Cults

In half a decade weโ€™ve gone from Jeb Bush making a serious run for president to Marjorie Taylor Greene running unopposed and winning a House seat in Georgia. QAnon came seemingly out of nowhere, but taps into a much deeper and older series of conspiracy theories that have surfaced, resurfaced, and been remixed throughout time.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? In an increasingly complex world of information bombarding us as blinding speed and high volume, the cognitive appeal of easy answers and turnkey “community” may be much stronger than ever before.

List of conspiracy theory books

It’s a deep topic so we’d best get started. If you’ve got an urgent issue with a friend or loved one, start here:

Best for deprogramming a friend:

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect — Mick West

More conspiracy theory books:

Order on bookshop.org and thumb your nose at Amazon

Read more

A Cult Dictionary of Mind Control, and the Language of Abuse

Cultism has a long history here in the United States — but what is a cult, exactly? One could argue the Confederacy was a kind of cult, and the KKK after it. America gave rise to cult leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Sun Myung Moon, among many many others who led cults big and small (Charles Koch, perhaps?! Certainly Donald Trump.).

Christianity itself was considered a cult by some during its humble beginnings after the turn of the millennia and then some. It’s no accident that religious revivalism and many types of faith fervor colored the nation for decades and centuries. It’s the blind worship of a singular ideology or individual, in the case of a cult of personality, that is often the signature trait of both cult leaders and cult followers, who will do anything they’re told — even unto the grave.

A cult leader tripped out byy his loyal followers, by Midjourney

Some might call the patriarchal nuclear family the Original Cult. Many if not most Evangelical sects revere it, among numerous others who believe in God the Father quite literally. Others still seek to exploit that zeal, by offering up a series of “flawed saviors” who dangled the prospect of a more theocratic state governed by Law and Order. Their money buys them much more than just the puppets who rule, and the citizens struggle to pierce the veils of illusion.

Mind control and emotional manipulation

Known by many names, from mind control to brainwashing to undue influence techniques, the use of methods to knowingly manipulate a target’s sense of reality is a devious and unethical way to achieve one’s aims with increased plausible deniability. Having obedient servants do your dirty work, bury your secrets, and protect your property perhaps is an archetypal dream of an America gone by… or current.

From schoolyard bullies and repressive religious upbringing to sexual predators and organized crime, the toolkit is eerily similar — it makes you wonder if they all get pamphlets in the mail from Head Evil, or if they instinctually all arrive at these methods on their own. Their goal is to get inside your head, destabilize you and keep you off balance, and gain some sort of advantage over you both currently and in ensuing negotiations, conflicts, or other events.

A cult leader manipulating his followers with charisma and disinformation. by Midjourney

Today we are seeing it on a large scale in the digital domain, from Facebook radicalization and QAnon to right-wing backchannels and encrypted messaging. We had better get familiar with the lexicon and vocabulary of the coming era, so we can fight the creeping scourge of thought control roiling the land.

