Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 17 – Radicalization)


The process of radicalization, including social, ideological and purpose conversion, is something that is of great concern in times when radicals take extreme action. Here are some notes on how a person may become radicalized.


The process of radicalization often starts with some form of transgression by the other side, breaking rules that the person’s side holds as very important.


A common transgressing action is mistreatment, typically by the authorities or military personnel using methods that cause extreme physical pain or mental distress. The mistreatment may be of the person who hence becomes radicalized, but often it is other people who are lionized as heroes or martyrs.
For example, extreme methods of interrogation of suspects in Northern Ireland in the 1970s led to them becoming radicalized and their story leading to many others taking a strong position. More recently Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are clear candidates.

Mistreatment can be historical and reasons for radicalization can go back generations. Past wars, massacres, persecutions and so on can fester for hundreds of years.

Mistreatments today such as rape and child abuse are also extreme transgressions that effectively radicalize those who would severely punish the perpetrators. Many of us who think we would never be radicalized still hold extreme views on such topics.


If there is no direct mistreatment then the inherent badness of the other side may be inferred from their transgression of an inviolable law or value.
They may say things or take actions which are shocking and unthinkable, thereby proving their unworthiness. They may have betrayed a trust, defiled a holy object, conducted black rituals, blasphemed or otherwise shown a terrible lack of respect for people or social rules.

Religion has been a source of radicalized conflict for many centuries.


A radical needs a movement, a cause. At some point, the outrage at the transgression is converted into organization for consequent action.


A critical response to transgression is that some people at least are outraged or feel such a strong sense of betrayal to the extent that they seek justice, typically the extreme vengeance of retributive justice that lies outside national laws. This may be because the laws are seen as inadequate or because they represent governments who are the target of the outrage.


At some point, a core organization is set up to drive the ideals and action. This typically happens in two ways. One is where an individual leader starts alone. Secondly, the core may arise more spontaneously as concerned individuals find one another.

People in the core (often a single leader) may write or use a critical text or otherwise use charismatic oration to establish the central message.
Cores can also be diffused, for example where they are based on central texts which are interpreted and acted upon in localized core organizations.


After initial development of the core message and core group, the organization starts to develop. This may be done formally or remain relatively informal. Key parts of this are in promoting the message, recruiting new people and driving action.

This focus leads to a need for more people to spread the message and take action. The purpose of the core is then to sustain the focus and drive the rest of the organization.

The organization may be strictly hierarchical, but it may also be very diffuse, with independent cells adopting the ideals and acting on their own.


When the transgression leads to some people seeking revenge then they may seek to organize in some way, recruiting and converting others to the cause.


The call to arms goes through many channels, typically targeting groups where members may already feel the sense of injustice, such as minority religions, the unemployed, low-status women and so on. Other vulnerable people may well also be targeted.

Communication may include preaching, emails posters, one-to-one calls and so on. While these do not radicalize alone, they often take the first step in communicating urgency or outrage. Later, the volume and intensity of messages create enough tension to trigger action.

Initial communication may be subtle and seemingly about other subjects. Religions can be like this, first creating a desirable place, selling friendship and salvation before radical action.

Sooner or later, the subject of discussion turns to the basic transgression, including the mistreatment or immorality and the consequent sense of outrage. This creates anger and a desire for action.


A key part of the message is to demonize the other side, objectifying the people as subhuman, using amplification, negative stereotypes and simplified schema.

In doing so, the argument is polarized. By showing that the other side is so extreme, the simple conclusion is reached that extreme action is the only possible route forward. The arguments used may well be full of fallacies but the passion and underlying messages are clear.


A critical part of radicalization is often in the way the message is socialized, becoming a central part of everyday conversation outside of the rallying hall.
For socialization to work best, this conversation should be contained, with any contrary messages being kept at bay. Where possible, the people will be isolated to insulate them from external dissuasion. Where this is not possible, inoculation may be used to help them ward off other views.

Groupthink and other social means of ensuring conformance may also be used to keep people on track.


At some point, the need for action is raised and the radicalized person moved towards proving their passion.


The need to act and the required action may appear through the direction of a group leader, though it may also emerge via less structured groups talking about what they might do. Action can range from protest to acts of terrorism and may start small and escalate either with success or frustration at limited success.

