If you’ve watched Wild Wild Country or Holy Hell on Netflix, you probably have some level of understanding of why people join cults. However, you’ve probably also thought to yourself, I can’t believe all these people would go along with this! I would never do that!
For a lot of people, cult loyalty comes on like a thief in the night, subtly ingraining itself into every facet of their life until their sense of reality is distorted and they begin to put the cult before themselves, regardless of the nefarious deeds they may be asked to perform.
Clearly, there must be something about cults that attracts people. Maybe it’s the sense of community. Maybe it’s the feeling of being part of something bigger than oneself. Whatever it may be, once you’re in, most cults utilize very similar tactics in order to discourage free thinking in order to keep you from leaving. These methods of mind control have never been so clearly outlined as in the best-selling book Combating Cult Mind Control by Dr. Steven Hassan in which he describes what he calls the “BITE Method” of cult mind control.
Having a greater understanding of the ways that people try to manipulate our thoughts can help us remain aware when someone is actively trying to indoctrinate us and suppress our free thoughts. These methods are not reserved for cults but have also been used by authoritarian and terrorist regimes such as the Nazis or Boko Haram. Let’s take a look at the BITE Method of mind control and hopefully gain a greater understanding of how cults and other cult-like factions use it to try and manipulate us.
What Is the BITE Method?
The BITE Method is a way of outlining the different methods of mind control that cults use to gain and retain control over people and their thoughts. The method was first described in Dr. Steven Hassan’s book Combating Cult Mind Control. Hassan wrote the book after leaving the Moon cult and being “deprogrammed,” as he calls it.
If you’re unaware of what the Moon cult is, it was a religious movement also known as the Unification Church that was founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in Pusan, South Korea in 1954. The movement preached that Moon himself was the Messiah and that all of his teachings were of divine importance. The cult enacted strict guidelines for sexual behavior and forced arranged marriages on many of its members, thereby infiltrating even the most private aspects of their life. If you want to know more about what life was like inside the Unification Church, check out the documentary Blessed Child, which details the journey of a woman named Cara Jones who was indoctrinated into and then later escaped the cult.
Much like Cara Jones, Dr. Steven Hassan also escaped from the “Moonies” and rejoined society in 1976. The experience inspired him to learn all that he could about cult psychology, earn a doctorate in philosophy, and help the public understand the methods of mind control employed by cults. That’s where the BITE Method was born.
The BITE Method consists of four major methods of control: Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control. By exerting all four of these types of control, a cult can gain full power over a human being and essentially strip them of their free will. There is quite a bit of overlap between these four categories as, for example, our behavior is often dictated in part by our thoughts and emotions; however, by controlling these four areas of someone’s life, you can sever their ability to think for themself.
Behavior control has to do primarily with restricting and controlling the physical movements of a human being. It’s essentially telling someone, “Go here. Don’t go there.” Cults seek to control who their members live with and associate with, hoping to keep people apart who might share similar dissenting ideas. They also seek to control who you have a relationship with or who you have sex with (probably because they’re afraid that a happy relationship might fill the emotional hole that that person was trying to fill by joining a cult).
Cults may also exercise control over more cosmetic things like hairstyles or clothing. They may force you to get a tattoo or a brand signifying that you’re a member of the cult. They may control what you eat or ask you to fast or prevent you from sleeping, knowing that a hungry and tired person is easier to manipulate than someone who is well-rested and satiated.
Certain cults will also control your behavior through physical means. They might encourage corporal punishment among parents. They may force individuals to rape or be raped. They may physically beat their members for dissenting. These are all very Pavlovian ways of training people to behave in a certain way.
Successfully brainwashing people necessitates that they don’t have access to information that is contrary to the teachings of the cult. In a general sense, this means deliberately withholding information from the cult members, distorting the information so that it’s more in keeping with the ethos of the cult, and systematically lying to cult members.
In its practical applications, information control is carried out by restricting members’ access to television, newspapers, or other media outlets, cutting off their contact with people outside of the cult, and distributing information sources approved by the cult. Cults also encourage their members to spy on each other, creating a sort of buddy system to ensure that no one is consuming outside information.
For instance, if someone in the cult catches someone else reading a newspaper that is contrary to the beliefs of the cult, that person will probably tattle and get the other member in trouble. In this way, cults tend to self-regulate the information that is taken in, leaving only enough room for the information that is approved by the cult’s leaders.
While behavior control and information control are methods of control imposed by the cult itself, thought control is where members start to internalize the teachings of the cult and impose them on themselves. A huge part of getting people to think in the way you want is to stop them from thinking in contrary ways.
In fact, cults often encourage (though not by name) thought-stopping techniques, meaning techniques that shut down the process of questioning. Activities like chanting, speaking in tongues, singing, humming, dancing, and praying become substitutes for questioning one’s reality, encouraging people to never allow “negative” thoughts into their minds.
In these ways and through the entire atmosphere of the cult, they seek to instill a black-and-white way of thinking into their members. Anything that is in agreement with the cult is good, and anything contrary to the cult is bad and should be avoided or even destroyed.
In a similar way to how cults teach that certain thoughts are bad, they also teach their members that they must do away with certain emotions. Emotions like restlessness, doubt, homesickness, or anger can cause cult members to dissent, and so cults do everything in their power to eliminate those emotions in their members.
The primary way that cults control people’s emotions is through fear. If you fear the outside world, why would you ever think of leaving the cult? If you fear that you will never find happiness or salvation if you don’t follow the teachings of the cult, why would you ever doubt?
Another way that cults manipulate people’s emotions is by convincing them that all of their problems are their own fault and never the fault of the leader or the group as a whole. By doing so, they instill a sense of self-loathing in their members that causes them to seek the help of the cult to fix their “wretched” ways.
If you read about some of the more terrifying cults throughout history, you’ll surely observe some of these methods of control in action. However, it’s important to remember that these methods aren’t only used by the Branch Davidians and the Manson Family, they can be found in corporate cultures, frat houses, churches, sports teams, and all over the world.
Want to know more about cult psychology? Check out I Lost My Best Friend to a Cult | Behind the Curtain of Cult Psychology.