Yevgeniy VOLKOV


Yevgeniy VOLKOV

– Professor at the Nizhniy Novgorod State University n.a. N. I. Lobachevskiy, Russia
– Speaker at the public organization “Family and Person Protection Society” (FPPS), Ukraine

The healthy thinking as means of preventive maintenance and a therapy of the pathological thinking in destructive cults

I have decided to make a short foreword to my report in order to clarify the choice of the subject for the conference. During the years of my research work and counseling practice on the problems of destructive cults I used to come across, and do now, numerous and various negative consequences for the physical and mental health of their members. At the same time I’m not a doctor, neither a psychiatrist. However, many years of scientific work and the experience as a counseling psychologist let me point out the existence of a significant and constantly repeating aspect that is inherent to any case of the kind. It is the very absence of healthy thinking skills that I am speaking about in my report.

I have to specify that in this context I use the concepts “health” and “healthy” not in their layman sense, but strictly according to the professional definitions of health. In particular I refer to the well-known definition given by World Health Organization:

” Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity “.

Thus healthy thinking in my report implies such practical thinking skills that allow not only to avoid “disease or infirmity” but also provide with “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. To this respect healthy thinking is one of the most important aspects of health in any terms. It is cognitive social psychology — the base of my research — that filled the concept of “healthy thinking” with practical scientific content. And the most applicable to the healthy thinking skills are the concepts and the skills of critical thinking, as will be presented further. Sometimes you may come across such accurate observations that are worth lots of big volumes.

One of my favorite aphorisms suggests the following definition of a madman:

” A madman is a person who takes thousands of attempts, all the same way, while every time expecting a different result “.

This seems to be a good aphorism for the report both as the example of healthy (critical) thinking and as a motivation of the reporter (contributor) to change the way of treatment and solving the problems under consideration in order to get more sufficient and reliable results.

I’m quite committed to interdisciplinary approach and hence to the assumption that the majority of meaningful truths are not distributed among the competencies of separate sciences but are determined in different ways by each discipline. Comparing the perspectives allows seeing different three-dimensional directions and uniting the separate efforts.

Strictly speaking, a fruitful way of doing something is that before introducing an innovation (which requires critical relation to self and clear understanding of the ratio between accumulated knowledge and individual abilities) one should investigate if there is more or less suitable theory and experimental data in branches of knowledge.

This is the perspective from which I call your attention to several conclusions concerning the role of healthy thinking in counteracting destructive manipulation that I believe to be the most essential and practically indispensable at present.

I do not claim to make a discovery or a revelation as I suppose that a sort of pre-structuring of the existing knowledge, their synthesis and the search for the most efficient points of effort application quite often gives a much more essential result.

The American scholars Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett note in their book The Person and the Situation, that social psychology challenges the philosophy’s right to teach people that they, in fact, do not understand the way the world they live in is arranged (Ross, L. and Nisbett, R. E. The Person and the Situation). This branch of psychology has formed very important assumptions for the realization of the deeply rooted ignorance and really sober understanding of a person and the genuine features of his/her interactions with the other people and the reality.

The new understanding presupposes the three major principles: the situationism principle, the objective interpretation and construal principle, and having the idea about the tense systems.

The first principle implies that the behavior and the thinking of a person are extremely dependant on the certain features of a situation, in which an individual is. An important addition to the principle is the idea of the so-called “channel factors”, i.e. the elements of a situation that seem to be minor, though if present they strikingly enhance the achievement of certain goals; if not it is vice versa.

The second principle explains the high degree of subjectivity and the literal imagination of a person in perceiving the reality. This principle allows to produce adequate measures to teach the skills required for the best orientation of a person in the world.

