Central Washington University professor examines cults influence

They can turn good people bad.

Daily Record, Washington/April 12, 2007
By Patrick Carlson

But the way cults are able to influence the behavior of seemingly “normal” people doesn’t happen by accident, according to Central Washington University psychology professor Anthony Stahelski. How cults create human evil is the subject of a presentation by Stahelski at 4 p.m. Thursday in CWU’s Science Building Room 147. The event is part of this year’s Social Sciences Lecture Series at CWU.

A researcher of small group behavior and leadership issues, his current work investigating the origin of cults and cult violence began partly as a result of the attacks on 9-11, he said.

“That event was cult-induced,” Stahelski said

People that carry out such acts are not “crazy” in a traditional scientific sense of being psychopaths or sociopaths, he said.

Stahelski wanted to discover what else may be behind their behavior. The result of this work is a model he developed showing how people are brought into the groups and ideologies that motivate them to commit atrocities. That model will be central to his talk.

“They basically get seduced,” Stahelski said about people who are attracted to cults.

In many cults, there is a charismatic leader who people sometimes believe has god-like or supernatural powers or knowledge that they don’t possess, he said. Adolf Hitler was an example of this type of personality, according to Stahelski.

And religion doesn’t have to be the basis for a cult, he said. Before the Cold War, most terrorist violence was committed by groups based around political ideologies, according to Stahelski.

But his work has a very specific focus; it’s not about serial killers or armed combatants taking part in a war. It’s about atrocities committed against innocent people as a result of cult indoctrination, he said.

Highlighting original research and scholarship by CWU professors is what the lecture series is all about, according to Hong Xiao, a sociology professor at the university who is organizing the events.

“What’s the use of research if we don’t find a way to make it known,” she said.

Stahelski is currently working on a book titled “Dark Conversions: A Model of Cult-Induced Violence,” which is set to be published this summer.

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