The Utilization of Hypnotic Techniques

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, 1986, pages 243-250

The Utilization of Hypnotic Techniques in Religious Cult Conversion

Jesse S. Miller, Ph. D.

Center for Psychological Studies


Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness in which conscious critical assessment of suggestions by others may be suspended or diminished. Indirect suggestive techniques described by therapist Milton H. Erickson consist of implications, metaphors, and non-verbal communications which resemble the indoctrination techniques reported in "new" religious group conversion procedures.

Accusations that young members of religious cults are hypnotized by their indoctrinators have surfaced regularly in popular press descriptions of these groups. Reports of a "ten mile stare" and "zombie-like" behaviors are used to support such claims. In order to better understand the putative role of hypnosis in the indoctrination processes employed by cultic groups, it is important to define operationally what is meant by "hypnosis" when the term is used to explain dramatic personality transformations.

Hypnosis is popularly seen as a uniform process which creates a simple state of subject obedience to command. It is believed that a person is hypnotized just as he is given a haircut, or fed an orange, or thrown into a swimming pool. That is it. If you are hypnotized, then you do what a hypnotized person does. You act like a Trilby to someone else's Svengali If the hypnotizing is done on a stage in Las Vegas, you act like a chicken; if it is done on a remote California farm, you act like a religious fanatic. Once you are hypnotized, you do what the other person tells you to do. Would that it were so easy (Star and Tobin, 1970).

Research about hypnosis, all done under laboratory conditions and usually with college sophomores, has focused on describing the "state" of the subject, his suggestibility, the depth of his trance, etc. The results of such research suggest that people vary in their hypnotizability, and that hypnotizability is somehow the property of the subject (Spiegel, 1972). In this view, once a hypnotizable subject is hypnotized, the "operator" can give direct suggestions of the sort "you will not sleep for twenty-two hours and you will sell flowers on the street, smiling all the time." Although such an idea is patently ridiculous, it has led to great confusion about just what does happen to the young adults who join cultic groups.

To appreciate the conversion process and the role which hypnosis may play in it, it is necessary to understand hypnosis in a different way. Laboratory research has its limits in explaining how people react in the real world, so it is helpful to consider the work of Milton Erickson, the foremost writer on clinical hypnosis, who has articulated techniques useful in getting his subjects to behave in specific ways (Haley, 1973).

First, Erickson distinguishes between trance behavior and the acceptance of a suggestion. Trance is a phenomenon of split or distracted consciousness in which the critical faculties--reflection, rational thinking, independent judgment, and decision making--are somewhat modified or suspended. In trance, the conscious mind does not incessantly chatter and obsess over what is being heard, but listens passively without reflection or critical judgment. It is not unreasonable to expect that the often-reported cult indoctrination procedures of endlessly repetitive lectures, long hours of work without sufficient sleep, and low protein diet would produce an altered state of consciousness in most people.

Nonetheless, as virtually all reports in all journals continually reiterate, simply being in trance does not guarantee that a suggestion will be accepted. Thus, the well-known statement, "you'll never do anything in hypnosis that you wouldn't ordinarily do." Despite the relative ease with which most trained hypnotic operators can help a subject "into" trance, clinical practitioners can amply document the difficulty we all have in suggesting that our patients "do" anything different from their "normal" behavior.

Erickson, who was very sensitive to individual differences in hypnotizability, redefined hypnosis as being an interchange between two people in which 1) the hypnotist must gain the subject's cooperation, 2) deal with the subject's resistant behavior, and 3) receive some acknowledgment that something is happening (Haley, 1967). Erickson's work is remarkable in that he did not regularly or even generally use formal trance and designated trance induction. He developed "naturalistic" inductions--where hypnotic behavior is produced without ever mentioning hypnosis to the subject or "doing hypnosis" on him. Erickson was a master in striking the responsive chord in his patients. He "paced" them carefully, always starting where they were psychologically situated, and very slowly and carefully leading them to a fulfillment of their own expectations. The following is a brief explanation of some of these techniques along with examples of how they are used by new authoritarian groups.


