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“brainwashing,” mind control, cult conversion, and deprogramming. Cult Persuasion. Roots of cultic research. POW camps in the Korean war: emergence of the term “brainwashing” “ When Prophecy Fails : Festinger, Riecken, & Schacter’s 1956 analysis of an end-of-the earth cult

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Cult Persuasion

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roots of cultic research
Roots of cultic research
  • POW camps in the Korean war: emergence of the term “brainwashing”
  • “When Prophecy Fails: Festinger, Riecken, & Schacter’s 1956 analysis of an end-of-the earth cult
  • 1960’s: popularity of Hare Krishnas and transcendental meditation
modern day cults a sad brief chronology
Modern day cults: a sad, brief chronology
  • 1978: Reverend Jim Jones and 900 followers, including children, commit suicide in Jonestown Guyana by drinking cyanide-laced punch.
  • 1991: a Mexican minister and 29 followers suffocate after he instructs them to keep praying and ignore toxic fumes filling the church.
  • 1993: At least 80 Branch Davidians, followers of David Coresh, perish in a fire and shoot-out with the BATF at their compound in Waco, Texas.
  • 1993: 53 Vietnamese tribal villagers commit suicide with primitive weapons in the belief they will go straight to heaven.
  • 1994: 67 members of the “Order of the Solar Temple,” cult are found burned to death in the French alps in Switzerland and in Quebec, Canada.
  • 1995: Shoko Asahara& Aum Supreme Truth released Sarin gas in five Tokyo subway stations killing 12 people (one dying a year after the attack) and sickening more than 5,500 others.
  • 1997: 39 members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, led by Marshall Applewhite, commit suicide in California. They die so they can join the Mother Ship following the Hale-Bopp comet.
  • 2000: More than 900 members of a reclusive Christian doomsday cult in Africa were murdered by their leaders. Many burned to death, others were buried in mass graves.
  • 2003: Members of the Raelians, a cult founded by Claude Vorilhonnow known as "Rael" claimed that with the assistant of Clonaid, a human cloning company, they had cloned two or more infants.

“Rael” and Brigitte Boisselier, Raelian bishop and CEO of Clonaid

prevalence of cults and cult activities
Prevalence of cults and cult activities
  • Some estimates suggest there are over 5000 cults in the U.S. alone (including militia groups, extremist religions, and new age sects)
  • The new millennium rekindled interest and membership in cults.
  • Some estimates suggest upwards of 185,000 converts per year
  • Not all cults are religious or spiritual in nature. Modern cults include large group-awareness trainings, psychotherapy, business, political, and "New Age" groups
what is a cult definitional considerations

Difficulty of defining cults precisely:

One person’s cult is another person’s religion

“cult” is a pejorative term, usually used by one group to brand another.

Singer & Lalich (1995): “a cultic relationship is one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge.”

What is a “cult?” Definitional considerations:
more problems with defining cults
More problems with defining cults
  • What is the difference between a “cult” and a “social movement,” or an “extremist group” or a “club.”
  • Which, if any, of the following are cults?
    • Unification Church (“moonies”)
    • Church of Scientology
    • Mormonism
    • Amish
    • the Manson family
    • Masons or Shriners
    • Militia groups
    • Hell’s angels
    • Suicide bombers
    • Fraternities
    • Amway
    • Trekkers and Trekkies
    • Boy Scouts of America
brainwashing a misnomer
“brainwashing,” a misnomer
  • People can’t be “brainwashed.” There is no science of brainwashing that allows people to be programmed, deprogrammed, or reprogrammed like a computer.
    • A cult convert has to be a willing participant in his/her conversion. He or she may not be aware of a persuasive effort, but he or she has to go along with the process.
    • Cults use the same basic techniques of persuasion as other persuaders, but in addition, they rely on many unethical strategies
    • Cults employ many strategies at once; physical isolation, ego-reinforcement, sleep deprivation, deception, etc.
    • Cults control the physical environment of members as well (that is why cults often live away from the rest of society in a compound, commune, etc.
robert lifton s 1987 8 marks of mind control
Robert Lifton’s (1987) 8 marks of mind control
  • milieu control: control of the environment, communication, access to information
  • Mystical manipulation: the leader gets to reinterpret events and history as she/he sees fit.
  • demand for purity: society is corrupt, members must be purified. The desire to become mentally and physically pure makes members susceptible to guilt, fear, and other moral appeals used by the leader.
  • cult of confession: control of shame and guilt; members must confess any wrongdoing to the leader, including mental infractions
  • sacred science: reliance on dogmatic principles; the leader has all the answers. Only the leader is privileged to know the absolute truth.

