In 1950, the psychologist Leon Festinger summarized his cognitive dissonance theory:
"If you change a person's behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize
People's behavior, attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings are interconnected,
and people want to keep them all in harmony. If you force a change in one,
it will cause a change in the others. For example, if you force a
change in behavior, it will cause a change in the associated
attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs. If you change someone's beliefs, it can
cause a corresponding change in their behavior.
Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above
the body, but that's been blown away by evidence. In fact, it's
easiest to change the mind by changing behavior...
== David Brooks, "Pitching With Purpose", New York Times, 1 April 2008.
During the Korean War, American and other United Nations prisoners of war
were subjected to Communist "brainwashing". One of the
techniques that the brainwashers used was to demand that the prisoners
all say whatever the guards and brainwashers wanted them to say, or else
the whole group got nothing to eat. And they were always hungry, so the
pressure to conform was great. So the prisoners recited:
Communism is wonderful.
America is terrible.
America only benefits the rich, while the poor blacks die for them in foreign places like Korea...
Communism is the wave of the future, and the most enlightened form of government...
After enough repetition, some of the prisoners started to really believe it. Some even
defected, and refused repatriation at the end of the war.
And that is an extreme example of the use of cognitive dissonance.
Soldiers are extremely reluctant to betray their own country, or their fellow
soldiers, by committing treason and going over to the enemy. In comparison, it is
much easier to get someone to believe that a new church is a very good thing.
So the "new churches" — cults — insist that new
members recite the cult's dogma, a lot. And eventually the newcomers
start saying, "Maybe there is something to this... Maybe they
have a point... Maybe this is true."
How it works is: Since people don't want to think of themselves as
habitual liars, constantly saying things that are not true,
they will start to imagine that what they have been reciting really is true.
Problem solved. Now there is no conflict. Now there is no internal pain.
Imagining that they are telling the truth is the subconscious mind's answer to the problem.
Now, instead of feeling pain, they feel noble, because they are doing great things,
spreading new wisdom through the world.
It's really a very common brainwashing and mind-control technique:
"Makem' say it enough times, and they'll start to believe it."
"Makem' go through the motions enough times, and they'll start to
think that such behavior is normal."
Similarly, making people do funny or silly or immoral things can have the same effect.
While at first the newcomers may feel uncomfortable doing strange things,
they will eventually come to believe that such activities are perfectly normal
and very spiritual, too.
"All of the smart, enlightened people do this."
Thus the Hari Krishnas could come to believe that short-changing their donors
and customers was "Holy, because it's all God's money anyway."
And the Children of God could believe that prostitution was okay, and even honorable,
because it brought more money and male members into the cult.
"This is true Freedom of the Spirit."
"Our leader is the Messiah. Our leader is God reincarnated.
Our leader is goodness personified, here to battle evil. We are a
new order for a new age. We will save the world, defeat evil, bring
world peace, end world hunger, usher in the Millenium, and establish
God's Kingdom on Earth."
Cult members can't just be normal good people;
they have to be moral titans, playing out grand heroic roles in an
epic cosmic moral melodrama. Many members feel that their
lives will be pointless and meaningless if they don't play such grand roles in life
— to live an ordinary life and be a normal good person is "merely meaningless,
The Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists, for example, claim that we will achieve world peace
when one third of the people on Earth chant their chant. We get no explanation of
how that is supposed to happen; it is just a given.
So they claim that they are working for world peace by recruiting more members for
their organization, getting more people chanting their chants.
Likewise, the Moonies claim to be bringing the world back to God,
saving the world from Satan. They believe that to even get enough sleep is to
be derelict in their holy duties.
"Sleep especially was viewed as an indulgence since God never slept in
His efforts to save
The Scientology founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard bragged about his new
"Dianetics" brand of psychotherapy with this statement:
"...this new science of the mind or this new philosophy had a significance
for mankind that was greater than the discovery of the wheel and equal
in significance to the discovery of fire."
And the Scientologist Kelley Preston, John Travolta's wife, declared:
Another aspect of irrationality is absolutism. That is, seeing
issues in terms of absolute black and white:
"You are either with us or you are against us."
"You are either part of the solution, or part of the problem."
