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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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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