Effects of Brainwashing and Cults

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Professional people often ask themselves whether they in their own activities might not be guilty of “brainwashing”: educators about their teaching, psychiatrists about their training and their psychotherapy, theologians about their own reform methods. Opponents of these activities, without any such agonizing scrutiny, can more glibly claim that they are “nothing but brainwashing. ” Others have seen “brainwashing” in American advertising, in large corporation training programs, in private preparatory schools, and in congressional investigations.

These misgivings are not always without basis, and suggest that there is continuity between mind control and many less extreme activities; but the matter is not clarified by promiscuous use of the term. Behind this web of semantic (and more than semantic) confusion lies an image of “brainwashing” as an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable, and magical method of achieving total control over the human mind (Richardson & Introvigne 2001).

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This core conflict was then exacerbated by irresponsible mass media that profited by printing and broadcasting exciting stories about weird cults that trapped their members and kept them in psychological bondage with exotic techniques of mind control. This, essentially, is the picture of the cult controversy that academic researchers have pieced together over the last three decades.

In their empirical studies, researchers ask further questions, such as, given the lack of empirical support, where does the brainwashing notion come from? And, what is the more fundamental conflict that the cult stereotype obfuscates? This can be illustrated by examining several sorts of cases, so-called “cult/brainwashing” cases, which have occurred in the U. S. and elsewhere. “Brainwashing” evidence is very questionable from a scientific point of view and should seldom if ever be admitted as evidence.

It fails important tests for expert evidence, including its lack of falsifiability (or “testability”), difficulties in ascertaining an “error rate” when designating individuals as brainwashed or not, and also a failure to meet usual requirements of general acceptance in relevant fields of inquiry for the theory involved in such claims. But such evidence was allowed with impunity for many years in the U. S. The fact that it was accepted seemed to demonstrate that the court was willing to allow it for reasons other than its scientific status.

Except from psychologists of religion, conversion to cults has received little attention from psychologists. Empirical data concerning conversion to cults are relatively absent from the literature. Nevertheless, the study of religious behavior and beliefs from a psychological perspective remains an intriguing topic because religious experiences is an intense and universal characteristic despite its wide variations in theological and ideological interpretations of the phenomenological experience of religion.

Because sensory deprivation can diminish an individual’s ability to resist attitude and belief changes, it is relevant for an understanding of cult conversion. The stress that may occur during periods of sensory deprivation makes some individuals especially sensitive to social influence. The psychological effects of sensory deprivation, as it is produced in a cult setting, can have extraordinary outcomes. Some religious converts have emerged from the new religions, and especially cults, with emotional disturbances and even delusions.

Some report that they were unable to perform more or less routine tasks or to concentrate on anything other than their private religious experience. How can it be determined what type of person, under different situations or conditions, is most likely to be converted to a religious cult? James (1986) felt that psychologically immature individuals are the ones most likely to undergo a conversion to an unorthodox religious group: those who are introverted and pessimistic with a negative outlook on the world, one that is brooding and steeped in despair.

In partial support of this view, recent studies show that revivalistically oriented individuals, who vary in age from the teens to late adulthood, join nontraditional religious groups when they are depressed, lonely, confused, and when their life seems meaningless. But suppose that people who possess unconventional religious beliefs and values have not yet concluded that membership in a religious cult can improve their prospects for a better life, what then can be said about the likelihood that such individuals will become members of a religious cult?

To put the question another way, what makes people seek out other people who share similar unconventional religious beliefs? In answering this question, it seems only logical that if a religious cult is to become attractive it must promise personal growth and salvation and it must put forth a belief in a more perfect social order before potential converts are likely to consider joining. At first glance, one can conclude that most religious cults group members hold beliefs that denounce the values of the greater society.

They preach an imminent and disastrous end of human suffering and pain and believe in a utopian ideal. These are the sort of religious beliefs that demand that cult members remove themselves from their friends and family and relinquish any real connection to personal property and educational goals. This is so because most cults stress an apocalyptic future that calls for the rejection of the present world for being evil and abysmally corrupt. Because the religious cult is future-oriented, there is little need for personal property or old ties.

If people hold strong unconventional religious beliefs, feel rejected by society, believe they are unworthy, and have low self-esteem, one might expect that they would seek out those who are accepting and caring. And one would guess that these people’s attraction to a cult is likely to increase just as long as the cult does not appear to be insincere or to confuse or contradict their strong religious beliefs. And, if such people encounter cult members who promise a new life, the likelihood of joining the cult obviously increases.

However, once these people have joined a cult group, they may not be willing to make the necessary sacrifices required to maintain membership. Some individuals who are not initially interested in the promise of a new life, or in salvation, may join a cult because they are at least intrigued by the prospect. Does this mean that there is a sequential arrangement of events that describes the process by which individuals are systematically selected in and out of a cult?

Are persons considered likely prospects by religious leaders for cult recruitment because they are available and their religious beliefs and values are sufficiently intense to produce the necessary conversion to the cult group’s ideology? If this is so, how can we determine when a particular person has in any deep sense taken on a cult group identity or perspective? The most obvious evidence that people have done so is their own declaration that they in fact have been converted. This may take the form of a claim of rebirth or regeneration or what is more generally labeled a religious conversion (Anthony 1996).

The religious cult member must learn to adopt the peculiar reasoning processes and beliefs known as a cult-group perspective. Perhaps the most important result of being converted to a religious cult is the internalization of the group’s religious values and beliefs; that is, the converts experience the group’s values as their own. In practice, however, all these possible combinations of psychological and religious factors are not always found. Such conditions may operate only when the potential convert has been made vulnerable to strong pressure to accept the cult’s beliefs.

