Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders. Even if not obviously promoted by the group, information is collected (usually automatically without set guidelines for collection) and fed to leadership. Shameful past events may then be exploited to manipulate individual compliance or as evidence for disciplinary actions. Information about those who leave the group is also exploited after they leave to enhance the milieu control. Sometimes, "sins" are confabulated to instill members with fear to decrease their chances of contacting dissidents or members who have left the group.
People with unresolved issues of shame are especially attracted to these types of groups, and indeed, there were some cults that developed out of some of these movements in the past. When a person talks about themselves and personal facts, it is a natural response of the brain to shift from a faster, analytical brain wave speed (high or mid beta) into a slower, more suggestible one. The process of confession, even if it is in regard to technical information, is naturally relaxing as it induces a slower brain wave pattern (alpha state). This brain wave pattern, although it is associated with physical relaxation is also a highly suggestible state. After one has divulged personal information, the mind becomes far less critical as the mind is no longer in a largely analytical state. Religious groups and sales people alike take advantage of this natural, physiologic effect of self-disclosure.
Adapted from and expanded upon from the original source, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brain Washing in China by Robert Jay Lifton. In chapter 22 entitled "Ideological Totalism," Lifton details the major defining techniques that hallmark surreptitious manipulation, formulated from his experience working with prisoners who survived a Chinese brainwashing program while serving in the Korean War.
APRIL 2008 Update!..
Steven Martin's book, "The Heresy of Mind Control," also describes the Cult of Confession. Please visit his site and consider purchasing the e-book that is made available without cost but asks readers to pay an amount conmensurate with a 160 page work. (Steven is brother of Dr. Paul Martin of the Wellspring Center, the only inpatient recovery facility for those who have survived spiritual abuse, cults and manipulative relationships.) Here is his excellent summary of Lifton's Thought Reform Dynamic of the "Cult of Confession":
Vocal Self-Degradation (Pg 53)
This element is associated with the previous element, the Demand for Purity. The Cult of Confession is a mode of open confession in front of the leader and is often in front of the group. It is intended to expose and rid the member of those impurities that the group so labels. What it amounts to, however, is open self-degradation. This leads to exploitation of the member’s vulnerabilities. Under normal and appropriate circumstances, personal confession is therapeutic. In this situation, however, certain actions, weaknesses, thoughts and feelings are labeled as sinful and impure when, in fact, they are not. The member may even be pressured into confessing crimes that he or she has not committed.
A totalist group assumes to have a type of ownership of a person’s inner self. The member, consequently, views confession as a means of oneness with the group, and as a necessary means toward betterment of himself or herself. Fellow group members who confess as well, may also take on the role of judges. Perpetual confession becomes a means of judging others: “the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you,” thus taking on the identity of “judge-penitent.” The goal of the totalist leadership in the exposure process is to eliminate any confidentiality about personal matters. But the effect is actually quite the opposite and creates an inner conflict: the more one engages in self-exposure and self-degradation, the desire to maintain and protect personal secrets is intensified.
-Summary & paraphrase of Dr. Lifton on Cult of Confession