"If you are not living in accordance with the Word of God,
then you are following the dictates of Satan."
"Either you are a fanatical true believer like us, or else you are
an evil hard-boiled atheist."
"If you are not a super-patriotic fascist John Bircher like us, then you are
a godless Communist."
"Absolutely ALL of our leader's teachings are correct.
He never makes any mistakes."
"Since we have the only True Teachings, straight from God,
people who criticize our leader or our church are evil beings who are
working for the forces of darkness. They are trying to keep us from saving the world.
They are trying to keep us from getting into Heaven."
"Either you are willing to commit your entire life to
our cause or else you are a wimp, a weak hand, and a real loser."
The very word
"rational" comes from "ratio", a fraction.
Absolutists hate fractional and proportional terms. They love
absolute words like "always", "never, "all",
"and none". They dislike words like
"usually", "seldom", "mostly",
"few", which admit to there often being a few
exceptions to the rule.
All of which means that absolute rules are not always right,
and you might actually have to think, rather
than just let some stereotypes and slogans and simplistic answers
rattle around in your head.
Fanatics will say, "Quit trying to confuse me," when you
point out the exceptions to their absolute rules.
I find it amusing that William Randolf Hearst, who was possibly the
most successful newspaper publisher in the history of the USA, said
that it seemed that forcing the American people to think was
the greatest torture to which you could subject them.
So Hearst became a very rich man by publishing newspapers
that didn't require people to think.
The following points are extreme cult characteristics, which
only a few cults actually practice,
but those are the cults that often end up appearing on TV, so a
lot of people think these things are
necessary practices of all real cults. They aren't.
Remember, very, very few cults actually buy remote rural land and machine-guns,
and hide in the boondocks...
The use of heavy-duty mind control and rapid
guilt-induction, especially through guilt-inducing confession sessions
or self-criticism sessions;
inducing a sense of powerlessness and helplessness;
indoctrination with "group training" or "group
therapy" sessions which feature enforced conformity and group-think;
"time and environment control" —
being kept totally occupied, all of the time, day and night,
with cult-oriented tasks, and
seclusion, isolation from outside influences,
isolation from outside soures of information, total immersion
in the cult;
mind-altering and thought-stopping techniques like prolonged praying, chanting, or
meditation, or prolonged repetition of cult dogma, which,
when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility;
thought-stopping clichés, slogans, and deceptive euphemisms;
bombastic redescription of the familiar — i.e. "loaded language":
We aren't recruiting for the cult, we are "Bringing souls
to God" or "helping others selflessly".
We aren't raising money for the cult, we are "Practicing sankirtan"
or "Serving the Lord".
We aren't cheating strangers out of money; we are sharing an
opportunity for them to Serve the Lord.
He didn't leave the cult; he "went Tai-Tan" or "fell from Grace"
or "is trapped in Samsara".
sensory overload and information overload — forcing
acceptance of complex new doctrines, goals and
definitions to replace the recruit's old values
by expecting the new recruit to assimilate masses
of information quickly with little or no opportunity for critical
use of the cognitive dissonance technique: behavior, attitudes,
beliefs and feelings are interconnected, and if you force a change
in one (like behavior), it will force a change in the others
(like beliefs, feelings, and attitudes);
social definition of reality — the cult defines reality and what
the truth really is and what good and bad are;
avoidance of negativity and suppression of dissent — "Critical thought is disruptive"
— accompanied by encouragement of giddy positivity: "It Works!";
instant community — the cult is your instant new family and
instant new trusted friends;
instant hierarchy — you suddenly have some "wonderful" new leaders;
instant intimacy — you shouldn't keep any secrets from your new
family or from your new trusted leaders;
appeals to "holy" or "wise" authorities;
personal testimonies of earlier converts;
commitment by default;
contrast identity — us versus them — "us good people act
like this, and those bad people act like that";
actionizing — putting faith into action — usually by
proselytizing, recruiting and fund-raising.
A program like that is brainwashing, pure and simple.
(Please note that a good brainwashing and rapid-conversion program
requires most of those
things, especially the first 14. Just one or two of them, like sleep
deprivation, or being kept busy all of the time, won't brainwash you.)
