Steve Hassan Applies his Model to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”): Based on “Scientific Research” as he claims or Pseudoscience?
The topic of this article is a discussion and closer look at Mr. (note to people doing searches on “Dr.” that’s Mr., not Dr. as he has a Masters in Counseling, not a PhD or an MD). Steve Hassan’s recent blog article entitled: An Expert Responds to the Cult Controversy Re Mormonism and the unsubstantiated claims he makes about his model being “scientific”. Although Steve Hassan has been described by some of his supporters as a “researcher” this label is inaccurate, as he has not actually conducted any research studies, nor has he published any studies in journals, which is what legitimate researchers do. This can be easily verified by doing a search on PsychInfo or Medline on his name as author. The only material that will come up are non-peer reviewed books. As someone who is actually a researcher and unlike Mr. Hassan, has had direct experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the “Mormons”) and who has a strong background in scientific research, here is my response.
Before addressing this topic, in the interest of full disclosure, although I have not been active or practicing since high school, I am still listed on official church records as LDS/Mormon. Even though I am inactive, unless a member explicitly requests to have his or her name removed from the membership records or is excommunicated, that person is still considered LDS and I have no intention of requesting such a removal, nor have I done anything that would have warranted excommunication (contrary to popular belief, people are not excommunicated for doing things like breaking the Word of Wisdom or failure to tithe and even when people are excommunicated they have the opportunity to repent and come back). Even though as people can see from reading my blogs, I am very sensitive to issues of abuse within groups, I have no complaints whatsoever about the way I was treated by anyone in the LDS religion.
In my personal experience with the LDS religion, which couldn’t have been more different from my later experience in Scientology, no one was ever anything less than kind, loving and respectful to me and no one has ever pressured me to come back to church or tried to frighten me about what would happen. Hardly “cult” behavior. On the contrary, very likely, I have my Mormon roots to thank for my resilience in the face of adversity, my perseverance in standing on principle and my ability to keep my focus on gratitude for what I do have (a practice which in recent times in the resilience literature, has even come to have scientific support) as opposed to what I have lost or don’t have.
Go here for a good website (by a Mormon, Jeff Lindsay) that debunks some of the allegations against LDS that are based on ignorance and an intelligent discussion of some of the theological as well as behavioral issues commonly discussed by critics. As Jeff Lindsay points out, unlike cultists, Mormons do not claim to have “all the answers” or a “monopoly on truth”. He writes:
As a member of the Church, I honestly believe that we have something wonderful and divine that can bless the lives of all people who choose to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Please note that we do not have a monopoly on truth. We recognize that there is truth and goodness in virtually all religions, and many things that we can learn from the truths, wisdom, and experiences of those in other faiths. We do not have all the answers!! In fact, one of our basic Articles of Faith teaches us that we believe that there are yet many great things to be revealed – meaning, of course, that there is plenty that we just don’t know and understand yet. We are commanded to keep learning, to seek knowledge out of “the best books” and to learn as much as we can on our own. At the same time, we believe we have been given some precious truths and principles in the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe that the Church is of divine origin, in spite of all the flaws of its human members and human leaders over the years. And we think what we have can be added to the truths you may already know and cherish to bless your life in many ways and bring you close to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Now to the topic at hand. Steve Hassan has posted an article to his blog entitled An Expert Responds to the Cult Controversy Re Mormonism. Although the definition of what constitutes an “expert” is questionable, since my qualifications to be an expert on cults are as least as strong as his although we have different strengths (he has done more exit counseling interventions and media appearances than I have and is a better, more persuasive salesperson than I am, while I have more research experience and education along with my experience with cult-involved individuals and families. Although I have done fewer interventions than he has, I do have about 15 years of experience, but I understand the limitations on making claims based on such experience. Here is my own opinion on the topic.
Before I begin, I want to note that this article is in no way intended to be a criticism of Margaret Singer, who was indeed a pioneer in the study of cults and thought reform and honestly represented her work as being research on cults as its very earliest stages of development. Although there were times I disagreed with some of the actions she took, Singer can be honorably remembered as a pioneer and later in her life, as an outspoken critic of pseudoscientific and unscientific therapies and therapists. I have no doubt she would be rolling over in her grave to see the kind of “parts” work being offered by some self-proclaimed “cult experts” today and in her book, Crazy Therapies, she was an outspoken critic of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), upon which the work of one “cult expert” is at least partially based. The problem is not with Singer, but with those who are now attempting to overstate claims about her work and then believe they can offer untested models of their own, based on overstated claims.
