How do I recognise a cult?

In todays wacky world it pays to be very careful. With the enormous increase in 'weird and wonderful' groups of every kind, it is perfectly rational and reasonable for people to be sceptical.

The inevitable question arises to many intelligent people - How do you recognise a cult?

Important note: The first thing that a cult will certainly not have is a formal code of ethics with an official grievance process. Click here to see our groups very strict code of ethics. For the most part there are significant differences between genuine spiritual discipline and abusive cultlike behaviour. However, in some areas there are fine lines between legitimate spiritual discipline and abuse and it is these areas that abusers use to trick their followers. They use the fact that the best lie is 99% truth in order to justify their abusive behaviour. I hope that the following information helps you to be able to discern the differences between abusive control and genuine models of personal/spiritual growth without paranoia and ignorance.

It is important to understand what constitutes a cult so as to be able to recognise cult like behaviour. Therefore we offer this information in the hope that it expands your understanding and awareness.

Cults: Are you or a family member a victim?

You know, people have a tendency to attack anything they do not understand, and people also tend to label anything they do not understand a ‘cult’. Of course, the problem with the word 'cult' is that it means different things to different people.

The dictionary description of a cult is as follows:

Adherents of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices or a system of religious beliefs and rituals........ now that could describe every religion on the planet, so we need to be a little clearer than that.

Then there is the generally accepted behavioural definition of a cult which is as follows:

An organisation that uses intensive indoctrination techniques to recruit and maintain members into a totalist ideology..... now that is a more realistic definition.

Intensive indoctrination techniques include:

1) Subjection to stress and fatigue
2) Social disruption, isolation and pressure
3) Self criticism and humiliation
4) Fear, anxiety and paranoia
5) Control of information
6) Escalating commitment
7) Use of auto-hypnosis to induce 'peak' experiences

Totalism is defined by psychiatrist Robert Lifton as the tendency to view the world in terms of 'all or nothing' alignments. Psychologists detail eight 'psychological themes' that can be found in totalist groups:

  • A 'sacred science' -- an ideology that is held to be true for all people at all times. This ideology generally claims to be inspired and scientific at the same time.
  • 'Milieu control,' the control of human communication, not only over our communications with others, but also with ourselves.
  • 'Mystical manipulation' -- including deception and 'planned spontaneity' which seeks limit self-expression and independent action.
  • The demand for purity, the notion that absolute purity exists, and that anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.
  • 'The cult of confession' -- "There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that artificially induced, in the name of a cure that arbitrarily imposed."
  • 'Loading the language' -- redefinition of language, with an emphasis on moral polarization, and thought terminating clichés.
  • 'Doctrine over person' -- the subordination of personal experiences to the doctrines of the sacred science.
  • 'Dispensing of existence' -- the doctrine that the group can decide who has the right to exist, and who does not.

In other words, the cult manipulates the environment to 'set up' the recruit to trap him or herself in a black and white mindset.

I could certainly not give you a list of all the groups or organisations that do or do not meet these criteria, and I'd be real suspicious of anyone who said they could.

The ‘religious’ view of a cult is one major angle on cults and for the sake of impartiality, both the religious and the ‘psychological’ view of a cult must be considered.

We begin firstly with the religious view!

There has been much confusion about cults and how to determine one within a religious context.

Let’s not pretend that it is easy to determine a cult. Only the extremely ‘self righteous’ and prejudiced would feel themselves fit to jump to a hasty judgment without serious and sincere observation and enquiry. For this reason, over the years, different definitions of what actually is a cult have developed to make it easier when you know little about their beliefs.

The different definitions:


CULT - From the Latin "cultis" which denotes all that is involved in worship, ritual, emotion, liturgy and attitude. This definition actually denotes what we call denominations and sects and would make all religious movements a cult.


CULT - Any group which deviates from Biblical, orthodox, historical Christianity. e.i. They deny the Deity of Christ; His physical resurrection; His personal and physical return to earth and salvation by FAITH alone.

This definition only covers those groups which are cults within the Christian religion. It does not cover cults within other world religions such as Islam and Hinduism. Nor does it cover Psychological, Commercial or Educational cults which do not recognize the Bible as a source of reality.


CULT - Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to Happiness etc, and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.

This definition covers cults within all major world religions, along with those cults which have no OBVIOUS religious base such as commercial, educational and psychological cults. Others may define these a little differently, but this is the simplest to work from.


