the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves
by Steven Hassan, Freedom of Mind Press,
Somerville MA, © 2000
following is taken from Chapter Two of the book. It is excerpted
with permission from the author.
is Mind Control?
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.
Control or Brainwashing?
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
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.
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.
Six Conditions for Thought Reform
Gaining control over a person's time, especially his thinking
time and physical environment.
Creating a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency in the
recruit, while providing models that demonstrate the new behavior
that leadership wants to produce.
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.
Manipulating rewards, punishments and experiences in order to
elicit the behavior and attitudes that leadership wants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dissonance Theory and the Evolution of the BITE Model
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:
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.
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.
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.
is a human inclination to reduce cognitive dissonance by rationalization.
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.
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.
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.
Evolution of the BITE model
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.
Regulation of individual’s physical reality
Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
b. What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
c. What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
d. How much sleep the person is able to have
e. Financial dependence
f. Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations
Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group
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
5. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
6. Rigid rules and regulations
7. Need for obedience and dependency
Use of deception
Deliberately holding back information
b. Distorting information to make it acceptable
c. Outright lying
Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged
Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members so busy they don’t have time to think
Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
Information is not freely accessible
b. Information varies at different levels and missions within
c. Leadership decides who "needs to know" what
Spying on other members is encouraged
Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
b. Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
b. Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult
Unethical use of confession
Information about "sins" used to abolish identity boundaries
b. Past "sins" used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness
Need to internalize the group’s doctrine as "Truth"
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
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
Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
e. Speaking in "tongues"
f. Singing or humming
No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as
6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or
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
Who you are (not living up to your potential)
2. Your family
3. Your past
4. Your affiliations
5. Your thoughts, feelings, actions
c. Historical guilt
Excessive use of fear
Fear of thinking independently
b. Fear of the "outside" world
c. Fear of enemies
d. Fear of losing one’s "salvation"
e. Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
f. Fear of disapproval
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.
No happiness or fulfillment "outside"of the group
b. Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: "hell";
"demon possession"; "incurable diseases";
"accidents"; "suicide"; "insanity";
"10,000 reincarnations"; etc.
c. Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends,
peers, and family.
d. 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.
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.
Hassan also has a website Freedom
to website May 13, 2002
Revised October 1, 2002