There is a commonly believed myth that people with strange belief systems are always psychotic or not of sound mind in some way. In fact, the research of Richard J. McNally and his team of researchers at Harvard University and others demonstrates that by and large, people with strange belief systems are not psychotic.
McNally and his colleagues studied people who believed they had been abducted by aliens. Some even had the delusion that they had been taken up to spaceships, medically examined, and impregnated by aliens. Understandably, people uninformed in this area would make the assumption that such people had to be psychotic. However, when McNally and his team performed an extensive battery of psychological and psychiatric testing, they found that the vast majority were not psychotic and their mental health pathology was no different from a comparison group of normals who were subjected to the same tests.
This has implications for people in cults who adopt strange beliefs. Furthermore, the DSM IV-TR excludes a diagnosis of schizophrenia if the delusion is culturally based. If a person, for example, lives full time among Scientologists who have the Scientology belief system, which includes at its most advanced levels, a belief in Xenu and body thetans and incredible past life incidents, that could be considered a cultural belief because Scientology is that person’s culture (note the first four letters of the word). People who leave Scientology, usually drop that belief although there are some Scientologists who leave the organization and continue to affiliate with independent Scientologists who have that belief. Since leaving Scientology, I completely dropped that belief.
UPDATE: In a recent other WordPress blog, an absurd comparison was made that betrays the author’s ignorance about extensive social psychology research on social influence dynamics and techniques. The statement was made that most people laugh when they heard the OT III materials, but I did not. This completely and probably intentionally drops the context in which this belief evolved. If I had heard the OT III materials when I was new to Scientology I too would have laughed it off. I was not introduced to these materials until more than two years after I first became involved with Scientology and by that time was very much a part of the culture and under their social influence. Most people who stick with Scientology and get to OT III do believe it when they see it, not because they are gullible, stupid or kooky people but because they have come under social influence and have gradually accepted the belief system. The fact is that most people who have come under the influence of Scientology’s belief system do not “laugh” when they see the OT III materials. There is a very large body of social psychology research showing that susceptibility to influence techniques has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, nor doe it mean that the person is in any way mentally ill or odd. Normal, intelligent people, given the right (or the wrong) circumstances can be influenced to believing some very strange things.
If we examine the belief systems of many mainstream religions, if looked at from the perspective of an objective outsider, many of those beliefs could be considered just as strange as those of nonmainstream religions. What makes them not seem strange is that the beliefs are held by millions of people, not their content.
It is a highly stigmatizing myth that people in cults are psychotic. The vast majority are not. In fact, although of course there are tragic exceptions to this, such as Lisa McPherson (who became psychotic long after her initial involvement) people who are truly psychotic usually do not last long in cults because in many cults, they would not be on medication and would not be able to function in the community. Eileen Barker cites a number of studies that dispel the myth that all or even most people in cults are mentally ill. On the contrary, most are not.
People leaving cults, especially those who were in for most of their adult life, have very real challenges adjusting to life in the outside world. Let’s not compound that by stigmatizing them with myths.
My attackers have written that I am “not of sound mind” because of my long-past experience in Scientology, so I thought I would use this as a opportunity to debunk myths and educate people on cults. There is no evidence to support this claim. Since leaving Scientology in 1976 (which I was in for less than 6 years in the 1970s) I have operated as a high functioning adult with credible mental health professional references, who has held down long-term jobs, and acquired a BA, MSW, and PHD and have never received a diagnosis of psychosis or serious mental illness of any sort.
Similar assertions are made about my experience with TFT. TFT involves the stimulation of acupressure points. Millions of Americans believe in acupuncture/acupressure and in Eastern cultures, belief is even more widespread. The theory of meridians have no scientific basis, but believing in something that has no scientific basis hardly means that someone is mentally unstable. Were that the case, the vast majority of Americans (who surveys show believe in all kinds of unscientific things such as ESP) would have to be diagnosed. If so many believe in ESP, people believing in distance healing is not such a stretch, although VT is claimed to be based on a specific technology, not ESP.
More potentially dangerous than that, are therapists who recommend interventions for children that involve instructing parents to put disobedient children in a prone restraint position. While it is unlikely that these therapists are mentally ill, the intervention, like TFT, has no randomized clinical trials to support its efficacy and according to a 2002 review published review in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry by David M. Day, the theories behind such therapies have virtually no empirical evidence to support them. Day wrote (p. 274):
Second, as stated previously, none of the theories has been subjected to careful and systematic empirical evaluation. To be sure, there is a need for research to assess the propounded theoretical models to determine which are sound and which need to be revised or discarded. For example, Singh et al. (1999) commented that the underlying theory of restraint “is based partly on the unproven assumption that coercive interactions, which impose control through force, effectively reduce an individual’s aggression and lead to more socially acceptable behaviors” (p. 251). Drawing on the work of Patterson (1982), they went on to note that “in fact the opposite occurs” (p. 251), in that restraining children may serve to reinforce the aggressive behavior by fostering the coercive cycle of escalating aversive reactions. Such assumptions need to be carefully examined and revised on the basis of empirical observations. Moreover, there is a paucity of high-quality, methodologically sound research to inform clinical practice.
Rather than personally malign people with whom one disagrees as being psychotic or not of sound mind (which is unlikely to be the case), I find it is more useful to discuss the theories themselves and the degree of research support for the interventions. In this case, it is sorely lacking. Given that the prime directive in any health/mental health professional code of ethics is to first, do no harm and given the controversy over the safety of restraints, the ethical thing to do would be to refrain from such practices or in a true emergency, which is defined as an immediate (not longer-term) threat of harm, use the least possible restrictive method for as short a time as possible. For example, if a child backs down and promises to be good, there would no longer be what the hospital restraint guidelines would consider an acceptable emergency. Some people believe otherwise, however and unlike my detractors I do not assume that people who disagree with me are mentally unstable. The literature does show, however, that there is very little support for these methods and burden of proof is on the therapists who are using these methods to show they are safe and effective with well designed controlled studies. So far, as Day’s review and several more recent systematic literature reviews have demonstrated, this has not occurred. Note that this is not an argument from “polemics” or authority. This is an argument from evidence or in this case, lack thereof.
Moreover, we, as a society, need to be really careful about labeling people who are different from the mainstream as mentally ill. History has shown that the infamous dictatorships that have done this have not created societies in which any rational, humane, decent person would want to live.