Exploitative Techniques

Controlling Behaviour Without Consent

Exploitative techniques control behavior without consent. Human predators coerce others into fulfilling their desires with these techniques, which include alienation, and the tricks of brainwashing, coercive control, manipulation, mind control, thought reform or undue influence. Propaganda and indoctrination replace honest and open communication. Hypnosis and the induction of fervor are used to create radicalization and religious extremism in a totalitarian environment, where discussion and dissent are forbidden.


Alienation happens when communication between people is severed. Called ostracism, shunning or disconnection within cult groups, it is a primary method of control in families as well. Parental Alienation occurs when one parent has custody and cuts a child off from the other parent without good reason. Typically this is most severe in high-conflict, separated families.

Learn more about alienation


Exploitation means to use someone selfishly, taking advantage of them, their resources, and their labor. Thought reform, brainwashing, mind control or manipulation are all deliberate forms of exploitation or exploitative persuasion.

Learn more about exploitation


Indoctrination originally meant simply “teaching”, but the term has come to mean conditioning students to accept information uncritically and without question. Any method of instruction that does not encourage full and frank debate is indoctrination.

Learn more about indoctrination


Propaganda originally meant “public relations”, but the term has come to mean the manipulative use of public relations, often called “spin”. Where there is an attempt to deceive the audience, whether for political or advertising reasons, propaganda is at work.

Learn more about Propaganda

Thought Reform

Thought reform is the deliberate molding of ideas and behavior to bring about conformity with an authority. Thought reform can consist of both physical and psychological methods. The popular word for thought reform is brainwashing.

Learn more about thought reform


Brainwashing is the systematic use of mental and behavioral techniques intended to overwhelm individual thought and create obedience. It is also called mind control, manipulation, thought reform or undue influence.

Learn more about brainwashing

Fervor Induction

The induction of fervor is basic to those forms of manipulation that do not rely on threats or other methods of coercion. Predators often attract people by helping them attain a peak experience of awe or ecstasy, which can lead to a state of fervor. In a fervent state, critical thinking evaporates, and even the most intelligent and rational people can come to believe bizarre ideas, and become willing to commit anti-social acts “for the good of the cause.

Learn more about fervor induction


Manipulation is the deliberate control of another person against their best interests. It includes thought reform, mind control and undue influence, along with any other form of coercive control.

Learn more about manipulation

Religious Extremism

Religious extremism causes violence against those who do not accept a fanatical set of beliefs. Extremists manipulate followers to withdraw from society and to fear and hate outsiders. Many wars have been caused by religious extremism, and much contemporary terrorism stems from cults with strong religious beliefs. These groups develop extreme interpretations of a religious belief and are found in every major religion, including Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and even Buddhist ideologies.

Learn more about religious extremism


Totalitarianism, or totalism, is a system that demands complete submission to a government or organization. The word was originally used to describe the Nazi movement in Germany, but it also applies to groups controlled by an authoritarian leader, including destructive cults and gangs. Even a relationship where one partner has all the power can be considered totalitarian or totalist.

Learn more about totalitarianism


Coercion means controlling a person through threat of violence, emotional domination, or psychological manipulation. Coercive control and coercive behavior are already legal terms in the UK designed to protect family members or those in intimate relationships.

Learn more about coercion


Hypnosis is guided imagination. Altered states occur when someone else controls what we perceive and believe through the imagination. We are all suggestible to some extent, but creative people are particularly susceptible, because they have vivid imaginations. Hypnotic states can be induced through repetition, fixation of perception, mimicry or confusion. Hypnosis can cause shifts in perception, memory, interpretation and belief. Contrary to popular belief, hypnosis can instill dangerous and lasting behaviors.


Mind Control

Mind control is an alternative expression for brainwashing. While some academics question the idea, it has long been recognized in law as undue influence, and demonstrated through the victimization of abused spouses, the irrational fanaticism of whole populations, and the thousands of deaths caused by terrorists and cult leaders. Mind control is a systematic program of coercive persuasion or thought reform intended to create subservient obedience.

Learn more about mind control


Radicalization is the use of indoctrination or thought reform to create political or religious fanaticism and create hatred towards outsiders. Radicalization leads to violence and terrorism.

Learn more about thought radicalization

Undue Influence

Undue influence is the legal term for manipulation. Undue influence cases usually come about when a will is challenged and it is asserted that a beneficiary exploited the person who has left them an inheritance. Undue influence can be physical, emotional or psychological; it can be through threat or charm, or a combination of both.

Learn more about undue influence


Communication Heals the World

Alienation, ostracism, shunning & disconnection are cultic practice that cause psychological trauma far deeper and longer lasting than any physical injury.


