Through media and movies many people see brainwashing as an evil practice that is done by those who are trying to corrupt, influence, or to gain power. This isn’t entirely unture. Others who believe in the power of brainwashing hold that people all around them are trying to control their minds and their behaviour. For the most part, the process of brainwashing occurs in a much more subtle way and does not involve the sinister practices that most people associate with it. We take a look at the brainwashing tactics used by cults and religious groups the world over.
The questions of most importance are what actually is brainwashing, how is it used within cults and what are the steps from a psychology point of view. By most scholars, brainwashing is referred to as a method of thought reform through social influence. This kind of social influence is occurring all throughout the day to every person, regardless of whether they realise it or not via social media and ambient connection to news and current events. Social influence is a collection of persuasions and methods that are used in order to change other people’s behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, compliance methods that are used in the workplace could technically be considered a form of brainwashing because they require you to act and think a specific way when you are on the job. Brainwashing can become more of a social issue in its most severe form because these approaches work at changing the way someone thinks without the victim consenting to it.
Media and Religious Cult Brainwashing
For cult brainwashing to work effectively, the victim is going to need to go through a near complete isolation and dependency due to its invasive influence on the victim. This is one of the reasons that many of the brainwashing cases that are known about occur in religious cults or prison camps. The brainwasher aka the agent, must be able to gain complete control over their victim and to do this requires focus and strict adherence to the steps involved. This means that they assert control over eating habits, sleeping patterns, and fulfilling the other human needs of the victim. While it might be impossible to tick all boxes, the fewer of these actions that can occur without the will of the agent the better. During this process, the agent will work to systematically break down the victim’s whole identity to basically make who they understand themselves to be no longer function correctly. Once the identity is shattered within the victims mindset, the agent will replace it with the desired belief, attitude, and behaviour thus rewriting their brain.
The process of brainwashing is slightly arbitrary depending on the intended goals and the victim involved so there is no criterion as such, just a framework that can be altered. Most psychologists hold the beliefs that it is possible to brainwash a victim as long as the right conditions are present. Even then, the whole process is not as severe as it is presented in the media. It does of course benefit the media to paint brainwashing in a bad light and a dark art because media corporations are able to alter perceptions and attitudes, something they would rather consumers not think too much about.
There are also different definitions of brainwashing that make it more difficult to determine the effects of brainwashing on the victim. Some of these definitions require that there must be some sort of threat to the physical body of the victim in order to be considered brainwashing. If you follow this definition, then even the practices done by many extremist religious cults would not be considered true brainwashing as no physical abuse occurs. Other definitions of brainwashing will rely on control and coercion without physical force in order to get the change in the beliefs of the victims. Either way, experts believe that the effect of brainwashing, even under the ideal conditions, is only a short term occurrence. They believe that the old identity of the victim is not completely eradicated with the practice; rather, it is put into hiding and will return once the new identity is no longer reinforced.
Robert Jay Lifton came up with some interesting thoughts on brainwashing in the 1950s after he studied prisoners of the Chinese and Korean War camps. During his observations, he determined that these prisoners underwent a multistep process to brainwashing. This process began with attacks on the sense of self with the prisoner and then ended with a supposed change in beliefs of the victim.
There are 10 steps that Lifton defined for the brainwashing process in the victims that he studied. These included:
1. An assault on the identity of the victim
2. Forcing guilt on the victim
3. Forcing the victim into self betrayal
4. Reaching a breaking point
5. Offering the victim leniency if they change
6. Compulsion to confess
7. Channeling the guilt in the intended direction
8. Releasing the victim of supposed guilt
9. Progressing to harmony
10. The final confession before a rebirth.
All of these stages must take place in an area that is in complete isolation. This means that all of the normal social references that the victim is used to coming in contact with are unavailable. In addition, mind clouding techniques will be employed in order to expedite the process such as malnutrition and sleep deprivation. While this might not be true of all brainwashing cases, often there is a presence of some sort of physical harm which contributes to the target having difficulty in thinking independently and critically like they normally would.
Religious Cult Brainwashing Steps Explained
While Lifton separated the steps of the brainwashing process into 10 steps, modern psychologists organise it into three stages in order to better understand what goes on for the victim during this process. These three stages include the breaking down of the self, introducing the idea of salvation to the victim, and the rebuilding of the self of the victim. Understanding each of these stages and the process that happens with each of them can help you to understand what is going on to the identity of the victim with this process.
