When individuals are trapped in or have left abusive situations, they often ask themselves: How did I get into this? Why did I fall for it? How could I be so naive? Why did I not respond to red flags earlier? They experience much self-recrimination and shattered confidence in their judgment of people and situations. While ultimately every choice is each person’s own responsibility, the mechanics of sinister recruitment and manipulation are easy to fall prey to.
Abuse occurs in many different scenarios: families, pedophilia, romantic relationships, domestic violence, toxic individuals and groups, cults and organisations of various religious and non-religious orientation.
In families the victims are trapped until old enough to remove themselves from the situation. The abuser does not have to recruit and gets away with minimal effort to keep the subjects on side. But many of the other scenarios show patterns of manipulation similar to common marketing strategies. In particularly cynical cases, they are employed with deliberate calculation. In other cases, predators use at least some of the techniques but are not necessarily aware they are doing it.
For any business, adopting a consistent and recognisable image/identity is about creating familiarity, recognition and trust in prospective customers, with engagement the ultimate goal. Branding usually combines visual and psychological aspects.
Visual branding by potential perpetrators and toxic groups also includes adopting identifying features unique to them. Certain colours, garments and hairstyles, paraphernalia chosen for specific effects, accessories, even rituals and distinct behaviours all contribute to create the desired image. Examples are IS (black, warrior demeanour); robes, music, dances etc associated with some ‘masters’; or even the harmless every-day-man/woman appearance of a future violent partner or pedophile.
The psychological aspects of branding are also about creating a specific perception and evoking certain feelings, experiences, attitudes or thoughts in the targeted individual. Just as advertising for cars depict scenes of adventure and fun, predators aim to build trust, create excitement and anticipation and invite engagement through their presentation and conduct.
This is about being seen as the obvious choice to fulfil certain needs, wants or desires, addressing frustrations or problems or moving towards specific goals. For example, a targeted person might desire to be loved, to belong, to feel understood, to clearly see their way forward, to make the world a better place, to have direction, purpose and meaning in life. Frustrations and difficulties that predispose future victims to becoming hooked might include low self-worth, suffering, internal turmoil, confusion, feeling marginalised, unloved, lonely, restricted from living a full life, boredom, hate of their status quo.
The ‘ideal clients’ are then targeted where they are most likely found online or at social gatherings.
Offering Social Proof
Any business knows and tries to harness this tactic. It means using satisfied customers to endorse the product or service, speak about how effective the goods are and invite others to also engage. Word of mouth, strategic alliances, testimonials or buddy systems are all intended to provide proof of the value and legitimacy of what is offered.
Being invited or connected through someone known and trusted is one of the most persuasive and powerful techniques toxic individuals and groups use to draw in new recruits. Much childhood abuse is committed by perpetrators close to the family. Groups are replenished by members bringing their friends and acquaintances. Many people connect with their future abuser at social occasions where he/she is known and accepted.
This marketing tactic is powerful and very persuasive. Resisting the pull to join in, follow the lead and also gain the suggested benefits is not always easy. Especially not if rapport building strategies are also employed.
General communication techniques to build rapport and strengthening the connection are also part of the sinister repertoire:
1. Showing interest and appreciation by listening attentively to the individual.
2. Transmitting positive and encouraging non-verbal cues and body language.
3. Adopting language that corresponds to how the prospect expresses themselves.
4. Matching and mirroring: copying the recruit’s voice, breathing, facial expression, postures and gestures.
Providing a honeymoon
Once the person has joined or committed, some of the anticipated value is provided. Situations are presented that appear to fulfil the initial expectations and reassure the recruit that they made the right choice. ‘Freebies’ are plentiful: compliments, attention, connection, inclusion. Being singled out as special also occurs through gifts and rewarding experiences, assignment of (seemingly) important tasks or interaction with key people who in the future will not be easily accessible.
The purpose of this period is to make the recruit feel safe and solidify their commitment. It is also the time when the trap closes. Once the recruit is integrated, favours are withdrawn, limited or made dependent on behaviour that pleases the abuser.
When reality sets in …
Perpetrators are experts at using punishments and rewards to mould the trapped person. If they were all bad all the time, no one would stay and put up with it for long unless held physically captive. In domestic relationships, abuse may be followed by apologies, promises of it never happening again or periods of harmony. In child abuse, the victim is groomed with gifts and made to feel special. In toxic groups, trusted peers and selected activities are provided to strengthen cohesion and override disturbing impressions. All this is destabilising the victim’s assessment of their experience so they end up doubting what they feel and perceive.
It often takes considerable time to discover the truth behind the facade and may take even longer to find a way out of the situation. If the initial investment, dream or intention was significant, victims find it difficult to admit to themselves that they fell for an illusion. They may also have been so brainwashed and their self-esteem so undermined that clear thinking and resolute action are compromised. Many require substantial support and assistance to make their way out and rebuild their shattered selves. But with focused inner work and appropriate guidance there is every chance to become stronger, wiser and thrive in their future lives!