The InterPsych Newsletter 2(5)



IPN 2(5) Section D: Research 2/2


                      SECTION D: RESEARCH (2/2)

                   Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Psychological characteristics of cult membership are discussed.
The cult nature of Alcoholics Anonymous and disease model of
addiction ideology is examined. Patterns of response by
individuals who believe strongly in the disease model of
addiction when their ideology is challenged are analyzed.

Cults serve diverse purposes for individuals, the foremost of
which can be a positive sense of community where values are
focused, affirmed, and reinforced. The relationship among
individuals in a cult is also hypnotic (Freud 1959; Becker 1973).
People disagreeing with an ideology binding individuals together
in a group are likely to be criticized, punished, and eventually
excluded or shunned by the group. This rule reads "thou shalt not
disagree," for affiliation and membership in the cult rests on
ideological consensus. In order for the cult to maintain its
singular identity, the rule must be obeyed. Break the rule and
break the spell. In order for a singular group identity to exist,
individual identities must be minimized.

The flip-side of this phenomenon concerns the impact of
individual autonomy on the cult experience--a kind of
"psychological capitalism" in a psychologically-socialist world.
The stronger an individual's confidence in self, the less likely
an individual will succumb to demands for cult conformity.

At least three dimensions to those ideas are worth considering
here: (a) Individuals with a strong sense of personal autonomy
are less likely to become involved in cults. (b) If they do
become involved in a cult, they are more likely to recover from
the cult experience in a way that preserves a strong sense of
self (compared to those whose self-concept was considerably
weaker prior to the cult experience). (c) What is also likely to
be true is that individuals with a strong sense of self are less
likely to feel threatened when cult members attack them.
Moreover, individuals eschewing cult affiliation may elicit
resentment from true believers (Kaufmann 1973). (1)

Individuals with backgrounds involving chronic identity
confusion, excessive guilt, and "totalistic" or dichotomous
thinking, appear to experience more difficulty in re-establishing
themselves in their post-cult life, compared to those individuals
with a clearer sense of identity, less guilt, and more accurate
sense of psychological perspective. Individuals exhibiting a
strong sense of personal autonomy appear more resistant to
criticism directed at them by a group of individuals at odds with
their particular ideology. (2)

In clinical hypnosis, the will of the subject becomes confluent
with the will of the hypnotist. The subject does not have a say
in the process. The sense of ego separateness between the two is
purposely obscured by the hypnotist. In psychotherapy this
experience is called "transference." As long as the client in
either hypnosis or psychotherapy maintains an acute awareness of
self, that is, he or she persists in appreciating the difference
between self and environment, a point referred to as the "ego
boundary" by Perls (1947), the hypnosis will fail. Some schools
of psychotherapy may view this as an obstruction to good therapy,
others view it as a means to achieving success (Szasz 1965).

Good contact and a hypnotic trance are opposing states of
consciousness. Thus, good contact antidotes hypnosis. Moreover,
good contact between therapist and client is not contingent upon
cultivating transference. (3) Therapy fails when the client
chooses to see the therapist as someone other than he or she
really is, and when therapists encourage clients to see them as
someone other than who they really are.

An extreme example of this ability to resist hypnosis and
brainwashing is seen in the movie of a few years ago entitled The
Ipcress File. By deliberately pressing a metal nail into his hand
actor Michael Caine used his experience of pain to force an
awareness of self. He avoided listening to the hypnotic voice of
an "other," an "other" seeking to make Caine's will confluent
with his own -- against Caine's will. Caine's character found a
way to maintain autonomy in the face of that psychological
coercion. He was able to fight the psychological influence of an
other intent on dictating a particular self concept. The point
intended here is that by focusing on himself in such a way, he
was able to resist the attempt by the other to force a
psychological merge -- a merge that is coerced by one onto
another. (4)

There are ways of applying this idea to individuals under the
"spell cast by others" (Becker 1973). One way of testing the cult
nature of a group is by challenging the ideology binding the
group together. We can discover something about the nature of a
group by how well its members tolerate opposition to the ideology
that holds the group together. How well do members tolerate
difference of opinion, opinion that challenges the very
ideological heart of the group?