Stage 1. Breaking Down of Self
The first stage of the brainwashing process is the breaking down of the self. During this process, the agent wants to break up the old identity of the victim in order to make them feel more vulnerable and open to the desired new identity. This step is necessary in order to continue on the process. The agent is not going to be very successful with their endeavours if the victim is still firmly set in their resolve and their old identity. Breaking up this identity and making the person question the things around them can make it easier to change the identity in the later steps. This is done through several steps including assault on the identity of the victim, brining on guilt, self-betrayal, and then reaching the breaking point.
1. Verbal Assault on Identity
The assault on the identity of the victim is basically the systematic attack on the victims sense of self, ego or the very identity they hold of themselves along with their core system of belief. It makes the victim question who they are by making them think that everything they have ever known is wrong. The agent will spend a great deal of time denying everything that the victim is. In prisoner camps, for example, the agent will say things like “You are not defending freedom,” “You are not a man,” and “You are not a soldier.” The victim will be under attacks like these constantly for days up to months. This is done in order to exhaust the victims so that they become disoriented, confused, and exhausted. When the victim reaches this kind of state, their beliefs will start to seem less solid and they might start to believe the things that they are told.
2. Seeding Guilt
Once the victim has gone through the assault on their identity, they will enter the stage of guilt. The victim will be constantly told that they are bad while going through this new identity crisis that has been brought on. This is done in order to bring a large sense of guilt on to the victim. The victim will be constantly under attack for any of the things that they have done, regardless of how big or small the acts may be. The range of the attacks can vary as well; the victim could be criticized for their belief systems to the way that they dress and even because they eat too slowly. Over time, the victim is going to start to feel shame around them all of the time and they will feel that all the things they are doing are wrong. This can help to make them feel more vulnerable and likely to go along with the new identity the agent wants to produce.
3. Betrayal of Self
Now that the victim has been led to believe that they are bad and that all of their actions are undesirable, the agent is going to work to force the victim to admit that they are bad. At this point, the victim is drowning in their own guilt and feeling very disoriented. Through the continuance of the mental attacks, the threat of some great physical harm, or a combination of the two, the agent will be able to force the victim to denounce his old identity. This can include a wide variety of things such as getting the victim to denounce their own peers, friends, and family who share the same belief system as them. While this process may take a while to occur, once it does, the victim will feel like he betrayed those that he feels loyal to. This will also increase the shame as well as the loss of identity that the target is already feeling, further breaking down the identity of the victim.
4. Breaking Point
By this point, the victim is feeling very broken down and disoriented. They may be asking questions such as Where am I? Who am I? and What should I do? The victim is in an identity crisis at this point and is going through some deep shame. Since they have betrayed all of the beliefs and the people that he has always known, the victim is going to go through a nervous breakdown. In psychology, this just means a collection of severe symptoms that often indicate a large number of supposed psychological disturbances. Some of the symptoms can involve general disorientation, deep depression, and uncontrolled sobbing.
The victim may have the feelings of being completely lost along with having a loose grip on reality. Once the victim reaches this breaking point, they will have lost their sense of self and the agent will pretty much be able to do whatever they want with them at this point since the victim has lost their understanding of what is going on around them and who they are. Also at this point, the agent will set up the various temptations that are necessary in order to convert the victim towards a new belief system. The new system will be set up in a way to offer salvation to the victim from the misery that they are feeling.
Stage 2. The Offer of Salvation
After the agent has been effective at breaking down the self of the victim, it is time to move on to the next step. This step involves offering the victim the possibility of salvation only if they are willing to turn away from their former belief system and instead embrace the new one that is being offered. The victim is given the chance to understand what is around them, are told that they would be good again and that they would feel better if they would just follow the new desired path. There are four steps that are included in this stage of the brainwashing process; leniency, compulsion to confession, channeling of the guilt and releasing of the guilt.
5. A Lenient Hand
Leniency is the “I can help you” stage. The victim has been broken down and forced to turn away from the people and the beliefs that they have held on to for so many years. They have been told that they are bad and that everything they do is wrong. The victim is going to feel lost and all alone in the world, shameful at all of the bad things that they have done and wondering which way they can turn. When they reach this stage, the agent is able to offer them some form of release by offering to help them. This will often be in the form of a reprieve from the abuse the victim has incurred or some other small kindness. For example, the agent can offer a little extra food or a drink of water to the victim or even take a few moments to ask the victim personal questions about home and loved ones.
