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Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems


I don’t think about it as my cult experience.  I don’t process the interaction with Scientology as a near-miss with a cult.  However, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems helps me to realize how close I really was.  (See my review of The Paradox of Choice for more on this interaction.)  I learned more about the recruiting methods, the progressive disconnect from reality, and the isolation that occurs as a part of a cult.

The Reason

It’s an appropriate question to wonder what prompted my interest.  The interest is tangential.  I recognize that cults must create environments where beliefs aren’t questioned.  In a cult, the leader’s word is the truth – whether it’s connected to reality or not.  The problem I’m trying to solve is how to get people to question their beliefs.  We live in a world of divisiveness.  (See Going to Extremes for more.)  We’re living in a world where people are no longer interested in social capital (see Bowling Alone and Our Kids).  People don’t want to work through and resolve issues with others.  (See Why Are We Yelling?)  Families are ripped apart because of disagreements and misunderstanding.  (See Fault Lines.)

The key question is how do we get people to question their beliefs?  Thomas Gilovich in How We Know What Isn’t So explains that people ask the question “can I believe?” when they agree and “must I believe?” when they disagree – and the second is a much higher standard.  How do we get people to question their beliefs?  Famously, the Wason Selection Task asks people to test how their beliefs might fail – and only 10% of people will do it.  (See The Black Swan, The Righteous Mind, and The ABCs of How We Learn for more.)

While Terror, Love and Brainwashing doesn’t have an immediate answer, it provides more context and insight.

Built on Attachment

The system that drives the unwavering support of a leader is based on the psychological concept of attachment.  Bowlby first described attachment styles, and his work was later extended by others, including his student, Mary Ainsworth.  (See The Secret Lives of Adults, Words Can Change Your Brain, How People Learn, and The Satir Model for more about the work.)  Fundamental to the operating of the cult is not that people have a disordered attachment style to start but rather that the cult leader can induce a new attachment style.  Since attachment styles aren’t fixed and can be changed even in adults, it’s possible to take someone from a healthy attachment style to something disordered.

The disordered attachment style is one of conflict.  The person to whom a person is attached is both a source of comfort and connection as well as someone who induces fear.  This creates a tendency for both moving towards and away from them.  The result is a fundamental basis of fear and power that keep followers in an anxious and disoriented state making them susceptible to control.


Normal, healthy adults will naturally move away from a disordered state if presented with healthy models of attachment.  In fact, this restructuring of attachment styles is a part of twelve-step groups.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)  Attendees at a twelve-step group are offered a community – other attachments – which can be used to reorder their attachment style.  This natural recovery process is intentionally subverted in cults.  As a result, the experience of being in a cult is one of loneliness rather than community.  (See Loneliness for more on loneliness.)

The isolation process from the outside world is rather obvious.  It means reducing – or eliminating – contact with families and friends who aren’t a part of the cult.  Internally, the mechanisms are a bit more challenging to explain.


In twelve-step groups, they say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”  In cults, the idea of secrecy is cultivated.  Just as a predatory human tells their prey not to tell anyone about their acts, groups make you suspicious of everyone and everything.  Arranged marriages reduce the bond of the marital union and pit one spouse against the other when it comes to challenging the word of the leader.  Both may struggle with something, but they fear talking about it because they’ll be turned in – by their spouse.

Alternate Relationships

A part of the exploitation can sometimes be termination of normal spousal relationships all together – or just that they’re controlled by the cult.  Certainly, I can accept that there are many approaches to sexuality that humanity has used over the course of history.  (See Anatomy of Love.)  However, the cult leader moves people into polygamy, promiscuity, and even pedophilia as a part of controlling the relationships in ways that prevent them from forming strong bonds.  By preventing strong bonds from forming, they can prevent the natural reorganization of attachment styles and simultaneously prevent alternate power bases from forming.

In the larger context of both internal and external relationships, it helps to believe that the leader controls them – and that you have no right to your own relationships because relationships are dangerous.

Fright Without Solution

One of the powerful motivators is creating a sense of fright without a solution.  When the group is locked in a virtuous struggle with the rest of the world, to lose means the destruction of the world as the followers understand it.  This creates a bonding force for the group and a fear that the world as they know it is in jeopardy.

We know from watching suicide rates that people become more involved and engaged in a group in times of crisis.  Consider how suicide rates went down after 9/11 or how rates decrease during world wars.  (See Assessment and Prediction of Suicide.)  If you want to drive group consistency, fear is a way to do it.

One might believe that the leader would be attached to these feelings of fear, but a righteous cause leads followers to believe that their fears are because of the outside world or even to events in their past that set them on the wrong road.

Voices in My Head

In a state of fear, the idea that the voices would become silent is a gift.  Much like those who die by suicide do so to silence their inner critic, those in cults treat the silence of their inner critic as tacit approval.  (See Stealing Fire for more on the inner critic, The Suicidal Mind for suicide as a method of silencing.)  However, the reason for the silence may not be approval at all but rather a complete shutdown of cognitive processing and decision making.  That’s okay, the followers are told, the cult will make their decisions for them.

Shutting down cognitive processing isn’t particularly easy – but it can be accomplished.  If you overload processing centers like the orbitofrontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, you’re left with someone who can’t tell right from wrong and doesn’t know how to process their intuitive sense for things.  (Bandura explains the processes in non-neurological terms in Moral Disengagement.)  Asch accomplished this in a test of line lengths.  By presenting people with confederates (actors) giving the wrong answer, he convinced people that two unequal lines were actually equal.  (See Unthink for more on Asch.)

Torrent of Misinformation

Today’s world is a torrent of misinformation.  It’s not just controversial leaders who are spewing misinformation.  Many of the “news” outlets report in a biased way that their journalism professors at universities would be appalled by.  Instead of reporting in a balanced way with research, the press, to hit a deadline, causes too many people – with and without journalism degrees – to take shortcuts.  The downstream impacts are a reduced trust in the news, people, and society.  However, this torrent of information – both internal and external to the group – gets us to information overload.  (See The Information Diet.)

Not only do we face this with people who are brainwashed as a part of their cult experience, but we also see this in the general population as we struggle to understand what is true and correct – and what is just noise.  (See also Noise.)

If you want to understand cults, maybe it’s time to get a better understanding of the Terror, Love and Brainwashing.