Mind Control: What it is and What it is not
In the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy, people across the globe were not only horrified by the awful loss of life but were also dumbfounded by the shocking reality that one man could control so many human beings. The followers of Jim Jones were fully aware that the Kool-Aid mixture they were being ordered to drink contained a deadly poison–yet few made any attempt to resist. How could human beings be reduced to the level of what seemed to be a mindless robot? This was indeed a frightening question, but one that demanded an answer.
Public fear and outrage over the Jonestown massacre caused numerous scholars and psychologists to begin to investigate the educational techniques of cult groups. Slowly a pattern emerged–each group seemed to use a similar method of education designed specifically to obtain control over the minds of individuals. The methods were alarmingly analogous to the brainwashing techniques used in World War II and the Korean War, but in many aspects far more sophisticated. Gradually a new term emerged to describe the phenomenon that occurs in the life of a cult member, mind control.1
Steven Hassan defines mind control as:
. . . a system of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking, and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity. In most cases, that new identity is one that the original identity would strongly object to if it knew in advance what was in store. . . . The essence of mind control is that it encourages dependence and conformity, and discourages autonomy and individuality.2
Hassan also notes that there are four basic components of mind control; namely, control of behavior, thoughts, emotions, and information.3 Behavior control includes the control of the individuals’ environment (living quarters, clothing, food, amount of sleep, etc.), as well as of the jobs, rituals, and other actions they perform. Thought control refers to the indoctrinational process where individuals are taught what to believe and how to think. Emotional control is the attempt to manipulate and narrow the range of people’s feelings. Information control involves the denial of information which individuals require to make sound judgements.
Mind control is to be distinguished from brainwashing. Brainwashing is typically a coercive method of indoctrination. Abusive treatment, even torture, is often involved. Victims are aware at the outset that they are in the hands of an enemy. However, in the case of mind control, the perpetrators are regarded as friends. This causes individuals to cooperate with their controllers and will-ingly receive the information that will be used to deceive and manipulate them. In most cases, no overt physical abuse is involved.
Mind Control Techniques
As outlined in the American Family Foundation’s definition of a cult, unethical techniques are commonly employed by cult groups to persuade, manipulate, and control. Among those techniques are: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it. Though not all cult groups are guilty of using all of the above methods, even one mind control technique can influence an individual’s thinking. A combination of two or more can be powerfully effective in producing total thought reform.
Cult groups, almost without exception, portray the present world system as being inherently evil, dangerous, under the power of Satan, and very close to self-destructing. The only rational course of action is to seek refuge under the wings of God’s chosen servant or God’s organization. Inside the group is a spiritual paradise–outside is a spiritual wasteland inhabited by devils, enemies of God, and conspirators working to thwart the plan of God. The huge conspiracies opposing the group are, of course, proof of its tremendous importance.
This kind of mentality produces a strong sense of dependence upon the group as well as a cautionary, distrustful, and oftentimes hostile attitude toward the people of the world. Faithful cult followers are strongly encouraged to break off all unnecessary association with people, even close friends and family members, who do not understand the truth. Thus the group forms the member’s true family; any other is just his outmoded physical family.4
Indoctrination and conformity now become simple processes as individuals are surrounded by a group of people who all speak, think, and behave in the same way. Cult members are noted for having strikingly similar clothing styles, haircuts, speech mannerisms, facial expressions, behavior patterns, etc. This is often regarded as true biblical unity.
Use of Special Methods to Heighten Suggestibility and Subservience
In a cult group, “obedience to a leader’s command is the most important lesson to learn.”5 This submission is firmly grounded in the assumption that the cult leader is the annointed messenger of God who has special insight into spiritual matters and has therefore been entrusted with unlimited authority–the very authority of God. Simply put, to obey the leader is to obey God; to reject the leader is to rebel against God.
Psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, in his classic work on the psychology of persuasion, Influence, points out that human beings are programmed from early childhood to submit to authority. Obedience to parents and teachers has practical advantages, simply because they possess greater knowledge and control rewards and punishments. In the great majority of cases, obedience leads to appropriate actions. However, Cialdini warns, there can be conspicuous exceptions where people react rather than think.6
The danger of mindless obedience was dramatically illustrated in an experiment conducted in 1965. Psychologist Stanley Milgram tested people for obedience to authority and discovered that over 90 percent of his subjects would obey orders, even if they thought that doing so caused physical suffering to another individual. Milgram concluded:
The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his own actions.7
For many, the attraction of a cult lies in the fact that an escape from responsibility becomes not only possible but justifiable. Countless people find great relief in being able to blindly follow the directions of God’s messenger. Cult leaders are fully aware of this weakness in human nature and exploit it to the fullest. They will brazenly lay claim to divine authority and then demand total compliance to their every wish and whim.
Powerful Group Pressures
Prospective cult members, in their initial contact with a cult group, inevitably experience what is called a “love bomb” or “love shower.” This involves effusive praise and flattery, enthusiastic expressions of friendship, and exaggerated demonstrations of kindness. Cults thus appeal to a basic need present in every human being, the need to feel loved and the need to be recognized as a vital member of a group. In the words of Robert Cialdini,
The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance. So, often in terms of flattery or simple claims of affinity, we hear positive estimation from people who want something from us. . . . We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.8
Steven Hassan, reflecting on his initial experience in the Unification Church, relates that “I was barraged with flattery from all sides all evening. . . . I was told over and over what a nice person I was, what a good person I was, how smart I was, how dynamic I was, and so forth.”9
This kind of royal treatment can become addicting to any who are not aware of the ulterior motive behind it. A love shower comes with an expensive price tag, total submission and obedience to the group. Cults will lavish love and attention on anyone willing to listen and obey. But the moment the prospective convert begins to doubt, have questions, or defy the cult authority, “the ‘love’ formerly directed to him turns into anger, hatred, and ridicule.”10 This conditional love can be a powerful force in influencing an individual’s decision-making process.
Information management, or more commonly “information control,” has a long history of use not only by religious groups but by governments as well. Members (citizens) are denied access to information critical of the organization (government). The only information made available is a distorted form of propaganda that applauds the wisdom, power, and exploits of the leadership.
Consequently, the faith nurtured in a cult environment rests on a very shaky foundation indeed. Because it is a faith built upon limited knowledge and maintained only by a strict regulation of information, even the smallest amount of critical data can cause the superstructure to totter and fall. Herein lies the reason why cult members are kept busy reading their own literature and attending various instructional meetings. Some cults even have their own news magazines to replace secular newspapers. Little time is left for a critical examination of cult doctrine. Many cults also have severe penalties for anyone who ventures to read literature that exposes the errors of the group; the strictest chastisement is reserved for those who talk to former members.
Suspension of Individuality and Critical Judgment
The educational program in a cult group is sometimes compared to a factory assembly line. Members are presented with a role model and expected to conform to it. “Self” must be destroyed; special talents, interests, behavior patterns or hobbies that do not further the cause of the “truth” must be abandoned. In the words of Steven Hassan,
In all destructive cults the self must submit to the group. The “whole purpose” must be the focus; the “self purpose” must be subordinated. In any group that qualifies as a destructive cult, thinking of oneself or for oneself is wrong. The group comes first. Absolute obedience to superiors is one of the most universal themes in cults. Individuality is bad. Conformity is good.11
The loss of individuality inevitably results in the loss of critical judgment. Since the cult doctrine is perfect and the leader is perfect, any problem that occurs is assumed to be the fault of the individual member. He learns always to blame himself and put to death a critical spirit. Hassan concludes:
Loyalty and devotion are the most highly respected emotions of all. Members are not allowed to feel or express negative emotions, except toward outsiders. Members are taught never to feel for themselves or their own needs but always to think of the group and never to complain. They are never to criticize a leader, but criticize themselves instead.12
Promotion of Total Dependency on the Group
As the process of mind control progresses, a state of extreme dependency begins to develop. Cult trainees learn to ignore their inner selves and put explicit trust in the leader. They come to the point where they need the authority figure to tell them what to think, feel, and do.
Herein perhaps lies the most frightening and dangerous aspect of mind control, the suspension of mental and emotional growth. Since there are answers to every question, there is no need for individuals to think for them-selves. The mind is put on hold.
Fear of Leaving the Group
Once the program of indoctrination is complete, it is nearly impossible for cult members to feel they can have any security, happiness, or success outside of the group. Cults are exceptionally thorough in implanting negative images deep within members’ unconscious minds–images of what may happen if they ever entertain the thought of leaving God’s organization.
Members are programmed either overtly or subtly (depending on the organization) to believe that if they ever leave, they will die of some horrible disease, be hit by a car, be killed in a plane crash, or perhaps even cause the death of loved ones. Some groups program members to believe that if they ever leave the group, planetary nuclear holocaust will be the result.13
Fear is the fence that keeps cult members safely within the fold. Irrational though the fear may be, for the person in the cult it is very real. With the passage of time, the fence gradually becomes a prison wall, robbing the member of freedom. Cult propaganda would give the outsider the impression that members are free to leave at any time. However, such is not the case. Members are indoctrinated to believe that separation from the group brings catastrophic results–they have no real choice.
