How To Avoid Being Led Astray
People love following gurus. The word itself is a religious term meaning “teacher” or “priest.” But it also means the guy people follow in self-development or financial circles. It’s one thing to learn some useful information from somebody else. After all, how the heck else are we supposed to learn stuff?
Crossing The Guru Threshold
But there’s a point where any teacher or source of information becomes more important than the information itself. This is when gurus can become dangerous. Self help guru James Arthur Ray was a riding high. He was in the movie, “The Secret,” he went on Oprah and he was on his way to being up there with Tony Robbins. Until he killed somebody.
He didn’t actually kill somebody, but he was convicted of felony negligent homicide. He had a huge following, and many of his “students” came to successfully more and more expensive seminars. The death happened during a sweat lodge retreat, an event for the “inner circle,” of his most elite students.
Other people are attracted to certain leaders for one reason or another, but find themselves stuck in a death cult. Only they don’t think it’s a death cult. They think that after they drink poison they’ll move on to the next plane of existence. Where all will be revealed.
Why So Compelling?
Humans are naturally drawn to charismatic leaders. We are drawn to any leader. Humans are hierarchical creatures. Study after study (plenty here – Cialdini) shows that whenever you put a bunch of people together in a situation, we’ll organize into a hierarchy. We need leaders like we need food. Humans are not only social animals, but we need authority.
Authority and Social Proof
Two things that are everywhere are authority and social proof. Most of us can’t decide what to do unless there’s somebody in charge calling the shots. And most of us don’t feel comfortable doing anything unless they are plenty of other people doing the same thing.
The Milgram experiment showed the extent we’ll blindly follow authority. Nearly 70% of people gave electric shocks (to a guy that was begging for the shocks to stop) just because an authority figure said so. The shocks weren’t real, but the guy giving the shocks didn’t know that. They were staring across a table (through a pane of glass) to the guy allegedly receiving the shocks.
The guy pretending to get shocked would beg for them to stop. They’d look at the authority figure, who said something like, “It’s OK, go ahead and shock him,” and most went ahead and shocked him.
The Asch experiment was equally troublesome. Guy sits in a room and does a simple test. Choose a line on one sheet of paper (out of three) that’s the same length as the single line on another sheet. Easy peasy, right? But when they are surrounded by people who purposely choose the wrong line, (choosing the wrong line on purpose) the test subject also chooses the wrong line.
After the experiment, the test subject always had a logical sounding reason to choose the wrong line. But the fact remained that they knew it was the wrong line, but they said it was the right line only because everybody else was saying the right line.
Commitment and Consistency
Plenty of other studies show that commitment and consistency is also a powerful force. Simply stated, people are much more prone to do things simply because they’ve done them before. Especially powerful is when we say or do something publicly. This makes it much harder to contradict ourselves later on.
For example, in Cialdini’s work (here) they show that jury trials where the jurors say “guilty” or “not guilty” out loud (e.g. making a public commitment) take twice as long. But jury trials where people take a private straw vote (e.g. no public commitment) are over much quicker. Once you say your opinion out loud, it’s harder to change it.
All Three Add Up
So anything that combines authority, social proof, and commitment and consistency can be very hard to ignore. When you add in a very charismatic speaker, who allegedly holds the keys to the most sought after things (any kind of social or financial success) it can be very easy to fall into the guru trap.
Grateful Dead Experience
Way back in the day, fans of the Grateful Dead would follow them around the country. Camp out, sing along to all their songs, and follow along to the next city. This follows the same basic structure of guru worship and it’s got the same ingredients. Authority, social proof and commitment and consistency. The more you follow the Dead, the easier it is to follow the Dead.
Followers of the Dead formed their own group with strong social proof. The Dead themselves were the authority, up on stage, the center of the attention. Except following the Dead was more or less accepted as entertainment. Guru’s are considered something entirely different. Or are they?
We humans are kind of strange in that we don’t do something unless we are getting some kind of benefit. However, that benefit doesn’t need to be something we are consciously aware of. One of the basic ideas of human nature is we can’t do anything unless we think it’s going to make us better off.
