Responding to Authoritarian Cults and Extreme Exploitations: A New Framework to Evaluate Undue Influence

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How can we evaluate undue influence to get justice for victims of cults and other exploitation situations?


(This is the first of a 3-part article. The next articles will discuss a study exploring the notions presented here as well as their clinical and practical implications—Ed.)

To properly address the wrongs done to victims of destructive cults and other extreme exploitation situations, the justice system needs to understand and incorporate research on human development and undue influence.1 Current law assumes, incorrectly, that human beings make rational choices once they reach the age of majority despite the fact that neuroscientific research shows the brain continues to mature until age 25.1,2 In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman demonstrated that most human beings depend on unconscious heuristics to make fast decisions and use slow, conscious data analysis only when necessary.3 Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno once wisely observed that “more people feel their way through life than think their way through life.”4

In this series of 3 articles, we present a new framework for evaluating undue influence. This installment will summarize some of the main issues with undue influence in the legal system as well as the main thought reform or brainwashing models. The Social Influence Model is a much-needed framework for experts to be able to do a competent job presenting a forensic analysis of undue influence in courts.5 The BITE (Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional Control) Model of Authoritarian Control, which has been qualitatively validated for over 30 years, is the subject of this research study, which will be presented in the second installment of this series. Until now, neither of these existing thought reform models have been evaluated quantitatively. The third installment will evaluate the results of the research study and explain how this new framework will help the legal system provide a better tool to evaluate individuals under undue influence to provide them with the justice they deserve.

Where Defining Undue Influence Is Important

Testamentary Capacity: Thomas Gutheil, MD, evaluated a young man involved with the Sun Myung Moon organization to determine if his decision to give money to that group was a competent one. (This article’s primary author belonged to the same group from 1974 to 1976.) Using a standardized method of conducting a cognitive assessment, the examiner administered a mental status exam. The participant gave a fluent, reasoned presentation about his decision, and Gutheil reported that the man handled the cognitive factors in the Mental State Examination. However, the administration of the proverbs test for abstract thinking proved difficult and disorganizing. Using existing guidelines and aside from the man’s difficulty with abstract reasoning, Gutheil did not find sufficient evidence that the young man was unfit. Although the decision was regarded as unwise by the examiner, it could not be demonstrated to be incompetent.

Multilevel Marketing (MLM). Consumer protection agencies have labeled pyramid schemes that defraud the public with false claims of becoming rich as illegal. These plans could be described as Ponzi schemes with people instead of money. Recognizing its inherent dangers, Noah Joshua Phillips, who served on the Federal Trade Commission, noted that even MLM experts shared the need to better define undue influence for the international problem of MLM.6 Specifically, although existing laws penalize the company and, in some cases, attempt to levy fines, no attention is given to the psychological harm done to those ensnared. Harm on such individuals can include loss of marriage, loss of relationships with family and friends, and loss of real career opportunities. Further research needs to be done to determine the public health harms, which include alcohol and substance addiction, depression, panic disorders, sleep disorders, and even suicide.

Radicalization of Adults (Online or In-Vivo Recruitment). More than 500 people were arrested after the attack on the Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.7 Many people have pled guilty and have expressed regret, saying they were deceived. Some people report following Donald Trump’s instructions as president; others have been involved with QAnon and other online groups. Some groups like the Proud Boys hold “in-vivo” meetings and have encouraged violence; they believe the present government is illegitimate. Islamic extremist groups recruit and indoctrinate individuals to enact violence and terrorism,1 and defectors of ISIS are put in camps by officials with no way to systematically discern whether the individuals are no longer dangerous or if they can be returned to their country of origin. The model described in this article might serve as a foundation to develop humane policies that encourage justice.

Models for Evaluation of Undue Influence

This paper provides an explanation of some models that have helped shape a framework to evaluate undue influence. One of the 3 models provides statistical analysis and potential solutions on how to evaluate or assess undue influence in the legal system. Each model is detailed as follows.

The Influence Continuum of Due Influence (Ethical) to Undue Influence (Unethical). In order to have a framework that can protect an individual from undue influence, one needs to utilize an influence continuum that is broad and easy to understand. On the ethical side of the continuum, informed consent is a vital practice. People need accurate information about the recruiter, the ideology, and what happens to them if they say yes to the proffered decision. Ethical, healthy influence recognizes that each person is unique. This framework assumes that individuals should enjoy freewill, critical thinking, conscience, creativity, humor, and love, as spelled out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights8 (Table 1).