It is also worth noting that although Steve Hassan invokes her name, there was never any indication that Margaret Singer considered the Mormon religion a cult. On the contrary, she was a adviser and mentor to someone who is a highly active LDS bishop who is also a bona fide expert in scientific mental health practice and never once, did she ever express concerns that this person was involved in a cult. Clearly, she would disagree with Steve Hassan on this topic and I find it disingenuous that he would invoke her name, following her death when she is not able to respond. Thankfully, however, there are people who knew her well who know her views on this topic.
Steve Hassan is now making the claim that:
To help those affected by cults, I built on scientific research conducted by Robert Jay Lifton and Margaret Singer– both pioneers in the field of mind control– to develop what I call the BITE model.
Go here for Steve Hassan’s full description of his BITE model. This claim is questionable on a number of levels. In the first place, even if a model is proposed based on earlier rigorous scientific research, it does not mean that the developer does not himself need to do research to support and validate. Steve Hassan has published no such research. Please note that I am not accusing him of deliberate misrepresentation; it is quite possible that with his Masters in Counseling, not a research-oriented type of degree, he lacks the background in research to know what is involved in testing models for reliability and validity, which takes a great deal of hard work. One does not just write up a model, cite references upon which it is based and then go out and apply it, as Hassan has done. Demonstrating what it is based on, is only the very first step. It must then be subject to expert review panels, revised refined, based on those results and then subjected to testing with large samples by procedures such as exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, determining whether the dimensions hang together (in this case B, I, T and E) and other tests to see how well it correlates with existing measures and what they are predicted to be related to. Actually, to their credit, Michael Langone and his colleagues have done some factor analysis on a Group Psychological Abuse (GPA) scale and come up with an empirically based definition of cults, which is at least a good start to the kind of empirical validation that is necessary to gain some credibility in the field. Langone’s team came up with the “three Ds” , Debility, Dread and Dependence that characterize cultic groups and published their factor analysis in the Cultic Studies Journal and a more recent article summarizes subsequent development including research conducted by a Carmen Alamendros and her colleagues in Spain. This is the kind of research we need to see more of. Even though this is far more rigorous research than anyone else has done, Langone is honest enough to admit, “The research conducted with the GPA is but the first phase in what ought to be a long-range program of research. ” Yes, exactly.
Back to the BITE model, second, the research Hassan cites is far from rigorous. Margaret Singer, although she did some research early in her career, she, herself states that the conclusions she came to and the six characteristics of cults she came up with did not, come from research. Note that this is not meant as a criticism of Singer, as she was very honest and transparent about her sources. In an article, published in Psychiatric Annals in 1990, she and Richard Ofshe stated:
The analysis presented here is based on observations made since 1972 with over 3,000 people who have been exposed to thought reform programs in three types of closed restrictive groups: certain cults, some therapeutic communities, and certain large-group awareness trainings. At a surface level, these groups seem to be a varied lot. From the descriptions we have secured from people who participated in groups carrying out programs that met criteria for a thought reform program, we have begun to identify types of psychological responses. This work is in progress, and the following is an overview of our results to date.
In other words, her work is based on her clinical observations, which, extensive as they were, do not constitute scientific research and nothing more rigorous has been published since with regard to her model. Although very early in her career, Margaret Singer did publish research (mainly on schizophrenia, not on cults), she was primarily a clinician and her writings were based on her clinical observations. These observations can legitimately be considered as a starting point, but in no way should they be used to claim that a later developed model “based on” them is scientific. In fact, when an APA Task Force was convened on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control, chaired by Margaret Singer and the work of Singer, Lifton and the very best evidence available was attempted to be presented as evidence, the Task Force rejected it, the final report stating that:
BSERP thanks the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for its service but is unable to accept the report of the Task Force. In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur.
The reviews were scathing and perhaps unnecessarily harsh. They could have said it in a nicer way, but they did have a point when it came to claims based on insufficient evidence. Singer attempted to sue the APA for “defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy” but the case was dismissed, due to the fact that the US constitution protects the right to free speech on such issues.
So much for Steve Hassan’s claims that his BITE model is based on “scientific research”, but even if it were, it would not absolve him of the responsibility to scientifically test the model itself and unless he does this, it cannot be considered scientific. If he wants to make a more modest claim, as Margaret Singer did for her own model being a work in progress, then fine, but when he over-represents it as he has on his recent blog article, he needs to be challenged.
