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How Easy is it to Trick the Brain?

Psychological studies have repeatedly shown how easily rational thinking is bypassed. Our perceptions are limited, and we interpret the meaning of those perceptions automatically. We “fill in” reasons for events that are hard to understand. We focus on what we expect to see, or what we are prepared to see.

This opens the door to sleight of hand tricks by magicians, hypnotists and street con artists, as well as the hocus-pocus of demagogues, whether political or religious in their claims, and recruiters for authoritarian groups who have been manipulated to be true-believers.

In one celebrated experiment, participants are asked to count the number of passes made in a basketball video. Focused on the passes, the majority – about 80% of participants – fail to notice the man in a gorilla suit who walks across the court. This phenomenon is dubbed “inattentional blindness.” It shows how highly selective our normal perception can be.

There is a boundary between what we actually see and what we fill in. If a red card is held at the periphery of vision – the back of an ordinary playing card will do – people are generally surprised that they cannot discern its color, because color vision does not extend to the edge of the visual field. The card can be clearly seen, and once its color is known it will then be seen in the right color.

It is a surprising truth that we all live in a world that is partially imagined. Some part of every perceived reality is actually virtual. This is well-known to stage magicians, whose art depends upon directing the imaginative power of an audience.

Police in Moscow were baffled by a new crime where a grifter requested directions from a stranger before asking for his wallet. About two thirds of people handed over their wallet without reflection. The problem for the police is whether a crime has been committed.

The problem for us all is our inborn compliance with authority: Derren Brown demonstrated this behavior in one of his TV shows (http://derrenbrown.co.uk/). He walked up to a stranger and asked for directions, at the same time urging the stranger to take a bottle of water from him. Brown created confusion by splitting the stranger’s attention. Into that moment of confusion, Brown slipped the request for the subject’s wallet, keys and phone. The victim of this hoax took several steps before the penny dropped. Our attention is far more controllable than we like to believe.

The dream state which exists in the background of the mind is vital to understanding different states of consciousness. In dreams, we do not question the accuracy of our perception, even though objects can change from one moment to the next. A baby becomes a briefcase, with no perplexity on the part of the dreamer.

The sense of judgment is suspended, and we do not even question our nonsensical imaginings. This innocent belief can carry over into the waking state, so that beliefs are asserted as “knowledge” without any need for evidence.

We are bombarded by a constant flow of data, from our environment and from within our own bodies and minds. We can only focus on a fraction of it, so we are never fully aware of everything that does register. This is the simple basis for positive suggestion.

 Confusion, repetition, fixation and mimicry will all bring about hypnotic-like states. The professional hypnotist uses these techniques to control attention and brings about a collaboration where the subject “fills in” the context. This can create experiences that are every bit as believable as dreams. And we live in a world where people are eager to suspend belief.

An interesting video and test to see how the brain works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo&feature=youtu.be


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019


New Goats and Old: Generosity, Love-Bombing, and Spotting a Predator

One of Aesop’s lesser-known fables involves a goatherd, who, leading his flock to the barn before a great storm, finds a dozen wild goats mixed in with his own animals. Thinking to increase his herd, he entices the wild goats to take shelter with the rest in his barn, which they are more than willing to do. Once they are locked in the barn, weathering the storm, he gives extra food to the wild goats, hoping that they shall remember his generosity and consider joining his flock for good. However, the storm lasts longer than expected, and, running short on food, the goatherd begins to ration the supplies, giving the newcomers twice as much, but almost starving his tame animals to keep the wild goats fed.

how long before the new goats are treated like old goats?When the storm passes, he reminds the wild goats of his generosity, asking them to stay. However, they refuse, saying: “we saw how little you were feeding your old goats; how long would it take before we, too, were starved, the better to lure newcomers to your barn?”

