How Social Psychology Addresses Cult Development Brainwashing


Some movies and television shows feature characters that use brainwashing to control other people. In spy movies, villains would often capture one of the heroes and would turn them against their comrades by subjecting them to physical pain and mind manipulation. Though these movies and shows are pure fiction the idea of being able to manipulate a person's mind and make them do certain things is not far from reality. There have been documented reports of criminals using hypnotic methods to rob their victims. Some kidnapped victims became obedient and loyal to their captors. And there are people joining cult groups that believe in specific and sometimes absurd ideas. Some cults are harmless while others persuade their members to do criminal acts. These experiences show that brainwashing may have a scientific explanation since other people are able to force their victims to act differently and persuade them into doing certain things. Cult leaders might be using brainwashing to further cult development.

Defining Brainwashing and Cults

I. Brainwashing

Brainwashing can be defined as forcefully indoctrinating an individual to accept a specific belief or idea. The term can refer to any method that manipulates human action and thoughts against a person's will (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998). Controlling personal and environmental factors can allow a person to manipulate an individual's train of thought and indoctrinate them with new ideas. The media used the term brainwashing to explain the indoctrinated state of American war prisoners during the Korean War (Brainwashing, n.d.). The prisoners would appear obedient to their captors and would often confess their war crimes. When the prisoners were able to return home, the effects of brainwashing seemed to have disappeared. This indicated that there are no adverse long-term effects of being brainwashed. 

II. Cults

Cults are popularly viewed as people in hoods sacrificing blood to their god. Cults have gained a negative connotation, especially by the media. But originally, cults were sub-organizations of other religions. The word "cult" is used to refer to a group of dedicated religious people who are following a religious figure. These religious figures are often saints or highly esteemed individuals inside a religion. It was only during the early 20th century that sociologists began to use the word "cult" to refer to a group of people with strange beliefs (Rodia 2019). Socialists began using the term "new religions" to refer to the groups once described as cults. Since then, cults have earned the negative image they have today.

The public often portrays members of cults as brainwashed individuals. People view their beliefs as odd and ridiculous. Cults like the Manson Family and Heaven's Gate are some of the few examples that showed how damaging certain cults can be. These cults were involved in criminal activities that included mass murders and sexual abuse. The victims of these cults were not only civilians but also the cult members themselves. The leaders of the cults employed the use of brainwashing methods in order to persuade their members to commit gruesome acts.

How does Brainwashing Work?

Brainwashing caught the ears of psychologists and sociologists during the Korean War when Chinese communists began indoctrinating prisoners of war. The communists subjected the prisoners of war to physical and mental stress. The application of these stress factors was methodical and proved to be an effective brainwashing technique. The communists would assess prisoners' attitudes and personality types to decide the severity of the stress factors that are needed to indoctrinate them. The brainwashing or indoctrination process involved two steps: the process of "unfreezing" and "changing" (Schein, 1960). The process of "unfreezing" involved physical and mental torture while the "changing" process is the realization of the prisoners that the torture he is experiencing can be solved by accepting the ideologies of their captors.

The unfreezing process aimed to break the prisoner's overall fortitude. Captors give prisoners a small amount of food, just enough to keep them alive. Starvation, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse would often lead the prisoners to develop illnesses that added to the physical and mental stress. The mental states of the prisoners are broken by removing any external contact and communication. They had no information about what was happening outside of the prison nor are they able to receive or send messages.  The prisoners also suffered torture at the hands of the communists and their cellmates.

Once the prisoner's physical and mental states are broken they are subjected to the changing process. The process of change involved the prisoners being placed in a prison cell with fully indoctrinated prisoners. The fully indoctrinated prisoners will pressure the other prisoners to accept the communist ideology. The pressure from the indoctrinated prisoners can be shared as positive testaments of their experience after accepting the communist ideology. It can also be physical abuse until the prisoners willingly accept the ideology proposed by their captors.

Brainwashing in Cults

People link cult development and brainwashing since cults have been responsible for criminal acts that often involve suicide and genocide. Panelists of the APA 2002 Convention stated that cult leaders are using mind control to recruit and indoctrinate followers (Dittman, 2002). The panelists also stated that the brainwashing victims may need medical assistance due to the lasting psychological effects of brainwashing on a person's  mental health . During the APA 2002 Convention, former cult members and brainwashing victims were invited to share their stories and help bring attention to brainwashing and cult development. 

The former cult members shared accounts of their harsh experiences and the cultist's use of brainwashing techniques to indoctrinate followers. Thought-stopping techniques and the use of fear are common brainwashing methods that cultists use on their members ( Dittman, 2002).  Cultists use thought-stopping techniques to erase any doubts and questions about the cult and its ideologies. This allows cult leaders to persuade their followers to commit acts such as hate crimes  in honor of their ideologies. The cult leader's use of fear is also another brainwashing technique. Once an individual has been indoctrinated with the cult's ideologies, the cult leader can use some of the teachings to instill fear such as eternal damnation if the follower does not obey their orders.

Destructive Cults

I. Manson Family

The Manson Family was a cult led by the infamous sociopath Charles Manson. The Manson Family committed several cases of murder including the murder of famous actress Sharon Tate who was pregnant at the time. The Manson Family included several young women and a few men. Charles Manson had sexual relations with most of them and habitually used drugs and other addictive substances. Charles Manson taught his followers that a war was coming. The cult leader commanded his followers to commit the murders in order to start the war.

II. Heaven's Gate

The Heaven's Gate crew was led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The cult was known for the mass suicide committed by its followers. The crew believed that the earth was about to be destroyed and their goal was to leave their bodies and ascend to heaven. The crew even used the internet to gain more followers and had a website to inform others about their beliefs. The Heaven's Gate Crew holed up themselves in a mansion where they committed mass suicide. 42 people died in the span of three days.

III. Aum Shinrikyo

The Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese cult that believed that the end of the world was near and that they are the only people that will survive. The cult was responsible for a deadly nerve gas attack in one of Tokyo's subway stations. Thousands of people were harmed during the gas attack and thirteen of those died. The cult's leader, Shoko Asahara was hanged in July 2018 along with the other members of the cult. However, the cult is still active in Japan today. Countries like Russia have banned the cult for their previous acts of terrorism.

All of these destructive cults had one thing in common, they had leaders that made them believe that their lives are about to end or change. The cult leaders used brainwashing techniques that instilled fear in their followers. The cult leaders capitalized on that fear and used it to persuade the brainwashing victims to commit heinous crimes, believing that it is their only way to salvation. Mass murders and mass suicides were the defining factors for these destructive cults.


The use of brainwashing in cult development is a widely accepted fact today. From the testimonies of former cult members to the indisputable evidence as seen from the examples of destructive cults. The victims of these brainwashing techniques serve as an example that the human mind is a complex but fragile object that must be kept safe from the influences of individuals with ill intent. Most psychologists do believe that brainwashing is real but the extremities of its influence are still up for debate. However, one can't deny the fact that the destructive cults show evidence that brainwashing is an effective tool for cult development.

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The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Brainwashing.

Rodia, T. (2019, August 29). Is it a cult, or a new religious movement?

Schein, E. (1960, December). Brainwashing.

Dittman, M. (2002, November). Cults of Hatred.,dangerous%20and%20lasting%20psychological%20consequences.

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