Cults and Mind Control

by Keith Stump

Copyright 2002 Daniel Keith Stump

I was a member, for 12 years, of a radical Christian sect that I now consider a cult. Since leaving that group, I have studied cults and mind control to help me understand what happened to me and to hasten my recovery. I also assist others in leaving and recovering from that group. As a result, I have had informal discussions with a considerable number of current and former cult members. Most of them have been from my former cult, but some have been from others. In this essay, I present a brief overview of the realities of cult involvement as it relates to mind control. I acknowledge that much of what is presented in this article is borrowed from the research of Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer and Steve Hassan.

I wish to dismiss some false notions and present the reader with a clear picture about how cults use mind control on their members. As this is a brief overview of complicated concepts, the reader is advised that I have generalized and have omitted or glossed over some important factors.

Pop culture is filled with false images of cultic groups. For example, cult leaders are often viewed as having the power to induce group hypnosis. I have found no evidence that any cult leader can do such a thing. For that matter I have found no evidence that there even are such things as trances or hypnosis. Such mystical nonsense, unfortunately, has gained acceptance by mental health professionals and society in general. Randi has stated that hypnosis is nothing more than the participants making an agreement to play make-believe. I wholeheartedly agree. On a related topic, it is also a work of fiction that a person can be "brainwashed" in a fashion that would cause him to act uncontrollably on hearing a password. A person cannot be made to cluck like a bird or murder someone if he hears the secret password.

Another false concept is that cult members are in a zombie-like trance, are mindless, and go around mumbling incoherently. Whereas it is true that certain meditation cults have their members chant phrases, it is not true that cult members' minds are vacuous. Cult members do a tremendous amount of thinking. They are quite alert and aware. I would go so far as to say that cult members, on average, are more keen than the populous as a whole. The situation is more complicated than the belief that cult members have no thoughts of their own. The way that cult members think, their paradigm, has been orchestrated by the cult. There is some truth, as mentioned below, to the idea that cult members have a blank stare. There is nothing mystical here - it is simply because cults tend to keep their members exhausted. The stare is that of fatigue, not that of a hypnotic trance.

Many people also think that cults kidnap people, torture them and/or work them over with drugs. Whereas that is certainly the case with a few groups, most cultic groups do neither. There are far simpler and more effective means of achieving the same ends. A person knows when he has been kidnapped or tortured. Drug-induced states leave it difficult for a person to grasp the dogma of the cult. Efforts along these lines have proven to have poorer results than less obvious techniques. A cult wants those it influences to serve the group's purposes - it is difficult to do that if the person is being held against his will or is drugged out of his mind.

Another false concept is that cults prey on unintelligent, weak-willed or emotionally unstable people. In general, cults do no such thing. I know from experience that cults actually avoid recruiting such people. Despite beliefs to the contrary, mind control works poorly on such people. Furthermore, they come with a lot of emotional baggage with which the cult must contend and which gets in the way of the cult's goals. Mind control works best on strong-willed, ambitious, idealistic people of above average intelligence. In my former cult, I would estimate that the mind control techniques worked on this type of person at least three times faster than it would on a person of average intelligence and ambition. Furthermore, maintaining mind control on the smart, ambitious person was by far easier than doing so with a person of average or below average intelligence. That is one reason that cults recruit heavily on college campuses - it is easier to find good targets in such places.

To some extent, it is true that cults prey on people in transitional phases of life. It is somewhat easier to use mind control on persons during or shortly after a situation wherein their influence by significant others has been reduced. For example, if someone has recently moved to a new city, then his previous relationships will affect him in a lesser fashion. He will be looking for new friends and social structures. He often will be seeking new sources of influence, such as a new best friend or a new romantic relationship. That is exactly what a cult can exploit. (That is another reason why cults like to recruit at colleges - the traditional student has just reached adulthood and is no longer as closely influenced by his parents.) Nevertheless, such lifestyle changes are not requisite: cults can use mind control pretty much on anyone.

Given that many popular ideas are false, can cultic mind control be explained without invoking mystical or phenomenal abilities on the part of the leaders? Yes, it can. The power of cults over an individual can easily be explained through ordinary forms of social and psychological influence. Cults simply use such means more extremely than do normal social groups. Collectively, these pressures are referred to as "mind control".