A Weapon of Control

Alienation is a defining cultic practice, because isolation from the outside world is a necessity to keep members trapped in an abusive group or relationship. It is especially necessary to prevent communication with former members, so they are demonized with lurid tales of vicious and immoral behavior.

In the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pseudo-Christian cults, the practice is called ‘shunning’. Departing members are labeled ‘apostates’ or ‘faith-breakers’.

‘Cherem’ or ‘Herem’ is practiced in Judaic cults, which cut off all communication with a dissenter. The Ba’hai label defectors ‘covenant-breakers’ and shun them.

Scientologists call the practice ‘disconnection’ and label dissenters ‘suppressive persons’ (SPs), which they say is synonymous with antisocial personalities – the psychiatric term for psychopaths. The only criterion for this label is criticism of Scientology or its creator. Any Scientologist who remains in touch with a ‘suppressive person’ can no longer receive the cult’s ‘processing’ or ‘indoctrination’ and will be labeled a ‘potential trouble source’ (PTS).

Respected counselors will occasionally suggest a pause in communication and even a permanent cessation, if the person concerned is violent or constantly abusive, but they will not order ostracism, and disagreement with doctrine would never be considered sufficient reason for ostracism.

Parental Alienation

In parental alienation, the parent with custody blocks communication from the other parent and tells the child that the other parent is bad or dangerous. Letters, birthday and Christmas cards and gifts will not be passed on to the children, who are led to believe that the absent parent has abandoned them. In this situation, children grow up believing that one of their parents is a dreadful, uncaring person, and this can have significant psychological effects.

Harmful Rejection

On the receiving end of alienation, the social rejection can be very harmful. It can lead to antisocial behavior by someone who has been rejected. It heightens anxiety and depression, and lowers self-esteem.

The silent treatment and sending to Coventry are common names for alienation. In some societies, alienation is a punishment for criminal or antisocial behavior, but in an abusive group it is simply a way to control the members: toe the party line, or be abandoned.

Kipling Williams has studied the effects of ostracism and found differences in response between men and women in that women seem to work harder to rejoin the group after ostracism. Williams’ work leaves no doubt that ostracism can have profound and lasting effects. His work and that of other experts can be found at Ostracism Awareness.

Political Cults of the 20th Century

The rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century shows just how deadly political cults can be. Mussolini, Hitler and Franco entranced their followers and caused a global conflict. In Japan, the mixture of Soldier Zen and emperor worship stoked the flames of this conflict.

As fascist cults took over in central Europe, Russia fell under the sway of the Bolsheviks, who seized power from the existing socialist government. Despite his pretense of communist belief, Stalin completely subverted democracy, plunging Russia and its satellite states into decades of totalitarian rule.

On the Right

Today, at the right-wing end of the spectrum is the LaRouche Movement. Lyndon LaRouche is an American-born conspiracy theorist who was jailed for mail fraud in the 1980s. It was alleged that his organization had defrauded many elderly people through credit card fraud. Espousing an extreme conservative platform, he was a presidential candidate in every election from 1976 to 2004.

There are many political parties in Europe with a right-wing tendency. In Britain, the National Front morphed into the British Nationalist Party with a significant skinhead following.

In North America, White Supremacists and some Survivalist and Sovereign Citizen groups have the dynamics of political cults with unswerving dedication to a leader and a hateful attitude towards outsiders. Such groups include ‘Identity Christians’ who are strongly racist and other conspiracy cults.

On the Left

Left-wing cults are almost identical in behavior to right-wing cults. In the desire for complete democracy, members fall in line behind an autocratic leader. In Bounded Choice, Janja Lalich gives an excellent description of her time in Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party. Alex Stein’s Inside Out details her involvement with The O, another left-wing group that became totalitarian.

Radical Political Cults

North Korea is a political cult ruled for over 60 years by the Kim family. Because it has nuclear weapons, this totalitarian state poses a threat to all humanity, and keeps its 25 million citizens in a constant state of fear and subservience.

Daesh or ‘Islamic State’ is a political cult that has grown out of radical Islamism – a fusion of fundamentalist Wahhabi or Salafi religious belief with revolutionary communist strategies. Al Qaeda grew from the same beliefs and methods.


The Art of Cleansing the Mind

There are many names for manipulation, some more emotionally loaded than others. The name with the most negative sense is “brainwashing”, which was popularized by journalist Edward Hunter, a CIA agent.

