By Steven Hassan
Forty-five years ago, I left the Moonies—a far-right authoritarian cult—and ever since, my career has been dedicated to stopping destructive cults and spreading awareness about undue influence. In my decades of activism, I have come to understand how social psychology and the law are connected.
Current Legal Understanding of Undue Influence
Phrases like “brainwashing” and “thought reform” are not widely accepted as legal theories, and courts rarely hear cases based on these concepts. However, the legal theory of undue influence is more widely accepted and has been recognized in law for hundreds of years. But cases involving undue influence almost always involve a person with mental or physical incapacitation—often an elderly person who was taken advantage of by a caregiver—and typically focus on the use of undue influence for financial gain. I believe that laws that prohibit the unethical use of undue influence should be expanded to include all instances in which people are placed under mind control. That includes cults’ exploitation of members’ labor, parental alienation (where one parent programs children against the other), coercive control by men over women, covert hypnosis, or when a president lies to foment an insurrection.
I believe that laws that prohibit the unethical use of undue influence should be expanded to include all instances in which people are placed under mind control... cults’ exploitation of members’ labor, parental alienation (where one parent programs children against the other), coercive control by men over women, covert hypnosis, or when a president lies to foment an insurrection
Models of Undue Influence
Expanding and enforcing current laws relating to undue influence will require that judges and juries have the tools they need to identify undue influence and understand how people’s minds can be manipulated. I developed the BITE model of Authoritarian Control and the Influence Continuum toward that end. “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. The BITE Model can be used in concert with “The Social Influence Model (SIM),” which was developed by Dr. Alan Scheflin, a Law Professor Emeritus at the Santa Clara University Law School, based on his decades of research on brainwashing and mind control as they relate to the law. SIM is used by expert witnesses to explain undue influence to judges and juries; it addresses six contributing factors: influencer, influencer’s motives, influencer’s methods, circumstances, influencee’s receptivity/vulnerability, and consequences. The BITE Model fits under “methods” in SIM. The Influence Continuum distinguishes ethical from unethical influence, the main distinction being informed consent. Nobody gives informed consent to join a destructive cult if they have been deceptively recruited.
Under the legal theory of undue influence, if any person has genuinely been coerced by manipulative recruitment into performing illegal actions, the victim should receive help to regain their freedom of mind, and the manipulators should be subjected to appropriate legal consequences
My aim, when I entered a doctorate program, was to develop an instrument that justice systems worldwide could use to evaluate when undue influence has been used drawing from these models. For my doctoral dissertation, I conducted a factor analysis of the BITE model using a Likert scale to measure the presence of the four variables used in authoritarian control on 1400 subjects.
Undue Influence Law in the Future
Undue influence is a serious and pressing issue. Today, people are inundated with lies, propaganda, and disinformation in the media and on social media feeds. Constantly being exposed to lies and mind control can have serious consequences. Under the legal theory of undue influence, if any person has genuinely been coerced by manipulative recruitment into performing illegal actions, the victim should receive help to regain their freedom of mind, and the manipulators should be subjected to appropriate legal consequences. When a man in a bible cult was told by its leader to beat the devil out of his son who wanted to leave, it was the father who went to jail and not the cult leader who had control over him. That is not justice. Similarly, people coming out of ISIS are forever treated as criminals and terrorists. The law needs to recognize when cult tactics are at work, and that with proper counseling and follow up, people can and should be able to return to society.
The Federal government needs to address these issues by creating stricter and more expansive laws related to undue influence. The law also places too much emphasis on property and money losses and not enough on deceptive recruitment by cults and psychological and emotional abuse. I contend that if analytic tools are applied systematically on a mass scale, they can make it easier to identify and demonstrate undue influence and for victims to get the help they need.