The third principle is the fundamental idea that has been developed for the last decades. The idea sees individual and collective mind as a dynamic intense system the stability of which is a consequence of zero vectors sum, where vectors are continuous controversial impacts and processes. Such an idea is the result of interdisciplinary achievements realized in the theories of systems, chaos and catastrophes, i.e. the theories of any complex dynamic formation. An essential consequence of the concept is the orientation to the search for the “channel factors” and the critical points of effort application (where relatively weak efforts in seemingly minor directions may result in notable even global outcomes) instead of direct approach to problem solving.

As applied to the problem under consideration, the first principle requires the clarification of what is in the situation a today person is in that drives him/her to illusive and pathological interpretation of reality or what is absent and without what it is impossible to shift to a more healthy and realistic interpretation. In other words it is necessary to reveal the situation factors that contribute to the destructive cults’ success.

The second principle implies that a person should be provided with knowledge about his/her ability to distorted interpretation and self-delusion along with the knowledge and skills concerning adequate (critical, healthy) interpretation of reality. The interpretation being enhanced only this way, it may become healthy and really protected against manipulation on the part of sects and sect-like groups.

The third principle lets us direct our consideration and efforts to certain points, so to speak “hot keys”, i.e. to the aspects of human mind and social situation, the change of which would allow to get the maximum results along with the minimum efforts. In this case I suggest adding to the system of a person’s knowledge and skills such a component that would make him/her much more resistant to a cult’s influence while introducing into social situation something that would weaken the position of destructive cults.

Any social influence, if viewed from the perspective of modern social psychology, is a compound of the two processes (aspects): the actions of the agent of influence (e.g. a cult’s leader, a guru or a group itself) and the perception, interpretation and some other mental processes on the part of the target of influence (a person being recruited in a cult or an ordinary cult member). We have to speak about the abuse of certain aspects and internal processes of the victim of psychological manipulation, what is provoked, arranged and sustained by the manipulative environment (cult situation) rather than about the cult and its leaders’ direct influence on the victim. As the result the cult’s leaders and advocates may constitute “I’m not to be blamed, (s)he’s done everything himself/herself” while the victims often can not realize and properly evaluate the abuse of their own imperfections of mind and thinking as well as of their attempts, wishes and illusions. Consider that the mainframe of problems that cults are parasitic on is the human need for a definite and clear system of orientation in the world along with the fulfillment of wishes.

In relation to this idea the efficiency of destructive cults’ manipulative influence is explained not only by its organization and intensity but also by the presence of some weak points of a target of influence, i.e. a typical factor of disequilibrium.

As we know well by now, the sects’ influence is not something unusual or exotic. It is a set of usual social influence processes, though arranged in a specific way, amplified and target-directed. And a person’s factor of instability to such influence is not a strange thing as well; it is a typical genus feature of a human being.

Social psychology contributed to the explanation of this Achilles’ heel of a person. It is fundamental dependence of a personality in the perception and interpretation of the world from those around, which is overburdened by cognitive imperfection (cognitive vulnerability).

Thriving of the covered activity and its agents has become possible partly because of the extremely low level of healthy thinking typical for the absolute majority of population even in the countries with the highest levels of education and science development rather than the “irresistible force” of psychological techniques of manipulation. The author believes that it is not the only reason for destructive cults’ boom and not the only problem highlighted by their activities, though it is the key one.

There are certain patterns and mechanisms that are characterized as the “key element”. They may look as ordinary aspects; however, effort application exactly to the elements allows much more efficient solution of broader and more global problems. Such understanding is well correspondent to the social psychological term of “channel factors”; i.e. seemingly meaningless though critical important facilitative influences or deterrent barriers. I believe that the skills of healthy critical thinking are the very “key element” or “channel factor”.

Lots of those who attempts to seriously sort out the problem of destructive cults become convinced in the importance of the formation or restoration of critical thinking for the actual or potential victims of manipulation. Mentioning in the context of socio-psychological vulnerability of a person is quite often. I would like to focus attention on the interconnection of the cognitive and socio-psychological aspects of a person’s vulnerability, on the determination of the exact content of these aspects and their core meaning for producing counter-measures against the destructive cults and all the rest forms of the manipulative psychological abuse.

