By: Nick Hatfield, Ryen Beach, Madison Levine, Kelsie Kreuzburg, Maria Bravo1. They have it down to a science.
Groupthink refers to the mode of thinking wherein the importance of concurrence becomes so dominant in a group of people that it overrides realistic alternative thinking or courses of action. It is the “deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgements as a result of group pressures." Robert Jay Lifton is a psychologist who studied mind control and conceptualized the idea of thought reform. Thought reform is the structured alteration of a person’s method of thinking. Lifton proposed eight methods that are used to change people’s minds which can give us insight into how cults are able to “brainwash” their members.
2. They manipulate their members by cutting them off from outside information.
According to Lifton, Milieu control is a way to manipulate people. Milieu Control is outside information is cutoff or filtered from a group. When looking at manipulation in cults, it commonly seen that the leader keeps the outside world from “invading” his/hers community and distorts information to keep his/hers followers believing in a way he/she wants them to and doing things that don’t rationally make since. Jim Jones would hide information from his followers and started his community in South America away from civilization. By doing this, he could tell them anything he wanted and they would believe him because they had no other source of information to compare it to. This lack of knowledge led the followers to think the same because it is all they knew and it led to irrational decisions.
3. They create doctrines that stifle doubt.
Thought reform forces a group into absolute cohesiveness so that whatever decisions are made by the leader are blindly followed by the members of the cult. This blind faith in their leaders creates a form of cohesion that cannot be found outside of cults. Members need to keep the cult together for its common goal and in order to do this, the leader must create a belief that their doctrine is correct and what is right. Individuals feel that their experiences are in conflict over what the leader has told them they should be experiencing. They internalize the message that when your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are in conflict with the message of the leader, you are in the wrong.
4. They use mystical manipulation.
Mystical manipulation or in other words, planned spontaneity. Mystical Manipulation is part of Lifton’s thought reform on manipulation in cults. It is extensive personal manipulation. It seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion. They make it appear as if it has come from the environment, when actually it is planned. It also legitimizes deception used to recruit new members, raise funds, and deception used on the outside world. Cult members are also manipulated to always remember they have a higher and better purpose than those that are not part of the cult.
5. Confession is good for the soul...and for maintaining cult loyalty.
Part of Robert Jay Lifton’s eight methods of thought reform are the ideas of purity and confession. Individuals in the cult are taught to confess (what the group considers to be) past ‘sins’ so as to reinforce that action as wrong and not to be repeated, while additionally, being pushed towards an unattainable perfection. This enforces conformity through guilt and shame by using both self-criticism and group criticism. A real life example of these tactics can be found in the “Church of Scientology” which using a type of confessional termed “auditing” in which new members must unburden themselves by answering certain questions which lead to them confessing any perceived wrongdoing.
6. Mind control is actually used by leaders to control their followers.
Dr. Anson Shupe and colleagues have analyzed stereotypes of cults and brainwashed converts as social constructions in the context of ideological conflict and legitimizing a social movement. Cultists are viewed as being “possessed” and under control by another person or force that ultimately suppresses their individuality and can therefore use them for purposes they would not normally accept.
7. They use fear to keep their followers in line.
Fear is a strong factor in reasons why we do certain things, and when it comes to cults it is very effective. In groupthink, creativity and independent thinking is discouraged because it could disrupt the harmony and peace of the group. As the followers of the cult become afraid to say or do something that differs from the established ideals they begin to suppress their own ideals and follow along with the “norm” of the community. As this following continues, the followers begin to adopt the group's way of thinking (established by the leader) and discard their own way of thinking. Jim Jones for example made his followers scared to be different from his teachings to the point people would rat on each other if the other did something that didn’t follow the “norm” of the community. By doing this, he was able to get his followers to have think as one because they didn’t want to cause problems by thinking differently. So, in order to avoid being in a cult you should challenge ideals that don’t agree with you and question “The Man.”
8. They foster dependence on the group.
People who join cults suffer from the Group Dependence Disorder. It is very hard to get out of a cult, and one of the reasons is because of this dependence. It makes you feel that you need the group in your life. The people who are involved in cults are said to have Group Dependence Disorder, caused because of the high cohesiveness, the great insulation and the cult centering. The dependence that cult members feel on their group is similar to alcohol or drug dependence.
9. They use classic Skinnerian methods of manipulation: punishments and rewards.
Here cults reward the good behaviors, such as accepting the group’s ideology, and punish the bad ones, like questioning the leader, doubting and criticizing the beliefs of the group. The punishments can vary from physical ones (like spanking – which is more common for kids), to physiological ones (like marginalization – which is more common for adults). They do this to foster the learning of the group’s ideology and the right behaviors, so that the people that join the cult don’t ask questions and follow the leader meekly.
10. There is hope if you're in a cult.
Know there are many stages, and it starts with being able to separate yourself from others. Since cult members tend to isolate its members, being back in contact with friends and family, and having a strong support network will help with an ex-cult member’s reality check. Remember that everything they brainwashed you with was a way to keep you in the cult, and those feelings will go away, but you must remain strong.