A way that commitment is built is with sequential requests, such as Foot In The Door (FITD), where small initial requests that are easy to comply with are later followed up with larger requests.


Fulfilling the requirement is often linked to a promise of glory, from the admiration of peers to a guaranteed place in heaven.

People who have already taken such action are held up as heroes. They and their actions are glorified and the radicalized people made to feel almost in that state of being deeply admired by many. All that is needed is heroic action.
This in par


Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 16 – Progressive Demands)



Start with small, very reasonable requests. When they comply with these, make requests that require slightly more effort. In this way, gradually increase the requirements on them until they are doing whatever it is you really want them to do.

The requests can also gradually change from optional questions to strong demands. Start with ‘please’ and ‘if you like’, and then move to ‘you must’ and ‘do this now’. Progressive demands may also be used to get people to things which are increasingly further away from their normal values.


A person in a group is asked, in sequence to:

– Help carry leaflets to town
– Help hand out leaflets
– Say a few words about the leaflets
– Speak more about the leaflets
– Ask for a donation
– Use a megaphone to talk about the subject
– Use persuasive methods to get donations
– Pursue people aggressively to get them to ‘donate’

At each stage, there is implied promise of acceptance into the inner circle if just this action is taken.


When you are walking up a convex hill, it often looks like the top of the hill is not far away, but as you walk, the brow just stays out of reach. This is not unlike the experience of progressive demands. Most of the time, you think that you are nearly there.

The overall approach is ‘foot in the door’, where a small request is followed up with a larger request. This works by the consistency principle, whereby having agreed to do something, we believe that we wanted to do it and so start to shift our underlying belief system to align with our actions. Before long, we are effectively brainwashed as we believe that even the extreme actions we have been led to are the right things to do.

This consistency effect may also includes a belief that we must continue doing what we are told. When this leads to increasing dependency, we end up blindly following orders.

Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 15 – Persistance)


Many groups are nothing if not persistent in hauling in the fish of the new member. Once they have decided that you will make a good member and are ripe for conversion, they will not leave you alone.


Almost magically, the recruiting group members seem to be around where the target person is. They turn up at where they are studying, working or playing. From conversations and other research they track down their prey and then they play their strategy.

Whatever works

When they are in the presence of the person, they then play out their strategic plans for reeling them in.

Their strategic persistence is often very adaptive. If you are seeking meaning, they offer deep meaning. If you want a platform they will listen very attentively. If you are lost, they will show the way. They will also seek out your weaknesses along the way and will use whatever it takes to get you to join the group.
They may start with friendship but may also become strident and insistent. They may play guilt games and seek to create an exchange, for example by telling the target person how they have ‘come all this way’ to see them and obliging them to spend time with the cult member.

They may also play games of hurt and rescue, perhaps engineering situations where the target person gets hurt so that they can be rescued. Like a fisherman reeling in the line and then letting it play out again, they steadily pull in their prey towards the net.

Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 14 – The Love Bomb)


The Love Bomb is a classic method used by groups (and is particularly associated with cults) in the initial attraction of new members.

Find someone starved of love

The first step is in spotting the potential group member as somebody who is seeking love and affection. They may have been rejected by partners, parents, siblings, peers, or other such developmental problems. A the common factor is a need for affection that they are unable to find in their current relationships.
The cause of them not finding love may or may not be due to some problem on their part. For example the person may be so desperate that they chase people too ardently, effectively chasing them away.

They may also be affected by a personal trauma, feeling depressed or detached from what might seem an uncaring world.

Offer them unconditional affection

The group members approach the target person as if they were their best friend. Whatever the person says is considered remarkable and interesting. Quirks of personality are ignored. Attention and affection are showered on them by all members of the group at every opportunity.

They are invited to simple meetings at which the attention continues and they are made to feel special at every opportunity. If the group members can determine the ideal type of friend that the person is seeking (which they find through empathetic and concerned listening and probing).

Use love as a reward for correct behavior

When the people join the group, then love becomes one of the methods of keeping them there. It is not now as constant as it was before and it is certainly not unconditional. Now love is given as a reward and removed when behavior is not what is required.