The hypnotized person on stage in Las Vegas has an idea of what he will be asked to do when he volunteers to be a subject. He then does it. The cult recruit has many abstract "buzz word" concepts to which he will resonate. We all have them. Love, peace, brotherhood (Schwartz, 1974). Anyone who presses those buttons expresses concepts which are universally held virtues. The new recruit to a cultic group resonates to the articulation of his "own" ideal goals which require only his "proper" behavior to be actualized. The behavioral change is accomplished in small incremental steps, a process which approximates the therapeutic process of pacing and leading.

Pacing and Leading

Using trance induction as a model for all behavioral influence helps to make the transformations effected by cultic groups seem less mysterious. In trance induction, the hypnotist acts like a biofeedback machine, verbally commenting on every behavior of the subject. He will note that the subject is seated, that there is a noise outside the room--perhaps a bus that is slowly moving farther and farther away. By continuously feeding back verifiable descriptions of the subject's reality to him, the hypnotist slowly moves into synch with his subject. He follows each breath, in and out, and notes them. Very slowly he paces his words to the subject's breathing, and then slightly alters his feedback. If he slows down, he may notice an appreciable slowing in the subject's breathing, which he will then note. The lines between the subject and the operator become increasingly blurry as the subject allows the operator to describe more and more of the subject's experience of reality.

When witnessing to potential members, cult recruiters are instructed to mirror the interests and attitudes of the recruit. The recruiter, then, says that he is "into' music, photography, whatever, using any means to establish that "we are alike.

Many new religions and therapy groups use such tactics to "move into synch" with their recruits. Skilled recruiters are able to carry the recruit to a deeper level of suggestibility by using the same sort of pacing as that employed by the hypnotist. If this is successful, the recruit allows the recruiter to define the recruit's reality. And as the blurring of identity between recruit and recruiter increases, the skilled recruiter brings to bear the hypnotist's other important tool -- the exploitation of positive transference phenomena.

The Positive Transference

Therapy of every sort operates through the conscious utilization of transference phenomena. In hypnosis, the hypnotist actively produces a positive transference and attempts to create a situation, or "context," in which the subject will act appropriately to please a benevolent "parent" figure (Sarbin, 1950). Some groups invite recruits to dinner and then "love bomb" them. Recruits are pampered and made to feel like special people. Very quickly, regressive urges to childhood behavior arise as recruits are hand-fed sections of orange from smiling peers who seem to accept the recruits totally, "warts and all." Uncritical acceptance is truly found only in a parent's love for a newborn child. Only an infant is really loved and fully accepted for "himself." Positive transference is created by this apparent acceptance as the recruit experiences his newfound friends as "good" and giving parent figures. Members of cultic groups later comment that "it felt good belonging," right from the beginning, and that "you can't help but respect people who feel strongly about anything." As they set off for a "delightful experience in the country--the indoctrination camp--they sing songs and huddle together like boy scouts waiting for the troop leader to move them on to the next event. The "pacing" continues there as both verbal and non-verbal indirect suggestions are used to further mold the recruit's attitudes so that they conform to the group's norm.

Indirect Suggestion

Erickson (1954) developed and articulated the art of manipulation through indirect suggestion. He discovered that most "adults" were unable to accept "direct" suggestions about their behavior because this was too great a threat to their sense of autonomy. Indirect suggestion left the "adult" with a greater sense of control over his choice of a new behavior. In therapy, this new behavior is always chosen by the client, although indirect suggestion may be a tactical device to help the client achieve the new behavior. In the new religious groups, new behaviors--ostensibly directed towards the "one happy united world" or other buzz-concept goals--are in fact chosen by the recruiters, e.g., increased membership and revenues.

