The mind control methods used in cults (or in one-on-one cultic relationships) are designed to create a pseudopersonality in the members, a clone of the leader, that thinks and makes decisions in the same way.
Remember that cult leaders often have a grandiose sense of self, think they are above everyone else (and the law), and have a huge sense of entitlement. And they are always right. So if they are the best, they believe that everyone should copy them!
This is achieved by unfreezing the new recruits personality, making changes (indoctrination), and freezing the new pseudopersonality (or pseudoidentity). You can read a detailed explanation of this here.
The cult leader, often a psychopath, will typically build emotional bonds quickly with his victims using basic mind control techniques in order to befriend the cult victims before applying the following mind control methods.
People can arrive in a cult 'unfrozen'. When people have a major trauma in their life, a move away from home, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a change from school to university, their reality has changed significantly. They may be questioning their lives, they may be wondering how God can allow such things to happen, they may distrust the system, and in some cases the things they've depended on up to now, are no longer trustworthy. They may distrust themselves and they may distrust the world. They are looking for answers, reassurance or help to relieve their misery.
This puts them in a very vulnerable position. Remember, people do not join cults. They are recruited using mind control methods!
Cults are actively looking for people at vulnerable times in their lives because it makes their task so much easier. A person whose world has just fallen apart is very susceptible to compliments, offers of help and the possibility of easy solutions to their enormous problems. Cult members are trained to be on the lookout for people in such situations because they are easy targets.
Those who are conned or deceived into joining a cult will be put through an unfreezing process. Every group has their own manner and particular tools for doing this but there are many common mind control methods to achieve it.
The basic idea is to distance people from their past, to make their past bad, or evil, or the source of all their problems.
Frames of reference for understanding the world must be broken down so that the person's sense of reality is changed and he or she has no way of defending himself against new ideas or concepts.
It's very common to take new members to seminars and courses in remote areas. In their time off, there's no place to go and so they literally spend 24 hours a day in the cult environment. This gives the leader strict control over the person's environment.
Seminars running late at night means there is little time for sleep, and a tired person is a more compliant person, less able to think critically. Control of mealtimes and control of the food is another way to alter somebody's physiology. Some cults don't feed their members enough, or use low-protein (vegetarian), high sugar diets to weaken people physically.
Hypnosis and hypnotic mind control methods are particularly effective tools for limiting a person's ability to think critically and make their own decisions. Confusion and sensory overload are also very effective for creating suggestible states in people and their use is described in the linked articles on hypnosis.
Public confessions are frequently used and are a very powerful method of unfreezing somebody. Particularly when used in conjunction with humiliation and insults. A person who publicly confesses things that they would not normally admit to, loses his sense of privacy and begins to merge in an unhealthy way with the group, and becomes even more susceptible to other mind control methods.
The other important aspect of confession is that any information divulged can and will be used against a member by a psychopathic group leader. Such private information as weaknesses or past sins can be used to humiliate and insult a person so as to break them down incredibly quickly. This can occur even more rapidly in a public forum. The person is left doubting themselves, in a state of emotional turmoil, looking for any way out of the misery they find themselves in.
The constant presence of other group members means a lack of privacy. More specifically, it means lack of time to think, ponder and rationalize.
On top of all this, cults tell the new members that they are defective in some way, their lives are not working, they are sinners in the eyes of God, they're poor, they're worthless, useless or even mentally ill. Self confidence is undermined and they begin to look to the environment for clues about how to think and act.
The problems they have in their lives are put in the spotlight and magnified. Some groups even use age regression to have members find experiences in the past where there were upset, frustrated and angry and so on, and then blame the parents for these experiences, saying the parents were/are incapable of loving them. How's that for distancing somebody from their past?!?
Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, is very important in indoctrination. It's the same message over and over and over again. In some groups they may sound like different stories, different teachings, but it's always the same basic idea. The cult leaders are basically 'one trick ponies'.
The old values, old ideas, old beliefs, are criticized and blamed for life's problems, but now new solutions are offered. The message is: Accept the groups ideas, take on the new beliefs and values and everything will be okay. It will all work out the way you want.
People who continue to question or doubt or criticize are dealt with severely. They may be thrown out of the group straight away. They may be isolated (and indoctrinated individually) so they have no impact on other new members, or they are made an example of, such that other members don't dare to speak out against the group.
Sometimes they're treated so harshly, that they just leave of their own accord. Of course, the cult leader's explanation is that these people are not ready to do the work, they are not evolved or spiritual enough, or they are stupid or mentally ill. This mind control method has the added bonus (for the cult leader!) that the members who do stay and tolerate the abuse think that they are ready or evolved or spiritual or intelligent etc.
At every stage emotional manipulation is used extensively. When people are experiencing very strong emotions their ability to think critically is almost zero.
If the group leader can generate misery and tears in the group and later a sense of euphoria, the members believe they are doing profound change work.
Social pressure is also used extensively. You can read more about this in Robert Cialdini's weapons of influence.
Peer pressure in such environments works this way:
And when we think we have decided things for ourselves, the decision is stronger and the effects last longer!
The new pseudo-identity is forming. More and more it represses and dominates the pre-cult identity. (It never fully destroys the pre-cult identity, and very often the conflicts and contradictions in the member are due to an ongoing struggle between the two identities).
There is an age old method that is used here as part of the mind control methods. Reward good behavior and punish bad behavior! A reward can be something as simple as spending time with the leader, a kind word or a compliment from him, especially in public. Or it can be something more powerful, like permission to leave the group and go and visit family, or even permission to make a phone call to family.
Punishments are usually swift and harsh. Being ostracized by the group, not being allowed to speak for weeks on end, losing leadership positions, actually being thrown out of the group, public insults, even physical beatings are used in some groups for members who break the rules.
The punishments are often harsher then the rewards are pleasant. But this is often only obvious to people outside the group. Remember mind control is about controlling the thoughts of the members. The psychopathic cult leader wants to create clones of himself. So the members have been trained to think like him or her, so the rewards and punishments are accepted as they are.
There are nice examples of this aspect in the mind control fiction available.
One way to create clones is to have them model, or act, like the leader. Or to act like older members, who of course, are acting like the leader.
Destructive cults have two main aims, earn money and recruit members. Therefore, as soon as possible, the new members have to go out and recruit new members. What better way to solidify new beliefs and ideas then to have to sell them to others? If you've ever had the experience of talking to a cult member you'll recognize how strongly they believe in what they are doing.
A favorite mind control method used in cults to maintain the pseudo-personality in place, is to put the members through the indoctrination process again and again. Some do it every few months, or every few years but certainly within five years because they've realized that after five years the pre-cult personality begins to appear again.
Some groups, for example, insist that the members attend a workshop once a year to 'keep up to date' with the group ideas and/or to maintain the 'qualifications' awarded by the group. This simply means the leader gets to indoctrinate them again.
Fortunately, it is usually possible to undo mind control and the pseudopersonality with professional help.
So let's go back a stage and have a look at some of the mind control methods used to recruit cult members...
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