, Research Paper
Everything Old Is New Again
Observing Persuasion in the New Age
Thesis: The allure of the New Age can be attributed in part to an overall lack of understanding its nature; when its history is taken into consideration and its persuasive element is exposed, we see that, contrary to the assumption that the New Age is a freer alternative to mainstream religion, persuasion is a very present part of the New Age.
II. What is new about it?
A. The New Age is not new.
B. If there is anything really new about it, it is its acceptance in the West.
C. Its adaptation to the Western culture is also new.
III. Persuasive elements defined
C. Foot-in-the-door phenomena
D. Low-ball technique
E. Effects of the Communicator
3. Speaking confidently
F. Range of acceptability
G. Fear of appearing foolish
H. Behaviour changing attitude
IV. Persuasive elements observed
The automatic and first context of an assessment of the New Age, as a ministerial student, is religious. For the purpose of this paper, however, I shall endeavour to limit the assessment of the New Age to the primary context of social psychology.
As this paper is an exposition of the presence of persuasion in the New Age (contrary to its assumed freedom), it is also necessary, in the interest of fairness, to make some fundamental distinctions, with respect to the possibility of illusory correlations being formed from the conclusions of this paper:
1. if the New Age does indeed use elements of persuasion, it is not necessarily cult-like, any more than is the average Christian denomination, whether evangelical or mainstream. Persuasion is basically a human phenomena, and thus it inevitably appears to some degree wherever two or more people interact;
2. the visibly tragic results of some cults do not attend the average New Age participant. Persuasion is not about ends, its about means. Some use persuasion to a tragic end, some do not.
In addition to various real-life instances where these factors have be observed, I shall be drawing extensively from the particular case of Will Baron, who has become a key speaker on the dangers of the New Age. It is of value for its contextual, in-depth examination of the duration of his entire experience with the New Age, from the earliest stages of involvement, to his total commitment of life and means, to his ultimate rejection of the philosophy of the New Age, as he was taught to understand it.
The time spent in contemplation of this topic was of more value to me than merely the partial fulfilling of a course requirement. Although many reasons could be cited as to why, suffice it to say that, as I consider pursuing social psychology in post-graduate studies to integrate with ministry as a Seventh-day Adventist, it has reinforced my conviction that, beyond understanding the relationship between theology and psychology, and making the appropriate integration of the two disciplines, the next step in the never-ending quest to keep ministry relevant to the times must be to better understand the relationship between theology and social psychology, and make the appropriate integration thereof as well.
What Is New About It?
Surely by now every reader has heard something about the new Age. It has been the subject of talk shows, headlines, and whole new shelf sections in libraries and bookstores. In fact, according to Peter C. Newman (1994), the world is on the verge of a massive return to spirituality (p. 38). Unfortunately, few are aware of the nature of this New Age, its roots, its methods, its philosophies, and the possibility that it may have one destination. The limited scope of this paper will not accommodate an evaluation of the philosophies or possible destinations of the New Age, but will examine its roots and methods. The allure of the New Age can be attributed in part to an overall lack of understanding its nature; when its history is taken into consideration and its persuasive element is exposed, we see that, contrary to the assumption that the New Age is a freer alternative to mainstream religion, persuasion is a very present part of the New Age.
In that first quote by Newman, we must focus on the particular word return. While the New Age is called new, in fact, it is not new at all. Groothius (1985, as cited by Clark and Geisler, 1990) keenly observes that the strands of the ancient wisdom are now all aswirl, one virtually indistinguishable from the next, and all drawing on one another (11). They conclude that many new age themes are improvisations on ancient themes (12). Teri McLuhan, author of The Way of the Earth, is quoted in MacLean s Magazine (1994) as recognizing that the new spirituality is the old spirituality. It is the golden thread that you can trace and link with the Vedic tradition in India which is 5,000 years old (48).
If there is little new about it, why is it called the New Age? What is new is its acceptance in the West. It seems that the new is in reference not to its existence, but to its rise in the American consciousness within the last thirty-five or so years (Clark and Geisler, 1990). In addition, although the New Age consists of a hodgepodge of idealistic parallels with the occult, Gnostic, pagan and even native American religions, (Clark and Geisler, 1990, p. 11), its adaptation to the American lifestyle and the adaptation of the American lifestyle to it is also new. One may compare the relative speed of its wash over society to that of the early Christian church of the 1st century AD, or any significant religious uprising since.
