How to Tell if You’re in a Cult

It Turns Out Most of Us Are

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Photo by Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

In 1995, followers of a religion called Aum Shinrikyo released poison gas in the Tokyo subway. The attack left 12 dead and 75 critically ill. In 1997, 39 members of an American UFO group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide, believing they would be reincarnated as a higher life-form. In 1978, followers of the People’s Temple gave cyanide poison to their own children, before taking it themselves. 914 people died that day, including 276 children.

These groups are often called ‘cults’ by the media; but cults can take the form of families, schools, teen gangs, political parties, self-improvement clubs, and even workplaces, if they use the same techniques as Heaven’s Gate and the People’s Temple to change beliefs and motivations.

Cults can be subtle in their indoctrination methods, yet highly effective in controlling members. Most families are classic examples, though largely of the more benign or even beneficial sort. We can’t avoid indoctrinating our children to some extent, but most of us (hopefully) allow them to think for themselves eventually. Cults don’t. They relate to members pretty much the way parents do to their kids, and recruits often end up behaving accordingly.

For too long, cults have been labelled a ‘problem’ only when they turn violent, or severely damage members’ lives. Not that the damage isn’t significant. For every media story about cult violence, there are thousands of unreported victims who sacrifice their time, energy, money, relationships, and even mental health to cults.

The basic problem is that cults often impair our ability to make balanced decisions, because they exploit our vulnerability to situational influences. Suppose you pass a used-car lot on the way to work, and the salesman persuades you to buy a car when you’re not looking for one. You drive away happy with the bargain, but as the miles roll by, it gradually dawns that buying a car wasn’t a good idea.

You can’t afford the gas and insurance, don’t own a garage and walk ten minutes to work. The car is turning into a money pit. You realize the salesman used psychological techniques to get you to overlook the negatives and see the car as a better deal than it really is. Your initial happiness turns to regret. You resolve to avoid slick salesmen in future, so you’ll make better decisions.

You’ve been the victim of situational influences: the door gift that put you in a good (and more receptive) mood, the salesman’s winning smile, his flattering remarks about your good judgement, his constant flow of talk that never gives you time to think, his unceasing emphasis on the positives, and simple techniques like ‘dropping’ the (over-inflated) price so you felt you had a bargain. The salesman behaved much like a cult, with one big difference. Once he’d made his sale, he left you alone. He ‘switched off’ the situational influences, allowing you to regain your objectivity (albeit too late). Cults don’t.

Cults are potentially harmful because they manipulate situational variables to exert a high degree of control over members. Involvement in a cult can disrupt a member’s education, career, finances, social life, or family ties. Extreme cults are able to persuade members to cause harm or break the law.

The techniques used by cults are also exploited in a wide range of less extreme settings. This article aims to raise awareness of the effects of situational influences on decision-making, regardless of their origin. Much like a vaccine, foreknowledge of these factors (coupled with vigilance) increases your immunity to them, and your ability to make more objective decisions.

The warning signs of cult activity are outlined below, along with advice on how to help cult members and ex-members. The aim is not to cast judgement on particular groups, but to help readers make well-informed decisions for themselves.

Not all cults are religious groups (and not all religious groups are cults). Some promote political causes, pseudo-therapies, or multi-level marketing schemes. A cult can be an abusive family (or even just an overbearing partner), a circle of ‘friends’, a teen gang, a military or quasi-military organization, even your workplace. No one joins a group thinking it’s a cult. By the time they find out, it’s often too late.

It’s always unproductive (not to mention legally problematic) to label any specific existing group a ‘cult’. Rather than resort to name-calling, we should focus on identifying situational influences wherever they crop up, and avoid extreme ones altogether. To help you identify a potential cult, the main features are listed below, in contrast to mainstream groups that are less open to abuse. The difference is a matter of degree, and it’s best to err on the side of caution. The biggest mistake anyone can make is thinking they’re not vulnerable.