TermDefinitionNotes
abuseUsing one's position of authority unfairly and/or deceptively for personal gain.https://doctorparadox.net/tag/emotional-abuse/Includes many forms, from emotional and psychological to financial, physical, narcissistic, and more.
aggressionBehavior intended to harm, injure, or assert dominance over another, either physically or psychologically. It's often characterized by hostility and, in some contexts, can be provoked or unprovoked.https://doctorparadox.net/the-authoritarian-personality-craves-power/
anarchyA political philosophy and social movement that rejects all forms of involuntary, coercive hierarchy and authority, advocating for a society organized without a government or governing body.
anti-governmentAn attitude or stance that opposes or is critical of the existing governmental structure, policies, or officials, often advocating for limited government intervention or reforms to current governance systems.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Ideologies/anti-governmentExamples: the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other militia groups; the Sovereign Citizens Movement
anti-SemitismAntisemitism is a form of discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, or hostility directed against Jewish people with a history dating back thousands of years.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Dictionaries/Politics/antisemitismReferred to as "the oldest hate," anti-Semitism is also inherently anti-feminist, because Jewish societies wereย once matrilineal.
apocalypticismPreoccupation with the imminent end of the world.https://doctorparadox.net/proteanism-vs-cultism-open-closed/see also: millenarianism
ArmageddonThe apocalypse; the End Times; the end of the world as we know it (...and we feel fiiiiiiiine!)https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/authoritarianism/end-times/also a movie with Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, & Ben Affleck -- from back in 1998 when our apocalypsi seemed somehow more quaint
authoritarianA personality type characterized by conventionalism, aggression, anti-intellectualism, superstition, paranoia, cynicism, destructiveness, projectivity, and a profound lack of imagination.https://doctorparadox.net/essential-thinkers-on-authoritarian-personalities/
authorityAuthority refers to the legitimate power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. It is typically associated with individuals or institutions that hold a recognized position within a social, political, or organizational structure.
beliefsBeliefs are more like a kind of stock we own than a calculation we do on the fly. We spend time building them and deriving value from them.They're not simply tools for making good decisions, though, but are treasured in their own right and new information that challenges them is unwelcome. We often try to avoid it, in order to protect our beliefs.https://doctorparadox.net/category/psychology/beliefs/
biasBias is a predisposition or inclination, often unreasoned, that leads to a subjective perspective or judgment in favor of or against a person, group, or thing. It can manifest in various forms, such as racial bias, gender bias, or confirmation bias.https://doctorparadox.net/data-sets/psychological-biases-list/see also: motivated reasoning, bigotry, prejudice, revealed wisdom
bigotryAn unreasonable or irrational attachment to negative stereotypes and prejudices against a particular group, often manifesting in intolerance or hatred towards those of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/bigotry-is-bad-thinking/see also: hate crimes, genocide
boundary violationsBoundary violations occur when someone oversteps personal or professional limits, disrupting the expected or agreed-upon boundaries in a relationship or interaction. These can range from minor infractions to serious breaches, like in cases of harassment or abuse.
brainwashingA process of forcibly and systematically altering an individual's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors through psychological pressure, often in a controlled environment, stripping away previous identities and beliefs.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/hybrid-warfare/brainwashing/see also: mind control, thought control, undue influence
briberyBribery involves offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting something of value as a means to influence the actions of an individual in a position of power or authority, typically in a way that is illegal or unethical.
bullyingA form of aggressive behavior where an individual or group repeatedly and intentionally causes harm or discomfort to another person, often involving an imbalance of power.https://doctorparadox.net/mental-self-defense/how-to-deal-with-bullies/
charisma schoolCharisma schools are institutions or training programs that aim to teach individuals how to enhance their personal appeal and persuasive power, often focusing on communication skills, self-confidence, and leadership qualities.Popular in PUA and "men's rights" communities
child abuseAny physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological maltreatment or neglect of a child by an adult, resulting in potential harm or risk to the child's health, survival, dignity, and development.
child bridesYoung girls, typically under the age of 18, who are married off, often in cultures where early marriage is practiced, leading to issues like loss of education, health complications, and abuse.
child pornographyThe creation, distribution, or possession of visual depictions of minors engaged in sexual acts or in sexually explicit poses, which is illegal and considered a severe form of child exploitation.
child traffickingThe illegal practice of procuring or trading children for various forms of exploitation, such as forced labor, sexual exploitation, or illegal adoptions.
cognitive dissonanceCognitive dissonance occurs when an individual experiences mental discomfort or psychological stress due to holding contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes, often leading to rationalization or attitude change.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/cognitive-dissonance/
con artistA con artist is an individual who deceives others for personal gain, often through manipulation, fraud, or confidence tricks, typically involving financial or emotional exploitation.Synonyms: swindler, scammer, trickster, deceiver, fraudster, charlatan, impostor, grifter, hoaxer, hustler
conditional loveConditional love is an affection or emotional attachment that is dependent on specific conditions being met, contrasting with unconditional love, which is given freely regardless of circumstances.
conspiracy theoriesExplanations for events or situations that invoke a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often politically motivated, when other explanations are more probable. They typically involve the belief that certain events or situations are the result of a secret plot by usually unseen and influential forces. https://doctorparadox.net/why-do-people-believe-conspiracy-theories/
corruptionThe abuse of entrusted power for private gain, often involving practices like bribery, embezzlement, or nepotism, and can occur in both public and private sectors.https://doctorparadox.net/category/politics/corruption/
C-PTSDComplex post-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychological condition occurring after exposure to trauma whether physical, emotional, or otherwise.see also: PTSD
CSAMChild sexual abuse material
cult leadersPeople who wield an alternating current of fear andย "love" -- they swing a blunt instrument because they cannot manage the complexity of human relationships and real love.https://doctorparadox.net/are-all-cult-leaders-narcissists/Many cult leaders are on the narcissism spectrum.
cult of personalityA cult of personality arises when a country's regime โ€“ or, more rarely, an individual โ€“ uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is created specifically for living leaders and not usually maintained after their death.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/american-fascism/cult/
dark moneyPolitical spending by organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. Common in U.S. politics, it allows for significant financial influence while maintaining anonymity, often impacting elections and policy-making.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/authoritarianism/dark-money/
DARVODARVO stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." It's a reaction pattern by perpetrators of wrongdoing, particularly in cases of sexual misconduct, where they deny the behavior, attack the accuser, and present themselves as the victim.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/what-is-darvo/
deep fakesHighly realistic and convincing digital manipulations of audio or video, often using artificial intelligence to alter or create content where someone appears to say or do something they did not.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/disinformation-dictionary/deep-fakes/
defense mechanismAn unconscious psychological strategy used to protect oneself from anxiety or distress, often by denying, distorting, or repressing reality. Common examples include denial, repression, and rationalization.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/defense-mechanism/
demagogueryA political strategy where a leader appeals to popular desires, prejudices, and emotions rather than using rational argument, often through rhetoric and propaganda, to gain power or manipulate the public.https://doctorparadox.net/people-data/demagogues/
denialismDenialism involves the refusal to accept well-established facts, theories, or evidence, often in the context of historical events, science, or social issues. It's characterized by the rejection of expert consensus and the use of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of legitimate debate.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/american-fascism/denial/
denying plain factsDenying plain facts refers to the outright rejection or dismissal of clear, indisputable evidence or truths. This behavior is often rooted in cognitive biases, ideological beliefs, or a deliberate intention to mislead or deceive.
dissociationPsychological dissociation is a mental process involving a disconnection from one's thoughts, identity, consciousness, or memory. It can occur as a coping mechanism during trauma, leading to a sense of detachment from the self or the external world, like a protective psychological escape from reality or intense stress.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/what-is-dissociation/
dogmaA rigid ideology or belief systemhttps://doctorparadox.net/mental-self-defense/freedom-from-dogma/A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable. -- Carl Sagan
domestic violenceDomestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner. It can include physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats.
emotional abuseA form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, such as anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It often involves manipulation, belittling, and controlling behavior.https://doctorparadox.net/tag/emotional-abuse/
emotional blackmailEmotional blackmail is a form of manipulation that uses guilt, fear, and obligation to control someone. It often involves threats and punishments, either directly or implied, to coerce the other person into doing what the manipulator wants.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/emotional-blackmail/
entitlementEntitlement refers to the belief that one inherently deserves privileges or special treatment. It's a mindset in which an individual feels that they are owed something by society, life, or others, often without corresponding responsibility.
extortionExtortion is the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats. It's a criminal offense which involves coercing a person or institution to hand over assets, services, or property.
extremismExtremism involves holding extreme political or religious views and often advocating for radical or violent measures to support those views. Extremists often reject or undermine the norms and values of society in pursuit of their ideology.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/extremism/Now that sensible moderate conservatives have sensibly gone elsewhere, all that's left of the GOP is the terrifying extremism.
false memory implantationFalse memory implantation refers to the psychological phenomenon where a person recalls memories that are factually incorrect but believed to be true. These memories can be implanted through suggestion or therapy techniques.
father figuresMen who provide guidance, support, and mentorship to someone, often in the absence of a biological father. They play a significant role in personal development, offering emotional, moral, and practical support.Some people think of "freedom" as "freedom from" -- freedom from having to take responsibility for oneself, because one can take orders from a crusty old white dude who promises protection
financial abuseFinancial abuse involves controlling a person's ability to acquire, use, and maintain financial resources. Often seen in domestic relationships, the abuser may withhold resources, hide information, or limit the victim's access to money, severely restricting their autonomy.
flying monkeysA term derived from 'The Wizard of Oz', used in psychology to describe people who act on behalf of a narcissist to a third party, usually for an abusive purpose. They may spread lies, gossip, and carry out abuse by proxy.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/flying-monkeys/
front groupsPublic-facing groups with innocuous and virtual-sounding names that exist only to recruit new members into the next circle of the organization, where the process of wearing down the independence of the target begins.
fundamentalismA strict adherence to specific theological doctrines typically in a reaction against modernist theories, leading to a literal interpretation and strict adherence to basic principles of a religion or a religious branch.https://doctorparadox.net/diptychs/the-artist-vs-the-fundamentalist/
gaslightingGaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem.https://doctorparadox.net/mental-self-defense/gaslighting/
God complexA God complex is an unshakable belief characterized by consistently inflated feelings of personal ability, privilege, or infallibility. A person with a God complex may refuse to admit the possibility of their error or failure, even in the face of complex or intractable problems.
grandiosityAn unrealistic sense of superiority, characterized by a sustained view of oneself as better than others that is often expressed as disdain or disregard for others' feelings. It is typically associated with narcissistic behavior, where an individual may exhibit exaggerated self-importance, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/grandiosity/
griftGrift refers to the act of engaging in petty or small-scale swindling or fraud. It usually involves trickery or deception for personal gain, often in a charming or persuasive manner.see also: con artist
groomingThe process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. The grooming process is often very deliberate and involves manipulating the victimโ€™s trust and isolating them.see also: child abuse, child trafficking, human trafficking, sex trafficking
groupthinkGroupthink occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints.https://doctorparadox.net/models/bad-models/groupthink/
guiltA cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizesโ€”accurately or notโ€”that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or have violated a universal moral standard and bear significant responsibility for that violation.
guruA spiritual teacher, particularly in the Indian religions. In broader use, it's an expert or authority in a particular field, who seeks to guide others based on knowledge or wisdom they possess.
high demand groupsOrganizations that often require extreme commitment and loyalty from their members. These groups can be religious, political, or social, and they typically demand a significant amount of time and energy from their members, often at the expense of personal relationships and independence.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/high-demand-groups/
human traffickingHuman trafficking is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others. It is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights.
hypnosisA trance-like state in which a person has heightened focus and concentration. It is commonly used for therapy to recall memories or modify behaviors, often induced by a hypnotist using verbal repetition and mental images.see also: Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP)
ideologyA set of beliefs, values, and ideals that form the basis of a social, economic, or political philosophy or program. It can be a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things, or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Ideologies/%E2%9C%B3%EF%B8%8F+Ideologies+HomeHas it slain coherence?!
influence techniquesInfluence techniques are methods used to try to persuade or influence others' thinking, behavior, or perceptions. These can range from simple persuasion and negotiation tactics to more complex psychological strategies like manipulation and coercion.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/influence-techniques/
intermittent reinforcementThe same psychology behind casinos, intermittent reinforcement rewards the subject according to an irregular payout schedule that does not correspond to any of the actions of the subject. It is cognitively a very "sticky" mechanism -- one that has another common ancestor: addiction.
isolationIsolation is the process or fact of isolating or being isolated, which can be physical, social, or emotional. It involves keeping a person away from others or limiting their access to external sources of information or interaction, often used as a tool for control in various contexts.
Kool-AidThe phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" is a colloquialism that has come to refer to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It originally referred to the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where followers of Jim Jones drank a cyanide-laced drink as an act of revolutionary suicide.
labor exploitationA situation where workers are not fairly compensated for their work, often involving poor working conditions, low wages, and long hours. It can include violations of labor laws and is often linked to practices like forced labor and child labor.
