The Psychology of Brainwashing

Cognitive Consistency

—Michael Rogge

A Quote from “Basic Psychology”, Henry Gleitman, Norton 1983

… people try to make sense of the world they encounter. But how? In effect, they do this by looking for some consistency among their own experiences and memories, and turning to other people for comparison and confirmation. If all checks out, then all well and good. But what if there is some inconsistency? The Asch study (Solomon Asch, 1956) showed what happened when there is a serious inconsistency between one’s own experiences (and the beliefs based on them) and those reported by others. But suppose the inconsistency is among the person’s own experiences, beliefs or actions? Many social psychologists believe that this will trigger some general trend to restore cognitive consistency – to reinterpret the situation so as to minimize whatever inconsistency may be there. According to Leon Festinger, this is because any perceived inconsistency among various aspects of knowledge, feelings and behavior sets up an unpleasant internal state – cognitive dissonance – which people try to reduce whenever possible (Festinger, 1957).

Cognitive dissonance is not always reduced so easily. An example is provided by a study of a sect that was awaiting the end of the world. The founder of the sect announced that she had received a message from the “Guardians” of outer space. On a certain day, there would be an enormous flood. Only the true believers were to be saved and would be picked up at midnight of the appointed day in flying saucers. (Technology has advanced considerably since the days of Noah’s Ark.) On doomsday, the members of the sect huddled together, awaiting the predicted cataclysm. The arrival time of the flying saucers came and went; tension mounted as the hours went by. Finally, the leader of the sect received another message: To reward the faith of the faithful, the world was saved. Joy broke out and he believers became more faithful than ever. (Festinger, Riecken and chachter, 1956)

Given the failure of a clear-cut prophecy, one might have expected the very opposite. A disconfirmation of a predicted event should presumably lead one to abandon the beliefs that produced the prediction. But cognitive dissonance theory says otherwise. By abandoning the beliefs that there are Guardians, the person who had once held this belief would have to accept a painful dissonance between her present skepticism and her past beliefs and actions. Her prior faith would now appear extremely foolish. Some members of the sect had gone to such lengths as giving up their jobs or spending their savings; such acts would lose all meaning in retrospect without the belief in the Guardians. Under the new circumstances, the dissonance was intolerable. It was reduced by a belief in the new message which bolstered the original belief. Since other members of the sect stood fast long with them, their conviction was strengthened all the more. They could now think of themselves, not as fools, but as loyal, steadfast members of a courageous little band whose faith had saved the earth.


Most people who brainwash use methods similar to those of prison guards who recognize that physical control is never easily accomplished without the cooperation of the prisoner. The most effective way to gain that cooperation is through subversive manipulation of the mind and feelings of the victim, who then becomes a psychological, as well as a physical, prisoner.” From an Amnesty International publication, “Report on Torture”, which depicts the brainwashing of prisoners of war.


Deprive individual over time of social support, effectively rendering him unable to resist. It makes the individual dependent upon interrogator. Develop an intense concern with self. Once a person is away from longstanding emotional support and thus reality checks, it is fairly easy to set a stage for brainwashing. Spiritually abusive groups isolate individuals from friends and family, whether directly, by requiring the individuals to forsake friends and family for the sake of the “Kingdom” (group membership), or indirectly, by preaching they are “sick”, unhealed, evil, uninformed, abusive, etc. (Comment: students were driven more and more away from friend and family support; the longer they were in the training the more the divide, as they had the ‘truth’ and others outside didn’t.)

Abusive groups are not outward-looking, but inward-looking, insisting that members find all comfort and support and a replacement family within the group. Cut off from friends, relatives, previous relationships, abusive groups surround the recruits and hammer the “story”, rigid ideologies into their consciousnesses, saturating their senses with specific doctrines and requirements of the group.

Isolated from everyone but those within the group, members become dependent upon group members and leaders and find it difficult if not impossible to offer disagreement to group teachings. They become self-interested and hyper-vigilant, very fearful should they incur the disapproval of the group, which now offers the only support available to them which has group approval.

The seed of extremism exists wherever a group demands all the free time of a member, insisting he be active and calling him to account if he isn’t, is critical or disapproving of involvements with friends and family outside the group, encourages secrecy by asking that members not share what they have seen or heard in meetings or teachings with outsiders, is openly, publicly, and repeatedly critical of other churches or groups (especially if the group claims to be the only one which speaks for God), is critical when members attend conferences, workshops or services at other churches, checks up on members in any way, i.e., to determine that the reason they gave for missing a meeting was valid, or makes attendance at all functions mandatory for participating in church ministry or enjoying other benefits of group fellowship.

Once a member stops interacting openly with others, the group’s influence is all that matters. He is bombarded with group values and information and there is no one outside the group with whom to share thoughts or who will offer reinforcement or affirmation if the member disagrees with or doubts the values of the group. The process of isolation and the self-doubt it creates allow the group and its leaders to gain power over the members.