The themes described in the continuum are fleshed out by evaluation using the BITE model, which is detailed later in the article. Using these models, a motivated individual with modest research skills and digital access can verify claims about credentials and the methods and practices of organizations. Independent research must include critics and former members of the relevant group or organization. Lastly, researchers need to hold their own belief and value systems while learning about other ideological systems.1

The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control

The Control of Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotion—as a Guide to Evaluating Groups and Situations. The BITE model is derived from the work of psychiatrists Robert Jay Lifton, MD, and Louis Jolyon West, MD,9 and psychologists Edgar Schein, PhD, and Margaret Singer, PhD, all of whom were involved in researching communist brainwashing. The BITE model presents a simpler, more concrete way to help people understand the complex phenomena entailed with cult and other forms of mind control.

The model began with the realization that Leon Festinger, PhD’s, famous theory of cognitive dissonance held a vital theoretical key10: Festinger argued that beliefs have cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Festinger was studying a UFO-focused cult and was very curious why people did not leave the group when the spacecraft failed to appear on the designated mountain at the appointed time. In fact, the contrary occurred: Believers became even more firmly committed to their belief in aliens and the leader’s knowledge about them. Festinger proposed that human beings dislike conflict and prefer to have consistency or congruence so that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are aligned. These ideas laid the foundation for all cognitive behavioral therapy.10 Individuals who make public commitments (behaviors) that become at variance with their private beliefs will often change their beliefs to be congruent with their behavior. Thus, influencers attempt to get others to act in certain ways so that they will think in different ways.

The BITE model uses these 3 components—behavior, thought, and emotion—and adds information as a fourth and overlapping component. The model proposes that behavior, thought, emotional, and information control constitute the 4 components of mind control.11 Human beings operate on the information they receive to function. Our brain relies on our senses to filter and evaluate data so that we can decide how to act. Sensory deprivation and information overload create conditions in which human beings cannot function optimally. Cults may suppress the real self and build a new identity over it that is controlled by the external authority or cult leader. This is a crucial insight into understanding the dissociative disorder 300.15 cited in the DSM-5, fifth edition.12

The BITE model identifies and fleshes out specific components that characterize destructive cult policies. Since 1988, tens of thousands of individuals have reported that the BITE model has helped them identify their involvement in a destructive cult, enabling them to exit and reclaim their power. Its value has been demonstrated by individuals involved in a wide variety of destructive cults and controlling relationships across the world. Below are the BITE model criteria. The more criteria present under each component, the more controlling the destructive relationship or group is determined to be.

Behavior Control. The ultimate goal of behavior control is to instill dependency on and obedience to the group, its ideology, and its leadership. All major life decisions must be approved or dictated by the group. A member who does not first get permission for major decisions faces punishment. Individualism is discouraged and putting the group first is mandatory. Rigid rules and regulations are mandated and enforced. Thoughts, feelings, and activities—of self or others—must be reported to superiors.

In typical cult settings, clothing and hairstyle are among the factors used to create and enforce conformity.13 Members frequently need to live with approved people in approved housing. Control of diet, as well as fasting, is often used. Of course, sexuality is strictly controlled and regulated by cult leadership. Typically, members are sleep deprived. Research has demonstrated that individuals on average require 7 to 9 hours of sleep.14 Members are typically financially exploited, manipulated, or made entirely dependent. Usually, group indoctrination and self-indoctrination sessions demand many hours of members’ lives.15 The internet serves as a 24/7 indoctrination tool for mind controllers to keep members fully committed.16 There is little non-group leisure time or vacation time away. Those in power distribute rewards for “good” behavior and punishments for “bad” behavior.

Information Control. Analyzing information is vital to understanding undue influence. For example, an ethical group will inform newcomers about who the group is, what its members believe, and what is expected of them if they become members. An unethical group uses deception by lying outright, withholding vital information, or distorting information to make it appear more acceptable. Often, all 3 types of lying are used, undermining the legal right of citizens to have informed consent to make decisions in their best interest.

Authoritarian cults usually have a pyramid shape with circles that emanate from its base (Figure).

Data flow from the top downward. The senior leadership decides who needs to know what and when people should know anything at all. There can be sharp discrepancies between what members hear versus what outsiders learn. The individual’s level of involvement needs to be considered in this framework. Individuals experience the unduly influencing organization at very different levels of involvement. By far, the vast majority of members are fringe members and are only ideologically influenced, but they are not part of the rank-and-file indoctrination.

When a forensic evaluation on social influence is conducted, determining how high up in the command-and-control structure the person is placed is essential. Leadership might mean greater privileges, separate housing, salary, and access to internal leadership documents and meetings. It might be a title and therefore higher status, but without independent decision-making ability. Members of destructive cults might get promoted and demoted several times over years of involvement. This, too, is significant. The position in the cult is also significant because lower-level members might not have access to outside sources of news at all. The legal department will know much more information that exists at the upper levels of the pyramid than the department of public relations.

Members must spy on others, including family and friends. Improper thoughts, feelings, and actions must be reported to leadership; otherwise, the person who fails to report will get into trouble, too. Many groups use a buddy system to monitor and control its members, especially when they are out proselytizing in public areas. The information gained about a member’s past, either through formal confessionals or reporting, is used to maintain group control. These data include false confessions17 of childhood abuse that may have been “remembered” through suggestive counseling or group practices.18 If a member starts showing signs of wishing to leave the group, the leadership will typically use this information and the threat of disclosure to get the member back in line.

Mind control cults, especially political cults, rely on the extensive use of propaganda.19 Websites and public and private videos are available 24/7, and meetings are often live streamed. Bigger groups have publication departments that churn out newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, podcasts, blogs, apps, and other media. Famous people are quoted, often without their permission and totally out of context, but in a way that supports the credibility of the group.

To be independent thinkers, people require information from a wide variety of reputable sources. Cults indoctrinate members to distrust critics, former members, and any media that is negative. Some groups tell members to avoid newspapers, books, articles, TV, radio, and any academic, science-based information. Some controllers keep believers so busy that they do not have time to think, check things out, or make outside relationships. Other groups control believers through their cell phones with GPS tracking, frequent texting, or calls. Some authoritarian groups have countless “front” groups to hide the parent organization.

Thought Control. Hypnotic and suggestive strategies that induce an altered state of consciousness are often used to reprogram people’s thoughts and memories.20 Other techniques to induce thought control range from hours of tedious, monotonous lectures several times a week where members must memorize and regurgitate the correct answers, to audible prayers, chanting, speaking in tongues, and meditation, in ways that reduce critical thinking. Eyes-closed visualizations and guided meditation techniques can allow a group to insert thoughts and beliefs into their members.

The ideology of authoritarian groups, as discussed previously, is typically all-or-nothing, black-and-white, us-versus-them, and good-versus-evil. Members believe the doctrine to be the ultimate “truth” that is sacred and scientific.21 Members learn “thought-stopping” techniques to keep themselves pure and resist evil thoughts. The language system of closed groups can be an actual dialect not shared by outsiders. “Thought-terminating clichés” make complex ideas into platitudinous buzzwords known only by other members. Not all groups give members new names; however, when they do, it is a powerful technique that supports changes in the person’s identity.16,22,23

Critical questions about the leader, the doctrine, or the organization’s policies are avoided or forbidden. Rational analysis, critical thinking, and even constructive criticism are deemed wrong. When members express this, it is turned around on them as a weakness of character and lack of devotion. All other groups and their belief systems are illegitimate, evil, or, at the very least, not useful.

Emotional Control. Individuals are often initially “love-bombed” and flattered, sometimes with overt flirting to make them feel “special.” However, cult love is conditional upon being a good cult member and is quickly withdrawn if the person makes trouble by asking problematic questions. Members are required to always be grateful and happy, as they are part of the chosen people who “know the truth.” They believe they have the key to the world’s salvation. Members often sing songs written about the leader, the doctrine, or the group to keep positive. Listening to music, and especially singing cult songs to themselves as well as in the community, helps members access positive emotional states.

Members learn techniques like thought-stopping24 and emotion-stopping, mainly to block feelings of homesickness, anger toward leadership, or doubt. Whenever individuals feel depressed, anxious, or fearful, they are encouraged to feel guilty and engage in practices to further surrender themselves to the great leader or group. Whenever there is a problem, the group and leader are always right, and it is the member’s fault. If members feel healthy emotions, like sexual attraction to someone who is not approved, they are told they are evil and sinful or tempting Satan. Likewise, jealousy, greed, and envy are considered negative, so members deny and suppress them.

Sometimes members must repent publicly and confess these negative emotions. They are made to feel guilty, selfish, unworthy, and even unspiritual. The group can even try to make them feel guilty for their religion of origin, race, country, and personal history. The system of being in the cult always keeps people frustrated and dependent. Cult leaders want members to derive positive self-esteem by being a part of the group, not by individual accomplishments. Guilt and fear are the 2 most frequently used emotional control techniques.

One nearly universal technique used by cults was first described as phobia indoctrination.2,25-28 Obviously, phobias can be devastating and disrupt a person’s ability to function. Cult leaders either piggyback their programming onto preexisting phobias or implant phobias into members’ minds to such an extent that the members cannot imagine being happy and fulfilled without the group. In a cult member’s thinking, leaving the group equals loss of existence.26 Phobias can be diverse and range from fears about spiritual health (ie, going to hell, being possessed by demons, losing one’s soul) and physical health, (ie, getting cancer or AIDS, being killed by a car) to psychological health (ie, going insane, being committed to a mental hospital, being given drugs, or never being a success).29

Individuals can be emotionally threatened or coerced into remaining members even if they no longer believe because they fear being called “bad” or sinful by leadership. Members might be afraid that family and friends will stop interacting with them unless they repent, return, and toe the line. Some members’ livelihoods may be dependent upon remaining in the group. Emotional coercion is especially forceful for individuals who were raised in the group and convinced to avoid the outside world as evil and, therefore, do not know anyone who can help them exit. Some groups will threaten physical and psychological violence, blackmail, and extortion if one tries to leave the authoritarian group. These threats can be directed not only to members, but also to their loved ones.

The Scheflin Social Influence Model (SIM)

Experts have 2 functions in the present context. The first is to collect and evaluate the scientific evidence relevant to the claim of undue influence, and the second is to testify about these data as they pertain to the facts of the case. Because the relevant audience (judges and jurors) is not scientifically trained, the complex published literature must be explained in terms understandable to those who are unacquainted with this specialized knowledge.

For example, in cases involving what was called “the battered woman syndrome,” where one domestic partner would periodically physically beat the other partner, jurors generally thought to themselves, “Why would the victim stay with the batterer? I would just leave.” Using this reasoning, jury verdicts were hard to obtain, and monetary rewards were small. But when social scientists demonstrated the vitality of the concept of “learned helplessness” and testifying experts carefully explained this idea to jurors, battered domestic partners began to get substantial financial and emotional relief. Similarly, when social scientists discovered what is now called Stockholm syndrome, jurors could understand why victims often bond with their captors. In cult cases, victims often identify with their cult leaders and refuse to testify against them. In some situations, lying to protect the leader is considered “heavenly deception.”30

In the complex world of undue influence, what was needed was a model that expert witnesses could use in the legal system that offered an easily understood framework for evaluating complex scientific data. One major objection that has been raised to applying undue influence more widely is what is called the slippery-slope argument. Undue influence, like reasonable doubt and unconscionable contracts, does not have easily defined contours. It is a matter of judgment, not measurement. Thus, putting limits on it is possible only in specific cases, and only after enough judicial rulings define the applicable contours.

Some commentators believe that undue influence falls within that same category—and, indeed, it does. However, the fact that a slope is slippery does not mean that the slope does not exist. Indeed, criminal cases are decided by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Many courts have refused to define reasonable doubt to juries because the definition itself—if we had one—would be more complex than letting the jurors get the underlying sense of the idea that the proof to convict must be exceptionally high, bordering on certainty. While the dividing line between due and undue influence may not be easy to define, the general sense is easily understood: “You just can’t treat people that way and get away with it.”

The SIM framework describes a robust social context that an expert witness can analyze in a case for presentation to the judge or jury. Interviews with family members and friends are quite helpful, as is collecting any writings by the influencee that show a radical change in personality and belief systems.

Alan W. Scheflin, JD, became concerned that victims of cults could not obtain financial relief in courts because judges would not hear their cases. Plaintiffs sought to present their claims using theories of brainwashing, mind control, and thought reform. Because these were not recognized legal theories, judges threw these cases out of court. What was needed was (1) a legal theory acceptable to courts and (2) a way of explaining complex ideas to judges and juries. The first problem was solved by using the well-recognized legal theory of undue influence—that opened the courtroom door. The second problem was solved by the creation of the SIM framework, which was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Elephant’s Child”31:

I keep six honest serving-men
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When and
How and Where and Who.

Scheflin identifies each of the 6 elements of his SIM with one of the “servants” given in the poem, outlined in Table 2.

Individuals generally take in information more easily with their eyes than with their ears. Imagine the SIM on a chart or presentation. It is easily understood, it structures the interaction between the parties, and it lets jurors see precisely where the relevant science may be used to prove each of the 6 elements.

Concluding Thoughts and Next Steps

In summary, it is clear that the Influence Continuum and BITE model offer significant behavioral components of the Social Influence Model. The Influence Continuum and BITE model aim to develop a quantitative instrument that is both reliable and valid in measuring the constructs of the BITE model. They also attempt to offer solid criteria for determining the destructive, unhealthy end of the Influence Continuum, which has been described by the other respected models of thought reform and brainwashing.26,29,32

The next installment of this series will present the methodology of research to validate the BITE Model of Mind Control, a new framework for evaluating undue influence.

(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.


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