• Brainwashing is an outdated psychological concept, but narcissistic cult leaders can still exercise extreme influence over smart, sane, “regular” people.
  • You can protect yourself from cultic mind control techniques by learning the warning signs and asking the right questions.
  • Destructive cults use love-bombing, isolation, and phobia indoctrination to overwhelm cognition.
  • Certain personality traits don’t make you more vulnerable to cults, but situational factors like loneliness and uncertainty can increase your recruitment risk.
  • Knowledge and awareness can empower people to resist psychological coercion.

The idea of brainwashing had a viral moment in the 1950s when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) decided to wage psychological warfare against Communism. Project MKUltra secretly experimented with “mind control” techniques, dosing people with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) without their consent. In fact, at one point the CIA owned the entire world’s supply of the psychedelic drug. But it wasn’t just CIA operatives who fell for the brainwashing hysteria. After 918 people died in the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, much of the general public came to believe that cult leaders like Jim Jones could criminally override peoples’ personalities in order to gain converts.

Psychologists don’t use the term brainwashing anymore. It’s just not a thing. They talk about influence, persuasion, manipulation, and coercion, but the idea that someone’s brain can be hijacked has been thoroughly debunked, in large part because it’s untestable. Similarly, social scientists tend to avoid the term “cult” in favor of “new religious movement” (NRM) because all too often religious sects viewed as weird or distasteful are labeled cultic. These shifts in language are part of an effort to give people back their psychological agency. 

But just because cultic experts no longer think in terms of brainwashing and deprogramming doesn’t mean that regular people aren’t still in danger of being manipulated by bad actors and dark psychology forces. The only way to protect yourself is to stay informed about these mind control techniques so you’ll be able to recognize them in the wild. You can’t just assume that you’ll be able to outsmart millions of years of neuroevolution. After all, people are drawn to cults for the same reasons they’re drawn to church, family, and the self-improvement section of the bookstore. 

Cult conversion doesn’t happen overnight. Here’s a scary thought: A destructive cult might be actively conditioning you right now. Fortunately, you can stop cult recruitment in its tracks by learning the warning signs. And if all goes well you’ll be able to apply these lessons to other forms of influence, like consumer compliance and interpersonal manipulation, the next two subjects in this three-part Thriveworks mind control series. 

10 Warning Signs of Cult Recruitment

Research shows that anyone is susceptible to joining a cult. “Not me!” you say. Yes, you. The self-serving bias that makes people think they’re the exception to the rule can make them feel invulnerable—and leave them unprotected from pathological salespeople. You don’t have to be particularly gullible, insecure, or emotionally needy to be successfully recruited. Cults exploit psychological elements that are hardwired in pretty much everyone. Here’s how they do it:

  1. Social isolation. If you are seeing less and less of your family and peers in favor of your new best friends, ask yourself why. Cults gradually chip away at your community until only cult members remain. If the cult is your entire world—a closed system—then leaving it can feel really scary.
  2. Cyber isolation. If all your Facebook friends agree with you, ask yourself why. Cyber isolation can lead to confirmation bias. That means you only see information that supports what you already believe. And your beliefs are also continually validated in the echo chamber of cyber isolation. The Facebook algorithm shows you things you want to see in a never-ending cycle of digital influence.
  3. Promised rewards. If you find that you’re on the verge of amazing accomplishments or the fulfillment of your wildest dreams, ask yourself why. Cults promise gifts like a spiritual Wheel of Fortune: enlightenment, self-actualization, love, unlicensed psychotherapy, companionship, exorcism, peace of mind, perfect health, eternal life, great sex, a forever home, a loving family. Over-the-top rewards are part of the conversion process. How can anyone say no?
  4. Phobia indoctrination. If you find that you have a lot of new fears, ask yourself why. Seeing threats everywhere? Cults use fear to induce people to stay within their ranks, where they’ll be safe. And naturally the only person who can truly protect you is the cult leader. Who is also responsible for punishing you. Their methods are effective because they alternate fear with love, leading to disorganized attachment
  5. Heightened emotion. If you find yourself feeling extremely happy, angry, or scared, ask yourself why. Cults trigger big emotional responses and then direct that emotion toward a strategic target when you’re at your least rational. 
  6. Love-bombing. If you find yourself feeling more loved than you ever have in your life, ask yourself why. This is a tactic that narcissistic manipulators use in interpersonal relationships, but it also applies to cultic attempts at thought reform. Cult members will spoil you with attention and affection in order to make you feel connected and important. And people keep coming back for the love drug.
  7. Us vs. them mentality. If you find that you have a lot of enemies all of a sudden, ask yourself why. Cults invent enemies to help solidify the group identity. When you envision yourself as a missionary for good versus evil, there might be too much at stake for you to abandon your cause.
  8. Social influence. If you find that everyone around you agrees on something, ask yourself why. Psychological studies show that compliance goes up with the number of people involved. Most people won’t reject an idea if the whole group supports it. And cult prospects are typically overwhelmed with group-ecstatic activities, which can lead them to poor information processing. Essentially, peer pressure makes it impossible for people to function at full capacity.
  9. Intelligence-dampening. If you find yourself too tired or confused to make decisions, ask yourself why. Cults use techniques like sleep-deprivation, alternate states of consciousness, repetition, and thought-stopping to overwhelm someone’s cognitive resources and critical thinking skills. They destabilize your view of reality. And when your mind is under threat, you keep returning to the safety and love of your leader. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, even if you develop false beliefs. All humans have false beliefs and a tendency toward magical thinking. But cult members depend on the cult for direction when their brains are disoriented. 
  10. Identity disturbance. If you feel like a new you–a better you–ask yourself why. Cults alternate reward and punishment to stress people out and disrupt their identities. From there, cults can inflict a new identity on a member, one that depends on submission and self-surrender. And it doesn’t help that other sources of identity, like work and school, are slowly taken over by cult participation. 

