Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves

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by Steve Hassan, Freedom of Mind Press, Somerville MA, © 2000

The following is taken from Chapter Two of the book. It is excerpted with permission from the author.

What is Mind Control?

At first, many people think of mind control as an ambiguous, mystical process that cannot be defined in concrete terms. In reality, mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques, such as hypnosis or thought stopping, that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Like many bodies of knowledge, it is not inherently good or evil. If mind control techniques are used to empower an individual to have more choice, and authority for his life remains within himself, the effects can be beneficial. For example, benevolent mind control can be used to help people quit smoking without affecting any other behavior. Mind control becomes destructive when it is used to undermine a person's ability to think and act independently. As employed by the most destructive cults, mind control seeks nothing less than to disrupt an individual's authentic identity - behavior, thoughts, emotions - and reconstruct it in the image of the cult leader. This is done by rigidly controlling the member's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life. A person's uniqueness and creativity are suppressed. Cult mind control is a social process that encourages obedience, dependence, and conformity. It discourages autonomy and individuality by immersing recruits in an environment that represses free choice. The group's dogma becomes the person's only concern. Anything or anyone that does not fit into his reshaped reality is irrelevant.

Mind Control or Brainwashing?

The term "brainwashing," coined in 1951 by journalist Edward Hunter, is often used as a synonym for mind control. Hunter translated the word from the Chinese hsi nao, "wash brain", to describe the process by which Americans captured in the Korean War could suddenly reverse their allegiance and confess to fictional war crimes. How was it possible that, weeks after being captured, trained military personnel would confess to crimes they never committed, be content in their incarceration, and adopt entirely new belief systems? In the 1950s, military psychologists and psychiatrists Margaret Singer, Robert Lifton, Louis West and Edgar Schein were sent to research thought reform and devise ways to protect soldiers from it in the future.

Like Lifton, Edgar Schein turned to the brainwashing programs in China. His book Coercive Persuasion, which he based on interviews with former American prisoners, mirrored Lifton's thoughts that physical coercion seemed to be an important feature of "brainwashing. "However, Lifton later came to believe that thought reform could in fact be accomplished without physical coercion or violence.

As senior psychologist at Walter Reed Army Hospital in the 1950s, Margaret Singer studied the effects of thought reform on Korean War Prisoners. Singer, who has gone on to do pioneering work in the field of cult mind control, summarizes fifty years of her work on thought reform processes in her book Cults in Our Midst. She lays out six conditions for thought reform.

Singer's Six Conditions for Thought Reform

  1. Gaining control over a person's time, especially his thinking time and physical environment.
  2. Creating a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency in the recruit, while providing models that demonstrate the new behavior that leadership wants to produce.
  3. Manipulating rewards, punishments and experiences in order to suppress the recruit's former social behavior and attitudes, including the use of altered states of consciousness to manipulate experience.
  4. Manipulating rewards, punishments and experiences in order to elicit the behavior and attitudes that leadership wants.
  5. Creating a tightly controlled system with a closed system of logic, wherein those who dissent are made to feel as though their questioning indicates that there is something inherently wrong with them.
  6. Keeping recruits unaware and uninformed that there is an agenda to control or change them. Leadership cannot carry out a thought-reform program with a person's full capacity and informed consent.

For me, some of the key differences between "brainwashing" and mind control, or thought reform, are as follows: The term "brainwashing" is often associated in people's minds with overtly coercive behaviors, exemplified by the image of a prisoner at the hands of abusive jailers. At the beginning of a "brainwashing" process, the subject looks at the "agents of influence" as the "enemy," and is forced to comply with them.

With mind control, the "agents of influence" are viewed as friends or mentors, which cause people to lower their defenses, making them more vulnerable to manipulation. The key to mind control's success lies in its subtlety, the way it promotes the "illusion of control." The individual believes he is "making his own choices," when in fact he has been socially influenced to disconnect his own critical mind and decision-making capacity. In other words, he believes that he has freely chosen to surrender his free will to God or to a leader or ideology. When one steps back and objectively evaluates the vast amount of social influence used to get him to "surrender," the degree of manipulation becomes very obvious.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Evolution of the BITE Model

In 1950, psychologist Leon Festinger summarized the basic principle of his cognitive dissonance theory: "If you change a person's behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance." As Festinger described, "dissonance" is the psychological tension that arises when a person's behavior conflicts with his beliefs. Like hunger, this tension is an uncomfortable state that drives people to take measures to reduce it. People prefer that their behavior, thoughts, and emotions be mutually consistent, and can tolerate only a certain amount of discrepancy between these three components of their identities. Psychological research has shown that if any of the three components changes, the other two will shift to reduce the cognitive dissonance. This tendency can manifest itself in several different ways. For example:

  • When people behave in ways they see as either stupid or immoral, they change their attitudes in order to believe that their behavior is sensible and justified.
  • People who hold opposing views are apt to interpret the same news reports or factual material about the disputed subject quite differently - each sees and remembers what supports his views, but glosses over and forgets what would create dissonance.
  • When people who think of themselves as reasonably humane are in a situation where they hurt innocent people, they reduce the resulting dissonance by marginalizing or "putting down" their victims.
  • There is a human inclination to reduce cognitive dissonance by rationalization.

