Many who have never encountered a cult often wonder how someone could change their inner core being, morals and values, and beliefs in order to adapt a belief system promulgated by a cult leader. Those who join cults would readily admit that they too never thought they could be manipulated into exchanging their thought processes and belief systems for those of another, but that is what happens when someone becomes a cult follower. Cult leaders do not come out in the open and demand followers give up their beliefs all at once. It is a slow process that usually involves countless hours of indoctrination as well as a set of techniques that psychologists refer to as coercive persuasion. Through these techniques that involve mind control and forms of what many refer to as brainwashing, cult followers gradually replace their own belief systems with those espoused by the group. The tactics used to make these changes, however, are anything but innocent and may involve sexual, spiritual, religious, and physical abuse.
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Those who join cults are often oblivious to the fact that they have been willfully recruited by other cult members and leaders. Recruitment is the backbone of any cult and cult leaders often seek new members as this ensures greater finances come into the organization. Many cult leaders are often narcissists and feed off the power they get from receiving new converts into the group. One of the main differences between cults and religious groups is that religion seeks to perform works for others or humanity, such as feeding the poor, taking care of the widows and orphans, and helping those in needs. Cult members focus on meeting the needs of the group and their cult leader. Whereas religious groups see those of the “world” or outside the religious organization as in need of love and care, many in cult organizations view those in the “world” or outside the organization as evil and sometimes the spawn of satan himself. The focus is only to convert those viewed as lost, but never to help them in a sincere show of love and care for their well-being in the state where they are. Many recruitment techniques used by cults ultimately replace an individual’s belief system with that of the organization.
Coercive persuasion, or mind control, is often accomplished in cults through a detailed process. The first stage involves indoctrination and this is when the group or leader influences followers by breaking down their individual thought patterns. This often begins with the teaching or indoctrination that puts the follower in a situation that is either physically or emotionally troublesome, harmful, or causes distress. The cult then convinces the follower that the cause of their troubles can be solved by the cult’s leader. The cult becomes the answer to life’s most troubling problems. This has been evidenced in cult leaders such as Charles Manson and David Berg to a widespread level with Adolf Hitler.
Sometimes cults or new religious movements use teaching or preaching times in order to cause distress within an individual. David Berg, the founder of the Children of God (aka. The Family, The Family International); would frequently preach and teach on end times and the coming destruction of planet earth, which would cause listeners to develop great distress. The message was repeated and new converts or newly recruited members were isolated from other teachings, therefore their reasoning and logical abilities were worn down until all that remained was the group’s solution to the problem. Charles Manson used coercive persuasion tactics that involved having his female followers look at themselves nude and then replacing their self-consciousness with his self-assurance that they were beautiful. Adolf Hitler used the sentiments of post war Germany and the nation’s financial instability as his platform to convince the nation that the distress the country faced could be solved with one answer- exterminating the Jews. Cult leaders convince followers that they have an answer that will put an end to their suffering and misery, regardless of how small or large it appears to be. It may be the insecurities of not finding acceptance within the family unit, such as with the Manson Family, the fear of the end of the world, such as with end time and UFO cults (David Berg, Marshall Applewhite leader of suicide cult Heaven’s Gate) or the fear of society’s future such as with Adolf Hitler. Cult leaders cause followers to experience deep emotional turmoil and distress then provide them with a “solution” that promises to bring peace and restoration. Cult leaders recruit and indoctrinate, but they also use one specific tactic to help eradicate an individual’s belief system and replace it with that of the group’s leader: Love.
All cult leaders promise a false sense of love, security, and acceptance. For many who join cults, it is the idea of gaining unconditional love and acceptance that causes them to become vulnerable to the cult leader’s deceptive and manipulative tactics.
David Berg created an entire cult based on his twisted scriptures and love doctrine. Jim Jones convinced his followers that they would start a new utopia of peace, love, and acceptance where every person, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or social status would work together and live in harmony. Charles Manson taught his followers that they could exist on free love until his interpretation of Revelation 9 and the Beatles’ White Album, revealed that a racial war would threaten their peace and safety. Cult members replace their belief systems with that of the group and believe that the problems they have encountered throughout their life will easily be solved through strict adherence and obedience to the group. They turn to the group for love and often believe they are participating in something that is promising a “higher form” of love, or love on a spiritual plane that is not commonly experienced by others. The group uses the promise of “love” to keep cult members striving harder to please the group and the group leader.
The indoctrination process, combined with the promise of unconditional love by following the group 100% causes the individual to deny their own, true personality and take on the personality traits of the group, and most often the leader. The individual’s core personality becomes recessed and buried while the cult member loses the ability to think, reason, or analyze ideas for him or herself. Instead, the hours of indoctrination are parroted back with the belief that by subscribing to the cult leader’s teachings, the individual will find true love and acceptance. Unfortunately, this is never the case.
Cult leaders have psychological disorders and are mentally unbalanced people. They often exhibit symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, anti social personality, and some have been paranoid schizophrenics. Cult leaders cannot create an atmosphere of unconditional love, because they themselves are often incapable of love. The list of cult leaders that have engaged in sadistic abuses and murders is extremely long. One may look long and hard for the peace-loving cult that worships their leader without exhibiting abuse in the group, as the two are polar opposites. Cult leaders are incapable of unconditional love; therefore, the organization is doomed to failure. The psychoses associated with cult leaders and their organizations only continue to exasperate. Jim Jones became increasingly more paranoid and delusional. Vernon Howell, aka. David Koresh had a storehouse of weapons as he waited for the final apocalypse. David Berg engaged in pedophilia and the Children of God practiced intense physical abuse against those they deemed to be “demonic.” Charles Manson orchestrated his group of “peace loving hippies” to commit some of Hollywood’s most heinous murders including the murder of actress Sharon Tate who was eight months pregnant.
Cult leaders ensure that new recruits are completely isolated from their friends and family members as well as outside sources of information. During the indoctrination period, they are only allowed to read, reflect, or meditate upon the cult’s materials and teachings. Questioning that counteracts the cult’s teachings may be discouraged, punished, and cause the group to isolate members and label them as rebellious or demonic. Those who embrace the cult’s teachings are rewarded, approved, and often shown unconditional love.
Cults also use the lure of “spiritual elitism” to gain control over members. As the cult leader is someone who has been bestowed with extra knowledge, those who choose to follow him or her, are also revered as being “enlightened.” Most cults view their cult leader as someone who has received divine inspiration, knowledge, wisdom, or impartation from God, the Universe, or may be the incarnate form of the divine God him or herself. Only those who are “special” are viewed as fortunate enough to listen to the teachings of the leaders. Those who are extremely special commit themselves 100% in service to the cult leader. Those who choose to revere the cult leader for his or her divine attributions are also positively rewarded. Anyone who questions the cult leader is evil, of the devil, and can suffer anything from group isolation to extreme physical punishment.
As cult members continue to be manipulated by cult leader and the group continues to grow and form as a whole, individual identities fade and the members become uniform in appearance, dress, speech, and beliefs. Cult members may dress similar, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Hare Krishnas, and the Strong City cult. More important than outward similarities, however, are the internal similarities that replace individual personalities. It is through these techniques and practices deemed coercive persuasion that cults can change an individual’s belief system and replace it with that of the cult and the group’s leader.