Exploitive Techniques - Brainwashing

Hunter’s sensationalist 1951 best-seller was called Brainwashing in Red Chinaand it exposed the Chinese “thought reform” camps, where millions of citizens and foreigners were subjected to an intense remodeling of their beliefs, often spending years imprisoned in awful conditions. Hunter was writing at the height of the Korean War, where Communist China was seen as the arch-enemy of freedom, while in the US, the House Un-American Activities Committee waged a witch-hunt against the ‘Red Menace.’

The term “brainwashing” derives from hsi nao, a traditional term in the Taoist religion, meaning the “cleansing of the mind.” It was adopted by the Communists who wanted to root out “imperialist thinking.” At the core of Chinese brainwashing was the transfer of loyalty from the family to the Communist Party.

The Chinese used torture, sleep deprivation, enforced confessions and prolonged bouts of screamed verbal abuse to break down resistance. These were interspersed with feigned acts of kindness. Robert Jay Lifton interviewed victims of the program for his seminal book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

Brainwashing quickly entered the language, and has come to mean pressurizing a person until they accept a belief. In general conversation, it can mean simply a blinkered view: if someone was brought up to believe something disagreeable to the commentator, they were “brainwashed”.

The debate has raged since the term was first used. Some academics deny that there is any way to overwhelm another person’s reasoning. This view is to found particularly among some sociologists, who believe that we simply comply with social pressures.

Brainwashing - Exploitative TechniquesOthers believe that the term is accurate. For instance, Oxford University neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor called her fascinating book Brainwashing: The science of thought control. Social psychologist Alexandra Stein’s excellent examination of “total conversion” Terror, Love and Brainwashing, where she says, “the process whereby these regimes [China and North Korea] used methods of indoctrination to neutralize opponents of the regime and, in many cases, to convert them to sometimes enthusiastic support. This process involved the alternation of assault and leniency, of threat and apparent safety, within an isolating environment.”

Masoud Banisadr differentiates between “mind control” and “brainwashing” in his work. For him, mind control is the seductive first part of the process of indoctrination, and “brainwashing” is comparable to the aggressive Chinese process. Masoud was subjected to such techniques in the Iranian terrorist group MEK.

At Open Minds, we accept many terms for “brainwashing”, including manipulation, coercive control and undue influence.


Physical & Psychological Coercion

Coercion compels involuntary compliance through intimidation, blackmail and psychological pressure. It aims to make the victim submissive to the oppressor.


Physical coercion is the most commonly considered form of coercion, where the content of the conditional threat is the use of force against a victim, their relatives or property.


Psychological coercion often threatens the victim’s relationships with others. The most obvious example is blackmail, where the threat consists of the dissemination of damaging information. However, many other types are possible such as so-called “emotional blackmail”, which typically involves threats of rejection from or disapproval by a peer-group, or creating feelings of guilt/obligation via a display of anger or hurt by someone whom the victim loves or respects.

Coercive Control

Coercive control indicates an abusive relationship that need not involve violence or force. The expression has taken on a legal meaning in the UK with regard to abusive intimate relationships. Prosecution can lead to up to five years imprisonment.

Evan Stark in his book Coercive Control argues persuasively that by focusing on domestic violence, the legal system has failed to address the circumstances under which such violence takes place. Violence is the consequence of coercive control, where one partner rules the other.

Coercive control is yet another expression for manipulation or undue influence. The psychology of coercive control is identical to that of thought reform or mind control: one person dominates another by reducing them to subservience.


Unfair Advantage

Exploitation happens when someone uses a situation to gain an unfair advantage over another person. It is to use another person’s vulnerability for one’s own benefit.

Coercive Control

The term is often used to describe the specific type of coercive control where the manipulator uses this unfair advantage to gain material benefit, from a boss intimidating his workers not to file for compensation, to a therapist pressuring her clients to buy the health shake she sells as a sideline. However, exploitation can be used in a much broader perspective, as well.

Exploitative Persuasion

“Exploitative persuasion” was used by Singer and Addis to precisely define brainwashing, thought reform, coercive persuasion or mind control. Singer and Lalich give six conditions for exploitative persuasion in “Cults in Our Midst“:

  1. Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person
  2. Control time and physical environment (contacts, information)
  3. Create a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency
  4. Suppress old behavior and attitudes
  5. Instill new behavior and attitudes
  6. Put forth a closed system of logic

Fervor Induction

Feel the Spirit?

Awe and fervor are the missing elements in understanding attachment to cults, predators and irrational beliefs. Fervor induction comes about due to an experience of awe that has transformed into zeal or fervor.

We are Vulnerable to Our Emotions

Often, membership in a destructive group comes about due to an experience of awe that has transformed into zeal or fervor.