If a group clearly displays three or more cult features, it’s advisable to give it a miss. Deciding that a group is a cult is a decision you can make only for yourself, not for someone else. There is a degree of subjectivity to it, one person’s ‘cult’ is someone else’s ‘support group’. What we can do is educate others about the general features of cults, and let them connect the dots on their own.

CULTS AND NON-CULT GROUPS: THE DIFFERENCE

Cults:

1) Leaders demand unquestioning and unconditional obedience from members.

2) Leaders are not accountable to anyone else, their deliberations are secret.

3) The same leader has been running the group since it started, or leadership has passed to family or confidants.

4) Members who leave are harassed, or emotionally blackmailed.

5) Members are kept from forming relationships outside the group.

6) Non-members are regarded as morally suspect.

7) Recruiting new members is a mandatory activity.

8) Members are required to spend most of their time on group activities.

9) Members have to consult group leaders on even minor decisions.

10) Members have to give large sums of money to the group.

Non-cult groups:

I. Leadership is open to questioning and criticism from members, and takes account of their views.

II. There are checks on the abuse of power, through elections, external audits, or open meetings.

III. There have been several changes of leadership through established procedures.

IV. Members are free to leave the group without undue pressure to return.

V. Members are free to mix with family and friends outside the group.

VI. Non-members are not viewed with suspicion or hostility.

VII. Members are not required to recruit others.

VIII. The group’s activities leave time for work, family and a social life outside the group.

IX. Members make their own decisions, guided by broad principles.

X. The group does not demand large donations from members.

COMMON CULT TYPES

Each type uses a different form of indoctrination

Religious cults are the ones that probably spring to mind when we think ‘cult’. However, not all religious groups are cults. Religious cults shape their teachings and practices around controlling members via 1) to 10) above, to facilitate recruitment and indoctrination. They are cults first, religions second.

Meditation cults induce dissociative states through trances, chanting, or fasting. When taken to extremes, such activities increase suggestibility to indoctrination. To be less vulnerable, avoid extreme forms of meditation, particularly intensive multi-day ‘retreats’.

Political cults aim to change public policy, sometimes through illegal acts. Such groups tend to prize loyalty to leaders above everything else. Maintaining a mental separation between loyalty to a cause and loyalty to persons helps to counter the influence of political cults.

Self-improvement cults promote secular therapies, including motivational training, addiction counselling, or stress relief. Methods employed range from self-hypnosis to group therapy involving open confession and peer criticism. Unlike legitimate self-help groups, such cults induce dependence, leading to long-term fee-paying membership. Therapy cults tend to be secretive about their methods and expect members to recruit others. It’s advisable to avoid groups that fit this profile.

Gangs recruit young people in their teens to early twenties, the most vulnerable age group for cult recruitment. At this stage in life, we’re often searching for identity and meaning, and have a strong desire for peer approval.

Families are the oldest and most common cults of all. Being a parent is like having your own little personal cult, with your children as disciples. Most parents loosen the reins as kids grow, but some families maintain a cult-like grip on kin into adult life. This can harm members in psychologically or physically abusive families, or even partners in dysfunctional relationships. It helps to maintain a mental and physical separation between your personal and family lives, to insulate yourself against harmful influence from domineering kinfolk.

Workplaces don’t turn up on most lists of cults, but many employers adopt the same methods as cults to enhance staff loyalty and ‘productivity’. We often invest too much of our selves in professional relationships distorted by the bottom line. Many of us only realize it when we lose our jobs, and feel suddenly empty. As with families, it helps to maintain a social life outside and a sense of perspective to insulate yourself emotionally from office politics.

Ad-hoc cults are informal groups such as friends, clubs, fraternities, peers, colleagues, communities — any social or professional setting where authority figures or peers may use psychological techniques to control members. Balanced decision-making calls for alertness at all times to situational influences. Learn to constantly weigh your beliefs and attitudes against such influences, to avoid making decisions you might later regret.

WHO’S VULNERABLE?

