Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications. This story originally featured on Undark.
Days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, at a time when some Americans were animated by the false conviction that former President Donald J. Trump had actually won the November election, a man in Colorado began texting warnings to his family. The coming days, he wrote, would be “the most important since World War II.” Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act, the man believed, and he was arresting enemies in the Vatican and other countries. Predicting turbulence ahead, the man urged his wife and two adult children to begin stockpiling essential goods.
“Watch how the world and the United States are saved!” he wrote.
The man had shown an affinity for conspiracy theories in the past, according to one of his sons, who shared the text messages with Undark, requesting that his name and other identifying characteristics of his family be withheld because he feared exposing his father to public ridicule. Recently, however, his father’s preoccupations had taken a more hard-edged and political turn—often following the twisting storylines of QAnon, a collection of right-wing conspiracy theories that describe Trump and his allies battling an international cabal of liberal pedophiles.
His father’s texts about preparing for national upheaval worried the man, and he says he began checking corners and closets in the house to see if his father was indeed stockpiling supplies. He also ordered a book by Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor in Massachusetts who calls himself “America’s leading cult expert.” And he began looking—mostly, he said, just out of curiosity—for resources on “deprogramming” a loved one whom he worried had been brainwashed.
He is far from alone in trying anew to make sense of conspiracist thinking. Since Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, many carrying signs and wearing clothing emblazoned with references to “Q,” deradicalization experts who cut their teeth on studies of militant Islamic ideologies have turned their attention to Trump-aligned right-wing extremists. Social psychologists who study conspiracy theorists and misinformation have also seen a sudden spike in interest in their work.
But some Americans have also begun using the language of cults and turning to specialists in cultic studies to make sense of the surge of online disinformation and conspiratorial thinking that have accompanied Trump’s rise.
“It is not hyperbole labeling MAGA as a cult,” the progressive activist Travis Akers wrote on Twitter in late January, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and adding that hard-line Trump supporters “are sick and need help.” Television journalist Katie Couric asked “how are we going to really almost deprogram these people who have signed up for the cult of Trump?” US Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the lead impeachment manager during Trump’s second trial, recently compared the Republican Party to a cult. And in a Reddit group where anguished relatives of QAnon adherents gather for support, or to swap various anti-cult strategies, there are many references to Hassan’s and other experts’ work.
“I’m inundated, daily, with families freaking out,” says Pat Ryan, a cult mediation expert in Philadelphia. Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst in the New York City area who often works with ex-group members, also described an uptick in interest. “I’ve been receiving many, many inquiries from terrified family members about a loved one who is completely lost—mentally, emotionally—in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories,” Shaw says.
Hassan, Ryan, and Shaw are part of the small field of cult experts who focus on the experiences of people who join intense ideological movements. Some are trained psychologists and social workers; others are independent scholars and uncredentialed professionals. Many identify as former cult members themselves. But for families hoping to “deprogram” a QAnon-obsessed loved one, it’s unclear how much evidence there is behind the methods of these practitioners.
There’s broad agreement that “some groups harm some people sometimes,” says Michael Langone, a counseling psychologist and the director of the International Cultic Studies Association. But members of the field have sometimes clashed with academic experts, and even among themselves, especially over the notion that otherwise healthy people who subscribe to unorthodox belief systems are victims of a mental hijacking. Such thinking has received scant scientific reinforcement since sociologists, psychologists, and religious studies scholars first started pushing back on anti-cult hysteria in the US decades ago. And while few cult specialists today claim to do the sort of deprogramming that gained popularity in the 1970s, some anti-cult practitioners—and licensed psychiatrists—do still embrace the idea that brainwashing and mind control pose real threats, and that they apply to online conspiracies.
Despite this, many other researchers today say that these notions simply discount human agency. For the most part, they say, people gravitate to ideas and assertions they’re already inclined to believe, and those disposed to get enthusiastic or obsessive about things will do just that, of their own volition. Still, for families divided over political conspiracy theories—and even over belief systems involving left-wing, Satan-worshipping child sex rings—many cult experts ultimately settle on advice that makes restoring and cultivating relationships the primary focus.
“Number one: Do not confront. It absolutely does not work,” says Steve Eichel, a clinical psychologist in Delaware and specialist in cult recovery. And number two: “Maintain your relationship with that person no matter what.”
The anti-cult movement emerged in the 1970s, as a wave of new religious groups attracted young followers in the US. These included the Rajneeshees, whose rise in Oregon was the subject of a viral 2018 Netflix documentary; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas; and the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. These were joined by radical political organizations like the Symbionese Liberation Army, which gained national attention for the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, an actor and heir who went on to participate in an armed bank robbery with the group.
In some cases, adherents made dramatic changes to their lives, espousing beliefs that many of their friends and relatives found to be bizarre. Some groups took extreme paths: In particular, more than 900 followers of the Peoples Temple, a group based in San Francisco, died in 1978 at Jonestown, the compound their leader had built in Guyana, most from drinking a cyanide-laced punch.
