I was talking to a friend about her dreadful time in the Watchtower Society last night, and I explained to her my notion that thought reform is not simply something that is done to us, but something that we actively collaborate with.

She was willing to accept the notion (I am, after all, an authority, so it’s easy to agree with me!), but I feel that I need to explain it further, because it might all too easily be construed as blaming the victim, and that isn’t what I mean at all.

The processes of manipulation are simply amplifications of normal behaviours. We tend to comply with the group we are in, as social psychologists have long shown. We have a tendency to groupthink – and are especially inclined not to show the slightest disagreement with leaders, bosses and dominant partners. This groupthink is too often mixed in with feelings of loyalty (though any decent leader is open to correction).

Empathetic people encourage those around them without an agenda. Totalists encourage – or ‘love bomb’ – those around them to control them. The behaviours of friendship and domination can be identical – up to the point where your cash is gone along with your liberty.

My friend was taken into the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a young child, so the process of collaboration was very different from that of an adult recruit. If your view of society is ingrained from an early age, you have nothing with which to compare it. So ‘second generation adults’ (SGAs), or ‘born-ins’, are in a different situation to those recruited post-puberty, who have an existing set of social rules with which they can make comparison.

Even for consenting adults, there is no conscious choice to buckle down under the rules and regulations of a destructive group or partner. The group or partner seems beneficial and will often act in a positive way to lure the new victim. In a cult group, the members often feel happy, and project that happiness. They keep the darker realities hidden, which is an everyday aspect of groupthink: it would be disloyal to tell the truth.

Our collaboration is mostly unconscious, and it occurs largely because our society is over-focused on obedience and courtesy. This doesn’t meant that we should teach our children to be wilfully disobedient or rude. Rather, we should teach them to be assertive – able to express their concerns politely (my buzz phrase is to ‘disagree agreeably’).

Of course, some few people are ‘dependent personalities’ and will do whatever they are told. Some of them end up as suicide bombers, and a few end up in cults or other coercive relationships, but, for the most part, people who are lured into cults do not suffer from this disorder: they are tricked and gulled into membership. They then collaborate with the totalist regime, because they sincerely believe in the leader or abusive partner. Undo that collaboration, and you have escaped the destructive relationship.

Collaboration or co-operation are aspects of pro-social behaviour that are easily hijacked by a manipulator. So I try to show people how to question, how to doubt and how to reason. It is always best not to become enraged during this process, in part because a skilled manipulator can take advantage of any strong emotion.

In my experience, the ability to withdraw and think privately, and also to have frank discussions with disinterested parties, is vital to all significant decisions. We all too easily fall into line with powerful personalities, but, as Oscar Wilde said: ‘Disobedience is Man’s original virtue’. We all have the right to disagree and to withdraw our collaboration.

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