We tend to think of cults as fringe groups full of eccentric ‘nutters’. In fact, most cult members start off as ordinary people, and only start behaving strangely after joining a cult. Cult recruits are often highly educated, successful, and idealistic. Through psychological manipulation, cults can turn such people into dysfunctional individuals who may harm themselves or others.

The two most important defenses against cults are a vigilant awareness of our own vulnerability, and knowledge of the methods used by cults to recruit and indoctrinate. Anyone is vulnerable to cult recruitment, but we tend to be most vulnerable when feeling lonely or insecure. We may feel this way when moving into a new environment such as a city, university or workplace. Major life crises such as divorce, unemployment, bereavement, or addiction may also trigger such feelings.

Cults tend to target people whom they know to be vulnerable, and therefore likely to develop an emotional dependence on the group. Young people in their teens to early twenties are particularly susceptible, as they are often searching for identity and meaning, and have a strong desire for peer approval.

However, vulnerability to recruitment is determined more by the situation we’re in than by any inherent tendency. We can reduce our vulnerability to cult recruitment by building a network of emotional support, instead of just relying on one group or individual. When moving into a new environment, it helps to stay in touch with those left behind. Tempting as it may be, avoid committing yourself to anything out of fear of being rejected.

Don’t feel you have to confide your most personal thoughts or feelings to someone unless you’re sure they will treat you with respect and discretion. Confiding in someone tends to create an emotional bond, which cults will exploit. Some cult recruiters will confide in someone to get them to reciprocate, so don’t feel obliged to respond to such overtures.

RECRUITMENT

Cults usually rely on their members to recruit others. The two main avenues of recruitment are open meetings and personal contacts. Open meetings are usually advertised as lectures, seminars, or informal gatherings to which the public are invited, with no hint of their real purpose. The advertised topic may have something to do with self-improvement, spirituality, or politics, aimed at drawing the most open-minded or idealistic.

The event will often feature an inspirational talk, aimed at whipping up strong emotions in the audience, to render them more suggestible. ‘Spontaneous’ occurrences, from cheering in the audience to apparent psychic phenomena, may be orchestrated to create the right mood. At such meetings, visitors are approached by cult members, who will take down their contact details and encourage them to attend further meetings.

Potential recruits are often invited to such meetings by friends who are in the cult, and personal relationships are a highly effective avenue for recruitment. We tend to view a group more favorably if a friend is in it. To begin with, invitees are asked to make small commitments. These may involve giving contact details, participating in ‘ice-breaker’ activities, or attending an introductory course or camp. Small commitments are easier to make, and harder to reject without seeming unreasonable or prejudiced.

By gradually increasing the level of commitment, cults are able to build up a recruit’s emotional dependence on the group. Once involved, recruits are reluctant to back out of something they have invested effort in. This reluctance gives rise to ‘effort-justification’, in which they will persuade themselves to remain in the cult and overlook its faults, in order to justify their sacrifices. Recruits also fear losing the relationships they’ve built up in the cult.

INDOCTRINATION

New recruits are given a warm and affectionate welcome in a practice called ‘love bombing’, but the friendliness cools down at any sign of disobedience. Cults exploit our natural desire to conform to the group and not be the ‘odd one out’. Lonely people tend to be recruited because they’re more vulnerable to such exploitation. Once recruited, members are usually discouraged from building relationships outside the cult, thus increasing their emotional dependence on the group.

Cults can also create emotional dependence by undermining members’ self-esteem (for example, through ‘self-criticism’ sessions) and then insisting that they need the group’s help to re-build their confidence. Outsiders are viewed with hostility or suspicion, alienating former friends and family. Members would be expected to devote increasingly more time to the cult, which becomes a surrogate family.

The head of the cult ‘family’ is usually a charismatic authority figure, modeled on familiar ones such as clergymen, teachers, counselors, ‘experts’, and even parents. We are more likely to obey an authority figure than someone we regard as an equal. This flows from our natural acceptance of authority in social arrangements. The influence of an authority figure is quickly undermined by visible disobedience. Hence, cult leaders tend to be intolerant of any open questioning or criticism.

