Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 2 – Milieu Control

August 29, 2021

The first of Robert Lifton’s “elements of brain washing” to be considered is milieu control. To recount, here is the brief summary of the process from the introductory post.

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.

Spiritual teachings offer an entire system– not only a mental world within which a person can live, but also a social network as well. Being in a group of like-minded people reinforces not only the ideas and values of the group, but also the group’s social hierarchy.

Likewise, such a system grants a person a sense of belonging, possibly a new sense of identity, and perhaps most importantly some kind of special status that may have been absent for them in the outside world. All this can be an immense relief for someone whose life previously lacked the various structures necessary for a healthy life. Where a group turns cultish is when the leaders start intervening in the social interactions of its members, both inside and outside the group.

Full blown cults like Scientology control the social contacts of cult members by intervening physically in the lives of its members and preventing contact to those deemed unclean. This is done quite overtly, and is only possible when a member is deeply engaged with, or somehow indebted to the group.

A far more subtle or indirect form of milieu control however, occurs far more commonly than may be suspected. The effects here can be just as damaging as with more overt forms of control, but the processes are much harder to recognise. It may even take place without any deliberate intention to do so on the part of the teacher or group.

It’s worth looking more deeply at this aspect.

Milieu Control as a Built-In Feature of Spiritual Teachings

All scams or swindles start off looking relatively ‘normal’ and then draw the subject step by step deeper and deeper into the net. Spiritual teachings are by their nature well suited to this process. As with a normal pedagogical course, the easier steps come first, which build upon the client’s previous knowledge and expectations. Then new information (and perhaps new behavioural habits as well) are slowly introduced.

First comes Step A, which looks more or less normal. Nothing unexpected. Step B follows naturally from Step A, and likewise is still within a person’s expectations. Step C follows logically from Step B, but it is probably a bit less familiar. Step D follows logically from C, but had it been introduced before A, it would probably have struck the client as odd.

With a confidence trick, the client realises at some point that their money is gone, along with the scammer. With spiritual teachings, unfortunately, such a rude awakening is unlikely to be so sudden or so clear. (Many spiritual ideologies are already prepared to deal with dissatisfaction, routinely instructing customers to “take that which resonates”, and ignore the red flags.)

A common — and easy — scam to fall for is network marketing (or multi-level marketing). These are very popular among spiritual marketeers. People are instructed to sell the product to their friends and often get to attend “free” courses in (manipulative) marketing, specifically dealing with how to pitch a sale to friends, family, and colleagues. This of course interrupts and disturbs the client’s social life — first their closest associates, and finally people they used to know in previous decades receive a call out of the blue inviting them for a coffee and a chat about a “great opportunity”.

Soon enough, the scam burns out, (as it requires, of course, the market population grow exponentially to the point of becoming infinite), which leaves the top one or two percent with a handsome profit and the rest with their former friends crossing the road when they see them.

A more dangerous scam involves “positive thinking” and “motivational speaking”. Here the product is a set of prescribed ideas and behaviours, promising to transform the life of the practitioner. As the client progresses through the graded steps (often in the form of courses or events that are graded by price as well — from the “free introductory seminar”, through to extravagantly expensive “advanced” courses) they become increasingly committed. Accordingly, they begin to limit or eliminate friendships and social contacts with those who don’t measure up to the new behavioural requirements. They begin to implement their own form of milieu control themselves.

Work colleagues, perhaps, notice that the person’s language has altered slightly. For example a person who has taken on board belief in the “Law of Attraction” or “Positive Thinking”, might start insisting that their colleagues “focus on the positive”. Initially it sounds like something anyone might say, but there is an odd tone to it. The ideology behind it is the profoundly manipulative idea that “thoughts become things” — leading people to believe they can magically “attract” the objects and events they focus upon. Embedded in this puerile and egotistical ideology is the impulse to avoid people who are “negative”, and eventually to exclude such people from one’s life, for fear of becoming infected by their “negativity”. Criticism of the ideology itself is explicitly deemed “negative”.