We are vulnerable to new ideas at times of transition, when we are dislocated from our family or friends, in a new school or job, or a new environment. In normal circumstances, we adapt to the change, but if we are approached by a seducer or a recruiter and given a taste of awe, we can move into a new set of beliefs and feelings.

Awe is the emotion underlying peak experience, a feeling of elevation and euphoria. People who are not used to the effects of meditation or hypnosis often experience awe when first introduced to these techniques.

Awe can be induced through an encounter with vastness, competence, beauty, celebrity, or something that seems miraculous. Predators often concentrate on inducing a sense of the miraculous, relying upon the novelty of an experience to bring about awe.

Friendly Flattery Can Be a Trigger

Most conversions include an awe-infused peak experience that results in radical personal transformation. In a predatory group, the convert is attracted by flattery, offered some free gift to urge reciprocation, welcomed into a friendly group, and then given an experience of awe – usually an intense feeling of euphoria, achieved through repetition, fixation, mimicry or confusion, or a combination of these elements.

Religious conversions are usually experiences of awe, but manipulated conversions are easy to achieve. For instance, if people have never fixed their gaze, they will be unaware of the Ganzfeld effect, where visual perception is distorted as the brain tries to make sense of the lack of change (called “filling in” by neuroscientists). Any perceptual fixation can result in euphoria, which can be framed as a “sign” or somehow miraculous, and this is easily exploited by predators.

The source of the technique is immediately perceived as an authority, and usually as an authority on subjects beyond what brought about the experience of awe. The experience may be seen as a miracle, and the new authority figure as a miracle worker, whose opinions about all subjects are considered authoritative.

When the awe experience is accepted as solid proof of a worldview espoused by some person or text, and the person learns ways to induce further awe experiences, a feedback loop is established, maintaining the person in a state of fervor.

Tricked by the Brain

It is likely that awe experiences release “reward” chemicals in the brain, leading to a form of addiction. In this state, believers will bond strongly with the predator, and reject any evidence that disagrees with the predator. They will be eager to explore other techniques in the attempt to induce more awe experiences. Some people become “cult junkies” in their quest for bliss states. They will abandon worthwhile work and even neglect their family, just as drug, alcohol, sex and gambling addicts do.

Even in the grip of fervor, people are still capable of intelligent decisions, except where those decisions are in conflict with a domineering partner or leader. Destructive cults include members with high academic qualifications, including astrophysicists, surgeons, lawyers and scientists. Scientific understanding is not a defense against recruitment through awe.

The Benefits of Fervor

Fervor is not necessarily bad: most campaigners for good causes experience fervor, which is a proper reward for their virtuous activity. However, fervor controlled by a predator is fundamentally harmful.

Predators use manipulative techniques to maintain fervor, while isolating followers from contradicting information and critical former believers. The manipulation of awe experiences and the induction of fervor is an essential aspect of cult membership.


Guided Imagination

Hypnosis means “guided imagination”. It describes the altered states of mind that occur when an outsider controls what we perceive and believe by manipulating our imagination.

Creative Types Easier to Hypnotize

Highly imaginative people are usually more easily hypnotized: such people have a more intense experience of both art and nature. It may be that phlegmatic people and psychopaths are immune to hypnosis, because they have restricted feelings, but most people can be hypnotized, and hypnotic states are a normal part of human life. Indeed, creative people use guided imagination on a daily basis without necessarily realizing it is a hypnotic tool.

Hypnosis is an ability, rather than a disadvantage, unless you are hypnotically controlled by an outsider. The word usually conjures up images of a swinging watch and profound or “deep” trance states, but this is not the everyday experience of hypnosis.

Hypnosis by Degree

“Light trance” or “reverie” is a dreamlike state, in which the subject remains conscious but susceptible to suggestion. Most hypnotherapists use this state to help their clients to overcome unwanted behaviors and to instill desired behaviors. The master of this technique was Dr Milton Ericson, though he relied upon his preternatural perception to influence his clients, which probably cannot be taught.


Beyond light trance is “everyday suggestibility”, which is the normal state of almost everyone. We are “primed” by our surroundings, and most of our thoughts are influenced by unregistered sensory cues.

The English showman Derren Brown demonstrated the effect of everyday suggestibility by asking two graphic designers to make a poster advertising a pet cemetery. They were surprised when he showed them that he had sketched the design they eventually came up with, before they even began. He then showed them the images they had been exposed to on their way to the studio, which led them to make their “own” design.


Visualization is a hypnotic method believed in by many athletes to enhance performance. Many creative artists use guided imagination to produce new work. For instance, the novelist Aldous Huxley withdrew into a fantasy world to create new stories. He called this “deep reflection”.

