How Abusers And Radical Ideologies Use Cult Tactics To Brainwash People

Through avenues on the internet like documentaries, video essays, and social media, we know more about cults (large and small) than ever before. The problem is that people don't recognize cult brainwashing tactics when they're used by other groups to gain control. So what exactly does that look like?

By Luna Salinas5 min read
How Abusers And Radical Ideologies Use Cult Tactics To Brainwash People shutterstock

Picture a cult member: maybe you see someone who’s mentally ill, or weak-willed, with no light left in their eyes; someone happy to abandon their family, career, or hobbies in favor of the cult. The truth is, people don’t generally up-and-join cults. Instead, they’re typically vulnerable in some way and groomed by cult members who see value in other aspects of them, like their personality, abilities, or talents.

How do cults operate? One survivor Alexandra Stein identifies “a trifecta of terror, love, and brainwashing as key to cult behavior.” She says it’s the same dynamic that occurs in abusive relationships.

Individuals sought by cults are made to question their lives and everything they know, including who truly loves them. A cult wants its members to fulfill the intentions or goal of the cult – without questions. So, the cult keeps its members complacent by continuing to convince them that they’re truly in the right and everyone else is wrong and malicious and out to get them.

If that fails, and someone starts to ask questions, cult leaders may resort to fear tactics in order to keep someone in, and especially to not talk about their experiences.

Cults, abusers, and radical ideologies all use similar tactics of love-bombing, then isolation and fear to control their victims. You may think you're safe from brainwashing, but it isn't always as obvious as you'd think. Here are some of the most common tactics that abusers and controlling groups use to gain your compliance and allegiance.

All of a Sudden, You’re Not Alone

Think of a time when you felt like you were the only one in your family, group of friends, or immediate community that cared about something you deeply felt was important, and everyone else either laughed at you or said “Who cares?”

If you then suddenly met someone who shares that same amount of care as you do, maybe even more so, how would you feel? Surely like the world just got a little friendlier, or at least like you’re no longer hopelessly alone. They become a friend, someone you can talk to about this issue you care so much about, and other issues as well. They’re not dismissive of you – you feel seen and respected and like you’re no longer alone.

When the cult is meeting your needs, they can use that position to manipulate and even harm you. 

Such a relationship could end up being good; it’s not like finding someone who cares about the same things you do and shares your same values is a bad thing (depending on said values).

But isolated people are prime targets. If you feel as though you’re alone, even when surrounded by family and supposed friends, there’s a gap there in your hierarchy of needs, specifically in the area of love and belonging. If you don’t feel like you’re loved or like you belong, your motivations and actions will likely prioritize meeting that need.

hierarchy of needs

Image Credit:

So when someone who seems to have all the answers comes by, validating your beliefs and what you care about, they’re extending themselves towards you, to fill that gap. All of a sudden, they invite you to hang out with their family, their friends, their group, who also cares about these things, and you’re exposed to even more individuals like him or her. They meet your need to feel like you belong. And because they’re meeting your need, they can now use that to manipulate you or even harm you. 

A New Family

Once the group has someone going to their meetings and showing interest in their cause, they may begin to love-bomb them; that is, shower them with compliments, gifts, and attention. They may commend you on how special you are, how you possess good qualities, and how you’re invaluable. They may insist on you joining so they can become your new family, because after all, you don’t feel seen or respected by your current, actual one, right?

The love-bombing can extend into outright isolating you from your existing support systems (if you have them), and if you don’t, then it’s even easier for members to step in and immediately fill in the gap where love and a support system are supposed to go. But they may go far in order to isolate someone from their family and friends.

Cults make you question your life and everything you know, including who truly loves you.

The support system may be vilified, and the victim may be told that everything they know about their support system is a lie. Even if they may have felt only a bit isolated before, the cult may manage to convince the individual that their family and friends never truly loved them, and that they don’t actually hold anybody’s best interest at heart but their own. Instead of seeing the victim as a family member and someone they care about, the cult will claim the victim’s support system sees them as unworthy of love or respect.

All of a sudden, the victim will become more inclined to join the group – after all, everything they knew before turned out to be a lie, and their new family helped them see that.

“Never Forget, We Know Best”

So long as the victim is isolated from a support system that actually cares about them, the group is able to use terror tactics to keep them from leaving.

