There is no particular reason, but I have been a bit fascinated with the idea of thought reform and cult formation recently.

Thankfully, most of you will never have to deal with getting involved in a cult, but who knows? Maybe you know of someone involved in a cult-like organization and this might shed some light on the whole spectacle. After reading Stolen Innocence1, that was certainly the case for me.

I also immersed myself in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for approximately six months.

As a non-believer, this was an incredibly painful experience, but the insights gained were nevertheless equally insightful and entertaining.

In either case, these are my personal observations on how cults operate. Since I am just a random idiot, I suggest that you treat all of this as mere entertainment.

What’s interesting is that, most intelligent people seem to be convinced that they are immune from joining cults – I don’t think I subscribe to that notion any longer.

I bet I would have made an excellent cult member. Really.

The principles of illusory superiority still applies here and factors like intelligence or education have very little to do with one’s susceptibility in joining a cult.2 In other words, given the right circumstances3, anyone is fair game.

Cultish organizations are NOT necessarily bad, even though the term “cult” carries negative connotation and is usually associated with the crazy and the psychotic. By ‘cult’, I am loosely referring to a community of people who ritualistically adhere to a set of cultural rules or dogma. Also, in this post, I won’t be discussing the consequences of children being born into cults. Elissa Wall1 has done a much better job at that.

So how exactly does the recruitment process work?

There’s no exact science, but what follows are my own observations.

Let’s say some ambitious organization is looking to further their cause and in need of new recruits.

When an organization finds a person that needs to be converted to their position, there are certain processes they adhere by to yield the best results. For one, they will generally stay away from using any form of coercion or force to further their agenda. After all, you don’t want to raise any red flags this early in the game. In other words, love and kindness are much more effective tools than forceful persuasion, especially in this context.

Typically, what these organizations do is that they attempt (..and usually succeed) to build a genuine, personal relationship with the person in a very casual manner. The purpose behind this maneuver is two fold: to help dislodge any initial resistance and to slowly gain trust from the target.

It is human nature to respond to kindness and offerings of care. This is why this strategy is so effective with most people. After a friendship is developed with the person, generally they will begin to insert tiny specks of seemingly relevant ideology into casual conversation. This tactic helps them gauge the target’s reaction(s) and establish a baseline view of their world. Quite simply, this is just a form of conversational reconnaissance.

One way to do this is by asking open ended questions (“What do you feel about X? etc.”) – it’s a fairly basic information gathering technique we all use when we meet someone new and in this context, it’s just as useful. The next step involves inviting the target into partaking in casual gatherings. On the surface, these seem like harmless get togethers, but in reality they act as a powerful device in the thought reform process.

Friendship as a stepping stone

Well, isolation and direct supervision happens to be a very effective strategy in gaining commitment from a potential ‘recruit’. Generally, these gatherings are overly positive and jubilant. Creating a sharp contrast from the everyday harshness of life conditions the target to associate these gatherings and newfound “friends” with pleasure and positivity.

It’s subtle but effective.

The main goal at this point is to get the target to attend these gatherings on a consistent basis.

That’s it.

Jim Jones pretty much used this exact same sequence to gain momentum for the People’s Temple4 back in the late 1970’s.

This is also the ideal environment to make the group more cohesive and dependable. How exactly does one accomplish that? Things like emotional speeches, chanting, rhythmic music, dancing, and praying are all effective tools.

These activities are designed to arouse emotions by the authority figure and acts as a vehicle to stir up guilt and feelings of fear in the audience/group. Taken to an extreme, when you crank up these feelings, the high pressure environment becomes too overwhelming for most people to process and brews a situation where the proverbial shit is likely to hit the fan. In fact, many people immediately submit to the cause (be it drinking cyanide laced kool-aid, murder etc.) in an attempt to relieve themselves of these feelings.

My favorite is praying.

Praying in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it can also be used as a psychological device in this context.

In Denise Winn’s The Manipulated Mind, Philip Zimbardo pretty much nails it’s use in this environment:

”..last comes the powerful influence of prayer. It binds the group, acts as a reminder of the initial emotions experienced during the conversion itself, reinforces belief and, by focusing on the power of a supernatural force to bring good or evil, serves to place an individual’s total responsibility for his actions outside himself. Prayer can bring peace, just as confession brings relief from all the aroused guilt and uncertainty – it’s the glue that holds everything else together and acts as a device to reinforce the entire conversion…”

The thing is, if the mechanisms within an organization are built efficiently, its members should not even detect that they are a part of anything detrimental. Generally, the kindness and togetherness of an organization can cement the illusion that you are on the right track.

Plus, why should anyone feel suspicious? After all, there are many many psychological benefits to being a part of these organizations and for the vast majority of people, they are quite beneficial – psychologically speaking. (note: this does not negate the fact that they are delusional)

Here’s why I have a problem with these folks:

It is virtually impossible for “recruiters” of these groups to not use unethical behavior modification techniques and guilt-reward cycles to accomplish their goals and in most cases are not even aware of such processes since they were trained by some ‘authoritative’ third party to begin with.

The result is a bunch of well meaning folks becoming prisoners of their own minds who ironically end up defending the cause themselves.

..and that’s what’s fucked up about the whole thing.

  1. In Stolen Innocence, Elissa Wall chronicles her life growing up in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), led by the notorious Warren Jeff’s and the destructive beliefs inflicted upon her by family and friends alike. Elissa’s story is heartbreaking, disturbing – but most of all highlights some of the thought reform elements discussed here in a very personal and gruesome manner. Generally, people who go through such an experience do not fully recover and Elissa’s honesty and courage is quite admirable. It’s an excellent personal, uncensored account of the whole debacle. 2

  2. Steven Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control gives a decent birds-eye overview of the inner workings of cults. As a former cult member of the Unification Church, Hassan has personal experience and delves into the recruitment process, psychological implications and even how the undercurrents of such destructive cults affect the legal system and even society in general. A common misconception among the general public is how so called “intelligent” people are less prone to being recruited into a cult. Hassan’s slow dismantling of this myth is well presented and easy to digest.

  3. I realize that it’s irresponsible to just mention circumstances without expanding on it, but I have left it as it is because there are too many moving pieces within that statement. I think the major pieces might be things like: poverty, region of birth, temperament/personality of individual etc. and a large part of those elements are usually a factor of pure chance.

  4. Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison chronicles her escape from the Peoples Temple/Jonestown fiasco that took place in Guyana in 1978. Under the leadership of Jim Jones, 900+ American citizens drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid and committed ‘mass revolutionary’ suicide. Children included. This guy watched his son and wife die in his arms. How fucked is that? The crazy thing is that, most of these people were regular folks like you and me. Emotions are heightened in-group environments, which alleviates people’s defenses momentarily, long enough to make a commitment. Jim Jones did this very well with these folks – at the very beginning, there were zero signs of Jim Jones having any ill intensions whatsoever. He was extremely nice, caring and injected the appropriate narrative into the minds of those who needed it in a very patient manner. This is classic/textbook thought reform. When the eventual goal was reached (mass suicide), not only was it impossible to turn back, it becomes easier to go through with the motions since you have done it so many times within similar settings without any adverse effects. Read this book if you are interested in Jonestown or a gripping first hand account of the debacle.