Conversion to a different way of thinking and different beliefs appears in many different situations. Although the techniques here are drawn from studies of brainwashing and cult conversion, they are surprisingly common, at least in more acceptable forms, in many other groups and organizations.
One way that cults and coercive groups work is to give those in charge a position of absolute authority, and then ensure those who are beneath them always obey.
One of the reason people join cults and authoritarian groups is because they have uncertainty in their lives. We all seek a sense of control and one way of gaining this is to cede control to somebody else, perhaps in the way a child allows a parent to make choices for them.
At some times in their lives, many people feeling lost and unsure about themselves and their futures. To such people that authoritarian groups offer certainty and consequent comfort. Young people who are still making the transition to responsible and self-assured adulthood are particular susceptible to such appeals. Other people may also be attracted by assertions of certainty, including those in a mid-life crisis where the dreams of youth are fading. Older people too may seek solace when faced with their own mortality.
The way such groups create certainty is with strong, regular and consistent assertions. When something is pronounced, then it is deemed to be not just true, but absolutely true. This is delivered through some some unchallengeable authority.
A common form of authority is the group leader who is increasingly painted as something akin to a god, who cannot be wrong even if they contradict themselves. The person may start out well-intentioned, but if power goes to their head, before long they can easily turn from a kind leader to a cruel dictator. The principle of ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ can effectively come true.
Although the leader is often the driving force, sometimes other people in the organization can become the authority figures, leaving the leader to be the benevolent figurehead. This can happen with second-in-commands and inner-circle members or even lower-level leaders.
As well as people, written books and documents can be held as unquestionable sources of authority. This is common in religions and can also appear in cults. People become involved when they take the role of authoritative interpreters of these works. In this way, an original peaceful work can be reinterpreted as requiring aggressive force.
When there is absolute authority, then there is an absolute requirement that ‘followers’ comply with commands without question.
Obedience is the fulfilment of commands, no matter how strange or difficult they may seem. Commands may be framed as tests of commitment and obedience as proof of faith. In this way, people may be tested every day and small rewards of approval given for obeying every command.
Beyond obedience, the follower is expected to be submissive in all things, from bowing the head when the leader passes to always putting themselves last. Insufficient submission is seen as vanity or arrogance, and is treated as such.
Non-compliance with requirements is seldom treated gently in coercive groups. Punishments, even from seemingly simple mistakes, may result in harsh treatment, from extended work hours to long contemplation of guilt and even forms of imprisonment and isolation.
In general, the principle of amplification is applied to the extreme in this and many other areas, and there is little moderation or human compassion.