love bombingA manipulative strategy used by individuals, often in the context of romantic or personal relationships as well as in cults, where excessive affection, attention, and flattery are used to influence or control another person. It is typically characterized by overwhelming displays of attention and affection, often early in the relationship, to gain trust and dependency.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/love-bombing/
magical thinkingThe belief that one's thoughts, words, or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world in a manner not governed by the laws of physics or biology. This type of thinking is often characteristic of childhood development, but in adults, it can be a feature of various psychological conditions or a cultural belief system.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/magical-thinking/
malignant envyA deep-seated resentment and anger towards another personโ€™s possessions, qualities, or luck, often leading to a desire to harm or undermine the envied person. It's a destructive and pathological form of envy.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/authoritarianism/malignant-narcissism/see also: narcissism, NPD, malignant narcissism, Cluster B
manipulationA skill or art of influencing or controlling someone to your advantage, often without their awareness. It involves using tactics like deception, misdirection, psychological tricks, and exploiting weaknesses to gain control or achieve a desired outcome.
mental predatorsPeople who assume they have the right to abuse and manipulate others and use them for their own personal gain -- and behave accordingly.https://doctorparadox.net/tactics-of-emotional-predators/see also: cult leaders, narcissism, sexual predators
mind controlA process in which an individual's thoughts, feelings, or actions are manipulated by another person or group. It often involves techniques that decrease the victim's ability to critically analyze or make independent decisions, leading them to adopt certain behaviors or beliefs.see also: brainwashing, undue influence, mental predation
minimizingMinimizing is a psychological defense mechanism where a person downplays the significance of an event or emotion. It's often a way of reducing the impact of an action or thought that is perceived as threatening or harmful.
misogynyMisogyny is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women. It manifests in various ways, including social exclusion, sex discrimination, hostility, patriarchy, male privilege, belittlement of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Dictionaries/Politics/misogyny
mob ruleMob rule refers to control by a mass of people, where decisions are made through the exertion of group dynamics rather than established legal procedures or democratic processes. It often suggests a chaotic, lawless situation controlled by a volatile, aggressive crowd.
moving the goalpostsA logical fallacy in which evidence presented in response to a specific claim is dismissed and some other (often greater) evidence is demanded. It's a way of changing the criteria of a debate or argument to exclude evidence that may oppose one's stance.
naive realismThe belief that we see reality as it really is โ€“ objective and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased.
narcissismNarcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. It's often centered around a person's inflated self-image and deep need for admiration.https://doctorparadox.net/mental-self-defense/narcissism-and-cluster-b-personality-disorders/
narcissistic rageIntense anger, aggression, or passive-aggression when a narcissist experiences a setback or disappointment, which threatens their sense of superiority and self-esteem. It's often disproportionate to the event that triggered it.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/narcissistic-rage/
narcissistic supplyNarcissistic supply refers to the attention, admiration, emotional energy, or other forms of "supply" that narcissists require and seek. It's a form of psychological dependence on others to fulfill their self-esteem needs.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/npd-narcissistic-personality-disorder/
neggingA manipulative behavior where a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need for the manipulator's approval.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/negging/Often used in PUA and "men's rights" groups.
nihilismThe philosophical belief that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist naturally, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived.
organized crimeThe mob and mob-like structures
paddlingA type of physical punishment, often delivered to children by strict or fundamentalist parents, in which a paddle is used to psychically strike the child -- often on the backside.see: spanking
paranoiaExtreme constant fear; conviction that others are "out to get you"https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/paranoia/
patriarchyA social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. It often leads to the marginalization of women within these structures.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Dictionaries/Politics/patriarchy
phobia indoctrinationThe process of teaching and ingraining irrational fears or hatreds towards certain groups, concepts, or ideologies. This often involves reinforcing negative stereotypes and fostering discriminatory attitudes.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/american-fascism/phobia-indoctrination/see also: bigotry, prejudice, racism, sexism, hate crimes, genocide
plausible deniabilityA situation where a person can deny knowledge of or responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others in an organizational hierarchy because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. It is often used in situations where it is beneficial to avoid direct blame or legal liability.
playing the victimA manipulative behavior where a person portrays themselves as a victim of circumstances or the actions of others, typically to gain sympathy, justify their own behavior, or evade responsibility. It often involves exaggeration or fabrication of troubles.
police brutalityThe use of excessive and/or unnecessary force by police officers against civilians. This can include physical violence, verbal attacks, psychological intimidation, and abuse of police powers.a murdery version of the circle jerk
post-truthA political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. It denotes situations where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.post-truth scandals: Trump, Iran-Contra, Benghazi, Whitewater, Hillary's emails
prejudiceA preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. This bias, often negative, is directed towards people, groups, or concepts, and is typically founded on stereotypes.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Dictionaries/Politics/prejudicesee also: bigotry, motivated reasoning
"proactive" violenceViolence committed as a deliberate strategy, often preemptive or anticipatory, rather than as a response to an immediate threat. It is used to achieve an agenda or exert control before any actual aggression has occurred.
projectionA psychological defense mechanism wherein individuals attribute their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or motives to another person. It is often a way of denying one's own negative traits by ascribing them to the external world.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/projection/
propagandaInformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view. It is often characterized by its persuasive intent, aiming to influence the audience's beliefs or actions.https://doctorparadox.net/dictionaries/authoritarianism/propaganda/see also: disinformation, fake news
prophecyA prediction of future events, often based on divine or supernatural revelation. Prophecies are typically found in religious contexts and are seen as authoritative declarations of what will happen.
Prosperity GospelA religious belief among some Christian denominations that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one's material wealth. It is often criticized for prioritizing material gain over spiritual values.
psychological abuseA form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It includes emotional manipulation, intimidation, and persistent criticism.
psychological apocalypticismThe belief in an impending collapse of society or a cataclysmic event that will lead to drastic changes in the world order, often based on fear and anxiety. This mindset can drive extreme behaviors and ideologies, based on the perception of an imminent existential threat.see also: phobia indoctrination, Armageddon, End Times, paranoia
psychological warfareThe use of propaganda, threats, and other psychological techniques during war or conflict to influence an opponent's state of mind, undermine morale, and manipulate or deceive them. It aims to weaken the enemy's will to fight and resistance, without direct physical confrontation.https://doctorparadox.net/category/politics/psychological-warfare/Employed heavily and optimized for the modern era by the Soviet KGB
psychopathsIndividuals who exhibit a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. This is often associated with an absence of empathy and remorse, bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/psychopaths/
PTSDPost-traumatic stress disorder -- a psychological condition occurring after exposure to trauma whether physical, emotional, or otherwise.
purityA concept often associated with an absence of contamination, pollution, or imperfection. In various contexts, it can refer to physical cleanliness, moral or ethical standards, or cultural or religious ideals of innocence and virtue.
racismThe belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. It also refers to prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief in racial superiority.https://doctorparadox.net/category/psychology/racism/
radicalismThe beliefs or actions of individuals, groups, or organizations who advocate for thorough or complete political or social reform. It often involves the desire to transform or replace existing structures with new systems that are fundamentally different.
rapeA type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person's consent. It is a serious crime and a grave violation of the victim's rights and dignity.The second most serious violent crime after murder.
rape cultureA sociological concept describing a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. Practices that contribute to rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, and trivializing rape.see also: misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry, prejudice, strict father morality
re-educationPeriod of indoctrination when the recruit is taught the ideology of the cult as the One Truth; a process by which individuals are forced to abandon their previous beliefs or ways of thinking, often in a controlled environment, and to adopt new attitudes, often aligning with specific political or ideological agendas
religious abuseThe maltreatment of a person, often a child, in a religious context. This can include psychological manipulation, exploiting religious beliefs to exert control, and sometimes physical or sexual abuse under the guise of religious practice.example: the notorious child sex abuse scandals of the Catholic church, the Mormon church, and the Evangelical church
retconShort for "retroactive continuity," it's a literary device in which new information is introduced to a fictional narrative that alters the interpretation of previous events. It is commonly used in serial storytelling, like comics or television series -- as well as in disinformation campaigns and propaganda.
revealed wisdomKnowledge or understanding considered to be divinely disclosed, often through sacred texts or spiritual experiences. This type of wisdom is often foundational to religious beliefs and practices.
sadismThe tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. It can also refer more broadly to cruel behavior or attitudes.
scapegoatingThe practice of unfairly blaming an individual or group for problems or negative occurrences, often as a way of distracting attention from the real causes or to satisfy the need to assign blame. It's a common tool in politics and social dynamics.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/scapegoating/
selective exposureThe tendency to favor information or media sources that confirm oneโ€™s beliefs and to avoid information that contradicts them. This behavior often leads to biased decision-making and a polarized understanding of issues.
sexual assaultAny type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. This includes rape, but also encompasses a range of non-consensual sexual activities.
sexual predatorsIndividuals who seek out or engage in sexual activity with another person in a predatory and exploitative manner. They often use manipulative tactics or force to coerce their victims into sexual situations.
shameA painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Unlike guilt, which is a feeling of distress about one's actions, shame is often related to the self-perception of being seen negatively by others.
social dominanceA socio-political theory which suggests that societies are structured in hierarchical group systems, where one group has dominance over others. This dominance is maintained through a combination of power, social norms, and ideologies.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/social-dominance/
sociopathsPeople with little to no empathy -- they can be very cold and cruel, yet also warm and charming.
sophistryA method of argument that is seemingly plausible but actually fallacious and misleading. It involves using clever but unsound reasoning, often to deceive or persuade others.
spankingA form of physical punishment involving the act of striking the buttocks of another person to cause physical pain, generally with an open hand. It is often used as a disciplinary measure for children.Popular in a number of religious circles, usually fundamentalist sects.
spare the rodA phrase often interpreted as a justification for physical discipline in child-rearing. It suggests that failing to discipline children physically will lead to poor behavior and character development.
Special MissionIn a general sense, this term refers to a specific task or duty assigned to a person or group, often implying that it has a unique, important, or secretive nature. It's commonly used in military, diplomatic, or corporate contexts.
stonewallingA refusal to communicate or cooperate, such as in a conversation or negotiation. This behavior involves shutting down dialogue, often as a power move or to avoid dealing with an issue.
supremacyThe state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status. It can refer to the dominance of one group, ideology, or social system over others.https://doctorparadox.net/psychology/supremacy/
tax fraudThe illegal practice of deliberately falsifying information on a tax return to avoid paying the full tax obligation. Examples include underreporting income, inflating deductions or expenses, or hiding money in offshore accounts.
televangelistA preacher who uses television broadcasts to spread their religious or moral messages, often appealing for financial support from viewers. Televangelists are typically associated with Christian evangelical movements.
thought reformAlso known as "brainwashing," it's the process of forcibly and systematically changing an individual's beliefs and attitudes, usually in a controlled environment. It often involves the breakdown of the individual's identity and beliefs, followed by the introduction of new beliefs.see also: re-education, influence techniques, undue influence, brainwashing
thought stoppersTechniques or phrases used to halt or disrupt an individualโ€™s critical thinking or analysis. These are often simplistic sayings or mantras designed to end an uncomfortable conversation or silence dissenting thoughts.
tortureUsing physical violence during interrogation or to achieve compliance with a subject or recruit.
totalismA practice or expression of a totalitarian system, which demands complete subservience to an authority or ideology. In a totalist system, individual needs and opinions are often suppressed for the perceived good of the group or the authority's agenda.https://foundations.doctorparadox.net/Dictionaries/Politics/totalitarianism
toxic positivityThe overgeneralization of a positive mindset, dismissing or invalidating genuine emotional experience. It involves the rejection of negative emotions and the insistence that individuals should maintain a positive attitude in all circumstances.
trauma bondingThe development of a strong emotional connection between a victim and an abuser, formed through a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement. It's often seen in abusive relationships and can make it difficult for victims to leave the situation.
undue influenceExcessive pressure or influence exerted by one person over another, which disrupts the victim's ability to make independent decisions. This can occur in various relationships, including legal, financial, and personal contexts.
verbal abusePervasive and chronic denigration of the recruit or target, with the goal of diminishing her self-esteem and building up a dependence on the cult leader.The use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to. It involves the use of derogatory remarks, criticism, threats, and yelling, with the intent to intimidate, control, or demean the victim.
victim blamingThe tendency to hold the victim of a crime or wrongdoing responsible for the harm that befell them. It involves suggesting that the victim's own actions or behaviors were the cause of their victimization.see also: DARVO; Mudsill Theory
white nationalismWhite nationalists argue for policies that would establish or maintain a white majority in the country, often opposing immigration from non-European countries and advocating for policies that they believe would preserve white culture.https://doctorparadox.net/save-democracy/right-wing-ideologies/white-nationalist-beliefs/
whitewashingTrying to clean up the reputation of someone or something after the fact -- attempts to rehabilitate a famous person following crime, for example.
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A cult is a social group, usually insular, defined by unorthodox beliefs and/or practices. The cult usually shares religious, philosophical, or ideological values and goals. The cult definition of “values” may be greatly outside of mainstream norms.