Threats of bodily harm or death to someone who leaves
Cults routinely tell people that they will die or go insane or loose their spirituality
or go to Hell if they quit the cult.
See the Cult Test question
The Group Implants Phobias
for a longer description of such threats and induced phobias.
But some violent cults have gone much further and even killed people who tried to leave the cult.
Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple had a goon squad
(called "The Angels")
who beat up
anyone who tried to leave, and who found and harassed
and threatened those rare few who did succeed in getting out.
In the end, they killed almost all of the people who tried to leave
the commune in Guyana, along with California Congressman Leo J. Ryan
and TV newsmen, and then forced everyone left to commit suicide by
drinking cyanide, and shot those few people who refused...
Likewise, both Synanon and the Rajneeshees had heavily-armed goon squads,
complete with assault rifles and automatic weapons, to enforce the
rules and punish dissidents.
Synanon had the Imperial Marines, some of whom were charged with
the attempted murder of the lawyer Paul Morantz, who had won a case against
them. And the Rajneeshees in Oregon had the best scheme of all: They declared
their commune to be an incorporated town, so the goon squad became
the official town police force.
Threats of bodily harm or death to someone who criticizes the group.
Scientology routinely sues its critics, and tries to bankrupt
them, either by winning the case or by causing the critics
immense, unaffordable, legal expenses. Scientology also has a history of threatening
and harassing critics and reporters who print things that Scientology does not like.
Likewise, Scientology routinely smears critics, using whatever dirt they can get on someone.
The Scientology founder and leader, L. Ron Hubbard, instructed his followers to
attack critics any way that they could — to investigate them and discover any
crimes or dirty secrets that could be used against the critics,
and, "If you can't dig up any dirt, make something up."
Synanon's goon squad attacked critics from behind, in the dark,
smashing their heads with baseball bats, and then they put a large rattlesnake
in the mailbox of the lawyer Paul Morantz who was suing them, and nearly killed
Malcolm X was killed for disagreeing with the Black Muslim church
leader Elija Muhammed's hatred of white people.
The People's Temple goon squad would beat up any member
who dared to disagree with or criticize the cult leader, Jim Jones.
And finally, Jeanne Mills, her husband, and their young
daughter were all murdered by People's Temple cult members
shortly after she published a book,
Six Years with God,
(1979,) that exposed the inner workings of the cult.
Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's
Rajneeshpuram in eastern Oregon did more than just threaten
critics — they drugged them. After the mass suicide/massacre in
Jonestown, investigators found enough Thorazine, Qualudes, and other
tranquilizers and downers at Jonestown to keep the entire population whacked out
for months. After Rajneesh ran from the law, investigators in Oregon discovered
that some dissident members had been exiled to live in remote cabins at the
furthest edges of the commune, far from the rest of the members,
and kept quiet with drugs slipped into their food.
Scientologists who leave the cult are smeared by using the confessions and revelations that they made
during their "auditing" sessions (which is supposed to be confidential
psychotherapy). The actor Paul Haggis criticized the way that Scientology treated Amy Scobee,
a previous defector, in his letter of resignation from Scientology:
How dare you use private information in order to label someone an "adulteress?"
You took Amy Scobee's most intimate admissions about her sexual life
and passed them on to the press and then smeared them all over the pages [of]
your newsletter! I do not know the woman, but no matter what she said
or did, this is the woman who joined the Sea Org [sea-going organization]
at 16! She ran the entire celebrity center network, and was a loyal senior
executive of the church for what, 20 years? You want to rebut her accusations,
do it, and do it in the strongest terms possible — but that kind
of character assassination is unconscionable.
A British newspaper reporter described the harrassment that he received
after publishing an article that was critical of Scientology:
[ED: Former chief reporter Paul Bracchi, who secretly infiltrated the cult,
remembers how its followers relentlessly threatened and pursued him in
revenge for criticising their deceptive and manipulative methods. Here
Mr Bracchi, who now lives in London, tells the chilling story of how he
was stalked and intimidated for months afterwards, even receiving a bullet
in the post at The Argus headquarters in Hollingbury.]
The voice at the end of the line was trembling. "Is that Mr Bracchi?"
"Yes, it is," I replied. The caller could not have been more relieved. I
was supposed to be dead. Someone had started a rumour that I had been
killed in a fire.