Thus, when people in groups are asked about why they stay, they will still talk about it being a loving place. Their attention and the preaching within the group may well be about love, but it is now on a diet, and they are taught that affection is a just reward for correct behavior.

Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 13 – Isolation)


One of the methods by which groups convert and retain members is by separating them from influences that enable or encourage them to think in contrary ways.


One of the first dilemmas for groups seeking to recruit new members is how to get them in one place long enough to apply sufficient persuasion to cause them to convert (or at least take the next step in the right direction).

The weekend session

One of the most effective ways of doing this is to invite them to a ‘weekend in the country’. The event may be framed as getting to know more friends, discussions, education or other attractive purposes. If they cannot attend the whole weekend, they are invited for one day, then coaxed into staying longer, perhaps by promises of revelations the next day and through social pressure of everyone else staying.

Social events

Another method is through shorter-term sessions, perhaps lasting just one evening, where it may appear that there are a number of other recruits who all are persuaded – whilst the truth might be that they are already full members of the group.

Individual relationships

An even slower method is to build one-to-one relationships, which may even be romantic in nature or may just be based on apparent friendship. Over time, the person persuading steadily moves the other person’s thinking until they are ready for something like the weekend session.

Excluding contrary influence

If a person is provided with persuasive arguments, they may be dissuaded from joining the group or even persuaded to leave by contrary arguments (particularly if the original arguments are shaky).

Physical isolation

The first stage is to isolate people from external influences by moving the people physically away from them. Hence the weekend session is most effectively done when there is no way for the people to escape (for example they were transported there by group members and it is a long way home).
Isolation may also be within the walls of a building within a town or city (although now it is easier for the person to leave) or even within one room. For single meetings, this is often all that is needed. Even meeting in public places is sufficient if no dissuading messages may be seen or heard.

The bottom line is often the question of how far different from the person’s life the persuasive message is. If they are being told how bad the world is, then meeting in a pleasant restaurant is probably not very effective. Yet it may be a good place to talk about the joys of the group.

Mental isolation

There are many ways that a person can be made to feel alone, and hence seek the attention of whoever is there. If they are told that all they have once held to be true, then they will start to feel uncertain.

Emotional isolation occurs when they feel that others who they once trusted actually do not care about them. For example if communications from friends and family are blocked, it may be suggested that they have not communicated because they do not care. Fears about others not caring may be amplified in discussions.

Solitary confinement is known as a severe punishment, as full physical isolation leads to full mental isolation. Confined prisoners may hallucinate, lose track of time and become depressed and desperate. Any feelings of being alone leads to seeking any company and any discussion to fill the intellectual and emotional emptiness.

Control of media

Once physical isolation is achieved, a further step is to use information control to ensure that no contrary messages appear by accident. Thus newspapers, television, books etc. may all be removed, censured or controlled. These can then be replaced with confirming and persuading literature and other media.
If all around them the people see messages that point in one direction, then they are more likely to accept the messages as true. Messages from apparently different sources that all say then same thing can be more persuasive than from one source alone.

Social confirmation

Perhaps the most persuasive message is one that you are told in the corridor by friends who seem not to have any particular axe to grind. Social confirmation occurs when everyone else confirms the core message. What is not always noticed in this is that this is also social isolation – those who would contradict the message are being kept away.

Excluding contrary thinking

A final level of persuasion is to isolate thoughts within the heads of the people being persuaded.

Black-and-white thinking

With the use of polarized values and messages, the group are painted as being whiter than white and everyone else as a darker shade of black. Choices are stark, even in thinking. There is no ‘maybe’. You are either with us or against us.


When values are involved, then the choices are not just between agreement or disagreement – they are about good and bad. Any thought that is against group values and rules is framed as bad, which carries a heavy guilt penalty.
People can thus be persuaded and coerced into feeling a strong sense of shame about every bad thought they have. Phobias may even be induced about contrary thinking and even the thought of having a ‘wrong’ thought can induce panic.


Thought-stopping includes various methods of stopping thinking by distraction or dissuasion. For example a group member who meets someone from outside who tries to get them to leave the group will effectively isolate themselves from the argument by retreating back inside their heads and ignoring the dissuasive argument.

Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 12 – Incremental Conversion)


Conversion to another set of beliefs may be sudden or it may happen slowly over a period of time.

The incremental personality

A person who is converted to a different set of beliefs over time takes a very different approach to the person who converts suddenly.

They have a need for truth more than certainty, gaining their sense of control through the certainty of understanding rather than the certainty of blind belief. They may thus prefer to question arguments rather than accept external authorities. They may be cynical and untrusting, needing to be persuaded by reason rather than by assertion.

They will see the world in shades of gray, rather than black and white, and hence are able to change their beliefs one step at a time. They may be able to hold both beliefs simultaneously, even if they are diametrically opposed, either by compartmentalizing their thoughts or by having a worldview that sees things in terms of possibility rather than certainty.

Evidence and experience

A key trick in converting incrementally is to pile up the evidence one step a time. Giving a lot of evidence at once is likely to result in the person feeling overloaded and hence ignoring all of the evidence or at least a significant portion.

If attention is paid to the stress people are showing from receiving new information, then the right point at which to stop can be found. This may be determined with experiments in non-important areas.

An effective way of providing evidence is through direct experience. If a person sees, hears or feels something first-hand, then it is far more difficult for them to deny this than if they are told about it second- or third-hand.

Reflection and integration

Even after an experience, the person may not convert or even take a small step. In this case they probably need time in which to reflect on the actual meaning (to them) of what they have heard or have experienced.

Reflection can be enabled by giving the person time to think. It can also be encouraged by open discussion and ‘musings’ that nudge them in the right direction.

When they have made sense of their experience, they still need to integrate this thinking into their current schemas (or ‘mental models’). Again, this needs time, and focused conversation may be used to uncover the relevant schema and subsequently help them fit the new ideas into this framework.

Conversion Techniques: Changing Minds & Persuasion (Part 11 – Information Control)


Dictators know that information management is a critical part of controlling a population. They typically achieve this by managing the media so all that people see on the news is what the dictator wants them to see. Groups also use information control.


A common method of controlling information is to completely remove the person (or even the group) from any outside sources of information. They cannot control the media, so they remove themselves from it. Extreme groups lock themselves away in isolated buildings. They move to the country. They even move to other countries.

Another form of isolation is to demonize anything that is not approved by the group. People are forbidden to read banned texts or talk to people who might contradict what the group wants them to believe.

Information and education

When the person and the group are isolated from other influences, then information that supports the intended values and beliefs may be offered. In the information vacuum that is created by the isolation, people will grasp at whatever is offered them.

Managing the media

Controlling the information that is presented to people controls what they perceive as being normal. If one source of information presents something to a person, then they will consider it as being possible. If all information from all sources a person receives is consistent, then this will be taken as being true.
The media (newspapers, television, magazines, etc.) is generally considered to be neutral and consequently trustworthy. Managing what appears to be neutral and trustworthy sources can lead to powerful messages being transmitted that all move the person into the desired direction.

Managing the education system

When you control what is being taught, then you have a direct line into their beliefs and values. This is even more true for children. The Jesuits were famous for the saying ‘Give me the child and I will give you the man’.

Running formal education sessions, where the person studies key texts and listens to the great and the wise sets up a teacher-learner dynamic with the teach as being all-knowing and the learner being subservient and accepting the teacher’s truths.

Spies and informants

One way that groups maintain control is to keep a very close watch on any dissent within the group. This is typically done through a system of outright spying and a system where informing on one another is considered normal practice, whereby any form of secrecy is framed as selfishness (even though the group leader has many).

Particularly when people are punished for keeping secrets, gossiping or showing any form or disagreement with the group and its leaders, they will hold back any such actions – and even the thoughts behind them. Groups can thus become highly conforming, but with an undercurrent of fear and repression.

Individuals may also be spied upon and information gathered about them before they join the group, and this used to help persuade them to join. Financial information is particularly interesting, especially if the group is planning to strip them of their assets.

Redefinition of truth

When outside information has been removed, then the leaders of the group can define truth as whatever they want it to be. Values can be defined such that good and bad are presented as.

When people do not know what to do, they look to other people. Group leaders can thus put people into confusing situations where the people do not know what to do, and hence look to the leaders for guidance.