The term cult is usually taken as a pejorative, for its connotation of excessive devotion to a charismatic leader with a shady past, or blind devotion to questionable practices and unusual precepts. Believers might say they are following a spiritual quest, while their estranged family and friends would say that are being exploited by unscrupulous conmen and con artists.

Cults employ various recruitment techniques to grow membership as well as to cement the new belief system into their minds over time. Brainwashing, phobia indoctrination, and other influence techniques, along with isolation, sleep and food deprivation, emotional blackmail (and actual blackmail) and other tactics help erode the resolve and individuality of recruits until they fully adopt the new way of being the cult leader would prefer for them. Be aware of the cult warning signs, and don’t get sucked in by warm promises from strangers that seem too good to be true.

The destructive cult

There have been hundreds and even thousands of relatively innocuous cults throughout human history, but the most famous by far are the destructive cults. A cult of this type involves members physically harming or killing themselves, other members of the group, or other people.

A subset of the destructive cult, a Doomsday cult commits violence inwardly or outwardly due to adoption of an apocalyptic or millenarian belief system whose rules require anything from murder to mass suicide. These groups foretell disaster and catastrophe preceding a massive transformation, or potentially the destruction of the entire world. In the case of millenarian conspiracy theories, their cataclysmic predictions include a period of utopia following the upheaval.

Destructive cults are almost always run by cult leaders who are narcissists. They lack empathy for people, and do not care if they harm them — especially if they get something they want in the process.

A religious cult leader preaching to his followers with a projection of a god in the distance, by Midjourney

Millenarianism

Common themes among millenarian beliefs include claims that contemporary society and its leaders are corrupt, and will soon be destroyed by a more powerful force. The inherent evil of the status quo cannot be purged without this dramatic upheaval of society.

Within millenarianism there are finer groups still, including the easily linguistically confused Millennialism. Millennial movements are a type of Christian millenarianism in which the period of utopia following the apocalypse is expect to last 1000 years.

The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler believed in a Millenial ideology, and that the Third Reich would rule for the next 1000 years after conquering the globe. Luckily, they were dead wrong.

Why do people join cults?

Cults often attract individuals through a gradual and subtle process, making it difficult for someone to realize they’re being drawn into a potentially harmful environment.

Initially, cults often present themselves in an appealing manner, targeting individuals during vulnerable times in their lives, such as after a personal loss, during a period of life transition, or when someone feels isolated or dissatisfied with their current life situation. They offer a sense of belonging, understanding, and purpose that might be missing from the individual’s life.

This sense of community and shared purpose is a powerful draw. Cults frequently use tactics like love bombing, where new recruits are showered with attention and praise, to create an instant connection and sense of belonging. They may also exploit personal crises, offering support and solutions that seem tailor-made for the individual’s problems.

Once involved, individuals may not recognize the incremental shifts in behavior and belief that are often demanded by the group. This process, known as indoctrination or brainwashing, can involve controlling aspects of a person’s life such as their relationships, information access, and even daily habits. Cults often encourage or enforce a separation from previous social support networks, making it harder for members to maintain perspective. Critical thinking is discouraged, and questioning or dissent is often met with punitive measures, reinforcing a cycle of compliance and dependence on the group.

Cult leader preaching to his flock in the garden, by Midjourney

How do people leave cults? (…or do they?!)

Exiting a cult is challenging, as it often requires individuals to recognize the manipulative and controlling nature of the organization, which can be a significant psychological hurdle. The process usually involves reconnecting with family and friends outside the cult, seeking support from former members, or getting help from professionals experienced in dealing with cults.