When You’re Most Vulnerable to Mind Control Techniques

People tend to blame the person instead of the environment when someone joins a cult. This is a common bias called the fundamental attribution error. Again, there’s no reliable personality that’s more gullible to cult recruitment. Cults even adjust their methods toward different people’s desires like a great marketing team. But there are situational factors that can make people more receptive to a cultic system. 

  • You’re feeling lonely. Have you just moved to a new town? Started college? Did you just break up with a boyfriend or have a falling out with a friend? Cults prey on people in these social transitions. That’s why members frequent campuses and airports. Now, they’re also on internet message boards. 
  • You’re feeling depressed. On the whole, you’re psychologically healthy, but you’ve just suffered a personal loss and are suffering from depressive symptoms. You want to feel better fast. Cults offer the promise of quieting your internal demons. 
  • You’re feeling uncertain. The cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer thought that cults thrived during times of political and social unrest. Disillusionment with your culture and concern about the state of your country means that you’re more receptive to alternative visions. 
  • You’re feeling spiritually unfulfilled or dissatisfied. You’re searching. Former cult members report that spirituality is one of the main factors influencing conversion. 
  • You distrust authority, institutions, and the “mainstream.” This distrust can lead to conspiracy theories, a breakdown of social relationships, and a decreased sense of security. Cults can fill the void. 

And lo and behold, there’s a cult near you. Cult members lead you to controlled social situations where they have your full attention. Then they offer simple solutions to your temporary problems. 

Cults and Consequences: Exit Counseling

We’re all vulnerable to assaults on our minds because we’re social animals with certain cognitive proclivities. But you can resist extreme influence by educating yourself, asking the right questions, and not feeling guilty or ashamed for being human. Sometimes avoiding cult recruitment is as simple as delaying your response to invitations. During this time, you can do the following: 

  • Recognize that you have emotional needs, and that’s okay.
  • Ask yourself if those emotional needs are being manipulated.
  • Identify an opposing message, or a neutral message.
  • Compare different sources of information.
  • Reach out to your support network.
  • Remember that you are an autonomous individual with the personal freedom to choose your affiliations.

People do leave cults. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance becomes overwhelming. Members may have seen too many things that didn’t make sense, too many contradictions, and even too many doomsdays that didn’t happen. Sometimes they’re physically removed from the coercive environment for long enough to gain perspective. For example, some cult members report leaving cults after hospital stays. In any event, the exit process is easier for cult members when people from their old life have remained in their orbit, through thick and thin.

You are free to convert to a new religion, but NRMs need to have your informed consent. Destructive cults keep people in the dark, unaware that they’re being changed through the techniques listed above. You never get to see the narcissistic leader’s full agenda. But a wide spectrum of knowledge is the key to protecting yourself. You can’t be deployed if you keep asking the right questions.