Cults and Attachment

Cults and Attachment

Victims of cults are often portrayed as credulous, submissive, and prone to delusion. To an extent that is true, but this stereotype ignores the fact that these vices are the result, not the cause, of involvement in a cult. Cults hijack people’s rational and volitional capacities through a deceptive process of recruitment and indoctrination that exploits universal human cognitive and affective processes. As a result, we are all vulnerable to their tactics. Steven Hassan has done admirable work in characterizing the kinds of undue influence that such groups employ to manipulate their members. His BITE model notes that high control groups operate through: Behavioral control (e.g. restricting sleep, leisure activities, sexuality, etc.), Information control (e.g., blocking outside sources of information, discouraging speaking with former cult members, confession and spying, etc.),  Thought control (e.g. absolutist/ us vs them thinking, thought stopping activities, trance, and a reliance on clichés), and Emotional control (e.g. inducing phobias, labeling some emotions as sinful, promoting feelings of shame, love bombing, etc.).[1] But though Hassan’s BITE model accurately characterizes these destructive groups, it doesn’t offer an underlying theoretical framework to explain how they function. This is something Alexandria Stein has attempted to address in her book Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. In it she uses the framework of attachment theory to argue that cults operate by generating and sustaining disordered attachments in their victims, transforming erstwhile ordinary men and women into unthinking soldiers.

            Attachment theory was developed by psychiatrist John Bowlby as an alternative to the behaviorist conception of the parent child relation as a simple stimulus and response mechanism to procure food.[2] Bowlby postulated attachment as a system designed to secure protection from threat. When a child ventures forth on their own to explore their environment and encounters something threatening, the attachment system activates and causes the child to seek their parent for protection. The parent then comforts the child, who then, reassured, goes out once more to explore the word.[3] On this model, the parent functions as a “secure base” where the child can always return when alarmed. Stein likens this attachment relation to “an elastic band, contracting and expanding in relation to the child’s needs and conditions of the environment.”[4] When things go well, a homeostasis between exploratory activities and proximity seeking activities is achieved, and the child develops what Bowlby labeled secure attachment.

When things go poorly, however, the child develops what Bowlby called an insecure attachment. Bowlby posits two forms of insecure attachment: preoccupied and dismissing. A preoccupied attachment develops when the parent is unreliable, only intermittently comforting the child, and thus “attachment behavior is not effectively terminated.”[5] Because comfort is not reliably provided, the attachment mechanism never turns off and the child continues to cling to the parent trying to gain protection. Such insecure attachment can manifest itself as anxiety and hypervigilance. Dismissing attachment, in contrast, develops when the parent is reliably unreliable, consistently rejecting or neglecting the child.[6]  In response, the child’s attachment mechanism atrophies and the child gives up trying to seek comfort from the parent. “This doesn’t mean the child can regulate their fear responses on their own, but they do not go to the caregiver to try to get comfort or protection, and they avoid attachments and suppress attachment behaviors even while they are experiencing threat and fear internally.”[7] These children are “unable to depend on others”[8] and tend to be aggressive and bullying.

Though we take secure attachments to be more psychologically healthy than insecure ones, both secure and insecure attachments are organized. They allow the child to make sense of his or her environment and to act in ways that make sense to promote survival. In other words, they constitute coherent approaches to the world. “These situations work well enough within situations that, while not all are optimal, are at least predictable, and allow the child to develop a coherent—organized—way of responding to their environment.”[9]

            In contrast to organized attachments, disorganized attachments are maladaptive. The concept of disorganized attachment was created by Main and Solomon to account for the bizarre behavior observed in children who were frightened BY their caregivers. These children “displayed brief but disorganized and disoriented behaviors including signs of confusion, fear, freezing, and strange movements.”[10] Children in these circumstances live in situations of  “fright without solution”, since their parents were “at once the safe haven and also the source of threat.”[11] As a result, “the child experiences the unresolvable paradox of seeking to simultaneously flee from and approach the caregiver. This happens at a biological level, not thought out or conscious, but as evolved behavior to fear. The child attempts to run TO and flee FROM the caregiver at the same time.”[12] “Attachment strategies collapse” in such scenarios.[13] “Freezing, confusion and a variety of other behaviors are the result…. In most cases the need for proximity—for physical closeness—tends to override attempts to avoid the fear-arousing caregiver. So usually the child stays close to the frightening parent while internally both their withdrawal and approach systems are simultaneously activated, and in conflict.”[14]

