How can smart people be controlled?

fBen’s article about being mentally strong reminded me of Dr. Singer’s work. Margaret Singer is the author of Cults in Our Midst.  One of her contributions to society is a list of six conditions that create an atmosphere where people’s minds can be influenced to not only give up their personal freedom and choices, but also be persuaded to promote controlling ideologies. This is an important question to consider, and one I’ve asked many times: How could good, smart, capable young adults become entangled with controlling ideology? Why would an intelligent person give up so much control of their life decisions to another person or group? How could so much control be gained over people’s lives without physical force? How could bright young adults be convinced they were making their own decisions while being manipulated into a systematic ideology? Dr. Singer provides a framework to begin finding answers.

Here is Dr. Singer’s list of six things other people do to gain control of your life. Regardless of any good intention, is any of this activity acceptable? Can we say that Christianity supports such things? Can any of these six conditions below be justified with “self-denial” or “taking up your cross” teachings?

During this holiday season, I find much solace in Dr. Singer’s work. My prayer is that everyone reading this may find the freedom, forgiveness, and fulfillment promised in the gospel Jesus preached. My life was not free for my entire adult formative years. May your life be free, and be free indeed by recognizing these six tactics.

Six ways to make a controlling environment

Excerpted from Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer, p. 64-69.

1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time. Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral – change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.

2. Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time. Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.

3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person. This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.

4. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, and lengthy meditation sessions.

5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors. Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.

6. Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order. The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.

How can smart people avoid being controlled?

Here is my list of how to avoid giving up your life decisions.

1. Make sure you find out the entire agenda. Ask for full documentation of any group’s beliefs so that you get the whole picture and are not fooled by the “frog boiling in water” trick.

2. Keep in close contact with your family and friends. Your family (regardless of how messed up you may think they are) is your bedrock of goodness. Trust your close friends and stay in touch through social media and by any means possible.

3. Remind yourself that YOU have the power over YOUR life. Listen to Bon Jovi (It’s my life) and other good songs to inspire you to keep control over your decisions.

4. Remember that your life in the past is NOT all bad. Human beings are always a mixture of good and bad. Do NOT be fooled into dismissing a former spiritual experience. Remember the good things in your life!

5. Document your value system. Don’t let anyone tell you what to value. Find out what YOU value. Document it! Make blogs, or posters or anything to remind yourself of your values. Get a tattoo if you have to in order to remind yourself.

6. Be connected with many sources of teaching and many sources of authority. Don’t let anyone tell you the law doesn’t matter. Legal codes in society are to be respected, not dismissed as if you are above the law.


  1. Thanks, Brian. It is sobering to read the 6 ways to make smart capable people subject to an unhealthy controlling environment. I think I practiced all 6 knowingly or “unknowingly.”

    Looking back I do not think that I could have personally extricated myself from some of the unhealthy practices that I approved of and participated in.

    My conclusion is that God had mercy on me. It was through a series of top-down authoritarian decisions that involved me, and which I disagreed with, that God began to deliver me from the bondage of some of the bad unhealthy practices in UBF. It felt to me as though some people felt that they had the authority to play God over my life. I’ve expressed these repeatedly already on this blog and in person to many people. So I won’t repeat it here.

    The book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr well describes what happened to me. I was “pushed” against my will by some UBF leaders who felt that they had the right to make decisions that concerned me without involving me.

    (In some sense they did have that right, since they were my seniors and my leaders. But in another sense, it practically weakened our relationships. Yet I hold no ill will toward anyone. I especially want to regard this as God’s perfect love for me based on Gen 50:20, which I absolutely believe it was and still is.)

    • “I think I practiced all 6 knowingly or “unknowingly.””

      Yes, and you should understand that this was not your fault, and you should not point too much to yourself, but to those who implanted these things into your mind. You did not invent these ideas. You just copied the practices of Samuel Lee who created such an environment and implemented such methods in UBF in the first place. You saw certain practices, and you disagreed or were bewildered at first. Then you saw that the others, including Sarah Barry, tolerated these things and considered them “normal”. Then slowly you started to believe that you are the one who is not spiritual enough, and they are right, and you started to imitate them. All of this happened slowly and unnoticed by you, until you became the person Samuel Lee wanted you to become. These methods just work, because they are based on universal human psychology. Don’t blame yourself too much. These methods worked on you, but they also worked on Brian, on me, and so many others, not only in UBF, but in many other abusive groups and cults. They worked because we are humans, because we can be easily manipulated. They exploited our insecurity, immaturity, naïvety, credulity and our conscientiousness.