Recovery often involves deprogramming, counseling, and rebuilding one’s independence and critical thinking skills. Support networks play a crucial role in providing the emotional support and resources needed to rebuild a life outside of the cult’s influence.

Famous cults in history

  • The Peoples Temple — Jim Jones and the Jonestown mass suicide
  • The Manson Family
  • The Unification Church (aka The Moonies)
  • The LaRouche Movement
  • Ku Klux Klan
  • Sullivanians
  • Branch Davidians — aka the cult made infamous by the Waco Siege in 1993
  • Children of God — committed mass suicide during the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet
  • Heaven’s Gate Cult
  • Al-Qaida
  • Aum Shinrikyo
  • ISIL
  • Dominionists — a religious cult here in the U.S. that believes the nation must “get back” to a delusionally invented time when America was a Christian nation
  • Nxivm

More about cults:

Cult Warning Signs: How to recognize cultish groups โ†—

Recognizing cult warning signs can be vital in identifying and understanding the risk before getting involved with a group who may not have your best interests in mind.

A Cult Dictionary of Mind Control, and the Language of Abuse โ†—

One could argue the Confederacy was a kind of cult, and the KKK after it. America gave rise to cult leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Sun Myung Moon, among many many others who led cults big and small (Charles Koch, perhaps?! Certainly Donald Trump.).

Phobia indoctrination โ†—

Phobia indoctrination is one of the principle ways a charismatic leader will lull potential followers into his thrall, by putting them into a state of perpetual fear and anxiety.

Read more

High demand groups and cults are terms often used interchangeably, but they do have nuanced differences. Both are social organizations that exert a high level of control over their members, but the degree and nature of that control can vary.

High-Demand Groups vs. Cults

High-Demand Groups

These are organizations that require a significant commitment of time, resources, or emotional investment from their members. They can be religious, political, or even corporate in nature.

The key characteristic is the level of demand they place on members, which can sometimes be excessive but not necessarily harmful. One thing to watch for is if the commitment seems to steadily (or even quickly) increase over time — that’s a definite red flag.

Cults

A cult is a more extreme form of a high-demand group. Cults often have charismatic leaders who claim exclusive knowledge or power. They employ manipulative tactics to control members, isolating them from friends and family, and exploiting them emotionally, financially, or physically.

Often these cult leaders are narcissists, sociopaths, or even psychopaths. They feel no empathy and no shame, and get a cheap thrill from deceiving and manipulating others for their personal benefit.

A cult leader of a high demand group mesmerizing his look-alike followers, by Midjourney

The Relationship Between the Two

All cults are high-demand groups, but not all high-demand groups are cults. The line between the two can be blurry. A high-demand group becomes a cult when it starts to harm its members through manipulation, exploitation, or abuse.

Both cults and high demand groups often feature narcissists at all ranks, but especially in the leadership. Look for signs and behaviors like projection, emotional blackmail, black and white thinking, magical thinking, and word salad.

Recognizing high-demand groups and cults

  1. Charismatic Leadership: A single, charismatic leader who is the ultimate authority is a red flag.
  2. Isolation: Efforts to cut you off from friends and family should be taken as a warning sign.
  3. High Time Commitment: If the group demands an inordinate amount of your time, be cautious.
  4. Financial Exploitation: Be wary if you’re asked for large sums of money or to give up your financial independence.
  5. Exclusive Beliefs: Claims that the group has exclusive access to truth, salvation, or power are concerning.
  6. Fear and Guilt: Manipulation through fear, guilt, or threats is a classic control tactic.
  7. Lack of Transparency: If the group is secretive about its activities, goals, or finances, that’s a red flag.

How to avoid them

  1. Research: Always do your homework before joining any group. Look for testimonials or reports from ex-members.
  2. Consult Trusted Sources: Talk to friends, family, or professionals about the group.
  3. Take Your Time: Don’t rush into commitment. High-demand groups often pressure new recruits to make quick decisions in order to get you on the back foot.
  4. Set Boundaries: Make it clear what you are and are not willing to do.
  5. Trust Your Instincts: If something feels off, it probably is. Your gut knows!
Schlocky cult leader of a high-demand group, looking like a fake guru

High-demand groups and cults can have a profound impact on individual lives, often in detrimental ways. While high-demand groups may offer a sense of community and purpose, they can cross into harmful territory when they become exploitative or abusive, turning into cults. Recognizing the signs and knowing how to avoid them is crucial for safeguarding your emotional and financial well-being.

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The concept of “flying monkeys” is a term that originates from popular culture, specifically the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” where the Wicked Witch of the West employs winged monkeys to carry out her malevolent deeds. In the realm of psychology and interpersonal relationships, the term has been appropriated to describe individuals who act on behalf of a narcissist or emotional predator, often without full awareness that they are being used to harm others.

Psychological underpinnings of flying monkeys

Flying monkeys serve as extensions of the narcissist’s inflated ego and domineering will. They are often manipulated into believing that the narcissist’s cause is just, and they may even think they are helping to protect or defend someone they care about. This is achieved through a range of manipulative tactics such as gaslighting, projection, and triangulation.

Gaslighting is a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and emotional abuse that involves making someone doubt their own perceptions and memories, while projection shifts the narcissist’s negative traits onto the victim. Triangulation pits people against each other, creating a web of confusion and mistrust.

Usage by narcissists

Narcissists employ flying monkeys to extend their sphere of influence and control. These enablers can be friends, family members, or even colleagues who are manipulated into carrying out various tasks for the narcissist. These tasks can range from spreading rumors and gossip to more overt acts like harassment or stalking. The flying monkeys often believe they are acting out of loyalty or love, not realizing that they are pawns in a larger scheme.

The narcissist’s relationship with their flying monkeys is transactional. There’s an unspoken quid pro quo: the flying monkeys get to bask in the narcissist’s approval, and in return, they carry out the narcissist’s bidding. This dynamic allows the narcissist to maintain a clean image via plausible deniability, as they can always distance themselves from the actions of their flying monkeys.

Usage by cult leaders

In the context of cults, the concept takes on an even darker hue. Cult leaders often employ a cadre of devoted followers to enforce their will and isolate potential recruits from outside influences. These flying monkeys serve as a buffer between the leader and the outside world, allowing the leader to maintain an aura of mystique and unapproachability. They carry out tasks ranging from recruitment to punishment of dissenting members, all while believing that they are part of a grand, noble cause.

Evil flying monkeys are in every environment, by Midjourney

Ethical and social implications

The use of flying monkeys raises significant ethical and social concerns. It disrupts the social fabric, eroding trust within communities and families. Victims often find themselves isolated, as they cannot easily prove the manipulation at play. This isolation can lead to severe emotional and sometimes physical harm.

Flying monkeys and manipulation

Understanding the concept of flying monkeys is crucial for recognizing and combating manipulative behaviors in both personal and broader social contexts, and as an essential cult warning sign. Whether deployed by narcissists in interpersonal relationships or by cult leaders to maintain their power structures (or, often, both), flying monkeys serve as tools of manipulation, coercion, and control. Awareness of these dynamics is the first step in breaking the cycle and fostering healthier, more authentic relationships and societies.

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ParadoxBot is an adorable chatbot who will cheerfully inform you about the Dark Arts

Sure, you could use the site search. Or, you could have a bot — try having a conversation with my blog via the following AI chatbot, ParadoxBot.

Ask it about conspiracy theories, or narcissism, or cults, or authoritarianism, or fascism, or disinformation — to name a few. You can also ask it about things like dark money, economics, history, and many topics at the intersection of political psychology.

It doesn’t index what’s on Foundations (yet) but it has ingested this site and you can essentially chat with the site itself via the ChatGPT-like interface below. Enjoy! And if you love it or hate it, find me on BlueSky (as @doctorparadox) or Mastodon and let me know your thoughts:

Tips for using ParadoxBot

  • Follow general good practice regarding prompt engineering.
  • If you don’t get an answer right away, try rephrasing your question. Even omitting or adding one word sometimes produces good results.
  • Try broad broad and specific types of queries.
  • Dig deeper into any areas the bot turns up that sound interesting.
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“Love bombing” is a manipulative tactic employed to gain emotional control over an individual by showering them with affection, compliments, and promises. This technique is often used by both narcissists and cults, often for similar objectives — to overwhelm a target with positive feelings, in order to secure their loyalty. Understanding the nuances of love bombing can be crucial for identifying and avoiding this core tactic of emotional predators.