Those who study high-control groups and abusive relationships are familiar with the manipulative technique of love-bombing, where a new recruit or love interest is flooded with affection and positive feedback. Often, the newcomer is too overwhelmed by love-bombing to notice how the more established members are treated; in the case of a romantic predator, we believe the tales of their “evil” exes, ignoring the warning signs of how many people have been discarded by our new love. In a high-control group, if we notice the shunned or disfellowshipped member being punished by the group, the amount and intensity of positive feelings poured on us will fool us into thinking that the people in bad standing with the group must deserve their punishment – certainly we could never sink so low! Sadly, those experiencing the bad treatment of an abuser have often been gaslighted into believing that they deserve it, and so the warning value of seeing any bad treatment is diminished, swept under the rug as our focus is brought back to the love-bombing.

But, like the goats in the fable, it is better to pay attention to the warning signs around us – including how potential romantic partners talk about their exes, and how a group treats its not-so-new members. Those who practice healthy skepticism will pay close attention not only to how they are being treated, but how others are treated, too – and, like the wise wild goats, avoid the trap of being seduced into an abusive situation.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novelDo you have a story about spotting love-bombing that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Larry Nassar: the Pedophile Who Groomed Hundreds

Larry Nassar, who used his position of authority to sexually abuse over two hundred teenage gymnasts, also used his role of comforter and advocate to lure his victims into a state of compliance. He was the “good guy,” the confidant, the friendly doctor who pretended to speak for the gymnasts’ safety and wellbeing. As a member of the organization responsible for training Olympic gymnasts in the United States, Nassar charmed young athletes and their families, established relationships, gifted his patients with trinkets from his Olympic travels and talked of his prowess as the “body whisperer.”

This camouflage of advocate and healer was part of the plan: in order to molest his victims, Nassar first had to groom them. In order to keep molesting them, he had to groom the families of his victims, as well as his colleagues and his professional network. Granted, no pedophile operates in a vacuum – and USA Gymnastics is only one of many organizations currently engaging in some much-needed cultural self-evaluation: Nassar is not the first offender whose victims had to wait for years for their complaints to be heard, and their stories vindicated. But if the man himself had not been such a skilled manipulator, he would not have been able to work his way into the core of a national Olympic training ground, or have had access to thousands of young girls in a profession requiring close, intimate contact.

Disguising his criminal actions as part of a medical procedure was only part of the gaslighting involved to create an air of confusion and denial; Nassar was able to keep his victims wondering if what they had experienced was indeed abusive or sexual. Even worse, in grooming his professional colleagues, he was able to manipulate Michigan State University officials into believing in his innocence so thoroughly that they compounded his crimes, informing his accusers that they had failed to distinguish the “nuanced difference” between legitimate examination and sexual abuse. The egregious shortcomings in a system disastrously ill-equipped to deal with complaints of sexual assault certainly aided and abetted him, but ultimately, it was because he was so skilled in social manipulation that Nassar was able to accumulate a “stable” of victims numbering in the triple digits.

Pedophile grooming relies on a confidence trick, just like any phone scam or pyramid scheme; it trades on the innocence of children rather than money, but the traps a predator uses to lure victims into danger, and the web of undue influence they weave to keep their victims ensnared, remain the same. If we are to break the cycle of sex abuse scandals rocking even our most venerable institutions, we must educate children, parents, professionals and everyone involved to recognize the patterns of abuse – and not to repeat yesterday’s mistakes in failing to use our healthy skepticism. Only when we face grooming for what it is can we keep our children safe.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about pedophile grooming that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Sacred Science: The Unquestionable Beliefs of Coercive Control

Editor's Note: This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

Sacred Science is one of the most fascinating of Robert Lifton’s Eight Criteria of Thought Reform, because it exists not only in coercive relationships and groups, but is widespread in our culture.

We all have sacred cows: beliefs that we simply won’t question. As Lifton noted, sacred science “greatly simplifies the world.” Any system that offers complete, absolute, and, above all, easy answers can be tantalizing indeed.