This background awareness of the deep-running roots of the New Age demonstrates at the outset that, without even a cursory examination of terms that are taken for granted, our understanding, and ability to deal with it, must be limited.
It is essential now to establish the context of our examination, by familiarizing ourselves with some elements of persuasion.
Persuasive Elements Defined
When we ve accumulated a short list of some elements of persuasion, we will then see if such elements can be observed in the experience of those who ve been involved with the New Age, whether in cults or otherwise.
Reactance. A person may be motivated to rebel somewhat to maintain one s sense of independence. In fact, studies show that attempts to restrict a person s freedom often produce a boomerang effect, (Brehm & Brehm, 1981, as cited by Myers, 1996, 265).
Ingroupism. The development of a differentiation between we and they, us and them, (Myers, 1996). Ingroup bias quickly results, where the members of the Ingroup will tend to assume that their group is better than any other group. The two feed each other in a circle.
Foot-in-the Door Phenomena. When people agree to something small, they are more likely to agree later to a larger request (Myers, 1996). It technically got its name from the imagery of the mid-20th century American door-to-door salesman literally stepping one pace into the front door so that the housewife he was pitching wouldn t close it in his face. Every moment of extra time he had to talk increased his chances of a sale.
Low-ball Technique. Aware of the behavioural phenomena above, one may twist it a bit to manipulate another, as studied by Robert Cialdini et al (as cited by Myers, 137). If I request of another 10x all at once, they will be more likely to say no than if I only request perhaps 2x, and then, after they agree, reveal to them that more, the remaining 8x, is involved. Further, they are more likely not to change their mind as I reveal the remaining heretofore unbeknownst 8x.
Effects of the Communicator. A communicator who is perceived as an expert in a subject relevant to the discussion, or is esteemed in a sector that is considered authoritative or respected, or speaks with an air of confidence, or makes statements that appear defensible and thus credible, is one who will be considered charismatic, and influence people more successfully than one without a balance of the above factors (Myers, 1996). A
Range of Acceptability. People are more open to conclusions within their range of acceptability (Myers, 1996, 284). Although this seems insignificant, it actually has immense implications for the alluring nature of the New Age, as we shall observe.
Fear of Appearing Foolish. Although it sounds foolish, this is a frighteningly powerful motivator. Experiments of Latane & Darley (1968, cited by Dworetzky, 564) revealed shocking truths about human response to situations in which the fear of appearing foolish made them act or not act even more foolishly. People will actually risk their lives in the effort not to appear foolish.
Behaviour Changes Attitude. While it is commonly assumed that attitude shapes behaviour, a wealth of studies continue to demonstrate that it is equally a reality of human nature that behaviour shapes attitude, so that the idea that we don t just care for the ones we love, we love the ones for whom we care can be observed.
Internalization. We are more likely to do something if we decide to do it, rather than if we are told to do it by someone who assumes authority over us. This, however, is not to be confused with reactance. Internalization is the phenomena of doing something because one believes that it is the product of their own devising. If a leader wishes his subjects to follow his direction, to command them might create the boomerang effect, reactance, that might make them disobey. If he lowers the command to a reasonable suggestion, his followers might think about it, and decide within their own mind that it is reasonable. In deciding, then, to obey, the appearance is that the subject made up his/her own mind, the decision was internalized. For all intents and purposes of the leader, however, the result is still the same they did what was required.
Persuasive Elements Observed
Will Baron was determined not to get involved in another denomination (Baron, 1990). Newman (1994) not only observed that organized religion is dying, but that people are as spiritually inclined as ever. Contradictory? No, not when it is recognized that people are rejecting the confines of pre-digested doctrine (p. 38). For such, the New Age is the perfect alternative for someone searching for spiritual fulfillment, without dogmatism, dry formalism, or any of the other perceived drawbacks associated with traditional religion (Aubin, 1995, p. 19).
