The "Sweat Lodge Guru" Guilty Verdict: Recognizing the Deadly Influence of Authority

Two years ago, three people died in a sweat lodge near Sedona, Arizona, during a so-called "Spiritual Warrior" retreat led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray. Earlier this week, Ray was pronounced guilty of negligent homicide by an Arizona jury. The verdict is the correct one. Despite the nation's ballyhooed emphasis on so-called "personal responsibility," the verdict shows that the jury understood that sometimes people are actually not responsible for their own decisions when they are under the powerful psychological influence of authority figures.

Some background. In his early 50s, tan, and ruggedly handsome, Ray had appeared on Oprah and Larry King and penned a best seller. He was a big player in the self-help world -- participants paid almost $10,000 to spend five days with him during the Spiritual Warrior retreat.

Toward the end of the retreat, the "warriors" were to stay alone in the desert without water or food for thirty-six hours, followed by a return to camp for a two-hour "purge" in a sweat lodge, vaguely modeled after structures used in some Native American religious ceremonies. There was barely space for the fifty participants to squeeze in around a fire pit, kept hot by fresh coals brought in by Ray's assistants. Ray sat outside the tent flap, keeping it sealed.

[Update: Some readers with knowledge of the event indicate that Ray was inside the tent rather than outside during the sweat-lodge ceremony. The police report after the event indicates that Ray was "sitting in a chair in the shade" outside the tent, but it is unclear in the report whether he was there for the entire event or only at the end. Other news reports are unclear as to his location.]

About halfway through the ceremony, some of the participants started to become ill. Ray urged them to press on. As the heat grew more oppressive, one man tried to lift up one of the walls of the lodge to allow fresh air to circulate, but Ray chastised him. When some people vomited, Ray explained that vomiting was good for them. Ray hovered by the door, intimidating people if they tried to leave. A few people struggled out, but most stayed. "Play full on," Ray insisted. "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you're not going to die."

At the end of the ordeal, several of the participants were indeed near death. Two died that evening; another fell into a coma and died a few days later. In all, almost half of the participants ended up in the hospital suffering from injuries as severe as scorched lungs and organ failure.

What happened? Why did people stay in the lodge, risking their lives? Any of them could have left at any time, but did not. Ray did not exert physical force.

The answer can be found in the famous Milgram studies of 50 years ago. You may recall that in Stanley Milgram's experiments, people willingly followed the orders of an authority figure to administer electric shocks to people who were doing poorly on a memory test. Over 80 percent of Milgram's subjects willingly administered multiple shocks even after the recipient cried out in pain and demanded to be released. More than 60 percent administered shocks they believed to be lethal.

Milgram's experiments have long been cited to show how humans can be manipulated by authority figures to the detriment of others. What Ray's sweat lodge case shows is that humans can be manipulated by authority figures to their own detriment. In both cases, the psychological power of authority was immense.

The people in the sweat lodge desired Ray's approval more than they feared death. The police report explains: "Participants thought highly of James Ray and didn't want to let him down by leaving the sweat lodge."

The horrible irony of the sweat lodge deaths is they occurred at a self-help event ostensibly designed to help participants take control of their lives. Instead, they were physically and emotionally weakened and then intimidated by an authority figure whose validation they cherished.

The "warriors" may have seen the sweat lodge purge as a test of courage. In hindsight, we understand that the purge was seen that way only because Ray had identified it as such. Staying in the lodge was in fact dangerous and harmful, with no real benefit. It was courageous only in the way that forcing yourself to break your own finger with a hammer is courageous. The genuine act of courage was to question Ray's methods, ask about the risks, demand care for those in distress, and leave the lodge. But that demanded wherewithal to challenge the authority figure. It is a measure of the difficulty of such a challenge that most people in the lodge were more willing to risk death than push their way through the tent flap.

And it is a measure of the jury's understanding of human nature that they held Ray responsible, rather than the victims themselves.