Members of the cult are like a colony of insects when disturbed.
A frenzy of activity and protective measures are executed when
core ideologies are challenged. The stronger the evidence
challenging the truthfulness of the group ideology, the more
likely members of the cult are to either lash out in a more or
less predictable fashion, fall apart, or disband into separate
cult colonies.

The purpose of this brief essay is to present certain
characteristic responses to "cult busting," or, the challenging
of ideology that assists in binding members of a particular cult
together. That cult is Alcoholics Anonymous, (AA), (Kurtz 1988;
Antze 1987; Leach and Norris 1977).

Over the years the writer has been involved in investigating
claims made by politicians, drug users, people in "recovery,"
members of the addiction-treatment industry, and
addiction-research field regarding the disease model of
addiction, particularly the alleged role of involuntariness in
explaining addiction. Extensive research supports the idea that
addiction is a voluntary process, a behavior that is better
explained by individual psychological and environmental factors,
than physiology and the chemical properties of drugs, (Alexander
1987, 1990).

Presenting those findings to people holding opposing points of
view, i.e., addiction is a disease characterized by "loss of
control" (Jellinek 1960), often elicits a vituperative response.
That response aroused the writer's curiosity as to the cult-like
nature certain groups within the addiction field hold dearly. The
bolder the presentation of ideas in opposition to the prevailing
disease-model ideology, the clearer the characterizations of
criticism directed back in return. Patterns of response are

The writer has had many such encounters over the years and will
not elaborate on their details (e.g., Madsen et al., 1990;
Goodwin and Gordis 1988). Those exchanges occurred on the
editorial pages of large and small newspapers, live radio-talk
shows, scientific journals, local political settings, and most
recently on Internet.

Conceding a confrontational style, it is a mistake to attribute
the nature of critical response solely to a personal way of
delivering the bad news. Colleagues present their ideas regarding
similar issues in what are perhaps at times more sensitive and
tactful ways, and they have met with similar forms of
denunciation and character assassination, the typical form of
rebuttal. Ad hominem rebuttals are the standard, (Fingarette
1989; Peele 1992; Searles 1993; Madsen 1989; Wallace 1993a,

Is AA a cult? There's plenty of evidence supporting the idea that
it is. Greil and Rudy (1983) studied conversion to the world view
of AA and reported that

  [t]he process by which individuals affiliate with
  A.A. entails a radical transformation of personal
  identity in that A.A. provides the prospective
  affiliate not merely with a solution to problems
  related to drinking, but also with an overarching
  world view with which the convert can and must
  reinterpret his or her past experience....Our
  analysis suggests that the central dynamic in the
  conversion process is coming to accept the opinions
  of reference others, (p. 6).
  [I]t appears...that contact with A.A. is more likely
  to be accompanied by a greater degree of coercion
  than...most cases of religious conversion (Greil and
  Rudy 1983, p. 23).

Alexander and Rollins (1984) described how Lifton's (1961) eight
brainwashing techniques used by the Communist Chinese operate in
AA. "[T]he authors contend that AA uses all the methods of brain
washing, which are also the methods employed by cults,"
(Alexander & Rollins,1984, p. 45).