Whether organized religion is or is not any of these things is not the issue. What is of issue is that, if people perceive the church as such, they might react against it by looking for an alternative. Thus, in persuading people to join the ranks of the New Age, gurus will emphasize those facets that are opposing what people assume are descriptive of mainstream religion. As one member of the Heaven s Gate said, during an interview, Anyone who wanted to leave were free to go (Newsweek, p. 22). Again, not that this implies that organized religions revoke one s freedom, but the message being sent was that one was free to investigate the ideas of Heaven s Gate, and could leave anytime they so chose, alleviating fears and giving Heaven s Gate more time to teach the subjects.
In more notorious situations like the People s Temple of Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, reactance against society in general precipitated isolation from society, allowing the leader to be free to physically reinforce the ingroup mentality in the privacy and understanding of his people. While the average New Ager doesn t leave everything and go sit on a hill permanently, nature weekends, hikes in the mountains, and other such spiritual retreats are a normal part of a devoted New Ager s lifestyle, for fellowship with like-minded others, for meditation, and such common New Age activities.
For almost a year, Will Baron was sent to the so-called Mecca of the New Age, in Scotland, a privately-run retreat for upwardly-mobile supporters of the New Age (Baron, 1990). Away from mainstream society, all the factors of persuasion have a greater inculcation factor. Again, isolation is used, to some extent, by any number of organizations of good and neutral purpose, from government and corporate training sessions, to leadership workshops, to church picnics, to academic club weekend retreats and the Biblical come out of her, my people, who are called out of darkness into His marvelous light, isolation itself is not necessarily evil, but it can be used for purposes of both good and evil.
We may wonder, how do these guru nuts get people to kill themselves? or we may assert that could never happen to me, but it could. Grace Stone is quoted by many (Conway & Seigelman, 1979, cited by Myers 1996, p. 300), saying Nothing was ever done drastically. That s how Jim Jones got away with so much. You slowly gave up things and slowly had to put up with more, but it was always done very gradually. He was able to get away with so much (and what a macabre understatement) because of the foot-in-the-door phenomena, and his understanding of the low-ball technique. Will Baron observed the same thing. In fact, he recalls, it appears to be one of the main methods of recruitment used by the New Age devotees. Many of them offer therapy and counseling to people in need and then interest the clients in the philosophies associated with their practices (28).
In fact, for the duration of his experience, the demands on his acts of submission increased as his willingness to submit was demonstrated continually. He ended up leaving his job, traveling half-way around the world, ending a relationship that was going well, and financially supporting the little group with which he was affiliated by depleting his bank account, borrowing on his two credit cards until they were over the limit, and even extending the limit to borrow more (Baron, 1990). Indeed, once he had cast his lot with the little group, as the demands increased, he just went along with it.
During one of Baron s first interview s with a New Age devotee, the woman made a statement to the effect that Will was benefiting somehow from experience he had in a former life. He wrote Because Marcus wife was a respected professional psychologist, I felt quite open to seriously accepting her revealing statement. You know how it is; one tends to trust qualified people (27). The language Baron uses here so parallels what we read in the textbooks, this author tends to believe that, in preparing to write his book, he had done some homework to try and understand what had happened to him. Whatever the case, he probably did not consciously say to himself that day while sitting with the couple, she s respected in this field, I d better believe her. Few of us would it is a somewhat subconscious factor. The purpose of this paper is to reveal what factors are at work, whether we are aware or not, and, once aware, take more control of our beliefs and actions.
In addition to the above appearance of credibility as an effect of a communicator, look at how perceived expertise helps. Baron says I had never met anyone who had spoken about past lives with such frankness (27). Even if she was the Queen of England, had she lost eye contact with him, or stuttered somewhat, or muttered under her breath, the effect it had on Will would almost certainly have been less than it was. Her delivery was forthright and level-eyed, and it sent the message that she, a qualified person, took the concept seriously.