A group is called a cult because of their behavior - not their doctrines. Doctrine is an issue in the area of Apologetics and Heresy. Most religious cults do teach what the Christian church would declare to be heresy but some do not. Some cults teach the basics of the Christian faith but have behavioral patterns that are abusive, controlling and cultic.

This occurs in both Non-Charismatic and Charismatic churches. These groups teach the central doctrines of the Christian faith and then add the extra authority of leadership or someone's particular writings. They centre around the interpretations of the leadership and submissive and unquestioning acceptance of these is essential to be a member of good standing. This acceptance includes what we consider non-essential doctrines e.i. not salvation issues (such as the Person and Work of Christ.) The key is that they will be using mind control or undue influence on their members.

Using these guidelines of definition, Bible-based, Psychological, Educational and Commercial aberrations can easily be identified.


(a) The group will have an ELITIST view of itself in relation to others, and a UNIQUE CAUSE. e.i. THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES RIGHT - everyone else is wrong. THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES DOING GOD'S WILL - everyone else is in apostasy.

(b) They will promote their cause actively, and in doing so, abuse God-given personal rights and freedoms. This abuse can be THEOLOGICAL, SPIRITUAL, SOCIAL & PSYCHOLOGICAL.


1. Their leader/s may claim a special, exclusive ministry, revelation or position of authority given by God.

2. They believe they are the only true church and take a critical stance regarding the Christian church while at the same time praising and exalting their own group, leader/s and work.

3. They use intimidation or psychological manipulation to keep members loyal to their ranks. This could be in the form of threats of dire calamity sent by God if they leave; certain death at Armageddon; being shunned by their family and friends etc. This is a vital part of the mind control process.

4. Members will be expected to give substantial financial support to the group. This could be compulsory tithing (which is checked); signing over all their property on entering the group; coercive methods of instilling guilt on those who have not contributed; selling magazines, flowers or other goods for the group as part of their "ministry".

At the same time bible-based cults may ridicule churches that take up free-will offerings by passing collection plates and/or sell literature and tapes. They usually brag that they don't do this. This gives outsiders the intimation that they are not interested in money.

5. There will be great emphasis on loyalty to the group and its teachings. The lives of members will be totally absorbed into the group's activities. They will have little or no time to think for themselves because of physical and emotional exhaustion. This is also a vital part of the mind control process.

6. There will be total control over almost all aspects of the private lives of members. This control can be direct through communal living, or constant and repetitious teaching on "how to be a true Christian" or "being obedient to leadership". Members will look to their leaders for guidance in everything they do.

7. Bible-based cults may proclaim they have no clergy/laity distinction and no paid ministry class - that they are all equal.

8. Any dissent or questioning of the group's teachings is discouraged. Criticism in any form is seen as rebellion. There will be an emphasis on authority, unquestioning obedience and submission. This is vigilantly maintained.

9. Members are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the group in some way. This could be in the form of "dobbing" on fellow members (including family) under the guise of looking out for their "spiritual welfare".

They may be required to deliberately lie (heavenly deception) or give up their lives by refusing some form of medical treatment.

10. Attempts to leave or reveal embarrassing facts about the group may be met with threats. Some may have taken oaths of loyalty that involve their lives or have signed a "covenant" and feel threatened by this.

Refugees of the group are usually faced with confrontations by other members with coercion to get them to return to the group.



They adopt a "groupness" mentality. They are not permitted to think for themselves apart from the group and only accept what they are told.


Relationships with friends, relatives, spouses, children, parents etc are broken or seriously hampered.


Pressure to give all you can to the group. In non-communal groups, members usually live at the lower socio-economic strata, not because of a lower income level, but because they are always giving money to the group for some reason.


Isolation from the community in general. Anyone and everything outside the group is seen as "of the devil" or "unenlightened" etc. Their enemies now include former friends; the Christian church; governments; education systems; the media - the world in general. Those who are involved with these in any way see such involvement as a "means to an end".


The group controls and uses almost all the members time and energy in group activities. They are usually in a constant state of mental and physical exhaustion.


They must unquestioning submit to the groups teachings and directions and their own free will is broken. Their "will" actually becomes the groups "will" without their realizing it. This is done either by coercive methods including low protein diets and lack of sleep, or over a period of time through intimidation. Both methods make heavy use of "guilt".

