How Do Reasonable, Rational People Get Sucked In?
Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump, writes about his own recruitment into the Unification Church (aka the Moonies). Two young women posing as a college students approached him on campus. He felt special and included—then they led him to the temple where the serious indoctrination began.
Deception is an essential ingredient in cult recruitment. After the initial bait is taken, specific techniques are used to short-circuit the rational brain. Instilling fear is one of the most common and it’s a powerful motivator. When people believe they’re in danger and only the cult figure can protect them, it makes sense they’d follow. Hassan was able to escape the Moonies after a few years because he broke his leg. His departure wasn’t voluntarily; his family took advantage of the situation to swoop in and physically remove him. His mental recovery wasn’t nearly as fast as his physical healing. The experience led Hassan into a career of helping others recover from the psychological devastation wrought by cult membership.
Hassan has outlined a four-part model to explain how cults inculcate and retain their members. The acronym BITE stands for Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control. A single tool, like social media, may satisfy more than one part of the model. Information control is obvious, but the medium also engages the limbic system for emotional control using images, colors, and music.
Social media smacks of behavior control as well. As the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma points out, the devices we hold in our hands are consciously designed to keep us hooked. (The next time you text someone then stare at the screen’s moving dots hoping for a reply, understand you’ve been sucked in by an algorithm.) Social media keeps people scrolling into the night for fear of missing out.
A timeless strategy for behavior control is to interrupt sleep. The former president manipulated his aides with texts that required a response night or day—and we’re all far too familiar with the 3AM tweets which no doubt disrupted the slumber of many of his followers. Our biological requirement of seven to nine hours of sleep has not changed to align with our 24/7 culture. Forty percent of the population gets less than seven hours of sleep per night. Lack of adequate rest can make a person vulnerable to emotional manipulation and diminish critical thinking. Innumerable studies have linked sleep deprivation to physical issues, poor concentration, memory problems, and mood changes.
The aim of behavior control is to discourage individualism, punish disobedience, and instill dependence. Once someone’s identity is emmeshed with the group, separation or shunning becomes a terrifying prospect. They may literally feel they can’t survive without the leader and community. However, if they continue to be a loyal member of the cult they have access to insider doctrine (i.e., cult-generated propaganda and misinformation). They’re in the know and that makes them special.
Flames of paranoia are fed with the dire predictions of what Outsiders will do, even if they are family members. Consider the outrageous (and what should have been laughable) claim made during the 2016 and 2020 election cycles that Democrats eat children. If you wonder who could possibly believe such absurdity, the answer is someone whose critical thinking has been severely compromised. These same believers have now morphed into the cult of QAnon.
Thought control is accomplished through using hypnotic states to undermine the rational brain; people unknowingly go into trance. Chants, constantly repeated words or phrases, songs or sing-song delivery, and vivid imagery make someone receptive to black and white thinking. Every malignant narcissist cult leader has used these strategies and they have a common message: questions about the leader or the doctrine are forbidden and denial is the only response to accusations that anything is wrong with the cult’s practices or policies. Outsiders are evil—not just wrong or deluded, but demonic. Formerly reasonable people believe obvious lies because their ability for rational assessment has been clouded. They’re under the influence of the “halo effect” which casts a golden light on the leader.
Emotional control warrants a special call out because it’s arguably the most destructive to the individual’s self-esteem. “You’re nothing without me,” “If you want to leave, you’re selfish and don’t care about anyone else,” “You’ll never make it on your own.” These are words drummed into the flock with a stick to keep them docile. The carrot is “love bombing” (excessive affection) for remaining faithful to the leader. If this sounds like the classic description of an abusive relationship, it is.
We’re not as logical and rational as we’d like to think. Each of us is susceptible to manipulation and sensory overload. Ads and “information” bombard us daily. It’s more important than ever to know where your news comes from. Find out who owns the outlets you follow. For example, the Washington Times (not be confused with the Washington Post) is owned by the Moonies. Sun Myung Moon may be behind bars, but his followers have plenty of money and influence.
There will always be those driven to seek unlimited power and wealth regardless of human cost. What is new, and makes malignant narcissists more dangerous than ever, is their access to tools that exponentially expand their reach and dive deeply into minds. The old adage “buyer beware” has never been more critical.