I believe critical thinking is the major channel factor to undermine the positions of destructive cults as well as any attempt of manipulative abuse of human mind and thinking imperfections.

To my mind the main principles (characteristics) and skills of healthy (critical) thinking can be conditionally divided into two groups :

  • philosophical and basic methodological principles, that include interdisciplinary assumptions and the fundamental assumptions of scientific psychology; and
  • instrumental principles and skills.

Trying to formulate common ideological principles of healthy thinking one can get the following:

  • the acknowledgement and acceptance of the fundamental cognitive imperfection of any human being;
  • the acknowledgement of one’s own capacity of self-delusion and dreaming, determined by the indirect nature of communication with the reality;
  • the acknowledgement of that such imperfection can be significantly corrected (compensated) with the use of certain skills of communication with the reality and the check of self by the reality;
  • the acknowledgement that there exist question without (human) answers and phenomena without (human) sense, i.e. simply incognita (or incognizable), indefinite, strange and unknown;
  • the rejection of the ultimate desire to give answers to all the questions and attach sense to everything in the form of unjustified revelations and fantasies, posing them as the truth;
  • the acknowledgement of uncertainty (no faith, no knowledge) in a set of matters as the norm of human existence;
  • the acknowledgement that the mere fact of existence of a human being in tangible real world is the all-sufficient ground for extremely rich and sensible life without calling for supernatural or extraterrestrial “reasons” and “senses”;
  • the acknowledgement that a person as an individual has only one life, before and after which there can be only the life of mankind the same not-unreal and solely lonely;
  • the acknowledgement of faith in the optimal framework of reason as one of the indispensable components of human mind and life. However, this should not be a ground for the rejection of critical thinking or its results.

The instrumental characteristics of healthy thinking are best shown in comparison with ordinary thinking (next follow two tables that use slightly different wording):

Comparing ordinary thinking to good thinking

Good Thinking

Ordinary Thinking









Inferring logically


Grasping principles

Associating concepts



Offering opinions with reasons

Offering opinions without reasons

Making judgments with criteria

Making judgments without criteria

From: Lipman, M. (1988). Critical thinking: What can it be? Educational Leadership. (46)1, 38-43.

Comparing perfections and imperfections of thinking




































adequacy (for purpose)



From: Paul, R. W. (1990). Critical Thinking: what every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. Rohnert Park, CA: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, Sonoma State Univ.

The tables show us that the pathology of thinking that is imposed by destructive cults on their members is confined within aggravating the negative sides of ordinary thinking, most people are used to. Cults’ cognitive negative impact is, in essence, criminal abuse of ordinary thinking and criminal use of many elements of ordinary social influence.

Regardless of that there often appear declarations of unwarranted rationalism of our age and of the necessity to live with heart and soul, the real situation looks slightly different. It’s not an occasion that it is cults that call to “heart”, not to reason, as such speculation echo only in the conditions of significant deficiency of true reason-ability. In social psychology there is much evidence of that a today person in the absolute majority of situations and cases is lead by social reflexes and emotional reactions rather than true reflection. In many normal situations this circumstance is relatively harmless or even inevitable, though it is extremely dangerous when there is destructive cults’ aggression.

One of the major destructive cults’ success factors is the abuse of human need for certainty, unambiguity, and clear references; the need for at least delusively-definite and simple recognition of lies, good and evil. The only tool of modern human civilization to slake the thirst for definiteness with clear references and at the same time decrease the danger of falling into delusions is critical thinking.

The existence and relative success of destructive cults point out that the world has not become “much too reasonable” (it is cults that intensively preach “the liberation from mind” and “following one’s feelings and emotions”), but vice versa it has not reached even minimally required reason-ability.

