Brainwashing and Cults: How to Form a Cult!

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Brainwashing and Cults: How to Form a Cult!

There is no dogma so queer, no behaviour so eccentric or even outrageous, but a group of people can be found who think it divinely inspired. (Aldous Huxley, 1940, The Olive Tree)

Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something. (Anton Chekhov: Notebooks, 1982—1904)

A Closed Group…is an intolerant entity. (I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1971, Love and Hate)

Why do people join and stay in cults? How are supposedly healthy, intelligent adults brainwashed so easily? How are acceptable social groups and organizations different from (dangerous) cults? Do they use similar techniques of ’brainwashing’?

It has been argued that cults have eight recognizable characteristics:

• Powerful and exclusive dedication/devotion to an explicit person or creed.

• Use of ’thought-reform’ programmes to integrate, socialize, persuade and therefore control members.

• A well thought-out and thorough recruitment, selection and socialization process.

• Attempts to maintain psychological and physical dependency among cult members.

• An insistence on reprogramming the way people see the world.

• Consistent exploitation of group members specifically to advance the leaders’ goals.

• Use of milieu control signals: a different, unfamiliar setting with different rules, terms and behaviour patterns.

• Ultimately using psychological and physical harm to cult members, their friends and relatives and possibly the community as a whole.

Most cults start their induction by stopping critical thinking. This involves the introduction of a ’sacred creed’ that members may have to live by. Through open confession and subordination of the individual to the doctrine, the cult tries to ensure control and ’purity’. Usually, cults deliberately induce powerful emotions like fear and guilt but also pride. They tend to develop their own language, dress and signals which shows their specialness.

The mind-controlling techniques of extremist groups are little different from those of the army, religious organizations and prisons. These techniques are in fact well known; demanding total, consistent compliance and conformity, using heavily persuasive techniques, creating dissonance and emotional manipulation. They differ only in intensity and duration... and in effectiveness.

All too often, we explain strange, unexpected behaviour (like joining a cult) in terms of the personality of the victims: sad people brainwashed into joining a bizarre group. Are they poor, gullible, naive indoctrinated members with defective personalities?

Rather than immediately trying to blame extremists for being different, it is equally important to try to understand the psychological appeal of cults, extremist groups and political cells, as well as some business organizations.

An analysis of people in cult groups shows surprisingly large diversity in terms of age, career, education, ideology and talents. They can attract the post-graduate and the illiterate; the teenager and the ’senior citizen’; the solidly middle class and those on the fringes of society; the religious and non-religious; the political and apolitical. It is not so much their demography that is important as their psychological needs and motives.

What do all groups (cult and non-cult) offer a potential recruit? Simple but important psychological benefits: friendship, identity, respect and security. They also offer a world-view: a way of discerning right from wrong, good from bad. They offer a structured lifestyle and the ability to acquire new skills. They also offer moral explanations into how the world works. They provide clear answers to difficult and big questions: the secret of happiness, life after death, the difference between right and wrong, who is with us and who is against us, the saved and the damned. Many have strong beliefs in conspiracy theories.

Five things make extreme groups dangerous to their members.

First they demand that they sever all ties with people (family, friends) and organizations (schools, churches). This naturally makes the members more dependent on the cult itself and helps create the person’s new identity. They start again, wipe the slate clean.

Second, the members are required to show immediate and unquestioning obedience to rules and regulations which may be arbitrary, petty or pointless. The idea is to ensure allegiance and obedience. This strategy is used to ’break-in’ all army recruits.

Third, group members often have to do long hours of tedious work like drilling, begging for money, cooking, followed by compulsory reading, chanting or mediating. Recruits become physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Sleep deprivation is a good start.

Fourth, all groups need money to exist. This may, therefore, quickly involve recruits getting involved in illegal, or semi-legal activities. Members need to understand how, when and why money is required and to set about getting it quickly.

Fifth, groups make exit costs very high, almost impossible. Leaving is associated with failure, persecution and isolation. They make you feel as if nothing will ever be the same as you will be an outcast.

Are certain individuals more receptive to the message of cults than others? Recruiters know that what they appear to have in common is they are at some transitional phase in their life: something has gone and not been replaced. Physical movement, divorce, unemployment, dropping their religion. They often feel alienated and experience all the meaningless, powerlessness and helplessness that goes with the state. They can feel increasingly isolated from the commercial, political and technical world that offers little for them. Disaffected, often angry and resentful they can seek each other out.

Enter the group recruiter with simple (but ’sensible’) answers. They offer simple rules and a simple lifestyle and social support. The group (cult) appears to offer all they need and want.

Extreme groups offer simple, clear messages in an increasingly complex world. The world is corrupt, evil, unfair and very complex. So a group or leader who offers a ’sensible, sane’ explanation for the complex world, a secure group and personal salvation is very attractive. They come in many forms: politicians of the extreme left or right, religious leaders, romantic revolutionaries, persuasive writers, power-hungry individuals, brilliant orators and movie-star saviours. People who join extreme groups are not strange, disturbed, sheep-like idiots.

No one sees themselves as a cult member. Cult is pejorative. Indeed even members of fairly extreme groups like Trappist monks or Amish farmers would never think of themselves as cult members. But they owe their survival to many of the principles outlined above.


McCauley, C.R., & Segal, M.E. (1987). Social psychology of terrorist groups. In C. Hendrick (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 9. Group processes and intergroup relations (pp. 231—56). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Singer, M.T., & Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst. San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.