Identifying Religious Abuse

One specific meaning of the term religious abuse refers to psychological manipulation and harm inflicted on a person by using the teachings of their religion. This is perpetrated by members of the same or similar faith and includes the use of a position of authority within the religion.

Religious Abuse

Religious abuse is most often directed at children and emotionally vulnerable adults, and motivations behind such abuse vary, but can be either well-intentioned or malicious. A recent study among 200 university students has shown that 12.5% of students reported being victimised by at least one form of Religious/Ritual Abuse (RA). The study which was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, showed that religious/ritual abuse may result in mental health issues such as dissociative disorders.

"Groups which have all powerful leaders who control the environment, control all information and eventually control the way their followers think, have one basic thing in common : They have found people who are willing to take that essential first step of surrendering to an authority figure they hope has all the answers. Throughout history, many people have taken that first step. Sometimes joining a small group, sometimes a large group. And sometimes, a group that engulfs an entire nation.".

Survivors of religious abuse can develop symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to their religiously abusive experiences. Dr. Marlene Winell, a psychologist and former fundamentalist, coined the term "Religious Trauma Syndrome" (RTS) in a 2011 article she wrote for the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapies. Winell describes RTS as "the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination".

In the article, Winell identifies four categories of dysfunction: cognitive, affective, functional, and social/cultural.

It is important to note that these symptoms can occur for people who have simply participated in dogmatic expressions of religion such as fundamentalism. It is easy to validate traumatic responses to religious abuse in more extreme cases such as authoritarian cult membership, clergy sexual abuse, or mind control tactics used to extremes like the mass suicide at Jonestown. However, individuals can experience chronic religious abuse in the subtle mind-control mechanics of fundamentalism that leads to trauma.

While many extreme traumatic experiences associated with religion can cause simple PTSD, scholars are now arguing that chronic abuse through mind control tactics used in fundamentalist settings, whether intentional or not, can induce C-PTSD or developmental trauma. Exposure therapy or staying in religiously abusive settings may not be conducive to healing for survivors of religious abuse. Healing can come through support groups, therapy, and psychoeducation.

The term spiritual abuse was purportedly coined in the late twentieth century to refer to alleged abuse of authority by church leaders, albeit some scholars and historians would dispute that claim, citing prior literary appearances of the term in literature on religion and psychology. Lambert defines spiritual abuse as "a type of psychological predomination that could be rightly termed—religious enslavement". He further identifies "religious enslavement" as being a product of what is termed in the Bible "witchcraft" or "sorcery".

Spiritual abuse includes:

Characteristics of Religious Abuse has been previously identified by Ronald Enroth. In his book Churches That Abuse he identifies five categories:

  1. Authority and power: abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
  2. Manipulation and control: abusive groups are characterised by social dynamics where fear, guilt or threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity or stringent tests of loyalty. The leader-disciple relationship may become one in which the leader's decisions control and usurp the disciple's right or capacity to make choices.
  3. Elitism and persecution: abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organisational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction or reflection, whilst outside criticism.
  4. Life-style and experience: abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and belief that requires conformity to the group's ideals.
  5. Dissent and discipline: abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenge to decisions made by leaders.

Agnes and John Lawless argue in The Drift into Deception that there are eight characteristics of spiritual abuse, and some of these clearly overlap with Enroth's criteria. They list the eight marks of spiritual abuse as comprising:

  1. Charisma and pride
  2. Anger and intimidation
  3. Greed and fraud
  4. Immorality
  5. Enslaving authoritarian structure
  6. Exclusivity
  7. Demanding loyalty and honor
  8. New revelation

The author of Charismatic Captivation in a post on the book's website delineates "33 Signs of Spiritual Abuse", including:

  1. Apotheosis or de facto deification of the leadership.
  2. Absolute authority of the leadership.
  3. Pervasive abuse and misuse of authority in personal dealings with members to coerce submission.
  4. Paranoia, inordinate egotism or narcissism, and insecurity by the leaders.
  5. Abuse and inordinate incidence of "church discipline" particularly in matters not expressly considered to be church discipline issues.
  6. Inordinate attention to maintaining the public image of the ministry and lambasting of all "critics".
  7. Constant indoctrination with a "group" or "family" mentality that impels members to exalt the corporate "life" and goals of the church-group over their personal goals, callings, objectives or relationships.
  8. Members are psychologically traumatised, terrorised and indoctrinated with numerous fears aimed at creating an over-dependence or codependence on their leaders and the corporate group.
  9. Members may be required to obtain the approval (or witness) of their leader(s) for decisions regarding personal matters.
  10. Frequent preaching from the pulpit discouraging leaving the religion or disobeying the leaderships' dictates.
  11. Members departing without the blessing of the leadership do so under a cloud of suspicion, shame, or slander.
  12. Departing members often suffer from psychological problems and display the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Religious trauma syndrome

Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is recognised in psychology and psychotherapy as a set of symptoms, ranging in severity, experienced by those who have participated in or left behind authoritarian, dogmatic, and controlling religious groups and belief systems. Symptoms include cognitive, affective, functional, and social/cultural issues as well as developmental delays.

