Spotting Undue Influence

There is no definitive way to spot undue influence, because it involves so many factors. What is more, it can develop very gradually, with increments of personal freedom  given up one step at a time, so it is often a case of identifying small personality changes over many months or even years.

Our ‘What is Undue Influence?’ page shows a range of of typical characteristics of individual behaviour; you can also look at the methods used by an influencer. If this leads to concern about someone in your life, read our help & support pages for information on what to do next.

Features of undue influence

Undue Influence occurs between individuals and within groups. In many cases the person being influenced does not have direct contact with the influencer, although direct contact usually creates greater susceptibility. Each situation in which undue influence occurs is unique and the outcome will consist of various factors in combination. However, there are common features that demonstrate undue influence, which usually co-exist. These include:

Whether to a person, a group, a religious belief or other ideology, unwavering commitment - 'ours is the only way' - is dangerous. Doubt is a healthy aspect of human behaviour. People who make an independent choice to support an individual or cause can explain their support rationally and are open to debate; people who are unduly influenced ignore or automatically dismiss any negative evidence against, or criticism of their beliefs, and are often unwilling or unable to explain those beliefs. Instead of reasons, they will offer 'thought-terminating  clichés' that simply parrot the influencer.

The inability to explain their devotion is true of victims of domestic violence, who usually make excuses for their attacker. It is also true of those who are radicalised and believe violent destruction 'is the only way'. In each each case, undue influence has created an unwavering commitment to the cause - whether the establishment of Paradise on Earth, the Caliphate or the preservation of a marriage and family. 

Be wary when people believe themselves superior to those outside the circle.  Whether in the name of 'love', 'religion', or even 'nation', undue influence is almost always built on the belief of superiority; that the people in the relationship or group are somehow better than those around them. And to perpetuate this belief, manipulators form  'in-groups' and create 'out-group' enemies to bind followers to them.
Some people surrender immediately to negative influence, but undue influence is not necessarily instant: it often happens over time. Significant shifts in personality or behaviour are warning signs of undue influence. Examples include an individual becoming manic (gleeful) or dogmatic, domineering, withdrawn, fixated, irritable, scattered or dissociated. These characteristics can occur naturally, so the key is to identify a specific change, which may be a sign of mental illness - and should be addressed - or undue influence. Of course, genuine transformation is also possible, but it will be positive in nature. 
Closely related to changes in character, the loss of the ability to think critically is a key warning sign. While the critical faculties still function in some areas, it has become impossible for the individual to analyse or evaluate information that stems from the influencer. Every case must be assessed on an individual basis, but unwillingness or inability to evaluate information is a clear indicator of undue influence.
Black & White thinking, that is viewing the world as 'good or evil', 'right or wrong' and 'us and them' with nothing in between  or consideration of individual circumstances or mitigating factors, is a common characteristic of both influencers and their victims. Anything beyond the parameters set by the influencer is either false or simply not applicable. This closely ties to the inability to assess information, as any deviating viewpoint alerts suspicion rather than consideration.
Shunning (ostracism) is a key method used by influencers and cult-like groups to exclude communication with dissenters or critics. It is a form of information control. Shunning or dismissing particular groups or individuals indicates a shift of  belief, even without a cult membership. Believers are told to 'shun' non-believers, but some take it on themselves to 'shun' or 'disconnect' as a result of the undue influence. They may withdraw from lifelong friendships, and cut ties with family and community. This is common in cases of domestic violence, where the abuser forbids contact with family members, and it happens in situations where an individual is being 'groomed' - whether for human trafficking, or recruitment by a gang or terrorist group.

In cases where a belief system or situation is criticised, those who are unduly influenced often take the criticism as a personal attack, rather than considering the evidence.

Instead of trying to 'enlighten' believers, by pointing out faults and flaws, it is better to gently encourage them to explain their situation. Any attempt to bully the believer will likely fail as the escape from undue influence necessitates time to make personal decisions. It is usually best to establish good communication before attempting to discuss the behaviours or beliefs which give you concern.  

Contempt of external authority, for example support from the police or social services, can indicate undue influence, particularly if coupled with recently changed behavioural changes, or unwavering commitment to a cause, a leader or a relationship. Those who are unduly influenced often dismiss external help and support, in the belief that any issues will be properly dealt with by the influencer. Sadly, this often leads to a failure to report criminal abuse.  In thousands of cases, abused children have been silenced and their abusers have continued to abuse others.  Of course, in some situations, concern about outside authority is justified, but it will be supported by evidence and rational argument, rather than phobic dismissal. 

This is by no means a complete list, but it shows some of the more prevalent, readily identifiable factors. Characteristics commonly associated with undue influence are:

  • Phobias, albeit induced phobias 
  • Guilt
  • Hatred for critics, former believers and 'enemies'
  • Shame 
  • Loaded Language
  • Distrust of outsiders, the authorities, mental-heath therapists and the media
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Denial of evidence or opposing information
  • Limitations on communication
  • 'Thought-stopping' rituals, such as chanting or repeating  clichés to end discussion
  • Poor self-care - fatigue, poor diet, no health care
  • Elaborate rituals - to the point of obsession
Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed ― Bertrand Russell

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