Love bombing by narcissists

Narcissists use love bombing as a way to quickly establish emotional dependency. They may shower their target with gifts, compliments, and an overwhelming amount of attention. This is often done during the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship, creating an illusion of a perfect partner who is deeply in love.

How to identify love bombing by a narcissist:

  1. Intensity: The affection and attention feel overwhelming and come on very strong.
  2. Rapid progression: The relationship moves quickly, often skipping normal stages of emotional intimacy.
  3. Idealization: You are put on a pedestal, and any flaws you have are either ignored or spun into positive traits.

How to avoid it:

  1. Pace yourself: Slow down the relationship and insist on a more typical progression.
  2. Seek outside opinions: Consult trusted friends or family about the relationship, and share your misgivings about its pace of progression.
  3. Set boundaries: Make your limits clear and stick to them. If someone is pushing back and not respecting the boundaries you set, it is yet another red flag of potential narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) traits.

Love bombing by cults

In the context of cults and cultish groups, love bombing serves to recruit and retain members. As one of a host of different influence techniques, newcomers are often greeted with extreme enthusiasm, given immediate friendship, and showered with positive affirmation. The objective is to create a euphoric emotional state that is then associated with the cult — making it harder to leave later, when the cracks begin to show.

How to identify love bombing by a cult or high-demand group:

  1. Instant community: You receive immediate acceptance and friendship from multiple members.
  2. Unconditional affection: Love and acceptance seem to be given freely, without the need for personal growth or change.
  3. Isolation: Efforts to separate you from your existing support network and even your family, making you dependent on the cult for emotional support.

How to avoid it:

  1. Be skeptical: Question why you’re receiving so much attention and what the group might want in return.
  2. Research: Look into the group’s history, beliefs, and any reports or articles about them.
  3. Maintain outside connections: Keep in touch with your existing network and consider their opinions. The group may encourage secrecy, but sharing your experiences outside the group and getting a wider perspective on them is critical.

General tips for avoiding love bombing

  1. Trust your instincts: If something feels too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Time: Time is your ally. Manipulators often need you to make quick decisions. The more time you take, the more likely you are to see inconsistencies in their behavior.
  3. Consult with trusted individuals: Sometimes an outside perspective can provide invaluable insights that you might have missed.

Understanding the mechanics of love bombing is the first step in protecting yourself from falling into such emotional manipulation traps. By being aware of the signs and knowing how to counteract them, you can maintain control over your emotional well-being.

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A cult leader who is definitely a narcissist, sitting in a chair glowering

We’ve been obsessed in our household with documentaries about the Nxivm cult — and next with Scientology. The heads of both of those organizations are quite clearly pathological and often malignant narcissists, with grandiose and delusional ideas and an addiction to other people’s attention. Separately, I’ve studied narcissism quite a bit and feel, at least anecdotally, that all the cult leaders I’ve read about or known of have been led by these types of people, who are notoriously lacking in empathy, self-centered, entitled, and have an insatiable lust for power and control. It started me to wonder: are all cult leaders narcissists?

While certainly not all — or even any — cult leaders are clinically diagnosed narcissists, many pretty obviously exhibit narcissistic traits. Narcissism, particularly in its more extreme forms (including narcissistic personality disorder or NPD), is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. These traits can be paradoxically and counterintuitively conducive to the development of a cult-like following.

Cult leaders often exhibit the following narcissistic characteristics:

  1. Grandiosity: They may have an inflated sense of their own importance, believing themselves to be special or uniquely gifted, which can attract followers seeking answers, guidance, or a sense of certainty.
  2. Need for Admiration: Cult leaders often seek excessive admiration and validation from their followers, which reinforces their self-perceived superiority and authority and reifies their over-idealized self-image.
  3. Manipulation and Exploitation: They may manipulate or exploit followers, viewing them as tools to achieve their own goals, rather than as individuals with their own rights and needs. Employing love bombing and other psychological influence techniques, they can abuse, steamroll over and/or capture decades or entire lifetimes of people under their sway.
  4. Lack of Empathy: Cult leaders may show a lack of empathy, being indifferent to the needs and feelings of their followers, or callously exploiting their vulnerabilities. They are primarily concerned with gratifying their own needs and desires, and rarely recognize the needs of others as valid or worthy of attention.
  5. Charisma: Like the exceedingly self-confident narcissist, many cult leaders are charismatic, which aids in attracting and maintaining a devoted following. They turn on the charm when they feel it might get them something they want, but just as easily withhold it when they wish to devalue you for some other strategic purpose.
Continue reading Are all cult leaders narcissists?
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republican vs. democrat cage match boxing ring

Buckle up, we’re in for a wild ride. Many of the serious scholars of political history and authoritarian regimes are sounding the alarm bells that, although it is a very very good thing that we got the Trump crime family out of the Oval Office, it is still a very very bad thing for America to have so rapidly tilted towards authoritarianism. How did we get here?! How has hyper partisanship escalated to the point of an attempted coup by 126 sitting Republican House Representatives? How has political polarization gotten this bad?

These are some of the resources that have helped me continue grappling with that question, and with the rapidly shifting landscape of information warfare. How can we understand this era of polarization, this age of tribalism? This outline is a work in progress, and I’m planning to keep adding to this list as the tape keeps rolling.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is both a personality type and a form of government — it operates at both the interpersonal and the societal level. The words authoritarian and fascist are often used interchangeably, but fascism is a more specific type of authoritarianism, and far more historically recent.

America has had flavors of authoritarianism since its founding, and when fascism came along the right-wing authoritarians ate it up — and deeply wanted the United States to be a part of it. Only after they became social pariahs did they change position to support American involvement in World War II — and some persisted even after the attack of Pearl Harbor.

Scholars of authoritarianism

  • Hannah Arendt — The Origins of Totalitarianism
  • Bob Altemeyer — The Authoritarians
  • Derrida — the logic of the unconscious; performativity in the act of lying
  • ketman — Ketman is the psychological concept of concealing one’s true aims, akin to doublethink in Orwell’s 1984, that served as a central theme to Polish dissident Czesล‚aw Miล‚osz‘s book The Captive Mind about intellectual life under totalitarianism during the Communist post-WWII occupation.
  • Erich Fromm — coined the term “malignant narcissism” to describe the psychological character of the Nazis. He also wrote extensively about the mindset of the authoritarian follower in his seminal work, Escape from Freedom.
  • Eric Hoffer — his book The True Believers explores the mind of the authoritarian follower, and the appeal of losing oneself in a totalist movement
  • Fascism — elevation of the id as the source of truth; enthusiasm for political violence
  • Tyrants and dictators
  • John Dean — 3 types of authoritarian personality:
    • social dominators
    • authoritarian followers
    • double highs — social dominators who can “switch” to become followers in certain circumstances
  • Loyalty; hero worship
    • Freud = deeply distrustful of hero worship and worried that it indulged people’s needs for vertical authority. He found the archetype of the authoritarian primal father very troubling.
  • Ayn Rand
    • The Fountainhead (1943)
    • Atlas Shrugged (1957)
    • Objectivism ideology
  • Greatness Thinking; heroic individualism
  • Nietszche — will to power; the Uberman
  • Richard Hofstadter — The Paranoid Style
  • George Lakoff — moral framing; strict father morality
  • Neil Postman — Entertaining Ourselves to Death
  • Anti-Intellectualism
  • Can be disguised as hyper-rationalism (Communism)
  • More authoritarianism books
Continue reading Hyper Partisanship: How to understand American politics today
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The “Dark Triad” is a term in psychology that refers to a trio of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These traits are considered “dark” because of their malevolent qualitiesโ€”namely, they are associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal style.

Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy. It’s derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his reflection. In a psychological context, narcissism ranges from healthy self-esteem to a pathological level where it can be the full-blown personality disorder NPD and have a great impact on relationships and quality of life.