It is beyond the scope of this text to discuss in detail how cults recruit new members. In short, they carefully screen numerous people and target people they want to recruit. Cult members then start pretending to befriend the target and gain his trust. They set up a teacher-student relationship with the potential recruit, often using deception. They present a false image of the cult, with much of its agenda and expectations kept hidden. In a carefully planned sequence, the potential recruit is introduced to the cult's dogma. At first, only the most palatable aspects of the dogma are revealed. The potential recruit is asked to make several agreements (such as abiding by a well-known holy book's teachings) which actually are designed to provide an avenue for the cult to take over the recruit's life. The student will not be made aware of the implications of these agreements. Finally, the cult gets the person to join the group.

The main point to understand is that indoctrination into the cult is done gradually. Some cults take years to indoctrinate a person fully, although a more typical time frame would be a few months. The dogma, which is designed to get the recruit to submit to the cult's leaders and to allow the group to take over the person's life, is introduced in a fashion intended to keep the recruit's guard down. During initiation, the cult will lay groundwork of control. The recruit will be presented with highly idealized, candy-coated versions of the control mechanisms that will later be used. However, much of the control system will be kept secret from the initiate.

It must be emphasized that, upon joining the cult, the new member will still not be aware of the cult's more controlling practices. He will have been prepped, sociologically and psychologically, to assume a student mentality. This would be a normal, temporary state of mind for a person being assimilated into a new group. In the cult, this state of mind will be perpetuated and exploited.

Although some cults have very simple dogma, the majority have convoluted, often contradictory, teachings (much more than standard religions). Whereas it might seem to an outsider that this would be a deterrent to gaining/keeping members, it usually is just the opposite. Faith is all about believing things that make no sense. People naturally protect their worldview, changing it only reluctantly. They invoke faith to declare that things that are clearly wrong or contradictory "really" are not. One supposedly just needs to pray/study/mediate more intensely to understand why the dogma is right and good. Cults exploit faith even more than standard religions do. Cults use the impossible-to-grasp "truths" to keep the member perpetually in the position of being a learner, which, in turn, allows the cult to control the member under the guise of teaching him the "deeper truths".

It should be noted that the common belief that cult members worship their leader is a stereotype. Although this is certainly true for many cults, it is not always the case. In some cults, the leader is viewed as a humble servant of the deity, leading the deity's people "truly" to follow the way of the deity. In other cults, there is not a single top leader, but rather an entire committee - typically an older cult whose founder is deceased. Particularly in larger cults, what is held foremost is the dogma rather than veneration of the leader. In some cults, the top leaders even have been removed or forced to resign for not living up to the dogma. Nevertheless, mind control cults always, without exception, have a means of getting the members to obey the leaders. This level of obedience will be far greater than what is common to ordinary religions.

Shortly after a person joins the group, the cult will begin building on the initial groundwork, by gradually making increasing demands and by repressing critical thinking. The negative side of the cult (previously kept hidden) will begin to be exposed. If the cult has bizarre beliefs (as viewed by the culture it is in) then such will gradually be revealed. At each stage of disclosure, the new member will be presented with a plethora of rationalizations and anecdotes about why the added level of control is "truly" a wonderful thing. Older members will foster this attitude by saying such things as the deity had blessed them richly for submitting to the cult's leaders.

Although mind-control cults vary widely in their dogma, they invariably establish certain key practices which result in phenomenal control over their members. Eight of these were first identified by mind-control researcher Robert Lifton. Cult critics Steve Hassan and Margaret Singer have further developed these concepts. For clarity's sake, I have combined and condensed their findings and added some from my own experience. I also have left out psychological theories behind why these elements are so effective at controlling people.

I wish to reiterate that these control mechanisms are imposed on the member gradually. Very few people would submit to them if they were all presented at once. Instead, the cult slowly institutes these elements. Each step of the way, the cult presents the new requirements in glamorized terms. Some of these control mechanisms are done without the new member being aware of them (especially the psychological isolation).

1. Isolation.

Although a few cults physically isolate their members, a much more practical and effective technique is to isolate the member psychologically with the combination of using dogma, replacing normal social influences with those of the cult, and filling as much of the members' time as possible with the activities of the cult. These have the effect of causing the member to become psychologically distant from the real world. The ordinary cares of life do not seem quite as important as they normally would. Such things are viewed as being "worldly" or "of the devil" or "distractions from the truth". Cult members are made to believe that only the dogma and subculture of the cult may be considered truly "real" or "worthwhile". The main thing that this type of isolation does is remove the member from access to non-cultic influences that might help the member see the cult for what it really is. The cult will condition the member to believe that critics of the cult, especially former members, are in league with the devil, have lost their wisdom, are telling distortions and lies about the cult, etc.

The cult will begin replacing normal social influences with those of the cult. The member will be made to discontinue friendships with non-members. This process usually begins during the recruitment phase - with the cult members "befriending" the targeted person, crowding out existing relationship. The cult will typically provide "spiritual" siblings and "spiritual" parents, which diminish the relationships with actual relatives.

2. Destructive Confession.

There is some value in confessing shortcomings and asking forgiveness. In the subculture of a cult, confession serves quite a different purpose. Cults break down the member's self-confidence so that the cult can offer to help. One of the chief tools in doing this is using knowledge gained by confessions to make the member believe he is a hopeless case without the "wisdom" and "help" of the cult.

Initially the confessions will be well-recognized shortcomings ("sins") such as adultery or stealing. Gradually, however, the cult's leaders will guide the member into confessing such things as doubting or disagreeing with the cult's leaders, having forbidden thoughts, and applying critical thinking skills to the cult. In most cults, strict behavioral regulations are imposed. A member who has even a thought about doing an unauthorized act often will be brutally denigrated.

With this system of confession, the cult perpetually induces crises in self-confidence. The cult then offers to help the member rise above his "failings" - a promise it will never keep. The member will be told to heed the advice and teachings of the leaders, pray more, give more money, fast, study more, meditate more, recruit more members, pay for more advanced training classes, or anything else the cult wants the member to do. The leaders will tell the member that he will overcome his "sins" by following the cult's edicts. The cult, then, is both the cause and supposed solution to the member's problems.

Furthermore, members are expected to report to the leaders any other member who does not conform to the rules or who expresses doubt or disagreement with the leaders. The leaders of the cult will then come to the member and expose his "hidden sin". In some cults, the knowledge that the leaders have gained about the member through spies will be presented as if the leaders had learned of it by prophetic revelation or psychic powers.

3. The cult vs. the world mentality.

Only a very few cults seek to take over the world or destroy all who are not the "chosen". Most cults are non-violent: either they want to be isolated from the rest of the world, or they want to "enlighten" the rest of the world by recruiting people into the cult. In any of these cases, the cult members view themselves as the chosen few who know the "truths" of their deity or philosophy.

The leaders of the cult will induce fear of things outside the cult. It is this fear that keeps members in the cult. The cult works hard to make its members have greater disdain and fear of the outside world than of the cult. This fear causes member to endure the negative, damaging aspects of the cult.

For example, in the cult I was in, it was common to tell stories of how former members had fallen into "deep sin" (whatever that might be), or to report that horrific things had happened to them. The cult also used the tragic events that made headlines, especially violent crimes, to show how the world could only be saved through our striving to recruit everyone on Earth into the cult. We were also made to believe that leaving the cult was a 100% certainty of going to hell. Like most cults, the one that I was in also expected members to tell tales of their lives before joining the cult. Such tales had to depict that the members were either miserable or evil (preferably both) until they joined the cult and now all was well and wonderful. It was commonplace to exaggerate what one's shortcomings might have been without the cult. Although they rarely showed signs of suicidal tendencies, it was quite common for members of my former cult to state that would have died had it not been for the cult.

By carefully drawing a distinction between it and the rest of the world, the cult controls the members in various ways, most notably by keeping them afraid to leave no matter how much they want to do so. It also serves to isolate the members from external influences.

4. Dogma over all other things.

Although (possibly) every religion places its core beliefs above logic, evidence and reason, cults take dogma to a much further extent. The dogma is treated as the end of all discussion and to question even a minor point is anathema. The individual's experiences, knowledge and thoughts are not taken into consideration. All that matters is the dogma. The beliefs themselves are not necessarily what is of greatest concern (since every religion involves believing things that are unrelated to reality). The controlling aspect is that critical thinking is shut down by the attitude that the dogma is perfect, needing neither amendment nor evolution in thinking. Thoughts are geared toward trying to make sense of the dogma - since any doubts are viewed as being evil. The dogma also serves as a distraction, which keeps the member from evaluating the level of control the cult will begin taking over his life.

5. Personalization of dogma.

Any group, especially a religion, has rules of conduct. Cults extend such dogma to a personal level. The codes of conduct are rigorously enforced. Impossibly ideal goals are treated not only as if they were attainable, but also as if they were the minimum acceptable level of behavior. Since the member cannot attain these expectations, the leaders will use them to generate feelings of fear, shame and guilt in the member. For example, in my former cult we were constantly under the fear that if we did not recruit more successfully and be more devoted to the cult, we would most certainly go to hell.

Perpetually under such mental duress, the member will look to the leaders for ways to relieve the emotions. This state allows the leaders to order the member to do whatever the cult desires. Note that the cult is both the cause and the supposed cure of the emotional crisis. This element of control works in tandem with the system of confession mentioned above.

6. A grand cause.

As part of their dogma, cults have a grand cause, for which the members are expected to make sacrifices to attain. In the cult to which I belonged, this cause was to attempt to recruit every single person on Earth within 40 years. In other cults, the cause may be resisting the ways of the world, preparing for Armageddon, preparing for the arrival of space aliens, or achieving ever-higher states of enlightenment. These grand causes, which invariably are impossible, allow the cult phenomenal control by keeping the members in the student mentality. These goals are not merely an aspiration of the whole group, but are individualized.

In the case of my former cult, we were expected to seek "advice" from the leaders about what was "best". Every aspect of our lives was geared to advance the grand cause. The clothes we wore, the jobs we had, where we lived, the way we spoke, whom we married, ad infinitum, all were subject to what was "best". In everything we did, we had to make sure that it was "best" for the evangelization of the whole world in one generation. The cult fostered in us a never-ending sense of urgency. We felt personally responsible for saving the whole world from going to hell. If a neighbor, co-worker or relative died who was not in the cult, we were made to feel responsible for that person going to hell. With such a belief, we gladly accepted the cult's intrusion into our lives - we even sought it out. We thought that if we had only followed the cult's dogma better, these people would have gone to heaven.

In some cults, the grand cause is fighting, either metaphorically or literally, an evil foe. The foe could be real or imaginary. Common "enemies" are members of other religions or ethnic groups, proponents of most any political ideology, entire countries, scientists, doctors (especially mental health professionals), and atheists. Imaginary foes include the devil, evil spirits, secret government agents, space aliens and various conspirators. In my former cult, the enemy was deprogrammers who supposedly kidnapped members and brainwashed them into being atheists. The leaders called the writings of cult critics "spiritual pornography". We were forbidden to communicate with anyone who opposed the cult. Some critics were "marked" by the cult. This meant that if a member communicated in any way with the "marked" person, then the member would be kicked out of the cult and would go to hell.

Whatever the grand cause in a cult might be, it gives the cult various means of control. Primarily, the grand cause supercedes the member's previous goals and plans. The only goals that truly matter in a cult are those that serve the cult. The cult takes over the member's goals. Any meaningful goal in life the member may have may only be pursued if the cult approves.

7. Fatigue.

Most cults keep their members perpetually exhausted, physically and emotionally. Such fatigue gives the cult two key means of controlling the member. One is that the member has neither time nor energy seriously to evaluate his involvement with the group. The second is that, when tired, the member is much more likely to do what the cult wants because he lacks the stamina to resist the leaders.

8. Emotional manipulation.

I have already mentioned how cults use guilt, fear and shame to control members. However, they also use positive emotions to manipulate. Since the cult replaces normal social interactions with those of the group, pleasant emotions are also controlled by the cult. The psychological isolation of the members reduces or eliminates joy and the sense of being loved and important that would ordinarily be available from non-cultic sources. Under the cult's jurisdiction, these emotions can only be experienced by obeying the cult's leaders (disobedience results in rejection). If a cult member wants to feel pride in an accomplishment, it can only be done by pleasing the cult's leaders. The cult teaches the members that the only "true" love is that by other cult members. In short, the cult completely regulates all emotional experiences the member is allowed to have. Generally, the cult will allow just enough positive emotions to keep the member in the cult. What predominate are the negative emotions, which are more easily exploited.

In this essay, I have only mentioned a few of the key means by which cults take over the lives of the members. Using these and other means of control, the cult controls the beliefs, actions, emotions, access to the outside world, and even the thoughts that the member is allowed to have. Collectively, these techniques are what researchers mean by "mind control". This system is considerably different from what has filled the public imagination.

Despite all these efforts, the mind control is never complete. A cult can regulate a member's thoughts, but it cannot completely take over the person's mind. Most members eventually manage to break free from the cult. In my case, the mind control began to fail when I began to use critical thinking skills on my belief system. I realized that the dogma was irrational and that the behavior of the leaders was unethical. Eventually, I came to realize how much the cult ran my life.


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