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The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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A Whole New World

You now show up to a place where the “group” meets. The locations can differ wildly depending on the cult. Many like to meet in the middle of nowhere. This might be on a compound the cult owns where people stay on the regular. Others might have a building somewhere in a city or right outside of one. It’s all about “location, location, location.” Once you’re there, it becomes very easy to like the cult members. Most are incredibly welcoming to new members, which offers a friendly vibe immediately upon arrival.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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From here, other recruiters might work on you as much as the one you knew beforehand. You’ll be invited back, and they will continue to sell you on things. Again, the elements used here offer friendship, family, as well as self-help that can truly be useful for people. This is yet again how cults brainwash people. They give them exactly what the person needs somewhat. But the new world you’re now part of is only focused on the cult. Everything is self-contained within it, and nothing on the outside begins to matter. Except for the fact that you’ll slowly begin to see the world for what the cult claims it to be.

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

Now that you’re present and in an environment that is seemingly easy-going and helpful, the guard you might have had up as you came in will be lowered. It’s almost like how you do not have your guard up at your own home or at your sibling’s or best friend’s home. You expect to be relatively safe there. However, this comfort is specifically designed to help you fall for what the “Cult Leader” claims. Leadership is often male but there are some female cult leaders too.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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He or she will be incredibly charismatic and likable often from the very first time you see them. But this too is built to blind you, as their charisma is making their words seem better than they are. Charisma actually helps a person become more persuasive, and those with high levels of it will be effective communicators. This charm they have will make them become more attractive to some. Yet for others, it’ll make their words seem smart or logical. Many even use basic terminology to speak at levels they know all can understand while also guiding you into complexity to show a hollow level of intelligence.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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We Meet The Enemy

Our cult leader will want us to hate anything he or she hates. If they find toothbrushes to be terrible, their charisma will make cult members choose to throw out their toothbrushes. Seriously, this type of concept has been employed before. From the first meeting to the one hundredth, you’re told about “an enemy.” Of course, all cults differ on who they proclaim to be an enemy or threat to the world. Cults love to use “governments,” “religions,” or “society” as enemies to the world. This is useful because the terms are so broad.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
[Image via The New York Times]
Cults keep things self-contained a lot, members do not realize that the “enemy” is nothing like what the cult claims. Children are told from a young age that the outside world wants to kill them or assault them, if you ever leave then God will hate you, etc. It is a clear form of mental abuse. Yet it makes them afraid to do something that differs from the cult norm. Others who are brought into the cult then slowly begin to see things the way a cult referenced because they are focused completely on the cult. Cults brainwash people into believing the enemies are threats, but the cult will keep you safe if you do as they say.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Enemy Creation Example

Our cult enemy will then come in any specific form that the Cult Leader chooses for it to be at that time. Let’s pretend our cult enemy is the fast-food giant, McDonald’s. We at the fake “Burger King Cult” feel the clownish society of Marxist, liberal workers of McDonald’s are hurting the world. WE are the only place “true burgers” are made, at a whoppingly good price. Of course, we have the one true Burger “King.” Our burgers are healthy, cause no problems, and you can eat as many as you want without getting fat. This is all a lie, but that’s kind of the mark of a true cult.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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Naturally, we have chosen our enemy for a few reasons. First, they are clearly in a position our leader wants to be in. We need to bring them down to improve our own odds to succeed. Yet as long as they are still in operation, we cannot do that. This will lead our cult to hurt employees of McDonald’s, bomb their stores, and threaten corporate members. We have created an enemy that members will slowly find issues with too. Everything bad in society is their fault, and this is how cults brainwash people into committing horrible acts against those “enemies.” It often comes down to an “Us vs Them” mentality.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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How New Recruits Become Members So Easily

As we referenced before, you’re going to use worldly concepts such as religious or political ideology that they understand already. You will then mix your version of beliefs into it. However, this is only a small step. Cults brainwash people by making sure recruits see the cult as the best way to solve their problems while also lowering the recruit themselves. They will often point to why the new recruit is a problem by referencing their flaws, issues, or even their humanity.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
[Image via Charles Sledge]
Cults will also use guilt, blame, as well as even fear to make them see how horrible they or the world are. But it’s okay because this cult will make it all better. This is a method of coercive persuasion. A lot of cults actually have recruits invite friends and family, as well as co-workers. You are then open to the idea of going due to the level of trust we give these people. Yet many people actually go along with what they see in front of them, especially if they are looking for a proper direction in life.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
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We Mimic Out Of Human Nature 

A lot of what cults tend to use is simple. Many people actually fall for things around them when they see others fall for things too. People can see an obvious lie but still mimic what others say or do, out of fear that THEY might be wrong. We have a fundamental desire to be part of a group. Humans are not really made to be alone, so it is in our nature to try to connect to a group rather than disconnect. Social Psychologist Solomon Asch proved this in 1951 through a psychological experiment. In it, he brought several people into a room and sat them down at a table.

The Science Behind How Cults Brainwash People Into Joining Them
[Image via USA Today]
All but “one” of the people present were in on the study, which formed the “group” setting. They were shown a line on the left of a large board, then asked to pick between three possible answers on the right to decide which best matched the left-hand line. The first line was the right answer but the group chose “Answer 2.” Shockingly, 75% of those tested agreed with the overall group. Proving that one will often mimic those around them to fit in rather than differ to stand out most of the time.

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
[Image via The Times]
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
[Image via NBC News]

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
[Image via BBC]
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
[Image via The Today Show]

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
[Image via History.com]
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
[Image via CNN]

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
[Image via The Wrap]
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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