Cults put recruits through a process of disorientation and depersonalization to soften them up for indoctrination. Disorientation heightens our suggestibility, by disrupting normal thought processes. Cults can disorientate recruits through intense emotional experiences, mind-numbing activities, confusing instructions, physical exhaustion, and/or hunger. Disorientation is sometimes enhanced by taking recruits to a remote ‘retreat’, where they are cut off from family and friends for a few days.

Depersonalization is an attempt to undermine a recruit’s individuality, so as to induce conformity to the group. Cults try to depersonalize recruits by imposing restrictive rules, getting recruits to renounce their ‘former selves’, undermining their self-esteem, addressing them as groups rather than individuals, or otherwise suppressing independent thoughts and personalities. Depersonalization exploits our natural desire to fit in with those around us.

Cult leaders usually try to promote conformity through ‘groupthink’. The term was coined by psychologist Irving Janis, to describe conditions that lead normal people to make abnormal collective decisions. Groups which prize unanimity highly tend to practice self-censorship, in which individuals don’t reveal their true beliefs for fear of rejection. Silence is interpreted as agreement, and the group tends to gravitate to more extreme views as each member assumes the others are more radical.

The most common levers of control in cults are guilt and fear of rejection. Cult members are usually held up to an impossible ideal, and encouraged to participate in group confessions, where members share their ‘failings’ in reaching the ideal. Cult leaders are exempted from confession, and portray themselves as being closest to the ideal. Group confessions create a sense of personal inadequacy, which members try to make up for by increasing their commitment. They feel morally obliged to remain in the cult, since outsiders are portrayed in negative terms.

Cults exploit the fear of rejection by isolating members from the outside world socially or physically, and making an example of those who are expelled or disciplined. Members are constantly reminded of the dire consequences of deviating from the cult’s teachings. Cult leaders often give contradictory teachings, so that members are unable to use the teachings to make independent decisions or judge the leaders’ own actions. Instead, out of fear of doing the wrong thing, members follow the leaders’ instructions from one moment to the next without question.

THE CULT MIND-CONTROL TOOL BOX

Cults exploit a few basic human weaknesses. Knowing these can help you resist manipulation:

Effort justification. The more we sacrifice time and effort on a belief, the greater our desire to defend it. Psychologists call this tendency ‘effort-justification’. In one experiment on effort-justification by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, volunteers underwent either a mild or severe initiation ceremony to join the same activity. The volunteers who got in the hard way rated the activity more highly.

Cults promote effort-justification by getting members to sacrifice their self-esteem, relationships, time, energy, and/or money for the cult. Members will then block out critical thoughts and view the cult positively, to justify their efforts. Effort-justification may be reinforced by hostility and ridicule from outsiders, which members are often exposed to when trying to recruit others.

Authority figures. These are a standard fixture in cults. In a famous experiment in 1961, the psychologist Stanley Milgram found that when asked to do so by an experimenter, most volunteers were willing to give very severe electric shocks to a total stranger (really an actor pretending to be ‘shocked’). Milgram found that when the volunteers were allowed to choose the voltage, most stopped at the lowest levels. He concluded that the experimenter, representing an authority figure, was able to override the conscience of most volunteers. Cult authority figures are even more compelling, because they can manipulate feelings of guilt and fear to induce obedience.

Group conformity. Cults exploit our desire to conform to the group. To test group conformity, a Stanford University research team led by Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison, recruited 24 volunteers and divided them randomly into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’. The experimenters set initial conditions promoting disorientation and depersonalization, such as different uniforms for the two groups, and the use of numbers in place of names for prisoners. ‘Guards’ were allowed to run the prison as they saw fit.