A predator uses sacred science to create a set of unquestionable beliefs that keep us from thinking for ourselves. Usually these beliefs are all-encompassing: a closed system of ideas, which claim to explain all human experience and behavior.

In sacred science, a central belief is elevated to absolute truth; questioning the validity of that belief is forbidden. Although many manipulative groups will claim to “welcome” questions, various forms of manipulation—from thought-stopping to emotional blackmail—will be used to drive home the point that you can ask any question you like, but you must be satisfied with the answer given.

In the realm of politics, sacred science happens whenever questioning the beliefs of your party becomes tantamount to “hating” your country. It happens in an abusive relationship, when questioning your partner’s right to make all the decisions is shouted down with a hurtful, “but I thought you loved me!”

What this means for those wishing to practice healthy skepticism is that we must never take any claim for granted, and ask for proof whenever we have doubts.

Many “self-evident” statements have no basis in fact. If unexamined, they can be used by predators to build whole systems of belief, elaborate castles in the air, which would come tumbling down if anyone poked at their foundations too hard.

Bluntly speaking, too many sacred cows end up being just plain baloney. It is up to us, as critical thinkers, to examine the facts, question the answers, and be on guard, if the response we are given amounts to “don’t ask!”

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about sacred science that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Milieu Control – an Atmosphere of Undue Influence

Editor's Note: This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

Milieu control is usually listed as the first of Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Control, and similarly, it is one of the first methods a predator will use to take control. The milieu – or environment – in which we find ourselves can affect us greatly. So much of our feelings about an experience rely on the surroundings, and milieu control is, simply put, the art of controlling our surroundings to create a desired effect.

Even if we’ve never heard the term ‘milieu control’, we have felt its effects: we naturally drop our voices to a hush in places with a solemn atmosphere, or find our bodies moving to the beat in a loud nightclub. Even where milieu control is not necessarily being used unethically – such as in a fancy restaurant or a grand cathedral – the atmosphere influences our behavior, mood, and even perceptions.

Film directors use milieu control on set to obtain the desired mood – the director of The Exorcist had the temperature of the set lowered to an uncomfortably cold level for the climactic scene, and even fired off a pistol without warning to evoke fear, adding to the drama onscreen. Director Stanley Kubrick took matters several steps further during the filming of the classic movie The Shining, creating a hostile environment where actress Shelley Duvall was subjected to verbal abuse and harsh physical conditions. She was thoroughly miserable throughout the shoot – she lost weight and her hair came out in clumps due to the constant stress – but her performance was arguably the finest of her career.

However, when a predator or cult leader uses milieu control, it is for the specific purpose of gaining complete control over anyone caught in their grasp. An abusive spouse will turn a home into a prison, controlling the environment with endless rules dictating where the abused partner is allowed to go, what they are allowed to read or watch, and who they are allowed to contact – even what they are allowed to wear. Similarly, the leadership of an abusive, high-control group will use many different elements, such as uncomfortable seats, repetitive music, and rules about who is allowed to speak, even who can exit the room, to create a tightly controlled atmosphere.

The décor and setup of an abusive group’s meeting space is a large part of milieu control: any artwork is specially created to emphasize the greatness of the leadership and the importance of the group’s message, from the illustrations in the group’s literature to the hangings on the wall. Often, the leader – or, in their absence, an image of the leader – will be positioned in a central, raised location, with the believers situated so that they have to look upwards, equating elevation in height with elevated status.

Milieu control occurs throughout our society, and not always with manipulative intentions. However, it is always a good practice of healthy skepticism to take a good look not only at the message you’re presented with, but the atmosphere in which that message is presented. A highly manipulative environment is a sure sign of undue influence.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about milieu control that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Loaded Language – The Coercive Control of Words

Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform

Loaded Language, one of Lifton’s eight criteria of thought control, is one of the most-used tools in the manipulator’s toolkit. So much of our mental map is based in language that it is virtually impossible to separate what we think from how we say it. A predator or manipulative group will use language against us, turning it from a vital tool to understand the world into a trap to keep us away from it.

