In the News: Cults and Coercive Control

Last week, we highlighted the important work of Dr. Alexandra Stein, author of the book Terror, Love, and BrainwashingThis past week, she was interviewed in a story on cults at the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper. Her interview succinctly explains the underlying dynamic of coercive control that is found in abusive groups and relationships:

This [submission] is done, she says, with the use of the fourth ingredient: coercive control. It is defined as ‘a strategic course of behaviour’ (aka brainwashing), often involving manipulation and humiliation, in order to persuade others to do your bidding.

‘The aim is to isolate you and trap you in that isolation,’ says Stein. ‘They create chronic stress, which causes trauma. Trauma leads to dissociation, a state in which you cannot think about your own feelings. In that gap, the cult can insert its ideology and tell you what you are feeling.’ This is all done, she says, by wearing members down. ‘You don’t have any resources left to step away from it and to have a good think about your involvement. When people do get that space, they often get out.’

In the interview, Stein also highlights the strong link between cults and domestic violence, which informed her efforts to lobby for extending the new UK law on coercive and controlling behavior beyond just domestic and intimate relationships, but to include groups as well. We would hope to see any future U.S. law that criminalizes coercive control be made applicable in this way also.

As cults have become a topic of interest in the news in recent years, Stein's work has been featured in a variety of places. We look forward to hearing more from her and seeing what impact she will have on coercive control policy in the U.K.

Written by Chelsea Brass

People to Know: Dr. Alexandra Stein

Alexandra Stein, Ph.D., is "a writer and educator specializing in the social psychology of ideological extremism and other dangerous social relationships. She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Stein offers prevention education programs and materials to help people understand how to identify and protect themselves from recruitment to cultic or extremist groups. She also studies and teaches about positive social relationships: 'small d' democracy, inclusivity and healthy social and personal networks that can oppose these dangerous relationships." [1]

We are big fans of Dr. Stein's work and believe that she will do much to help us understand the linkages between several fields, including those of terrorism, cults and domestic violence. She has a mastery of the concept of coercive control and aims to make an impact on the UK policy. Stein urges for a public health approach to combatting coercive control and would be a helpful collaborator for anyone working to develop a prevention agenda for the United States.

We plan to highlight more of her work in the future, but we would like to highlight two areas of special note: her doctoral work comparing highly political groups that are extremist and non-extremist, and most especially her contributions to the area of group attachment.

Stein's doctoral work on groups compared the Green Party to the Newman Tendency, "a group based in New York City, active in third-party politics, and run by Fred Newman, a former university lecturer." [2] The Newman Tendency and the Green Party are both highly political and ideological groups, but the Green Party does not ask as much of its members as the Newman Tendency. Throughout her work, she highlights the psychological and emotional differences between the two. It's an important distinction for people to understand, as experts agree it is not the ideology that makes an abusive group or cult, but rather, the abusive methods and power and control utilized by group leaders against followers.

What Stein contributes to attachment theory, as it applies to cultic control, is of extreme importance to the field of domestic violence, and of particular interest for developing an understanding of the full impact of coercive control on victims. Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, explains how "how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat," [3] by drawing on a schema developed in early childhood modeled after their relationship to their primary caregiver. That primary relationship then serves as a model for handling stress in future relationships.

In her book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, Stein argues that attachment theory is not just applicable to relationships between individuals, but between individuals and groups. Further, Stein asserts that the attachment style one has developed (even healthy attachments) can be hijacked by these types of group and turned into a "fearful attachment" (as she posits "fear + isolation = control"). For those familiar with attachment theory, one of the most often cited theories of interpersonal relations, this kind of addition is a significant one, largely beyond the scope of just this field.

If you're interested in Dr. Stein's work on attachment theory, you should check out her book and watch this great interview where she discusses it in depth.

Dr. Stein's work is important across multiple fields and can do much to help us better understand the psychological impacts of coercive control. You can find out more about her and follow her work at her website, on twitter and on our People to Know page. We will continue to highlight her work as it applies to the concept of coercive control.

[2] Stein, A. (2012). Terror and Love: A Study of Brainwashing. Anthropology Now4(2), 32-41.
[3] Waters, Corcoran & Anafarta 2005, pp. 80–84.