Galanter (1989) has written:

     As in the Unification Church workshops, most of
     those attending AA chapter meetings are deeply
     involved in the group ethos, and the expression
     of views opposed to the group's model of treatment
     is subtly or expressly discouraged. A good example
     is the fellowship's response to the concept of
     controlled drinking, an approach to alcoholism
     treatment based on limiting alcohol intake rather
     than totally abstaining. Some investigators and
     clinicians have reported success with this
     alternative to treatment. The approach, however,
     is unacceptable within the AA tradition, and the
     option is therefore anathema to active members. It
     is rarely brought up by speakers at meetings and
     suppressed when it is raised. As an inductee
     becomes involved in the group, the sponsor monitors
     the person's views carefully, assuring that the
     recruit adheres to the perspective into which the
     sponsor was drawn;  any hint of an interest in
     controlled drinking is discouraged. Similar
     constraints would be applied if a recruit questioned
     the importance of any of the Steps or the need
     to attend meetings regularly.
     The issue here is not the relative merit of
     controlled is the way communications are
     managed in AA. As a charismatic group, AA is able to
     suppress attitudes that could undermine its traditions,"
     (Galanter 1989, p. 185). (5).

     Sadler (1977) writes to that effect when she stated that
     "AAers seek a relationship with the supernatural in order
     to cease managing their own lives....The AA concept of
     control differs significantly from the concept of
     control presented to drunkards by the rest of
     society....AA...tells the newcomer that his life is
     unmanageable and that it is ridiculous for him to try to
     manage it....By deliberately denying the ability to
     control their lives, AAers' former drunken situations
     are brought under control....Most importantly,
     abstinence is not considered a kind of control. The
     individual who comes to AA in order to control his
     drinking will be disappointed. AAers insist that
     abstinence is possible only when powerlessness is
     conceded. AA offers supportive interaction in which
     powerlessness comes to be positively valued," (Sadler
     1977, p.208).

When ideas regarding voluntariness, responsibility, and addiction
are introduced to members of AA and devout adherents to the
disease concept of addiction, people who are usually involved
with AA in some way, the following responses are likely to occur
(in no particular order):

The person introducing the taboo ideas (the heretic) is belittled
and laughed at. Mocking occurs. Derogatory comments are leveled.
Name calling often ensues, e.g., the writer was recently called a
"thoughtless dweeb," told "you are your own worst enemy," that
the writer was a "crackpot psychologist, the kind that can't get
tenure because they are always bullying peers and students," a
"facist," "doctor baby," an "arrogant son of a bitch,"
"contemptible," "immature for a guy with a Dr. before his name,"
and a person engaging in "highly unscientific behavior," who has
embarked on a "personal vendetta."

After the initial mocking and belittling, the criticism appears
to take a more serious turn. The ideas presented by the heretic
are considered potentially dangerous. People who do not know
better will misuse them and kill themselves or others. Thus, the
heretic should be held accountable for murder, or the death of

The accusation of heretic-as-murderer or potential murderer can
be leveled as an unintended result of the ideas presented by the
heretic, in which case forgiveness by some cult members is still
possible; or it can evolve into rhetoric in which the heretic is
described, or alluded to, as someone who has a deliberate
interest in endangering the lives of cult members in this way.
The heretic then personifies evil in the eyes of cult members. It
is at this point that the exchange could become physically
dangerous. (6)

The heretic may also be accused at this point of having an
economic investment in his particular point of view. For example,
the writer has been accused of trying to pirate potential
psychotherapy clients away from AA on more than one occasion in
order to make money off of them.

Another tangent the cult members often take is to accuse the
heretic of being "mentally ill." The taboo ideas are alleged to
stem from personal trauma the heretic has not dealt with, and his
or her statements in opposition to the group ideology are
considered "projections," the function of "denial," an
"unconscious" process that is said to be a "symptom" of his or
her mental illness. The heretic may be accused of expressing an
emotional need to receive negative attention in order to feel
good about himself or herself.

Here, the heretic may be confronted on a paternalistic basis: "He
is sick. He needs help." At times, cultists may yield and take a
more compassionate posture in relation to the heretic at this
point, trying to convince the heretic that he/she is sick, and
that he/she needs to come to his/her senses.

