Appendix 1: Mind Control and Groups: Definition and Controversy

Mind control

“Brainwashing” and “mind control” are popular expressions that are often used when speaking of thought reform and coercive persuasion. These terms were first used by researchersfn 196 to describe the Chinese Communist thought reform program. At the time, these techniques were used in universities, education programs and prisons to change individual political views.

Mind control techniques drew public attention when American prisoners pledged their allegiance to the Communist Party after being incarcerated in a Chinese prison. Studiesfn 197 revealed that the American prisoners' change in thinking was associated with specific techniques of manipulation employed by Chinese prison guards.

Robert J. Lifton studied the system of manipulation used in Chinese prisons and the results of his study have been used since the end of the 1970s to understand the experiences of members who belonged to “cults.fn 198

In his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton describes the process by which a group uses specific techniques to reshape a member's personality. To begin with, in order to transform an individual's personality, he or she must participate in the life of the group which has a totalist philosophy. This type of group has the following guiding principles:

· Group unity;

· The belief that the group's members are the only members of society that possess the truth;

· Integrate the group's specific values into daily life and adopt specific behaviour;

· Abandon one's individuality within the group.

Totalist ideology creates ideal conditions for the use of coercive persuasion techniques to mould the individual's personality. These techniques are briefly described below.

Milieu control

This technique involves controlling the individual's daily environment:

· All of the information available to the individual is controlled;

· The individual does not determine what is good and bad, since the group knows what is good and bad for the individual. The group among other things provides members with details on what thoughts, actions, places and clothes are acceptable;

· The individual must not keep anything from the group leader or the other members. All information regarding the member's past life, daily activities, and personal history is revealed to the leaders and, in some cases, to all group members.fn 199

Geographic isolation can facilitate control over an individual's milieu.fn 200 Training sessions and internships for recruits are conducted in isolated areas so that they cannot leave the training location without notifying another member of the group.

Mystical manipulation

Mystical manipulation involves:

· Persuading group members of the leader's divine power. Members willingly comply with the leader's demands, sometimes without any hesitation whatsoever. The supernatural power or exceptional knowledge which the leader claims to possess legitimizes his or her demands in the eyes of group members;fn 201

· This technique allows the leader to impose his or her choices on the members.fn 202

The demand for purity

In a totalist environment, the world is divided into two blocks:

This division of the world influences the group's judgment. In this environment, the world is defined as either pure or impure by the leader or the group. This categorical division of the world is clearly black or white, with no grey zone for any form of compromise.fn 203

This vision of the world influences:

· Choices;

· Decision-making;

· Behaviours;

· Perception of others.

Groups that idealize purity often use various forms of deprivation to achieve this utopian vision. The types of deprivation, which destabilizes individuals and strips them of their defences, can include a lack of:fn 204

· Sleep;

· Food;

· Rest (through intense sports or prayer sessions that last for hours in order to cleanse body and mind).

These groups see purity as the ultimate state that members must strive to achieve. With this goal in mind, all actions committed in the name of purity or against impurity are justified and considered morally sound. The vigilance of some members who monitor any impure behaviour on the part of other group members can be a major source of conflict.

This ideology attempts to create feelings of guilt among participants who are unable to improve their impure or imperfect condition. In this context, the leader is often the only arbitrator who judges the behaviour and attitude of the group's members. When a member deviates or fails, the leader may have the power to humiliate, punish or instil feelings of guilt among members.fn 205

The cult of confession

Members of a totalist group are often forced to confess impure or evil thoughts and behaviour. These confessions are usually conducted in front of the other members in an effort to: fn 206

· Abolish privacy and make the personal public;

· Make secrecy impossible;

· Reinforce feelings of guilt.

The “Sacred Science”

In a totalist group, a particular doctrine is presented as the truth, which cannot and must not be contested by its members. fn 207

This doctrine therefore becomes the only frame of reference according to which members must adjust their daily lives. Each member must base his or her choices, decisions and behaviours on this truth.

In this context, group leaders or gurus justify their demands by telling members that they are based on the truth. Belonging to a group that possesses the truth can make individuals:

· Feel comforted or reassured because they believe that they have found the answers to their questions.

· Feel more at peace since life is defined in absolute terms.

· Limit critical thinking since the truth now prevails and a model exists to determine what is good and bad.

Loading the language

A substitute language is taught within totalist groups, which becomes the common language and has the affect of:fn 208

· Creating a sense of unity and a shared identity.

· Setting themselves apart from non-members.

Adding new words and meanings to a person's standard vocabulary can isolate members from non-members, since only members of the group can understand this person's discourse.fn 209 Group members may therefore find it difficult to communicate with non-members.

Taken to the extreme, communication between members can become so rigid that the group dictates a set of communication rules that govern interactions.

Doctrine over person

A totalist group's doctrine supersedes all personal beliefs and values. Individuals must adopt the group's philosophy of life and its mission as their unique point of reference. Any form of personal values or opinions can therefore be considered egocentric or unhealthy.fn 210

The dispensing of existence

An individual or group with a totalist vision of human existence defines the community according to two categories of people: those who share their ideology and everyone else. This vision of humankind also shapes interpersonal relations among group members. As a result of this mindset, in which non-members are described as different and therefore evil, members of totalist groups minimize or sever ties with non-members. fn 211

The members of a totalist group share the conviction that their path is the only path. This notion of reality can create fear among people who wish to leave the group, since living outside the group becomes synonymous with death.

