Totalism in Today's Cults

by Jan Groenvald

Jan Groenvald was a former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses and since has passed away (in 2002). I have added a few things to her original article. -CL



Studies have shown that today's cults use a stronger form of control than those of [the 1940's and 1950's]. The advent of new psychological experiments in the 60's and 70's have produced the modern methods of mind control which are far more sophisticated than the BEHAVIOUR MODIFICATION TECHNIQUES and THOUGHT REFORM developed by the Chinese. To understand mind control you need a basic understanding of BEHAVIOUR MODIFICATION TECHNIQUES.

What is "behaviour modification"?

Simply described, it is "reward or punishment for actions" association. It was used on you as a child whenever you were being commended or otherwise for your behaviour.

Taking away a privilege is usually a sure-fire method to persuading a child to change its behaviour when that child is old enough to understand the process. Praising a child for doing good is another method of changing behaviour, especially in the child who is anxious to please. The rod of education applied to the seat of learning is another method of bringing about a desired behaviour change. This is known as the Thorndike Law of Effect: positive reinforcement (such as praise and reward) associated with certain behaviors cause them to increase in frequency, and negative reinforcement (such as withdrawal of praise, removal of rewards, and other negative connotations such as hurt) associated with behaviors cause these behaviors to diminish. Moreover, intermittent reinforcement causes these associated behaviors to become more permanent - that is to say, intermittently positive reinforcement can cause a more permanent behavior change. An example of this is that if the word "weak or immature" is used to denote certain behavior which is contrary to a group's belief such as questioning the group's beliefs), one can be sure that members will refrain from these behaviors will surely be curtailed - that the members will systematically stop questioning the group!

When behaviour modification techniques such as these are applied in a loving, caring and consistent way, the child changes their behaviour without holding feelings of resentment. However, if these techniques are perverted in any way, damage is done to the child's psyche, their emotions, e.g. the abused child syndrome. Cults use a sophisticated and perverted form of behaviour modification which damages an individuals emotions.

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Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger was a psychologist who studied groups that predicted the end of the world. He found that most members became stronger than ever when the prophecy failed. His investigation revealed that members had to find a way to cope psychologically with the failure. They needed to maintain order and meaning in their life. They needed to think they were acting according to their self-image and values. Festinger described this contradiction which they had to overcome as what has become known as the "COGNITIVE DISSONANCE THEORY." The three components he described are:

Each component has a powerful effect on the other two: CHANGE ONE AND THE OTHERS WILL TEND TO FOLLOW. When all three change the individual undergoes a complete change. Festinger summarised the basic principle:

"If you change a person's behaviour, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimise the dissonance."

Henry Gleitman's "Basic Psychology" textbook (Norton, 1983) on Cognitive Dissonance and Cognitive Consistency says this:

".. people try to make sense of the world they encounter. But how? In effect, they do this by looking for some consistency among their own experiences and memories, and turning to other people for comparison and confirmation. If all checks out, then all well and good. But what if there is some inconsistency? The Asch study (Solomon Asch, 1956) showed what happened when there is a serious inconsistency between ones own experiences (and the beliefs based on them) and those reported by others. But suppose the inconsistency is among the persons own experiences, beliefs or actions? Many social psychologists believe that this will trigger some general trend to restore cognitive consistency - to reinterpret the situation so as to minimize whatever inconsistency may be there. According to Leon Festinger, this is because any perceived inconsistency among various aspects of knowledge, feelings and behavior sets up an unpleasant internal state - cognitive dissonance - which people try to reduce whenever possible (Festinger, 1957)."