In many cases, people who eventually commit themselves to a cult may do so more for the social support and the high degree of intimacy that they find within the cult’s relatively small circle of ready-made friends. They may join a cult because of the intimate relationships that are found and not because of their religious beliefs. Conversion to a cult faith certainly is not all that common. It requires a special kind of commitment to an “absolute truth” that calls for surrender of all one’s energies to the cause.

Cult leaders are charismatic because they are perceived by their followers as having divine power and a special calling. For example, Charles Manson and David Korish, and countless other cult leaders, although widely different in their leadership style, have been able to inspire confidence and to obtain great sacrifice from their cult devotees. Nevertheless, a prototype of the charismatic cult leader is difficult to discover. They often attempt to convince their converts that only they have the mystic power to induce a special religious conversion and to lead followers to utopia.

For example, charismatic cult leaders are often able to assure potential converts that they can all be saved – which means a promise of everlasting salvation and tranquility to the potential devotee. By virtue of the leader’s unusual attributes (credibility factors), and ability to promise hope and everlasting salvation, cult followers are likely to conclude that they will be delivered by their cult leader to the “promised land” because their leader is assumed to possess the necessary and sufficient “messianic attributes” to do so (Shupe & Bromley 1994).

Understand that some cult leaders can influence people because followers are seeking a special kind of influence from a person they consider an attractive authority figure. For example, the females who joined Charles Manson’s “cult family” did so because they sought a special sanctuary from the outside world and they sought those with similar antiestablishment beliefs and values. They also wished to achieve greater self-understanding, to establish a new or different lifestyle, and on a more pragmatic level, to enjoy group sex and drug experimentation.

Most of all, these females were apparently attracted to the charismatic Manson; a messiah with a special message. Although the charismatic Manson’s “cult family” was not originally founded on religious principles, he managed to incorporate his special form of civil religion into his cult’s “utopian plan. ” For example, during his incarceration, Manson read the Bible and selections from Hubbard’s Scientology. This is when he decided that the Book of Revelation had predicted the coming of the Beatles.

In effect Manson invented a religion that consisted of a strange mixture of the Beatles’ lyrics (Revolution 9) and reincarnation. Later, he believed that the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders would touch off a racial war and subsequently he would be established as the spiritual leader of the world. The claim that leaders like David Koresh and Charles Manson are sacrosanct leaders who manipulated their followers and held on to them through special techniques of “mind control” and “suggestibility” seems fairly well substantiated.

Still, the special conditions of the cult setting, such as the emotional stress and alienation of the cult’s members, and the amount of support and acceptance of the cult leader influences what the leader does. For example, it is well known that under conditions of stress and strong emotional need, cult leaders can become increasingly more authoritarian and radical than under nonstressful conditions. Koresh taught that the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel were the “firstfruits” or the “wave sheaf”, who, through their faith, had come to the truth before others who would be included God’s kingdom (Robbins 2001).

The Branch Davidians separated themselves from corrupt Babylon to live lives dedicated to God at Mount Carmel. They considered themselves to be part of one Koresh family. The Davidians believed that David Koresh’s special status was proved by his unique ability to interpret the Bible. The Davidians believed that Koresh, through divine inspiration, had unlocked the secrets of the Bible; specifically, he revealed the meaning of the symbolism of a scroll sealed with seven seals in Revelation, and therefore he predicted the events of the endtime.

The Branch Davidians offer the best illustration of a Dramatic Denouement episode in which there was substantial external precipitation. The movement had a long history as a small, reclusive, schismatic offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventism; tensions with the surrounding community were low, with the exception of the Adventists, from whom the Davidians actively recruited members. Koresh was dedicated to his cause and was prepared to use those weapons somewhere and at some time to realize his imagined Armageddon.

Unwittingly, perhaps, federal authorities helped him fulfill those prophecies. Unlike most other religious groups, religious cults are not open to public accountability. Even the young converts generally lack any participation in the cult’s decision-making processes. This is because the cult’s leaders secretly manage their cult’s affairs in order to create a feeling that “all is well. ” As long as the cult does not confront a crisis or a serious setback, people may never discover the contradiction between their cult lifestyle and the dismal prospects for their future.

When I look toward the relatively distant future, then, I anticipate that there will be a continuing youthful search for a positive self-image and identity and a new spiritual sensibility based upon the best of today’s and tomorrow’s worlds. Society’s norms and values are changing, and as what people want out of life becomes even more clearly articulated than today, my hope for their future is that today’s lessons will serve as a lesson for tomorrow’s people. They, no doubt, will be as idealistically focused on their future as are today’s religious seekers.


Anthony, Dick. 1996). “Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence: An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials. ” Ph. D. diss. Berkeley, Calif. : Graduate Theological Union. Barker, Eileen. (1984). The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? Oxford: Basil Blackwell. James, G. (1986). “Brainwashing: The Myth and the Actuality. ” Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 61: 241–257. Mickler, Mike. (1994). “The Anti-Cult Movement in Japan. ” In Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective ed. A. Shupe and D. Bromley, 255–274. New York: Garland. Richardson, J. T. (1991). Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion. ” Journal of Church and State 33: 55–74. Richardson, J. T. , and M. Introvigne. (2001). “‘Brainwashing’ Theories in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on ‘Cults and Sects. ’ ” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40: 143–168. Robbins, T. 2001. “Combating ‘Cults’ and ‘Brainwashing’ in the United States and Western Europe: A Comment on Richardson and Introvigne’s Report. ” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40: 169–175. Shupe, A. , and D. Bromley. (1994). Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Garland.

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