For Every Person, for Every Family —
One of the foremost authorities on undue influence (mind control) and destructive cults, Steven Hassan understands those subjects from a unique perspective: He is both a former cult member and a clinical professional who has been working full-time in the field since 1976. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College and is a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). He is the author of Combating Cult Mind Control (2015); Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults & Beliefs (2013); and Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves (2000).
Founder and director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc., a counseling and publishing organization, Hassan is also the co-developer of Ending the Game, a non-coercive curriculum designed to educate and empower sex trafficking victims to leave pimps and traffickers. Hassan has trained mental health professionals, educators, and law enforcement officers worldwide on psychological coercion and has spoken out about the importance of viewing terrorist groups and human trafficking rings as destructive cults. His website is www.freedomofmind.com. More information is available at www.endingthegame.com.
NJS&S: It’s been 25 years since you first published Combating Cult Mind Control. What makes the updated edition of your book relevant today?
SH: The unethical use of mind control has reached the point where it is a major social problem, not only in the United States but across the globe. Human traffickers enslave hundreds of thousands of people in this country and millions worldwide. Destructive cults such as ISIS/Daesh and other extreme terrorist groups have gained considerable political attention, if not power, by playing out their grisly activities on the world stage. While the names of the big cults of the 1970s and 1980s have disappeared from the headlines, even more insidious names—Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram—have taken their place.
NJS&S: What do you mean by “destructive cults”?
SH: Briefly, a destructive cult is a group that violates its members’ rights and damages them through the abusive techniques of unethical mid control. It distinguishes itself from a normal, healthy social or religious group by subjecting its members to systematic control of behavior, information, thoughts and emotions (BITE) to keep them dependent and obedient.
NJS&S: So you consider ISIS a cult?
SH: In my opinion, it is a political cult that uses religion to lure and indoctrinate people. It exhibits many of the classic signs—recruiting people through deception, whisking them away to isolated locations, giving them new names, clothes, controlling their access to food and information, implanting phobias, and making false promises.
NJS&S: Is the level of destructiveness related to the size of the group?
SH: Not at all. I have seen one-on-one mind control relationships that have been as destructive as some of the world’s most powerful and toxic cults. In researching battered-person syndrome, I have found many similarities and parallels with members of mind control cults.
NJS&S: What do you mean by the term “mind control”?
SH: There are many different forms of mind control. Most people think of brainwashing almost as soon as they hear the term. But that is only one specific form. Mind control is any system of influence that disrupts an individual’s authentic identity and replaces it with a false, new one.
The processes of influence start from the moment we are born, so it’s easy to take the position that “Everything is mind control, why worry about it?” We tell ourselves, “It’s just a normal part of life.” But, just as sex is a normal part of life but rape is not, influence is a natural part of life, but undue influence is not.
NJS&S: So mind control is the same as undue influence?
SH: Both the terms “mind control” and “undue influence” refer to the process of controlling people by mentally hijacking their normal thought processes. Undue influence has been used primarily in a legal context, but one of my hopes is that undue influence will be understood and used by the general public in the near future. In many ways, undue influence is a better term than mind control, as exploitation is part of its definition. In truth, undue influence can infect people to such an extent that they form a programmed cult identity. It can be thought of as a kind of “virus of undue influence,” which invades and alters its host.
NJS&S: Is there a difference between brainwashing and mind control?
SH: Brainwashing is especially effective in producing compliance to demands, such as signing a false confession or denouncing one’s government. People are coerced into specific acts for self-preservation; then, once they have acted, their beliefs change to rationalize what they have done. But these beliefs are usually not well internalized. If and when the prisoner escapes their field of influence and fear, they are usually able to throw off those beliefs.
Mind control is much more subtle and sophisticated. The victim typically regards the controllers as friends or peers, so is much less on guard. They usually unwittingly participate by cooperating with their controllers, and by giving them private information that they do not realize will be used against them.
Mind control involves little or no overt physical abuse. Instead, hypnotic processes are combined with group dynamics to create a potent indoctrination effect. The individual is deceived and manipulated—but not directly threatened—into making the prescribed choices. On the whole, the victim responds positively to what is done to him or her.
NJS&S: How does this happen?
SH: The social psychologist Edgar Schein identified these three steps to gaining control of another person’s mind:
• Unfreezing: breaking a person down.
• Changing: the indoctrination process.
• Refreezing: building up and reinforcing the new identity.
During the refreezing phase, an individual’s memory becomes distorted, minimizing the good things in the past and maximizing their sins, failings, hurts, and guilt. Special talents, interests, hobbies, friends, and family usually must be abandoned—preferably in dramatic public actions—if they compete with commitment to the cause.
NJS&S: Is the alienation of a person from his or her trusted relatives and friends, then, a red flag signaling undue influence/ mind control?
SH: Yes. Family members are often told by cult members that they “will see” if they can come home for important family events, such as marriages, funerals and birthdays. This means they will ask their leaders for permission. The group now forms the member’s “true” family; any other is considered the victim’s outmoded “physical” family.
NJS&S: So a dual identity is formed?