Does the Watchtower Use Mind Control?
The February 15, 1994 Watchtower magazine features a cover story article entitled “Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? or Ministers of God?” Increasing numbers of people must be asking the question, are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult?–hence the need for a six page article dealing with the subject. The problem is summed up as follows:
Occasionally, anticult organizations and the media have referred to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult. A number of recent newspaper articles lump the Witnesses with religious groups known for their questionable practices.14
The Watchtower then proceeds to offer arguments to disprove the charges of critics. The main points are: Jesus and his disciples were falsely accused;15 a Russian official who had a preconceived idea that Jehovah’s Witnesses were an “underground sect sitting in darkness and slaughtering children and killing themselves” discovered them instead to be “normal, smiling people;”16 their meetings consist of Bible study and discussion;17 their activities are public, not secretive;18 with more than 11 million people attending, they are “far from being a small fringe cult;”19 they do not live in communes, isolating themselves from relatives and others;20 Jehovah’s Witnesses do not venerate or idolize their leaders;21 victims of alleged brainwashing are lacking.
Speaking to the “millions of non-Witnesses who are studying the Bible with the Witnesses or who have studied with them at one time or another,” the Watchtower asks rhetorically, “Were there any attempts to brainwash you? Did the Witnesses employ mind control techniques on you?” The Watchtower answers for them, “‘No’ would doubtless be your frank response. Obviously, if these methods had been used, there would be an overwhelming number of victims.”22
Amazingly enough, the article offers no discussion of mind control techniques. Readers are left totally in the dark as to what exactly mind control techniques might entail, yet the Watchtower prompts them to agree that no such techniques have been used on them. The magazine also ignores the countless former Witnesses who have testified in radio and television interviews, in law courts, and in print to Watchtower mind control. These testimonies, combined with a careful examination of organizational policy, have led many cult researchers to conclude that the Watchtower Society’s program of indoctrination shares basic elements with other mind control programs.
To Isolate or not to Isolate
The Watchtower magazine last quoted denies that Jehovah’s Witnesses isolate themselves from outsiders, “And they do not live in communes, isolating themselves from relatives and others.”23 However, the same magazine, in another separate article on page twenty-four, warns that
We must also be on guard against extended association with worldly people. Perhaps it is a neighbor, a school friend, a workmate, or a business associate. . . . What are some of the dangers of such a friendship?
Here is an example of what cult researchers refer to as “double-think.”24 A double standard exists–one set of logic for people on the outside of the organization and another for those on the inside. The first quote is from an article designed for the general public; the second quote is part of an article prepared for a Jehovah’s Witness group study. Though there is little physical isolation in the Watchtower, the leadership does indeed encourage members to isolate themselves socially.
Submission to Watchtower Authority
The “Governing Body”25 of the Watchtower Society utilizes various titles to support its claim to divine authority. “Prophet of Jehovah,” “God’s channel of communication,” and “God’s faithful and discreet slave” all refer to Watchtower leadership. The following quotes are but a few examples of how far the organization will go in its claims to spiritual authority and demands for total submission from followers.
One can come to understand that Jehovah is a God of surpassing wisdom by observing creation. . . . A second way to know God is through his Word of truth, the Bible. . . A third way of coming to know Jehovah God is through his representatives. In ancient times he sent prophets as his special messengers. While these men foretold things to come, they also served the people by telling them of God’s will for them at that time, often also warning them of dangers and calamities. People today can view the creative works. Today they have at hand the Bible, but it is little read or understood. So, does Jehovah have a prophet to help them, to warn them of dangers and to declare things to come? . . . . He had a “prophet” to warn them. This “prophet” was not one man, but was a body of men and women. It was the small group of footstep followers of Jesus Christ, known at that time as International Bible Students. Today they are known as Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.26
But regardless of how Christendom views or regards this group of annointed witnesses of Jehovah, the time must come, and that shortly, when those making up Christendom will know that really a “prophet” of Jehovah was among them. . . . Better it is to know now, rather than too late, that there is an authentic prophetic class of Christians among us, and to accept and act upon the Bible message, “not as the word of men, but, just as it truthfully is, as the word of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13) Concerning the message faithfully delivered by the Ezekiel class Jehovah positively states that it “must come true.”27
As Jehovah revealed his truths by means of the first- century Christian congregation so he does today by means of the present-day Christian congregation. Through this agency he is having carried out prophesying on an intensified and unparalleled scale. All of this activity is not an accident. Jehovah is the one behind all of it.28