The New Age makes good use of the factors of the effective communicator. One of the more popular proponents is the Oscar-winning actress, Shirley MacLaine. She commanded $300-per-person at a meeting in New York City (as part of a fifteen-city tour that earned $1.5 million), (Friedrich, 1987, cited by Clark and Geisler, p. 9). It is not unreasonable to assume that those who can afford $300 to hear a guest speaker are people in leading positions in society. Dionne Warwick, a pioneer of the Motown era, is the Queen of the psychic television and telephone network. Top-billing Actors like Richard Gere and Steven Segal offer regularly that they are Buddhists, a religion not typically American, but gaining acceptance riding the wave of and contributing to the New Age. Like getting celebrities to sponsor soft drinks and athletic shoes, the New Age is certainly following the social psychological concepts to influence people..
Consider also that among the leading gurus of the New Age is Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling The 7 Steps of Highly Effective People. Time Magazine rates him among the 25 Most Influential People in America today (Lucayo, 1996). US President Bill Clinton is the first Democrat to win a second term since Roosevelt, yet he is not on the list at all. (Time distinguished between most influential, and most powerful, and Clinton tops that list). According to thought leader Amitai Etzioni (cited by Lacayo, p. 45), when I exercise power, I immediately generate resentment and opposition. When I influence you, you love what I ask you to do. (Note well this quote, it will come up again). Whether he is studied, or not, he obviously grasps the concepts of reactance and internalization. Evidently, so do those who find themselves on the influence list, including Stephen Covey.
How is Stephen Covey spreading his influence? As the founder of the Covey Leadership Centre in Provo, Utah, he has led his company to grow from 2 employees to over 700 in 13 years, grossing about $78 million in 1995. He has attracted and trained employees from over half the Fortune 500 companies, which in turn all have great influence in their communities and local political scenes (since we re talking about Fortune 500 companies, the political clout can reasonably be expected to extend far beyond the local political scene), and in the business world in which they operate. In addition, Steve Helmich, President of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, says (cited by Lacayo, 1996) the Covey regimen made the whole town better. Indeed, his influence, on behalf of the New Age, is extensive, and powerful.
As we observe the effective, charismatic speaker, in the wake of the tragedy of the mass suicide of member s of Heaven s Gate, consider finally the thought that the most important cause of death may have been the cult s guru. His personality has been compared to Mr. Rogers, but Herff Applewhite was a master manipulator (Newsweek, 1997, p. 21).
Is the New Age forcing strange ideas upon us? Not at all. As we recall the roots of the New Age, we remember that much of what is happening is coming around again. C. S. Lewis suggested that pantheism catches on precisely because, like an old shoe, it is so comfortable (Clark and Geisler, 1990, p. 9-10). While ancient religious philosophies may not be so familiar to us in the modern west, remember that the New Age is a smorgasbord of Eastern and metaphysical beliefs, (MacLean s, p. 460). As Will Baron discovered, the more involved he became in the little group with which he was meditating, the more they gravitated towards a form of Christianity (Baron, 1990). At one point, the leader, who had led them up to that point to study the teachings of many spiritual leaders, including but not limited to Jesus Christ, all of a sudden told the group that, from henceforth, they d only be studying the teachings of Jesus from the Holy Bible no less. It appears that this was the intent, but they did not start there, they wended their way there. The jump from where they started to where they ended up was not a big one, because where they started was still within the range of acceptability of most people, (not limited to, but including the teachings of Jesus, from the Bible) making it easier for people to accept what was being offered up front, (many of whom were reactants from organized religions, but didn t want to blow too far to the extreme) demonstrating understanding, and effective use, of this concept.
Fairly early in Baron s experience with the little meditation group, they had a channeling session, wherein they would stand in a circle, meditating, and the spirit of some teacher would speak through each person in the circle, so that all could hear, (Baron, 1990). He d never done such a thing before, and did not expect that he would do it right. Rather than step out of the circle, though, he stayed until his turn came up. Unsure of what would happen, and somewhat skeptical, he preferred to stay than step back, because, in his words, I didn t want to be embarrassed in front of a group, (p. 44). Motivated by the fear of appearing foolish, he participated in something in which he did not at the time believe. As we noted briefly, in addition to recognizing that beliefs shape behaviour, we now have come to understand that behaviour shapes beliefs. It is not unreasonable to conclude that those who are leading the New Age are aware of this facet of human behaviour, and setting up the learning environment to take advantage of the help afforded by the group dynamic of the fear of appearing foolish. Changing the belief need not be sought first; just getting people involved and participating in the activities will work upon their attitudes to bring about the changes desired.