Even suicide is considered beneficial by the actor. They are in so much pain, the only way to relive the pain is to check out permanently. Drug addicts, alcoholics all follow the same structure. (Don’t worry, we’re not leading up to make a connection between followers of gurus and drug addicts!)
From the outside looking in, it’s pure self destruction. From the inside, getting high or drunk makes perfect sense based on their model of the world. Not in a logical conscious way. Most alcoholics and drug addicts really wish they could stop. But the part of them (largely subconscious) that thinks it’s a good idea is stronger than the part that thinks there’s a problem.
All this is to show that every time we humans do something, we do so because we believe we are benefiting. But at the same time, those benefits may not be fully or even partially conscious.
Guru Following Benefits
As mentioned, simply by following a guru you get satisfaction. You are satisfying your authority needs, as when you are listening to the guru (in person or on YouTube) you feel comfortable as a recognized authority is doing your thinking for you. If you are among any kind of group (online or in person) you are getting your social proof needs met. If you have listened to that guru before, you are also satisfying your commitment and consistency needs met.
Is Guru Content Optional?
This may be hard to swallow for a lot of people. Just consider it and see if it makes sense. So long as the guru is talking about something you’re interested in (social, financial or spiritual success) it might not really matter if you are getting closer to those successes or not.
Consider that it might be the case that so long as the three main triggers (authority, social proof, commitment and consistency) are being met, and the content is on desired subject (social, financial, emotional or spiritual success) that’s all the matters. The message itself may not need to make much sense.
So long as the guru is talking about that which you crave (social or financial success) and the other triggers are being hit (authority, social proof, commitment and consistency) that might be enough for most humans.
Imaginary Forward Progress?
How would you know? One way to check is to see if you are making any kind of objective, tangible process toward your goal of social, emotional, financial or spiritual success. One way to think about this is guru vs. religion, and guru vs. entertainment.
Guru Vs. Religion
Going to church every Sunday feels very much the same as seeing your favorite guru. All the elements are there. Authority, social proof, commitment and consistency. Asking yourself if you are “making progress” from going to church would be a silly question. People don’t go to church to learn things. People don’t go to church to improve their financial or social lives.
People to go church to have an experience, and to remind them of an aspect of daily life that can’t be seen. To remind them there are more important things than the stuff that worries us and gives us grief. Church is an experience. A connection to that which is unseen and cannot be experienced fully in this life.
Guru Vs. Entertainment
Imagine being a follower of the Grateful Dead back in the day. In many ways, this is similar in structure to going to church. It has the three elements (authority, social proof, commitment and consistency). It feels very much like being reminded of “more important things” that common daily worries.
What Are You After?
If you are content to have an experience, then following a guru is a good way to have that experience. In that case the only thing to be worried about is how much is that experience costing you. If you were to participate in a local church, for example, the costs would be proportional to the benefits.
Cost Benefit Analysis
All of our actions can be run through a cost benefit analysis. This doesn’t mean you have to keep a detailed accounting sheet of everything you do. But it is helpful, from time to time, to ask yourself if you’re getting out of the system something you is worth what is required from you by the system.
Personal Growth Measurements
It can be very easy to confuse a continuously intensifying experience with personal growth. For example, imagine starting jogging program, and having trouble running a mile without stopping when you started. If you kept at it, it would feel good to finally be able to run a mile without stopping.
It would feel good to run two miles then three miles, etc. It would feel like real progress. Similar with any other skill to personal improvement endeavor. Real progress feels good. It’s part of being human. Some things, however, can seem like progress, when it’s really more of the same.
Inner Circle Idea
If you went to a free session down at your local bookstore, you might hear some things that felt pretty good. Enough to motivate you to join a weekend seminar. Then after the weekend seminar, you might feel like a week long seminar would feel even better.