One of the biggest problems with the BITE model is that although it may accurately identify groups of concern, it may also, as I discussed in an earlier article, produce false positives. That is, groups that are not cults might be identified as such.
Steve Hassan’s latest blog article is on the topic of whether the mainstream Mormon religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be considered a cult. He offers one ex-Mormon’s application of his BITE model as evidence that it should be. Note that he does not explicitly state in the blog article that he considers it to be a cult. He offers his BITE criteria and asks people to think for themselves (using his BITE article premises, though!). Hassan has, however, made his views quite clear on Mormonism in a 2008 talk he gave at an ex-Mormon conference, still available on YouTube where he makes his views on Mormonism and cults quite explicit. He is quite clear on that video that he does consider the Mormon church to be a cult. He pays lip service to urging people to think for themselves, but then puts forth his own criteria that he has not encouraged people to question but instead, makes the unsubstantiated assertion they are scientific. In other words, the implicit message seems to be, think for yourself using my premises.
That is hardly the kind of scientific rigor he implies it is. In fact, many of the ways in which the ex-Mormon claims it fits could be applied to a number of the major world religions. For example, the pressure to marry within ones religion is hardly unique to Mormonism and there are many Fundamentalist Christians who believe that anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ is going to burn in hell. Special garments are common among many major world religions. As for phobia indoctrination, when my mother first read Combatting Cult Mind Control, she felt that this strongly applied to what she had experienced, growing up in the Catholic church and being taught by nuns in Catholic school and how she initially felt when she decided to leave the Catholicism and convert to the Episcopal Church, how difficult a decision that was, having to overcome earlier fears installed about what would happen if one left. Also, when I was giving a presentation on cults, a former Catholic nun in the audience who had left a convent, later came up to me and informed me that at the comment, forbidden books were identified at the convent. Does this make the Catholic Church a cult or does it mean that the model identifies false positives?
This is ironic, given that in Steve Hassan’s own religion, Judiasm, it is well known that there is very strong pressure within Jewish families to marry within the religion (the ex-Mormon listed this as one of the ways in which Mormonism conforms to the BITE model). Most of us know Jewish parents who were devastated if their children married outside the religion and let their adult children and their spouses know it by shunning the spouse and complaining when holidays such as Christmas were celebrated by the interfaith couple and their children. But does that make it a cult? I doubt Hassan would think so, nor do I. It is understandable that people, whether Mormon, Jewish, Fundamentalist Christian or Atheist, would want to seek partners with similar values and actually research shows that like-minded people have a better chance of marital success. Does that mean it conforms to the BITE model or is this a false positive? Note that this is not the tu quoque fallacy, as it is a legitimate requirement that assessment tools not only correctly identify what they were designed to identify, but also that they do not produce false positives. Just as the BITE model was applied to Mormonism it could be similarly applied to many major world religions.
If Steve Hassan would be candid and transparent enough to admit that research on cults is in its infancy and we all still have a great deal to learn, his opinions might be interesting and valuable within that context and I would have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is his portrayal of himself as the leading cult and “mind control” expert and claims without evidence, that his therapy is superior to that of other therapists he considers non “experts” and that his implications that work is “scientific”. When these kinds of grandiose claims are made, they must be viewed with skepticism and caution. But then again, skepticism and caution doesn’t sell very well, especially among people who are looking for quick and certain answers and to give credit where credit is due, he does offer this in nice, neat sound bytes.
As for the Mormon religion, some of the most rigorous critical thinkers I know regarding pseudoscience in mental health practices and evidence-based practice, happen to be Mormons whereas some of the most uncritically accepting individuals I have seen come, unfortunately, from the community of certain (not all, but some) self-proclaimed “cult experts”. Although I have not yet decided who I will support in the 2012 election, I would have no problem supporting a Mormon political candidate, if I agreed with their views in other areas.
Perhaps a more useful way to use these various models of thought reform and “cult” characteristics would be to identify how they are used at times by virtually any organization, have an open and critical discussion of the processes involved, rather than simply slapping a label on organizations one doesn’t like and explaining them away when they exist in organizations one does support.
PS: It is interesting to note, as some else recently pointed out to me, that Steve Hassan’s blog does not have any kind of mechanism that allows people to post comments. This blog does and even though I cannot post comments to his blog, he is welcome to post his comments to mine, should he desire to respond to any of this.