols that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority. Consequently, they are employed extensively by those compliance professionals who are short on substance. Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority. (page 220-221)
The teachers were experts at producing the impression of authority. There was absolutely no doubt who was in control.
At first, I noticed that they knew a lot more about "The System" than me. Supposedly, they had been studying it for decades. They made large posters with diagrams and special terminology. They read the books during their spare time. They were the ones that determined when we were ready for new information. Since they knew more about the system, and the system attempted to describe the psychological condition of mankind, it was natural to infer that they also knew a lot about themselves. Soon I learned that they each claimed to be a "Man #6", a degree of enlightenment that suggested their spirit had attained some degree of immortality and omniscience. We were always reminded to "verify this for ourselves" but, of course, that remained impossible, and soon enough we would act as though it were true anyway.
It was nearly impossible to find a crack in their certainty. No matter what the circumstance, they always acted as though they knew exactly what was happening and where we had goofed up. They always knew a better way to accomplish something, be it self-observation, chopping tomatoes, or building a greenhouse.
To a student, this was incredibly intimidating, because we, on the other hand, were becoming less and less sure of ourselves. In every moment of our lives, we were constantly bombarded with criticism, being told how to do things differently, more efficiently, with more "consciousness."
These two processes worked together to form one profoundly unhealthy relationship. I became more and more passive, looking to others for guidance and expertise. The teachers became increasingly active and self-confidant, with a league of followers hanging on their every word as if it were some kind of divine nectar.
Supposedly, the longer one was involved in this system of study, the greater was one's level of psycho-spiritual insight. There was a clear system of rank, and everyone knew where they stood in the ladder of spiritual authority. We learned to obey orders from above, and to give orders to those below, all under the guise of "authority."
But, strangely enough, we had no way of really proving to ourselves that someone above us had a greater degree of understanding. There were vague suggestions of unusual powers, subtle hints of supernormal senses, mysterious clues dropped here and there all resulting in the overwhelming question in my mind, "do they really have something?"
I never knew, but the possibility alone was enough to keep me on my toes.
This was one of the biggest justifications for following their orders. I was paying hundreds of dollars a month for the opportunity to work with true spiritual guides; it would be stupid to not heed their advice. Perhaps they really did know something. And, more than anything else, I desperately wanted it to be true, I wanted to be involved in something truly miraculous.
The principle of social proof ... states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. (page 116)
Although the teachers were charismatic indeed, the biggest strength came from the league of already-devoted followers. They set the example for how to behave in every situation, how to interpret events, how to follow. These rules never had to be given out explicitly because they were obvious simply from watching the others.
When the teachers spoke, everyone listened. When they called a meeting, everyone came as fast as they could, sometimes even sprinting to get there. When they criticized a student, the student would never defend himself or describe another side to the situation. When they gave a student an instruction, he would immediately stop all other activities and begin the new task with gusto. When they made a joke, everyone would laugh, or at least smile. When they came home, we would try "to be as present as possible" psychologically. Over time, even our style of dress came to mimic that of the teachers.
Of all the rules in this group, these were the ones that were the most pervasive and rigid. These were the patterns that everyone immediately learned, without having to be explicitly taught. These were the forces that maintained the group's cohesiveness and rigid cult hierarchy.
And, of course, these are exactly the behaviors to which we were most blind.
Few people would be surprised to learn that, as a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like. What might be startling to note, however, is that this simple rule is used in hundreds of ways by total strangers to get us to comply with their requests. (page 167)
New recruits were treated very kindly. Since they brought new life and energy into our stale and monotonous uniformity, everyone liked them, and we all tried to be nice and compassionate with them. After all, they were stepping into a new and intense environment which was entirely foreign, and we could remember being in their shoes. This warm welcome made it easy for the new student to form emotional bonds with the others, and eventually to consider themselves as part of the group.
Most of the members of the cult were also relatively lonely at the time of their initial involvement in the group. It has been well documented that loneliness and the need for social contact are among the most powerful forces that drive people into these kinds of groups. When I joined, and suddenly found myself with dozens of new and interesting friends, I was much more willing to suspend critical thinking because my loneliness - my most powerful and persistent suffering - had been eliminated, at least temporarily.
By the time this exaggerated friendliness had dissolved, I had already become one of them.