Some alarmed parents and commentators labeled many of these movements cults. They described what happened to their children as brainwashing, and even as a new kind of pathology. “Destructive cultism is a sociopathic illness which is rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world in the form of a pandemic,” Eli Shapiro, a doctor whose son had joined the Hare Krishnas, wrote in the journal American Family Physician in 1977. Symptoms of the pathology, Shapiro wrote, included “behavioral changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society, and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders.”
In response, people began to organize. The American Family Foundation, launched in 1979, offered resources to families in distress. More hardline groups, like the Cult Awareness Network, helped arrange deprogrammings of group members. In some cases, deprogrammers would kidnap a group member, detain them for hours or days, and use arguments and videos to try to undo the brainwashing.
The anti-cult movement soon ran into opposition from many sociologists and historians of religion, who argued that the anti-cultists often targeted religious movements that, while exotic to most Americans, were doing nothing wrong. They also questioned the very idea that brainwashing and deprogramming were real phenomena. In one landmark study, Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, spent close to seven years studying members of the Unification Church, whose members are sometime called Moonies, after their leader. Barker followed people who entered church recruitment seminars, and she gave them numerous personality tests to measure things like suggestibility.
Barker argued that, far from experiencing brainwashing, the large majority of people who attended recruitment seminars opted not to join the Unification Church. Those who joined and stayed, she found, actually appeared to be more strong-willed and resistant to suggestion than those who had walked away. People who joined such groups, Barker tells Undark, did so because they found something that, for whatever reason, “fitted with what they were looking for and lacked in normal society.” In other words, they were members because they wanted to be members.
Today, scholars like Barker tend to eschew the term cult because of its pejorative connotations, instead sometimes referring to groups like the Unification Church as new religious movements, or NRMs. In response, some cult experts have accused sociologists and scholars of religions of whitewashing the behavior of abusive groups. But the brainwashing model also failed to gain the endorsement of many psychologists. In 1983, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to investigate the issue. The group’s members—mostly clinical psychologists and psychiatrists involved in anti-cult work—argued that groups did indeed draw members in through “deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control.” But the APA’s expert reviewers were skeptical. One complained that sections of the draft report the group produced in 1986 read like an article in The National Enquirer, rather than an academic study.
“In general,” the members of the APA’s ethics board wrote in a letter rejecting the task force’s findings, “the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur.” (Clinical psychiatrists have been warmer toward the idea of brainwashing than research psychologists; since 1987, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an authoritative source for the field, has warned of “identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion” that can result from “brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while captive,” and other traumas.)
The cultic studies field evolved. The hard-line Cult Awareness Network was bankrupted by legal actions, including a lawsuit stemming from a botched intervention in which deprogrammers seized an 18-year-old Christian fundamentalist, restrained him with handcuffs and duct tape, and held him captive in a beach house at the behest of the man’s mother. Today, Eichel said, deprogrammings are no longer done “by anyone ethical.”
The American Family Foundation began to make peace with the sociologists. The organization also renamed itself the International Cultic Studies Association. And while differences remain among people who study cults and NRMs, Langone, who has run the organization since 1981, said he is now friends with Barker and other scholars who once clashed with his organization.
Mchael Kropveld, who runs the Center for Assistance and for the Study of Cultic Phenomena, or Info-Cult, in Montreal, got his start in the field in 1978, when he helped organize the deprogramming of a friend who had joined the Unification Church. Since then, his approach has mellowed— the organization long ago abandoned deprogramming, and Kropveld said that he now finds the concept of brainwashing to be lacking.
“Using terms like brainwashing or mind control tend to imply some magical kind of process that goes on that happens to people that are unaware of what’s happening to them,” he says. Kropveld believes that techniques of influence exist, but he thinks the reasons people gravitate to groups tend to be more complicated and individualized.
Still, he acknowledges, ideas like brainwashing have an appeal. “Simplistic messages” with vivid labels, he says, “are the ones that get the most attention.”
Some cult experts continue to find ideas like brainwashing to be useful. One of the most prominent is Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church and the author of Combating Mind Control. In the past, Hassan has described the internet as a vehicle for mind control and “subliminal programming,” and he recently alleged that transgender “hypno porn” is being used as a form of “weaponized mind control” to recruit young people into gender transitions.
Watching Trump run for office in 2016 led to “a bizarre kind of déjà vu,” Hassan wrote in his most recent book, The Cult of Trump. “It struck me that Trump was exhibiting many of the same behaviors that I had seen in the late Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, whom I had worshipped as the messiah in the mid-70s.”
In the days since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Hassan has offered expert analysis for CNN, The Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, and other outlets, and he has fielded questions from a popular Reddit group for people whose loved ones are QAnon adherents. (Through an assistant, Hassan declined requests for an interview with Undark, citing a busy schedule.)
Some people outside the cultic studies world have also made similar arguments, including Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and consultant for the World Health Organization who, until recently, taught at Yale. In an email to Undark, Lee, who has helped promote Hassan’s work, wrote that a segment of Trump’s followers resembles cult members and suggested that the former president had cultivated a kind of mass psychosis.
