There are many misunderstandings regarding the definitions of “cult” and “mind control”. What do these words mean and what is involved? How can we tell the difference between the conveyance of a good idea and being controlled into exploitation?
Mind control is known by many names: brainwashing, coercive persuasion, thought reform, uninformed consent, manipulation, exploitive persuasion, malignant use of group dynamics, sociopsychological manipulation, behavioral change technology, and compliance-gaining influence. Cults are also known by other names: closed system of logic, authoritarian structure, coercive organization, and ideological totalism.
Some of these words are charged, full of energy and emotion and preconceived ideas. Others are more self-descriptive. Hopefully I can dispel any stereotypes while explaining the ideas behind these words.
Overall, the study of thought reform is the study of persuasion and influence — how to change people’s minds and behaviors. Influence in and of itself is not inherently negative. The extent to which deception is used and the degree to which a person is exploited is what separates ethical from coercive persuasion.
Television advertising would be considered a light form of coercive persuasion. Marketers are taking advantage of the fact that you are in a mild trance state while watching the tube, and they associate unrelated positive imagery to the product… babies, puppies, and sex are considered the more persuasive images, but what do cute toddlers have to do with tires? What do buxom babes have to do with beer? Advertisers will also often bend the truth ever-so-slightly to make their product seem better than it is.
These types of persuasive tricks, on their own, are not terribly effective. Most commercials do not involve fear tactics, guilt and shame, or love-bombing, and when these methods are used, they’re at low levels. Laws prevent outright deception, and many companies are honest in informing their customers.
Perhaps more importantly, the mistake of purchasing the wrong brand of beer costs only a few dollars, and you’re free to choose differently the next time.
Compare this to a cultic group, which will pull out all the stops to recruit and retain members. Cultic groups use many persuasive techniques in unison, techniques which strip the personality from a victim to build up a new, group pseudopersonality. There is nothing to prevent lies, deception, and information control. New members know very little about the group, its purpose, or the expectations they will face. People become deeply involved in the organization, sacrificing vast amounts of time and money, investing emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Leaving the organization proves to be very difficult, and former members face a struggle to regain a sense of sanity.
Persuasion is everywhere, around us all the time. From friends, family, corporations, politicians, religions, scientists, authors, and activists. The real question is — are we being persuaded by facts, reason, research, and open access to information? Or by manipulative and deceptive methods? I conclude that consent through fraud is not consent at all.
Many dysfunctional families employ the same methods used by cults. A person in an abusive marriage may have a very similar experience as a cult member. For the purposes of this discussion, a cult is differentiated by being a group of people involving at least some who are not family members. A cult can be of any size, from three to millions of members.
When discussing cults, it is important to dispel a few of the myths currently believed by society. By looking at what a cult is not, we learn what a cult is.
Media exposure about cults involve the most extreme cases, so we tend to think all such groups are strange and easy to identify.
We hear of Jonestown, where 913 men, women, and children drank (or were forced to drink) cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. We hear of Heaven’s Gate, where 39 members committed suicide, believing they were catching a passing space ship. The Branch Davidians were killed in a stand-off with FBI agents in Waco, TX. Eastern meditation groups often hold foreign beliefs and practice long hours of meditation causing their members to appear spacey and tranced-out.
To believe all cultic groups follow these extremes is a dangerous fallacy. More successful cults try to blend into society by appearing friendly and clean-cut. They focus on positives, such as strong values and life-changing experiences.
The most successful cults are very subtle.
These images come from movie-makers, novelists, and TV writers who need dramatic imagery and gripping stories to keep us entertained. Real-life mind control is not usually so exciting.
Early studies of brainwashing were done on Communist China and POWs. These manipulators had the advantage of physical force to detain, torture, starve, and kill their victims. They also had total and complete control of information. They had the power to debilitate, instill total dependence, and cause real dread in the hearts of their captives.
In America, we have relative freedom, so those who wish to control us must first persuade us and earn our trust. The Three D’s are now: Deception, Dependency, and Dread.
Since a swinging watch and torture devices are likely to tip us off, cults need to be a bit more stealthy in their methods. The goal is to instill complete trust in the group and leadership. After that, we’re likely to believe a lot of things and change our behaviors to match what we observe in the group. We succumb to social pressures. Now our emotions can be manipulated, and our critical reasoning abilities can be altered or completely stripped away. Then we learn cult jargon (loaded language) and phrases that stop our thoughts from going the wrong direction. We can be deflated by shame, and simultaneously inflated by arrogance and elitism. We make public commitments and become dependent. Phobias are induced. We come to believe that our lives, our identities, our moral principles, even possibly our very souls are in danger if we do not obey, if we do not continue to believe.
By this time, we are trapped. No interrogation rooms or torture chambers are necessary.
There are also a few myths about altered states of consciousness.
It is very natural and common for the human brain to change states of consciousness. It does not require drugs, meditation or hypnosis. We are in an altered state when we are falling asleep and when we dream. We are prone to changing states when we read, learn, concentrate, watch TV, listen to music, drive, and create. Our mind is capable of tuning out unimportant or repetitive information so we can focus on more relevant cognitive tasks. Sometimes the conscious side of the brain wants to shut down for a little while and we “space off”. We can become so involved in a story or concentrating on an idea that we lose all awareness of the outside world. Music and creative functions can shift us into the right-brain and subconscious, where we are more emotional, visual and sensing, and therefore less rational.
We’re quite comfortable with most altered states because we experience them every day. It doesn’t take much for a manipulator to subtly switch a person to a more emotional state, or cause someone to become absorbed in a story, or even make someone space off and trance out. While in these states, we’re not at the total mercy of a would-be brainwasher, but we are more easily influenced, especially if the manipulator is someone we trust.
Anyone is susceptible to coercive persuasion. Not every group may be able to lure you in, nor are you susceptible at any time in your life. But there are cultic groups out there which would appeal to you, especially at the right time in your life.
Many cults target people who are at an unstable point in their lives. We have all had difficult periods, such as transitioning to new job, new school, or a new city, been diagnosed with a serious disease, questioned the meaning of life, or had a recent trauma (a death in the family, severe financial loss, etc). If someone appears who offers us hope, friendship, comfort, or answers to our burning questions, we will be more uncritically accepting. When our normal defenses are down, we are susceptible to deception and persuasive techniques.
Teenagers and college-age adults are at the highest risk, because they are seeking identity, moving away from home, and exploring their beliefs.
A cult can rise up around any subject. Religion is a popular category, but they can also be personality-based, philosophic, political, commercial, or motivational in nature. Some political parties and activist groups are controlling and deceptive. Some businesses are cultish in how they handle employees as are some multi-level marketing groups. And a growing number of psychotherapy and motivational organizations are cultic in nature.
Basically any topic for which people are willing to organize is fair game.
Many define cults as religious groups claiming to be Christian, but whose doctrines are not really in line with the true teachings of the Bible. Or cults are any non-Christian religion or belief set.
This definition is not used by secular researchers and practitioners who have studied cults and mind control at great length. It is not a helpful definition, as it doesn’t tell us anything about the mechanisms of mind control or how it is psychologically and materially harmful to people. It assumes “true” Christianity is completely free of manipulations and exploitations. In fact, it assumes Christianity is true in the first place, which is something that cannot be proven one way or another.
Cults are not about the details of doctrine, but about what leaders and members do and how members are deceived and exploited. Doctrines can facilitate control, but beyond this, specific beliefs are arbitrary and neutral when it comes to psychological manipulation.
These words are similar because they seem to have the same root, but they do not mean the same thing, nor do they even have the same origin.
We’ve already discussed the secular definition of “Cult”. It can also refer to any religion or set of beliefs. It comes from the Latin word for “worship”, and we also find it in the words “culture” and “cultivate”.
Occult comes from Latin “occultus”, meaning “hidden, concealed, secret”. In our society, it refers to pagan forms of worship, magic, divination, and pagan forms of worship. For many years these activities had to be kept hidden from controlling religious bodies (ironically), and hence the association to that which is concealed.
Christians and those who believe these activities to be inherently evil will tend to associate the occult and cults with Satanism.
The primary tool cults use to retain members is fear. Powerful phobias are induced in cult members. You wouldn’t light yourself on fire, would you? Or drive your car into a wall, or cut off your arm, right? You are probably afraid of doing these things.
Likewise a cult member believes there are real dangers to them leaving the cult, and this fear keeps them in the cult just as much as your fear of pain and death keeps you from jumping off buildings.
Cultists may fear physical violence from fellow members, spiritual punishment, assault by spiritual forces (demons, evil spirits, God), financial failure, loss of friends, loss of support, loss of salvation, and loss of purpose and meaning in life.
Cultists may also be emotionally, financially, or psychologically dependent upon the group or leader. Some cults work to break down the individual and their self-reliance, sometimes even making them regress to a childlike state, so that those who leave will face very real problems.
Unfortunately, it is not so simple. Former cultists had their entire lives, minds, and personalities deeply invested in a deceptive organization. Many members will suffer from very real psychological, and even situational difficulties that will take a long time and a lot of study to overcome. Some of these problems can include anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, eating disorders, panic attacks, indecisiveness, difficulty integrating into society, post-traumatic stress disorder, recovery from physical and sexual abuse, inability to trust, sexual problems, confusion and disorientation, “floating” and dissociation, and phobias.
No brainwashing method has ever been found to be total and complete. Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time, but you can not fool all the people all the time.”
No matter how strong your methods, some of your members will eventually see through to the deceptions or become too miserable.
Hopefully by now you have a better idea of what is meant by the terms, “cult” and “mind control”. Popular conceptions of these terms are not very accurate, which leads to confusion and misunderstanding.
Thought reform is an intricate web of many complex methods which all reinforce each other and serve to draw and bind people to a belief system, and therefore an organization. As long as they are there, a cult leader is free to exploit and control.
Hassan, Steven, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. Somerville, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2000.
Langone, Michael D., ed. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Singer, Margaret Thaler, Cults in our Midst. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.