Steven Hassan is a cult and undue influence expert. His BITE model (find out more) looks at the ways in which cults and other groups exert control over members, and this model is a great resource to help people look at the power imbalances in groups, particularly organized religions. Today we’re going to look at the “B” in the BITE model, behavior control.
When most people think of cults, they think of the Manson Family or Branch Davidians. If you’re a little older, maybe you remember Hare Krishnas in the airports handing out flowers to people. We think of people who dress the same, often look the same, and are doing the same ritual behaviors as being in a cult. That trope of cults is accurate, but on the extreme end of the continuum of influence a cult may have. There are many, many ways in which cults can exert control over someone’s behavior, and not all of these ways are as apparent as wearing matching robes or having shaved heads.
One of the most common ways to exert behavior, and I would comfortably say I believe the most common way, is to create a strong sense of an in-group and out-group dynamic. The saved and the unsaved, the believer and unbeliever, the faithful and the fallen. From this core tennent, behavior control is exerted by promoting spending time with others in the good graces of the in-group, and shunning (either overtly or covertly) or otherwise discouraging time with the out-group. I was raised fundamentalist evangelical, so this was pretty overt messaging. Unbelievers were part of “the world,” which was under the influence of the devil, so limited interaction was definitely preferable. Your “worldly” friends might tempt you or lead you astray, what with their sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Often I heard about “the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh” and how all of that was bad. So, no trusting outsiders, definitely can’t trust yourself, literally the only thing you could trust was the bible. Now, I was raised in the midwest, in the capital of my little sect of evangelicalism, so I also was in an area where I rarely, if ever, interacted with people who weren’t of the same religious background. I went to religious schools k-12, so most of my sports and all of my extracurriculars were with other fundie kids. Baseball is the only thing I can think of that I did in my childhood that wasn’t with church kids. So, in mainstream christianity, this is very much a thing. And it scales, like if you grew up in a not-so-religious state, maybe public school was the only option. Or, on the more extreme side, homeschooled kids only saw a few other kids ever, and all very religious.
A thing authoritarian groups and cults love, love, love to control is sex. Why? Because short of doing heroin (don’t do heroin, it’s super bad for you) having an orgasm is one of the strongest releases of feel good drugs your brain can experience. If you experience that feel good hit with a heathen, well, you might never come back to church. So, sex needs to be highly controlled. Only once you’re married! Only in the missionary position or you’re a pervert! Only between hetero people or the opposite gender! Never with birth control! And like, those are only the mainstream christian cult rules, extreme cults get really weird with it, like every female member needs to sleep with the male leader. Again, our pop culture awareness of cults is limited to the extreme cases, because if you think about it, non-consensual impregnation of a minor by a god sounds weird, even if that’s a mainstream christian belief (a requirement for salvation, even!).
What else? Clothes, obviously, but not just everyone wears colorful robes, it can be no shorts, no skirts, nothing above the knee, no cleavage, hmm, lots of rules for women here, almost like the patriarchy is the problem. Hair or head coverings are common ways to exert behavior control, especially in ancient times and many of the middle eastern religions currently. Financial exploitation is common, from needing to give more to megachurch pastors who have private planes, to just a required tithe (10% for those not in the know). Sleep deprivation is common among cults, but in mainstream control groups that may be “all-night” worship festivals, or late night gatherings with early morning worship for retreats or camps.
So, behavior control! It can be pretty blatant, or it can be much more insidious by being subtle. Knowledge is power, so knowing what to look for can save a lot of pain and misery. Speaking of knowledge, we’ll do the “I” in the BITE model next, information control!