The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Steven Hassan — Combating Cult Mind Control, Freedom of Mind, and The Cult of Trump

In this conversation, based on a leading cult expert Steven Hassan’s books (Combating Cult Mind Control, Freedom of Mind, and The Cult of Trump) you will acquire the tools you need to develop, use, and trust your critical thinking skills; your intuition; your bodily and emotional awareness; your ability to ask the right questions; and your skill at doing quick, useful research. You will also learn to create a healthy balance of openness and skepticism.

Steven Hassan is a mental health professional who specializes in helping people to recover from mind control as well as helping loved ones to exit without coercion. He has been helping people leave destructive relationships and organizations since 1976 after he was rescued from the infamous cult, the Moonies. Hassan directs the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, a counseling and publishing organization outside of Boston, and has taught at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is the author of Combating Cult Mind Control; Releasing the Bonds; Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs; and The Cult of Trump. See his course on mind control.

Shermer and Hassan discuss:

  • What is a cult?
  • types of cults: religious, political, psychotherapy/education, commercial, personality
  • cult characteristics: milieu control; mystical manipulation; demand for purity; confession; sacred science; loaded language; doctrine over person; dispensing of existence
  • cult leader profile: Narcissistic personality disorder/malignant narcissism; grandiosity; fantasies of success, power and attractiveness; excessive admiration; sense of entitlement; lack of empathy; envy; antisocial behavior; lying; interpersonally exploitative; sadism; harassment and silencing; violence; paranoia; allies; enemies
  • influence continuum
  • influence vs. undue influence vs. mind control/brainwashing.
  • BITE model: Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotion
  • Project MK-ULTRA
  • Jonestown; David Koresh and Waco; Scientology
  • strip search hoax
  • free will & determinism: if cults are so influential why doesn’t everyone fall for them?
  • How rational vs. irrational are humans? (Daniel Kahneman vs. Gerd Gingerenzer)
  • Not Born Yesterday: Hugo Mercier (see show notes below)
  • Kathleen Taylor’s Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control
  • Derren Brown’s Miracle (hypnotic control), The Push (getting someone to commit murder), The Sacrifice (getting someone to take a bullet for someone else)
  • stories of people who fell under the sway of cults and other forms of undue influence but who were able to break free
  • the many sophisticated ways that social media are now used for mind control
  • the many types of organizations that use mind control
  • the neuroscience behind mind control
  • what legislators, courts, mental health professionals, and ordinary citizens can do to resist mind control and make our world a safer place
  • the authoritarian mindset
  • Trump and his mind-control techniques
  • Trump’s diehard cult-like followers vs. Republicans who always vote GOP
  • how to undo mind control and get people out of cults.
About the Books

In Combating Cult Mind Control, Hassan discusses the evets of November 18, 1978, when over 900 people including a U.S. congressman Leo Ryan died because of Cult Leader Jim Jones. Over 300 were children forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid by their parents who believed they were doing God’s will. The techniques of undue influence have evolved dramatically, and continue to do so. Today, a vast array of methods exist to deceive, manipulate, and indoctrinate people into closed systems of obedience and dependency. If someone you love is already part of a mind control group, there is much you can do to help them break free and rebuild their life.

In Freedom of Mind, Hassan details his groundbreaking approach, the Strategic Interactive Approach, which can be used to help a loved one leave such a situation. Step-by-step, Hassan shows you how to: evaluate the situation; interact with dual identities; develop communication strategies using phone calls, letter writing and visits; understand and utilize cult beliefs and tactics; use reality-testing and other techniques to promote freedom of mind. He emphasizes the value of meeting with trained consultants to be effectively guided and coached and also to plan and implement effective interventions.

In The Cult of Trump, Hassan also considers the cult-like followers of Donald Trump. He lies constantly, has no conscience, never admits when he is wrong, and projects all of his shortcomings on to others. He has become more authoritarian, more outrageous, and yet many of his followers remain blindly devoted. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and a major Trump supporter, calls him one of the most persuasive people living. His need to squash alternate information and his insistence of constant ego stroking are all characteristics of other famous cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Ron Hubbard, and Sun Myung Moon, arguing that this presidency is in many ways like a destructive cult.

Skeptical vs. Gullible

Despite the big hullaballoo around it, the idea that post-truthiness could invade the brains of gullible citizens is gainsaid by new research by cognitive scientists that demonstrates that people are not nearly as gullible as we’ve been led to believe. That is the thesis of the book Not Born Yesterday, in which the cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier presents a mountain of evidence “against the idea that humans are gullible, that they are ‘wired not to seek truth’.” Mercier reveals through both laboratory research and real-world examples that “far from being gullible, we are endowed with a suite of cognitive mechanisms that evaluate what we hear or read.” And far from defaulting to believing everything we hear, Mercier notes that “by default we veer on the side of being resistant to new ideas. In the absence of the right cues, we reject messages that don’t fit with our preconceived views or preexisting plans. To persuade us otherwise takes long-established, carefully maintained trust, clearly demonstrated expertise, and sound arguments.”1 In fact, evolution could not have created animals that are so gullible as to be routinely exploited by others, as that would ultimately lead to reproductive failure and the extinction of extreme gullibility. The search for the balance between belief and skepticism led to an evolutionary arms race between deception and deception detection, and this eventually led to the development of cognitive mechanisms that help us decide if and how much we can trust what we hear or read.2