Pretty soon, you are spending tens of thousand dollars each year and participating in ultra-secretive inner-circle workshops where you are learning ancient secrets divulged only to direct ancestors of the Egyptian overlords. (Or something similarly fantastic sounding).
This very much feels like progress, but it’s really a progression of more money. More time. Imagine the effort you spent and the return your received from the first free session in the bookstore.
Applicable Skills Or Diminishing Returns?
Since we are all trapped in a very subjective mind-body system, it can be hard to tell if this is real progress, or if this is just more of the same. In a sense, it is real progress. You are having much more intense experiences with each session. The first session at the bookstore had a different kind of social proof and authority than the private inner circle intense session.
On one side of the coin, it is getting more and more intense. It is worth more and more money. On the other hand, it is still the same structure. An experience with an intensifying amount of social proof, authority and commitment and consistency. How do tell the difference?
Put It Through The Anonymous Filter
One way to test if you are really getting your money’s worth in terms of applicable information is to imagine the actual information you are getting from the seminar. Beyond all the wonderful social proof and authority (which will vanish once the guru experience ends) take a look at the information.
If you were down at your local library, and you found the very same information in a forgotten book from the 1930’s, would you find it equally as valuable? Does the information still stand out as valuable separate from the powerful feelings of social proof and authority attached to the guru experience?
Do You Get Objective Benefits?
Many people claim specific benefits from expensive guru seminars in the form of networking, enhanced relationships, or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Consider coming up with very specific examples of success. Things you can actually measure. These can be very difficult, but helpful to avoid spending more time and money than you can afford on any guru.
What is the impact on your finances? Are you making more money as a result of your guru experience?
What is the impact on your relationships? Are you enjoying deeper experiences of intimacy with your loved ones?
What is the impact on your career? Are you better of than you were before the guru experience?
What is the impact on your health? Are you in better shape physically than before the guru experience?
Who Chose Whom?
Many paths toward the guru trap start out innocently, and unexpectedly. Few people make a decision to go out and find a guru to follow and spend all their money on. Did you have a specific objective when you went looking? Did you want to increase your finances, decrease your debt, or enhance your relationships, (or relationship building skills)?
Or did you decide to do something for a change, and weren’t really sure what to expect? Having an unspecified desire can be dangerous, as once you feed that unspecified desire with very compelling (and very hard to resist) social proof and authority, you can easily get hooked for life.
General Guru Protection Rules
Beware of any guru that keeps asking for more money and more commitment. Always ask, “What am I getting for what they are asking?” To be sure, social proof and authority is part of human life. This is why humans have always self-organized around religious and political leaders. Consider taking care of that basic human need as cost effectively as you can.
Consciously Fulfill The Guru Need
Understand that being part of an organization bigger than yourself is just as important as proper nourishment, sleep, emotional and sexual intimacy. Plenty of studies show that people who belong to an organized religion of some sort, and practice regularly, have much less stress and suffer from far less health issues.
If you are missing that part of your life, you may be over vulnerable to the guru trap. Many people thought they were seeking a friendly neighborhood religious experience only to find themselves stuck in a death cult. Recognize this as a normal human need, and always be on the lookout for a suitable weekly experience if you don’t already have one.
Chase Personal Growth Separate From Gurus
Consider fulfilling your guru need separate from any personal growth needs. Personal growth involves personal commitment and consistently daily activities. All personal growth can be related to exercise. Getting in physical shape requires daily effort and behavior. All other personal growth, from financial to emotional to spiritual, can also be gained through personal effort and behavior.
It’s easy to feel like you are putting in the same personal effort by participating in any guru experience, but consider keeping them separate. Consider giving yourself an hour a day where you dedicate yourself to personal development through daily practice.
Daily Practice – Consistent Measurement
Along with your daily efforts, have some way of measuring your success as objectively as you can. Make sure your goals are yours, and they are firmly in your control. Find a suitable guru, or any kind of similar experience where you can enjoy social proof and authority. Keep them separate in mind, and separate in practice.
Mind Persuasion has plenty of books and courses all designed to help you get much more out of life with much less effort.