The consideration of this final concept is quite intriguing to me. While we continue to read that there seems to be reactance against the notion that organized religion is somehow dogmatic, and the New Age, with its freedoms, makes a worthy alternative, a closer look is necessary. Observing the natural order of society, one must acknowledge the primacy and value of order, of rules. Driving on the way to work, at work, among adults, among children, among athletes, there are always rules. What would a typical morning rush be like if there were no rules? No rules to limit speed of drivers, or upon which side of the road we must drive, no rules to protect children crossing the road to reach school. We even have rules to govern how we play, and children do nothing in a game before they establish the rules of the game Is the backlash really against rules?
No, this author believes. The problem is, whose rules? Even when New Agers stare at the sun and say , there is my God, (MacLean s, p. 46), it was observed that we may bow to statues, and other things, but they are still products of own making, and thus indirect idols of our own deification; we want to worship ourselves .do our own thing (Aubin, 23). Clark and Geisler have observed the same idea. Zen, they wrote, (p. 34),
propounds a philosophy of life that fits these times. For example, without the moral constraints of bodhisattva vows or the discipline of the master in the temple, Zen can degenerate into a rationalization for self-centered living .All of us should do our own thing and get in touch with ourselves.
And, why get in touch with ourselves? Why, because we are gods! That s the message that people were paying $300 to hear from Shirley MacLaine (Friedrich, 1987, cited by Clark and Geisler, p. 9-10). Swami Muktananda, the guru who got former California governor Jerry Brown, among others, into yoga, put it this way: Kneel to your own self. Honor and worship your own being. God dwells in you as you (Minnery, 1987, cited by Clark and Geisler, p. 9).
How does this substantiate the observance of internalization as a factor in New Age persuasion? As Baron observed, the classes constantly stressed that obedience to the higher self is a very important requirement for progress to be made on the path to God-consciousness, (59-60).
Obedience?! Requirement?! How is it that these words, which have been rejected as the dogmatic downside of organized religion, pop in the wonderful New Age? Baron found that getting in touch with self was a matter of making the inner self available to the teachers of the spirit world. He believes that it was not his inner self who told him to break off his relationship, quit his job, and send himself almost into bankruptcy to financially support the cause, but his inner mind, emptied of self, being commanded to obey. And, what took him, and so many others so long to react against it? They had internalized the ideas. The commands were not coming from the power that immediately generates resentment and opposition, the commands were coming from the influence that made him love what [he] was asked to do.
The New Age gives the impression that you are just obeying yourself, and for most, it may never amount to more than that. But for a tragic few, demands for obedience to requirements increase to the ultimate murder (i.e. Charles Manson and his family) and suicide (People s Temple, Branch Davidians, Solar Temple, Heaven s Gate). And, even if we ever remain no more than a slave to self, we are exactly that still slaves, and no more.
The New Age is not so new. It is a mixture of old ideas wrapped up in new clothes, as it were, yesterday s left-overs zapped in the microwave and served on clean plates.
It is not being peddled in ways that are so novel. The church has its preachers, the New Age has its gurus. For all those who reject mainstream religion in search of spirituality without rules, they unfortunately will meet some of what they left, and more, for better, or for worse.
Evidently, the gurus of the New Age are either well-educated enough, or keenly perceptive enough, to have grasped human nature to the extent that they can persuade people to do most unspeakable things, even take lives, even their own. The laws of human nature are obviously powerful, and people are using those laws in such a way that their followers are hurting.
In terms of social psychology, it is very important to appreciate the field that has organized thought on the issues and concepts and observations of human behaviour in a group context, as so much of our lives are in group contexts; the family, the workplace, the school, the neighbourhood, etc. Moreover, the power that the gurus have recognized and sought can also be directed for good. In developing our understanding, we are equipping ourselves to better deal with the allure of the New Age, especially that element that is as undesirable, if not moreso, than the old time religion in the average local mainstream congregation.
We also see how denominations can be accused of being cults, rightly or wrongly, by observers who don t know a great deal of the denomination, but do recognize cult-like methods for exacting obedience. Indeed, Jesus said the truth shall set you free.”
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