There is often an attack on the validity of the heretic's ideas.
The heretic's ideas are termed invalid because he or she is not a
drug addict. Frequently, the heretic is asked, "have you ever had
a drug problem?" Whereas in the DIAGNOSIS OF MENTAL ILLNESS case
the motive driving apparent concern is that the heretic's
inappropriate behavior is likely to stem from a mental illness,
in this case, if the heretic has not had a drug problem or shared
in the problems-of-living experienced by cult members, he or she
is said to be incapable of speaking from legitimate experience,
as it is only by this experience that someone can "know" what the
truth is regarding their cult ideology. (7)

A demand for scientific evidence to support the heretical ideas
always emerges. In AA, members often cite scientific findings to
support their claims regarding involuntariness. That certain
medical organizations have endorsed their ideology is brought
forth as evidence of the veracity of their ideas. When scientific
evidence to the contrary is presented by the heretic, the
research is said to be too old to be valid, not extensive enough,
subject to diverse interpretations, and ultimately no match for
personal experience. At times, when scientific information is
brought into the discussion by the heretic, other scientists will
accuse the heretic of unethical use of knowledge and influence,
and threaten to report him or her to some professional
association in hopes that he or she may become professionally

When the demand for scientific evidence is met by the heretic, a
retreat to IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE may occur. One person wrote
recently: "You sight [sic] science. I sight experience, strength,
hope." A favorite demand is "don't criticize what is unless you
can propose a better way." Another is "your sources are not
scientific enough," and "your understanding of science is not
sophisticated enough."

The assault on the heretic is based on the idea that facts are
cruel and insensitive to people who have done him or her no harm.
"Is this the way you treat your friends, (or patients)?"

The counter-argument to the heretic involves scientific and
philosophical reductionism to the point that few, if any,
conclusions regarding the issues at hand can ever be reached.
Circuitous arguments evolve. Blatant contradictions emerge, e.g.,
"the alcoholic cannot willfully control his drinking, therefore,
he must be abstinent." Yet, people choose to abstain from
drinking alcoholic beverage. The alcoholic allegedly cannot
choose to control his drinking, therefore, he should choose to
control his drinking. (8)

Using analogies that don't work is a favorite tactic of cultists.
The analogies are often not reciprocal. For example, the
alcoholic is seen as like a diabetic. Yet diabetics are not like

Here is a particularly graphic account of the illogical analogy,
often employed as non sequitur, by a psychotherapist attempting
to "counter resistance to acceptance of the disease concept in
alcoholic families," (Henderson, 1984):

  Counselor:  We are dealing here with an illness.
  We know it is an illness because it is predictable
  (it follows a course which we can describe in advance),
  it is progressive (it gets worse unless it can be
  brought into remission), and, if untreated,
  alcoholism is 100% fatal.
  Family:  All he has to do to straighten up is to
  want to do it. He just doesn't want to stop drinking.
  I don't buy that he has a disease.
  Counselor:  So you see him as just weak-willed.
  And when he chooses the bottle instead of his family,
  you feel he doesn't care about you.
  Family:  Yeah, [t]hat's right. He'll step all
  over you. He makes promises he doesn't keep,
  and I don't believe he means to keep them when
  he makes them.
[Illogical transition occurs here.]
  Counselor:  Have you ever had diarrhea?
  Family:  (Laughing a little and looking at
  the counselor rather strangely), of course.
  Counselor:  Did you ever try to control it with
  Family:  No. I can't (still chuckling).
  Counselor:  Why not?
  Family:  Well, its a bacteria or something.
  There's nothing you can do about it...Oh...
  Counselor:  You have the idea. Your Dad has an
  illness he can't fix with willpower because that
  doesn't stop it. There are things you can do to get
  diarrhea to stop, just as there are things you
  can do to stop the active part of alcoholism.
  But all you can do for both is to set up the conditions
  under which getting well is possible. It depends on
  what disease you have. There is a specific treatment
  for alcoholism...[.]  (Henderson, 1984, pp. 118-119)

