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West, L.J. (1993). A Psychiatric Overview of Cult-Related Phenomena. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 21(1):1-19.

(1993). Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 21(1):1-19

A Psychiatric Overview of Cult-Related Phenomena

Louis Jolyon West, M.D.*

Under certain kinds of stress or duress, individuals can be made to comply with the demands of those in power. They can also be induced to adopt beliefs and behaviors far different from those that were characteristic of them before the stress was applied. Terms like brainwashing, thought reform, coercive persuasion, and mind control have been employed to describe these processes and to account for consequential changes in personality and behavior. In the past such terms — and the processes they defined — referred mainly to techniques for influencing prisoners of war, political detainees, hostages held by terrorists, and the like. Recently, scrutiny has turned to similar methods used by leaders of cults to recruit, retain, and exploit members. (Throughout this article the term cult is used to mean totalist cult, as defined below under “Cult Indoctrination.”)

Persons who have been exposed to such conditions in cults may suffer considerable harm. Their families, friends, and communities are also likely to suffer. This article inquires primarily into the techniques that cults employ to bind and exploit their members, and certain psychiatric consequences that result. The scope of the cult problem, types of psychopathology exhibited by cult victims, and approaches to their treatment and rehabilitation, are discussed extensively elsewhere.

Brainwashing has come to mean intensive indoctrination in an attempt to induce someone to give up basic political, social or religious beliefs and attitudes and accept contrasting regimented ideas. The term is sometimes employed in a narrower sense, connoting forcible and prolonged procedures, including mental torture, and sometimes in a broader sense, as “to persuade by propaganda” (Webster's, 1966).

The English word brainwashing was coined by an American

A shorter version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, May 1991.

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