She applies that analysis to a wide range of right-wing positions. Asked in a phone interview whether someone who believes that climate change is overblown and that progressive tax policy is a bad idea could be said to have an individual pathology, Lee demurred. “No,” she says, “I describe them as being victims of abuse.” Specifically, she explains, they suffered from “the abuse of systems that politics and industry have employed to psychologically manipulate the population into accepting policies that undermine their health, wellbeing, and even livelihood and lives.”
Not all experts in the cultic studies world buy this. Langone, the ICSA leader, specifically praised Hassan’s contributions to the field, but acknowledged that he’s skeptical of describing Trump followers as cultists. “I can understand why people don’t like Trump,” Langone said. “But to jump from not liking Trump to Trump as cult leader, I think, is a bit of a leap.” He also fears the cultic element of QAnon is “overplayed by some of my colleagues in this field” and that the influence of QAnon itself may be overstated by media coverage.
Allegations of brainwashing are also out of step with some recent psychology research on misinformation and conspiracy theories. “How much of someone going down that rabbit hole is due to that person’s need, in a way—or this misinformation or this activity, this community—rather than these methods being pushed by whatever person is in charge?” asks Hugo Mercier, a cognitive psychologist at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris and author of the 2020 book Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe.
Mercier argues that the brainwashing model often gets the process backward: Rather than tricking people into harmful thinking, effective propaganda—or even pure misinformation—gives them permission to openly express ideas they already found appealing.
Gordon Pennycook, a social psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada, also argues that, while it may seem to relatives that someone has changed suddenly as they fall down a rabbit hole, such accounts typically misapprehend the sequence of events. “It’s not that their minds are being taken over,” he says. “Their minds were susceptible to it in the first place. What’s been taken over is their interests, and their focus, and so on.” People who gravitate to conspiracies, Pennycook says, have consistent personality traits that make those ideas appealing. “It’s not the conspiracies that are causing them to be overly aggressive and resistant to alternative narratives,” Pennycook says. Instead, those traits are “the reason they are so strongly believing in the conspiracies.”
Many scholars of new religious movements are also skeptical of the idea that disinformation and conspiracy theories should be understood as somehow hijacking people’s minds. Megan Goodwin, a scholar of American minority religions at Northeastern University, says she has heard people describe outlets like Fox News as brainwashing. “People who are watching it are adults who are making choices to consume that media,” says Goodwin. Similarly, she said, “the people who mounted an armed insurrection to take over the Capitol are adults that made choices.” An idea like deprogramming, she added, “makes it sound like, okay, well they’ve had their agency and their faculties taken from them.”
She sees no evidence that’s the case, even if, she said, that narrative can be comforting. “They make shitty choices,” she says. “People you love are going to make shitty choices.”
Some families have gravitated toward cult specialists in the hopes that they can, indeed, help rescue a loved one from the tangled communities that grow around online conspiracy theories—and there are such specialists who say they can offer useful guidance, even if they can’t stage a full extraction. One of those is Ryan, the cult mediation specialist in Philadelphia. Raised in Florida, Ryan joined the Transcendental Meditation movement in his late teens and spent more than a decade as an avid practitioner of the popular global meditation movement, which was founded in the 1950s. Eventually, he came to believe he was part of a cult and left.
Whether it’s to field worries about a conspiratorial loved one or to mediate disagreement over membership in a religious movement, families who work with him fill out long questionnaires and may eventually participate in sessions that involve Ryan, his business partner, and a licensed psychiatrist. (Ryan, who has a degree in Eastern philosophy and business from Maharishi International University in Iowa, is not a licensed mental health counselor. That lets him intervene in “a way that it would be difficult for me to do given my professional license,” says Eichel, the Delaware psychologist, who sometimes refers families to Ryan.)
Ryan stressed that interventions are rare; usually, the extent of their work is helping families develop strategies to maintain a relationship. When Ryan and the family do decide on an intervention, it involves months of preparation. They sometimes employ elaborate ruses to coax the person into the room for a conversation with their relatives and Ryan.
Whether such methods are reliably effective is difficult to ascertain, and, practitioners acknowledge, there is little research on outcomes. “You can be simplistic, and lucky, and get the person out,” says Langone, the ICSA head, stressing that people’s reasons for joining and leaving groups are often highly individualized. “There are not good statistics on the effectiveness of exit counseling,” Langone says.
During a conversation in late January, Ryan estimated that, within the past year, he had consulted for roughly 20 families dealing with loved ones who had gone deep into QAnon or a similar community. He has not recommended formal interventions to any of them. “The basis of what we would recommend is to stay connected, and how to do that,” says Ryan. “Because to influence someone, you have to have a relationship with them.”
For now, the son of the Colorado conspiracy theorist said he’s gotten adept at finding ways to exit uncomfortable conversations, and he does what he can to lay low and avoid confrontation. He thinks anything else is likely to be ineffective. “I think it’s just going to ride itself out,” he said earlier this month.
He’s now less confident that will happen—especially since after the inauguration his father moved on to sharing anti-vaccination theories with his family—and he’s unsure of what the future will hold. “I just I don’t know where any of this is going to go,” he says, “with the way that there’s just so much crazy going on right now in the United States.”