RTS occurs in response to two-fold trauma: first the prolonged abuse of indoctrination from a controlling religious community, and secondly the act of leaving the controlling religious community. RTS has developed as its own heuristic collection of symptoms informed by psychological theories of trauma originating in PTSD, C-PTSD and betrayal trauma theory, taking relational and social context into account when approaching further research and treatment.

The term religious trauma syndrome was coined in 2011 by psychologist Marlene Winell in an article for British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, though the phenomenon was recognised long before that. The term has circulated among psychotherapists, former fundamentalists, and others recovering from religious indoctrination. Survivors report relief when they find out that RTS is “real.”.

As symptoms of religious trauma syndrome, psychologists have recognised dysfunctions that vary in number and severity from person to person. Religious trauma has also been linked to severe results such as suicide and homicide. RTS begins in toxic religious environments centered around two basic narratives: “You are not okay” and “You are not safe.” These ideas are often enforced with theology such as the Christian doctrines of original sin and hell.

The development of RTS can be compared to the development of Complex PTSD, defined as a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma in a context in which the individual has little or no chance of escape. Symptoms of RTS are a natural response to the perceived existence of a violent, all-powerful God who finds humans inherently defective, along with regular exposure to religious leaders who use threat of eternal death, unredeemable life, demon possession and many other frightening ideas to control religious devotion and submission of group members.

Members of the LGBTQI+ community are at particular risk of RTS and C-PTSD as they attempt, over an extended period of time, to alter their sexual orientation to fit the expectations of authoritarian religious communities. The process of attempting to alter one’s orientation can create emotionally abusive thought patterns prone to exacerbate the C-PTSD-like symptoms of RTS.

Chronically living in fear of eternal damnation and lifelong separation from loved ones and religious communities if they fail to comply to sexual identity restrictions can induce long-term symptoms of RTS. Leaving a controlling religious community, while often experienced as liberating and exciting, can be experienced as a major traumatic event. Religious communities often serve as the foundation for individuals’ lives, providing social support, a coherent worldview, a sense of meaning and purpose, and social and emotional satisfaction.

Leaving behind all those resources goes beyond a significant loss; it calls on the individual to completely reconstruct their reality, often while newly isolated from the help and support of family and friends who stay in the religion. In addition, when violent theology, including threats of hell, demons, and an evil “outside world,” have been incorporated into the basic structure of an individual’s worldview, the threats of engaging the outside world instead of remaining in the safe bubble of the controlling religious community can induce further anxiety.

As individuals identify the harm they’re experiencing in authoritarian religious settings, their concerns may be minimised by the religious group itself, but can also be compounded by society’s investment in positive views of religion. Institutional betrayal, first at the hands of beloved religious communities, second at the hands of a world who upholds the utility of religion rather than the experiences of religious abuse survivors, can make symptoms of RTS worse.

The development of RTS as a diagnosable and treatable set of symptoms relies on several psychological theories that provide an academic framework with which to understand it.

As with all iterations of trauma, the development of RTS is informed by PTSD, defined in DSM V as a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, child abuse, or other threats on a person's life. These events can be personally experienced, observed, or imagined. The important element is the perception of life-threatening danger. In the case of RTS, a person can be traumatised by images of burning hell-fire.

In fact, fundamentalist groups are known for using terrifying stories to indoctrinate children. The experience of leaving one’s faith can be an event that takes place quickly or over a period of time. Because of the overall intensity and major impact of the event, it can be compared with other events that cause PTSD. Key symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares), avoidance (staying away from places, things, and thoughts that are reminders), arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood disturbances.

These symptoms are also true for many experiencing religious trauma.

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a closely related disorder that refers to repeated trauma over months or years, rather than a one-time event. Any type of long-term trauma, can lead to CPTSD. However, it seems to appear frequently in people who have been abused by someone who was supposed to be their caregiver or protector. The term CPTSD was originated by Judith Herman, who outlines the history of trauma as a concept in the psychological world along with a three-stage approach for recovery (safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection).

Herman outlines the importance of naming and diagnosing trauma to aid recovery, further legitimising the need for defining RTS as resulting from specifically religious experiences. Herman also describes CPTSD with the traumatic complications of surviving captivity. This is a diagnosis comparable to RTS in which RTS occurs in response to perceived captivity (see How RTS Develops) rather than physical reality.

The symptoms of CPTSD include those of PTSD plus lack of emotional regulation, disassociation, negative self-perception, relationship issues, loss of meaning and others that also compare to RTS. Traumatologist Pete Walker sees attachment disorder as one of the key symptoms of Complex PTSD. He describes it as the result of growing up with primary caretakers who were regularly experienced as dangerous. He explains that recurring abuse and neglect habituates children to living in fear and sympathetic nervous system arousal.

While the traditional paradigm defining PTSD focuses on fear response to trauma and emphasises corrective emotional processing as treatment, RTS may be better understood as a set of symptoms comparable to betrayal trauma informed by shattered assumptions theory. Betrayal trauma adds a fourth assumption to Janoff-Bulman’s original three: “People are trustworthy and worth relating to.”.

Betrayal trauma theory acknowledges that victims unconsciously keep themselves from becoming aware of betrayal in order to keep from shattering that fourth basic assumption, the loss of which would be traumatic.

Religious trauma can be compared to betrayal trauma because of the trust placed in authoritarian communities and religious leaders causing harm to individuals. Betrayal trauma theory also acknowledges the power of shattered assumptions in causing trauma. With RTS, individuals are not only experiencing betrayal from family, religious community, and trusted faith leaders, they are also experiencing a shattered faith.

The potential extremity of feelings in relation to losing one’s worldview while also losing emotional and social support to get through any given crisis can cause further trauma. While fear paradigms tend to focus on treating symptoms of trauma through exposure therapy and attention to emotional regulation, betrayal trauma theory looks at the social context in which the betrayal occurred, placing the pathology in the traumatic event rather than the individual. This affects treatment approaches and also informs the treatment for RTS.

Recovery from RTS involves assessing each symptom area for growth and exploration:

Cognitive tasks include

Affective tasks include

Functional tasks include

Social/cultural tasks include

Many developmental tasks overlap with cognitive, affective, functional, and social/cultural tasks. Developmental tasks of recovery focus on recognising developmental delay and providing necessary education in critical thinking, sexual health, mental hygiene, and socialisation to allow natural human development to continue. To recognise RTS, it is not necessary to say that all religion and spirituality is harmful. It appears that certain kinds of religion, typically fundamentalist and patriarchal, have both toxic teachings and toxic practices. The damage done is through these mechanisms.].

Of course any religious group can also have healthy teachings and healthy practices. Rather than deciding whether religion in general is toxic or healthy, a more productive pursuit would be to study the mechanisms that cause damage. Currently, the Religious Trauma Institute is conducting a survey on what they are calling Adverse Religious Experiences. While this will provide a point of comparison to the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences, there is a need for longitudinal studies to examine actual patterns of causation.

Religious Persecution

Religious persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or a group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or their lack thereof. The tendency of societies or groups within societies to alienate or repress different subcultures is a recurrent theme in human history. Moreover, because a person's religion often determines his or her morality, world view, self-image, attitudes towards others, and overall personal identity to a significant extent, religious differences can be significant cultural, personal, and social factors.

Religious persecution may be triggered by religious bigotry (i.e. when members of a dominant group denigrate religions other than their own) or it may be triggered by the state when it views a particular religious group as a threat to its interests or security. At a societal level, the dehumanisation of a particular religious group may readily lead to violence or other forms of persecution. Religious persecution may be the result of societal and/or governmental regulation.

Government regulation refer to the laws imposed by the government to regulate a religion, and societal regulation is the discrimination of citizens towards one or more religions. Indeed, in many countries, religious persecution has resulted in so much violence that it is considered a human rights problem. The distinction between religious persecution and religious intolerance lies in the fact that in most cases, the latter is motivated by the sentiment of the population, which may be tolerated or encouraged by the state.

The denial of people's civil rights on the basis of their religion is most often described as religious discrimination, rather than religious persecution. Examples of persecution include the confiscation or destruction of property, incitement of hatred, arrests, imprisonment, beatings, torture, murder, and executions. Religious persecution can be considered the opposite of freedom of religion.

Bateman has differentiated different degrees of persecution.

"It must be personally costly... It must be unjust and undeserved... it must be a direct result of one's faith."

From a sociological perspective, the identity formation of strong social groups such as those generated by nationalism, ethnicity, or religion, is a causal aspect of practices of persecution. Hans G. Kippenberg says it is these communities, who can be a majority or a minority, that generate violence. Since the development of identity involves 'what we are not' as much as 'what we are', there are grounds for the fear that tolerance of 'what we are not' can contribute to the erosion of identity.

Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke say it is this perception of plurality as dangerous that leads to persecution. Both the state, and any dominant religion, share the concern that to "leave religion unchecked and without adequate controls will result in the uprising of religions that are dangerous to both state and citizenry," and this concern gives both the dominant religion and the state motives for restricting religious activity.

R.I. Moore says that persecution during the Middle Ages "provides a striking illustration of the classic deviance theory, [which is based on identity formation], as it was propounded by the father of sociology, Émile Durkheim". Persecution is also, often, part of a larger conflict involving emerging states as well as established states in the process of redefining their national identity.


Shunning can be the act of social rejection, or emotional distance. In a religious context, shunning is a formal decision by a denomination or a congregation to cease interaction with an individual or a group, and follows a particular set of rules. It differs from, but may be associated with, excommunication.

Social rejection occurs when a person or group deliberately avoids association with, and habitually keeps away from an individual or group. This can be a formal decision by a group, or a less formal group action which will spread to all members of the group as a form of solidarity. It is a sanction against association, often associated with religious groups and other tightly knit organisations and communities.

Targets of shunning can include persons who have been labeled as apostates, whistleblowers, dissidents, strikebreakers, or anyone the group perceives as a threat or source of conflict.

Social rejection has been established to cause psychological damage and has been categorised as torture or punishment. Mental rejection is a more individual action, where a person subconsciously or willfully ignores an idea, or a set of information related to a particular viewpoint. Some groups are made up of people who shun the same ideas. Social rejection was and is a punishment in many customary legal systems.

Shunning can be broken down into behaviours and practices that seek to accomplish either or both of two primary goals.

  1. To modify the behaviour of a member. This approach seeks to influence, encourage, or coerce normative behaviours from members, and may seek to dissuade, provide disincentives for, or to compel avoidance of certain behaviours. Shunning may include disassociating from a member by other members of the community who are in good standing. It may include more antagonistic psychological behaviours (described below). This approach may be seen as either corrective or punitive (or both) by the group membership or leadership, and may also be intended as a deterrent.
  2. To remove or limit the influence of a member (or former member) over other members in a community. This approach may seek to isolate, to discredit, or otherwise dis-empower such a member, often in the context of actions or positions advocated by that member. For groups with defined membership criteria, especially based on key behaviours or ideological precepts, this approach may be seen as limiting damage to the community or its leadership. This is often paired with some form of excommunication.

Some less often practiced variants may seek to:

Shunning is usually approved of (if sometimes with regret) by the group engaging in the shunning, and usually highly disapproved of by the target of the shunning, resulting in a polarisation of views. Those subject to the practice respond differently, usually depending both on the circumstances of the event, and the nature of the practices being applied. Extreme forms of shunning have damaged some individuals' psychological and relational health.

Stealth shunning is a practice where a person or an action is silently banned. When a person is silently banned, the group they have been banned from does not interact with them. This can be done by secretly distributing a blacklist announcing the person's wrongdoing. It can happen informally when all people in a group or email list each conclude that they do not want to interact with the person. When an action is silently banned, requests for that action are either ignored or refused with faked explanations.

Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature. When used by church members and member-spouse parents against excommunicant parents it contains elements of what psychologists call parental alienation. Extreme shunning may cause traumas to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.

Shunning is also a mechanism in family estrangement. When an adult child, sibling, or parent physically and/or emotionally cuts himself off from the family without proper justification, the act traumatises the family.

Religious Fanaticism

Religious fanaticism is a pejorative designation used to indicate uncritical zeal or obsessive enthusiasm which is related to one's own, or one's group's, devotion to a religion – a form of human fanaticism which could otherwise be expressed in one's other involvements and participation, including employment, role, and partisan affinities.

Steffen gives several features which are associated with religious fanaticism or extremism:

Ever since Christianity was established, some of those in authority have sought to expand and control the church, often through the fanatical use of force.

Psychological Torture

Psychological torture or mental torture is a type of torture that relies primarily on psychological effects, and only secondarily on any physical harm inflicted. Although not all psychological torture involves the use of physical violence, there is a continuum between psychological torture and physical torture. The two are often used in conjunction with one another and often overlap in practice, with the fear and pain induced by physical torture often resulting in long-term psychological effects, and many forms of psychological torture involving some form of pain or coercion.

The United Nations Convention against Torture gave for the first time in history a definition of psychological torture:

"Torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

A contemporary definition of psychological torture are those processes that "involve attacking or manipulating the inputs and processes of the conscious mind that allow the person to stay oriented in the surrounding world, retain control and have the adequate conditions to judge, understand and freely make decisions which are the essential constitutive ingredients of an unharmed self".

Many forms of psychological torture methods attempt to destroy the subject's normal self-image by removing them from any kind of control over their environment, isolation, monopolising of perception, impression of almightiness, creating a state of learned helplessness, psychological regression and depersonalisation. Other techniques include humiliation, forced nudity and head shaving, exhausting by sleep deprivation, hooding and other forms of sensory deprivation.

Another method is indirect torture, in which a victim is forced to witness the torture of another person, often a loved one. This preys on the victim's affection for and loyalty to a partner, relative, friend, comrade-in-arms, etc, whose real pain induces vicarious suffering in the targeted psychological victim, who is thus loaded with guilt but spared physical harm that might affect their ability to comply.

Though widely used e.g. in Communist and NSDAP prisons as well as other totalitarian regimes but well hidden, the publicly known systematics was developed in 1956 by the American psychiatrist Albert Biderman who examined several U.S. soldiers tortured by North Korean and Chinese secret services during the Korean war. He defined three basic actions to break the victims as dependence, debility, and dread. His work was further developed for the CIA.

While psychological torture may not leave any lasting physical damage—indeed, this is often one of the motivations for using psychological rather than physical torture—it can result in similar levels of permanent mental damage to its victims. Psychological torture methods were devised by, and in conjunction with, doctors and psychologists. Medical participation in torture has taken place throughout the world and was a prominent feature of the US interrogation practice in military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) facilities.

The United States made extensive use of psychological torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay and other sites subsequent to the 9/11 attacks. Many other countries have been accused of using psychological torture, including Iran.

The psychology of torture refers to the psychological processes underlying all aspects of torture including the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the immediate and long-term effects, and the political and social institutions that influence its use. Torture itself is the use of physical or psychological pain to control the victim or fulfill some needs of the perpetrator. Research during the past 60 years, starting with the Milgram experiment, suggests that under the right circumstances, and with the appropriate encouragement and setting, most people can be encouraged to actively torture others.

Stages of the perpetrator's torture mentality include:

One of the apparent ringleaders of the Abu Ghraib prison torture, Charles Graner Jr., exemplified the stages of dehumanisation and disinhibition when he was reported to have said, "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'". The effects of torture on the victim and the perpetrator are likely to be influenced by many factors. Therefore, it is unlikely that providing diagnostic categories of symptoms and behavior will be applicable across countries with very different personal, political or religious beliefs and perspectives.

Many people who engage in torture have various psychological deviations and often they derive sadistic satisfaction. Torture may fulfill the emotional needs of perpetrators when they willingly engage in these activities. They lack empathy and their victims' agonised painful reactions, screaming and pleading give them a sense of authority and feelings of superiority. Torture can harm not only the victim but the perpetrators as well. After the fact, perpetrators will often experience failing mental health, PTSD, suicidal tendencies, substance dependency and a myriad of other mental defects associated with inducing physical or mental trauma upon their victims.

Torture has profound and long-lasting physical and psychological effects. Torture is a form of collective suffering that is not limited to the victim. The victims' family members and friends are often also affected due to adjustment problems such as outbreaks of anger and violence directed towards family members. According to research, psychological and physical torture have similar mental effects. Often torture victims suffer from elevated rates of the following:

anxiety · depression · adjustment disorder · posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) · disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified (DESNOS) · somatoform disorders · nightmares · intrusion · insomnia · decreased libido · memory lapses · reduced capacity to learn · sexual dysfunction · social withdrawal · emotional flatness · headaches

No diagnostic terminology encapsulates the deep distrust of others which many torture survivors have developed, nor the destruction of all that gave their lives meaning. Guilt and shame about humiliation during torture, and about the survivor's inability to withstand it, as well as guilt at surviving, are common problems which discourage disclosure.

Manipulation or Emotional manipulation

Manipulation or Emotional manipulation is the use of devious means to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage. In the extreme it is the purvey of tricksters, swindlers, and impostors who disrespect moral principles, deceive and take advantage of others’ frailty and gullibility. At the very least, manipulation is forced influence used to gain control, benefits, and/or privileges at the expense of the others.

Manipulation differs from general influence and persuasion. Persuasion is the ability to move a person or persons to a desired action, usually within the context of a specific goal. Influence and persuasion are neither positive nor negative. Influence is generally perceived to be harmless as it respects the right of the influenced to accept or reject it, and is not unduly coercive.

Studies of the predictors of emotional manipulation indicate that the mechanisms behind emotional manipulation differ as a function of gender:

Common means of manipulation can be categorised as:

Manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities:

Vulnerability Description
Naïveté or immaturity People who find it too hard to accept the idea that some people are cunning, devious and ruthless or are "in denial" if they are being taken advantage of.
Over-conscientiousness People who are too willing to give another the benefit of the doubt and see their side of things.
Dependence and power People who have less power compared to and depend on the manipulator are much more likely to be manipulated.
Low self-esteem People who struggle with self-doubting, lacking in confidence and assertiveness, and who are likely to go on the defensive too easily.
Over-intellectualisation People who try too hard to understand and believe that others have some understandable reason to be manipulative.
Emotional dependency People who have a submissive or dependent personality. The more emotionally dependent a person is, the more vulnerable they are to being exploited and manipulated.
Greed People who are greedy and dishonest may be easily enticed to act in an immoral way.

There are various possible motivations for being manipulative such as to advance purposes and personal gain, to attain feelings of power and superiority in relationships with others, to feel in control, to boost self-esteem, boredom, or growing tired of one's surroundings; seeing manipulation as a game, and covert agendas, criminal or otherwise, including financial manipulation.

Individuals with the following mental health issues are often prone to be manipulative:

Antisocial personality disorder · Borderline personality disorder · Conduct Disorder · Factitious disorder · Histrionic personality disorder · Narcissistic personality disorder

*Borderline Personality Disorder is unique in the grouping as "borderline" manipulation is characterised as unintentional and dysfunctional manipulation. Marsha M. Linehan has stated that people with borderline personality disorder often exhibit behaviors which are not truly manipulative, but are erroneously interpreted as such.

According to Linehan, these behaviors often appear as unthinking manifestations of intense pain, and are often not deliberate as to be considered truly manipulative. In the DSM-V, manipulation was removed as a defining characteristic of borderline personality disorder.

Narcissistic leadership

Narcissistic leadership is a leadership style in which the leader is only interested in him/herself. Their priority is themselves – at the expense of their people/group members. This leader exhibits the characteristics of a narcissist: arrogance, dominance and hostility. It is a sufficiently common leadership style that it has acquired its own name. Narcissism is most often described as unhealthy and destructive. It has been described as "driven by unyielding arrogance, self-absorption, and a personal egotistic need for power and admiration".

A study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that when a group is without a leader, a narcissist is likely to take charge. Researchers have found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups.

According to the book Narcissism: Behind the Mask, there are four basic types of leader with narcissists most commonly in type 3 although they may be in type 1:

  1. authoritarian with task oriented decision making
  2. democratic with task oriented decision making
  3. authoritarian with emotional decision making
  4. democratic with emotional decision making

Michael Maccoby stated that "psychoanalysts don't usually get close enough to [narcissistic leaders], especially in the workplace, to write about them."

Abusive power and control

Abusive power and control (also controlling behavior and coercive control) is commonly used by an abusive person, people, or authoritative entity to gain and maintain power and control over another person or people or a family under Social Services Agency 'control' in order to subject that victim(s) to psychological, physical, mental, sexual, or financial abuse. This can affect the victim in negative ways, These include health problems, physical injuries, and long term post traumatic stress.The abuser may have a variety of motivations which can include devaluation, envy, personal gain, personal gratification, psychological projection, or simply the enjoyment of exercising power and control.

Controlling abusers use tactics to exert power and control over their victims. The tactics themselves are psychologically and sometimes physically abusive. Control may be exerted through economic abuse, limiting the victim, as the victim may not have the means to resist or leave the abuse. The goal of the abuser is to control, intimidate, and influence the victim to feel without an equal voice in the relationship. Controlling abusers use tactics to exert power and control over their victims. The tactics themselves are psychologically and sometimes physically abusive. Control may be exerted through economic abuse, limiting the victim, as the victim may not have the means to resist or leave the abuse. The goal of the abuser is to control, intimidate, and influence the victim to feel without an equal voice in the relationship.

Manipulators and abusers may control their victims with a range of tactics, including, but not limited to, positive reinforcement (such as praise, superficial charm, flattery, ingratiation, love bombing, smiling, gifts, attention), negative reinforcement (taking away aversive tasks or items), intermittent or partial reinforcement, psychological punishment (such as nagging, silent treatment, swearing, threats, intimidation, emotional blackmail, guilt trips, inattention) and traumatic tactics (such as verbal abuse or explosive anger).

The vulnerabilities of the victim are exploited, with those who are particularly vulnerable being most often selected as targets. Traumatic bonding (also popularly known as Stockholm syndrome) can occur between abusers and victims as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds (that are resistant to change) and a climate of fear. An attempt may be made to normalise, legitimise, rationalise, deny, or minimise the abusive behaviour, or to blame the victim for it.

Isolation, gaslighting, mind games, lying, disinformation, propaganda, destabilisation, brainwashing, and divide and rule are other strategies that may be used. The victim may be plied with alcohol or drugs or deprived of sleep to become disoriented. Based on statistical evidence, certain personality disorders correlate with abusive tendencies of individuals with those specific personality disorders when also compiled with abusive childhoods themselves. The seriousness of coercive control in modern Western societies has been increasingly recognised with changes to the law in several countries so it is a definable criminal offence. In conjunction with this, there have been increased attempts by the legal establishment to understand the characteristics and effects of coercive control in legal terminology.

For example, on January 1, 2019, Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act 2018, which allowed for the practice of coercive control to be identifiable based upon its effects on the victim. And on this basis defining it as: 'any evidence of deterioration in the physical, psychological, or emotional welfare of the applicant or a dependent person which is caused directly by fear of the behaviour of the respondent'. On a similar basis of attempting to understand and stop the widespread practice of coercive control, in 2019, the UK government made teaching about what coercive control was a mandatory part of the education syllabus on relationships.

While coercive control is often considered in the context of an existing intimate relationship, when it is used to elicit a sexual encounter it is legally considered as being a constituent part of sexual abuse or rape. When it is used to begin and maintain a longer-term intimate relationship, it is considered to be a constituent element of sexual slavery.

Often the abusers are initially attentive, charming, and loving, gaining the trust of the individual that will ultimately become the victim, also known as the survivor. When there is a connection and a degree of trust, the abusers become unusually involved in their partner's feelings, thoughts, and actions. Next, they set petty rules and exhibit "pathological jealousy". A conditioning process begins with alternation of loving followed by abusive behavior. The abuser projects responsibility for the abuse onto the victim, or survivor, and the denigration and negative projections become incorporated into the survivor's self-image. Control is the defining aspect of an abusive relationship.

The authors of the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work describe a five-phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power:

Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.

This can be summarised into 5 phases:

  1. Gain trust: The potential abuser is attentive, loving and charming.
  2. Over-involvement: The abuser becomes overly involved in the daily life and use of time.
  3. Petty rules and jealousy: Rules begin to be inserted to begin control of the relationship. Jealousy is considered by the abuser to be "an act of love".
  4. Manipulation, power and control: The victim is blamed for the abuser's behavior and becomes coerced and manipulated,
  5. Traumatic bonding: Ongoing cycles of abuse can lead to traumatic bonding.

A tool for exerting control and power is the use of threats and coercion. The victim may be subject to threats that they will be left, hurt, or reported to welfare. The abuser may threaten that they will commit suicide. They may also coerce them to perform illegal actions or to drop charges that they may have against their abuser. Strangulation, a particularly pernicious abusive behavior in which the abuser literally has the victim's life in his hands, is an extreme form of abusive control. Sorenson and colleagues have called strangulation the domestic violence equivalent of waterboarding, which is widely considered to be a form of torture.

The use of coercion by perpetrators and traffickers involves the use of extreme control. Perpetrators expose the victim to high amounts of psychological stress induced by threats, fear, and physical and emotional violence. Tactics of coercion are reportedly used in three phases of trafficking: recruitment, initiation, and indoctrination. During the initiation phase, traffickers use foot-in-the-door techniques of persuasion to lead their victims into various trafficking industries. This manipulation creates an environment where the victim becomes completely dependent upon the authority of the trafficker. Traffickers take advantage of family dysfunction, homelessness, and history of childhood abuse to psychologically manipulate women and children into the trafficking industry.

The goal of a trafficker is to turn a human being into a slave. To do this, perpetrators employ tactics that can lead to the psychological consequence of learned helplessness for the victims, where they sense that they no longer have any autonomy or control over their lives. Traffickers may hold their victims captive, expose them to large amounts of alcohol or use drugs, keep them in isolation, or withhold food or sleep. During this time the victim often begins to feel the onset of depression, guilt and self-blame, anger and rage, and sleep disturbances, PTSD, numbing, and extreme stress. Under these pressures, the victim can fall into the hopeless mental state of learned helplessness.

Controlling individuals can be described as perfectionists defending themselves against their own inner vulnerabilities in the belief that if they are not in total control they risk exposing themselves once more to childhood angst. Such persons manipulate and pressure others to change so as to avoid having to change themselves, and use power over others to escape an inner emptiness.

When a coercive individual's pattern is broken, the controller is left with a terrible feeling of powerlessness, but feeling their pain and fear brings them back to themselves. In terms of personality-type theory, controlling persons are very much the Type A personality, driven by the need to dominate and control. An obsessive need to control others is also associated with antisocial personality disorder.

Joost Meerloo, a Dutch psychiatrist, was an early proponent of the concept of brainwashing. ("Menticide" is a neologism coined by him meaning: "killing of the mind.") Meerloo's view was influenced by his experiences during the German occupation of his country and his work with the Dutch government and the American military in the interrogation of accused Nazi war criminals. He later emigrated to the United States and taught at Columbia University. His best-selling 1956 book, The Rape of the Mind, concludes by saying:

"The modern techniques of brainwashing and menticide—those perversions of psychology—can bring almost any man into submission and surrender. Many of the victims of thought control, brainwashing, and menticide that we have talked about were strong men whose minds and wills were broken and degraded. But although the totalitarians use their knowledge of the mind for vicious and unscrupulous purposes, our democratic society can and must use its knowledge to help man to grow, to guard his freedom, and to understand himself."

Italy has had controversy over the concept of plagio, a crime consisting in an absolute psychological—and eventually physical—domination of a person. The effect is said to be the annihilation of the subject's freedom and self-determination and the consequent negation of his or her personality. The crime of plagio has rarely been prosecuted in Italy, and only one person was ever convicted. In 1981, an Italian court found that the concept is imprecise, lacks coherence and is liable to arbitrary application.

Cult Formation

The Harvard Mental Health Letter/February 1981 By Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.

Two main concerns should inform our moral and psychological perspective on cults: the dangers of ideological totalism, or what I would also call fundamentalism; and the need to protect civil liberties. Certain psychological themes which recur in these various historical contexts also arise in the study of cults. Cults can be identified by three characteristics:

  1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Milieu Control

The first method characteristically used by ideological totalism is milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment. In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group. There is an attempt to manage an individual's inner communication. Milieu control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint.

Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events such as seminars, lectures and encounters which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically. Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call doubling: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time. When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier self may be reasserted.

Creating a Pawn

A second characteristic of totalistic environments is mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity. This is a systematic process through which the leadership can create in cult members what I call the psychology of the pawn. The process is managed so that it appears to arise spontaneously; to its objects it rarely feels like manipulation. Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting and limited sleep are used.

Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular chosen' human being is the only source of salvation. The person of the leader may attract members to the cult, but can also be a source of disillusionment. If members of the Unification Church, for example, come to believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder, is associated with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.

Mystical manipulation may also legitimate deception of outsiders, as in the "heavenly deception" of the Unification Church and analogous practices in other cult environments. Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose. For instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny their affiliation with a cult that has a dubious public reputation.

Purity and Confession

Two other features of totalism are a demand for purity and a cult of confession. The demand for purity is a call for radical separation of good and evil within the environment and within oneself. Purification is a continuing process, often institutionalised in the cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt and shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.

Confessions contain varying mixtures of revelation and concealment. As Albert Camus observed, "Authors of confessions write especially to avoid confession, to tell nothing of what they know." Young cult members confessing the sins of their precultic lives may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware of or reluctant to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior existence. Repetitious confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses an arrogance in the name of humility. As Camus wrote: "I practice the profession of penitence to be able to end up as a judge," and, "The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you."

Three further aspects of ideological totalism are "sacred science," "loading of the language," and the principle of "doctrine over person." Sacred science is important because a claim of being scientific is often needed to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age. The Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency to combine dogmatic religious principles with a claim to special scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology.

The term loading the language' refers to literalism and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, cliche-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality. The principle of doctrine over person' is invoked when cult members sense a conflict between what they are experiencing and what dogma says they should experience. The internalised message of the totalistic environment is that one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the dogma. Contradictions become associated with guilt: doubt indicates one's own deficiency or evil.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of totalistic movements is what I call "dispensing of existence." Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist. That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse. Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere, people were put to death for alleged doctrinal shortcomings.

In the People's Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana, a cult leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a suicidal mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group's ideology. The totalistic impulse to draw a sharp line between those who have the right to live and those who do not is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.

Historical Context

Totalism should always be considered within a specific historical context. A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or psycho historical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic structures that organise ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a decay of belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death. One function of cults is to provide a group initiation rite for the transition to early adult life, and the formation of an adult identity outside the family. Cult members have good reasons for seeing attempts by the larger culture to make such provisions as hypocritical or confused.

In providing substitute symbols for young people, cults are both radical and reactionary. They are radical because they suggest rude questions about middle-class family life and American political and religious values in general. They are reactionary because they revive premodern structures of authority and sometimes establish fascist patterns of internal organisation. Furthermore, in their assault on autonomy and self-definition some cults reject a liberating historical process that has evolved with great struggle and pain in the West since the Renaissance. (Cults must be considered individually in making such judgments.

Historical dislocation is one source of what I call the "protean style." This involves a continuous psychological experimentation with the self, a capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same time, and a tendency to change one's ideas, companions and way of life with relative ease. Cults embody a contrary restricted style,' a flight from experimentation and the confusion of a protean world.

These contraries are related: groups and individuals can embrace a protean and a restricted style in turn. For instance, the so-called hippie ethos of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the present so-called Yuppie preoccupation with safe jobs and comfortable incomes. For some people, experimentation with a cult is part of the protean search.

The imagery of extinction derived from the con temporary threat of nuclear war influences patterns of totalism and fundamentalism throughout the world. Nuclear war threatens human continuity itself and impairs the symbols of immortality. Cults seize upon this threat to provide immortalising principles of their own. The cult environment supplies a continuous opportunity for the experience of transcendence -- a mode of symbolic immortality generally suppressed in advanced industrial society.

Role of Psychology

Cults raise serious psychological concerns, and there is a place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members. But our powers as mental health professionals are limited, so we should exercise restraint. When helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important to maintain a personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working for the cult or for the parents. Totalism begets totalism. What is called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense dialogue on the one hand to physical coercion and kidnaping, with thought-reform-like techniques, on the other.

My own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and others who consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process. Cults are primarily a social and cultural rather than a psychiatric or legal problem. But psychological professionals can make important contributions to the public education crucial for dealing with the problem. With greater knowledge about them, people are less susceptible to deception, and for that reason some cults have been finding it more difficult to recruit members.

Yet painful moral dilemmas remain. When laws are violated through fraud or specific harm to recruits, legal intervention is clearly indicated. But what about situations in which behavior is virtually automatised, language reduced to rote and cliche, yet the cult member expresses a certain satisfaction or even happiness? We must continue to seek ways to encourage a social commitment to individual autonomy and avoid coercion and violence.

Model of Authoritarian Control (BITE)

This dissertation titled “The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law” was published in January 2021. Many people think of mind control as an ambiguous, mystical process that cannot be defined in concrete terms. In reality, mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques, such as hypnosis or thought-stopping, that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts.

Based on research and theory by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, Louis Jolyon West, and others who studied brainwashing in Maoist China as well as cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger, Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control.

Behavior Control

  1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
  2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
  3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
  4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
  5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
  6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
  7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
  8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
  9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
  10. Permission required for major decisions
  11. Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
  12. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
  13. Impose rigid rules and regulations
  14. Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
  15. Threaten harm to family and friends
  16. Force individual to rape or be raped
  17. Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
  18. Instill dependency and obedience
  19. Kidnapping
  20. Beating
  21. Torture
  22. Rape
  23. Separation of Families
  24. Imprisonment
  25. Murder

Information Control

  1. Deception:
    1. Deliberately withhold information
    2. Distort information to make it more acceptable
    3. Systematically lie to the cult member
  2. Minimise or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
    1. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
    2. Critical information
    3. Former members
    4. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
    5. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
  3. Compartmentalise information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
    1. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
    2. Control information at different levels and missions within group
    3. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
  4. Encourage spying on other members
    1. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
    2. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
    3. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
  5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
    1. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
    2. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
  6. Unethical use of confession
    1. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
    2. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
    3. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories

Thought Control

  1. Require members to internalise the group’s doctrine as truth
    1. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
    2. Instill black and white thinking
    3. Decide between good vs. evil
    4. Organise people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
  2. Change person’s name and identity
  3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
  4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
  5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
  6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
  7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
    1. Denial, rationalisation, justification, wishful thinking
    2. Chanting
    3. Meditating
    4. Praying
    5. Speaking in tongues
    6. Singing or humming
  8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
  9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
  10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
  11. Instill new “map of reality”

Emotional Control

  1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
  2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
  3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
  4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
    1. Identity guilt
    2. You are not living up to your potential
    3. Your family is deficient
    4. Your past is suspect
    5. Your affiliations are unwise
    6. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
    7. Social guilt
    8. Historical guilt
  5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
    1. Thinking independently
    2. The outside world
    3. Enemies
    4. Losing one’s salvation
    5. Leaving or being shunned by the group
    6. Other’s disapproval
    7. Historical guilt
  6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
  7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
  8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
    1. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
    2. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
    3. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
    4. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
    5. Threats of harm to ex-member and family

Destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause; it is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Like many techniques, it is not inherently good or evil. If mind control techniques are used to empower an individual to have more choice, and authority for their life remains within themselves, the effects can be beneficial. For example, benevolent mind control can be used to help people quit smoking without affecting any other behavior. Mind control becomes destructive when it undermines a person’s ability to think and act independently.

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups

Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine whether there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine whether a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

Note: This checklist has gone through many revisions since the author first presented it in the 1990s. Many people have contributed suggestions and feedback to the various revisions, in particular Carol Giambalvo, Janja Lalich, Herb Rosedale, and Patrick Ryan.