Some persuasion techniques used by cults (Margaret Singer)

NOTE: This selected list is adapted from CULTS IN OUR MIDST, by Dr. Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich (Jossey-Bass Publishers, April 1995)



Continuous over-breathing causes a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, producing respiratory alkalosis. In its milder stages it produces dizziness or light-headedness. More prolonged over-breathing can cause panic, muscle cramps, and convulsions. Cults often have people do continuous loud shouting, chanting or singing to produce this state, which they reframe as having a spiritual experience. [Note: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this technique is applied in the form of ceaselessly yelling the Jesus Prayer throughout the day. There is also a 1 hour period during the nightly personal vigil/prayer rule, where the monastics go outside and yell the Jesus Prayer].

Constant swaying motions, clapping or almost any repeated motion helps to alter a person’s general state of awareness. Dizziess can be produced by simple spinning or spin dancing, prolonged swaying and dancing. Group leaders re-label the effects of these motions as ecstasy or new levels of awareness. [Note: The only repetitive motion of “swaying motions” is the daily 150 prostrations–300 during Great Lent–of the daily prayer rule. And any additional prostrations due to punishments. As well, during Great Lent, there are specific points of the Service where the monastics have to do repeated prostrations (the recital of St. Ephraim’s prayer, certain chants, etc). The repeated prostrations do give a “head rush” and endorphin boost].

Former members report that a leader of one cult would pass among the followers pressing on their eyes until the optic nerve caused them to see flashes of light. This is called “bestowing divine light.” Some group members were instructed to push on their ears until they heard a buzzing sound, which was interpreted as hearing the “divine harmony.” [Note: The only real body manipulations would be if one postured themself a certain way for Prayer of the Heart and beating oneself (NSSI-Non-Suicidal Self Injury) when various thoughts, emotions, etc. become too overwhelming].

A number of cults use hypnosis and trance to put people into altered states of consciousness, making them more compliant. Examples of techniques that induce trance include prolonged chanting, meditation, singing and phrase repetition. [Note: In the monasteries, the chanting would be the daily church services, some of which can last quite a few hours. The “meditation”–though not considered as such by Orthodox monastics–would be the time allotted for Prayer of the Heart which entails breathing techniques. Singing and phrase repetition would be the ceaseless recital of the Jesus Prayer–either noetically or verbally].

Cult leaders use a number of different guided-imagery techniques to remove followers from their normal frames of reference. For example, long detailed visual stories can absorb the listeners in a trancelike state where they become more susceptible to suggestion. Another effective method popular with therapy cults uses guided imagery to regress members back to the pain and loneliness of their childhood. [Note: Though images, fantasies and day dreaming are discouraged for monastics, Geronda Ephraim often gives homilies containing many stories, not to mention lunch and dinner have readings in the Trapeza. As well, the monastics have a few hundred mp3 homilies of Geronda Ephraim on their iPods (each homily lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 2+ hours). Also, in each monastery, the Geronda or Gerondissa will frequently give homilies with storytelling and cautionary tales].