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Cults, cliques, cons, codependents, & killers (Terri Silva)

Note: This class is open to high school students only.

What’s up with all the cults these days? I don’t know if there are actually more than there used to be, or if they are simply more visible because of so many media outlets, but there certainly are a lot of documentaries and articles lately.

I’ve always had an interest in psychology and behavior.  I’ve wondered how people got caught up not only in cults, but also in harmful and deceptive relationships in general.  This curiosity was based on self-defense: how could I protect myself from these relationships?  Are there clues in someone’s behavior, speech patterns, body language, etc, that they might be a manipulative person?  And how about groups- what types of characteristics are common among harmful groups?

Over the past several years, I’ve pursued what has turned out to be a bit of a passion project in studying abnormal psychology. One of the things that has been striking to me is the similarity among (most- not all) cult leaders, conmen/women, and even serial killers, in their behavioral and speech patterns.  And the successful ones- the ones who are able to successfully manipulate other people, that is- also often have a mastery of the psychology of influence and manipulation.

In this class, we’ll watch/listen/read accounts of cults, con people, cult-like organizations and businesses, and manipulative relationships.  We’ll analyze their common characteristics, and compare/contrast them with healthier relationship and communication patterns.  One example of a “watch” will be “The Shrink Next Door.”

In doing so, I hope you will feel better equipped to protect yourself, feel more confident in yourself, and become a more kind, less-judgmental person (assuming you don’t wish to harmfully manipulate others!).  You should also become a more competent critical thinker, and someone who is better equipped to ask meaningful questions.

Believe it or not, this is a science class: much of the work of analyzing these patterns involves noticing when evidence is needed and identifying what kinds of evidence would suffice.  That is a big part of the scientific process.  We’ll learn some basics about neural wiring and brain structure/function.  We’ll learn about some of the quirks of our brains that make us vulnerable to fallacies of reasoning, bias, hyperbole, and shame.  And we’ll also learn to identify those fallacies of reasoning, bias, hyperbolic and shaming language.

There will be some emotionally difficult content in this course.  I am happy discuss any concerns you may have around this and try to mitigate when possible, but this is a disturbing subject by nature.

About the instructor: I'm Wyatt Silva's mom :).  I have Bachelor and Master degrees in evolutionary biology with a focus on behavioral ecology.  I am an Assistant Professor at Bastyr University, and an adjunct at North Seattle College, where I teach mostly human biology courses.