Like the characters in George Orwell’s 1984, who were expected to limit their conversation and ideas by using the state-mandated language of NewSpeak, people using loaded language find it difficult to express themselves outside of the rigid guidelines of their group. The mental map created by loaded language defines and shapes how members think about themselves, their group, the outside world, and especially their leaders: Jehovah’s Witnesses (and members of countless other high-control groups) are conditioned to call their organization “the Truth”, so that it is that much harder to doubt the truthfulness of their leadership.

Loaded language acts not only as a code, but also a dividing wall: regular words are given new meanings, and new words created to express the goals and concepts of the group. This means that outsiders cannot understand those in – and those in the group have a hard time understanding and communicating with outsiders. In addition, the terms are often emotionally loaded: “purr” and “snarl” words stop a member’s thoughts, redirecting them into conditioned emotional reactions.

So many of the words we use are weighted with emotional baggage and multiple layers of meaning, but while regular language is meant to clarify and connect, loaded language is meant to obscure and isolate – and, in the hands of a predator, is a powerful weapon indeed.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about loaded language that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Gaslighting – How Predators Take Control by Turning Down the Lights

Gaslighting is a method of deliberate psychological manipulation, often used by traumatizing narcissists and other predators to confuse and incapacitate their prey. Gaslighters employ undue influence with a mixture of deception, obfuscation, accusations and denials, designed to make you question your own perceptions, making reality as hard to see as a dimly lit room.

A predator uses gaslighting to turn victims into dependent, unquestioning and compliant puppets, willing accomplices in their own destruction, completely unaware that they are being coerced or manipulated in any way. gaslight 3Kept in this virtual dark by their abuser, they live in a world of subtle fear, where it is dangerous to ask questions, where submitting to the abuser is the only way to keep the peace.

Victims of gaslighting are ultimately convinced that their sense of unease is due to their own inability to cope with their environment, rather than the intentional, calculated work of the predator who is tricking them. Often, it is such a frightening prospect to question the abuser’s authority, that the very idea of rebelling becomes inconceivable. Most sinister of all, the victims of gaslighting predators are conditioned to believe that their abuser is their only source of reliable information, comfort, and safety.


The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 stage play Gaslight[1], a psychological thriller about a man who systematically and deliberately drives his wife to the brink of insanity. His main purpose is to keep her helpless and unaware of his actions while he searches for the valuable jewels he knows are hidden somewhere in the sealed-off upper floors of the house. However, the cruel, sadistic methods he uses, coupled with the withering insults he heaps upon her, and the obvious relish he takes in torturing his bride, push this plot beyond the ordinary crime thriller, and into the realm of serious psychological study.

gaslight 1In the play and the movie adaptations, the raising and lowering of the gaslighting was an incidental result of the husband’s presence in the upper rooms, quite apart from his other, deliberate maneuvers to confound her senses. The wife, although doubting her own sanity, still had the presence of mind to notice the connection between her husband leaving their rooms and the lowering of the lights around her, coinciding with the sound of footsteps above her. The darkened atmosphere, used in the plot as the heroine’s main clue to her husband’s nefarious activities, also serves as a powerful symbol of the overall pattern of deceit and denial which characterizes the villain’s systematic emotional torture of his wife: the dimming of the lights, and the atmosphere of fear and danger from the suspicious footsteps, echoes all too well the uncertain reality and subtle terror which permeates the world of the gaslighted individual.


Although some abusers do indeed use the physical “crazy-making” tactics the husband employed in the play – such as hiding small household objects, and making his wife think that she had moved them unwittingly – most predators do not need to rely on such obvious methods to make their victims doubt their own sanity. There are many subtly varied, non-physical techniques used to gaslight, but here are the six major categories of manipulation a predator will employ:


The abuser, to avoid answering inconvenient questions, will pretend not to understand what is being asked, or simply refuse to talk about such “crazy” ideas. Questions will be met not with an answer but with a wall of resistance as to why the question even needs to be asked. Any subject the abuser doesn’t want to explore becomes “pestering” or “nagging,” and after a while, the victim will find that it’s simply safer not to ask any questions at all.

