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Do All Cults, Like All Psychotherapies, Exploit the Placebo Effect?


I'm a child of the Sixties, so I've known lots of people over the years who've joined cults. One of the most popular was Transcendental Meditation, which the Indian-born guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began marketing to westerners, notably the Beatles, a half century ago. TM is making a comeback, in large part because of the efforts of David Lynch, director of Eraser Head, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and other creepy classics. Over the past eight years he has become a global evangelist for TM. According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Lynch believes that TM can yield "true inner happiness."

I have no doubt that for Lynch and many other practitioners, TM works; that is, it makes them feel better. "Better" can include anything from feeling calmer and less stressed to having a stronger sense of purpose, meaning and connection to other people and all of life.

Of course, by this criterion Scientology, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, the Hare Krishna movement, Unification Church and every other cult works. (Some readers may prefer the term "religion" for some of these institutions, but I view religions as cults that have achieved respectability, in some cases by abandoning extreme tenets.) After all, numerous studies have found a correlation between health and religious faith.

The question is, why do cults work? Why do they make adherents feel better? The obvious (to me) answer is that they harness the placebo effect, the tendency of our belief that something will benefit us to be self-fulfilling. Cults share many elements that seem designed to evoke potent placebo effects:

*Specialness. Each cult usually insists on its uniqueness and superiority to all rivals. It offers not just a path to knowledge and happiness but The Path. The cult holds out the hope that diligent adherents can achieve special states of being, called salvation, enlightenment, getting clear, etc. Followers are often encouraged to persuade others to convert.

*Supernatural Founder. Each cult insists that its founder—and sometimes its current leader--possesses revelatory knowledge and powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. This prophet, savior or guru is said to be infallible, enlightened, chosen by God, semi-divine or divine. Examples: Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Reverend Moon, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

*Rituals. Adherence to the cult often entails ritualized practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer, signing hymns to God, attending regular group services and so on.

*Secrecy. Some cults bind adherents together with secret knowledge. When I lived in Denver in the 1970s, I had friends who joined a cult called Divine Light Mission, which taught members meditation techniques that they could not reveal to outsiders. Each TM practitioner is also given a unique, secret mantra to repeat during meditation. I once pestered two friends who had learned TM to reveal their secret mantras. One finally told me, and the other blurted out in dismay that he had been given the same mantra.

*Money. We value what we pay for, so not surprisingly religions ask devotees to donate or tithe, and some, such as Scientology and TM, charge for spiritual training. Learning basic TM costs $1000, and advanced courses cost much more. In 2002, Lynch paid $1 million for an "Enlightenment Course" taught by Maharishi Yogi himself (who didn't even teach in the flesh!). Sigmund Freud, who was no fool, insisted that payments were a crucial component of psychoanalysis. It's a win-win situation for therapist and patient, guru and devotee.

Speaking of Freud and psychoanalysis, I've written about how different psychotherapies all produce roughly the same benefits, or lack thereof, an equivalence that has been dubbed "the Dodo effect." The term refers to an Alice in Wonderland scene in which a dodo bird, after watching Alice and other characters run a race, announces, "Everyone has won, and all must have prizes!" The Dodo effect is consistent with the hypothesis that all psychotherapies harness the placebo effect. My guess is that the dodo effect applies to all cults as well as to all psychotherapies.

Cults and psychotherapies are hardly alone in exploiting the placebo effect. In his new book The Placebo Effect in Clinical Practice, psychiatrist Walter Brown of Brown University writes that "the history of medical treatment is largely a chronicle of placebos. When subjected to scientific scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of treatments have turned out to be devoid of intrinsic therapeutic effectiveness; they derived their benefits from the placebo effect."

So here's another question: What happens if you just practice one of a cult's rituals—singing in a church choir, say, or eating peyote--without buying into all the claptrap about its supernatural specialness?

Journalist Claire Hoffman, who wrote the Times Lynch profile, apparently falls into this category. She learned TM as a child and still meditates twice a day "to deal with anxiety and fatigue and to stave off occasional despair." But she doesn't buy Lynch's claim that if we all embrace TM it will "change everything, for everyone." She calls her practice "something very simple, like doing yoga or avoiding dairy."

Hoffman might get much stronger placebo effects if she had as much faith in TM as Lynch. The more you believe in the uniquely transformative power of your cult, the more you get out of it. The only price you have to pay is your rationality.

Photo of Maharishi Yogi courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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