Taken to the extreme, the members of a totalist group can be led to believe that people who share the truth have the right to live. Taken a step further, they may even believe that they have the power to decide who has the right to live and who must die among non-members and non-believers.

In conclusion, individuals who take part in the life of a group that subscribes to this form of control undergo a complete transformation of their way of life. The group provokes an identity crisis among individuals prompting them to question their former lifestyle according to the values transmitted by the group to which they now belong.

Gradually, the person reacts to the pressures of their environment by adopting a personality moulded and sought by the group. Their former attitudes, expressions and habits are submerged in favour of those valued by the group so that the consequence is that the individual looses his identity. Each new member becomes a carbon copy of the other group members.

Some criticisms

The use of mind control techniques are used to explain the degree of commitment of certain members to their group. This explanation has, however, been the subject of criticism.

The main contention is that the theory of mind control should be regarded as a working hypothesis. Since there is no research to prove the existence or use of mind control techniques by the leader or members of a group, it is not legitimate to apply this theory to group functioning.

Criticisms often see mind control techniques as interchangeable with, brainwashing, which is a process that involves personality change which occurs only in situations where individuals are held against their will, often under the threat of torture.fn 212

Indeed, many authors consider the notion of brainwashing or mind control to be inadequate, fn 213 as they consider that individuals freely choose to join a group. In their view, the concept of social influence is more appropriate than coercive persuasion or mind control. However, during the process of group integration, individuals may be persuaded to make certain decisions or change aspects of their behaviour in order to fit into the group's way of life.

Processes of influence

In our daily interactions, we are all influenced by certain behaviours and attitudes adopted by those around us. These are some of the processes of influence examined in the field of social sciences.


Conformism is based on the principle that every individual in a social situation conforms to a group's opinion in a thoughtful manner informed by objective reasoning.fn 214

Some of the techniques used in our social interactions may, however, influence the choices, decisions and behaviours of others. A person in a group setting is more likely to accept statements expressed by the majority and to conform since the assumption is that a group of people must have better judgement than he or she alone. Despite the fact that some individuals feel that their ideas are correct, they may conform to what the other members think simply because they do not want to stand out.

A minority group or a minority of people may also influence the behaviour of a majority,fn 215 particularly when:

· The minority group subscribes to a reality or philosophy espoused by mass society.

· The group has undermined the beliefs and convictions shared by the majority.

· The majority admires the courage of the minority in defending its convictions.

Accepting the opinion of the minority may elicit questions among individuals who subscribe to the vision of the majority,fn 216 causing them to question their values and those of the minority.

When individuals accept and conform to the vision shared by the minority, they may encounter resistance to these changes. Friends and family who have not changed their attitudes often put pressure on the person who has adopted a new vision.

A minority that presents ideas and actions that are logical and flexible has a greater chance of changing the behaviour and opinions of the majority without sparking a strong social reaction.fn 217

Acquiescence or how to obtain consent

Various mechanisms can also be used to influence an individual's behaviour and obtain their consent. In fact, the person using these techniques can sometimes convince others to fulfil his or her demands. Some authorsfn 218 have defined the nature of these techniques of social influences. The principal ones are:

· Reciprocation

· Commitment and consistency

· Social proof

· Liking

· Authority

· Scarcity.

These techniques can be harmless when extreme demands are not being made. In some cases, however, the use of these techniques can cause harm. The following sections provide a brief explanation of each of these social influence techniques.

Reciprocationfn 219

Reciprocation can be defined as the rule that exists between two people based on an implicit agreement that the person who does something for the other can expect something in return. Based on this rule, a person may deliberately decide to do something for the other person with the intention of asking for a favour in the future. This future obligation, implicit in many of the social rules that form our interactions, makes possible the development of an exchange of favours.

Reciprocation can also be used to get a person to agree to a demand. Once a person has done something for another person, he or she will likely do it again. This technique, known as the foot-in-the-door technique, consists in asking very little in the beginning, then increasing the demands.

Commitment and consistency fn 220

People want to be perceived as consistent in their words and action. Based on this premise, a person can convince someone to act in a certain way, if he or she can show that the desired behaviour is logical in the eyes of the person being asked to conform.

Social prooffn 221

In our social interactions, we try to understand the thoughts and actions that others believe to be appropriate. Often, a person perceives a particular behaviour to be appropriate, normal or correct if it is adopted by many individuals.

The principle of social validation is to convince an individual to agree to a demand by explaining that many others have adopted the same behaviour in the past. When facing an unfamiliar situation, human beings are inclined to observe others and accept their behaviour as the appropriate response.

Likingfn 222

There is often a willingness to accept proposals made by people that we know and respect.

Physical attraction can also be used to convince another person to accept a request. We are more likely to accept requests from people we find attractive or charming than from those who are not considered interesting or appealing.

Authorityfn 223

In our society, individuals are more likely to agree to demands that come from a figure of authority. For instance, since childhood, we are accustomed to respecting the authority of our elders and teachers, and to agree to their suggestions as well as their demands. Similarly, group leaders use respect for authority figures as a technique to make members adopt certain behaviour.

Scarcityfn 224

According to the principle of scarcity, individuals place greater value on rare opportunities. For instance, ads often warn that there are “limited quantities” of a given product in order to add greater value to the item.

The group may therefore say that there is a limited number of individuals who will gain access to paradise and that only those who can accept the truth espoused by the leader will be admitted. This scarcity makes membership in the group even more attractive. Securing a position where there are limited places makes individuals feel special because they have been singled out among a large number of candidates.fn 225


©Info-Cult 2006