The abuser will also withhold affection – when you are in disfavor with a predator, you know it: they will do everything they can to make you miserable, torturing you in small, deniable ways, until you do whatever is necessary to get back into their good books. This subtle torture will mostly be accomplished by:

Teasing and Belittling

The phrase “death by a thousand tiny cuts” applies here, as the victim is worn down by an endless stream of put-downs and small, inconsiderate gestures. Abusers will mock their victims’ speech, make fun of their habits, ape their gestures. Often, the criticisms will be vague and over-generalized: (“you are always so forgetful/clumsy/stupid!”).

To further the emotional torture, an abuser will deliberately act in ways known to annoy and provoke the victim: in the play, the husband knew that flirting with the maid would mortify his wife, so he made sure to do it in front of her as often as possible. The gaslighting abuser will focus on the victim’s vulnerabilities, threatening to withhold or destroy something loved, such as a desired activity or a visit from a relative, or simply teasing someone about their sore points. The phrase “they’re only doing it because they know it upsets you” is a sorry enough thing to tell a child facing bullies; such behavior has no place in any kind of adult relationship or group dynamic. Even if the victim objects to such treatment, the reply will be one of shocked, even offended innocence (“I had no idea you objected to me cutting my toenails at the dinner table; I’m sorry my presence offends you!”). Similarly, the abuser will use:

Trivializing and Minimizing –

“Oh, it’s only a joke!” this answer can cover a multitude of cutting and withering insults. Although the abuser would never suffer such treatment from anyone, it is only in the victim’s imagination that any abuse has occurred.

gaslight 4Confronted with evidence of a past misdeed, the abuser will cite any number of mitigating circumstances, from the conditional apology: “I’m sorry if something I did made you feel upset,” up to and including the classic: “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill – it couldn’t have been that bad!” The victim is left bewildered and wondering if the disputed memory is really accurate; for a child still learning personal boundaries and self-assertion, this variant of gaslighting can be devastating. The sense of disconnection from reality can be pushed even further with:

Countering and Denying

One survivor of a childhood under the thumb of a narcissistic mother said: “The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.” Although it’s hard for most of us to imagine the level of sadism necessary to tell a child that the beating they suffered yesterday simply never happened, this tactic can be used in a variety of ways, from simply gainsaying the victim’s recollection of an earlier incident of abuse, to implying that the victim is making up stories to create trouble, all the way to questioning the victim’s sanity: “If you really believe it happened that way, you must be crazy.”

No matter what really happened, adept predators will re-write history, erasing any detail that shows them in an unfavorable light: after a while, victims often doubt their own memory; at the very least, they will avoid bringing up any subject with the potential to cause discord.

One of the saddest and most heinous applications of this form of undue influence is in the denial of child sexual abuse, particularly when that denial comes from the person to whom the child has come for protection: most children can depend upon a parent to fight for them against an abuser, but sometimes, especially if the abuser is a family member, that parental protection evaporates in a whirlwind of “it never happened” and “how dare you say such things about …”. Sometimes, however, even the most skilled liars slip, and the illusion lifts, if only momentarily. But rather than own up to their deception, they will instead employ:

Diversion and Accusations

When cornered with facts or incontrovertible evidence of their own wrongdoing, many gaslighters will resort to changing the subject to some weakness of their victim, or harshly question them as to their own motives in bringing such things to light: “Is that another crazy idea you got from your aunt? You know she hates me!”.

A variation on this tactic is the “pre-emptive strike”, where abusers pin their own crimes onto their victims: so a gaslighting wife who is guilty of infidelity accuses her husband of an affair, even before he suspects her; he is so confused and busy defending himself from her accusations that he will be distracted from seeing her deception.

