Keith Raniere, orchestrator of the cult Nxivm, was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison for racketeering, possession of child pornography, and sex trafficking. Many of these crimes took place within an inner circle of Nxivm called DOS—Latin for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or “master over slave." In DOS, female victims were lured into a “master and slave” relationship with higher-ranking women in the cult, branded with Raniere’s initials and manipulated to have sex with Raniere.
Chances are that when you initially learned about this modern-day cult, your first thought was “I’d never get duped into joining a sex cult,” but you would be wrong. Recent shows like HBO’s The Vow and Starz's Seduced have peeled back the cult curtain, giving us a peek at the group’s inner workings. I’ve watched both shows and what has become clear to me is that the psychological tricks Raniere used are not particularly special. In fact, his ability to ensnare so many victims is rooted in his reliance on several core psychological principles—principles to which each of us is vulnerable.
How did Raniere know what psychological buttons to push? Turns out, he minored in psychology as an undergraduate (a fact revealed on Seduced when his college transcript from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was displayed). Below, I’ve compiled a list of three “ODD” psychological principles Raniere capitalized on to manipulate and control cult members: Obedience, Deindividuation, and Depletion.
Among the most infamous research in the field of psychology is Stanley Milgram’s work on obedience. You can read more about the details here, but the gist is that everyday adults agreed to give innocent victims electric shocks simply because a person of authority instructed them that “the experiment must go on.” Milgram's results shocked the research community (no pun intended) by revealing that 60% of participants obeyed the authority member in the lab coat and went all the way up to the “XXX” deadly shock.
In Nxivm, Raniere was set up as an authority from day one. He was talked about by the other members like he was a celebrity and most members didn’t even get to see him in person until they had been in the cult for some time. Those who finally did gain access to Raniere often took 3 am walks with him during which he would randomly command them to do simple acts like sprint to a tree or lick water from a street puddle. These small acts served to establish Raniere as an unquestionable authority member and laid the groundwork for ever-increasing servitude. It also served as a test to weed out anyone resistant to his obedience techniques, ensuring that every woman who eventually joined DOS was unlikely to refuse his sexual demands.
Raniere also ensured obedience from DOS members through his use of readiness drills. Female slaves would receive a group text from their female master, at any hour, day and night. The text would read, “Ready?” and slaves had 60 seconds to respond with “Ready.” If even one slave failed to respond on time, the entire group failed and they were subjected to grueling physical punishments. Like breaking a wild horse, this daily process trained the slaves to respond with almost knee-jerk obedience to their female master. Later, Raniere capitalized on this reflex by informing slaves that the master of their master was Raniere himself, which meant they didn’t just owe their female master obedience, but Raniere as well.
According to The Vow, Raniere was a big fan of another infamous psychological experiment: The Stanford Prison Study. In this study, young, mentally healthy men were randomly assigned to serve as prisoner or guard in a mock prison constructed in the basement of a Stanford University building. Within just a few days, both groups appeared to have lost themselves in their assigned roles. The guards acted sadistic, forcing prisoners to endure humiliating or physically grueling punishments like sit-ups or brushing the toilet with their bare hands, in order to strip prisoners of their identity and encourage obedience. Similarly, prisoners started to see themselves less as a person with a name and more as a prisoner known only by the string of numbers on their uniform. Things fell apart so quickly that the planned two-week study had to be canceled after just six days.
Raniere relied heavily on this study’s procedures for a six-day intensive course within the cult’s SOP (Society of Protectors) group. In this course, men essentially served as prison guards and women (many of whom would go on to join the sex group DOS) served as prisoners. His guise for this course was that women needed to understand the suffering men went through in order to have empathy for them (but note that he never suggested the opposite — that men needed to experience the suffering women endure). The men humiliated the women by criticizing their appearance or weight, forcing them to hold painful planks for minutes on end, and using other techniques to strip them of their identity and agency. Outside of this course, women in DOS were subjected to even more extreme deindividuation techniques, such as having to photograph their own genitals, wearing a dog collar, being locked in a dog cage, and of course being branded with Raniere’s initials. The more these women were treated as objects, the less they saw themselves as people.
Research conducted by Edward Burkley shows that exerting self-control weakens our ability to counteract others’ persuasive messages. Put another way, if you deplete people of their self-control, they become more vulnerable to brainwashing.
Raniere capitalized on this principle by forcing Nxivm members to engage in a variety of activities designed to exhaust their self-control. Extreme dieting (e.g., 500 calories per day), sleep deprivation, winter walks at 3 am, and ice-cold showers were just a few of the daily occurrences women in DOS endured, leaving them less able to resist Raniere’s manipulations.
We all want to believe we'd never be lured into a cult like Nxivm. But as Raniere’s right-hand man Mark Vicente said in The Vow, “no one joins a cult.” Raniere may not have had a genius-level IQ or been a Rhodes Scholar like he claimed, but he certainly had a good grasp of how to use basic psychology against people in order to get them to comply. And despite what we tell ourselves, we are all vulnerable to manipulation via these basic psychological principles.
To learn more about how basic psychological principles are used for evil, check out Zimbardo’s excellent book The Lucifer Effect.