The results were unexpected. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘guards’ quickly internalized their roles, with ‘guards’ behaving sadistically and ‘prisoners’ accepting ill treatment. The experiment was abruptly cancelled to prevent psychological harm to the ‘prisoners’. Cults use similar methods as the Stanford prison experiment to induce conformity in recruits through intense collective role-playing.

Compliant states. A compliant state is a frame of mind which is more open to suggestion. Cults can induce compliance by undermining members’ self-esteem through confessions, fault-finding, and/or disorientation. People with low self-esteem are more receptive to messages that are inherently unconvincing, because they put less trust in their own opinions and more in those of others.

Cults can also induce compliance through dissociative states, in which someone is not fully conscious of what’s going on. Virtually everyone experiences brief dissociative states, when ‘day dreaming’ or more severely, after an emotional shock. Dissociative states can be induced by extended meditation, hypnosis, chanting, intense emotions, fatigue, and/or fear. Cults can also induce dissociation by repeatedly pressuring members to do things they don’t fully agree with. Members may adapt to such pressure by blocking out thoughts and messages that conflict with their actions, sometimes resulting in an apparent ‘split personality’.

IF YOU THINK SOMEONE IS IN A CULT

DO question them in a casual and non-hostile way to find out if they’ve really joined a cult.

DON’T assume they’ve joined a cult simply because they’ve changed their beliefs.

DO identify and research the cult, so that you will be better informed to discuss it with them.

DON’T try to talk them out of the cult without knowing much, your ignorance may alienate them.

DO encourage them to discuss their beliefs with you, but gently lead them to think critically about the cult’s teachings.

DON’T ridicule, scold or reject them for their beliefs, this may reinforce their dependence on the cult for emotional support.

DO read and critically discuss any literature they give you from the cult; mix positive and critical comments to win them over.

DON’T accompany them to cult meetings, the cult may harass you or try to turn your loved one against you.

DO get them involved in groups outside the cult, to provide an alternative social life and source of meaning.

DON’T invite their friends from the cult into your social life, this could make it harder for your loved one to leave the cult.

DO encourage them to talk to a more experienced person such as a counselor or psychiatrist.

DON’T try to ‘deprogram’ them by coercive or confrontational means, which could be illegal or psychologically harmful.

DO, if they choose to leave, prepare them (and yourself) for the emotional trauma they will likely experience.

DON’T expect them to bounce back to their ‘old selves’ after leaving, most ex-members will need time to adjust and may have long-term issues.

LEAVING A CULT

Members who leave a cult may experience psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety. Cults often have nothing more to do with members who leave, after trying to persuade them unsuccessfully to return. Former members may have trouble adjusting to this loss of fellowship.

They may also experience ‘anomie’, a loss of meaning in life which had previously been fulfilled by the cult. Ex-members will need to work out a new belief system, and separate their core beliefs from the cultic teachings that were used to indoctrinate them.

Anger is a common emotion, and ex-members may need to be steered away from confronting the cult. Many ex-members suffer loss of confidence, particularly if they feel responsible for their own predicament. They need reminding that cult members are victims of circumstance, and anyone is vulnerable to cult recruitment. Above all, ex-members need reassurance that the distressing emotions they feel are normal and transient.

At this stage, former cult members would welcome opportunities to build new relationships and explore other lifestyles. However, some former members may try to transfer their dysfunctional cult relationships (such as over-dependence on an authority figure) to family or friends. To aid recovery, it would be best to steer such relationships gently towards a normal pattern.

Cults often try to persuade former members to return, under the guise of ‘keeping in touch’. A complete break is advisable for full recovery. Maintaining contact tends to result in an unsatisfactory outcome, because cults don’t want former members to feel happy outside the group.

Those who leave are usually subjected to emotional blackmail, intended to create a crisis in which they have to choose between total separation or rejoining the cult. It may feel rude to break off relationships, but bear in mind that cults often think nothing of throwing non-conforming members out.

MEMBERS WHO LEAVE MAY FEEL …

Lost. Cults provide a sense of purpose which former members may find difficult to replace. However, the search for new meaning can be exciting and rewarding. It may help to get back in touch with pre-cult interests.