Disorganized attachment is non-adaptive. It does not help the child to navigate their environment, since it is an environment in which attachment strategies cannot function. Because the fright confronting the child cannot be solved—the child can’t get away from their parent since they are dependent on him or her—, “the conditions in the environment…overwhelm attempts to adapt and the homeostatic system fails.”[15] This chronic threat without solution results in dissociation, a breakdown in the brain so that we “can no longer think about what we are feeling regarding the frightening relationship.”[16] In a state of dissociation, the feeling and thinking parts of the brain can no longer communicate about the impending threat (even though one might be able to reason well about other domains). Stein explains as follows:

“There is a two-fold effect that results from this. On the one hand, the person cannot think clearly about the frightening relationship. Thinking part of the brain is not operating well. It does not think. ‘This is a dangerous situation, get out of here!’ There is no escape, so no solution, no ‘get out’ is available. On the other hand, the person –feeling frightened—tends to stay in proximity to their only remaining attachment, even when it is that attachment causing the threat. Panic is followed by giving up: giving up both independent thinking and emotional independence. The combination of isolation and fear is therefore, in many cases, able to create a dissociated follower with an anxiously dependent attachment.”[17]

Children, for example, in the care of alcoholic or personality disordered parents may live in such an impossible situation.[18] Attachment status is not static, however, and through therapy or gaining other trustworthy attachments, people who were previously raised in abusive families can heal. Yet, this mutability of attachment status, Stein points out, can also produce changes in the opposite direction. People with previously organized attachments can be rendered disorganized if put in the right situation. And this, argues Stein, is precisely what cults do. As a result, everyone, not just the needy or weak minded, is vulnerable to cult recruitment and brainwashing.

            Most people, in fact, are pulled into cults by ‘accident’ while undergoing ordinary life transitions. Cults deceptively target individuals and pull them into their sphere of influence, often operating through front organizations (e.g. offering free therapy, producing theater, serving the community, etc.) who then collect contact information and quickly follow up with face to face contact.[19] Once in their sphere of influence, these groups systematically isolate and engulf their victims, encouraging them to terminate their previous relationships and overwhelming them with cult activities.[20] These groups press people so closely together that there is no space for free thought or action.[21] This results in a threefold isolation: isolation from the outside world, isolation from genuine connections to others in the group, and isolation from the self. Stein explains:

“Contrary to the stereotype of cult life, followers are isolated not only from the outside world, but in this airless pressing together they are also isolated from each other within the group. They cannot share doubts, complaints about the group, or any attempt to attribute their distress to the actions of the group. At the same time as this isolation from other people—either within or outside the of the group—is occurring, there is also a deep loneliness and isolation from the self.”[22]

            Once the victim is isolated, the cult can then terrorize him or her by creating a situation of fear without solution. They do this by threatening their victims in a variety of ways. Threats may involve verbal or physical abuse, or they may be generated through phobia induction (often using apocalyptic imagery).  For example, Stein cites the hateful ideology of one right wing Christian group which threatened of a coming time “when parents will eat their children. Death in the major cities will cause rampant diseases and plagues. Maggot infested bodies will lie everywhere. Earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, and other natural disasters will grow to gigantic proportions. Witches and satanic Jews will offer people up as sacrifices to their gods, openly and proudly, blacks will rape and kill white women and will torture and kill white men; homosexuals will sodomize whoever they can.”[23]

Once their victims are adequately terrorized, the cult can position itself to be the sole source of comfort. In this manner, the cult is both the bad cop threatening its victims and the good cop promising succor.[24] The latter can be performed by even the most minimal of courtesies once one is fully immersed in the terror of the system. Small kindnesses can come to look like incredible favors.[25] This chronic terror without solution creates a disordered attachment and brings about dissociation in the victim so that they can no longer think about their feelings with respect to the group. This allows the group to provide their own interpretation of the situation and begin to create a new self-concept in the victim. “Now the group can seize hold of the follower, offering an opportunistic interpretation to substitute for the follower’s own lack of evaluative function, and consolidate the follower as a deployable resource. In other words: listen to the group, they will tell you what the trouble is. Unable to interpret the meaning of events? Don’t worry, the group will do it for you. Follow what they say, that will show a way out of the terror. Commit even more fully and all shall be well.”[26]

            This leads us to the doctrinal component of the cult. It is tempting to conceive of the cult’s creed as articulating the core mission of the cult. If this were so, the best way to defend people from these organizations would be by refuting their doctrines. Yet this strategy fundamentally misunderstands the role of doctrine in such systems. Cult doctrine does not exist as an attempt to express the truth about the world, but to create and reinforce disorganized attachments.

