In this blog, I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns – for example, it’s now very difficult to find new books to include in the booklists – and there are certainly not enough left to sustain regular posts.
This leaves me with two alternatives – call it a day, or try to create some interesting material all by myself. Those who follow this blog (calm down, both of you) will be pleased to learn I have decided to try.
The idea is to write a series “Understanding the Scientology Mindset”. Each post will introduce a concept from psychology &/or social science, and then apply it to Scientology, to see if it helps to explain the most puzzling thing about Scientologists – why they believe, and defend, and work hard for a doctrine that is so bizarre and incoherent.
Scientology exploits many aspects of human nature to insure the obedience of its members. The first posts in this series will describe the classic psychological experiments that uncover a number of these human weaknesses.
Near the end of the series, I will try to show what makes Scientology unique – the ability of the organisation to exploit so many human weakness in a way that gradually draws people into it – and how this process gradually creates the ‘Scientology mindset’.
These ‘episodes’ will alternate with posts describing interesting books, videos, links &c about Scientology as before. The ‘new style’ post will be linked to below as they appear. As always, feedback is most welcome.
One of the most puzzling things about Scientology is how and why Scientologists (who are often clever, capable people) maintain such bizarre beliefs in the face of clear evidence that the Church’s claims are false. People who have left the organisation often look back in astonishment at their state of mind, and the claims which they accepted, when they were committed to the Church.
Cognitive Dissonance theory explains the process of self-deception which maintains bizarre beliefs. This post describes the theory, and explains how cognitive dissonance it is exploited within the Church of Scientology.
We 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.
After the Second World War, when the full horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became widely known, the world struggled to find an explanation for the behaviour of the apparently ‘normal’ people who had participated (or were complicit) in cruelty, torture and genocide on an industrial scale.
Many theories were proposed – notably that German culture was responsible for creating an ‘authoritarian personality’ which led people to obey orders without question.
Stanley Milgram stepped in to this debate with a controversial experiment. His results were astonishing, and required a complete reappraisal of what we thought we knew about human behaviour.
This experiment also helps us understand why people who join Scientology find themselves treated so badly by other members of the organisation – who were acting ‘under orders’
I suggested that this experiment helps to explain why Scientologists who are good people find themselves doing questionable things when told to so by the Church.
It does not explain why Scientologists (also good people) who are placed in positions of authority give questionable orders to other members of the Church – and enforce them with the harsh punishments required by Scientology doctrine.
Professor Philip Zimbardo performed a classic experiment that helps to explain how this happens. He created a mock prison, in the basement of Stanford University, and recruited students to play the roles of both guards and inmates.
Once upon a time (he assures us) confidence tricksters visited the Emperor of China. They proposed to make him a fine new suit of clothes from a special cloth that could only be seen by people of taste and refinement.
The tricksters opened empty boxes and mimed the presentation of this (non-existent) magical material. Of course, nobody could see any fine cloth – but they all were afraid to say so, for fear that others would think they lacked the taste and refinement. The whole court praised the beauty of something that nobody could see.
In actual fact, nobody can see the cloth – but every courtier believes that all the others can. Nobody want to look stupid, so nobody speaks up.
This idea explains a lot about the way in which Scientologists become committed to their remarkable beliefs – and raises the question of whether those beliefs are as strongly held as they appear to be.
This series has described a number of concepts, mostly drawn from social psychology, which are exploited by the Church of Scientology to control its members.
It’s worth pointing out that people in the wider world (you and I included) share these psychological quirks.
Attribution theory (which is a special case of cognitive dissonance) reveals a bias which is both used against Scientologists when they are in the Church, and works against them after they leave.
This perspective explains a lot about how Scientologists see themselves, and how the wider world views Scientologists.
During the Second World War, fierce fighting took place between the Western Allies and Japan. The Melanesian Islands were used first by the Japanese, then by the allied forces as staging posts to stockpile war supplies.
Until this happened, the people of the Melanesian Islands had been completed isolated from the wider world. They encountered both state-of-the-art technology (e.g. aircraft and radio) and the products of industrial society for the first time
Aircraft landed and took off. Supplies were air-dropped by parachute. Soldiers in identical clothes drilled and worked while they watched. Sometimes these curious strangers engaged with their people, and gave them strange gifts – and then the soldiers disappeared, as quickly mysteriously as they had arrived.
The reaction of the Islanders to these strange visitations provides an insight into the claims for the scientific status of Scientology, and why Scientologists accept the organisations extraordinary claims.
We have all experienced the frustration of speaking to a conspiracy theorist whose belief in extraterrestrial visitors, cold fusion, or a connection between brain cancer and mobile ‘phones is utterly unshakeable.
One of the ways people maintain this kind of belief is by seeking out evidence which confirms their belief and rejecting or ignoring anything which does not.
Although conspiracy theorists take this to the extreme, a tendency to think in this way (called confirmation bias) is wired into human beings.
Because it is easier to process information that we are already familiar with, once we have formulated an belief, we tend to stick with it, looking for ways to make it work in every situation.
The problem is that sometimes our cherished idea simply wrong, and confirmation bias prevents us rejecting it so that we can start to formulate a better explanation. Confirmation bias is illustrated perfectly in a video that can be viewed in the full length post. See if you can solve the puzzle (without reading the answer first).
In a previous post we discussed Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment investigating obedience to Authority, and suggested that it helped to explain why good people, when they become Scientologists, comply with orders that have bad consequences for others.