A hallmark of pathological narcissism is the constant need for admiration and a sense of entitlement. While a certain degree of narcissism may be essential for healthy self-confidence, its extreme can lead to destructive behavior both to the narcissist and to those around them.

Machiavellianism is named after the philosophy espoused by Niccolรฒ Machiavelli, a Renaissance-era political philosopher who argued that deceit and manipulation were effective in politics. This trait is characterized by a person’s tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain. Itโ€™s not an officially recognized personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is widely recognized in the field of psychology. People high in Machiavellianism are often adept at controlling others and tend to prioritize their interests over morals or societal rules.

Psychopathy is perhaps the most dangerous trait of the Dark Triad. It is often associated with a deficit in affective (emotional) responses and a lack of empathy. Psychopaths may exhibit antisocial behavior, diminished capacity for remorse, and poor behavioral controls. It’s important to note that while psychopathy is not a formal diagnosis in the DSM, its behaviors are often associated with antisocial personality disorder. Psychopaths are typically impulsive and thrill-seeking, they may be charming and intelligent, which masks their inability to form genuine emotional bonds.

Widespread traits

Each of these traits exists on a spectrum, and all individuals may exhibit these traits to some degree. Itโ€™s the extreme manifestations and the presence of all three traits in an individual that become particularly problematic. The Dark Triad has been a subject of significant research, especially in occupational and social psychology, due to its implications for workplace behavior, relationship dynamics, and social harmony.

Individuals with these traits may be drawn to certain professions or social situations that allow them to exert power or control over others. In the workplace, for example, Dark Triad traits may be beneficial to some extent for individuals in high-level management positions or in industries where cutthroat tactics are common. However, these traits can also lead to toxic work environments, unethical behavior, and organizational dysfunction.

The Dark Triad can also affect interpersonal relationships. Individuals with high levels of these traits may be charismatic and engaging initially, but their relationships are often superficial and plagued by manipulation and conflict. Their lack of empathy can result in the callous treatment of others and a focus on short-term relationships that serve their needs.

Made and Born

Research on the Dark Triad is extensive and has explored the biological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to these traits. Some studies suggest that there are genetic predispositions for these traits, while others point to environmental factors such as childhood experiences. It’s likely a combination of both. The expression of these traits is also influenced by cultural and societal norms; what may be considered assertive or ambitious behavior in one culture could be viewed as aggressive or unethical in another.

Understanding the Dark Triad is important not just for psychologists and mental health professionals, but also for individuals in managerial roles, human resources, and those involved in policy-making. By recognizing these traits, it is possible to develop better screening tools for positions that require high ethical standards and to create interventions that may mitigate the impact of these traits in various settings.

The Dark Triad encompasses three interrelated personality traits that have significant implications for individual behavior and social interactions. While these traits are part of the human personality spectrum, their dark aspect lies in their potential to harm individuals and society when present in high levels. Understanding and addressing the Dark Triad traits can lead to healthier social environments, more ethical workplaces, and overall improved wellbeing.

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Words, words, and more words.

In a world of increasing disinformation, it’s more important than ever to be armed with actual information. And being curious about the meaning, nature, and origins of things is a rewarding journey in and of itself.

Think of these dictionaries as tools for your mind — they can help you make connections between concepts, understand the terminology being used in the media and all around you, and feel less lost in a sea of dizzying complexity and rapid change. A fantastic vocabulary also helps you connect with people near and far — as well as get outside your comfort zone and learn something new.

Dictionaries List

This section includes dictionaries and definitions of important terms in important realms — and is continually being built out. Stay tuned!

Terms and Concepts

Authoritarianism and American Fascism

Authoritarianism is a political system where a single leader or a small group holds significant power, often without the consent of the governed. Decisions are made by authorities without public input, and individual freedoms and democratic principles are usually suppressed. The government may control various aspects of life, including media and the economy, without checks and balances. This leads to a concentration of power that can foster corruption and human rights abuses. In an authoritarian regime, obedience to the authorities is often emphasized over personal liberties and democratic participation.

Psychology

Definitions and terms relating to the study of the mind, including ideas from social psychology, political psychology, positive psychology, and Buddhist psychology.

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Fascism is a specific type of authoritarianism. Both are forms of government characterized by tightly centralized power, either under a sole dictatorship / demagogue or a small cadre of rulers — typically of wealthy oligarchs — where rule is absolute and the vast majority of people have little say in policy-making or national events. Identifying authoritarianism vs. fascism isn’t always a clearcut distinction, particularly given that one of the hallmarks of fascism is often that fascist leaders tend to conceal or hide their ideological aims until they achieve power and sometimes even beyond — so as not to alert the public to their true plans until it’s too late for people to fight back.

Under both authoritarianism and fascism, there is little or no political freedom and few (if any) individual rights. Authoritarian governments often use force or coercion to maintain control, dissent is typically suppressed, and political violence is tacitly encouraged so long as it is in support of the ruling regime.

fascists marching in the streets, by Midjourney

Fascism is one type of authoritarian political system

Fascism is a type of authoritarianism with distinct ideological features that emerged in the early 20th century. In addition to the core characteristics of authoritarian government, fascism is typified by extreme nationalism, a belief in the superiority of one’s own race or nation (a form of collective narcissism), and propaganda about both a mythical past and a promised utopian future. The idea of hierarchy is central to fascist mythology, with a core belief in a “natural” social hierarchy that — curiously — must be maintained by force.

Fascist regimes often promote aggressive foreign policies and use violence and intimidation to suppress opposing views. Other key features of fascism include a cult of personality around the leader, a focus on traditional values, and the use of propaganda and disinformation to control public opinion.

Fascist regimes of the 20th century

  1. Italy (1922-1943): Italy was the birthplace of fascism, and under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, it became the first fascist regime in the world. Mussolini and his National Fascist Party came to power in 1922, and ruled Italy as a one-party state until he was deposed in 1943.
  2. Germany (1933-1945): Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was a fascist regime that came to power in 1933. The Nazi regime was known for its extreme racism, antisemitism, militarism, and aggressive expansionism, which ultimately led to World War II and the genocide of the Holocaust.
  3. Spain (1939-1975): After a bloody civil war, General Francisco Franco established a fascist dictatorship in Spain in 1939. Franco’s regime was characterized by authoritarianism, repression, and a focus on traditional Catholic values.
  4. Portugal (1932-1974): Portugal was ruled by a fascist regime under the Estado Novo (New State) government, led by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, from 1932 until 1974. The Estado Novo government was characterized by authoritarianism, nationalism, and corporatism.
  5. Romania (1940-1944): Ion Antonescu, a military dictator and fascist sympathizer, came to power in Romania in 1940. Antonescu’s regime was characterized by anti-Semitism, political repression, and a close alliance with Nazi Germany.
  6. Hungary (1944-1945): Hungary was ruled by a fascist government under Ferenc Szรกlasi and the Arrow Cross Party from 1944 until the end of World War II. The Arrow Cross regime was known for its extreme anti-Semitism and brutality.
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini shaking hands in front of a crowd of soldiers, by Midjourney

The cognitive dissonance of fascist ideology

One of the many things I find problematic about fascism’s core belief system is its insistence on enforcing a “natural” social hierarchy. Personally, I find this to be something I call a “self-evident falsehood” — because if the social hierarchy were really natural, it would not require force to maintain it. It would exist in a state of natural equilibrium that does not require the expenditure of effort.

Applying violence and coercion to a population requires a considerable amount of work, and work comes at a cost — a cost factor that is both an unnecessary waste and a destabilizing force acting on society. Those who claim today in America to be upholding the nation’s “original ideals” would do well to remember the self-evident truths we fought a Revolution over: “that all men are created equal.”