In the play, when the wife protests that she could not have hidden a missing brooch, the husband diverts her attention, twisting her pleas of innocence into an accusation of the domestic staff, leaving the wife unable to even consider that her husband might have been the one who stole the brooch.

Another diversion is to draw a false correlation between the victim’s complaint and some unrelated incident, preferably a sore point ready to be exploited for emotional impact: “Well, obviously if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing this now.”. Under a constant barrage of such treatment, the victim becomes suspicious of everyone and constantly fearful, leading to:

Infantilizing and Assumption of Authority –

gaslight2Predators want you to know that they are in charge. Abusers question the autonomy of their victims constantly, second-guessing them on every decision and “punishing” them for perpetually making the wrong choice, until they become fearful to make any decisions on their own. This authority is capricious, and the boundaries and parameters of what is “acceptable” behavior in the eyes of the abuser will be fluid and ill-defined: an action which earned praise one day will bring a rebuke the next.

Predators often assume a caretaking role, assuring their victim that they and they alone can help, that they are the only ones who know what’s right for their victim. Often, abusers use triangulation – pitting their victims and any potential allies against each other with half-truths and backstabbing – in order to isolate their victims from any possible aid, by convincing them that everyone is against them, and that no one else could possibly love or understand them. The torturer is mistakenly seen as the protector, the abuser takes on the role of parent, and the victim becomes a helpless child, unable to protest, completely unaware of their own rights.


In the play, the villain used his legal hold over his wife (in that century, wives were considered property), but a gaslighting abuser will warp any mutual respect in a relationship, turning it into a one-way transaction of leader and follower.

Through careful, deliberate manipulation, predators can make their victims believe that any abuse they experience is a product of their own imagination, that they have no right to complain – even though their feelings tell them they are being badly-used – that they cannot trust the evidence of their perceptions, and that they – and they alone – are to blame for the unpleasant emotions welling up within them under the gaslighter’s confusing, contradictory and ever-shifting web of lies. Gaslighting is, in essence, the practice of obscuring actions in order to escape notice. In this way, gaslighting predators “turn down the lights” on their victims, keeping them in a shadow-world of deception and doubt.

[1] Later turned into two feature films of the same title, in 1940 and 1944.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about gaslighting that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


The Top 11 Myths Used to Justify Abusive Groups

People use many justifications to explain why a group is not a cult. Most are ingrained misconceptions about the term ‘cult’. If we learn to recognize these myths, we can stop public excuses for abusive groups, and strip away the groups’ own camouflage. It is just as important for us to know what doesn’t make a group not a cult as it is to know what does.

Here are the top eleven mistaken justifications people give to excuse abusive groups:

1. They’re such nice people!

The most common misconception about an abusive group is: “Oh, but this group can’t be a cult. I’ve met group members and they’re such nice people!”

It is easy to forget that nice people are exactly the sort of people who join cults. People like us. Well-meaning, nice people who want to make the world a better place. And, these nice people caught up in abusive groups are exactly the reason that these groups are so terrible. Because nice people convince us to let down our guard. Nice people are also better at flattery (or “love-bombing”). They can easily convince a potential recruit that this is exactly the group they’ve been searching for.

Those nice people are nice. And they’re being used as bait. The true nastiness is usually well hidden at the very top of the abusive group.

2. A lot of their members are very intelligent – there are doctors, lawyers and computer programmers in their ranks.

The ill-fated members of Heaven’s Gate, who committed group suicide in 1997, were highly intelligent people, many of them well-educated professionals from diverse backgrounds. Aum Shinrikyo, the infamous group that perpetrated the Sarin bombing in the Tokyo subway, included surgeons and computer programmers. Aum ran its own hospital, with ten doctors, headed by the reputable heart surgeon Ikuo Hayashi. Followers of Rajneesh were at times called ‘the PhD cult’.

