How do recruiters ever persuade people to join extremist groups? After all, breaking the law and possibly killing yourself for a political cause with such a low chance of succeeding is a very hard sell.
Yet the problem persists, thanks in no small part to the skill of manipulative recruiters.
One key weapon in their arsenal is something you’ve probably never heard of: love bombing.
What Is Love Bombing?
Simply put, love bombing is smothering prospective new recruits with so much love and affection that they become overwhelmed and don’t stop to consider the downside of a new group.
They may also feel guilty in rejecting the overtures of people who are going out of their way to be nice to them.
Typically this will involve an extremely high volume of compliments and other forms of flattery. But it can go much further than that, including gifts, invitations to events, high quality food and flirtation from members of opposite gender.
It’s a key tactic which extremists use to lure in potential recruits. It’s also, not coincidentally, a common tactic that narcissistic abusers use in the early stages of dating someone in order to secure the attachment.
The term was invented by Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church: The Moonies. Dr. Dale Archer cited Moon’s statement on love bombing in an article in Psychology Today:
“Unification Church members are smiling all of the time, even at four in the morning. The man who is full of love must live that way. When you go out witnessing, you can caress the wall and say that it can expect you to witness well and be smiling when you return. What face could better represent love than a smiling face? This is why we talk about love bomb; Moonies have that kind of happy problem.”
How Does Love Bombing Work?
Steve Hassan is a former leader in the Moonies who now works as a cult deprogrammer. He records in his book, Combating Cult Mind Control, how love bombing was used to recruit him.
“When I returned on Thursday night, I was barraged with flattery from all sides all evening. This practice, I would later learn, is called ‘love bombing.’ I was told over and over what a nice person I was, what a good person I was, how smart I was, how dynamic I was, and so forth.”
Receiving flattery at that level gives a person a rush of dopamine, which stimulates the pleasure receptors in the brain. In short, it feels good, and people enjoy it.
Since most people are rarely subjected to that level of kindness and flattery, especially from strangers, they do not know how to respond.
They may enjoy the rush of feeling special, singled out and appreciated.
Love bombing works especially well on people who are seeking meaning, people who have low self-esteem and people who are at low or breaking points in their lives.
The reason is simple: Destructive cults want people to join as soon as possible. Thoughtful independent-minded people do not make good cult members. A cult wants and needs total and complete commitment.
Although thoughtful and independent-minded people may be targeted for recruitment, the cult recruiter will make every effort to wear their resistance down as soon as possible.
Hassan writes, “Once the potential convert is invited to some cult function or seminar, there is a great deal of pressure, both overt and subtle, to get him to make a commitment as soon as possible. Destructive cults, like good con artists, move in for the kill once they size a person up. It is not in their best interest to encourage thoughtful reflection. In contrast, legitimate groups do not lie to a potential convert or pressure him into making a quick commitment.”
This is common across different cults. For example, an internet forum for ex-Jehovah’s Witness members features a public discussion on the love bombing technique used by the movement.
What Can Be Done Against Love Bombing?
When contemplating what can be done about this, one should bear in mind that love bombing usually takes place in an environment where the recruit does not know is a recruiting venue.
It may be a youth event, an informal religious study session, or just hanging out with some friends at the park. The person on the receiving end of it only knows that these new people really like them and think they are wonderful.
If they are cynical they may wonder what is going on, but a skilled recruiter will know how to assuage such fears. They will have a pre-prepared response which will stress either the person’s strengths and destiny (I just know you have a receptive mind), or the person’s identity (as a white man you have to stand strong and look after your people).
The tactic works especially well on an extremist recruiter’s core target audience: a person at a breaking point in his or her life who doesn’t have an anchored sense of identity and community.
Being aware of the tactic and how it is used can help people learn to trust their own judgement when something feels off but they don’t want to be rude.
This will give them the confidence to step away from something they feel is moving too fast so they can think about it clearly.