Putting the New Framework into Practice

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Evaluating a new framework for evaluating undue influence and its implications for elder abuse and human trafficking cases.


(This is the final part of a 3-part series. The first 2 pieces discussed undue influence models as well as research assessing a new proposed framework—Ed.)

Does the Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional (BITE) Model of Authoritarian Control, a new framework for evaluating undue influence, offer a statistically valid new construct called authoritarian control? The 4 components have statistically shown that the BITE model of behavior, information, thought, and emotional control boils down to nearly 1 factor: authoritarian control.

The use of the term authoritarian requires mention of concerns that arose from Theodor W. Adorno’s original Authoritarian Personality study with its f-scale of authoritarianism.1-4 Adorno used psychoanalytic groundwork and focused on individual personality. The BITE model does not look at a person’s susceptibility, although this is an important focus within the Social Influence Model (SIM) proposed by Alan W. Scheflin, JD. The BITE model offers a way to evaluate the social-psychological and behavioral forces exerted on individuals to recruit them and retain their membership.

Furthermore, there was criticism that the Adorno research was aimed at individuals who were politically right-of-center and not politically left-of-center. The Influence Continuum and BITE models posit that there can be authoritarian control in any kind of relationship or political orientation—right, left, religious, psychotherapy, or multi-level marketing (MLM)—as long as the group relies on using these components as policy.

The BITE model of authoritarian control is primarily a social psychological, behavioral construct that offers a unique way to analyze healthy and unhealthy influence. Out of 1044 participants, 79.32% belonged to the United States, and 20.68% belonged to other countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and so forth.

The majority of participants—67%—were female, and 32% were male. Similarly, most participants were educated and employed; 41% went to college, and 30% had a master’s or a doctoral degree. Seventy percent of participants had either full-time or part-time employment, while approximately 30% of the population was unemployed, retired, or disabled. The white/Caucasian population was the majority in answering the survey with a total of 90%; approximately 2% were Black/African Americans and 5% of multiple ethnicities. Ninety-nine percent of people were comfortable answering the survey in the English language.

A large percentage of individuals—around 60%—were born or raised in a high-control organization. Most respondents belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormonism, Scientology, People of Praise, Humanism/Atheism, Christianity, and MLM groups. Although MLM groups have BITE model issues, fringe members would not likely experience high control. However, a percentage of individuals become consumed and then will invest most of their time and money in recruiting and indoctrination seminars, audiotapes, and books. In Part 2 of this series, demographics like the Boy Scouts, Christianity, and atheists were discussed, although none of which have either the pyramid structure or concerning BITE model criteria.

Although the BITE model has served people for more than 30 years in their exit of controlling relationships and groups, the study presented in this series is the first quantitative study that offers a scientific basis, which might prove useful for examining undue influence in judicial settings. Interestingly, most respondents were raised in only 2 groups: the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because our sample was a convenience sample, the generalizability of the results is limited.

Controversial groups like authoritarian cults are challenging to study due to the nature of the authoritarian control. Members are either kept away from objective researchers or are coached in responding to questions. Former members often do not fully appreciate they left an authoritarian group, as even though they have exited—by running away, by being kicked out, or through intervention counseling—they still carry the indoctrination.1

The BITE model and the Influence Continuum have a more than 30-year history of helping individuals worldwide realize that they were not in a healthy relationship or group. Using the BITE model of authoritarian control in conjunction with Scheflin’s Social Influence Model (SIM), expert witnesses can deliver a detailed, easy-to-understand analysis of social influence to judges and juries, and the court can overcome the slippery slope objection. The authoritarian control construct can be utilized on a case-by-case basis, and hopefully help establish a new legal precedent. The SIM framework offers this structure, which can be applied relative to many different cases. Of course, the jury or judge will decide if there was exploitation by an influencer over an influencee.

Schein’s model is used to describe the phenomenon of political or cult thought reform, coercive persuasion, or brainwashing. All the concepts and problematic behaviors are fundamentally anchored within the BITE and Influence Continuum models. Additionally, the California law regarding undue influence as it applied to the elderly was discussed and aligns with the authoritarian control BITE model. The federal trafficking law criteria fit the BITE model, and the UK laws against coercive control include the construct of the BITE model.

Practical Implications

Undue Influence for the Elderly, California Law. California probate law considers undue influence focused on the elderly to be a violation of their human rights. In 2010, a thorough research report on undue influence was prepared for the Borchard Foundation Center for Law and Aging.5,6 The project director, Mary Joy Quinn, RN, MA, wrote “Defining Undue Influence” in Bifocal, A Journal of the American Bar Association.7 In 2014, Quinn’s article led to a California law concerning undue influence and the elderly. Several years later a protocol for screening undue influence was developed to help adult protective services evaluate whether elderly individuals have been subjected to undue influence.8

California Probate Code §86 states that “undue influence” has the same meaning as defined in Section §15610.70 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code. This is how California Law, as well as the BITE and Influence Continuum models are more robust and about protecting elderly individuals not only from financial abuse by family/children, but from overall influence.6,9

Trafficking Laws. Labor and sex trafficking is considered a crime internationally. In the United States, the government has also passed a law to make labor and sex trafficking illegal. Federal law defines trafficking as using force, fraud, or coercion to enslave a person.10 The elements of coercion, according to the US Office on Trafficking in Persons,11 are outlined in the Table.

