the Spirit Watch

What Cultic Mind Control Is

 By Rev. Rafael Martinez, Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

The human mind is a marvel unlike anything else in all the known created order. It is within our minds that we perceive and then are able to understand, contemplate, and consider any and everything that is around us, from the pleasure of cold water on a hot day to the enjoyment of the coolest jazz. Our minds enable us to stand upright and look over creation and grasp our existence as individual human beings with personal identities, intelligences and ideals. Within these minds comes our ability to reason and to define qualities such as beauty and evil, ugliness and virtue, rich and poor.  

It is uniquely within the human mind that the successes - and sorrows - of mankind have first been conceived. For the same mental accomplishments that have learned how to sustain the lives of critically premature newborn infants also have been turned toward the creation of nuclear weaponry able to extinguish not only the newborn but humanity itself. Indeed, the human mind - so often lost amid the deluge of creativity, passion, and industry that our culture is framed within - truly is an amazing faculty filled with the most compelling of paradox. We can consider the human predicament all around us with such a vast shading of reaction to response that determines how we make our choices in life and how we ultimately choose to live.

History is largely a story of how mankind, through the individual minds of humanity working collectively, has struggled to set up the forms of human societies that are known to us which now cover the world.  Fundamental to all of these has been the family or clan as the most basic building block upon which any culture has sought to base itself  upon, and underlying the organization of any family unit has been the structure of power and authority. And it is the pattern of hierarchical authority (where one person or small group of persons hold final authority over a larger group and where this power is delegated to others under their supervision) that is the most extensive and wide-ranging one found world wide, a pattern of authority that has profoundly shaped man's doings more than we can believe. Within hierarchies of many sorts, we have seen the establishment of husbands over wives, of parents over children, of rules over subjects, of priests over worshippers, of philosophers and masters over their disciples. 

Obviously other forms of social interaction exist, but it is this most fundamental aspect of human socializing that touches all of us. We live in social circles where we interact with others on the basis of our attendance to and familiarity with authority figures or our own individual places in the social scheme of things around us. Social orders always form where humanity interacts, from groups of children on playgrounds to senators in the corridors of power in Washington. This is such an obvious fact of  life that it may seem rather elementary to raise the issue. But this reality, in our opinion, is where the darkest impulses and rationale of human nature this side of the Fall of man in Eden have been incubated. These impulses which surface among the social groups of humanity we speak of are not only are all too real, but are both observable and predictable, and are also tremendously damaging, magnifying the power of deceptive spirituality to an almost immeasurable degree.

We speak here of the dark power of mind control, a powerful social dynamic used by destructive groups and individuals to dominate and control others around them, enabling them to compel action and belief from others on the basis of controlled thought. It is not just some high-powered exercise of persuasion, either: the mind control we will be speaking of here is that which is clearly damaging, abusive and even destructive to the hearts, minds and souls of those affected by it. Cultic groups utilize this social dynamic extensively since the essence of cultism involves the building of alternative spiritual  communities complete with alternate hierarchies of power and authority that hold the community together (from the humblest cell group to the most massive organization) through coercive and manipulative ways. 

Our Definition Of Mind Control

By definition, therefore, cultic mind control is a process of either unconscious or intentional change of an individual's behavior, thought, and emotional patterns through subtle, deceptive, and damaging  means by unethical spiritual leaders who hold positions of trust and authority over them. It involves a process whereby an individual's means of independent thought is effectively controlled and even overcome by degrees, and an entirely different mode of thinking is adopted by them which is supplied by these leaders. It is this kind of power that leads men and women in cultic groups to accept as normal various kinds of abuse, outrages and privation that those outside the groups would recognize immediately for what it is.

This cultic mind control is achieved in a variety of situations and settings that are as diverse as they are common: they may involve social interactions from political groups to close-knit family relationships, all of which are found in civilizations world wide. Yet as seemingly unrelated as these settings may be, the operation of social dynamics intentionally aimed at controlling behavior and thought are found among them, and hence, the fundamental ingredients for mind control will also be present.