Robert Jay Lifton

lifton s 8 marks continued

loading the language: reliance on thought-restraining phrases and language; serves to isolate members from the outside world and constrict members’ thinking

  • doctrine over person: the cause’s doctrine takes precedence over the individual. Members’ character and identity have to be reshaped.
  • dispensing of existence: Outsiders are unworthy unless they join the group. Members fear being expelled from the group.
Lifton’s 8 marks…continued

Go to the above link for more detail on Lifton’s 8 marks of mind control

recruitment techniques the cult conversion process

How it starts:

    • Windows of vulnerability: targets are most susceptible during an emotional crisis (divorce, death of loved one, serious illness, etc.)
      • target’s judgment may be confused, impaired
      • target is looking for an answer to life’s problems
  • Befriending the target
    • Ingratiation strategies (compliments, flattery, especially about sources of insecurity)
    • Lure of forming a serious or close relationship
  • Invitation to attend a meeting or retreat
    • isolation from friends, family
    • control over environment
    • Difficult to leave
  • Deception: withholding the true identify of the group, withholding the purpose of befriending another, etc.
Recruitment techniques: the cult conversion process
psychological techniques of persuasion
Psychological techniques of persuasion
  • Unconditional positive regard
    • “love bombing,”group hugs, etc.
  • Meditation, chanting, and other mind-numbing techniques
  • Peer group pressure
    • Pressure to conform, be part of the group
  • Verbal abuse
  • Confession
  • Fear, guilt appeals
  • Sacrifice; personal, financial
  • Loyalty tests
  • Demonizing (doubts are the Devil at work)
physical techniques of persuasion
Physical techniques of persuasion
  • Physical isolation
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fasting
  • Control of the person’s time (rigorous schedule, no free time)
  • Loss of privacy
  • Constant praying or witnessing of beliefs to the group
  • Repetitive motion (chanting, dancing)
  • Hallucinations (via hyperventilation, hallucinogens, chanting, etc.)
  • Body manipulation
  • Extreme dress codes
  • Loyalty tests
warning signs checklist of cult characteristics

The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display zealous, unquestioning loyalty

  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in money
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged, or even punished
  • Mind-numbing techniques like chanting, speaking in tongues
  • denunciation sessions are used to suppress doubts about the group or its leadership
  • The leadership dictates in great detail how members should think, feel, act. (permission to come and go, where to live, how to discipline children, etc.
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status. The leader is considered the Messiah
  • Extra-biblical revelation: God communicates directly to the group’s leader.
Warning Signs: Checklist of cult characteristics

For more information, see Dr. Margaret Singer’s excellent book, Cults in Our Midst (1996).

more warning signs

The group exhibits a polarized “us-them” mentality. Outsiders are evil and must be shunned.

  • The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities, inside or outside of the group
  • The group teaches that its ends justify the means (such as collecting money for phony charities)
  • The leadership induces guilt, fear, in group members in order to control them
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals in the interests of the group
  • Social encapsulation: Members are encouraged to live with, or socialize with the group exclusively
More warning signs
a warning and advice

Beware of the “self serving bias”

    • Most people think they are above average
    • Smarter, more attractive, funnier, etc.
  • People tend to think they are immune to cult influence
    • “I’m too smart to be duped by a cult”
    • “People with low self esteem join cults”
    • Only 5 to 6 percent of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to joining a cult (Singer, 1995).
  • Once involved, it can be difficult to take one’s exit
    • psychological commitment/cognitive dissonance
    • the need to save face
  • the vast majority of cult recruits are normal, productive people
  • the single most important defense against cult influence is the realization that we are all vulnerable
A warning and advice:
examples of destructive cults

Aum Shinri Kyo

Branch Davidians

The Family (Charles Manson)

Heaven's Gate

The People's Temple (Jim Jones)

Order of the Solar Temple

Examples of Destructive Cults