There are even a few abusive groups that recruit their members exclusively from Mensa or other organizations where the intelligentsia gather – the selling point of the abusive group being that only the best and brightest can join. The London based School of Economic Science recruits with promises of philosophical development and has included politicians among its membership. Scientology has included both European MPs and one US Congressman among members, along with many doctors, lawyers and several NASA scientists. It is a common misconception that intelligent people don’t fall for cults: they do.

3. They don’t have a leader.

Most abusive groups have an omnipresent authority figure as a focus for obedience and reverence, but a narcissist is not a necessity – some abusive groups, such as the more disreputable pyramid marketing schemes, readily diffuse the reverence – and the responsibility – by simply creating a leadership class, a layer of core members whose orders seem to come from the group itself. Pseudo-Christian groups say that Jesus is their leader – any actual leadership of the group is cloaked behind multiple layers of committees and ‘servants,’ but in any abusive group, there will be a small number of people making the decisions – and the rest of the group obeying without question. Such groups are not in any way democratic.

4. A lot of what they teach makes sense.

Jim Jones of the Peoples’ Temple taught racial equality and Christian charity. He was given awards for his good works. Any Moonie or Hare Krishna will tell you they are working for world peace. Almost every abusive group has some teachings that are so basic that no one could possibly disagree with them – however, like the ‘nice people’, these sensible lessons stem from the good but misdirected intentions of the group, and are often hypocritical posturing, designed to camouflage and misdirect. If there was nothing good in the group’s teachings, no one would ever join. It is also true that positive public statements are usually contradicted by hidden teachings only available to the inner circle.

5. They do good things!

We see this sort of thing in advertising all the time. The highest and noblest values are linked inextricably to the sponsor’s product, and, although there is no evidence that anyone in the company follows the altruistic goals painted glowingly in the advertising, we are led to believe that McDonald’s is concerned about healthy eating and that General Electric is working for world peace. Moving away from the corporate and into the cultic, public relations become even more vital. Many abusive groups run supposed charities which at times do help the poor – for the price of indoctrination, handed out with the soup or cast-off clothes. Some groups maintain drug rehab centers, of varying effectiveness and level of danger to the patient (and often at a high financial cost to the victims). Whether or not the charity is socially beneficial, or just another way to launder money for the cult leadership, it will most definitely be used as a high-pressure recruiting ground, not only for those it purports to help, but also from well-intentioned donors.

6. They don’t mention religion.

There are plenty of coercive, destructive groups that have nothing to do with any kind of religious or spiritual practice. The threat of eternal damnation helps focus control, but it is not a necessity for the group’s existence. Almost anything can be the focus of an abusive group: political and business cults are almost as pervasive as religious ones, but there are also those that focus on quack medical procedures, self-help processes and psychotherapy groups. Simply put, wherever people gather, a predator can hold sway. Even a book club, with the right mix of people and structure, can become a highly controlling group; there are enough abusive martial arts dojos that benign groups have developed their own lists of criteria for recognizing an abusive group in their midst. Undue influence is found at all levels in our society.

7. They follow Jesus and believe in the Bible.

The opposite of the last wrong reason, this is a favorite of some well-intentioned but sadly misinformed members of mainstream Christian congregations. When confronted with such obvious examples as Waco, the Greensboro Baptists, or Jonestown, the descending spiral of “Well, they weren’t following Jesus and the Bible correctly,” is neither helpful nor useful. The fact is that an abusive situation can arise in any gathering of people of any faith, and when those people start believing that their leaders are their link to divinity, the result is usually disaster. The Children of God forced their children to have sex from the age of three, yet claimed to be Christians.

