reprinted from the Mar/Apr 1990 Bethel Ministries Newsletter
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.
In chapter 22 of his book, Lifton outlines eight criteria of mind
control, whether used by political, religious or psychological
cults. This book is now available on our order form.
"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.
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
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!