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Undue influence for dummies

A circumplex model

by Luigi Corvaglia


Much of the debate between the so-called "anti-cult movement" and those called "cult apologists" (both labels coined by their respective opponents) is argued on the theme of mind control. But that should not be the starting point. In fact, there is an ideological gap between those who deny and those who advocate mind control, as if they are believers and non-believers in a supernatural phenomenon.

Non believers (cult apologists) show the same attitude of ironic contempt for the theory of mind control that atheists show towards creationism. It is no coincidence that they define mind control as "brainwashing", a term more suited to comics than to scientific discussion. Sadly, it’s a grotesque metaphor that highlights the absurdity of the theory.

On the other hand, it’s not unlikely that there are people who believe in extraordinary and infallible "eyes on me, please" mind control techniques. I've never met any, but I'm not ruling it out. The point here is, that's not what we're talking about when we talk about mind control. The central theme is undue persuasion.

Those who challenge, in good or bad faith, the "magical" idea of mind control by repeating that "science has rejected the theory of brainwashing" are firing at an opponent who does not exist, at least not in the field of cult scholars. Although I believe that building such a puppet may be useful. It distracts attention from the real problem and highlights the supposed shallow argument of the opponent.

The circumplex model of persuasion

A significant mistake in the discussion of the subject has been to define persuasion as a construct made up of a single dimension. If there is only one form of persuasion, it will always be lawful for someone ("we all persuade and are persuaded"). And for others it may sometimes be malignant. But they do not know where to draw the line to separate it from lawful persuasion. So it is necessary to introduce an often-ignored dimension: the purpose of the persuader, that is, the dimension of interest.

This is a dimension we can outline in an axis that has egoism (interest in ourselves) and altruism (interest in others) at the two poles. The introduction of this new dimension amplifies the range of connotations and expressive typologies of persuasion. These can be reproduced spatially by intersecting two axes according to the tradition of circumplex models used in psychology (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Circumcomplex Model (L. Corvaglia, 2019)

By placing the persuasive commitment in a horizontal axis and intersecting it with a vertical axis—representing the attitude towards one's own self-interest—we can divide the graph into four quadrants. Assuming persuasive engagement (or work of influence) is growing by moving to the right on the horizontal axis and selfish motivation along the vertical axis, the quadrants obtained in the left half of the image will represent the area of minimum persuasive engagement. We can call it a disengagement or non-influence area. The combination of high selfishness and low influence on others (left quadrant at the top), involves unheeding, indifference, which is the negative version of disengagement ("I don't control you because I don't care"). The altruistic disengagement (bottom left quadrant) is instead an expression of respect for others ("I don't control you because I respect you").

The right part of the figure, which it can be called the area of influence, describes benign and malignant persuasion. The first is the combination of low self-interest and care for others. It is the quadrant of education or care (below).

The maximum expression of this altruistic mode of persuasion is certainly that of parental education, oriented to benefit the offspring. Depending on the changing share of altruism and persuasion, there is also room in this benign area, in different spatial locations, for the education by teachers (trainers, etc..) and the various forms of proselytism and religious or political education of groups oriented to care and social or spiritual improvement. The dial at the top right, given by the combination of high persuasive commitment and interest in oneself, is the area of control. It is here that the various forms of proselytism and re-education aimed at affiliation to closed and totalitarian groups—destructive cults—find their place. This is the quadrant that encloses the behaviors that are responsible for the definition of mind control.


On the basis of the model proposed here, we can now make some comments on what is expressed in the introduction:

a. This model does not need to imagine magical powers of control and influence. In fact, it is not the technique used to convince others that defines what undue persuasion is, but the purpose of the persuasion. The emphasis is on the adjective ("undue") and not on the noun ("persuasion"). The variable between “due and “undue” persuasion along the axis of altruism and self-interest. Mind control is therefore a metaphor for describing a form of induced subordination aimed at benefitting the persuader. This does not mean that there are no techniques of persuasion. Saying so would be to deny all literature on political propaganda and commercial advertising. These techniques exist, but they are neither magical nor specific. They are probably not as important as the practices used to retain individuals once they have joined the group. That's where the real game is played.

b. Claiming that those who oppose destructive cults are hostile to any form of proselytism or spirituality becomes a visibly false assertion once somebody observes the circumcomplex scheme that clearly separates the quadrants that include the authoritarian and totalitarian groups from the others with clear and objective coordinates.

c. A final consideration must be made about the incredulity of those who deny manipulation. In reality, the latter is not a "non-believer"; rather, a person who believes that persuasion is ubiquitous, because every relationship is a relationship of influence (that between friends, between lovers, between teachers and pupils, etc.). For this reason, he or she considers that there is no undue form of it.

“You can't censor basic human behavior”, he says. Ultimately, he's a believer and an anti-prohibitionist. His reasoning is fallacious, because it is based on a one-dimensional reading, insensitive to the position of the persuader along the continuum that describes the personal advantage to be gained at the expense of others. The anti-prohibitionist reasoning of the cult apologists is similar to that of those who would not censor a person who induced a girl to get drunk and then abuse her on the basis of the idea that persuading others to drink to excess is permissible.

In conclusion, this model is not the only one that defines mental control, but it certainly helps. It is a readable map of a process that many manipulators do not want you to see.

Or in other words: The message I want to convey is that the cult apologists' statement that persuasion is natural and ubiquitous and there is no such a thing as an undue persuasion is a trick like a shell game. Likewise, drawing attention to the non-scientific nature of the brainwashing concept is another huckster's trick because they make you follow the wrong shell. The right one is the illicitness of that persuasion, that it’s undue. The problem is not persuasion in itself, but persuasion for one's own interest. Not the scientific nature of the brainwashing concept, but that this kind of persuasion is undue. Why? Because It is aimed to control the victim (high persuasion + high self-interest).

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