The same people who had tried to obtain my ex-directory phone number,
handed out pamphlets attacking me and dispatched an American private
detective — an ex-Los Angeles police officer — to Britain to frighten
and smear the source who had helped me expose their activities.
Almost daily threatening letters arrived by fax and post at The Argus
where I used to work.
Messages were left on the answer machine at the home of the managing
director. Strangers turned up in his village asking questions about him.
And the culprits behind this campaign of intimidation? Step forward the
church of scientology.
was even framed for bomb threats by Scientology after she published her
book that criticized Scientology.
Appropriation of all of the members' worldly
donate everything they own to the Church, in trade for a
guaranteed ticket to Heaven.
Just give your bank account to the church. Literally.
You hand over your check book and your credit cards to the Church.
(That has the side effect of making you totally dependent
on the cult for food, clothing, medical care, everything, and
makes leaving very difficult because you have no personal
resources at all remaining.)
That was the standard operating procedure in Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple,
and still is in Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
Scientology confiscates all of your worldly wealth in a clever round-about way: In order to
be "cleared", you must take a
whole lot of courses of "auditing" to "process your engrams."
(Translation: Fix your mind by removing the harmful
effects of memories of past injuries.) The first course costs
only $75, to get you started. But the subsequent courses are increasingly
expensive. The cost of the higher-level courses ranges from $8000 to $77,000.
To become a "Clear" costs $128,560, even with discounts.
For the upper levels you have to pay at least an additional $250,000.
If you intend to take all of the courses, plan on selling your house and
giving the money to Scientology. Literally. That's what Scientology leaders have
conned gullible members into doing — mortgage their houses to the hilt and give the
money to Scientology. They get members to borrow every penny that they can — to
mortgage their entire future —
and give it all to Scientology. (And then, after they have been sucked completely
dry, Scientology discards them.)
I've already mentioned
the Moonies' racket of pressuring members
to buy expensive but worthless trinkets that are supposedly gifts that
will comfort their poor deprived dead ancestors.
What was it P.T. Barnum said, about there being a sucker born every minute?...
Making cult members work long hours for free.
Do you want to sell books in the airport, or sell flowers on
the street corner? Do you want to spend all day, every day,
going door to door, begging for charitable contributions
for "good causes" like "ending world hunger"
or "getting kids off of drugs"?
Maybe you would prefer slave labor in one
of the many church-owned businesses? Or maybe pimping and prostitution
are more your cup of tea, practicing "Flirty Fishing",
being a "Happy Hooker for Jesus"?
Total immersion and total isolation.
Also known as milieu control.
This is one of
Dr. Lifton's 8 Criteria for Thought Reform
This is the purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with the
outside world — the control of human communication through control of the environment.
Cult members are usually surrounded by other cult members, and isolated
from non-members. Often, members cannot easily communicate with non-members,
even if they wish to.
And the cult doesn't just control communication between people;
it also controls people's communication with themselves, in their
own minds, especially through
control of the language.
Sometimes, cult members move into the cult's temple or center,
or members go to a remote rural farm or commune or community,
where members are always surrounded by other cult members.
Hari Krishnas live together at the ashram, and often, so do the 3HO
(Yogi Bhajan's) people.
The people of Synanon, the People's Temple, Charles Manson's family,
the Branch Davidians, the Rajneeshees, Aum Shinrikyo, the Solar Temple,
and Heaven's Gate all lived together in some kind of group housing,
where they all drove each other progressively crazier, and they
all become more and more detached from ordinary reality and
common sense until the situation totally blew up, usually in some
spectacular manner like murder or mass suicide.
In the more hard-core cults, the members are
not even allowed to communicate with nonmembers.
Thus, no nonbeliever can plant a seed of doubt in a member's mind by
saying negative things about the cult or the leader.
Cult members' access to information
is often strictly controlled, to prevent the members from getting any
negative information about the cult, or any conflicting or competing
information. Miriam Williams,
a member of the Children of God cult,
wrote that she felt funny when she looked at an outsider's library
of books about religion:
The Family had been through a number of book burnings, and we were
discouraged from reading anything, especially books such as these,
that seemed to hold ancient wisdom. Heaven's Harlots, My Fifteen Years as a Sacred
Prostitute in the Children of God Cult, Miriam Williams,
In the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief,
Lawrence Wright describes how one long-time Scientology member became disillusioned with
the Church of Scientology and began questioning it:
...Haggis began an investigation into the church.