8. They’re not shut away in a compound. They live in our neighborhood and have regular jobs.

Many abusive groups have different levels of membership, with only the core group living and working apart from everyone else – despite the much more visible Sea Org, Scientology “public” live in their own houses, as do the rank-and-file of many high-control organizations. Simply put, it’s expensive to feed and house members – that’s money that the savvy cult leadership will want to spend on other things, like a Rolls Royce collection or solid gold Sega controllers (Scientology’s leader left $648 million and had his own 24-track recording studio, a race track and a 2000-piece camera collection. His Sea Org members were not even allowed money to buy toilet paper). Also, most abusive groups need to keep enough of their believers working good jobs in the community, not only for the income, but for the public relations. After all, if you know someone who’s in a group and they’re nice, then it can’t be a cult, right? Word of mouth is still the main recruiting tool for most cults.

9. They’ve been around for ages.

It might seem impossible for a highly restrictive and insular group to survive in the greater community for generations, but we only need to look as far as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christian Scientists, the New Thought movement and a few other relics of the 19th century’s “Great Awakening” to see that a cult can grow old, and even evolve into a full-fledged totalist environment. If a group can survive the death of its leader, it can pass on the reins of power to the next generation. Also, groups that may not have been abusive in the past can become so, and splinter groups and new leaders can hijack the name and reputation of the old group, and turn it into something completely different (as happened with the Branch Davidians at Waco). There are even some groups where the central organization is relatively benign and the abusive group dynamics can be found in some chapters but not in others.

10. They have a lot of members, and are growing rapidly.

The number of people in a group has absolutely nothing to do with the level of abuse and coercion in that group. Think about the citizens of North Korea, and the level of control under which they live. Even if an organization isn’t just inventing numbers to impress, Scientology-style, and even if their claims of rapid growth are real, it still has nothing to do with whether or not it abuses its members and keeps them from thinking for themselves; it just means they have very good recruiters and even better ways of keeping members committed.

11. A lot of people honestly believe in it.

Throughout history, people have believed fervently in strange things, and with as much honesty as any other believer. In medieval times, most Europeans believed in ‘dog people’. Tales of unicorns, fairies and mermaids were common and belief in them sincere. Daesh fighters are willing to die for their beliefs. A Jehovah’s Witness will give up on college or a good career, the better to serve full time as a “pioneer” doing missionary work. They will allow their children to die for want of a blood transfusion, because they honestly believe. Sadly, committed cult members spend all of their time and energy working for the group, because they believe so passionately in its cause. For what they believed to be the truth, people have murdered small children and pregnant women, defrauded whole communities, and committed group suicide.


In conclusion, undue influence and manipulation hide behind many justifications. We must be careful not to brush aside the evidence when we consider the possible dangers of any group or individual. It is good to believe the best about people, but it is sensible to consider the evidence, if we are to keep society safe from predators.

This article was inspired, in part, by this brilliant video by our friends Robin and Mike at “What’s Up, Watchtower?” ~ed.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about cult camouflage you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Gaslighting in the Watchtower Society

After 1975, when Armageddon had not arrived as the Watchtower had predicted, we Jehovah’s Witnesses were told from the platform and in publications that it was only some of us who thought the end would come specifically that year. They told us that the Society had never published or said that Armageddon was due. I remember coming away from some of those talks, shaking my head, and wondering if I was crazy.

Other times, I would remember something published in the Watchtower, even remembering where it was on the page, but when going to find it in the Bound volumes, it was gone. I thought I was crazy every time. After I left the Witnesses, I discovered that the bound volumes contained edited versions of articles to reflect “new light.” But back then, I just thought I was losing it, or that I had a bad memory.

Gaslighting also happens in abusive relationships: my second husband used to do this all the time. One time, he insisted that a certain singer never sang a song. A few days later, I heard it on the car radio and told him to listen. He insisted he never said that the singer had not sung that song: crazy-making.

I have had friends, a couple of bosses, parents, a couple of husbands, and a religion that all did this to me. It is important to learn what gaslighting is. Learn how to confront those who practice it if you can. And then get as far from people who do this as possible. You don’t need anyone or any group or religion making you feel crazy.

Note:  here is the blog explaining gaslighting which inspired Lee to write the above.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about gaslighting that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

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