The indirect suggestions are also "paced" in the initial indoctrination sessions. Both verbal and non-verbal messages are given to recruits about "proper" behavior. A particularly elegant example of the brilliant double messages which can be conveyed in this manner is expressed by the following report from a young newspaperman who "infiltrated" one of the indoctrination camps. He described his 3 a.m. arrival and the separation of men and women into sleeping groups. At 6:30 a.m., the leaders roused the recruits for calisthenics, a reasonable exercise. The group formed a circle with members and recruits alternating. A member in the center led the exercises. First, the whole group was asked to complete twenty jumping jacks--an exercise familiar to all. They were then instructed to do twenty "free-style" jumping jacks. The recruits stood around for a moment quite bewildered. What in the world is a "free-style" jumping jack? The only way for them to proceed was to observe the members and to do what they did. Within moments of waking up, the demand to do "free-style" jumping jacks developed a conformity mind set among the recruits. They were following others in the name of freedom!

Incremental changes of this sort abound. A group can be absorbed in some task or lecture and a leader will say, "This seems to be going so well and is so interesting, let's skip lunch today and finish it." Recruits experience small requests of that sort as "no big thing," but little by little they are led to changed behavior which becomes more and more strictly enforced by the group's total control of validating positive feedback. The good daddy gives gold stars for the appropriate behavior. As one former member noted, "Each thing that they do to control your behavior is seen as a sacrifice to give you greater power to be a better member."

Later on, when witnessing, members are given other sorts of indirect suggestions to achieve "proper" behavior. One of the often noted behaviors of cult recruiters is their extraordinary eye contact. A former member described how such unwavering eye contact is achieved. "They direct your attention to other people's eyes, the people you are trying to get to come to dinner. They say, 'look for people who have a fuzzy edge to the colored part of their eyes. If they have a sharp line around where the color and the white of the eye meet, they are intellectual types. Look for people with fuzzy edges in their eyes. They are warm people, more likely to come to eat and join us.' " The recruiter is looking for a "sign" that his witnessing will be accepted. The suggestion that some property of a person's iris will indicate "intellectuality" is patently absurd, yet is metaphorically intelligible. The search for warm, fuzzy people is also a suggestion that the recruiter himself should "be" a warm fuzzy person, one who is not intellectual or questioning, one who is quite childlike. This "suggestion" to recruiters accomplishes two tasks at once. It gives them something "active" to do--getting unwavering and transfixing eye contact--while reminding them to maintain their regressive behavior. The effect of such suggestion can be enormous, whether or not "trance behavior" is predicated.

It cannot be stated strongIy enough that the process of pacing and leading recruits is not only part of the initial indoctrination but is also--along with elaborate reinforcement schedules and the merciless manipulation of guilt and humiliation --an ongoing feature of cult membership. There are several techniques popularly thought to be "hypnotic" which indoctrinators use masterfully during long lectures characteristic of certain cults. They include the "yes set," the use of metaphor, the "confusion technique," and the "interspersal technique." The following brief descriptions of these phenomena will be illustrated by excerpts from a twelve-page typed transcription of a lecture which could conceivably have been drawn out into a three-hour meeting.

The "Yes Set" and "Confusion" Techniques

Erickson describes the yes set as a way of initiating trance in a subject. A series of statements is posed and questions asked to which the hypnotist--or, we might add, a recruiter--is certain there will be agreement and affirmation. After a number of these statements and questions, the subjects will have established an agreeable "yes" set. This ensures that subsequent statements and questions are agreed with and affirmed even if such acceptance would not have been gained if they had been made at the beginning of the lecture. The subject's critical faculties have been lulled into acceptance.

In the following example, the first paragraph of a long discussion of God, my comments are in parentheses. The only assumption is a belief in God.

God is the origin of us all (yes). Everything comes from God (yes), and without God there cannot be anything (yes). Nothing can exist without God (yes). This is the most essential understanding of God (yes). Nevertheless, we came to be unable to understand God (yes); therefore, we lost everything. (Here the transition from pacing to leading begins with a non-sequitur. There is nothing in the statements previously agreed to which suggests that we lose everything without an understanding of God. All religions speak of the incomprehensibility of the deity.) We became unable to understand anything. (This again is a logical non-sequitur. "We cannot understand God" does not mean that we cannot understand anything. Placed in the sequence, it seems to make sense.) We came not to understand anything at all because we lost God. (This ties the entire passage together with a statement of total ignorance.)