Why do we assert that mind control is such a twisted factor in society? We reply by reminding you of assertions we have made on another article in this site that express our most fundamental thesis on the subject: that the exercise of mind control proceeds from the manipulative motivations of human nature. We have contended that this side of human existence is essentially sullied by what Christian theology would calls our depravity, a sinful bent that all of us descend to in one way or another. Fallen man, operating from his essentially self-centered nature, seeking his own self-gratification at the expense of all  else, will continually seek his own good according to his own convictions. And that same sad species of fallen man cannot  and will not function alone. We are social creatures who cannot function  outside an established cultural norm of whatever common values we think we hold. In short, we want company and must have company  with us as we socialize, and along the way, those who wish the preeminence among us for whatever reasons will seek to develop their factions, followings, movements, whatever. I

It is this drive for community and the primal human search for authority that breaks the ground for the seeds of mind control and manipulation to be sown by the unscrupulous among us who deem their vision and lifestyle as superior to anyone else's. Add the twistedness of our human tendency to dominate and control by the use of fear, threats and withheld social contact, and we can see more clearly why such a system of authoritarian abuse that mind control imposes can come about  in settings other than the "cults" that are decried by the larger society. 

A balanced understanding of cultic mind control doesn't imply that the controlled cult member has no ability to think for themselves, but it does assert that their capacity for independent thought is largely, if not entirely, suspended through their time of indoctrination and socialization into the group. The choices to submit to the authority of the group are indeed their own,  but the choices are usually based upon their ignorance of the group's agenda of misinformation and their seriously impaired ability to objectively examine it . The process is gradual, yet relentless.  Once having made the decision to relinquish their faculties of independent and critical thinking, step by step, the member will effectively lose their ability to make their own decisions relevant to the spirituality and/or philosophy they believe is beneficial to them. 

Steve Hassan, a cult recovery specialist, observes helpfully that cultic  mind control seeks "to undermine an individual's integrity in making  his own decisions. The  esssence of mind control  is that it encourages  dependence and conformity, and discourages autonomy and individuality (emphasis author's)" (1).  In many instances they are led to believe by cultic leaders that such a loss of autonomy is necessary for their personal good, and that any objective, independent thought concerning their personal lifestyle that  conflicts with the group belief system is actually sinful or traitorous.  When the only tool a person has to discern with - a free mind - is so completely and voluntarily hedged in under such a belief, mind control is inevitable.

Lifton's Eight Criteria Of Mind Control

So mind control is the ability to control and manipulate individuals through the usage of many  sophisticated control techniques focusing upon the internal securing of independent thought and the external supplying of conditioned cognitive and behavioral responses. These dual objectives are the goals set forth by the person(s) who initiate the usage of these control techniques, supposedly for the personal benefit of those whom the controls have been imposed. But it is a presumptuous abuse of power, since it is almost always done at the personal expense of those whom are so controlled, subordinating personal initiative and freedom of mind to an imposition of their own wills and worldview upon them in a frequently unethical and even abusive manner. Accomplished by subtly staged forms of human socialization which  often do not immediately tip off anyone to their truly manipulative nature, it is clear to us that  mind control is a chilling reality that can be found in many more settings than  we ever thought possible.  

We are aware that many skeptics, mental health professionals, and others categorically deny that such a notion even exists. Still it is our opinion that the criteria which describe how mind control works provide the only tenable explanation for the kind of inexplicably controlled behavior exhibited by many individuals who become recruited into one questionable group or another, be it a multilevel marketing clique or a New Age teacher's study group. Psychologist Robert J. Lifton's classic book entitled "Thought Reform And The Psychology Of Totalism" set forth eight major criteria that identified the basic principles of mind control almost three generations ago. To Lifton, the context of this thought reform typically takes place within the dynamic of human relationships and group dynamics working in tandem in a manner so potent that it transforms men and women in the most profound manner possible, changing their thoughts and emotional responses and hence their behavior. And even though it has been published 53 years ago, Lifton's work has lost none of its relevance and retains an authoritative view of human nature that is easy to understand, yet deeply and disturbingly filled with cautionary insight. 