Hence, the problem of healthy thinking in relation to destructive cults should be viewed as the problem of deficiency of this ultimate component of modern culture. The main thing destructive cults do is not depriving somebody of critical thinking (though it is, too), but rather abuse its absence or weakness. This is the core feature of the environment they spread through.

Just like in the tables above, I tried to compare the major anti-manipulative social psychological abilities of a person and his/her weak sides (liabilities):

Comparing anti-manipulative attributes (abilities) and pro-manipulative attributes (liabilities) of a person

Anti-manipulative attributes (abilities)

Pro-manipulative (vulnerable to manipulation) attributes (liabilities)

Reflectivity (reflection)

Reflexivity (reflex) (social automatism)

Personal autonomy


Constructive adaptability

Situation timeserving

The ability of objective cognition

The subjectivity of reality perception

Self-criticism and general criticality

Self-delusion and trust (belief) in delusions

Change and development

Stereotype (automatism)

Flexibility and complexity

The need for unambiguous definiteness

Independence (self-determination)

Orientation toward authority

Constructive conflicting

Co-ordination with the behavior of majority



The opposed (in the three tables) traits of thinking and human behavior are in fact not mutually-exclusive. They represent different sides and different degrees of the same — a controversial person in controversial circumstances. There is not absolute good or absolute evil in the world; there are only complex combinations of merits and drawbacks that have real (and in this sense — absolute) positive or negative meaning for a certain situation. Just like all this there are not good or bad traits of human thinking and behavior. Imperfect manifestations of human mind are most often imperfect merely in certain circumstances and certain relations, while in other ones they can be quite adequate and justified. These weaknesses can be viewed as inevitable points in emerging the best qualities and traits of a person.

Such an integral and at the same time multi-perspective view, that comprehends complex discrepancy and heterogeneous interrelations of a real person and the real world is also an important aspect of healthy thinking. It is that very artificial and absolute dichotomy of good and evil, “good Me” and “evil Me”, ignoring facts and logics, that highlighted the roots of authoritarianism and guruism for Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad — the authors of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Kramer, Joel and Alstad, Diana (1993). The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. North Atlantic Books/Frog Ltd., Berkeley, CA, 1993).

And I’m quite agree to many of their assumptions.

Now it is time to investigate the formation of healthy self-consciousness and thinking in such decisive sphere as education. The ten years of research work and active practice of helping the victims of destructive cults (sects, psycho-sects, psycho-cults) and the examination of the processes of persuasion (propaganda) and different manipulations with people’s minds have led me to the firm belief that modern education and culture (at least in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and as it seems in all highly developed countries) do not give the citizens the necessary knowledge and skills for sure self-dependent orientation in the society that rejects forms of swift regulations of people’s lives.

Secondary and higher education do not give universal and fundamental skills of healthy critical thinking that could be compared with the completeness of reading and writing skills, while in fact the meaning and concernment of such “skill” is not less than literacy in our life. The right reflection, technically and in essence, is a narrow professional and specialized domain, while the scientific data about really applicable and practical features of human mind is the field of some faculties’ students. For example in Russia students have only a term-long course of logics (school students are deprived of it, though, paradox is that in Stalin times logics was an compulsory school subject), while the topic of social psychological security is not present at all even in the curriculums of the psychologists-to-be. By the way, I lecture the course named “Influence and psychological abuse” in the University of Nizhniy Novgorod only because of my own initiative.

In relation to this, it is extremely demonstrative that in the country that pretends to be an example of true democracy, I mean the USA, the deficiency of healthy thinking was realized more than twenty years ago by professionals and concerned citizens. Since then, there grows quite a powerful and efficient movement for critical thinking. As far as I know, a similar movement functions now in Western Europe.

Unfortunately, in the most wide-spread approaches to teaching critical thinking prevails one-sided logically-intellectual aspect, when such extremely important social psychological knowledge about human being (first and foremost it is the data about the features of cognitive imperfection and about the power and mechanisms of extra-logical, i.e. social, emotional, existential, deception and manipulation) is set aside. This knowledge is focused in several branches of social psychology and is taught, for example, in American universities as “Psychology of Influence” or “Social Influence”. The courses are well-developed by a set of outstanding American social psychologists.

