Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 1- Introduction, advantages and disadvantages of the terminology

August 15, 2021

The term brainwashing became popular in the 1950s following the work of psychologist Robert Lifton. US prisoners of war in Korea had undergone a forced ‘re-education’ program which appeared to have altered not only their behaviour, but also their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

In trying to figure out how such dramatic effects were achieved, Lifton identified eight different processes by which the Koreans appeared to have been using. These processes have been subsequently re-formulated to apply to other forms of manipulation, such as religious cults and other cult-like organisations. I will be considering them especially in the light of various spiritual groups and teachings, but these considerations are clearly relevant to the suddenly emergence of radical political groups in mainstream politics.

The anti-cult activist, Rick Ross gives a useful summary of how each of these eight processes functions in a cult-like setting. Here is a link to the 8 minute video, but a summary of the relevant points appears below. Each of these processes will be considered in a series of blogposts.

Before starting however, it is worth noting a few difficulties with Ross’s approach.

First, these eight processes are not exclusive to cults. In fact many are present in some form in all social groupings, for better or worse– including the family, among friends, sports clubs, businesses. This is because these processes also have advantages and can in many ways be essential to human interaction and psychological health. Similarly, their presence in cults is not necessarily always negative. A cult — even a very cultish one — may well be better for some people than a coercive or manipulative family or institution. (Rick Ross has a tendency to disregard this possibility.)

Second, it is all too easy to write off members of a supposed cult as dupes. The whole idea of a confidence trick is that it is difficult to perceive, especially early on. It is very often simply a matter of chance, rather than gullibility that determines whether or not one gets drawn into a cultish group. Skeptics tend to assume that falling for a con is merely due to a failure to apply the list of logical fallacies. They forget that if people are under stress or in a situation where they feel powerless or helpless, they are more likely to trust a stranger, or hope for a sudden radical improvement in their lives. Skeptics also tend to forget that not everyone trusts science to the same degree that they claim to, and also forget that in many crises, a rational scientific or statistics based approach is not always useful.

Similarly, a skilled con-artist is one who can mimic all the signals that indicate trustworthiness. Anyone can fall for one.

Third, it is wrong to assume that all cult-like groups are deliberately and consciously running a scam, and that all cult-like leaders and teachers are some kind of evil genius. This in turn can affect the way victims are seen — as gullible freaks who were already outsiders and ‘losers’ anyway, and therefore deserve to have been scammed, or who can be ridiculed if they don’t submit to being ‘rescued’ and giving up their cultish beliefs and becoming ‘normal’ again.

That said, these ‘eight elements of brainwashing’ can deepen an understanding of how cults work, figure out at what point a group, teaching or teacher becomes dangerous, and help one get an insight into how relatively normal forms of social interaction can be so manipulated to dismantle psychological defenses.

Each post will include a section on how to recognise red flags and detect at what point a group stops being in one’s own best interests.

Summary — The Eight Elements of Brainwashing

1. Milieu Control — This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation — The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

3. Demand for Purity — The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession — Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science — The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language — The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person — Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence — The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

The second post, Milieu Control can be found here.

Posted by Yakaru

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