Julie was 23 years old, from an affluent family, and had completed two years of college. Friends of Julie say that she had been dating a senior for several months. Julie was sure they would be married after he graduated, but several weeks ago they quarreled and broke up. Last weekend, she attended a retreat sponsored by a religious cult and became a member. She no longer speaks with her old friends, and she avoids many of what previously had been her favorite foods and places.
What might account for such a rapid and apparently complete change in attitudes and behavior? As in the case of Julie, a rapid conversion often follows an emotionally traumatic event in a person's life, as the past rewards associated with the person's attitudes and behaviors are suddenly removed or reversed. For instance, Julie may have enjoyed a particular restaurant with her boyfriend, but now the restaurant stirs unpleasant memories and shattered expectations. Many cults carefully foster this feeling of alienation, loneliness, and disorientation by interrupting sleep frequently, changing eating hours continually, and disallowing potential converts to see or speak with old acquaintances. These steps effectively exaggerate the dissociation between a person's attitudes and the rewards with which they were associated. In addition, steps are taken to introduce and reward attitudes that are incompatible with the person's former attitudes but consistent with the ideology of the cult ( Ellul, 1965; Frank, 1961; Hunter, 1951; Oman, 1972; Schien, Schenier, & Barker, 1961).
The conversion techniques of cults provide a dramatic example of persuasion by learning principles. In this chapter, we will examine a few of the basic notions of conditioning and their counterparts in attitude theory. It will become apparent that many of our feelings and reactions to issues, objects, and events in our everyday lives are based, at least in part, upon previously conditioned responses. It should also become apparent that the techniques so effectively employed by cults are widely practiced in society today. Many of these methods are evident, though to a lesser degree, in advertisements, church sermons and propaganda, political and social campaigns, classroom discourses, and family interactions.