In her 1995 book Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer (d. 2003) explores in detail the methods and processes of coercive persuasion. These methods are used not just by cult leaders, but by anyone who manipulates the behavior of others in order to promote a hidden agenda, often involving the consolidation of power. (By the way, some very telling experiments that reveal the vulnerability of our minds to manipulation and social influence include those of Stanley Milgram, now labelled controversial, and Solomon Asch.)
According to Singer, the tactics of a thought reform program are organized to do three things: destabilize a person’s sense of self; get the person to alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality; and develop dependency in the person, turning him into a deployable agent for the controller or the agenda.
Singer also lists six conditions that create an atmosphere conducive to coercive persuasion:
Keep the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person and their thoughts
Control time and physical environment
Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
Suppress old behavior and attitudes
Instill new behavior and attitudes
Put forth a closed system of logic.
The atmosphere of coercion is reinforced by peer-modeled behavior. Basically, this means that in a room full of people who whisper, you will likely whisper too. Or if you are exposed to a slogan often enough, you will repeat it, even if you don’t understand what it means.
Another feature of coercive persuasion, according to Robert Jay Lifton, is to promote a climate in which the agenda is seen as an elitist movement for those who are enlightened. Those who oppose the agenda are labeled as lesser beings.
—Stella Morabito, “Cults in Our Midst: Patty Hearst and the Brainwashing of America”