Originally published in his 1988 international best-seller, Combating Cult Mind Control, the BITE model has alerted hundreds of thousands of people to the systematic use of undue influence in totalist cult groups. The BITE model has also been adopted by many scholars – ed.
On May 11th 1976, as a result of five days of deprogramming, I allowed the first truly critical thought about Sun Myung Moon to enter my consciousness; after some 27 months of fanatical devotion to his Unification Movement, I realized that he was a liar and not to be trusted.
While I was a junior at Queens College, recruiters had approached me, pretending to be fellow students, and flirted with me, making me think they were interested in possibly dating me. I had no idea that I was about to be exposed to the Moon cult: an incremental, systematic social influence system. However, I did experience a radical personality change and came to believe the “Messiah” was on Earth, Armageddon was imminent, World War Three was months away and I was being summoned by God to help save the planet and create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Aside from being away from the cult, sleeping well, spending time with “evil” ex-members (who were actually nice people), about the most helpful thing was seeing Robert Jay Lifton’s book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (Norton, 1961), and going through his famous Chapter 22 and his Eight criteria of how to evaluate whether a group was using brainwashing or “thought reform”- his preferred term. The model fit my experience of the entire system of the Moon cult, including the 3, 7, 21, 40, 120 day training workshops and the dynamics of membership.
I had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Lifton, who inspired me and encouraged me to study psychology, telling me that he had only studied the phenomenon second hand, while I had lived it: it was done to me and I did it to others, and that what I had described to him was a virulent mutation of what he had studied, far more sophisticated and dangerous. I went back to college and graduate school, read a slew of books and papers on social psychology, hypnosis, persuasion, and attitude-change. I met with many respected experts, and studied the works of many more: Philip Zimbardo, Edgar Schein, Joost Meerloo, William Sargent, Louis Jolyon West, and Margaret Singer (whose 6 condition model was later published in Cults in Our Midst), and dozens of other insightful people in this fledgling field.
The work of Leon Festinger and his Cognitive Dissonance Model (detailed in his book When Prophecy Fails) made so much sense to me and dovetailed with a model I had been taught as a Moonie recruiter. Festinger talked about Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors, and how there is a natural tendency for these to shift in reaction to changes in any one of them to reduce the internal conflict, or dissonance. In the Moon cult, I was taught to identify people as Thinkers, Feelers, Doers, or Believers, and alter the way I approached someone to fit their particular orientation. Thinking, Feeling and Behaving seemed to me to be key. But I realized that there was one more major aspect: information. This is the actual fuel that people use to respond, to digest, and to maintain their “reality”- including the “cult pseudo-identity” which is created as a result of the processes of undue influence.
I first laid out this model of “mind control” in the original edition of Combating Cult Mind Control in 1988. Years later, I changed the sequence to the “BITE model” at the suggestion of my friend Buddy Martin – who told me to consider rearranging the order of the four components into an acronym so they would be more easily remembered.
The four components: Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control, and all of their specific sub-variables, name specific techniques and methods of influence, which can be used to analyze the healthiness or destructiveness of any relationship or group. Domestic violence victims, cult members – including terrorist cult members – and even victims of human trafficking are all controlled through these four overlapping criteria. The model has proven effective in determining whether or not a person has fallen prey to undue influence. People report BITE is simpler and easier to understand and use than previous models of Undue Influence.
I. Behavior Control
1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
10. Permission required for major decisions
11. Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and others) reported to superiors
12. Rewards and punishments used to modify
behaviors, both positive and negative
13. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
14. Impose rigid rules and regulations
15. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning,cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
16. Threaten harm to family and friends
17. Force individual to rape or be raped
18. Instill dependency and obedience
II. Information Control
a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member
- Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
- Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
b. Control information at different levels and missions within group
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
- Encourage spying on other members
a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
- Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
6. Unethical use of confession
a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories.
III. Thought Control
1.Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
b. Instill black and white thinking
c. Decide between good vs. evil
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
2.Change person’s name and identity
3.Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
4.Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
5.Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
6.Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
7.Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a.Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
e.Speaking in tongues
f.Singing or humming
8.Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
9.Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
10.Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
IV. Emotional Control
1.Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
2.Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
3.Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
4.Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as
b.You are not living up to your potential
c.Your family is deficient
d.Your past is suspect
e.Your affiliations are unwise
f.Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
5.Instill fear, such as fear of:
b.The outside world
d.Losing one’s salvation
e.Leaving or being shunned by the group
6.Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
7.Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
8.Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
a.No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
b.Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
c.Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family
d.Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
e.Threats of harm to ex-member and family
In the new, updated edition of Combating Cult Mind Control I have a graphic of the Influence Continuum that helps bring together the BITE model variables.
Using his considerable legal expertise and an understanding of cult tactics, emeritus Santa Clara law school professor Alan W. Scheflin has formulated what he calls “The Social Influence Model (SIM).” This model, which is for use in courts, provides an effective way of measuring the different factors that contribute to undue influence by addressing six specific categories:
The Social Influence Model
INFLUENCER (Identity and Status)
INFLUENCER’S MOTIVES (Purpose)
INFLUENCER’S METHODS (Techniques)
CIRCUMSTANCES (Timing and Setting)
INFLUENCEE’S RECEPTIVITY/ VULNERABILITY (Individual Differences)
Any judge can use this straightforward model to determine if a person is being unduly influenced and whether or not they need intervention, or should be held fully accountable for criminal acts. It is the hope of many in the psychological community that this model will gain recognition and be relied upon to help victims and their families during everything from custody battles to criminal and civil legal trials. If a person can be proven to be unduly influenced, they may be able to receive the care they need to regain full control of their minds and become contributing members of society.
The BITE model is a practical tool for assessing situations where undue influence may be occurring. It can be applied by anyone to any group they may have questions about. It is a way to promote critical thinking and the application of real criteria to relationships, whether with individuals or groups. It is a way of becoming an informed consumer, better able to evaluate a new group or enterprise.
It is my hope that the study of social psychology continues to evolve and that models like these make a real difference in the way we approach undue influence. Applying what we know now and moving forward we can make a lasting changes to the future of the human race. Those of us studying undue influence are dedicated to learning more and reporting our findings to anyone who may be able to use them. Perhaps one day, its warning signs will become commonplace and help for its victims will be more easily accessible.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Steven’s book? Do you have a story about the BITE model that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!