On June 19, 2019, Keith Raniere was found guilty of 7 counts of trafficking for his involvement in the NXIVM cult. More recently, R. Kelly was also found guilty of trafficking in September 2021. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison,12 and Kelly faces a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison.13 These 2 groundbreaking cases open the door for potential future successful trafficking cases against those who practice undue influence.14

The BITE model helps officials wishing to assist victims of trafficking as well as prosecute traffickers. It offers a robust way to explain undue influence to judges and juries trying cases. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin published an article titled “A Victim-Centered Approach to Sex Trafficking Cases,” in which the BITE model is featured to help explain the mind control used to recruit and indoctrinate individuals into slavery.15

Concluding Thoughts

Undue influencers are interested in telling us what to think; they are disinclined to teach us how to think. That is our job. Our minds are like our homes—both need our protection. As Thomas R. Dewar wisely observed, “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when open.” Although it is true that generally we learn more about taking care of our bodies than we do about taking care of our minds, in fact it is our mind that gives us our identity. We are our own first line of defense. If that line fails, we can take solace in the fact that there are others striving to enlist courts and legislators to be our second line of defense. That is the intent and purpose of the research presented in this series.

(Interested readers are invited to attend the presentation, “The BITE of Cults in Our Culture in the Age of COVID,” on Sunday, May 22, 2022, from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, in which Dr Hassan will be a copresenter.)

Dr Hassan is a mental health professional and expert working for over 45 years in the field of destructive authoritarian control (undue influence) in relationships, organizations, and belief systems. He is the author of 4 books including Combating Cult Mind Control and Freedom of Mind. He founded the Freedom of Mind Resource Center. He is the developer of the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, the Influence Continuum Model, and the Strategic Interactive Approach. All are instrumental in helping empower individuals to exit authoritarian cults, trafficking, extremist groups, conspiracy theories, and controlling relationships.

Dr Gutheil is professor of psychiatry and cofounder of the Program in Psychiatry and Law, Beth Israel Deaconess Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. He is the first professor of psychiatry in the history of Harvard Medical School to be board certified in both clinical and forensic psychiatry. An internationally known forensic psychiatrist and author of over 300 publications in the national and international clinical and forensic literature, Gutheil has served as a consulting or expert witness in more than 40 states. Recipient of every major award in the forensic field and multiple teaching and writing awards, he is also the recipient of the 2000 A. Clifford Barger Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award, Harvard Medical School. Gutheil lives and works in the Boston area.

Mrs Shah was born in India and is a resident of the United States. She is a research associate at Dare Association, Inc., and a member of the Program in Psychiatry and Law at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. She has a double master’s in psychology and writes articles based on her knowledge of behavioral and experimental psychology.


1. Frenkel-Brunswik E, Adorno TW, Levinson DJ, et al. The Authoritarian Personality. Harper & Brothers; 1950.

2. Frenkel-Brunswik E, Adorno TW, Levinson DJ, et al. The Authoritarian Personality. Verso; 2019.

3. Altemeyer B. Highly dominating, highly authoritarian personalitiesJ Soc Psychol. 2004;144(4):421-447.

4. Altemeyer B. The Authoritarians. The author; 2006.

5. Undue Influence: Definitions and Applications. California Administrative Office of the Courts; 2010.

6. Protecting the rights, independence, and safety of older people by exploring barriers, sharing information and ideas, and providing a voice from the field to policy makers. California Elder Justice Coalition; 2020.

7. Quinn MJ. Defining undue influence. American Bar Association. February 1, 2014.

8. Quinn MJ, Nerenberg L, Navarro AE, et al. Developing an undue influence screening tool for adult protective services. J Elder Abuse Negl. 2017;29(2-3)L157-185.

9. Hassan S. Undue influence and the law. California Elder Justice Coalition. January 3, 2022. Accessed January 5, 2022.

10. FY 2017 HHS excerpts from the attorney general’s annual report on U.S. government activities to combat trafficking. Office on Trafficking in Persons, US Department of Health & Human Services; 2017.

11. Fact sheet: human trafficking. Office on Trafficking in Persons, US Department of Health & Human Services; 2017.

12. Hong N, Piccoli S. Keith Raniere, leader of NXIVM sex cult, is sentenced to 120 years in prison. The New York Times. October 27, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2021.

13. Tsioulcas A. R. Kelly found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking. NPR. September 27, 2021. Accessed October 11, 2021.

14. Laisure RB. Employing trafficking laws to capture elusive leaders of destructive cults. Or Rev Int Law. 2016;17(2):205-258.

15. Alvarez L, Cañas-Moreira J. A victim-centered approach to sex trafficking cases. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. November 9, 2015. Accessed October 15, 2020.