Home BiologyThe Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
BiologyBy Joe Burgett -

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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We Conform Out Of Peer Pressure

Humans often dislike standing out in a crowd. As much as some people like athletes or actors enjoy attention from the masses, most of them will also act like regular people. We will conform to stay part of the group because it is simply how we’re wired, especially when a person is lonely or desires more connection. Some will differ from that and will often choose to go down a different path. These “individualists” are a huge problem for cults. That is why good old peer pressure is so useful for cults to employ.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Recruiters likely know enough about you to play on your emotions. If you experienced a bad break-up, they will tell you that their group can help you find love again. But without them, it might be hard to do. You’re broken and no one wants a broken person, so you “could” leave. Just know, if you do, you’ll just remain lonely. That type of peer pressure is powerful on a person who is emotionally vulnerable, and it’s a key way cults brainwash people into buying into their vision. It is more psychological for most cults, but it is often more than enough.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Yet Some Are Forced To Conform

When it works, persuasion that was forced upon people can be harder to break people from, and it’s incredibly effective. In fact, this specific system was employed on Patty Hearst in the 1970s. Patty was the heiress to the huge Heart Publishing Company. Yet in 1974, she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army or SLA. This was a political cult that wanted to sway Patty to their side, specifically due to who she was. To do this, they essentially tortured the poor girl.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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She was locked in a dark closet for several days and kept hungry, tired, and they even assaulted her and beat her off and on. The entire time, they bombarded her with anti-capitalist ideology. While this ideology in itself is not exactly bad, the SLA pushed their own doctrine too. They forced her to see that taking down the rich, killing and/or robbing them, and other militant concepts was the only way. After many months, Patty had changed her name and called her family “Pig-Hearsts.” On top of that, she was caught helping them rob a bank soon, stealing cars, kidnapped people, etc.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Removal Of Outside Influence

When you’re finally forced to stick around or conform, it can be easy to drift into similar beliefs. Many cult members live among other members on compounds. But those who are not isolated from the world will still live with specific members, such as a cult elder. If a person already lives on their own, cults will employ different tactics. They will either make a person sell their home and move in with other members or on the compound itself, or put them into more activities.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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This means they will do their best to keep the member connected to the cult so that all they focus on IS the cult. If they connect to the outside world too much, that is a good way to lose people. “Thought Reform,” a tactic used to systematically alter a person’s thinking or belief system, only works when one is heavily engrossed in the reformist doctrine. If you can be influenced by something outside the cult, it must be removed from your life. Cults gladly tell you what to avoid, everything but them.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Absolute Faith

Cult leaders want you to maintain a single-minded belief that flows through the cult itself. Nothing outside the cult is okay unless cult leaders specifically say it is. This means that even if cult leaders did not specifically say something was bad, it will be simply because they never said it was not. The single-minded concept where you are never making a decision on your own is very useful to cults. It means you will practice absolute faith, believing in only what you are told to believe in.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Cults have used this to do some horrific things over the years. For example, the Japanese Aleph Cult (previously known as Aum Shinrikyo), was a political cult that operated in the 1980s. They used concepts from pretty much every popular faith system. Their leader led them to commit the deadly Matsumoto Sarin Attack in 1994 and Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack in 1995. Of course, members had absolute faith that they were doing what was right. Because their leader told them it was right.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Single-Minded Belief Expanded

Psychologically, we as humans tend to take in a lot of information every day. We may not realize how much, but each situation sprouts up an opportunity for you. A person can choose to react in different ways depending on the day to whatever comes up, but not for the single-minded. You have one reaction and one belief system, which never changes unless you are told to change it. Interestingly, the cult leader(s) chooses whether or not you change.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Yet this is the same person or group that gave you the original unchanging concepts, to begin with. This single-minded nature, again, is perfect for cults. As you can change your mindset at the flip of a coin if a leader tells you to. Yet you will not even consider it without their say-so. Normally, people would submit to this but the indoctrinated will to fix themselves or get the long-term rewards they were once promised. Many also just have a desire to belong and will remain faithful to still belong.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Critical Thinking and Cognitive Dissonance

Cults discourage critical thinking at all times. Absolute faith is all they want and any other thought that differs from the cult belief can possibly fracture the cult system. This cannot be allowed, naturally. This results in a person experiencing something known as “cognitive dissonance.” This is a psychological issue where a person feels discomfort with something that differs from their sense of self or a core belief they have. For example, 2+2=4. We know this to be true, without a doubt.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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If we argued that it was “5” instead, you’d fight this. It is natural instinct to push back when someone is stating a “fact” that is absolutely not true. We won’t bend on this either, for if we do, it is an admission that the other side could potentially be right in some form. It is commonly used in the political realm among party hacks who believe their party or political group is never wrong and the only one that is true, while the other side always lies. Critical thinking would show this is stupid, as both sides could be right or wrong at the same time or at different points. But blind, absolute faith pushes against this.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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People Go Into States Of Confabulation

