How to Tell You’re in a Cult

It Turns Out Most of Us Are

This is a partial preview. Get the ebook at Amazon or Lulu for $1.99 © 2021 Ben Gibran (all rights reserved)


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 were often called ‘cults’ by the media; but cults can take the form of families, schools, teen gangs, political parties, self-help programs, 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 book 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 in this guide, 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 or social 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 in some jurisdictions) 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 in the next chapter, 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.



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) Leaders teach that non-members are morally suspect, unintelligent, or unenlightened.

7) Recruiting new group members is a mandatory activity, perhaps with a quota.

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, condescension, 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.

This is a partial preview. Get the ebook at Lulu © 2021 Ben Gibran (all rights reserved)

Disclaimer: The contents of this work are solely the personal opinion of the author and are not intended to be a substitute for expert advice, counselling, therapy or treatment of any kind. The author assumes no responsibility for errors, omissions or contrary interpretations of the content or any works cited herein. There is no guarantee of validity or accuracy. Any perceived slight of specific persons or organizations is unintentional. If expert advice or counselling is needed, services of a competent professional should be sought. The author assumes no responsibility or liability and specifically disclaims any warranty, express or implied for any techniques or practices described herein. The reader of this work assumes responsibility for the use of these materials and information.


Ben Gibran writes on the social science of communication. His work has appeared in Essays in Philosophy, Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, The Philosopher, Science and Philosophy, The Innovation, Invisible Pillar, Curious, Environmental Ideas, the Washington Examiner, and Straits Times; and has been cited in American Literary History, Foreign Policy Analysis, ISOJ: The Official Research Journal of the International Symposium on Online Journalism, and TXT: Exploring the Boundaries of the Book. Ben holds an MA (1st Class Honors) from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, and a BA (Honors) in Philosophy from the University of Leeds, where he was a Tetley and Lupton Scholar.

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

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