Their former friends find their behaviour suddenly irritating, and attempts to talk to them on points of disagreement simply run into a wall. The member of the in-group has taken so many steps, that any simple point of disagreement strikes against a dozen hidden beliefs all at once. (The member is at Step F or G, while their friends are still trying to talk them out of Step A.)

The swiftly escalating disagreements that result from someone unwittingly blundering into such an ideological cliff-face, function effectively as a form of milieu control.

Friends must decide either to avoid discussing such issues, or to distance themselves from each other. Either way the conflict is not resolved, and the (more or less) cult-ish belief remains intact.

This is one of the most important consequences of milieu control: exclusion of criticism — criticism which could have helped a client retrace their steps and find their way back to their initial “Step A” and figure out from there exactly where things got weird. But with criticism and critics excluded or rendered “negative”, the client is blocked from retracing their steps and reconsidering their current position according to different standards from the ones insisted upon by their in-group leader.

This kind of milieu control is not necessarily deliberate, but it is an inevitable result of ideas that are developed in isolation without reference to an out-group.

Furthermore, spiritual groups often maintain constant attacks on aspects of the out-group, for example against science, or morals, or ethnicities. While not overtly preventing contact between in- and out-group, this nevertheless places limits on the amount and nature of any such contacts. It limits exposure to critical perspectives, and effectively divides believers from non-believers.

Moreover, members of the out-group who find the ideas irritating simply exclude themselves.

Milieu Control Protects a Hierarchy

A cult is not merely a milieu, but above all, a hierarchy. Status inside the in-group is measured differently to outside. Indeed, this is one of the great attractions a cultish group holds. (In political movements of course, this attraction is especially powerful.)

The danger here of abuse of underlings by superiors under the protection of isolation is clear and extreme. Humans, like all other mammals, have a reflexive submissive response to any perceived authority figure. If access to all comparative authority figures has been removed, an authority figure can become seen as a god. The dangers for abuse and exploitation, for public shaming and unnecessary suffering, do not need to be spelled out here.

Less immediately obvious is the likelihood that the in-group will come to see itself as superior to certain out-groups. Sadly, this likelihood increases according to the grandiosity of the in-group’s claims about itself. As noted elsewhere on this website, followers of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, for example, consider the “white race” superior to all others, and see themselves as the best of the best.

Likewise, for a great many promoters of “alternative medicine”, modern science is openly demeaned as an inferior out-group. Information from scientists is disregarded due to its “materialism” (or more bizarrely, a supposed failure to include a nonsense version of quantum physics). So too is it common for fanatical religious groups to see the whole of society as inferior, leading to anything from hectoring non-believers in the street, to terrorism.

To sum up, milieu control can be achieved without explicit regulations and without necessarily being intended. The important factor is that an in-group member is in some sense isolated from information or activities that would dis-confirm the in-group’s ideology and power structures.

Red Flags & Consumer Protection

* As noted earlier, joining a spiritual (or political) group can affect one’s perception of one’s own identity and social status. A red flag would be if such changes make membership of other groups more difficult.

* Spiritual groups frequently emphasise a break with the past. This may be done in a manner that is more or less symbolic, but it can also be a pretext can be a pretext for intervening in the social life of members or hindering social connections with the out-group. Any measure that hinders or restricts social contacts should be consciously noted.

* Any special interest group can easily look a bit odd from the outside, with its specialist jargon and various rituals and customs. A warning sign for members of the in-group is when they lose the ability to see their in-group through the eyes of an outsider. Losing the ability to orient one’s self to the values and the out-group — even if those values are questionable — can indicate that the in-group member is now completely dependent on the value system and internal authority figures of the in-group. Normal defense mechanisms and perceptions of personal boundaries and safety may have been breached, leaving the member vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

* Does the in-group perceive the rest of the world as an out-group? This holds the same dangers noted in the previous point, and is especially true in cultish groups dealing with alternative medicine. In this case, the whole of modern science, especially medical and biological sciences, are treated as an ideological enemy. Along with losing the benefits of modern medicine, all standards for critical judgment and consumer protection are also excluded.