The effect of long nonrational arguments of this sort, presented to young adults who are already tired and confused, is the real belief that they are unable to understand anything. This is the essence of she confusion technique. Erickson describes the effectiveness of this technique as being an example of man's need for the world to make sense and have meaning (Erickson, 1964). When one is confused for any length of time, the first apparently sensible, straightforward statement made is accepted. The lecture on God continues:

Everything came from God and we lost God. Therefore, there cannot be anything which has nothing to do with God. Nevertheless, we lost God, therefore we don't know anything in this universe. We lost the beauty of nature, beauty of creation, beauty of birds, beauty of trees, beauty of the world. Just imagine [an invitation into one's inner mind]. Man was created as the lord over God's creation.

The lecturer invites the recruit to see himself in a special way: "Just imagine." He then describes the path to actualizing man's proper role as lord of the earth. The lecturer, thereby, touches the "special person" needs of the recruits, who are presented as "world savers." Needless to say, "proper" cult behavior is the means to this end.

The use of metaphor and interspersal

Interspersal is the embedding of messages within other messages, which makes them difficult to resist. Metaphors here are stories or parables in which actions are "suggested" by implied comparison rather than directly (Erickson, 1966). As the indoctrination lecture continues, the suggestion that man, especially the cult member, is to become God-like, leads to the following embedded metaphor.

God created this tiny flower in which I am living, in which we are now. Then for what purpose, for what purpose did he create this flower without resting even at night-time? He worked to make this flower from morning to night without rest. Even though no one could understand how precious and beautiful it was, still Heavenly Father created this flower from morning to night without sleep. For what purpose? For what purpose? To give joy to whom? To man [emphasis in the original]. In order to give this present to me, Heavenly Father worked hard every day, every day, even overnight without sleeping. He created this flower when I didn't know anything. Have you ever cried to see one tiny flower? You have understood God's love for you. Is that right?

That many cult members work incredibly long hours is a well known fact. Suggestions about long, hard, work, even over night, are established in the equation of God's work and the work of the cult. The group is actually working for the good of Man, even if members do not understand how, and even if no one else can appreciate how precious and beautiful their work is. The metaphor is then appropriately tied off with an emotional pull and the subject is quickly changed to prevent any critical internal comment. Have you cried over beauty? (yes) Then you understand God's love for you. Is that right? "Is that right?" requires the answer yes, which seals the previous metaphor in place.

I have not addressed in this article the self-hypnotic effects of chanting, or the other methods used to recruit and hold cult members. But in reviewing the techniques of suggestion that are used, and the continuous embedding of suggestion, I have attempted to address the question of hypnosis as an explanation for cult conversion. I believe that hypnotic techniques are used masterfully by the new groups, although they do not alone explain the phenomenon.


Erickson, M. (1954). Indirect hypnotic therapy of an a neurotic couple. Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 2, 171-174.

Erickson, M. (1964). The confusion technique in hypnosis. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 6, 183-207.

Erickson, M. (1966). The interspersal technique for symptom correction and pain control. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 3, 198-209.

Haley, J. (1967). Advanced techniques of hypnosis and therapy. Selected papers of Milton H. Erickson, M. D. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Haley, J. (1973). Uncommon therapy: The psychiatric techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M. D. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sarbin, T. (1950). Contributions to role-taking theory: I - hypnotic behavior. Psychological Review, 57, 255-270.

Schwartz, T. (1974). The Responsive chord. New York: Anchor.

Spiegel, H. (1972). An eye-roll test for hypnotizability. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 15, 25-28.

Starr, F. H. & Tobin, J. P. (1970). The effects of expectancy and hypnotic induction procedure on suggestibility. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 12, 261-267.


Jesse L. Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who lectures regularly the University of California, Berkeley, and is a faculty member of the Center for Psychological Studies in Albany, California