Lonely. Cults provide instant fellowship, which fades away just as quickly. Former members may need to lower expectations from new relationships, while learning to exercise a measure of trust.

Insecure. Cults may undermine a member’s self-esteem in order to promote emotional dependence. Former members need assurance of their intrinsic self-worth, in a realistic perspective.

Guilty. Ex-members may have developed a guilt complex while in the cult, or later blame themselves for joining. They will need to find a balance between self-forgiveness and taking responsibility for actions.

Angry. Anger at the cult is a normal reaction, but it should not be allowed to result in loss of self-control or pointless revenge. Instead, anger can be channeled into a desire to recover. The best revenge is living well.

Anxious. Ex-members will have concerns about rebuilding their lives, and some may fear reprisals from the cult. A change of address may help with security concerns. Rebuilding is a gradual process, making a ‘to-do’ list and ticking off each accomplishment helps give a sense of progress.

Depressed. Depression is often the result of unresolved feelings such as those above. Identifying and tackling the causes will aid long-term recovery. In the short-term, a proper diet, adequate sleep, regular exercise, and opportunities to talk to someone all help. Keeping a ‘gratitude diary’ of positive things that happen each day may help to counter-balance negative thinking.

STAYING OUT OF CULTS

We can be less vulnerable to cults by taking a few simple steps:

Be suspicious of strangers who appear over-friendly or unusually helpful. They may be genuine, but it pays to be on your guard. Don’t let them find out your contact details, especially where you live (for example, by offering to drive you to or from home).

Familiarize yourself with the list of cult features in this article. Keep a screenshot of it on your cellphone for easy reference. Before joining a group, check if it has such features and if it does, avoid it.

Neutral friends should accompany you if you choose to attend an open meeting. Do not allow yourselves to be separated. Compare notes after the meeting as a reality check. Do not immediately assume that ‘spontaneous’, ‘coincidental’ or ‘miraculous’ events at the meeting are genuine.

Do not participate in extended activities involving hypnosis, meditation, chanting, fasting, sleep or rest deprivation, group confessions, or other disorienting practices, unless you’re willing to bear the risks.

Avoid long retreats involving such activities. When going on a retreat, find out what activities are scheduled. Make sure you can leave early if you have to. Some cults take recruits to remote locations so they can’t leave easily by themselves.

Do not commit to anything straight away, always ask for a day to think it over by yourself. Be prepared to break off a commitment or relationship if you feel you’re being emotionally blackmailed. You may not feel good about doing it, but it isn’t good to be manipulated either.

CONCLUSION

A gray area exists between cults and mainstream groups. As a result, attempts to legislate against cults have been opposed in many countries as restricting freedom of religion or other civil liberties. Similar objections have been raised against families or friends ‘deprogramming’ cult members by coercive means, such as detaining them against their will.

Cults exploit freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly to openly recruit in the streets, on campuses, and through public meetings. Cultic practices are a feature of daily life in any open society. Our only protection against abusive groups is a recognition of our own vulnerability, and public awareness of the hidden agendas that cults often have.

Many cult leaders have personality disorders, such as paranoia or megalomania. These problems tends to worsen in a cult environment, in which followers are constantly mirroring the leader’s own beliefs. The leader’s growing delusions feed back into the cult, taking it further to an extreme and perhaps violent end.

This cycle of violence is a recurring pattern, leading to mass suicides in the People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate, and mass murders by Aum Shinrikyo and other extreme cults. For each atrocity that makes the headlines, there are many cases of cult abuse that go unreported.

The responsibility for keeping people out of cults rests with each of us. Without being judgmental, we can warn others of the potential dangers of cultic manipulation. We can encourage local educational institutions to include a cult awareness program in orientation week, since cults often recruit on campuses. Without a more critical and discerning public attitude to cults, extreme elements will continue to ensnare the unwary, sometimes with devastating consequences for all involved.

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Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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