Cognitive dissonance is not always reduced so easily. An example is provided by a study of a sect that was awaiting the end of the world. The founder of the sect announced that she had received a message from the Guardians of outer space. On a certain day, there would be an enormous flood. Only the true believers were to be saved and would be picked up at midnight of the appointed day in flying saucers. (Technology has advanced considerably since the days of Noah's Ark.) On doomsday, the members of the sect huddled together, awaiting the predicted cataclysm. The arrival time of the flying saucers came and went; tension mounted as the hours went by. Finally, the leader of the sect received another message: To reward the faith of the faithful, the world was saved. Joy broke out and he believers became more faithful than ever. (Festinger, Riecken and Schachter, 1956)

Given the failure of a clear-cut prophecy, one might have expected the very opposite. A disconfirmation of a predicted event should presumably lead one to abandon the beliefs that produced the prediction. But cognitive dissonance theory says otherwise. By abandoning the beliefs that there are Guardians, the person who had once held this belief would have to accept a painful dissonance between her present skepticism and her past beliefs and actions. Her prior faith would now appear extremely foolish. Some members of the sect had gone to such lengths as giving up their jobs or spending their savings; such acts would lose all meaning in retrospect without the belief in the Guardians. Under the new circumstances, the dissonance was intolerable. It was reduced by a belief in the new message which bolstered the original belief. Since other members of the sect stood fast long with them, their conviction was strengthened all the more. They could now think of themselves, not as fools, but as loyal, steadfast members of a courageous little band whose faith had saved the earth."

When there is a conflict between thoughts, feelings or behaviour, then those in conflict will change to minimise the contradiction. This is because a person can only tolerate a certain amount of discrepancy between these components which make up his identity. In cults this dissonance is created to exploit and control the members and their behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control, added a fourth component to Festinger's prior three: The control of Information - by controlling the information one receives, a person can control and restrict an- other individual's ability to think for himself. The controller can limit what the other individual is able to think about.

By controlling the information one receives you can control and restrict the individual's ability to think for himself. You limit what he is able to think about.

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BEHAVIOUR CONTROL -- The control of an individual's physical reality.

This can include control of where he lives, what he eats, his clothing, sleep, job, rituals etc. This is why most cults have a stringent schedule for members. There is always something to do in destructive cults. Each cult has its own distinctive set of behaviours that bind it together. This control is so powerful that the cult member will actually participate in their own punishment and come to believe he actually deserves it! No one can command a person's thoughts but IF YOU CAN CONTROL BEHAVIOUR THEN HEARTS AND MINDS WILL FOLLOW.

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Thought Control -- The control of an individual's thought processes.

The indoctrination of members so thoroughly that they will manipulate their own thought processes. The ideology is internalised as "the truth". Incoming information is filtered through the beliefs which also regulates how this information is thought about.

The cult has it's own language which further regulates how a person thinks. This puts a great barrier between cult members and outsiders.

Another form of control is "thought stopping" techniques. This can take many forms: chanting, meditating, singing, humming, tongues (some even pay money to learn it), concentrated praying, etc. The use of these techniques short-circuits the persons' ability to test reality. The person can only think positive thoughts about the group. If there is a problem the member assumes responsibility and works harder.

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Emotional Control -- The control of the individual's emotional life.

This manipulates a person's range of feelings. Guilt and fear are used to keep control. Cult members cannot see the control by guilt and like other abuse victims are conditioned to blame themselves when things are wrong, even grateful when a leader points our their transgressions.

Fear is used to manipulate two ways. The first is to create an outside enemy (we vs them) who is persecuting you. The second is the fear of punishment by the leaders if you are not "good enough." Being "good enough" is following the ideology perfectly. The most powerful emotional control is phobia indoctrination. This can give the person a panic reaction at the very thought of leaving the group. It is almost impossible to conceive that there is any life outside the group. There is no physical gun held to their heads but the psychological gun is just as if not more powerful.

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Information Control -- The control of the individual's information sources.

Deny a person the information needed to make a sound judgment and he will be incapable of doing so. People are trapped in cults because they are denied both the access to the critical information they need to assess their situation. The psychological chains on their minds are just as powerful as if they were locked away physically from society. So strong is this psychological process they also lack the properly functioning internal mechanism to process any critical information placed in front of them.