I believe that uniting logically-intellectual and social psychological approaches in this case is evident as it provides a really complete set of knowledge and skills that would ensure healthy thinking and healthy orientation in modern world that would make people immune against manipulative psychological abuse. Currently, I’m working at the design of such a synthetic cross-disciplinary course for Russian students; and in cooperation with the Ukrainian colleagues (with Family and Personality Protection Society, which I represent here as its consultant) we are developing similar program for educational specialists and school students. We also plan to write and issue a line of popular books to enlighten people in this sphere.

In counseling the victims of destructive cults from the very beginning there used the idea of intellectual and psychological education as in the controversial practice of forced “de-programming”, as in the free-willed exit counseling (or counseling about mind manipulation), I mean mostly the American experience. As for me, I advocate more consistent and deeper performance of this idea on the ground of uniting the potential of the movement for critical thinking with the latest achievements of social psychology. Practice shows that whatever detailed negative information about destructive cults can not solve the problem and is efficient not for all. Besides, a complete and sustainable rehabilitation of destructive cults’ victims is possible only in case of the formation of critical thinking and realistic “self-image” in their minds; only the outlined approach can provide this.

My practice of counseling the cults’ victims lets me speak that minimal client motivation for mutual work and long-enough duration and intensity of the sessions is the sufficient ground for good and sustainable results of such cognitive-psychological education. The main ideas of the report are in essence the knowledge I bring to my clients when working with them, discussing the points.

As reverting to the matter of indirect influence of healthy thinking on physical health and the treatment of addictions, I want to acquaint an interesting fact. My co-operation with Russian social organizations that propagate healthy way of living (life) and help people give up smoking and drinking alcohol revealed that during the 1980s both in the USA and the USSR there were developed very similar therapies of addiction ; I mean exit counseling concerning cults and Gennady Schichko method of treating alcohol and nicotine addiction. The mere naming of the coincidences and common traits would take a lot of time. But what is really curious that both these methods were based on exactly the formation of critical thinking. The only common disadvantage of the methods is the orientation of the critical thinking to a relatively narrow sphere or a problem.

In conclusion, I would like to summarize the thoughts I wanted to share with such an important for me audience.

Destructive cults are not an isolated problem that should be solved with the use of isolated means. They are, just like any destructive phenomena, the indicators of much more fundamental problems of modern society. That is why it is necessary to formulate and solve them with utmost consideration and care. They can be referred to as the ‘diseases of growth’ when there appear certain disproportions in the development of different sub-systems of such complex systems as society and personality. A person comes across the problems concerning which he/she doesn’t have enough experience and hence he/she doesn’t have reliable and tested skills of their solving, neither he has spontaneously formed or consciously built cultural mechanisms to master and cope with them effectively.

The three main principles described in the report let us detect the situation, cognitive and system factors that act in destructive cults’ favor as well as the corresponding directions of the professionals and society activity on the way of solving the problem. On the cults side there is the deficiency of the cognitive skills that are necessary for the new epoch; basal cognitive vulnerability; instability of social and individual psychological systems. To provide the health of person and society it is necessary to terminate the deficiency in the intellectually-reasonable culture of society, decrease cognitive vulnerability of a person and push the cults in their weakest point — inability to oppose anything to real reasonable critical thinking.

The today achievements in the sphere of social psychology and in teaching the skills of critical thinking allow us organizing quite an efficient preventive protection from the influence of criminally-manipulative groups as well as helping their victims.

The principles and the skills of critical thinking together with the adequate social psychological knowledge about the real features of a person and social interaction have such a universal, evident and pragmatic character that they can be the firm ground to master and cope with any subjective distortion and delusive ideological barriers.

Marseilles, March 2004