Understanding the Scientology Mindset Pt 2 – Social Conformity

peer_pressure-01We have seen that at least 90% of the people who join Scientology leave within two years-  principally because The Church does not deliver on its promise to improve their lives, and ‘the ‘tech’ does not work.

Cognitive dissonance theory (discussed in Part 1) can explain how the remaining 10% can rationalise these failures – but it does not explain why. What motive do the people who remain Scientologists  have for wanting to believe in Scientology’s claims, despite clear evidence that they are false?

Studies of social conformity provide one possible answer to this question. A group exerts powerful social pressures upon  Individuals to conform with their values and beliefs  in order to fit in. A classic experiment performed by Solomon Asch demonstrates just  how powerful this influence is  – and it provides considerable insight into the early career of a Scientologist.

The Asch Experiment

Asch recruited ordinary people to take a visual test. Applicants joined  groups with between 5 and 7 members.conformity_experiment

  1. A large card (far left) with a clearly printed line on it, was  briefly shown.
  2. Another card was show(near left) this time with three lines on it.
  3. The group was asked to decide which of the lines on the second card (a, b, or c) were the same length as the line on the first card.
  4. From left to right, each person was asked to call out his answer
  5. The procedure was repeated, with different cards, until it had been done 18 times.

As you can see, the cards were designed so as to make the correct answer perfectly obvious.

Of course, everything was not as it appeared to be to the participants. In fact, all of the other group members were ‘stooges’ – that is, people who were acting under instructions. Also, the cards were ‘stacked’ – the stooges knew the correct answers in advance.

Stooges were under instructions to give correct answers to the first 6 questions – then give the same wrong answer to the remaining 12. Worse yet, everyone was seated so that the real participants were the last (or next-to-last) to give their answers.  Since the correct answer was obvious, if they were to tell the truth they would have to openly go against the whole group.

The real purpose of the experiment was to find out if the subjects would conform to social pressure by giving wrong answers.


74% of the participants conformed – that is, they gave the wrong answers despite the evidence of their own eyes. It is reasonable to suppose that they knew what the right answers were, because they they gave the correct answers to the first 6 questions (when their answers were the same as everyone else).

Asch invited people to follow-up interview. Those who conformed gave various ‘reasons’ for going along with the majority:

  • Not wanting to upset the experiment.
  • Blaming eye strain, or seeing the card from an angle.
  • Not wanting to stand out – claiming that they knew the answers were wrong all along

For 74% of the experimental subjects the tendency to conform was stronger than their values or basic perceptions.

Social Pressure and Cognitive Dissonance

As we have seen from the discussion of cognitive dissonance theory, these are rationalisations. For the people who conformed, the conflict between the evidence of their own eyes was and the answers being given by the rest of the group, created cognitive dissonance. They chose to resolve this by rationalising their failure to give an honest answer.

The follow-up interviews indicated that the 26% who held out were also concerned by the fact that they were the odd man out – but the dissonance they experienced was insufficient for them to doubt the evidence of their own eyes.

This raises the question – if the experiment had been repeated many times, would the people who conformed have eventually come to believe in judgements that were, self-evidently not true – what was really going on inside their heads when they went along with group pressure?

Scientology and the Pressure to Conform

When people join Scientology they are enthusiastically welcomed. At the beginning of a Scientologists career, discipline is relatively slack – it is only after they have advanced further in the hierarchy that members are expected to believe and obey without question, and become subject to punishment for not doing so.

However, no matter how welcoming the atmosphere new Scientologists soon encounter a crisis. They find that the Church does not deliver on its promise to improve their lives, and the ‘tech does not work. There is a conflict between the claims of Scientology and the evidence of their own senses, which creates cognitive dissonance.

90% of new Scienologists leave the Church within 2 years because, like the people who gave honest answers in the Asch experiment, they could only resolve their cognitive dissonance by rejecting the claims of the Church.

10% of new Scientologist stay, because social pressure gives them the motive they need to rationalise their cognitive dissonance away. They conform to the group despite their own direct experience. Now, two powerful psychological processes (cognitive dissonance and social pressure) have been co-opted against them, and the hold Scientology has over their mind begins to tighten.

Also Scientology has ‘filtered’ people out of the general population, and:

  • Selected a small minority  who (for whatever reason) who are vulnerable to social pressure
  • Rid itself of potential dissenters

The Church can now gradually place greater demands upon the new Scientologists, and transform them into ‘true believers’.


In part 3 we will look at another social-psychological process at work within the Church – pluralistic ignorance.