You may also like to view my article on Spiritual and Spiritual sexual abuse here.



Relatives will say they no longer recognise the person.

From a warm, loving personality will come heaped abuse, rejection and feelings of hate. The cult member sees himself as "righteous" in comparison and this comes across in their attitude toward all outsiders. Personality change for the better, eg: giving up addictions and other self defeating behaviours may sometimes be seen by relative as undesirable changes in personality however any reasonable person is able to differentiate between positive and negatve personality change.


They cannot see themselves as individuals apart from the group. Some even change their name as a rejection of their former life.


Any time you say anything negative about the group, whether justified or no, it is regarded as "persecution". Any criticism of the individual is also seen as persecution only because they are the "true Christian" or "enlightened" one - not because they, as an individual, have done the wrong thing. However, at the same time they will feel free to criticise whatever you believe, say and do because they are "the only ones who are right".


They lose their ability to socialise outside the group. This can go so far as to not being able to structure their time or make simple decisions for themselves when they leave.

Their world-view alters and they perceive the world through their leaders eyes. They become very naive about life in general.


They are made to feel guilty of everything they did before entering the group and are to strive to be "good" and "worthy" for "eternal life". Misdemeanors are made into "mountains" so that members are in a constant state of guilt for infringing even the most minor rules. Guilt comes because they aren't doing enough; entertaining doubts or questions; even thinking rationally for oneself.

This guilt is piled upon pile with new rules constantly being laid down about what is sinful and what is not. Illness may be seen as lack of faith - more guilt. Emotional illness may be seen as proof of sin in your life - more guilt.


Not all these points will be found in every cult, but all cults will have some if not most of them, although these may vary to some degree.

The ‘scientific’ or ‘psychological’ view of a cult is a little different as follows

Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. Because this and related definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform. Although there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterised by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult. Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.

The concept "cult," as with other concepts (e.g., "right wing," "left wing"), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one's disposal. The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype. It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.

Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific "test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a "cult."

Such analyses sometimes result in the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not necessarily cults. A new age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or psychologically harmful practices. A church may harm some believers because its pastor is domineering and abusive. A psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn't adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of intentions, induce false memories in clients. These are all examples of individual harm related to interpersonal influence. They are all examples of situations that might understandably arouse the concern of the harmed person's family and of AFF. But these situations are not necessarily "cult" situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the concept "cult." On the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults, further investigation of such cases may reCosmosis Academyl the presence of cultic dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should always be subject to reevaluation.

Even though the term "cult" has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitive manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.

The following statements, compiled by Dr. Michael Langone, editor of Cultic Studies Journal, often characterise manipulative groups. Comparing these statements to the group with which you or a family member is involved may help you determine if this involvement is cause for concern.

Keep in mind that this list is meant to stimulate thought, not "diagnose" groups.

You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.

The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).

The group has a polarised us- versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.

The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).

The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.

Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members

It is interesting to note, that dependent upon one’s predisposition, prejudices, ideologies, mindset and/or intention, it would be possible to label most military and religious organisations a ‘cult’. Many studies have concluded that organisations such as the ‘Marines’ suitably meet the criteria of a cult for instance.

Aren't the Marines a Cult by Your Definition?

Cults clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military, some types of sects and communes, and centuries-old Roman Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered. The differences become apparent when we examine the intensity and pervasiveness with which mind-manipulating techniques and deceptions are or are not applied.

Jesuit seminaries may isolate the seminarian from the rest of the world for periods of time, but the candidate is not deliberately deceived about the obligations and burdens of the priesthood. In fact, he is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do....

Mainstream religious organizations do not concentrate their search on the lonely and the vulnerable.... Nor do mainstream religions focus recruitment on wealthy believers who are seen as pots of gold for the church, as is the case with those cults who target rich individuals....

Military training and legitimate executive training programs may use the dictates of authority as well as peer pressure to encourage the adoption of new patterns of thought and behavior. They do not seek, however, to accelerate the process by prolonged or intense psychological depletion or by stirring up feelings of dread, guilt, and sinfulness....

And what is wrong with cults is not just that cults are secret societies. In our culture, there are openly recognized, social secret societies, such as the Masons, in which new members know up front that they will gradually learn the shared rituals of the group.... In [cults], there is deliberate deception about what the group is and what some of the rituals might be, and primarily, there is deception about what the ultimate goal will be for a member, what will ultimately be demanded and expected, and what the damages resulting from some of the practices might be. A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.