What is so striking about Haggis's investigation is that
few prominent figures attached to the Church of Scientology
have actually looked into the charges that have surrounded their
institution for many years.
The church discourges such examination, telling its members that negative
articles are "entheta" and will only cause spiritual upset. In 1996, the
church sent CDs to members to help them build their own websites,
which would then link them to the Scientology site; included in the
software was a filter that would block any sites containing
material that vilified the church or revealed esoteric doctrines. Keywords
that triggered the censorship were Xenu, OT III, and the names of prominent
Although Haggis had never used such a filter, one already existed in his mind.
During his thirty-four years in the church he had purposely avoided asking too
many questions or reading materials that he knew would disparage his faith.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief,
by Lawrence Wright, page 311.
Scientology has a policy called "disconnect" that requires
Scientology followers to write letters to parents and relatives, former
friends, and everyone else they know,
informing them that they will no longer be communicating with
them or their damaged minds unless they too join Scientology
and get their heads "clear". That plays into the standard
cult teaching — common to most cults — that
the only friends
a cult member has are other cult members.
And it will be true: After destroying all relationships and friendships with non-cult members,
it will be true that the only friends the cult member has left are other cult members.
As part of their indoctrination, some Moonies perform a forty-day
"condition", a self-sacrificing penance exercise, giving
up friends and family for forty days, not seeing them or communicating
with them in any way.
In the drug rehab program gone crazy, Synanon,
The Synanon experience began with inductees severing all ties with outsiders
for three months, after which they lived in isolated settings and worked
in Synanon-operated businesses, all designed to remove them from the influences
in the general community that might rekindle their craving for heroin. Cults; Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Marc Galanter, page 223.
The rationalization for the isolation was to protect people from bad
influences that might trigger a relapse, but that isolation also kept
people from getting any good or sane or common-sense influences that
might have kept the organization from collectively going insane:
The group soon became increasingly self-sufficient by employing its members
and monitoring them closely. By the mid-1970s members were drawn into sexually
perverse acts, defectors from the group were harassed, and critics of the movement
were subjected to violence. An initially enthusiastic public and professional
community wondered how the group had gone awry. Cults; Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Marc Galanter, page 223.
This one is spectacular, and TV news reporters seem to love it
when it happens. But it is actually very rare.
When we talk about cults and suicide, we automatically think of cults like
Reverend Jim Jones' People's Temple at Jonestown,
Heaven's Gate, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo,
and The Order of The Solar Temple, but that's about it. Most authorities
on cults estimate that there are a couple of thousand active cults in
the USA, but most cults just busy themselves with robbing and
brainwashing their followers, and getting a lot of grovelling
worship of the leader, and they don't kill themselves. But when mass
suicides do happen, it reveals just how crazy things can get, and
just how powerful "brainwashing" can really be.
Jonestown AP photo
So how does Alcoholics Anonymous score on this test?
Dr. Arthur J. Deikman reported in his book The Wrong Way Home, Uncovering the Patterns of
Cult Behavior in American Society (page 65),
that some Moonies said that their idea of paradise
was being able to sleep all they wanted to.
Likewise, Underwood and Underwood reported:
Sleep especially was viewed as an indulgence since God never slept in His efforts
to save mankind. Sleep, more than food, thus came to represent the most
sought-after "privilege" of a future life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The staff averaged three hours a night; newer family would average six.
Recognized but unspoken was a state of constant exhaustion in all righteous
children of God. Hostage To Heaven, Barbara Underwood and Betty Underwood,
(New York: Clarkson Potter, 1979), page 70.
The Hari Krishnas were routinely both sleep-deprived and malnourished. See Nori Muster's
book Betrayal of the Spirit.
The Rajneeshees in Antelope Valley, Oregon, silenced several vocal dissidents
by exiling them to remote cabins on the periphery of the ranch, and then
keeping them too stoned to do anything by putting drugs in their food.