SH: In a mind control environment, freedom of choice is the first thing that is lost. The person being controlled no longer operates as an individual. He or she has a new artificial identity structure, which includes new beliefs and a new language. Individuals under mind control are at war with themselves. Therefore, when dealing with such a person, it is extremely important to always keep in mind that they have two identities. Ordinarily, only one of these two selves occupies the person’s consciousness at a time. However, the personality on duty most of the time is the cult identity. Only intermittently does the old self reappear. The cult identity will try to bury former reference points and submerge the person’s past. Yet, over time, the old self will eventually exert itself and seek ways to regain freedom. This process is speeded up by positive exposure to non-members.
NJS&S: Are people from problem families most at risk?
SH: Anyone, regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult or other destructive relationship. The major variable is not the person’s family, but the recruiter’s skill and the recruit’s life station.
NJS&S: How can someone let their mind be overtaken?
SH: The mind, despite all its strength and ability, has weaknesses, too. It is dependent on a stream of coherent information to function properly. Put a person in a sensory deprivation chamber, and within minutes he will start to hallucinate and become incredibly suggestible. Likewise, put a person into a situation where his senses are overloaded with non-coherent information, and the mind will go “numb” as a protective mechanism. It gets confused and overwhelmed, and critical faculties no longer work properly. It is in this weakened state that people become very open to suggestion.
NJS&S: What are some typical recruitment tactics?
SH: The recruiter wants to draw as much information as possible from the potential convert, to determine the most effective way to bring him or her into the group. An effective recruiter knows how to home in on potential weak spots. These may involve a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents, family members, job, or school; the death of a close friend or relative; or a move to a new town or any other significant transition or dislocation. An effective recruiter knows how to make the target comfortable, so more willing to disclose highly personal and confidential information.
NJS&S: Is this personal information then used to manipulate the target?
SH: Yes. Confession of past sins or supposedly wrong attitudes is a powerful device for emotional control. Of course, once someone has publicly confessed, rarely is their old sin truly forgiven or forgotten. The minute they get out of line, it will be hauled out and used to manipulate them into obeying. This device can even extend to blackmail, to keep people from leaving. Even when it does not, former members are often scared to speak out, just in case their embarrassing secrets are made public.
NJS&S: What are some of the other techniques used to maintain control?
SH: Another key aspect of thought control involves training members to block out any information that is critical of the controlling group. Normal defense mechanisms often become so twisted that individuals defend their new cult identity against their old, former self.
Perhaps the most widely used, and most effective, technique for controlling thoughts is thought-stopping. Victims are taught to use thought-stopping on themselves to halt the “negativity” of any criticism and center themselves, thus shutting out anything that threatens or challenges the controller’s version of reality.
The most powerful technique for emotional control is phobia indoctrination. Members will have a panic reaction at the thought of leaving the group. They are told that if they leave, they will be lost and defenseless in the face of dark horrors. They’ll go insane, be killed, become drug addicts, or commit suicide. It becomes nearly impossible for indoctrinated members to feel they can have any happiness, security, or fulfillment outside the group. To put it simply, they are psychological prisoners.
NJS&S: Can people victimized by mind control situation ever be themselves again?
SH: Mind control never succeeds in fully erasing a person’s authentic self. It merely imposes a dominating cult identity that suppresses the real self. Cult indoctrination downloads a mind control virus—a virus that can be cured. Once the virus is gone, a person’s mental and emotional hardware can be repaired, and the person’s real self can come forward once again and integrate the cult experiences, hopefully in a healthy way.
NJS&S: Until that happens, what impact does this ordeal have on those who care about the person being manipulated?
SH: Family and friends are devastated. Weddings go unattended, funerals, graduations; people get sick. Family members and friends are told by uninformed people to “forget about them,” but it is impossible to do so if you understand mind control. There is so much helplessness, so much frustration trying to get help, trying to change laws. Right now, world leaders call ISIS/ Daesh an apocalyptic cult, but they do not consult with those of us who can outline a complex systems approach to address this growing problem. It’s very frustrating.
NJS&S: How is it possible to undo mind control?
SH: The answer lies in creating the necessary conditions to help the cult member change and grow. The basic keys to doing so include building trust and rapport, and then encouraging the cult member to question, investigate, and think independently. Try to access the person’s pre-cult authentic identity and help the cult member to look at reality from many different perspectives. Sidestep the thought-stopping process by giving information in an indirect way, and help the person visualize a happy future outside the cult. Finally, offer the person concrete definitions of mind control and specific characteristics of a destructive cult.
NJS&S: Can a therapist help people in these situations?
SH: Often people who have been victimized spend many frustrating years working with therapists who know little or nothing about mind control. It is unethical for a therapist who is not trained in addictions to be in charge of treating someone with an addiction. Similarly, an otherwise talented therapist who is largely clueless about undue influence should not counsel ex-cult members.
NJS&S: Should people who have been through this ordeal just try to forget the whole thing ever happened?
SH: When former victims hide their experience—whether through shame, doubt, guilt, fear, or anger—they are missing a valuable opportunity: to free themselves and, by their example, to help free others.
"The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society
and is entitled to protection by society and the State."
— Article 16.3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations