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 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 victimized 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.

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 characterized 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 organizational 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 traumatized, terrorized 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 (RTS) is recognized 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 minimized 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 traumatized 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 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 legitimizing 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 emphasizes 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 recognizing developmental delay and providing necessary education in critical thinking, sexual health, mental hygiene, and socialization to allow natural human development to continue. To recognize 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 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 organizations 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 categorized 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 polarization 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 traumatizes the family.

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 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 depersonalization. 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:

  • Reluctance: The perpetrator is reluctant to participate or observe the administration of torture.
  • Official encouragement: As the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram experiment show, in an official setting, many people will follow the direction of an authority figure (such as a superior officer) particularly if it is presented as mandatory, even if they have personal uncertainty. The main motivations for this appear to be a fear of loss of status or respect, and the desire to be seen as a "good citizen" or "good subordinate".
  • Peer encouragement: The perpetrator begins to accept torture as necessary, acceptable or deserved, or to comply due to the need to conform to peer group beliefs.
  • Dehumanization: The perpetrator sees victims as objects of curiosity and experimentation rather than as human beings. The physical and psychological manipulations become just another opportunity to test the victim's response.
  • Disinhibition: Sociocultural and situational pressures may cause perpetrators to undergo a lessening of moral inhibitions and as a result act in ways not normally accepted by law, custom and conscience.
  • Self-perpetuating: Within the organization, once torture becomes established as part of internally acceptable norms under certain circumstances, its use often becomes institutionalized and self-perpetuating over time. What was once rarely used during extreme circumstances begins to be used more regularly with more reasons claimed to justify wider use.

One of the apparent ringleaders of the Abu Ghraib prison torture, Charles Graner Jr., exemplified the stages of dehumanization 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' agonized 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 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:

  • "For males, higher levels of emotional intelligence, social information processing, indirect aggression, and self-serving cognitive distortions significantly predicted emotional manipulation".
  • "For females, being younger, higher levels of emotional intelligence, indirect aggression, primary psychopathic traits, and lower levels of social awareness significantly predicted emotional manipulation. However for females, emotional intelligence acted as a suppressor"

Common means of manipulation can be categorized as:

  • Positive reinforcement: includes praise, superficial charm, superficial sympathy (crocodile tears), excessive apologizing, money, approval, gifts, attention, facial expressions such as a forced laugh or smile, and public recognition.
  • Negative reinforcement: includes nagging, yelling, the silent treatment, intimidation, threats, swearing, emotional blackmail, guilt trips, sulking, crying, and playing the victim, using verbal abuse, explosive anger, or other intimidating behavior to establish dominance or superiority; even one incident of such behavior can condition or train victims to avoid upsetting, confronting or contradicting the manipulator.
  • Intermittent or partial reinforcement: Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt. Partial or intermittent positive reinforcement can encourage the victim to persist.

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-intellectualization 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 characterized 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 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 (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:

  • Entry – psychopath will use highly developed social skills and charm to obtain employment into an organisation. At this stage it will be difficult to spot anything that is indicative of psychopathic behaviour, and as a new employee one might perceive the psychopath to be helpful and even benevolent.
  • Assessment – psychopath will weigh one up according to one's usefulness, and one could be recognised as either a pawn (who has some informal influence and will be easily manipulated) or a patron (who has formal power and will be used by the psychopath for protection against attacks)
  • Manipulation – psychopath will create a scenario of "psychopathic fiction" where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, where one's role as a part of a network of pawns or patrons will be used and one will be groomed into accepting the psychopath's agenda.
  • Confrontation – the psychopath will use techniques of character assassination to maintain an agenda, and one will be either discarded as a pawn or used as a patron
  • Ascension – one's role as a patron in the psychopath's quest for power will be discarded, and the psychopath will usurp a position of power and prestige from anyone who once supported them.

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.[82] 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.