It is a very good idea to understand the basics of hypnosis, so that the ability is not used against us, and so that we can make positive use of it in our lives.


Critical Thinking Not Allowed

Indoctrination has come to mean teaching without appealing to the student’s critical faculties and without allowing disagreement. It is a central aspect of cultic practice.
Chanting to Learn
Repetitive learning – where students simply chant responses – is a popular form of indoctrination. It can be a useful way to commit information to memory, such as the alphabet or our multiplication tables, but it also can be used to impose political or religious doctrine and overwhelm critical thinking. In this circumstance, it is a form of manipulation.
Education vs. Indoctrination
The exact delineation between education and indoctrination often lies in the eye of the beholder. Some distinguish between them on the basis that the indoctrinated person does not, or is not allowed to question or critically examine the doctrine they are learning.

Deceptive Control

Manipulation is the use of deception and influence to control perception, attitudes and behavior.
Hidden Agenda
The word is often used to mean any form of persuasion, but true psychological manipulation includes a hidden agenda, unlike open and honest persuasion.

At Open Minds, we accept all of the terms used for manipulation – including brainwashing, undue influence, thought reform, coercive control, exploitative persuasion, indoctrination, mind control and totalism. Manipulation is perhaps the least emotionally loaded of these terms, and covers the full range of possibilities. “Brainwashing” and “mind control” need careful explanation to distance them from popular misconceptions; “undue influence” and “coercive control” are both legal terms. “Exploitative persuasion” is precise, but has not caught on with either academics or the public.

Commerce and Politics
Manipulative techniques have been devised and refined over centuries for use by political groups, commercial organizations, cults and predatory individuals. For instance, Machiavelli’s The Prince dates back to the sixteenth century, and shows how a ruthless leader can control and exploit his followers and extend his influence.

Tremendous refinements to public manipulation were made in the early 20th century by American PR experts Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, and Ivy Lee. The US government’s Committee on Public Information adopted their methods during WWI, and Bernays later pointed out that Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels had simply applied his own American PR techniques to the whole population of Germany.

New Thought Manipulation
Manipulative techniques were also developed in the New Thought movement, which persists to this day through such methods as “The Secret” and the “Law of Attraction”. Leaders in this field generally use “affirmations”, allied to the strange belief that the universe responds directly to the wishes of individual human beings. There have been many fraudsters involved with this approach, including Napoleon Hill and Emil Coué.
Overwhelming Reason
Manipulation is used by dishonest advertisers, by political spin-doctors, by unethical sales people, by confidence tricksters, by abusive partners, by pedophile groomers, by human traffickers, and by cult leaders. There are many methods, all of which rely upon the trust of good people, our desire for profit, or our desire to help others, and drawing on normal group psychology. All of these methods are based in deception and distraction, and stir up emotion in order to overwhelm reason.

The Open Minds Foundation is dedicated to exposing the tricks of all dishonest manipulators, and the traits by which manipulators can be recognized.

Mind Control

Who Controls My Mind?

Mind control is the use of coercive and manipulative techniques to reconstruct belief and behavior in the victim and impair their ability to make independent decisions.

US Mind Control Programs

The US military began “mind control” experiments immediately after World War Two. It was believed that the Russians had already found ways of breaking people and enforcing psychological submission, because of the “Show Trials”, where senior officials had confessed to impossible crimes.

Drug Experiments

Mind control programs endorsed by US, British and Canadian intelligence agencies affected thousands of innocent citizens. LSD was introduced to the student population through these programs. The drug BZ, now a prohibited substance under the Chemical Warfare Convention, leaves the victim prone to crippling psychotic flashbacks that can last for days, was given to thousands of military personnel. An article referring to a declassified report “The Story of the Drug BZ” alleges that drug trials were carried out on “hundreds of thousands” of people. See also “The Mind Manipulators: A Non-Fiction Account”.

Behavior Modification

Mind control and behavior modification programs were run by eminent psychiatrists. In Canada, Ewen Cameron, head of both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatric Association, violated the rights of mental patients, using electric shocks to destroy memory as part of Project MKUltra.

The Moonies

In South Korea, Sun Myung Moon developed a “de-brainwashing” program based upon Chinese methods for his group Victory Over Communism. He would later create the Unification Church – or Moonies – along with officers of the Korean CIA. Other cult leaders have undoubtedly studied and applied these techniques.

The Cult World

The term “mind control” was adopted by the counter-cult movement in the 1970s, and popularized through Steven Hassan’s highly-influential book,
Combating Cult Mind Control.

It is sometimes more accurate and always less emotive to use the terms “manipulation” and “undue influence”, rather than “mind control”, as these do not rely on the use of torture, restraint or drugs. However, the use of sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition (especially through high-carbohydrate diets) and isolation are commonplace in destructive cults, some of which could be accused of torture and restraint, and some of which have also used hallucinogens, so the use of the term is entirely understandable.


Propaganda Sways Opinion

Propaganda is the evil twin of Public Relations. Although the founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, preferred the term “propaganda”, most people nowadays equate propaganda with manipulative PR or “spin”.

The Spin-Doctors

Propagandists have a hidden agenda. They bend opinion at the expense of the truth, a truth that may be completely hidden from public view. Recent revelations about frequent accidents at nuclear power plants in the UK exemplify this tactic.

Political spin-doctors are adept at “stealing” the news by releasing a bigger story than the negative one about to break about their employer, which is then pushed into the middle pages (as shown in the film Wag the Dog, where a potential presidential sex scandal is eclipsed by a manufactured war). They know how to reword any proposition, using the most positive words possible, turning even the worst news into something to be celebrated.

Propaganda – Exploitive Techniques Spin-doctors can also undermine a competitor’s position. In an opponent, “caution” will be reviled as “paranoia”; the willingness to negotiate becomes “appeasement”.

Words That Work

Dr Frank Lutz, consultant to the Republican Party in the US, wrote a remarkable exposé “Words that work” about his profession, including some of his own stirring words as they were voiced by politicians. Lutz gives many examples of wrong and right words, for instance: never say “government”, instead say “Washington”; for “undocumented workers” say “illegal immigrants”; for “capitalism” say “free market economy”; for “wiretapping” say “electronic intercepts”.

Lutz understands the immediate emotional power of words. There are “snarl” words and “purr” words that are readily used to channel thinking, creating the desired emotions in the listener through the words used to describe the situation.

Predators and Propagandists

The true propagandist is a special form of predator, at times a fervent believer in a cause, though most make the mistake of boasting about their sleight of hand. Our present distrust of politicians is a direct result of the memoirs of spin-doctors, who cheerfully admit their attempts to manipulate the public at every possible opportunity.

Propaganda diverts from the negative and amplifies the positive. Hitler said that the Allies won the First War because of British propaganda rather than military strategy. He was able to control almost all available media through his own propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.

A glance at Allied propaganda in World War Two shows how easily images are manipulated: both China and Russia are characterized by strong, handsome people, whereas the Japanese enemy are characterized by buck-toothed, under-nourished, frail images with malevolent eyes.

Public Relations vs Propaganda

The distinction between honest public relations and propaganda is often hard to make: Edward Bernays insisted that Goebbels had simply applied his American advertising techniques to the control of a whole population.

Propaganda can be used to deceive and to create hatred. It is a tool very effectively used by contemporary terrorist cults to attract recruits.

It is best to fight propaganda with truth. The Internet has given us both fact-checking and fake news. We need to learn to differentiate between them. A good start is Pratkanis and Aranson’s book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion.

The Cult World

The term “mind control” was adopted by the counter-cult movement in the 1970s, and popularized through Steven Hassan’s highly-influential book,
Combating Cult Mind Control.

Religious Extremism

Spiritual Extremism

It is important to differentiate humane from destructive interpretations of religion. Religious extremism has been a major cause of human suffering throughout recorded history. As the Dalai Lama has said, “The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness.”


Human Suffering

People have justified the most barbaric acts with claims to sacred duty. As Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

All too often, religious extremists have led their followers to commit atrocities through a dogmatic belief in inhumane ideas. The contemporary focus is on terrorist acts committed by Muslim zealots, who have allied a fundamentalist interpretation of their faith with guerrilla tactics devised by revolutionary Marxists.

Hatred of the Minority

And yet, less than half a per cent of Muslims are followers of the Salafi or Wahhabi faction of Sunni Islam, and most of these are not militant, but the acts of the few thousand followers of Daesh and Al Qaeda have stirred hatred towards all Muslims. This hatred has swelled support for the militant Wahhabis, just as they intend.

Christian Extremism

The Troubles in Northern Ireland became an internecine war between Protestants and Catholics. Extremists on both sides believed that they were the true Christians, with little thought for the teachings of the Prince of Peace they claimed to be following.

Religion as an Excuse

Destructive bigots have frequently used religious belief as an excuse for vicious anti-social behaviour throughout history. Christian extremists destroyed the greatest library of the ancient world at Alexandria. The Iconoclasts destroyed great art, as did the English Puritans of the 17th century. Muslim extremists have destroyed much great art due to their fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Qu’ran.