    • Mark Mederich

      the old frog in the water adage: if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you drop it in a nice temperature water & slowly heat it-the frog won’t notice & ‘ye’ end up with ‘le’ frog leg stew..
      evil heats leaders/rulers just enough to heat others just enough to slowly ruin all;
      solution: repent (big & small/top down) like Nineveh in Jonah, or repent & preach (us small me repent & preach/prophesy upward to big-hold accountable/put feet to fire:)../\^^“==>>
      thank god for prophets of old (‘repent king’)& new testament (‘woe to you pharisees’ ‘god will strike you, you white-washed wall’)

  2. Chris, Rather than blame, accuse, lambaste, demonize, caricature, and skewer SL and UBF (many of whom are still my close friends) as horribly evil and deceived power mongers, I believe that God used their flaws, failures, blind spots, prejudices, abuse of power, etc, to greatly enrich and even enhance the varied experiences my own life.

    They and each of us will be accountable to God. I should love them and speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) to them. It is so easy for me to speak the truth to them in language that does not communicate or promote love. Since I want to promote dialogue and an ongoing conversation with them, then I cannot just continue to keep criticizing and blasting every single thing they do (past and present) which might be offensive to me or others.

    As I have repeatedly expressed, I would much rather reflect on and ruminate on the many good things that I learned from SL and UBF, which I have expressed often already. Remembering primarily the bad things just creates within me a spirit of negativity, and causes me to despise them rather than have sentiments of love and affection toward them. Even if they are my worst enemies (which they are not), I still want to feel emotions of love and gentleness toward them. (Maybe you are able to keep blasting them and still feel love toward them. But if I keep blasting them, I personally just feel a lack of Christ’s self-giving love toward them.)

    Sorry if I am repeating myself, as I think that I have expressed similar sentiments before.

    • “I cannot just continue to keep criticizing and blasting every single thing they do”

      Ben, nobody here criticizes every single thing they did or do, their private sins, wrondoings or failures. I know the rumours of such things even among the Koreans. But we never made them an issue here or did we? Instead we criticize the crucial things, those behavior patterns and methods that created the environment that caused so much harm, the things that affected us, the things that put us, including you, in bondage. It is important to speak about these things, to understand the mechanisms behind them. If we don’t understand these things and don’t reveal them, we’re doomed to repeat them. This is not possible without talking about the person Samuel Lee and revealing the concrete wrongs in his teachings and practices. Just like you can’t reveal what’s wrong with Jehovah’s witnesses without talking about Charles Taze Russell. The JW’s didn’t get their crazy ideas out of thin air or out of their own minds, they believe in these ideas because CT Russel implanted them in the group members and promoted them trough the watchtower society which is still operating until today. It’s not reasonable to say “let’s only remember the good things CT Russel did” when you really want to understand what is wrong with JW teachings and how it was possible that they believe all this stuff. It’s not about bashing CW Lee, it is about exposing an abusive system and the way it operated and still operates in many places. You can’t do this without pointing to the concrete cases of abuse that happened in the past, and the truth is that most of the abuse and the ideology originated from CW Lee. The “UBF heritage” is really the heritage of CW Lee. CW Lee simply was not a private man, he was a man who claimed to be like Moses, who claimed to be the commander, who claimed that whether you obeyed him or not determined your fate (again, I can show you the passages where he preached such things). It is simply not right to treat such people with respect and restraint. These are the very people who Paul called “Super Apostles“. These are people who attack the church and the souls of the church members. We are not good shepherds if we allow such people to operate or downplay what they are doing. This has nothing to do with not having a “loving” attitude.

    • “Chris, Rather than blame, accuse, lambaste, demonize, caricature, and skewer SL and UBF (many of whom are still my close friends) as horribly evil and deceived power mongers, I believe that God used their flaws, failures, blind spots, prejudices, abuse of power, etc, to greatly enrich and even enhance the varied experiences my own life.”

      What do you say to those who experienced a horrible divorce because of the failed attempts of arranged marriage by Samuel Lee or his interference when one spouse wanted to leave UBF, even when they already had 5 kids? To those who underwent torture-like treatment (pepper in eyes, sitting in icewater) by order of CW Lee? To the mother whose child has been aborted by order of Samue Lee? Do you really think these experiences enriched their lives? Why do UBF defenders always talk from the perspective of their own lives? Is really everything well when everything turned out well for you? Abuse of power in the church must always be called out.

