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Snapping: Epidemic of sudden personality change

Conway, F. & Siegelman, J. (1995). Snapping: Epidemic of sudden personality change. (2nd ed.). StillPoint Press. Reviewed in Schecter, R.E. (ed.). The cult observer.

OVERVIEW

Schecter discusses what the authors of this book have attempted explaining that

personality changes induced by cultic experiences are really one of the clearest examples we have—a sort of "Rosetta Stone" of understanding—for an epidemic of "information disease" among the stress-fraught vulnerable populations of contemporary society.

Schecter tells how Conway and Siegelman draw on the research of "neuroresearch to build their own model." Using case studies from a wide range of contemporary cults, the authors show how "manipulative techniques can alter or destroy and replace lifelong patterns of thinking and, therefore, personality."

The authors’ extensive travel and research led them to go beyond classic Freudian, behavioral, and humanistic psychological descriptions of cultic thought and behavior. Conway and Siegelman note:

The threat of snapping extends far beyond cults and cult-like groups._The cumulative forces of our stress-filled technological society have brought unprecedented changes to individuals and cultures: masses of information, mountains of technology and an explosion of new experiences, increased pressures on, and the breakdown of basic human bonds and supporting social structures.

But this book is not just about individual vulnerability to cults and mind control. Schecter shows how the authors also

turn their analysis to the often deadly confrontations between cults, or cult-like groups, and the wider society, which have become frequent since the late sixties: the rattlesnake attack by Sunanon’s "Imperial Marines," the Peoples Temple disaster, the Waco siege and conflagration, the Solar Temple murder-suicides, the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack, and many more less well known but similar events.

One of the book’s illustrations diagrams the Death Spiral at Waco—how government, the media, local law, ex-members, concerned relatives, closure, leader, control, and members all led to final confrontation. Their analysis is described by Schecter:

In each case, the leader turns away from supervising perhaps beneficial group practices to mind control methods that make members vulnerable to manipulation and more serious abuses. Within now closed information systems, the leader’s latent psychopathologies may manifest and snowball. His worldview may become paranoid and, unchecked by positive feedback from unquestioning members, lead to confrontation with outsiders—defectors, family, investigating media, authorities—who are providing plenty of negative feedback about what is going on.

The tragic and concluding dramas between cults and society, the authors say, play out in this way:

The final threshold is crossed when words turn to actions, when group leaders no longer simply preach doom and holy warfare but begin to acquire arms, train their members for violence or self-destruction, and in the pattern first witnessed at Jonestown, even stage elaborate rehearsals. At that point, as we watched repeatedly, it took only some tiny triggering even from within or without, to throw the entire system into chaos and violently destroy group leaders, members, journalists, lawmen, and anyone else in the path of the "vortex" of the "death spiral."

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. What makes you interested in cultic thinking and behavior?
  2. Do you think schools and churches should educate young about the causes and symptoms of these phenomena?
  3. What most impresses you from this book review? What questions does it raise for you? How could you get these answered? Would you be interested in reading this book? How could it be used?
  4. How do you define the differences between destructive cults and legitimate religious groups? How might a discussion about this be helpful?
  5. Do you see a relationship between increased stress and vulnerability in our society and the growing popularity of cults and cult-like religious or political groups?

IMPLICATIONS

  1. This book and article uniquely relate the social and individual stress and vulnerability to the growing phenomenon of cultish groups and activities.
  2. The study of cults and cultic behavior is important to all those concerned about youth and young adults. This Encyclopedia is a good resource for beginning such study and search for practical help.
  3. Cultic behavior goes beyond specific religious cults into the behavior of many political religious groups. The American Family Foundation and the Center for Youth Studies are interested in distinguishing between legitimate religious activity and cultic practices.
Matthew Borgman cCYS