How Do Cults Brainwash Their Victims?

The word is familiar enough to most people, but what exactly is a cult? And how do they manage to recruit people?

In Definitive Terms

The defining list may be summarised as follows:

  1. Strong authority figure/founder who is never wrong
  2. Well-organised and targeted recruitment methods
  3. Psychological techniques to gain/maintain control over members
  4. Individual choices do not exist
  5. Leaving is (almost) impossible
  6. True aims are power and/or wealth and exploitation, sexual or otherwise

Not all cults are based on a form of religion, which would also put them in the category of sect, meaning extreme, outside of the mainstream and potentially dangerous.

To counteract what they view as a derogatory label, the term ‘new religious movement’ (NRM) is often used by such cults.

Cults might not seem appropriate for organisations that are commercial in nature, for example pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing, but their use of the same psychological mind controls to suck in members and keep them is similar to the so-called NRM sects that tend to hit the headlines.

Others can offer spurious psychological benefits through expensive self-discovery workshops promising ‘enlightenment’ or ‘freedom’.

Extremist political groups, such as neo Nazis and race-hate organisations, can also be classified as cults.

But of course, it should be easy to spot such obviously aberrant groups, right? Well, no. They are in the highest league of outward disguise to make them appear innocuous.

How They Get You

Take this not-so theoretical scenario. A guy from work notices that you look down. ‘Hey, what’s up?’ he asks – or maybe she.

True enough you are feeling down. Your dog/cat has died or a similar low-mood scenario. You are perfectly normal, but right now you are vulnerable.

But hey! Someone noticed. You tell him your woes. He makes all the right noises, facial expressions and the soft, understanding tap on the shoulder that makes you feel all warm and, actually . . . loved.

A few more conversations and then, ‘Hey, are you free this evening? There’s a great bunch of people I think you’d get on with.’

Who has a problem with that? You might not want to go, but you feel a sense of obligation, gratitude perhaps for him having been there for you. So you go.

Right now, you have no idea who is behind this group of ever so friendly people who welcome you with open arms and say all the right things. At this point you have been targeted. Your recruitment has begun.

So far there is no hard sell because you are being ‘love bombed’. The late Dr Margaret Singer, a leading expert on brainwashing, coined the term.

‘What a great bunch of people,’ you think, and return again and again to your new ‘friends’. And so, your gradual induction into the cult continues, while you remain ignorant of the group’s true purpose.

Identity Erasure

Again you ask, ‘How could that happen? I’d never be so stupid.’

People who are being brainwashed never know that their mind is being manipulated. It is subtle at first then grows in intensity to the point where the victim is unable to make a decision on their own.

‘A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person’s former identity and replaces it with a new one,’ writes Steve Hassan, psychologist, cult expert and author of several books on cults and mind control, including Combatting Cult Mind Control.

To reach full induction the gloves must come off. Peer approval pulls you further in. Disapproval pushes you to do things to regain all that acceptance and love. The mind-control is now taking away your independence.

You accept rigid rules because now they seem normal, even the ones that insist on cutting off contact with your friends and family, the very people who could help you.

You reach this irrational conclusion and accept it as logical. What is worse, you believe that you are making all these choices for yourself.

At this point the brainwashing is complete.

How Can I Spot a Cult?

A good hard and fast rule is to be wary of any person or group offering you something which seems too good to be true.

No legitimate religion requires monetary contributions to be a member or shames people for not contributing, but cults do.

Likewise if any hint of sexual inappropriateness occurs – cult leaders seemingly cannot resist using their power to commit sex crimes – no matter how small, you should get out and never look back.

Cutting you off from your family and friends, being unable to accept any questioning of their ideology and believing their leader has ‘special powers’ are all sure signs of a cult.

As long as you are aware, you should be able to distinguish cult-like behaviour and stay safe.

And if you truly need spiritual guidance there are a plethora or well-established, legitimate religions that are better alternatives.





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