      Furthermore, your argumentation here is a typical example of a false dichotomy. You present us two extremes, namely to “blame, accuse, lambaste, demonize, caricature” on the one hand, and to “believe that God used their flaws” as if they were mutually exclusive and there was no other option. In reality, it is fully possible that God used CW Lee’s sins, but he was a power monger anyway. It is also possible to clearly point out the evil of CL Lee’s wrongdoings without demonizing him or caricaturing him. Also, why do you speak of “flaws, failures, blind spots, prejudices, abuse of power, etc.” and not of horrible sins? Why do you list “abuse of power” which is a sin, and the major sin we’re talking about, only at the end? Ordering a church member to have an abortion is simply not a “flaw”. Should we really list all these things again so that you see how inapproriate it is to call them just “flaws” or “failures”? Sorry for being so awkward, but when I read logical fallacies or downplaying of real issues, I have feel always compelled to object.

    • Thinking about it some more, I now think “abuse of power” is not even the primary issue, because abuse of power is only possible when a person has power (authority) over others.

      Such an environment where a certain person has such power is a big problem since the Bible clearly states that we should be brothers and there should be no power hierarchies among us. Even Peter, the “pillar” and “top apostle” of the early church (UBF would call him the “general director” of early Christianity) did not exert power. He allowed Paul to criticize himself (Gal 2), he decided things in open discussions together with the others (e.g. the council Jerusalem council, or election of elders) instead of making decisions on his own, he considered himself a “fellow elder” (1 Pt 5), not a “chief elder”, “appealing” to the others (not commanding them), warning them to not “lord over the flock”. A healthy church is not an environment where certain people are considered to have “super power” and where opposition and discussion are forbidden. In a healthy church, nobody can abuse power, because nobody has such power. So the “genuine” sin of CW Lee (actively) and S Barry (passively allowing it) is having created an environment where one person has an incredible amount of power and authority. And this was done very deliberately and systematic using methods like those described my M T Singer. I still have a letter by CW Lee in which he writes how it bothered him that in the early days S Barry had more power than he had, so he decided to “make her his secretary in 10 years”. And then he bragged how he managed to achieve this in exactly 10 years. When I first read it I thought it was a joke, but no, it was the reality and describes his mindset very clearly. CW Lee systematically accumulated power and authority, so much that his power became absolute. Nobody was allowed to challenge him anymore. Anyone who did so was considered a “Korah” challenging Moses the servant of God and thus challenging God himself. The abuse of power was only the second and inevitable step. As Lord Action said, “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

      So to summarize, I now think the primary sin is not the “abuse of power” itself but creating a system where certain people hold absolute (God-like) power over fellow believers. The sheer claiming of such power is already sinful, even if a person could withstand the temptation to abuse it. And this kind of sin leads to all the problems we’re seeing in UBF and other similar groups.

      The early history of UBF is in reality the creation and formation of such an abusive system. It must have happened somewhere beteen 1964 and 1976. This is the thing that they should point out in their “UBF history museum”. There is nothing to be proud of here, they should rather build a wall of shame.

    • Mark Mederich

      +++chris: HALLELUJAH!
      yes, one person’s curse may be another person’s blessing or vice-versa, & truth remains & must be recognized/respected for anything/anyone to get better in god..

  3. “Since I want to promote dialogue and an ongoing conversation with them, then I cannot just continue to keep criticizing and blasting every single thing they do (past and present) which might be offensive to me or others.” – See more at:

    I however don’t have that purpose. I could care less about dialogue because I knew that was impossible back in 2011. I feel like criticizing and blasting every single thing they do. I hope everyone reads bigbear’s new book next year. Families must be respected!

    For example, ubf released a shiny new, whitewashed website. But guess what? Want to learn about arranged marriage in ubf? The public can’t because it is password protected. Want to learn what the chapter guidelines are? Sorry, no can do because that is secret and locked by a password as well. Well maybe you want to learn about how ubf does pioneering (oops church planting)? Can’t do it; password protected also.

    Ah but you can find a local ubf! You can read self-glorifying announcements! And best of all you can check out all the wonderful memberships that ubf uses as their stamp of approval!

    Don’t worry about the 50 years of abuse and excessive control… ubf is apparently just like all other Christian ministries now. Oh wait, except ubf is better than all those hallelujah Christians.

    Take a look:

    • Mark Mederich

      HALLELUJAH (sorry, couldn’t help it, i like being the underdog:)
      anyway, yes we must avoid glossing over serious past/present issues, especially for sake of younger/newer people; at the same time once Christ grants us Holy Spirit help, we not only recover (getting strong now like ‘Rocky’)
      but zoom ahead in healthy spirituality: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H-!

    • Yes Mark, Hallelujah indeed.

      Recovering from such confusing and manipulating teachings is cause for celebration.

      For example, it is so good to not have to obey things like this 11/10/2013 lecture:

      “We, who are living in the 21st century, are actually facing many forms of false teachings, probably much more than ever in history. Teaching and following false teachings is a very serious matter because it’s about salvation and eternal damnation. But we don’t necessarily become heretics simply because we join some church that teaches false doctrines. At the same time, we are not necessarily safe simply because we join the right church. I am not saying that finding a healthy church is not important. But what is more important is “Am I truly following the truth of the gospel?” How can we protect ourselves from following false teachings? Should we research all the world’s cultic religions and become expert cult-watchers? Not necessarily.

      Now, let’s go back to verse 3, “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”….


  4. Speaking of websites, some asked me what is in the new ubf museum in Korea.

    Have a look: pictures of ubf museum

  5. Thanks Chris for pointing out many things we all need to consider.

    Some have asked me What is B.I.T.E.? This video explains clearly. B.I.T.E is a good summary of how smart people can be controlled and manipulated. Please watch.

  6. I have enjoyed reading the back and fourth exchange here. I did however take issue with rec #3.
    Recommendation #3 suggests to remind yourself that you have the power over your life. Is this really a Christian teaching in it’s totality? Christianity seems to teach us both free will and God’s complete control over our life. In either case, we are told to put God in control. I understand that your forming this recommendation as a response against bad religious/cults but I just think we need to not allow our suspicion of cults paint how we approach all worldviews and religious frameworks.

    • Gerardo, I guess #3 is meant “decision-wise”. That is you have the power to decide what to do with your life; you should not give others the power to decide over your life and make the decisions for you. Sure, we make our plans, but God has the last word. Certainly as Christians we should already make our plans in a way that we believe pleases God – but not in a way to please others or what others think pleases God. A bad example is UBF’s arranged marriage paradigm where they tell you whom to marry. In the end, it is your life – you need to live with that person for your whole life, and in the end you need to bear the responsibility if things fail. That’s why only you should decide whom to marry and not let others decide for you. As a Christian, you can count on the help of the Holy Spirit when making your decisions. And whom do you think the Holy Spirit will reveal your marriage partner? Will He talk to you, or will He talk to your leader? Do you think the leader has a more “direct” connection with the Holy Spirit? Or do you think the Holy Spirit uses the leader as a medium or mediator? I don’t think so. We all can call God our father, and the Spirit has been poured out on all people (Acts 2:17) not on certain leaders only who then give “direction” to the others, claiming to have power over their lives. Don’t allow the leaders to exert such power over your life. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for them.

  7. I think you’re trying to open a certain can of worms, right Gerardo? :)

    A discourse on the sovereignty of God and the free will of people deserves much more thought. You raise a good point to consider more deeply.

    My recommendation #3 stands though. Is God sovereign? Yes I believe so. Yet it is absurd to think there is a God somewhere micromanaging each one of us. Such a “God” would be like Loki and deserves a Hulk smashing.

    My #3 recommendation has nothing to do with God’s sovereignty really. As Chris points out, my recommendation to “Remind yourself that YOU have the power over YOUR life. Listen to Bon Jovi (It’s my life) and other good songs to inspire you to keep control over your decisions.” is in relation to other people– especially toward religious people and always toward ubf missionaries.

    God who is Living respects your autonomy. The Kingdom is not weakened by personal autonomy and our King Jesus is not threatened by it. Jesus came to set us free and to open life to the full. Any Christian worth more than a pillar of salt will do so as well.

  8. And here are 10 more recommendations from one of my heroes, Mr. Rogers:

    10 Mr. Rogers quotes to remember

    The point is just as St. Augustine prayed and what David Benner wrote deeply about and what Mr. Rogeres embodied so well for millions of children: God gave you the gift of being yourself. Be who you are. Be your own man. Be your own woman. Accept others for who they are. I am not you. You are not me. I am me. You are you.

    Be yourself, for everyone else is taken.

    The Gift of Being Yourself

  9. Here is another list of unhealthy characteristics. Compare these to what you see around you and make up your own mind! Perhaps it is time to return to the Catholic Church afterall…

  10. forestsfailyou

    “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

    Sometimes I feel as though I am the monster, that I am using UBF to my own ungodly ends. They think they control me but I control them. I am reminded that Christ owns me, I am not my own. But then is it Christ who uses them through me? I am ever watchful form misuses of spiritual bullying, but see none. I can read between the lines and see where such emphasis on obedience may go. I can see where a person seeking to please the right people might be manipulated, but I am not nor have I ever been.

  11. Hi again forests and Happy New Year (and yes it is finally a “happy” new year for me)

    Just a few reactions…

    “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process.”
    >> Good point.

    “Sometimes I feel as though I am the monster, that I am using UBF to my own ungodly ends.”
    >> This indicates that your conscience is being cut into unnecessarily. I felt that way too, many times, especially just before arranged marriage. If you see evidence that you are using ubf for your own ungodly ends, then your individual conscience is eroding and being substituted with a group-conscience. Just a word of warning: I found that the conscience I cut out can be regained but very very slowly, if at all.

    “They think they control me but I control them. I am reminded that Christ owns me, I am not my own. But then is it Christ who uses them through me?”
    >> This kind of thinking is evidence that your self-identity is being cut out, and is eroding. If you think of Christ as your “owner” then you’ve not yet found the relationship Christ desires to have with you–namely that of friend and Father and Lord. If Christ is only a “master” there is much room for growth. Note the binding in your thinking… it should be crystal clear that Christ is not using them or you through either of you. But the ministry is bound up with Christ in your thinking here. Also be wary of taking 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 too far.

    “I am ever watchful form misuses of spiritual bullying, but see none.”
    >> How would you know if your were being manipulated? You wouldn’t! Well if you are manipulated poorly, then you might know. But if the control is done well, you won’t know it at the time. You will think you made your own decisions, but in fact your other options were eliminated leaving only one logical choice in your mind.

    “I can read between the lines and see where such emphasis on obedience may go. I can see where a person seeking to please the right people might be manipulated, but I am not nor have I ever been.”
    >> I used to say that too. No one will ever control me (I thought). But such arrogance was an open door for me to be manipulated. Avoid “never”/”always” thinking. If you claim you’ve never been manipulated, that’s a sure sign you probably were. Keep in mind the whole point of the ubf heritage system is to look good. It’s a show designed to be shiny and attractive and non-threatening. That way you never see the binding strips placed around your life.

  12. Very very well articulated and explained, Brian!

    The devil works best by deception and by being clandestine.

    A manipulative leader will never think they are manipulating others, but that they are pleasing God and serving their sheep.

    The one manipulated may also never realize they are being manipulated, but that they are also pleasing God, keeping the peace, and remaining in community through uniformity and conformity.

    • Thanks Ben. My book will address these issues and provide some answers and solutions. Yes there is now a second book, my book. I’m considering getting your feedback when I have a draft together. I’ll share more when we meet in person. 2014 will be a year of writing projects (new books, new blogs). I love writing!

  13. An intresting article about an experiment in which young americans tried to understand people of Nazy Germany.

  14. Thanks for bringing these things up Mark and Vitaly. I stand behind all of my comments in this thread.

    This article on CNN reminds me of all these topics we’ve discussed here in this article:

    “The recruits are often young — sometimes disillusioned teenagers trying to find purpose and make their mark. For many, it boils down to a lack of a sense of identity or belonging, Barrett said.”

    “But what draws Americans to give up their comfortable lives in the United States and travel to war-torn countries to fight? An appeal to their sense of duty.”

    “Importantly, the group also views itself as the now-leader of a global jihadist movement,” Olsen said. “It turns out timely, high-quality media, and it uses social media to secure a widespread following.”

    “When Steve Hassan heard an ISIS propaganda tape, “it reminded me of the exhortations of Jim Jones’ cult saying, ‘Come to Jonestown. It’s a paradise. It’s wonderful.’ And that keys in on one of the key principles of destructive cults, which is deceptive recruiting.”


  15. Mark Mederich

    “How can smart people avoid being controlled?”
    don’t believe others who think they know/pretend to know better than us…HALLELUJAH!