His observations provide a profoundly revealing perspective into how mind control works in groups whose cohesion relies upon social control and manipulation to retain and indoctrinate members completely unaware of the powerful influences working on them. We want to briefly share concise descriptions of each of these eight criteria to help you see how mind control works:

  1. Milieu Control - the "milieu" spoke of is understood as the cultural environment and settings around people which can vary from person to person. For example, the milieu of a Mexican teenage girl is going to be obviously different from that of a retired New York investment banker. For cults to control one's thoughts, they must first begin to isolate and remove any external influences from the lives of their recruits that conflict with the cult's unique social setting, substituting the values, taboos, and morals of the group as the most valuable (indeed, exclusive) way to act and live. 

  2. Demand For Purity - a subtle (or explicit) pressure placed upon members by the group to engage in a continual process of radical self-purification by critical examination of their lives. They are compelled to purge themselves of all that is deemed by the group as unholy, impure, and to replace it with what the group defines as holy, pure and good. This pressure for conformity to the "purity" of group ideals is strongly reinforced by the social circles within the group which members are expected to frequent on a regular basis.

  3. The Cult Of Confession - the "cult" aspect refers to specific times of communal self-criticism in which the drive for group "purity" is pursued in small groups or mentoring relationships aimed at the transformation of members. Within these highly influential times of confession of weaknesses, personal failings, and sins, members are often subjected to stern disciplinary practices that freely use fear, guilt and shaming to change thought and behavior among them. These confessionals take many forms but the intent is the same: submission to a confessor figure that is complete.

  4. Mystical Manipulation - an intentional exaltation of the group's or group leader's authority by a carefully planned display of spiritual power or philosophical insight staged to seem to have happened spontaneously. An example of this is when a group member may give a vibrant testimony of experiencing some supernatural wonder during a group gathering and explain it as the result of their involvement with the group - when in fact, they may have given such a "testimony" before many impressionable new recruits in other settings in the past.

  5. The Sacred Science - the acceptance of a group's unique claims, authority and wisdom as supported by or at least being perfectly compatible with established scientific, historical, or psychological truths. This "new truth" is a profound revelation coming from the group and cannot be understood anywhere else but by membership in it. Group insights and teachings are presented as a perfect harmony of cutting edge scientific, spiritual or philosophical achievement that has never been achieved before by any other human endeavor, except, of course, by its' own visionary leadership!

  6. Loading The Language - a "loaded language" is used as a source of directive control: it consists of a terminology conveying specific meanings and instructions unique to the group's belief system. This vocabulary is meant to define various personal encounters, experiences and thoughts as the group wants the member to see and respond to them in as concise a manner as possible. Once defined by the word, the group's conditioned responses will take over. For example,  calling one a "seeker" in a group setting evokes a vastly different response than to call them an "apostate."

  7. Doctrine Over Person - Lifton's description is most direct: it is "when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or dogma says one should experience" (2). This struggle arises when one's personal desires and needs are shown to be in direct conflict with the group's expectations for them, with the obvious conclusion that they must "toe the line" and to readily and joyously accept whatever they are told to receive, regardless of the personal cost. The tension is "resolved" when the group truth is upheld above one's wishes and well being.

  8. Dispensing Of Existence - when members' independent thinking has been secured, the "dispensing" is actually the bitter fruit of the mind control process. It is the programmed conviction that the purity and supremacy of the group's authority is so great that it can determine both figuratively and literally the right of people and institutions to exist or not exist. A group's judgment that "pagans" (or "born agains") are evildoers best seen "six feet under" and swept out of existence establishes an elitist mindset convincing members that they are the truly righteous who should rule the world.

In our next article on cultic mind control, we will list ten characteristics that will help define how cult mind control can be more easily recognized in a more observable way. We will see that Lifton's eight criterion as described here manifest in many disturbing, yet all too familiar forms of thought and practice among many cultic groups today.


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