Evaluating Your Cult Involvement

Reviewing your recruitment:

What was going on in your life at the time you joined the group or met the person who became your abusive partner?
How and where were you approached?
What first interested you in the group or leader?
How were you misled during recruitment?
What did the group or leader promise you? Did you ever get it?
What didn't they tell you that might have influenced you not to join had you known?
Why did the group or leader want you?

Understanding the psychological manipulation used in your group:

Which controlling techniques were used by your group or leader: chanting, meditation, sleep deprivation, isolation, drugs, hypnosis, criticism, fear? List each technique and how it served the group's purpose.
What was the most effective? the least effective?
What technique are you still using that is hard to give up? Are you able to see any effects on you when you practice these?
What are the group's beliefs and values? How did they come to be your beliefs and values?

Examining your doubts:

What are your doubts about the group or leader now?
Do you still believe the group or leader has all or some of the answers?
Are you still afraid to encounter your leader or group members on the street?
Do you ever think of going back? What is going on in your mind when this happens?
Do you believe your group or leader has any supernatural or spiritual power to harm you in any way?
Do you believe you are cursed by God for having left the group?

What is a Cult?

The term cult is applied to a wide range of groups. There are historical cults, such as the cult of Isis, non-western cults studied by anthropologists, such as the Melanesian cargo cults, and a host of contemporary cults that have caught the public’s attention during the past fifteen years. Websters Third New International Dictionary (unabridged, 1966) provides several definitions of cult, among which are:

  • A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious... a minority religious group holding beliefs regarded as unorthodox or spurious.
  • A system for the cure of disease based on the dogma, tenets, or principles set forth by its promulgator to the exclusion of scientific experience or demonstration.
  • A great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing...the object of such devotion...a body of persons characterized by such devotion, for example, "America’s growing cult of home fixer-uppers."

These broad definitions do not accurately reflect the concerns generated by contemporary groups often regarded as cults. The following definition focuses these concerns.

Cult: a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include but are not limited to: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.

Contemporary cults, then, are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:

  • members’ excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group;
  • exploitative manipulation of members; and
  • harm or the danger of harm to members, their families and/or society.

Because cults tend to be leader-centered, exploitative, and harmful, they come into conflict with and are threatened by the more rational, open, and benevolent systems of members’ families and society at large. Some gradually accommodate to society by decreasing their levels of manipulation, exploitation, harm, and opposition. Others, however, harden their shells by becoming totalistic, elitist, and isolated. These groups tend to:

  • dictate--sometimes in great detail--how members should think, act, and feel;
  • claim a special, exalted status (for example, occult powers, a mission to save humanity) for themselves and/or their leaders; and
  • intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.

Because the capacity to exploit human beings is universal, a cult could arise in any kind of group. Most established groups, however, have accountability mechanisms that restrain the development of cultic subgroups. Some religious cult leaders, for example, began their careers in mainstream denominations from which they were ejected because of their cultic activities. Cults, then, are generally associated with newer, unorthodox groups, although not all new or unorthodox groups are cults.

According to this perspective a "new religious," "new psychotherapeutic," "new political," or other "new" movement differs from a cult in that the use of manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to exploit members is much more characteristic of the latter than the former "new movements." This distinction, though unfortunately ignored by many students of the subject, is important in order to avoid unfairly labeling benign new groups as cults and conversely, giving bona fide cults the undeserved respectability of terms such as "new religious movement."

The perspective put forth here focuses on the psychological processes, in contrast to some religiously based perspectives which focus on the doctrinal deviations of cults. According to this statement, a group may be deviant and heretical without necessarily being a cult.
What Types of Cults Exist?

Many systems for classifying cults have been advanced. A straightforward breakdown has been suggested by Dr. Margaret Singer, who observes the following types of cults:

  • eastern religious
  • Christian
  • Satanic
  • occult/witchcraft/voodoo
  • spiritualist
  • racist
  • Zen and Sino/Japanese philosophical-mystical
  • flying saucer and outer space
  • psychotherapy
  • mass therapy or transformational training
  • political
  • new age
  • commercial
  • communal/self-help

How Many Cults Exist and How Many Members Have They?

Cult educational organisations have compiled lists of more than 2,000 groups about which they have received inquiries. The frequency with which previously unheard-of groups may be new religious, political, psychotherapeutic, or other kinds of movements. Experience suggests, however, that a significant number, perhaps more than 1,000, are cults. Although the majority are small, some cults have tens of thousands of members.

Several research studies lend support to informal estimates that five to ten million Americans have been at least transiently involved with cultic groups. A study which randomly surveyed 1,000 San Francisco Bay Area high school students found that 3% of students reported that they were members of a cult group, while 54% reported at least one contact with a cult recruiter. Another study, which analyzed survey data from Montreal and San Francisco, found that approximately 20% of the adult population had participated in "new religious and para-religious movements," although more than 70% of the involvements were transient. Other data in this study suggest that approximately two to five percent of the subjects had participated in "new religious and para-religious" groups that are commonly considered cults.

Are Cults Limited to places like the United States?

Absolutely not. Grassroots cult educational organisations exist in more than 15 countries. Government-supported inquiries into cult activities have occurred in at least five countries. International Congresses on cultism have been held in Germany, Spain, and France. And in 1984 the European Parliament passed the "Cottrell Resolution," which called member states to pool their information about the "new organizations" as a prelude to developing "ways of ensuring the effective protection of Community citizens."
What is Mind Control?

Mind control (also referred to as "brainwashing," "coercive persuasion," "thought reform," and the "systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence") refers to a process in which a group or individual systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated.

Such methods include:

  • extensive control of information in order to limit alternatives from which members may make "choices";
  • deception;
  • group pressure;
  • intense indoctrination into a belief system that denigrates independent critical thinking and considers the world outside the group to be threatening, evil, or gravely in error;
  • an insistence that members’ distress—much of which may consist of anxiety and guilt subtly induced by the group—can be relieved only by conforming to the group;
  • physical and/or psychological debilitation through inadequate diet or fatigue;
  • the induction of dissociative (trance-like) states (via the misuse of meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, and other exercises) in which attention is narrowed, suggestibility heightened, and independent critical thinking weakened;
  • alternation of harshness/threats and leniency/love in order to effect compliance with the leadership’s wishes;
  • isolation from social supports; and
  • pressured public confessions;

Although the process by which cults come to exercise mind control over members is complex and varies a great deal, there appear to be three overlapping stages:

  • Deception. Recruits are duped into believing that the group is benevolent and will enrich their lives by, for example, advancing their spirituality or increasing their self-esteem and security. As a result of this deception and the systematic use of highly manipulative techniques of influence, recruits come to commit themselves to the group’s prescribed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting; in other words, they become members or converts.
  • Dependency. By gradually isolating members from outside influences, establishing unrealistically high and guilt-inducing expectations, punishing any expressions of "negativity," and denigrating independent, critical thinking, the group causes members to become extremely dependent on the group’s compliance-oriented expressions of love and support.
  • Dread. Once a state of dependency is firmly established, the group’s control over members’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior is strengthened by the members’ growing dread of losing the group’s psychological support (physical threat also occurs in some groups), however much it may aim at ensuring their compliance with leadership’s often debilitating demands.

Is Mind Control Different from the Ordinary Social Conditioning Employed by Parents and Social Institutions?

Yes. Ordinary social conditioning differs from mind control in two important ways. First, parents, schools, churches, and other organisations do not as a rule utilise unethically manipulative techniques in socializing children, adolescents, and young adults. Second, social conditioning is a slow process which promotes and encourages an initially "unformed" child to become an autonomous adult with a unique identity. Mind control, on the other hand, uses unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to induce dependency in a person with an established identity, which the manipulator seeks to alter radically without the informed consent of his targets.

The techniques with which a group or person seeks to influence another can be broken down into two categories:

1. Choice-respecting, which includes techniques that honor the autonomy of the person being influenced; and
compliance-gaining, which includes techniques (examples given in the previous answer) focused on obtaining a desired response, regardless of the needs, wishes, goals, etc., of the person being influenced. Choice-respecting techniques can be further broken down into educative and advisory techniques, while compliance-gaining techniques can be broken down into techniques of persuasion and control. A cult environment differs from a non-cult environment in that the former exhibits a much greater proportion of compliance-gaining techniques of persuasion and control.

In rearing children, it is often necessary -- and proper -- to use control and persuasion to protect them from danger and to help them grow up. As children grow into adults, however, they develop an identity and a sense of personal autonomy that demand respect.