In the victim’s current state, these small acts of kindness will seem like a big deal, resulting in the victim feeling a big sense of gratitude and relief towards the agent. Often these feelings are way out of proportion in comparison to the offering that has been made. In some instances, the victim may feel like the agent has done the act of saving their life rather than just offering a small service. This distortion of events works in the favor of the agent as the victim is now going to gain ties of loyalty with the agent rather than things of the past.
6. The Relief of Confession
Once the agent has been able to gain the trust of their victim, they will try to get a confession out of the process. This stage is often known as the “You can help yourself.” During this stage of the brainwashing process, the victim starts to see the differences between the pain and guilt that they felt during the identity assault and the relief that they are feeling from the sudden leniency that is offered. If the brainwashing process is effective, the victim may even start to feel a desire to reciprocate some of the kindness that has been offered to them by the agent. When this occurs, the agent will be able to present the idea of confession as a possible means to relieving the victim of the pain and guilt that they are feeling.
The victim will then be led through a process of confessing all of the wrongs and sins that they have done in the past. Of course, these wrongs and sins will be in relation to how they affect the new identity that is being created. For example, if the victim is a prisoner of war, this step will allow them to confess the wrongs that they did by defending freedom or fighting against the regime of the other country. Even if these are not necessarily wrongs or sins, they go against the new ideology that the regime is always right and so they must be confessed.
7. Directing the Guilt
Once the victim enters the channeling of guilt step, they have been undergoing the assault of their self for many months. By the time the victim reaches this point in the brainwashing process, they are able to feel the guilt and the shame that has been put on them, but it has pretty much lost its meaning. They are not able to tell you exactly what they have done wrong to make them feel this way; they just know that they are wrong. The agent will be able to use the blank slate of the victim in order to explain why they are in the pain that they are feeling.
The agent will be able to attach the sense of guilt that the victim is feeling to whatever they want. If the agent is trying to replace a system of beliefs, they will take the old system and convince the victim that those beliefs are what are making them feel the guilt. This is the stage where the contract between the old beliefs and the new beliefs are established; basically, the old belief system has been established to correspond with the psychological agony that the victim has been feeling while the new belief system has been established to correspond with the ability to escape that agony. The choice will be the victim’s, but it is pretty easy to see that they would choose the new system in order to start feeling better.
8. Release from Guilt
In this step, the victim has come to realize that their old values and beliefs are causing them pain. By this time they are worn down and tired of feeling the guilt and shame that has been put on them for many months. They start to realize that it is not necessarily something that they have done that makes them feel this way; rather, it is their beliefs that are causing the guilt. The embattled victim is able to feel some relief from the fact that there is something that they can do about the guilt. They will also feel relieved because they now have come to the understanding that they are not the bad person, rather it is the people that they have been around and their belief system that is the true culprit that is causing the malaise which is something that they can fix in order to become good again.
The victim has learned that they have a means of escape simply by escaping the wrong belief system that they have held and embracing the new one that is being offered. All that the victim will have to do in order to release the guilt that they are feeling is to denounce the institutions and people that are associated with the old belief system and then they will be released from the guilt. The victim now has some control over this stage. They will be able to realise that the release of guilt is up to them completely.
All the victim will need to do for this stage in order to be released from the wrongness is to confess to any of the acts they have committed that are associated with the old belief system. Once the full confession is done, the victim will have completed the full psychological rejection of their former identity. The agent will need to step in at this point in order to offer a new identity to the victim and help them to rebuild their identity into the desired one.
Stage 3. The Rebuilding of the Victim
By this step, the victim has gone through a lot of steps and emotional turmoil. They have been put through an ordeal that is meant to strip them of their old identity, told that they are bad and need to be fixed, and slowly come to the realization that their belief system is the cause of their wrongness and that it needs to be changed. Once all of this has been reached, the victim is going to need to learn how to rebuild their self, with the help of the agent. This stage allows the agent the freedom to implant the ideas of the new system since the victim is a clean slate and very eager to learn how to be and feel better. There are two steps that are seen during this stage including harmony and the final confession before starting over.
9. Confirmation through Harmony
The agent will use this step in order to convince the victim that it is their choice to make a change. They might tell the victim that they have the choice to choose what is good and make a change that will help them to feel better. The agent will then introduce the new belief system and present it in a way that makes it the good or the right choice.