Leaders may criticize major and minor flaws of members, sometimes public ally, or remind them of present or past sins. They may insult them or ignore them, or practice a combination of ignoring members at some times and receiving them warmly at others, thus maintaining a position of power (i.e., the leaders call the shots.) The sense of humiliation makes members feel they deserve the poor treatment they are receiving and may cause them to allow themselves to be subjected to any and all indignities out of gratefulness to belong to the group. When leaders treat the member well occasionally, they accept any and all crumbs gratefully

Monopolization of Perception

This fixes attention upon immediate predicament, it fosters introspection which eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by group and frustrates all actions not consistent with compliance. In the overall scheme of things, does it really matter what is demanded? In fact, in the long run, the member begins to reason, it is probably good to learn these disciplines, and after all, as they have frequently been reminded, they are to submit to spiritual authority as unto the Lord.. Soon it becomes apparent that the demands will be unending, and increasing time and energy are focused on avoiding group disapproval by doing something “wrong.” There is a feeling of walking on eggs. Everything becomes important in terms of how the group or its leaders will respond, and members’ desires, feelings and ideas become insignificant.

Eventually, members may no longer even know what they want, feel or think. The group has so monopolized all of the members’ perceptions with trivial demands that members lose their perspective as to the enormity of the situation they are in. The leaders may also persuade the members that they have the inside track with God and therefore know how everything should be done. When their behavior results in disastrous consequences, as it often does, the members are blamed. Sometimes the leaders may have moments, especially after abusive episodes, when they appear to humble themselves and confess their faults, and the contrast of these moments of vulnerability with their usual pose of being all-powerful endears them to members and gives hope for some open communication.

Threats (overt or covert) sometimes accompany all of these methods. Members are told they will be under God’s judgment, under a curse, punished, chastised, chastened if they leave the group or disobey group leaders. Sometimes the leaders, themselves, punish the members, and so members can never be sure when leaders will make good on the threats which they say are God’s idea. The members begin to focus on what they can do to meet any and all group demands and how to preserve peace in the short run. Warning signs:

Threats of God’s wrath if group rules are not obeyed, a feeling of being monitored, watched constantly by those in the group or by leaders. In other words, what the church wants, believes and thinks its members should do becomes everything, and you feel preoccupied with making sure you are meeting the standards. It no longer matters whether you agree that the standards are correct, only that you follow them and thus keep the peace and in the good graces of leaders.

Induced Debility and Exhaustion

People subjected to this type of spiritual abuse become worn out by tension, fear and continual rushing about in an effort to meet group standards. They must often avoid displays of fear, sorrow or rage, since these may result in ridicule or punishment. Rigid ministry demands and requirements that members attend unreasonable numbers of meetings and events make the exhaustion and ability to resist group pressure even worse.

Warning Signs: Feelings of being overwhelmed by demands, close to tears, guilty if one says no to a request or goes against a church standards. Being intimidated or pressured into volunteering for church duties and subjected to scorn or ridicule when one does not “volunteer.” Being rebuked or reproved when family or work responsibilities intrude on church responsibilities. (Comment: this is very subtle at times because members are so rewarded for performing for the group, being led to believe that the only way to true service is doing and promoting the training.)

Occasional Indulgences

This provides motivation for compliance. Leaders of abusive groups often sense when members are making plans to leave and may suddenly offer some kind of indulgence, perhaps just love or affection, attention where there was none before, a note or a gesture of concern. (Comment: making someone a Minister who does not meet previously set qualifications) Hope that the situation in the group will change or self doubt (“Maybe I’m just imagining it’s this bad,”) then replace fear or despair and the members decide to stay a while longer. Other groups practice sporadic demonstrations of compassion or affection right in the middle of desperate conflict or abusive episodes. This keeps members off guard and doubting their own perceptions of what is happening.)

Some of the brainwashing techniques described are extreme; some groups may use them in a disciplined, regular manner while others use them more sporadically. But even mild, occasional use of these techniques is effective in gaining power. Be concerned if you have had an ongoing desire to leave a church or group you believe may be abusive, but find yourself repeatedly drawn back in just at the moment you are ready to leave, by a call, a comment or moment of compassion. These moments, infrequent as they may be, are enough to keep hope in change alive and thus you sacrifice years and years to an abusive group.

Obviously by cutting off and isolating critical members, the leaders of don’t have to deal with dissent and don’t need to worry about the subsequent effect it may have regarding other members. This makes damage control within the organization comparatively easy.

Disfellowshipping essentially often replaces the need for leaders to have any meaningful dialog with members that don’t agree with them.

Devaluing the Individual creates fear of freedom and dependence upon group. It creates feelings of helplessness and lack of faith in individual capabilities. Warning Signs: Emphasizing helps or service to the group as a prerequisite to participation. This might take the form of requiring that before exercising any gifts at all, members must demonstrate loyalty to the group by faithful attendance at all functions and such things as tithing. No consideration is given to his age or station in life or his unique talents or abilities. The rules apply to everyone alike. This has the effect of reducing everyone to some kind of lowest common denominator where no one’s gifts or natural abilities are valued or appreciated, where the individual is not cherished for the unique blessing he or she is to the body of Christ, where what is most highly valued is service, obedience, submission to authority, and performance without regard to gifts or abilities or, for that matter, individual limitations.