Fundamental assumptions are an instilled set of beliefs regarding how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us.
For most individuals, our fundamental assumptions allow us to live, work, and interact with society in a positive and productive way. These assumptions may provide a moral compass, influence our decision-making, and/or provide a mission to fulfill during our lifetime. Religious belief systems or coercive influences can inform our fundamental assumptions.
When an individual joins a destructive group, they often adopt a new set of fundamental assumptions (this can also be referred to as “conversion”). Adopting a new set of fundamental assumptions can be extremely destabilizing, and may lead to behavioral changes or a shift in cognitive processes. It’s extremely difficult for families when they see such a radical shift in their cult-involved loved one.
How does adopting new fundamental assumptions happen?
Adopting a new fundamental assumption is not always done rationally – internal experiences are a powerful driver and are typically present during these shifts. While group ideology (religious/non-religious) can be a contributor, relationships are extremely influential.
Destructive groups or relationships can “engineer” powerful internal experiences in a number of ways. To illustrate, consider one method that gives a convert a relationship-oriented goal:
“meeting a person [group member] who operates under a radically different set of assumptions and who appears to have achieved an enviable level of happiness or inner peace.”
When a (potential) convert engages with such a person, a natural drive is to understand how this group member's success can be replicated. If the conditions are right (or wrong, depending on your viewpoint), that individual may be motivated to restructure their fundamental assumptions to better align with the group's. In this way, given enough time and engagement, an individual can be coerced into beliefs and actions that previously seemed inconceivable to those who knew them.