Milgram created a machine that administered convincing, but phoney electric shocks to an actor who pretended to be in pain. Nobody was at any risk.
His experimental subjects were ordinary people who were required to administer shocks in the course of an ‘experiment into learning’. The experimental procedure manipulated them into gradually increase the intensity of those shocks until they (apparently) reached a dangerous level.
When the experimental subjects began to doubt the morality of what they were doing, an ‘authority figure’ (the scientist in charge of the experiment) insisted that the procedure must continue.
Incredibly, 68% of continued to administer shocks all the way up a potentially lethal 450V.
There is an crucial feature of this experiment that is strongly emphasised by Scientology, and it explains a lot about its power to persuade members to comply to demands that go against their basic personality.
I have tried to use these ideas to explain why good people who join Scientology find themselves behaving in ways that go against their basic nature, and conforming to beliefs so bizarre that those who leave the Church look back on their career with astonishment.
In a Scientology ‘Org’ authority figures are constantly present, and members are constantly under pressure to conform to the value of the group. Where else can we find this kind of social situation? In a school, perhaps?
In 1967 a US teacher called Ron Jones was frustrated that he could not give a satisfactory answer to a student’s question – how could so many German people claim to have been unaware of the abuses of the Nazi regime? He decided to demonstrate instead, by creating a neo-fascist organisation within the school, reminiscent of the Hitler Youth – “The Third Wave“.
This ‘movement’ was such a runaway success that Jones was forced to end it after the forth day. The following day, he explained the experiment to his students.
He had not only answered the original question, but also demonstrated the astonishing power of any Isolated social situation which is prepared to exploit both authority and social pressure to conform. His experiment is still being run – in Scientology Orgs worldwide.
In the previous 10 parts of this series I have explored some of the insights that post-war psychology provides into the extraordinary power which the Church of Scientology holds over its members.
These theories did not exist in the early days of the Church of Scientology. The only psychological framework that seemed to offer an explanation for the strange behaviour of converts then, was ‘brainwashing’.
Unfortunately, Cold War ideology got in the way of science, and the result was a very questionable theory.
Since then, there has been almost half a century of progress in psychology and social psychology (and intensive study of a variety of ‘cults’). This progress has both discredited the brainwashing thesis, and provided much better explanations for ‘mind control’. This new understanding is more subtle and complicated… but that’s life.
I will try to explain below why I believe that ‘brainwashing’, as an explanation for the behaviour of Scientologists, should be abandoned, why it has persisted for so long, and why this matters.
The first thing that new Scientologists do is a series of ‘Training Routines’ (TRs) and in an earlier post, we saw video demonstrations of ‘TRs’ by two ex-Scientologists.
Basically, two people sit and stare at each other until they can do this without moving for more than two hours. ‘Learning’ how to do this can take much longer.
Unsurprising, this practice has strange psychological consequences – for example, participants commonly experience vivid hallucinations and there is good reason to suspect that they also enter a state of elevated suggestibility.
Early critics of Scientology viewed this practices as a form of hypnotic induction, and L Ron Hubbard’s claimed, in his ‘lectures’ and elsewhere, to be an expert hypnotist. Over the years, this explanation has been used (not always coherently) to explain the altered states of consciousness experienced during TRs (and many other aspects of Scientology practice).
This idea has its points – but I would like to propose an concept which I think is a much better fit – the Ganzfeld Effect. In this post, I will try to show how it explains the experiences people have when doing their TRs.
Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through
interpersonal gazing | Giovanni B. Caputo| Psychiatry Research 228 (2015) 659-663 Download Full Text as .pdf
In plain language, this scientific paper describes a series of experiments which investigate the psychological consequences of two people (a dyad) staring at each other for a period of time (in this case, no longer than 10 minutes).
The author concludes that this can bring about visual hallucinations and a dissociated state, including a feeling of being disconnected from your body.
This is highly relevant to the ‘Training Routines’ (TR’s) taught to beginners in Scientology and Narconon – especially “TR0 Confronting“which is described on the linked page. During this exercise participants (who stare at each other for two hours or more) commonly recruit strange hallucinations and a feeling of leaving their body.
Note: page numbers given are from the .pdf reader software, not the paper itself.
I have never been involved in Scientology. This blog is an attempt to understand why clever, capable people accept its doctrines (which are, in the face of it, bizarre and incoherent) and follow its practices.
One approach that I have taken is to examine Scientology training and assess whether or not this has an influence. It seems to me that Scientology’s nine ‘training routines’ do, beginning with TR0 (AKA Training Routine Zero).
In TR0 two people are requited to sit close together and stare fixedly at each other for prolonged periods of time. Research shows that unchanging sensory input can lead to a form of sensory deprivation, which has strange effects – including a dissociated state (you feel detached from you body) and ‘strange face’ hallucinations.
Scientologists constantly practice their Training Routines, so they are soon able to slip into altered states of consciousness almost at will (the likely reason for the strange, unsettling ‘thousand yard stare’ they apply to protesters).
It has seemed to me that such compelling experiences, interpreted according to Scientology doctrine – for example as evidence of a ‘previous life’ – which could be a powerful incentive towards conversion.
First, I have to reconcile the fact that, during online discussions I am occasionally told by some ex-Scientologists that they had no hallucinatory experiences during the TRs, and by others that they experienced full-blown hallucinations. I think I can do that now, thanks to something I recently learned about myself.