Mass persuasion, for example, is extremely difficult to pull off, and most attempts at it fail miserably at large scales: this is because when scaled up from two-person communication to large audiences, trust cues do not scale up accordingly. Most preachers, prophets, and demagogues are lost to history, but because of the availability bias we only remember the biggest names in the genre, such as Jesus and Hitler. But even these examples flounder upon further inspection. In his own time, Jesus was a disappointment at starting a new religion (which might not have been his mission in any case), and even the apostle Paul barely got Christianity rolling. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the population of Christians was in the range of millions.3 This sounds impressive until we consider the power of compound interest, as a result of which a small but steady growth can yield an enormous figure given enough time. Invest $1 at a constant yearly interest rate of 1% in the year 0. If the dividends are reinvested, by the year 2020 the investment would be worth over $2.4 billion. Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, estimates Christianity’s growth rate at 3.5% over the centuries. This means that even if each Christian only saves a few souls in a lifetime, the religion could easily compile tens of millions of followers in a matter of a few centuries, and over two billion by today.4

As for Hitler, I have spent much of my career trying to understand how a nation of educated, enlightened, and cultured people could be brainwashed into becoming goose-stepping Nazis in a matter of a few years. There is now compelling evidence that, in fact, most Germans did not accept Nazi ideology, nor many of the planks in the regime platform, especially its militarist and exterminationist policies. We now know that most of Hitler’s military leaders did not want war in 1939 and warned their Führer that they were unprepared if other nations fought back ferociously.5 And certainly German citizens, satisfied with Hitler’s economic policies that pulled the country out of the depression, were uninterested in risking it all through foreign entanglements from which few would personally benefit. As the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring told the psychiatrist Gustave Gilbert at the Nuremberg trials following the war:

Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. … That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.6

It’s a revealing observation that hints at how real political conspiracies actually work, and how to get people to go along with them.

Even the anti-Semitism so famously on display in Hitler’s writings and speeches was only effective on Germans who were already anti-Semitic.7 In fact, the euthanasia of the handicapped in the 1930s was resisted by most Germans and got so much bad press that the Nazis made the program secret and issued orders to never speak of it. This policy was ramped up and implemented through the Final Solution and the Holocaust, which was shrouded in secrecy and mostly carried out in Poland, far from the prying eyes of the German people.8 By 1942, most citizens did not believe the declarations of victory issued by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and instead relied on secreted BBC reports of how the war was really going for Germany (not well). As the Nazi Security Service of the Reichsführer-SS reported, “Our propaganda encounters rejection everywhere among the population because it is regarded as wrong and lying.”9

The Third Reich, in fact, was largely held aloft for 12 years—from when Hitler came to power as a minority party candidate in 1933 to the final Götterdammerung in the Berlin bunker in 1945—by two forces: (1) pluralistic ignorance, or the spiral of silence, when everyone believes that everyone else believes something (when in fact they don’t),10 and (2) the suppression of dissent by controlling all media and imprisoning those who speak out against the regime: the Nazi KL system included hundreds of concentration camps deliberately set up in working-class neighborhoods so the population could see for themselves what happens to those who oppose the regime.11 Thus, here we are reminded of the necessity of free speech and a free press to oppose conspiracies, real and imagined. In a wide-ranging conversation for my podcast I asked Mercier directly, “are we living in a post-truth era?” His answer was illuminating for our understanding of conspiracies, including recent ones about Russian influence on the 2016 election through their manipulation of social media:

In many ways it’s better than it’s ever been, in that people are more informed than they used to be, and because of that they tend to be more consistent in their points of view. Fake news, for example, is a very marginalized phenomenon. Only a few percent of Twitter or Facebook users actually saw or spread fake news, and it doesn’t appear to affect those who see it. People still want accurate opinions and they care about the truth. Even people who support Trump—studies show when you show them that something about Trump is fake news they accept that, even while maintaining their support for Trump.12

The reason so many Trump loyalists maintained their support of him—despite many specific claims he made that were exposed as falsehoods—is that he spoke a deeper truth to them, a mythic truth about the deep state, a political truth about how governments work, or a lived-experience truth about lost jobs or forgotten freedoms, with a patina of racism and sexism that appealed to a certain faction of the authoritarian right. Let’s look closer at how such truths are defended in order to understand how conspiracy beliefs are maintained in the teeth of contradictory evidence.

  1. Mercier, Hugo. 2020. Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 257, 270–271.
  2. Trivers, Robert. 2011. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Ehrman, Bart D. 2018. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Stark, Rodney. 2011. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. New York: HarperOne.
  5. Kershaw, Ian. 1983. “How Effective was Nazi Propaganda?” In D. Welch (Ed.), Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations (180–205). London: Croom Helm, 199.
  6. Gilbert, Gustave. 1947/1995. “Interview with Herman Goering.” Nuremberg Diary. Da Capo Press, 122.
  7. Mercier, 2020, 113–127.
  8. Shermer, Michael. 2000. Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist. Cambridge University Press, 123–172.
  9. Mercier, 2020, 113–127.
  10. See: Prentice, D. A. and D. T. Miller. 1993. “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. February, 64(2): 243–256; Lambert, Tracy A., Arnold S. Kahn, and Kevin J. Apple. 2003. “Pluralistic Ignorance and Hooking Up.” The Journal of Sex Research. Vol. 40, No. 2, May, 129–133.
  11. Wachsmann, Nikloaus. 2015. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  12. The Michael Shermer Show. 2020. Episode 101. “The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe.” January 28.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on January 28, 2023.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy