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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Constructing Social Reality

Constructing Social Reality is the twentieth program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program looks at the process and elements of interpreting reality. You'll explore the power of cognitive control, the Pygmalion effect, the development of prejudice, and how expectations affect behaviors like performance and compliance.

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Interview Excerpt: Steven Hassan on the Power of Cults and the Myths Surrounding Them

Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Cult Expert Steven Hassan addresses the factors that enable cults to gain and control the minds of followers.

My definition of a cult is a pyramid-structured, authoritarian group or relationship where deception, recruitment, and mind control are used to keep people dependent and obedient. A cult can be a very small group or it can contain a whole country. The emphasis of mind control is what I call the BITE model: the control of behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions.

Popular opinion looks at cults and blames the victims. One of the myths about destructive cults is that its members are weak or stupid, or that they come from a bad family. But in my 23 years of cult counseling, most of the people I’ve worked with are intelligent, educated, idealistic, ambitious, and caught at a vulnerable moment in their lives.

Another myth is that cults have gone away, when in fact cult mind control is on the rise. One reason for this increase is that advances in technology make information widely available and easy to spread. We have mass media and the Internet. We also have the phenomenon of second- and third-generation mind control cults. That’s when someone gets recruited into a group, leaves it, doesn’t get counseling, and then later has a “revelation” and ends up starting a cult.

Cults are also on the rise because people are under more stress, we’re more sleep-deprived, and our society has less confidence in government and religious institutions. Combine all those factors and I would say people are more susceptible to someone who comes along who’s very confident and loving — and offers answers.

There is this perception that cults are religious, but religious cults are just one type of cult. There are political cults, therapy cults, business cults, and even family group systems that act like a mind-control cult. Essentially, people are not allowed to be themselves as unique individuals in a mind-control group.

Any traumatic experience or rough period in life can make a person more vulnerable to a cult, but the greatest vulnerability is a lack of understanding about how destructive cults operate.


Cognitive Control: The ability to create subjective realities for oneself, or as directed by a leader; the power of an individual or group to give different meanings to situations.

Pygmalion Effect: Positive change of a person’s performance or perception of a situation, based on expectation and encouragement by others.

Thought-Stopping: A behavior modification technique in which critical and independent thinking is discouraged or disallowed.