The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Huguenot wars, the witch-hunts and many persecutions have stigmatized Christianity. But extremism is not limited to any particular religion: after partition in India in 1947, as many as two million people may have died in conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

In the lead up to WWII, unthinking obedience was fostered in the Japanese public with the cult of the Emperor and “Soldier Zen“. Leading Zen Buddhist teachers have acknowledged the error of this teaching, and apologised for it.


Radicalization is Extreme Propaganda

Radicalization is the process of causing someone to adopt fanatic, radical positions on political or social issues through propaganda and thought reform.

Grievances Lead to Radicalization

It is a mistake to think that radicalization applies only to Islamist terrorists, just as it is a mistake to believe that suicide bombings all have a religious motivation – there are many terrorist groups driven by purely political objectives.

There are pathways that lead to radicalization, beginning with a personal grievance – for instance, the Chechnyan “black widows”, suicide bombers who had lost their husbands. Muslims who have been slighted for their belief also fulfill this criterion: anti-Muslim prejudice makes radicalization all the more likely.

The first step may also be group grievance, where a group feels under attack – all separatist terrorists have experienced this. Kurds may support the PKK, because of attacks upon their fellow Kurds. In cultures that are under siege, there is no need for radicalizing thought reform techniques. The realities of daily life are enough. For instance, Tamils in Sri Lanka were denied the right to vote, so some joined the Tamil Tigers and became terrorists. Nothing can justify terrorism, but we need to work for a more fair, equitable world if we are to stop radicalization.

Romantic and family attachments can also influence radicalization. Some groups originate as extensions of family or friend networks, and a pretty face can be used to recruit just as easily as into a cult.

Cultural Isolation

In the West, second generation offspring of Muslim parents often feel isolated from their roots and are prey to radical groups that apply thought reform techniques to instill new beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes they are rebelling against their parents’ moderate beliefs.

The “slippery slope” addresses gradual radicalization through retreat into a like-minded group and withdrawal from the larger society. Resentment is amplified slowly, and the recruit is encouraged to bond with fellow-believers while disparaging outsiders. This may begin with something as laudable as charity towards the victims of prejudice but can escalate into “dispensing of existence”, where outsiders are perceived as demonic and evil, without human rights.

Status is achieved by participation in the cause. Killing an enemy in war is viewed differently from murder in almost all societies. Killing an enemy is praiseworthy, and increases the status of the perpetrator. Risk-taking becomes a positive activity in a radical group. In groups that perform suicide bombing, a high status attaches to successful bombers and their surviving families. In some parts of the world, billboards have shown images of smiling “shahida” or “martyrs”.

Existing concerns and beliefs are put aside for transformation as a member of the group, which, in effect, becomes a larger self – a set of values to be defended at all costs. “Unfreezing” of existing beliefs leads to changing of beliefs and then the “refreezing” process, where the new concerns and beliefs become central to a new sense of being and purpose.

Belonging to a group often means accepting all of the values of the group, whether they are understood or not. Recruits submit to the higher authority of the leader or doctrine and demand purity – compliance with that authority.

Polarization will happen, once group values have been accepted: you are either with us, or against us. There is no longer any middle ground. Those who disagree are the enemy. This argument is used to justify the murder of “enemy” children.

Isolation strengthens the bond to the group in line with Hassan’s BITE model – control of behavior, information, thought and emotion will take place as an aspect of separation from the society beyond the group. Access to conflicting information is completely cut off: the media is under the control of hostile forces, anyone who disagrees with the leader is diabolic. Thought-stopping will prevent true believers from even listening to criticism.

Provoking Competition

Competition can also escalate into radicalization. This is seen in left-wing groups that compete to show that their doctrine is more pure than that of rival groups.

Ju-jitsu politics indicates the use of provocation to make governments act against minorities and create oppressive legislation that will ultimately strengthen the radicals’ cause. This strategy is aimed at isolating moderates to cause social polarization. Al-Qaeda wanted First World countries to invade Muslim countries, to support their effort to create a united opposition. Their numbers grew from less than 500 at the time of 9/11, into tens of thousands after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They want westerners to believe that all Muslims are militant Wahhabis and persecute them, so that there are even more persecuted Muslims, now eager to join the cause.

An “Us and Them” mentality is fundamental to all cults; it is essential to terrorist groups. Opponents are seen as demons or even vermin – just as in genocides.

It is Not a Mental Illness

Extensive investigation has shown that terrorists do not suffer from mental illness. Ariel Merari has provided a significant survey of the psychology of suicide bombers in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He did find a higher proportion that is usual of dependent and avoidant personality types, but suicide bombers in Palestine come from a community that needs no radicalization. His book “Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism” gives a lot more detail.