The cognitive claims of the cult have two faces: propaganda and ideology. Propaganda constitutes the cult’s outward facing teachings. Its rhetoric is aimed at those who retain some attachments in the outside world. It is designed to woo outsiders by making the group look more attractive than it actually is and to justify the relational isolation of cult members.[27] “The totalizing ideology of the cult establishes and encourages the division between us and them, and gives the theological, political or other ideological rationale for breaking ties, with family friends, and other preexisting attachment figures.”[28] Propaganda begins the process of chipping away critical thought, encouraging what Stein calls peripheral rather than central modes of persuasion. Central persuasion, claims Stein, relies on the slow rational process of logically analyzing arguments and weighing evidence. Peripheral persuasion, on the other hand, “involves being persuaded by cues and rules of thumb that are logically unrelated to the content of a persuasion message—they are peripheral cues, focusing on surface attributes of the message or messenger.”[29]

“A person deciding whether to a join a particular group using only peripheral route processing might feel rushed by a sense of urgency: ‘one time offer’! Sign up now! they might find the recruiter attractive, be inundated with testimonials, or have participated in a highly emotional group ‘peak experience’, among many other types of peripheral persuasion cues. Peripheral route processing results from rapid decision-making under time constraints, a quantity of weak arguments, rapid presentation and distractions, such as strong emotional arousal. In this way decisions are made based on peripheral, rather than central characteristics of the question.”[30]

Whereas propaganda is aimed at those who still have connections to the outside world, the group’s true ideology is revealed to those securely ensconced within the group. Regardless of the specific content, such ideology will have two goals: Justifying the leader’s absolute power and maintaining dissociation in followers.[31] These totalist ideologies will claim to have “the key explanation for all the mysteries of life and world.”[32] In doing so, they serve to keep the follower isolated from reality. These systems reject “any knowledge from the outside world in order to create a fictitious world within the hermetically sealed totalist system.”[33] They are the means by which the leader internally subjugates his or her followers. “A total ideology requires that the belief system, as defined and interpreted by the leader, enter into every last element of life without exception, and regardless of the self-interest of the believer. Totalist ideologies have an ‘ice cold logic’ and rigidity that includes everything and allows no deviation.”[34] There is one truth, just as there is one leader.[35]

            The second purpose of ideology is to create and maintain dissociation in followers. To do this the ideology must: i) present the group as a safe haven, ii) present all other possible safe havens as dangerous, and iii) “broadcast elements of fear, stress or threat to trigger the traumatic disorganized bond of the follower to the group, and set in place the resulting dissociation that this maladaptive response causes.”[36] It will also demand total allegiance and complete transformation from the follower. In claiming that the follower “is flawed and must change,”[37] the ideology thereby defines the self as “unacceptable, wrong and without value. The old self must be shed and the new group self continually monitored, improved, striven for.”[38] In turn, this allows for the cult to create another self—a deployable agent for the leader.

            Once trapped in such a system it becomes very difficult to leave. For the group has served to undermine all other sources of meaning and connection in the lives of its members. Though the group is itself terrorizing, the person seeking to flee is confronted with an even greater terror. They fear leaving a total world, the threat of retribution by the group, and a deep existential dread of annihilation.  “This is a type of existential fear, or ‘speechless terror’…, a generalized terror that cannot be clearly thought about or articulated given the dissociation between emotional and cognitive processing that characterizes the disorganized relationship. Emotionally, the leaver experiences intense separation anxiety and a terror of the aloneness that seems to be the only option. And cognitively there is a fear of total loss of meaning. This is a paralyzing fear of both relational and cognitive ‘nothingness,’ a feeling of being cast into a void. In leaving the group the individual faces both he loss of their only known and available safe haven, and a potentially terrifying absence of identity until a new identity can be established within a new social context, a process that can take years.”[39]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] For a fuller discussion of Hassan’s account see his classic Combating Cult Mind Control. He also does a good job of applying this framework to the current political climate in the US in his book The Cult of Trump.

[2] Alexandra Stein, Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, (New York: Routledge, 2017), 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 49.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 51-52.

[13] Ibid., 52.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 53.

[17] Ibid, 54.

[18] See, for example, Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship and Shaw’s Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation.

[19] Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, 69-70.

[20] Ibid., 95.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 96.

[23] Ibid., 97.

[24] Ibid., 100.

[25] Ibid. Again, this also occurs in abusive relationships.

[26] Ibid., 109.

[27] Ibid., 75

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 79.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 180-181.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 181.

[34] Ibid., 182.

[35] Ibid., 186.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 193.

[38] Ibid., 191.

[39] Ibid., 238.

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