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The Eight Marks of Mind Control or Thought Reform (originally from Chapter 22 of "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism" by Dr. Robert J. Lifton)

Totalism -- All or Nothing

As brainwashing, and mind control - the latter of which, is more subtle, and done usually through friendly persuasion - are both topics which have become more well-understood and almost become household words in the last two decades or so, investigation into the marks of mind control would be very important to explain how mind control works and how it is accomplished. In 1961, Dr. Robert J. Lifton wrote the definitive book on the subject, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, after studying the effects of mind control on American prisoners-of-war under the Communist Chinese.

Mind Control is a PROCESS of eradicating former beliefs and instituting new beliefs in their place through the use of COERCIVE persuasion. It is a PROCESS which is designed to break a person's independence and individuality and replace it with the ideology clone. The Chinese called this process "thought reform" which was poorly translated into English as "brain-washing".

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Brainwashing is now considered to be a different process to thought reform or mind control. In brainwashing the victim knows who is the enemy. An example is American Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by a terrorist group. Through physical abuse she finally became a member of the group and took part in terrorist activities and bank robberies.

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Thought Control

Thought control is more subtle. The victim doesn't know who is the enemy because the enemy seems like their best friend who only has their best interests at heart.

Cults practice a more refined form of thought control than that used by the Chinese. Leading psychologist, Dr Margaret Singer, said cults do it better than the Chinese because it is easier to get people to do what you want through manipulating them with guilt and anxiety. During this process the prospective recruit is re-educated and will abandon the precepts he has learnt from life for the "truth" or "enlightenment" offered by the group. In some cults this is done over a long period of time; Other cults can bring about this change within 48 hours. Whichever way the process takes place the results are the same. The individual has undergone a total change in personality and is often unrecognisable by their family.

The process of thought control has been documented by Robert J. Lifton who researched what happened to the American prisoners of the Communist Chinese. He labelled the steps which have become the standard by which to judge whether a group is using "brain-washing" or "thought reform" on its recruits.

In chapter 22 of his book, Lifton outlines criteria of mind control, whether used by political, religious, or psychological cults. These criteria consists of eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu. Each has a totalistic quality; each depends upon an equally absolute philosophical assumptions, and each mobilizes certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarizing nature. Psychological theme, philosophical rationale, and polarized individual tendencies are interdependent; they require, rather than directly cause, each other.

Any ideology - that is, any set of emotionally-charged convictions about men and his relationship to the natural or supernatural world - may be carried by its adherents in a totalistic direction. But this is most likely to occur with those ideologies which are most sweeping in their content and most ambitious or messianic in their claim, whether a religious or political organization. And where totalism exists, a religion, or a political movement becomes little more than an exclusive cult. Here, you will find a set of criteria, eight psychological themes against which any environment may be judged.

Robert J. Lifton's research showed that:

"These criteria consist of eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu. Each has a totalistic quality; each depends upon an equally absolute philosophical assumption; and each mobilises certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarising nature. Psychological theme, philosophical rationale, and polarised individual tendencies are interdependent; they require, rather than directly cause, each other. In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energise or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats." (Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism, p. 420)

The eight marks noted by Lifton are:

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1. MILIEU CONTROL -- Control of the Environment and Communication.

The control of human communication is the most basic feature of the thought reform environment. This is the control of what the individual sees, hears, reads, writes, experiences and expresses. It goes even further than that, and controls the individuals communication with himself -- his own thoughts.

Everything other than their beliefs is excluded. The organisation appears to be omniscient. They seem to know everything that is going on. Reality is their exclusive possession. In this environment the individual is deprived of the combination of external information and internal reflection required to test reality and to maintain a measure of identity separate from his environment. The individual can feel victimised by his controllers and feel the hostility of suffocation -- the resentful awareness that his striving toward new information, independent judgment and self-expression are being thwarted.

EXAMPLE - Jehovah's Witnesses are a classical example of a closed community living within and mixing with the wider community. Because they are so well known we have used them as an example.

e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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2. MYSTICAL MANIPULATION -- The Mystique of the Organisation.

