Assessment of the impact of undue influence and its effect on limiting a person’s free will in making choices falls within the purview of the forensic psychiatrist. I have evaluated both civil and criminal matters on the issue of undue influence, usually within the rubric of testamentary capacity, but occasionally as an aspect of a cult or other situation where the criteria of undue influence are met and set in motion acts which may not reflect an individual’s free will.
Undue Influence in the Making of a Bequest, and Testamentary Capacity are discussed further, as linked. In addition, a substantial literature exists on cults and the ways in which cults, including groups in which a charismatic leader, for example, religious or otherwise, unduly influences the minds of the followers. The Patty Hearst case gained notoriety in the 1970s following her “conversion” to membership in a radical group and her subsequent conviction of criminal acts following the undue influence of its leader. The ways in which she was influenced follow the classic tenets of brainwashing, whereby she was sensorially deprived, made to feel helpless and defenseless, and then influenced while in a weakened state.
An aspect of this effect is the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome,” in which the victim becomes an apologist for the victimizer and the victim develops a pathological identification and sympathy with the perpetrator of the kidnapping and hostage-taking. In a recent murder case in which I testified (People v. Helzer), I believed one defendant had been unduly influenced by his brother and entered into a folie á deux, based on their religious upbringing. Fundamentalism, as a general rule, creates absolutes and this includes absolute obedience to a leader. There are very few denominations that do not have an ultra-“orthodox” segment, which may be converted into abusive, exploitative, destructive behaviors by unscrupulous religious leaders. Jim Jones and the poisoned Kool-Aid is but one example; others exist such as Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan and Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians in the United States.