Isolation is maintained by the group, in the form of controlling their members’ relationships and sources of information – which is easy to do if they manage to convince them everything they’ve previously known and been told was a lie. If someone, especially a family member, loves you, they’re looking out for your best interests and not lying to you. The group wants you to think that about them.

If you deviate from the way the group thinks, or question anything about them, you risk the ultimate isolation – not just from everything in your old life, but from your new family as well, the one that supposedly knows and loves you best. And with that threat looming over someone’s head constantly, they have a very strong terror tactic at their disposal.

Cults control their members’ relationships, sources of information, and sense of safety.

In an interview with Aeon, Stein explained further using a quote from John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory: “When we are frightened, we don’t simply run away from the fear, but run to a safe haven, ‘to someone’…and that someone is usually a person to whom we feel attached. But when the supposed safe haven is also the source of the fear, then running to that person is a failing strategy, causing the frightened person to freeze, trapped between approach and avoidance.”

To a cult member who finds themselves in this position – similar to a young child with an abusive parent – all of a sudden they’re stuck, and left with two options: continue serving the cult while intentionally suppressing any questions, or risk everything and potentially be truly alone. Imagine being faced with that. Leaving the cult can threaten all of your needs. What do you have left when you’re truly alone? While it’s easy to say “this person is not truly alone” in the current day and age where information can be shared almost instantly, it’s different when you’re in that situation. 

Activists Are Using These Tactics on People Right Now

You may be thinking, "This would never happen to me. I'm not into cults or abusive guys. I don't need to worry." But the scariest part about brainwashing tactics is that they're not isolated to cults. They can be used on a broader scale to influence entire groups or societies, and we need to be on the lookout.

Radical activists already use many of these tactics very effectively to alienate people and turn them into radicals. Teens confused about their gender identity often find themselves hit with brainwashing tactics from activists hiding in online chat rooms and on social media. In her book Irreversible Damage, journalist Abigail Shrier recounts many examples of this behavior. One girl, identified as Benji, describes the "overwhelming 'love bombing'" she received from strangers online. She became convinced that her online friends, many of whom were adult trans people, were the only people who really knew her.

"The gender ideology world she inhabited was a 'cult,' she insists, because when you’re inside, you believe non-reality and you disbelieve reality." Shrier explains that when Benji "complained online about her parents, queer adults often coached her on running away from her family. At the time, she believed that these adults – not her parents – had her best interest in mind, and that they were generally helping her to escape mentally and physically from a tumultuous home. But she no longer sees it that way. They were weaponizing it against me to kind of draw me into their community more and draw me away from anyone who would give me rational ways of thinking about my life."

The same isolation tactics are being used to divide people over race, gender ideology, political affiliation, and Covid.

You will see the same strategy being used to control anyone who steps outside activist orthodoxy. When J.K. Rowling took a stand for biological women, she found herself thrust out of her own progressive circles and now isn't even being invited to her own movie's 20th-anniversary celebration. When you're in with the group, it's intoxicating. You're surrounded by people who have embraced their cause, letting it fill up every aspect of their lives. But say one thing that goes against the orthodoxy, and you'll find yourself shamed, publicly humiliated, and perhaps even fired for your transgression.

The same intense groupthink and isolation tactics that are being used to divide people over race, gender ideology, or political affiliation are even being used for Covid. A recent study has shown that 30% of Americans have cut ties to some degree with family members and friends who are not vaccinated. And as the holiday season approaches, publications are flooded with articles urging readers that "Your Holiday Gatherings Should Have Vaccine Mandates" or why it's ok that you don't have empathy for people who choose to not get vaccinated.

Activist groups may represent a small portion of the full population, but their tactics of brainwashing members and harsh punishments for dissidents are having widespread effects. When cult tactics are being used to create faux social stigma, we should be paying attention.

Closing Thoughts

So long as vulnerable people exist, cults, abusers, and radical groups will continue to seek them out as victims; even more so if said vulnerable people want to effect change and be a part of something greater. Sometimes, there’s no formal organization necessary for these tactics to be employed and made useful – the truth is, any business, any group of people, large or small, can make use of these tactics and beguile people into thinking they’ve found something fulfilling. These same tactics are used by gangs and by pimps preying on children in foster care. Therefore, it’s important to be aware and always question, always verify.

Love Evie? Let us know what you love and what else you want to see from us in the official Evie reader survey.