This seeks to provoke specific patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. For the manipulated person this assumes a near-mystical quality. This is not just a power trip by the manipulators. They have a sense of "higher purpose" and see themselves as being the "keepers of the truth." By becoming the instruments of their own mystique, they create a mystical aura around the manipulating institution -- the Party, the Government, the Organisation, etc. They are the chosen agents to carry out this mystical imperative.

The pursuit of this mystical imperative supersedes all considerations of decency or immediate human welfare. The end justifies the means. You can lie, deceive or whatever to those outside the organization. Association with the "outside" is only to benefit their own cause in some way. Some cults like Moonies and Hare Krishna's call their deception "heavenly deception" or "transcendental trickery". Members believe in the ideology to such a degree that they rationalize these deceptions. Members are kept in a frenzy of cult related activities. There is little time or energy to think about their lifestyle.

"The psychology of the pawn" -- This person feels unable to escape from forces he sees more powerful than himself. His way of dealing with this is to adapt to them. He learns how to anticipate problems with the organisation and to manipulate events to avoid incriminating himself. This is the person who has been in the organisation long enough, knows something is wrong, is on the verge of leaving then suddenly becomes very loyal. They sell out to the organisation and will turn in friends who may have confided in them.

e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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3. DEMAND FOR PURITY -- Everything is black & white.

Pure and impure is defined by the ideology of the organization. Only those ideas, feelings and actions consistent with the ideology and policy are good. The individual conscience is not reliable. The philosophical assumption is that absolute purity is attainable and that anything done in the name of this purity is moral. By defining and manipulating the criteria of purity and conducting an all-out war on impurity (dissension especially) the organisation creates a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, the demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is alien to the human condition.

Under these conditions the individual expects humiliation, ostracism and punishment because of his inability to live up to the criteria and lives in a constant state of guilt and shame. Since the organisation is the ultimate judge of good and evil, this guilt and shame is used to manipulate and control members. The organization becomes an authority without limit in the eyes of members and their power is nowhere more evident that in their capacity to "forgive".

All impurities are seen to originate from "outside" (the world). Therefore, one of the best ways to relieve himself of the burden of guilt is to denounce these with great hostility. The more guilty he feels, the greater his hatred, the more hostile is his denouncement. Organizationally this eventually leads to purges of heretics, mass hatred and religious holy wars. The group will point to the mistakes of all other belief systems while promoting their own purity. This gives the impression that their organisation is perfect, clean and pure as a people or group.

e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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4. CULT OF CONFESSION -- Reporting to leadership.

This is closely related to the demand for purity. Confession is carried beyond the ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace for these vulnerabilities.

Totalist confession is an act of self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. There is a dissolution of self, talents and money. Conformity.

The cult of confession has effects quite the reverse of its ideal of total exposure; rather than eliminating personal secrets, it increases and intensifies them.

The individual becomes caught up in continuous conflict over which secrets to preserve and which to surrender, over ways to reveal lesser secrets can be revealed and ways to protect more important ones.

The cult of confession makes it virtually impossible to attain reasonable balance between worth and humility.

e.g. In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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5. SACRED SCIENCE -- Absolute "Truth".

Their "truth" is the absolute truth. It is sacred -- beyond questioning. There is a reverence demanded for the leadership. They have ALL the answers. Only to them is given the revelation of "truth".

The ultimate moral vision becomes the ultimate science and the person who dares to criticise it, or even think criticism, is immoral, irreverent and "unscientific".

The assumption here is not so much that man can be God, but rather that man's IDEAS can be God.

This gives sense of security to the member. They are confident they can get the answer to the most difficult problem or question.

e.g. In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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6. LOADING THE LANGUAGE -- Thought terminating cliches.

Everything is compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.

There are "good" terms which represents the groups ideology and "evil" terms to represent everything outside which is to be rejected. Totalist language is intensely divisive, all-encompassing jargon, unmercifully judging. To those outside the group this language is tedious -- the language of non-thought.