Authoritarian regimes in world history

Authoritarianism is an older and more prevalent form of government than fascism, given its origins over 2000 years ago with the Roman Empire. Some of the most notable authoritarian regimes are as follows:

  1. The Roman Empire (27 BC โ€“ 476 AD): The Roman Empire was a vast and powerful empire that was ruled by an authoritarian government, after Julius Caesar overthrew the Roman Republic shortly before the turn of the millennium in 27 BC. After his son Octavian emerged victorious from a series of civil wars that followed, a succession of Roman emperors who had almost unlimited power ruled the Empire, and dissent was often suppressed with violence.
  2. The Mongol Empire (1206-1368): The Mongol Empire was one of the largest empires in history, and it was ruled by a series of authoritarian leaders who conquered and subjugated vast territories across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East — most notably Genghis Khan.
  3. The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922): The Ottoman Empire was a vast and powerful Islamic empire that was ruled by a series of sultans who held absolute power over their subjects.
  4. The Soviet Union (1917-1991): The Soviet Union was a communist state that was ruled by the Communist Party and its leaders, including Joseph Stalin. The Soviet regime was characterized by totalitarianism, repression, and the suppression of political dissent.
  5. China under Mao Zedong (1949-1976): Mao Zedong was the founder of the People’s Republic of China and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. During his rule, China was transformed into a socialist state, but the regime was also characterized by repression, mass killings, and the suppression of political dissent.
  6. North Korea (1948-present): North Korea is a communist state that is ruled by the Workers’ Party of Korea and its leader, currently Kim Jong-un. The North Korean regime is known for its extreme repression, propaganda, and human rights abuses.
Authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union, by Midjourney

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American Fascists & the Global Right โ†—

The rise of American fascists and right-wing extremism around the world has been a trend for decades.

Authoritarianism Dictionary โ†—

This dictionary of authoritarianism collects definitions and charts the recent resurgence of language, ideology, tactics, and rhetoric of authoritarians in America and around the world.

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Why do we do the things we do?

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior, encompassing a wide array of topics such as mental processes, emotions, cognition, development, personality, and social interactions. It seeks to understand how individuals think, feel, and act, both individually and in groups.

Psychology inside the mind, with the brain's neurons firing

It fascinates me endlessly and — because you’re here! — I am guessing it fascinates you too. We’ve defined some terms here:

psychology and the study of the mind

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30 Common psychological biases โ†—

These systematic errors in our thinking and logic affect our everyday choices, behaviors, and evaluations of others.

28 Cognitive distortions list โ†—

Cognitive distortions are bad mental habits and unhelpful ways of thinking that can limit one’s ability to function in the world.

24 Logical fallacies list โ†—

Recognizing and avoiding logical fallacies is essential forย critical thinkingย and effective communication.

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Influence techniques are a set of psychological and social strategies employed to sway people’s opinions, beliefs, and behaviors. While these techniques are commonly used in various aspects of life, such as marketing and politics, they can be particularly potent when wielded by cults and high-demand groups. Existing on the same spectrum as brainwashing, undue influence techniques can be leveraged as powerful tools for controlling individuals, groups, and even entire populations if left unchecked.

Influence Techniques

  1. Reciprocity: This principle is based on the human tendency to want to give back when something is received. Cults often offer something of perceived value, like a sense of community or spiritual enlightenment, to create an obligation to reciprocate with loyalty or service.
  2. Commitment and Consistency: Once a person makes a small commitment, like attending a meeting, they are more likely to agree to larger requests. Cults often use low-risk, high-reward initial engagements to lure people into more significant commitments.
  3. Social Proof: People are more likely to do something if they see others doing it. Cults often showcase devoted members as testimonials to attract new recruits.
  4. Authority: Leaders often present themselves as figures of authority, either through claimed divine inspiration or specialized knowledge. This makes it easier for members to surrender their judgment.
  5. Liking: Cults often employ “love bombing,” where new recruits are showered with affection and attention, making them more susceptible to influence.
  6. Scarcity: The idea that something is limited in availability often makes it more appealing. Cults may claim to offer exclusive truths or salvation, making their teachings appear more valuable.

Use in Cults

  1. Isolation: One of the first steps a cult takes is to isolate new members from their previous life, including family and friends. This makes the individual more dependent on the cult for social support, thereby increasing the cult’s influence.
  2. Indoctrination: Cults often have their own set of beliefs and values, which are rigorously taught to new members through repetitive teaching, chanting, or even thought-reform techniques. Various methods of indoctrination exist, including phobia indoctrination — which involves keeping members and prospective members in a constant state of fear and anxiety.
  3. Fear and Intimidation: Many cults use fear as a control mechanism. This could be fear of outsiders, fear of losing salvation, or fear of retribution from the cult itself.
  4. Financial Exploitation: Members are often encouraged or required to donate significant amounts of money, or even to hand over their financial assets entirely.
  5. Charismatic Leadership: Cult leaders often possess charismatic qualities that make them naturally persuasive. They use this charisma in conjunction with influence techniques to exert control over members.

Use in High-Demand Groups

High-demand groups, like multi-level marketing schemes or extreme political organizations, also employ similar influence techniques but may not go to the same extremes as cults.

  1. Recruitment: High-demand groups often use targeted recruitment strategies, appealing to individuals’ desires for financial freedom or social change. They also employ influence techniques like love bombing in order to secure loyalty quickly from new followers.
  2. Peer Pressure: These groups often use peer pressure to encourage conformity, whether it’s meeting sales targets or participating in group activities.
  3. Identity Reformation: Members are often encouraged to adopt a new set of beliefs or even a new identity aligned with the group’s goals.
  4. Obedience to Authority: Just like in cults, high-demand groups often have a hierarchical structure where questioning authority is discouraged.

Conclusion

Influence techniques are powerful tools that can be used for both good and ill. When wielded by cults and high-demand groups, they can be particularly manipulative and damaging. Awareness of these techniques is the first step in safeguarding oneself against undue influence.

Whether it’s the allure of a charismatic leader or the promise of exclusive knowledge, understanding the psychological mechanisms at play can provide a critical line of defense. In an age when undue influence techniques are being put to use more broadly in society — including inside of mainstream political rhetoric and strategy — we would be wise to pay close attention and apply a dose of healthy skepticism when confronted with any approach that smells like the tactics described above.

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Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is a psychological approach that originated in the 1970s, primarily developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. It posits that there is a connection between neurological processes, language, and behavioral patterns that have been learned through experience. NLP is often used in psychotherapy, personal development, and communication training. It employs techniques like modeling, anchoring, and reframing to help individuals change their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

However, it’s important to note that NLP has been met with skepticism within the scientific community. Many critics argue that it lacks empirical evidence to support its efficacy. Despite this, NLP has found a broad range of applications, from sales and leadership training to self-help seminars.

Abuse in Cults

The darker side of NLP emerges when it is misused, particularly in cult-like organizations. Cults often employ psychological manipulation techniques to indoctrinate and control their members, and NLP can be a potent tool in their arsenal. Here are some ways NLP can be abused in such settings:

  1. Mind Control: NLP techniques can be used to subtly manipulate individuals into adopting the cult’s belief system. By using language patterns that bypass critical thinking, leaders can implant suggestions directly into the subconscious mind.
  2. Emotional Anchoring: This involves associating positive emotions with the cult and negative emotions with the outside world. Over time, this can make leaving the cult emotionally distressing, effectively trapping the individual.
  3. Reframing: Cult leaders may use NLP to reframe negative experiences as positive or necessary for personal growth, making it difficult for members to recognize the harm being done to them.
  4. Identity Shaping: Through continuous application of NLP techniques, cults can gradually alter a person’s self-concept, making them more susceptible to the group’s influence.
  5. Isolation: NLP can be used to devalue critical thinking and outside perspectives, encouraging members to isolate themselves from friends and family who might offer a reality check.
  6. Dependency: By using NLP to induce states of relaxation or euphoria, cults can make members dependent on the group for emotional well-being, further entrenching their loyalty.

The abuse of NLP in cults is a serious ethical concern. It exploits the vulnerabilities of individuals, often leading to financial, emotional, and sometimes even physical harm. While NLP itself is a tool that can be used for both good and bad, its potent psychological influence techniques make it particularly susceptible to misuse — including emotional abuse and an entire pantheon of greater transgressions.

Conclusion

Neurolinguistic Programming is a complex and controversial field that has both proponents and detractors. While it offers various techniques for personal development and communication, its lack of empirical support makes it a subject of ongoing debate. More alarmingly, when these techniques fall into the wrong hands, such as cult leaders, they can be used to manipulate and control individuals in harmful ways. As with any powerful tool, ethical considerations must be at the forefront when employing NLP techniques.

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