Eight Marks of a Mind-Control Cult

by Randall Watters

Brainwashing has become almost a household word in the last two decades or so. In 1961, Robert J. Lifton wrote the definitive book on the subject, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, after studying the effects of mind control on American prisoners of war under the Communist Chinese. Lifton outlines eight major factors that can be used to identify whether a group is a destructive cult or not. Any authoritarian religion should be held up to the light in order to determine just how destructive their influence is on their members. Judge for yourselves.

Milieu Control

"Milieu" is a French word meaning "surroundings; environment." Cults are able to control the environment around their recruits in a number of ways, but almost always using a form of isolation. Recruits can be physically separated from society, or they can be warned under threat of punishment to stay away from the world's educational media, especially when it might provoke critical thinking. Any books, movies or testimonies of ex-members of the group, or even anyone critical of the group in any way are to be avoided.

Information is carefully kept on each recruit by the mother organization. All are watched, lest they fall behind or get too far ahead of the thinking of the organization. Because it appears that the organization knows so much about everything and everyone, they appear omniscient in the eyes of the recruits.

Mystical Manipulation

In religious cults, God is ever-present in the workings of the organization. If a person leaves for any reason, accidents or ill-will that may befall them are always attributed to God's punishment on them. For the faithful, the angels are always said to be working, and stories circulate about how God is truly doing marvelous things among them, because they are "the truth." The organization is therefore given a certain "mystique" that is quite alluring to the new recruit.

Demand for Purity

The world is depicted as black and white, with little room for making personal decisions based on a trained conscience. One's conduct is modeled after the ideology of the group, as taught in its literature. People and organizations are pictured as either good or evil, depending on their relationship to the cult.

Universal tendencies of guilt and shame are used to control individuals, even after they leave. There is great difficulty in understanding the complexities of human morality, since everything is polarized and oversimplified. All things classified as evil are to be avoided, and purity is attainable through immersion into the cult's ideology.

The Cult of Confession

Serious sins (as defined by the organization) are to be confessed immediately. The members are to be reported if found walking contrary to the rules.

There is often a tendency to derive pleasure from self-degradation through confession. This occurs when all must confess their sins before each other regularly, creating an intense kind of "oneness" within the group. It also allows leaders from within to exercise authority over the weaker ones, using their "sins" as a whip to lead them on.

The "Sacred Science"

The cult's ideology becomes the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. The ideology is too "sacred" to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. The cult's ideology makes an exaggerated claim for possessing airtight logic, making it appear as absolute truth with no contradictions. Such an attractive system offers security.

Loading the Language

Lifton explains the prolific use of "thought-terminating cliches," expressions or words that are designed to end the conversation or controversy. We are all familiar with the use of the cliches "capitalist" and "imperialist," as used by antiwar demonstrators in the 60's. Such cliches are easily memorized and readily expressed. They are called the "language of non-thought," since the discussion is terminated, not allowing further consideration.

In the Watchtower, for instance, expressions such as "the truth", the "mother organization", the "new system", "apostates" and "worldly" carry with them a judgment on outsiders, leaving them unworthy of further consideration.

Doctrine Over Person

Human experience is subordinated to doctrine, no matter how profound or contradictory such experiences seem. The history of the cult is altered to fit their doctrinal logic. The person is only valuable insomuch as they conform to the role models of the cult. Commonsense perceptions are disregarded if they are hostile to the cult's ideology.

Dispensing of Existence

The cult decides who has the "right" to exist and who does not. They decide who will perish in the final battle of good over evil. The leaders decide which history books are accurate and which are biased. Families can be cut off and outsiders can be deceived, for they are not fit to exist!

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