This effectively isolates members from outside world. The only people who understand you are other members. Other members can tell if you are really one of them by how you talk.

This narrowness of the language is constricting. The individual is linguistically deprived because language is central to the human experience and his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely restricted.

While initially this loaded language can give a sense of security to the new believer, an uneasiness develops over time. This uneasiness may result in a withdrawal into the system and he preaches even harder to hide his problem and demonstrate his loyalty. It may also produce an inner division and the individual will publicly give the right performance while privately have his own thoughts.

Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly disassociated from his actual life experiences and may even tend to atrophy from disuse.

e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

  • Theocratic strategy
  • "ark of salvation"
  • "new light"
  • "meat in due season"
  • "faithful & discreet slave"
  • "apostate"
  • "The anointed"
  • Book study
  • Christendom
  • "Christ Jesus" instead of "Jesus Christ"
  • 'back calls' now called 'return visits' (terminology changes indicate who might be falling behind or who is not really a member)
  • "Jehovah will take care of it in his due time."
  • "It's the truth" -- doesn't matter if they make a mistake
  • Where else is there to go?
  • Worldly
  • Governing Body
  • New System of Things
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    7. DOCTRINE OVER PERSON -- Doctrine supersedes human experience.

    The ideological myth merges with their "truth" and the resulting deduction can be so overpowering and coercive that is simply replaces reality. Consequently past events can be altered, rewritten or even ignored to make them consistent with the current reality. This alteration is especially lethal when the distortions are imposed on the individual's memory.

    They demand character and identity of a person be reshaped to fit their clone of mentality. The individual must fit the rigid contours of the doctrinal mould instead of developing their own potential and personality.

    The underlying assumption is that the doctrine -- including its mythological elements -- is ultimately more valid, true and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience. The individual under such pressure is propelled into an intense conflict with his own sense of integrity, a struggle which take place in relation to polarised feelings if sincerity and insincerity.

    Absolute sincerity is demanded by the group yet this must be put to one side when changes take place the individual has to deny the original belief ever existed. Personal feelings are suppressed and members must appear to be contented and enthusiastic at all times.

    Some cults believe that all illness is a result of lack of faith and evidence of sin in your life. These things have to be prayed away and medical attention is ignored as a "sign of faith."

    e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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    8. DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE -- Who is worthy to live.

    They have the right to decide who is worthy of life and who isn't. They also decide which history books are accurate and which are not.

    Those in the organisation are worthy of life; those outside worthy of death. The outsiders can be permitted to live if they change and become an insider. Members live in fear of being pronounced "dead". They have a fear of annihilation or extinction. The emotional conflict is one of "being vs nothingness".

    Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon mission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the organisation. Should he stray from the "truth" his right to exist may be withdrawn and he is pronounced "dead".

    e.g. - In Jehovah's Witnesses:

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    In Summary...

    The more clearly these eight points are obvious, the greater the resemblance to ideological totalism. The more an organisation utilises such totalist devices to change individuals, the greater its resemblance to thought reform.

    Remember ..... A group does not have to be religious to be cultic in behaviour. High demand groups can be commercial, political and psychological. Be aware, especially if you are a bright, intelligent and idealistic person. The most likely person to be caught up in this type of behavioural system is the one who says "I won't get caught. It will never happen to me. I am too intelligent for that sort of thing."

    Stephen Martin, the brother of Wellspring's Paul Martin, has written a terrific book applying the Lifton's Criteria to Thought-Reform (Mind Control) Churches, and you can see the book for free: The Heresy of Mind Control.

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    Written by Jan Groenveld (circa 1995-1997), edited by Chris Lee (2014)
    (c) Cult Awareness & Information Centre, PO Box 2444, Mansfield 4122, Australia,

    May be distributed freely providing it contains the above identifying information. Edits to the text -- please email me and let me know (CL).

    ©1994 by Jan Groenvald. All rights reserved.

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