* The mere concept of consumer protection is foreign to any cult or cult-like group. For the reasons noted earlier, its members see themselves (and group leaders) as special — and not as customers. Protecting their own special status is no doubt a strong motivation in protecting an authority figure from criticism.

Part 3 will be posted soon.


  1. An excellent analysis, Yakaru. This subject always makes me think back to my counselling diploma course, which was a good example of something cultish that’s promulgated without the deliberate intention of doing harm, indeed with uncritical moral superiority and fervour, much as religions often are. I honestly believe it brought great benefits to the students, and it’s hard to know where the balance is between that and the damage done.

    The group leader was like an elder of a tribe, being the main founder of the independent company delivering therapeutic counselling training and therapy itself, as a sideline to a business consultancy running along the same lines. Those lines were mainly the founder’s charisma (from “doing the work” in Encounter groups) and his gleefully reckless “tough love” trouble-shooting the firms buying the service, and trouble-shooting us in the group.

    He developed an aura of almost infallible insight, part of the problem being that this reputation preceeded him, so we were all in awe even before we met him.

    There was a strong emphasis on “qualitative research”, with the suggestion that it was better than quantitative research, which meant that our subjective judgements of things were better than objective science. There was also the ideal of group participation to the point of saying we, the students, would invent the prospectus as we went along, and then we would award our fellows a pass or fail by some unspecific discussion process, these conditions, we were told, being negotiated with the educational authorities only with great difficulty.

    We built a powerful group identity, and the in-group superiority began to be emphasized. We were more “present” and “powerful” than ordinary people, who were asleep, including the inspectors from the overseeing university checking we were learning the right stuff.

    It might have been worse. Before this I went to an open day for another course based more traditionally based, essentially Freudian Analysis, where the couple running it (married, IIRC) were just as weird in another way: he played the part of a logical father, doing most of the didactic work in the classroom, while she ran little groups and solo counselling sessions in a softly cushioned room. She said that sometimes students would lie on the couch with their head in her lap while she stroked their hair. They didn’t seem at all bothered by their overt sexism or patronisation of students as surrogate children.

  2. Thanks, John!

    And thanks for sharing those very enlightening examples from your own experience. I’ve seen similar things… And I’m also very deliberately focusing on the … um… positives… of such groups. Like you (I think), the worst things I’ve personally encountered or been involved with were merely *weird* rather than especially dangerous or damaging, and I grew from it and learned from it.

    I think a great deal of good could be done in fields like counseling, by trainings setting some clear parameters and rules, and more or less relying on common sense, empathy and life experience. It always gets weird when people invent their own complicated metaphysical theories, and sell themselves as uniquely insightful and gifted.

    …I knew someone in Australia (a medical doctor who was ‘spiritually oriented’) who decided to run an encounter group. He invited a bunch of his ex-girlfriends, who wound up ganging up on him and telling him what pathetic lover he was. He didn’t run any more after that.

  3. Hehe. Get a bunch of ex-girlfriends together for an encounter group, what could possibly go wrong?

  4. Yes…. A failure to practice milieu control.

  5. Interestingly, an associate only needed to read a couple of books by Louise Hay – by herself – to start acting as you describe. I was accused of being motivated by jealusy of Louise Hay for daring to question her dictates, as apparently no rational or moral objection could be possible, etc.
    However, the ‘mileu control’ idea is obviously very powerful: you can see its influence in political groups where no freed om of thought or speech is allowed on certain topics. This seems to me a very pervasive and sinister recent trend.

  6. A couple of the posts I’ve written here about Hay are followed by dozens and dozens of Hay defenders leaving exactly the same comment.

    And, yes — this process is extremely relevant to politics at the moment….

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