In 1956, Festinger wrote When Prophecy Fails, a book about a Wisconsin "flying saucer" cult. The leader, Mrs. Keech, said she was receiving messages sent by a superior "Guardian" from the planet "Clarion." She reported to the press that on December 21, there would be a great flood and all except a chosen few would perish. Her followers sold their homes, gave away their money, and waited for the spaceships.

When morning came -- with no saucers and no flood -- one might think the followers would have become disillusioned. But when Mrs. Keech proclaimed that the alien had witnessed their faithful vigil and decided to spare the Earth, most members wound up feeling more committed to her in spite of the public humiliation. According to Festinger, the reason for this renewed commitment is that the cult members' feelings and thoughts had changed to reduce the dissonance created by their behavior.

Cognitive dissonance theory gave me a more formal, structured way of thinking about mind control. Of course, cognitive dissonance theory is a gross simplification of a highly complex phenomenon. I am sure that in the future, there will be even better scientific theories to help explain this phenomenon.

The Evolution of the BITE model

There are three components to Festinger's theory -- control of behavior, control of thoughts, and control of emotions. Each component can be affected by the other two. It is by manipulating these three elements that cults gain control over a person's identity. Through my experience working with former cult members, I have identified a fourth component that is equally important -- control of information. When you control the information that a person is allowed to receive, you limit his capacity for independent thought. These four factors, which can be more easily remembered as BITE (Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions), will serve as the foundation for your understanding of mind control.

The BITE Model

  1. Behavior Control
    1. Regulation of individual’s physical reality
      1. Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
      2. What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
      3. What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
      4. How much sleep the person is able to have
      5. Financial dependence
      6. Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations
    2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals
    3. Need to ask permission for major decisions
    4. Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors
    5. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques - positive and negative).
    6. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
    7. Rigid rules and regulations
    8. Need for obedience and dependency
  2. Information Control
    1. Use of deception
      1. Deliberately holding back information
      2. Distorting information to make it acceptable
      3. Outright lying
    2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged
      1. Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
      2. Critical information
      3. Former members
      4. Keep members so busy they don’t have time to think
    3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
      1. Information is not freely accessible
      2. Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
      3. Leadership decides who "needs to know" what
    4. Spying on other members is encouraged
      1. Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
      2. Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
    5. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
      1. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
      2. Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult sources
    6. Unethical use of confession
      1. Information about "sins" used to abolish identity boundaries
      2. Past "sins" used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness or absolution
  3. Thought Control
    1. Need to internalize the group’s doctrine as "Truth"
      1. Map = Reality
      2. Black and White thinking
      3. Good vs. evil
      4. Us vs. them (inside vs. outside)
    2. Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating clichés"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special" words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words".
    3. Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged.
    4. Thought-stopping techniques (to shut down "reality testing" by stopping "negative" thoughts and allowing only "good" thoughts); rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism.
      1. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
      2. Chanting
      3. Meditating
      4. Praying
      5. Speaking in "tongues"
      6. Singing or humming
    5. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
    6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful
  4. Emotional Control
    1. Manipulate and narrow the range of a person’s feelings.
    2. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leader’s or the group’s.
    3. Excessive use of guilt
      1. Identity guilt
        1. Who you are (not living up to your potential)
        2. Your family
        3. Your past
        4. Your affiliations
        5. Your thoughts, feelings, actions
      2. Social guilt
      3. Historical guilt
    4. Excessive use of fear
      1. Fear of thinking independently
      2. Fear of the "outside" world
      3. Fear of enemies
      4. Fear of losing one’s "salvation"
      5. Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
      6. Fear of disapproval
    5. Extremes of emotional highs and lows.
    6. Ritual and often public confession of "sins".
    7. Phobia indoctrination: programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group.
      1. No happiness or fulfillment "outside"of the group
      2. Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: "hell"; "demon possession"; "incurable diseases"; "accidents"; "suicide"; "insanity"; "10,000 reincarnations"; etc.
      3. Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family.
      4. Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group’s perspective, people who leave are: "weak"; "undisciplined"; "unspiritual"; "worldly"; "brainwashed by family, counselors"; seduced by money, sex, rock and roll.

It is important to understand that destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Mind-controlled cult members can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.

Steve Hassan also has a website Freedom of Mind.