In contrast, western terrorist recruits are often from moderate Muslim families and have a university education. They have fairly normal personality profiles. Marc Sageman challenges conventional wisdom about terrorism, observing that the key to mounting an effective defense against future attacks is a thorough understanding of the networks that allow these new terrorists to proliferate in his book “Understanding Terror Networks“.

Some experts prefer to avoid any suggestion of thought reform, but fail to explain what they mean by “radicalization”, which most certainly contains elements of manipulation and the use of undue influence.

It is sometimes more accurate and always less emotive to use the terms “manipulation” and “undue influence”, rather than “mind control”, as these do not rely on the use of torture, restraint or drugs. However, the use of sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition (especially through high-carbohydrate diets) and isolation are commonplace in destructive cults, some of which could be accused of torture and restraint, and some of which have also used hallucinogens, so the use of the term is entirely understandable.

Radicalization Resources

Thought Reform

Manipulated Thinking

In personal relationships, predatory people will entrap a partner with thought reform. In all circumstances, thought reform increases dependency by eroding self-confidence and self-reliance.

Changing Beliefs with Thought Reform

“Thought Reform” was Robert Jay Lifton’s term for the systematic change of people’s beliefs and attitudes by the Chinese Communist government. “Brainwashing” is the popular term for this program.

In “Cults in Our Midst” Singer and Lalich wrote:

“The tactics of a thought-reform program are organized to:

  • Destabilize a person’s sense of self.
  • Get the person to drastically reinterpret his or her life’s history and radically alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality and causality.
  • Develop in the person a dependence on the organization, and thereby turn the person into a deployable agent of the organization.”
Remolded Identity

Thought reform has a deliberate and hidden agenda to remold a person’s identity. It differs from education or rehabilitation, because the person undergoing thought reform is not told the real aims of the program, nor warned of the potential dangers.

Education and rehabilitation encourage personal development and independent decision-making, where thought reform reduces personal authority to bring about obedient compliance.

Even ethical military and religious training can verge on thought reform, but pseudo-religious cults, terrorist groups and criminal gangs have no hesitation in using techniques that result in unthinking obedience.


The Total Authoritarian

Acentralized state that outlaws all opposition and demands complete subservience of the population.

Mussolini’s Fascist Movement

“Totalitarian” combines “total” and “authoritarian” and was first used to describe Mussolini’s Italian Fascist movement in 1926. It describes a political philosophy where a centralized state outlaws all opposition and demands complete subservience of the population. Fascism totalitarianism is not simply right-wing: it is opposed to democracy. In a totalitarian state, the leader makes all of the policy decisions. The state depends entirely upon the will and the whims of a dictator, who will almost inevitably be a tyrant.

Hitler’s “One People”

Hitler expressed his own totalitarian view in the statement, “One Empire, One People, One Leader” (Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Führer). The last totalitarian regime in western Europe ended with the death of General Franco in 1975. Franco ruled Spain and its colonies for almost 40 years, as a totalitarian, fascist dictator.

Most supposedly communist countries – such as Russia under Stalin – have also been totalitarian, in complete opposition to the basic tenets of Marx’s ideas. All dictatorships are totalitarian by definition.


“Totalism” is a contraction of “totalitarianism”, and Robert Jay Lifton extended the expression beyond state totalitarianism to all authoritarian relationships. To be “totalitarian” or “totalist” means to demand control. It describes dictatorship in all its many forms – whether in politics, religion, business, therapy, or even personal relationships. Totalitarianism sacrifices individual rights and freedoms, with the argument that only the greater good of society matters.

Lifton’s Model

Robert Jay Lifton provides the basic model used by many in the counter-cult world to understand the submission to irrational ideas and anti-social practices that define destructive cult groups. Lifton’s model is the “thought reform” model, derived from his study of returnees from Chinese “brainwashing” camps and discussed in detail in his book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China”.

Undue Influence

Taking Advantage of Another

Undue influence is the accepted legal term where one person takes advantage of another because of an imbalance of authority or power in the relationship. The expression dates back many centuries, and is recognized by courts around the globe.

There is a presumption of undue influence in any authority relationship. So, if you make gifts to your attorney, doctor, clergy member or therapist, you can claim the gifts back at a later date, if you believe that you were simply responding to their influence.

Express Undue Influence

Express undue influence means that particular methods have been used to create an unbalanced relationship, with a predator using these methods to gain authority. This can range from psychological manipulation, to false imprisonment and physical intimidation. Techniques like triangulation and gaslighting are psychological aspects of express undue influence. All of the methods of manipulation fit into this category.