Confabulation is an interesting psychological phenomenon. Some people with specific mental disorders do it, but others might out of a trauma they experience and/or an injury to the head. When someone is forced to comply with something, such as when cults brainwash people, a person remembers things sometimes drastically different compared to the true reality. This is something our brain does to protect us. Many people cannot psychologically move on after something terrible happens. Of course, others cannot get past something terrible they specifically have done.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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This is when they begin to lie to themselves in an attempt to dismiss the terrible action or reason it as something they “had” to do. Confabulation will often cause a person to remove negative for positive. However, they might also put a negative in place of the positive, usually as a way of defending their hatred for a person, place, event, object, etc. Cult members consistently experience confabulation issues. Confabulation caused by mental disorders revolves around our imagination creating false memories. Meanwhile, in cults, it is often the leader or other members that cause it.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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The “Cult Of Personality”

Look into our eyes, what do you see? The cult of personality? We know your anger, we know your dreams. We’ve been everything you want to be. The awesome song by Living Colour aside, this is a real term that often references a nation’s political regime or even a specific person. They will utilize the media, propaganda, the arts, as well as push their patriotism or government-organized demonstrations/rallies in an effort to create the ideal, heroic, worshipped image of a leader.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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This is a form of “social engineering” (top-down method of influencing the attitudes/behaviors of others) usually employed in an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. Adolph Hitler is an example of this, along with the Nazis. You’ll note that even though a few Nazi soldiers did break away from the regime, the bulk practiced absolute loyalty to him. In spite of the mass slaughter of Jewish people, people followed orders. The cult of personality is used in political regimes and cults, both with the same purposes.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Cult Leader Decline: The Moral Decline

Naturally, cults buy into a message from a leader. However, the cult leader is hardly ever who they claim to be. They practice deception, misdirection, and uses some forms of mind control. We have already referenced a few of the latter, but you’d imagine that one would practice what they preach, right? Usually, this is NEVER the case. They maintain a front as a leader, a character built on corruption. All along, they wanted to take advantage of people, rob them of money, etc.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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In the last ten years or so, at least 5 men have reported that they are the returned Jesus Christ. They ALL used the look of Jesus that people knew and spoke biblically to convince people. Many fell for this, but pretty much all of them have robbed people blind. One fake Jesus figure, Sergei Torop, was arrested in 2020 on charges of corruption and child abuse alone. Other cults practiced celibacy while the cult leader did not, and even took advantage of some members. Yet cults brainwash people into buying into their crap, in spite of many leaders not even following their own moral rules.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Cult Leader Decline: When Infallibility Dies

Perhaps the biggest example of leaders that bought into their own hope is the horrible case of “The Peoples Temple.” Run by a man named Jim Jones, they began as a charitable organization that ran a free drug rehabilitation program. The organization would soon become a church of sorts. It sprouted up during the height of the Civil Rights era, yet the church mixed white and black members together. This was incredibly progressive for the time and slowly sold people on Jones. Yet Jones mixed communist concepts along with other cult-like issues. The cult began to slowly take over member lives.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Members saw Jones as a God, so when he claimed he had a vision of a nuclear attack hitting America, he convinced members to move with him outside the U.S. where people were starting to see through his act. They left to form “Jonestown” in Guyana. The government knew something did not seem right, so California congressman Leo Ryan went to check it out. He never returned, as the Temple killed him and a few others led by Jones. With authorities now coming for him, Jones led his members in a mass suicide. Around 900 people drank poisoned Kool-Aid, killing them within minutes.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
Cult. Shutterstock.

Cult Leader Decline: The False Reality Begins To Show Itself

While cults do everything they can to withhold information from people, sometimes things still can get out. People will know about local cults and potentially know some members. Especially if that cult is large. Even the most remote cults still have to get supplies, and that can allow members to see the truth. Yet cults do well to teach their members that the world is a lie around them. When cults brainwash people into believing this, it is hard to break them out of seeing such a thing. Yet a cult leader will eventually show his or her cult is a lie unto itself.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
Shutterstock.

Even without influence from outside forces, people can see corruption as well as moral deception. They won’t want to believe it, but will soon see their reality is a lie at some point. If they lied about one thing, they may have lied about other stuff too. The carefully constructed cult reality might continue to show cracks, leading people to see more and more lies bubble up. This is often how most cults tend to end, outside the arrest or death of leadership. People will start to see the sociopathic narcissist leader for exactly that. All cults will show these problems eventually, it’s just a waiting game.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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The New Cult Movement Is Digital

It is obvious that cults will recruit people using specific terms or go after some specific types of people. Yet cults or cult leaders nowadays do not have to have you meet them anywhere. You can simply be sent a video from someone who is discussing things you find an interest in. They might also be saying things you agree with, which slowly hooks you. YouTube might even accidentally assist with this. When you watch one video by a person, the site’s algorithm recommends more. Once this happens, you could binge-watch several videos without much effort.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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You were brought in by the first video’s message and that took mental guards down for more. Now, you are slowly seeing things the way the cult claims. They might also reference a website for further messages, which might go into more radical programming that YouTube and other video sharing services would remove. Some cults who have used this method include Nxivm and Raëlism. New Age leaders like Teal Swan, who calls herself a “spiritual leader,” put out several videos that are incredibly controversial. She even told the media she could get her followers to do “anything she wanted them to do.”

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are Our Sources:

New York Times

BBC

The Guardian

Encyclopedia.com

Touro University Worldwide

University of Montana

American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

American Psychological Association

Live Science

Very Well Mind

SimplyPsychology.com

How Stuff Works

VOX

History.com

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