Something is not an illness simply because it is predictable, nor
because it is progressive, nor necessarily fatal if untreated.
Not wanting to stop drinking is a sign of an "iron will," not a
weak will. The counselor contradicts herself by saying he
"chooses" the bottle instead of his family, for on the one hand
she asserts the drinker does not have a choice regarding his
drinking, and then on the other hand she says he chooses the
bottle over his family. Diarrhea is a physical illness.  Drinking
is a behavior. The two are not the same. People with diarrhea are
not like heavy drinkers. The fact that this psychotherapist is
unwilling to acknowledge the difference here is a sign of her own
problems, problems that masquerade as treatment for the
"psycho-pathology" of the family. (9)

For some, those confrontations are enough to shake them out of
their hypnotic daze, arouse their curiosity, and assist in
getting them to leave the group. Occasionally, a member of the
cult may yield suddenly to the heretic, attempting to practice a
"turn the other cheek" portion of the ideological doctrine. If a
personal dialogue can be achieved and continued between a cult
member and the heretic an emotional catharsis may occur for the
cultist and this can become a major event in breaking the
hypnotic spell.

Humor is useful in further diffusing volatile contacts, along
with divulging of personal information on the part of the
heretic. Those intent on preserving the cult will often go
underground and avoid any contact with the heretic whatsoever.

These patterns of response may be useful in analyzing and
interpreting exchanges involving vituperation directed at one or
several individuals who have either intentionally or not stepped
into a nest of vipers, i.e., the cult, a volatile experience, to
say the very least.

Many psychologists regard AA as no more cult-like than numerous
other organizations. They consider that it does more good than
harm. The purpose of this analysis is not to gather evidence that
AA serves a destructive rather than constructive purpose in the
lives of its adherents, but rather that as a cult, good or bad,
there are certain characteristics of its members that may be
drawn out when they are confronted with incompatible ideology.

This essay is a commentary based principally on the writer's
personal (rather than clinical) experiences. It has not
considered the individual's need for cult conformity, an issue
that may be explored further. The defensiveness of cult members
should also be considered in light of these needs, (see also
Berger, 1991).

1. Some members are definitely split in their involvement with
the cult. They may value the ideology and not the affiliation, or
vice versa. In the former case they hold fast to the ideology,
yet do not attend cult functions. In the latter case they hold
fast to the affiliation and know very little about the ideology,
nor do they seem to care to. 
2. These ideas are from Lifton's (1961) study of "brainwashing"
in Communist China.
3. Clearly, psychoanalysts have established a cult around the
ideas of transference and the mythical "unconscious." 
4. That idea was suggested to me by Amos M. Gunsberg, as was the
idea of "iron will."
5. The idea of controlled drinking is anathema to members of AA
because it completely undermines the role of involuntariness, the
cornerstone upon which the disease model of addiction rests.
6. One particularly irate male, over 2000 miles away,
persistently "fingered" the writer on Internet, a computer
process whereby the login identity of the bulletin-board poster
may be ascertained along with a brief biography. Each time it is
conducted, the person being "fingered" is alerted, and his or her
work is interrupted while on-line.
7. The research on vicarious or observational learning shows that
people learn through the experience of others. As one
psychotherapist describes this: "Have you ever put your hand in a
rattlesnake pit? Why not?" The point here being that people don't
have to put their hands in a rattlesnake pit to know there is a
good chance they will be bitten should they choose to do so, (A.
Gunsberg, personal communication, July 1993).
8. The idea here is similar to Lifton's (1961) discussion
regarding the "thought-terminating cliche."
9. This is a projection of the therapist's.
10. On computer bulletin boards this may involve a group
consensus to establish a "kill file." A kill file automatically
keeps their computers from printing anything by the heretic on
screen. Thus, they are protected from anxiety.
11. I am grateful to several anonymous reviewers at the Bulletin
of the Menninger Clinic for their comments regarding an earlier
draft of this essay.

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Jeffrey A. Schaler is a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at
American University's School of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.
He lives in Silver Spring, MD and is the listowner/coordinator of