Monday, March 1, 2010

A Matter of Brainwashing

I was just recently watching an episode of Strangers With Candy (anyone else a die hard Amy Sedaris fan!?) where the main character is convinced to join what she thinks is a friendly meeting group for people with similar emotional issues (structured similarly to AA). She soon discovers that the group's manipulation has persuaded her to actually join a cult. Although this is a fictional story, I am curious to see how often it happens in real life.

In The New York Times, Glenn Collins wrote an article in '82 about the subject. He claims that then, there were anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million active cult members. Imagine how numbers must have changed since then. Anyways, Collins quotes psychologist Margaret Singer, who goes onto describe the brainwashing tactics used by many cults, ''consciously and manipulatively, cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes''. It's scary to think that they target primarily younger kids, lost souls, or distressed individuals. This strategy works because of the crowd it is geared towards - the naive/depressed/spontaneously destructive kind.

Although many cults are not destructive in their nature and many of their members are truly trying to have a strong religious connection, Collins claims that still does not leave them guilty from melding and transforming an unadulterated mindset. A quote said by Collins puts this point perfectly: ''the destructive effects of cult conversions amount to a new disease in an era of psychological manipulation.''. They are still going out in search of more attendance and will do so at any cost. The larger the attendance rate, the bigger and better they can become.

Their techniques for exploiting the vulnerabilities of potential converts were developed from, if you can believe it, studying the workings of the human brain. YES, that means that many cult leaders proficient in bringing in converts, have studied and continue to study psychology. I mean, it only makes sense, but it's strange to me that while I want to learn about the topic for self-awareness reasons, others are using the knowledge for evil, calculating ways.

Just make sure the next time you run off to the mall after you split from your significant other, or escape to the local park to think things over, or whatever, watch out for strangers that can recognize your exposure and vulnerability. You may want to take a look at their sneakers just in case you do end up enjoying their company. Lesson learned today: Don't put too much trust in anyone you don't know very well. You might end up involved in a human mass suicide, eeek!

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