During this stage, the agent will stop the abuse and instead make a point of offering the victim mental calm and physical comfort. The point of doing this is to align the old beliefs with the pain and suffering while aligning the new beliefs with happiness and relief. This stage is set up so that the victim is given the choice of which road to take, even though it really is not up to them. The victim must use this stage to choose between the old beliefs and the new beliefs, effectively determining how they are going to feel for the rest of their lives. By this point, the victim has already gone through the process of denouncing their old beliefs due to the leniency and torment that they have gone through.
Because of this, it is fairly likely that they are going to make the choice for the new system of belief in order to relieve their guilt. The new identity that has been presented is desirable and safe because it is completely different than the old identity that led to the breakdown in earlier steps. Using logic and considering the state of mind that the victim is in, it is easier to see that the only identity that the victim is going to choose for their own peace of mind and safety is the new one.
10. The Final Confession or Rinse & Repeat
Even though the choice is really not theirs at all, the agent has strategically worked the whole time to lead the victim to feeling like they have the free will to choose the new identity. If the brainwashing process is done correctly, the victim will think logically about the new choices and determine that the best one is to take up the new identity. They have been conditioned to think this way and in their new state of mind, it is the one that makes the most sense. There are no other choices; choosing the new identity allows them to be relieved from the guilt that they feel and leads to happiness while choosing the old identity leads to pain and guilt. If for some reason the victim did deny the new identity, there would be a backtracking in the whole brainwashing process and they would be forced to undergo it all again in order to end up with the desired results. During this stage of the process, the victim gets to decide that they will choose good, which means that they get to choose to go with the new identity. When the victim contrasts the agony and pain of their old identity with the peacefulness that comes with the new, they are going to choose the new identity. This new identity is like a form of salvation. It is the thing that helps them to feel good and not have to deal with guilt and unhappiness anymore. As this stage completes, the victim is going to reject their old identity and will go through a process of pledging allegiance to their new one, knowing that it is going to work at making their life better. Many times, there are ceremonies and rituals that occur during this final stage.
The conversion from the old identity to the new identity is a big deal since much time and energy has been used on both sides. During these ceremonies, the victim will be inducted into the new community and embraced with the new identity. For some brainwashing victims there is the feeling of rebirth during this period. You are allowed to embrace your new identity and are welcomed with open arms into the new community that is now your own. Instead of being isolated and alone, you have many new friends and community members on your side. Instead of feeling the guilt and pain that has plagued you for many months you are going to feel happiness and peacefulness with everything that is around you. The new identity is now yours and the brainwashing transformation is complete.
This process can take place over a period of many months to even years. Most people are set in their identity and the beliefs that they have; it is not possible to change all of this in just a few days unless the person was already willing to change and that would make the brainwashing techniques unnecessary. Isolation would also be necessary because outside influences will prevent the victim from relying on the agent during this process. This is why most of the brainwashing cases occur in prison camps and other isolated instances; the vast majority of people will not have the chance of encountering brainwashing due to the fact that they are always surrounded by people and technology that would hinder the whole brainwashing process.
Once the person is in isolation, the process takes a long time due to the many steps that must be taken in order to change the ideals held by the individual for many years so that they will embrace the new identity as their own while also feeling that the choice has always been theirs. As can be seen, there are quite a few steps that must be taken in order to go through the brainwashing process. It is not something that is going to happen just by running into someone on the street and exchanging a few words. It requires the isolation and time to convince the victim that everything they know is wrong and that they are a bad person. It then continues on with trying to force out a confession that the victim is bad and that they want to renounce all of the things that they have done that are bad due to their old identity. Finally, the victim will be led in the direction of believing that they can change for the better if they just abandon their old ideas and instead embrace the peacefulness and rightness that comes with the new identity that is presented. All of these steps must occur for the brainwashing to be effective and the new identity to be put in place.
These steps are listed here for potential victims to be on the lookout for and not for use by anyone seeking to brainwash or coerce an individual. If you believe you are the victim of a cult and at any stage then there are links to organisations and societies that can help below…
https://www.cultwatch.com/ – Info on cults
https://cultinformation.org.uk/ – UK Cult Victim Support
https://www.familiesagainstcultteachings.org/ – Families Against Cults
https://www.cult-escape.com/help – Cult Help Resources