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Cult FAQ

Cult FAQ

Disclaimer: The below information contains many generalisations and may not apply to any particular cult.

Techniques of mind control:

Mind control is a suite of practices a group uses to manipulate and control its members. Mind control is not the same as brainwashing. There is no torture involved with mind control, and since those implementing the techniques are not at all perceived as the enemy – whereas a torturer is clearly an enemy – a person is likely to set up no defences against the techniques. Instead, the cult leadership is seen as doing what is best for the member, even if it's punishment. Thus, mind control doesn't force someone to do anything against their will. People want to comply with the coercion. Because of this, individuals under the influence of mind control are responsible for their own actions.

Only a few cults will strongly exhibit all the following mind control techniques, but all sociological cults will exhibit most of them. Often the mind control mechanisms are used together to form even stronger controls over members.

Also note that it's not uncommon to see one or more of these occasionally shown by a good Christian church. No church is perfect, but in such a case it is the exception rather than the rule and if particularly strong it is a problem that should be addressed.

Deception | Exclusivism | Fear, Guilt, Intimidation | Information Control | Loaded Language | Love Bombing | Personality Replacement | Relationship Control | Reporting Structure | Shunning | Thought Stopping | Time Control

  • Deception. Cults do not tell potential members what they actually believe, and only reveal their true doctrine to members gradually, as the member is able to accept it. Cults and cult members will lie to hide their true beliefs. Remember: If something is true it can stand being questioned, if it is not true it needs to be questioned. Deception has no place in the Christian church.
  • Exclusivism. Cults teach that only they have the truth and the correct path to salvation. (Note: Christianity really is the only way to God [John 14:6] but no good Christian church claims that all other Christian churches are "of the devil" or "fallen".) Leaving the cult is equated with leaving God, and members really believe that leaving the cult means they can never be saved.
  • Fear, Guilt and Intimidation. Leadership is feared, and disagreeing with the leadership (or even just questioning it) is akin to disagreeing with God. Breaking sessions are used to destroy resistance, where members have their motives and character attacked until they fall into line again. Some cults keep "sin lists" which are used in these sessions. Even in day to day interactions outside of breaking sessions the leadership can use sin lists and similar knowledge to intimidate and control.
  • Information Control. Members are not allowed to read or watch any material not published by the cult. This includes newspapers, TV, radio, and even the Bible (or other authoritative writings) outside of the cult's own Bible studies.
  • Loaded Language. The cult uses its own language and terms, with common words having quite different meanings to the members. (For example, the Holy Spirit to a JW is a force like electricity; the Trinity to a Mormon is three separate gods.) Attempts by non-members to reason with cult members is reinterpreted since cult members are taught to expect opposition, such as their group being called a cult, or claims that it is harmful, etc. (Closely related to thought stopping – see below). As former Scientologist Leah Remini said: "If you don't get the nomenclature 100% correct we have a way of just kind of discrediting you, if you're not using it correctly."
  • Love Bombing and Conditional Love. New members are almost smothered in love, acceptance, etc – a process known as love bombing. The new member has instant friends and all emotional needs are met. This normally lasts a few months – a honeymoon peried – and then love and acceptance is turned on and off to control.
  • Personality Replacement. Close friends or family (where they are allowed access to the member) notice the member's personality changes from what they were like before joining the group. The cult does this by first breaking down a new member's resistance to the cult's real doctrine (not the public doctrine they were told when they joined). This may be through love bombing or by intimidatory breaking sessions (see Fear, Guilt and Intimidation). The member is then indoctrinated with the cult's new doctrine. Many cults use several "Bible" studies a week to do this, resulting in cult members appearing to know their Bible better than many Christians – unfortunately with the cult's theology underlying their knowledge. It can take years to eliminate all this false doctrine. While this indoctrination is happening the member is adopting the accepted cult personality, which may be markedly different to the personality they had beforehand. For example, International Churches of Christ members' personalities are enthusiastic, outgoing, exuberant, etc.
  • Relationship Control. Reduces the time spent on relationships with people outside the cult or those who would tend to draw the member away from the cult. Members are often moved into cult-based flats or even employed in cult-owned businesses (which may have separate lunch rooms for members and non-members). Members are told who they are to date and marry. This means that after being in a cult for a few years, members have no friends or family outside the cult – it can make leaving a very bleak prospect.
  • Reporting Structure. Any indiscretions, however minor, are reported back to the cult leadership, with members being encouraged to report "struggling brothers." This can result in "Voice of God" sermons, where the leader preaches a sermon directly aimed at what a particular member is currently struggling with – and has talked about in confidence with someone else. When the member hears it they think that God is speaking directly through the preacher to them.
  • Shunning (a part of relationship control). Members are banned from talking to or associating with former members. In other words, former members are "shunned" (completely ignored) by present members, even to the point where members will cross the street to avoid former members. The fear of being shunned helps keep present members within the group.
  • Thought Stopping. Members are trained (normally over years) to have thoughts stopped or reasoning processes interrupted when they hear a certain phrase or even a word. For example, when a cult member is talking with a non-member about what Jesus did on the cross, they make progress until the latter mentions that the member's group is a cult. The member thinks "Aha! We were warned about this!" and immediately starts to reinterpret everything he/she hears according to the cult teachings (see loaded language above). Reasoning processes are instantly affected and strong resistance to rational thought is triggered in the member. For some, thought stopping might involve chanting to block out "sinful" thoughts.
  • Time Control. Keeps the member so busy with cult activities they have no time to think deeply about their involvement or pursue activities that might lead them away from the cult. The member might have cult meetings or Bible studies several nights a week.

For more information on mind control read the Cult Mind Control pamphlet (PDF 98KB) or Cultwatch's How Cults Work (long page, lots of scrolling), or read Guy Steward's book Mind Control: Choosing Between Truth & Deception.

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