We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style. Consequently, those who wish to be liked in order to increase our compliance can accomplish that purpose by appearing similar to us in any of a wide variety of ways. (page 173)
If there is one word that describes the members of a closed spiritual community, it is probably the word "similar". The infamous Heaven's Gate cult is an excellent example, so similar they even attempted to become the same neutral gender! We were not quite that extreme, but the overall trend was the same. We lived the same lifestyle, ate the same food, spoke the same jargon, and obsessed about the same pseudo-spiritual ideas all day long. The teachings encouraged us to think of ourselves as existing outside "ordinary life", but our similarity was so complete that we already felt that way regardless.
And in this kind of environment, imitation and blind allegiance to the group becomes the unconscious norm.
Contrast and Scarcity
Like many other Eastern and New Age cosmologies, the Fourth Way suggests that we live multiple lifetimes. But unlike most other religions, we believed that individuals generally repeated the same life over and over, without significant change. The aim of a student, therefore, was to escape this cycle by becoming "conscious" and breaking out of the wheel of "recurrence". Further, within the NAW, it was taught that once we had entered a school, we had at most three lifetimes with which to complete our Work. In theory, the teachers were presumed to be "conscious" and outside this repetition, and they would not intentionally waste their efforts on a student who was unable to learn within three lifetimes of Work.
Once accepted, this belief was the foundation beneath many of the otherwise illogical commitments I made to the cult. Much its strength came from the two principles of contrast and scarcity.
There is a principle in human perception, the contrast principle, that affects the way we see the difference in two things that are presented one after another. Simply put, if the second item is fairly different from the first, we will tend to see it as more different than it actually is. So if we lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first trying the light one. The contrast principle is well established in the field of psychophysics and applies to all sorts of perceptions besides weight. If we are talking to a beautiful woman at a cocktail party and are then joined by an unattractive one, the second woman will strike us as less attractive than she actually is. (page 11-12)
If our lives continually repeat, it makes one think of this individual lifetime as expendable, disposable - who cares what happens to me now if I'm going to live a million more lifetimes? If this life is just a drop in the bucket, I become much more willing to commit my life to the school because the relative cost is very low. If I have only one live to live, I will probably be very hesitant to give it up to just anyone, whereas if I believe I have an endless supply to spend, I will be much more willing to sacrifice one or two in the name of some higher cause.
... the scarcity principle [states that] opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited... The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value. (page 238)
According to our ideology, I had at most two more chances to "awaken", to become "conscious" and escape the endless repetition of lifetimes. But, because I was young, the teachers suggested that I'd probably "been in The Work before," thus interpreting my early involvement in the group as a by-product of successful efforts in a previous life. Now, I no longer had an endless supply of lives with which to goof around in The Work - if I'd been involved before, this might be my last chance! With renewed dedication, I had to use this life to its fullest and devote myself entirely my own conscious evolution.
These two principles combined to form a powerful one-two punch. First, my valuation of this lifetime was drastically reduced by the belief that I had a limitless supply to spend. So I became much more willing to pay this small cost in the interests of higher consciousness. Next, in this vulnerable mindset, the final blow was dealt by suggesting that this might be my only chance. If I didn't act now, I might never again get the opportunity to develop, in any lifetime.
In the end...
Even now, years after leaving the NAW, I still wonder whether the teachers actually understood what they were doing. With so many adoring students, it is very possible that they came to believe in their own facade of authority, and actually acted with a clean (although buried) conscience. Judging from my own experience, I was certainly unconscious of my own role in influencing new recruits until long after I'd left.
In all likelihood, the teachers (Jim and Carolyn Kuziak) were probably not aware enough to have devised these rules intentionally. Evidence supports the idea that they learned how to run their organization from their teacher (James Randazzo), who, in turn, learned from his teacher (Robert Burton), and so on. This makes good sense from the perspective of the theory of natural selection: the groups that survive are the ones that make the best use of persuasion techniques and produce the most true believers, regardless of whether they are aware of these techniques or not.
As Cialdini's book demonstrates, these practices pervade society already. We do not need to join a cult to experience them, they are already all around us. But the first step in regaining control over these pressures is to become aware of them, and Influence provides an excellent starting point.
It is my sincerest wish that the existing and ex-members of the New American Wing begin to look at their experience from the new vantage points made possible by this book. For them, I want to pass on this advice, once given to me by a friend - the true learning in "school" does not begin until you leave!