Dare to Deprogram Me?

I first heard about "deprogramming" around 1974 when I was a 15 year old member of what many considered to be a Christian "cult" (Coniah, San Diego), and we heard some of our members had suffered that process.   I was never deprogrammed, but my parents did cut off my contact, and eventually learning physics ended my religious leanings.  Here is how advocates describe deprogramming:

There is nothing quite so impenetrable as a human mind snapped shut with bliss. No call to reason, no emotional appeal can get through its armor of self-proclaimed joy.  … How do you reach such people? … A man named Ted Patrick developed the first remedy. … His first-hand experiences with cult techniques and their effects led him to develop … "deprogramming," … Through the seventies, he made front page headlines in the east for his daring daylight kidnappings of Ivy League cult members. … In many courtrooms, however, Ted Patrick lost his case for freedom of thought, gathering a stack of convictions for kidnapping and unlawful detention. … "When you deprogram people," he emphasized, "you force them to think. The only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions. I hit them with things that they haven’t been programmed to respond to. I know what the cults do and how they do it, so I shoot them the right questions; and they get frustrated when they can’t answer. … They realize that they’ve been duped and they come out of it."  … 

In the new climate, judges were deaf to the pleas of the parents and families of cult members, and the precarious deprogramming profession was largely eclipsed by the efforts of the new generation of cult "exit counselors." Exit counselors … were testing a wide range of eclectic approaches, some more successful, some less so. … Most confirmed a pattern we, too, had noted: the new methods of voluntary deprogramming and exit counseling, while far less controversial and much safer from a legal standpoint, prompted fewer cult members to experience a sudden "snapping out" of their controlled states of mind. Instead, most experienced a slower process of emergence.   

It is plausible that people could get "locked into" bad ways of thinking, coming not only from small unpopular religions, but also from large mainstream ways of thought.  And it is plausible that an intensive session of questioning might break through that lock.  On the other hand, there is little to praise if the technique just relies on lack of sleep to wear down a weary mind.   

It seems to me that I should be willing to be "deprogrammed" by any group willing to pay for my time to try, in cash or perhaps a pleasant vacation location.   I’d agree to stay isolated with them out of contact from others, as long as I got enough food, sleep, bathroom privileges, etc.   I’d even refund them a multiple if they convinced me to change my mind.   

Hey, in the best case they might be right, and I’d break out of my mind lock.  And otherwise I’d be compensated.   Any creationists, or mainstream economics skeptics, want to give it a try?   I don’t think I’ll get any takers, probably because this stuff only works on young, insecure, weak minds.  Does that suggest that it is more about brainwashing than reasoning? 

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  • Tom Church

    The difference between the exit counselors and Ted Patrick seems to be one of commitment, much like what Pavlov worked on for the later years of his life. Pavlov is famous for his work with dogs, bells, and saliva, but his lesser known work with dogs and stress is applicable here. Pavlov spent the last part of his career testing the effects of stress on dogs. He started because one day a flood almost killed all of his dogs that were stuck in their cages. Pavlov found that after experiencing tremendous stress, the dogs stopped behaving like that previously had. Dogs that liked him before didn’t anymore, and so on. From Poor Charlie’s Almanack (2005):

    “[He] spent the rest of his long life giving stress-induced nervous breakdowns to dogs, after which he would try to reverse the breakdowns, all the while keeping careful experimental records. He found (1) that he could classify dogs so as to predict how easily a particular dog would breakdown; (2) that the dogs hardest to break down were also the hardest to retrun to their prebreakdown state; (3) that any dog could be broken down; and (4) that he couldn’t reverse a breakdown except by reimposing stress” (pp 435).

    The fourth point is especially relevant.

    Also, I strongly recommend Charlie Munger’s book, especially his tenth talk on the Psychology of Human Misjudgement. Readers of this blog will find it extremely useful.

  • rcriii

    Why not sign up for a ‘free’ weekend at a retreat paid for by sellers of timeshares?

  • Rcriii, I’d consider one that seemed attractive enough, where my friends could go with me at the same time,

  • Carl Shulman

    It seems like there’s a convenient organization right next door:

  • Carl, as far as I can tell there are no IHS serminars meeting my criteria; do you know otherwise?

  • This is all very nice, but it’s not really what I need. How do I deprogram my Orthodox Jewish parents?

  • At the charity where I volunteer, some researchers come over from the nearest university to offer $20 to my clients if they will give them 30 minutes being a subject in their efforts to improve their interactive computer program that aims to diagnose depression better than the established questionnaires do, in English or in Spanish. I believe these same researchers are involved in improving a computer program to do psychotherapy.

    I’m sure it will take time to develop a computer program that could challenge anyone’s faith or lack thereof, but why couldn’t that be something in the future? Then one could just pay the subject for the subject’s time rather than paying however many professional deprogrammers it might take to challenge someone, too. That might make it economically feasible. Maybe even subjects would pay to challenge their own faith or lack thereof.

    Of course having watched how stubborn people are about their opinions on the internet, not just atheists and fundamentalists, but all sorts of islands of opinion in between, I’m not sure how effective it would be to deprogram a general population. There are studies of opinions about the death penalty in the US where people who favor the death penalty receive a convincing presentation on why their rationale for their opinion is false. Those subjects just switch to a different rationale, eventually relying on some gut feeling that’s hard to prove false.

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon myself in watching creationists dodge the weakness of arguments against evolution. Even when one can be pinned down that the science of their argument is wrong, they just switch to a different argument, equally flawed, but equally time-consuming to demonstrate that. It doesn’t matter. I suppose it takes a mature faith to be able to do that in the face of the best non-coercive deprogramming. I’m sure that’s true for both theists and atheists.

    Maybe it’s best just to go after each new generation and not worry about those set in their opinions, if one wants to change others.

  • The Most Interesting Blog Comment I’ve Ever Read

    No offense, Econlog contributors, but it’s a reaction to Robin’s post on deprogramming at Overcoming Bias: The difference between the…

  • I nominate uploads and time direction for future deprogramming.

    Looking at the “long shots”, these seem to be the most dubious:

    “Billions of years ago, intelligent aliens had a colony near here, but left in a big hurry.”

    “The growth of humanity and its descendants will stop forever within a thousand years or so.”