Today, a remnant of this “faithful slave” is still alive on earth. Their duties include receiving and passing on to all of Jehovah’s earthly servants spiritual food at the proper time. They occupy a position similar to that of Paul and his colaborers when that apostle said of the wonderful truths God gives to his people: “It is to us that God has revealed them through his spirit.” (1 Cor- inthians 2:9, 10)29
But Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization, his ‘faithful and discreet slave,’ made up of spirit-annointed ones, to help Christians in all nations to understand and apply properly the Bible in their lives. Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.30
Today God does not speak to his servants directly as he did to Job. Instead he reproves them by means of his Word and his spirit-directed organization.31
Jehovah’s organization as directed by his “faithful and discreet slave” class should influence our every decision.32
What, can we say, is the basic principle underlying the movement of Jehovah’s living organization? It can be expressed in one word: obedience.33
In the face of this unlimited spiritual authority, Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to respond to the directions of the organization as they would the voice of God.34
Failure to respond to the direction of the Watchtower is regarded as a rejection of divine rulership.35
Raymond Franz, a former member of the Governing Body, makes the following comments concerning indoctrination and subordination in the organization:
True, there is periodic acknowledgement in the publications that the writers are, after all, “imperfect men,” and that the organization has “never claimed to be infallible.” In actual practice it works out quite differently. One finds out that this only applies to the past, not to the present. While the organization must recognize that it has changed a considerable number of its past teachings–which makes it evident that they were in error–it does not feel moved to modesty by those errors, so as to remind its readers that what it now says may also suffer due to that same imperfection. To the contrary, Jehovah’s Witnesses are called on to take whatever is currently taught as if it were infal- lible. In effect they are told, “You should accept everything published as absolute truth until such time as we may tell you it isn’t.” This is, purely and simply, mind control.36
The Power of “Shunning”
Jehovah’s Witnesses feel privileged to be a part of God’s family-like visible organization, whose members get along so well. They also look forward to the time when they will “live forever in paradise on earth with such a loving family.”37 The Watchtower organization is indeed a loving family–to those who remain loyal and submissive. But for those who do not fully support Watchtower teaching and policy, the organization can quickly transform into an assembly of cruel and cold-hearted strangers. Any who lose faith in the “faithful and discreet slave” and vocalize their doubts will be branded as “apostates,”38 “haters of God,”39 “opposers,”40 and likened to a poisonous snake.41 They will be disfellowshiped and forced to face the consequences of their sin: shunning.
[Disfellowshiping] serves as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation, since they will be able to see the disastrous consequences of ignoring Jehovah’s laws. It is a great tragedy for one to be disfellowshiped. For this means a cutting off from Jehovah and his favor. The disfellowshiping action taken by the congregation is merely the confirmation of what has already taken place in the heavens. . . . A disfellowshiped person is cut off from the congregation, and the congregation has nothing to do with him. Those in the congregation will not extend the hand of fellowship to this one, nor will they so much as say “Hello” or “Good- bye” to him. . . . [The members of the congregation] will not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way. If the disfellowshiped person attempts to talk to others in the congregation, they should walk away from him. In this way he will feel the full import of his sin.42
Haters of God and his people are to be hated, but this does not mean that we will take any opportunity of bringing physical hurt to them in a spirit of malice or spite, for both malice and spite belong to the Devil, whereas pure hatred does not. We must hate in the truest sense, which is to regard with extreme and active aversion, to consider as loathsome, odious, filthy, to detest. Surely any haters of God are not fit to live on his beautiful earth. . . . What do you do with anything loathsome or repugnant that you detest and abhor? The answer is simple. You get away from it or remove it from your presence. You do not want to have anything at all to do with it. This must be exactly our attitude toward the haters of Jehovah.43
The rules of shunning also apply to family members who have left the organization: Another sort of loss may be felt by loyal Christian grandparents whose children have been disfellowshiped. They may have been accustomed to visiting regularly with their children, giving them occasion to enjoy their grandchildren. Now the parents are disfellowshiped because of rejecting Jehovah’s standards and ways. So things are not the same in the family. Of course, the grandparents have to determine if some necessary family matters require limited contact with the disfellowshiped children. And they might sometimes have the grandchildren visit them. How sad, though, that by their unchristian course the children interfere with the normal pleasure that such grandparents enjoyed!44
Certainly the Watchtower’s policy of shunning does indeed “serve as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation.” The whole social life of the average Jehovah’s Witness resides within the congregation. If associated for many years, to be disfellowshiped means to be cut off from virtually every friendship he or she has. For many, this frightening possibility leaves members with no choice but to remain in God’s organization.
Mind Control: What it is and What it is not