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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Liking: Cults often employ “love bombing,” where new recruits are showered with affection and attention, making them more susceptible to influence.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Financial Exploitation: Members are often encouraged or required to donate significant amounts of money, or even to hand over their financial assets entirely.
- 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.
- Recruitment: High-demand groups often use targeted recruitment strategies, appealing to individuals’ desires for financial freedom or social change.
- Peer Pressure: These groups often use peer pressure to encourage conformity, whether it’s meeting sales targets or participating in group activities.
- Identity Reformation: Members are often encouraged to adopt a new set of beliefs or even a new identity aligned with the group’s goals.
- Obedience to Authority: Just like in cults, high-demand groups often have a hierarchical structure where questioning authority is discouraged.
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.