Parents learn to surrender control as their children learn to assume responsibility. When this process of normal development breaks down, as when an adult becomes suicidally depressed, relatives and/or helping authorities will tend to become compliance-oriented and step into a "caretaker" role (possibly, in this case, commitment to a psychiatric hospital). When the crisis has passed, however, unwritten ethical rules require that the influencer return to a choice-respecting mode of relating to the adult.

In certain special situations, such as joining the army or joining religious orders, individuals choose to relinquish some of their autonomy. Unlike cult situations, these situations entail informed consent, do not seek to "transform" the person’s identity, and are contractual, rather than dependency-oriented. Furthermore, most of these situations involve groups that are accountable to society.

2. Cults, on the other hand, answer to no one as they flout the unwritten ethical laws by deceptively establishing a compliance-gaining relationship with individuals whose autonomy and identity they disregard. Hence, any similarities between a cult environment and boot camp, for example, are psychologically superficial.

Some cult apologists maintain that mind control doesn’t exist because most cult recruits don’t become members. These apologists often cite a study which reported that 10% of those completing a two-day workshop offered by a controversial group became members, while 5% remained members after two years. Those who did join, however, made major and rapid changes in their lives, for the group in question demands the total commitment of members’ time. In contrast, in the typical Billy Graham crusade, only 1%-3% of attending unbelievers (who have been personally evangelised to for months) come forward during the altar call, let alone modify their lives radically. And Billy Graham is considered to be one of the most effective evangelists in history! Persuading 10% of a group of people, who are largely recruited from the street, to become full-time missionaries within a matter of weeks reflects an astounding level of psychological influence!

Who Joins Cults and Why?

Contrary to a popular misconception that cult members are "crazy," research and clinical evidence strongly suggest that most cult members are relatively normal individuals, although about one-third appear to have had mild psychiatric disorders before joining. (It should be noted, however, that a recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 20% of the general population has at least one psychiatric disorder.)

Cult members include the young, the old, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, and the uneducated. There is no easily identifiable "type" of person who joins cults. Nevertheless, clinical experience and informal surveys indicate that a very large majority of cult joiners were experiencing significant stress (frequently related to normal crises of adolescence and young adulthood, such as romantic breakup, school failure, vocational confusion) prior to their cult conversion. Because their normal ways of coping were not working well for them, these stressed individuals were more open than usual to recruiters selling "roads to happiness."

Other factors that may render some persons susceptible to cultic influence include:

  • dependency (the desire to belong; lack of self-confidence);
  • unassertiveness (inability to say no or express criticism or doubt);
  • gullibility (impaired capacity to question critically what one is told, observes, thinks, etc.);
  • low tolerance for ambiguity (need for absolute answers, impatience to obtain answers);
  • cultural disillusionment (alienation, dissatisfaction with status quo);
  • naive idealism;
  • desire for spiritual meaning;
  • susceptibility to trance-like states (in some cases, perhaps, because of prior hallucinogenic drug experiences); and
  • ignorance of the ways in which groups can manipulate individuals.

When persons made vulnerable by one or more of these factors encounter a group which practices mind control, conversion may very well occur, depending upon how well the group’s doctrine, social environment, and mind control practices match the specific vulnerabilities of the recruits. Unassertive individuals, for instance, may be especially susceptible to the enticements of an authoritarian, hierarchical group because they are afraid to challenge the group’s dogmatic orientation.

Conversion to cults is not truly a matter of choice. Vulnerabilities do not merely "lead" individuals to a particular group. The group manipulates these vulnerabilities and deceives prospects in order to persuade them to join and, ultimately, renounce their old lives.

How Do People Who Join Cults Change?

After converts commit themselves to a cult, the cult’s way of thinking, feeling, and acting becomes second nature, while important aspects of their pre-cult personalities are suppressed or, in a sense, decay through disuse. New converts at first frequently appear to be shell-shocked by the bombardment of the cult’s mind controlling techniques. They may appear "spaced out," rigid and stereotyped in their responses, limited in their use of language, impaired in their ability to think critically, and oddly distant in their relationships with others. Parents have been known to say, "That’s not my kid!" Such observations account for the common contention that cult members are "zombies" or glassy-eyed "robots." Although this description is an overstatement, it does reflect the fact that intense cultic manipulations can trigger altered states of consciousness in some persons.

In time, converts seem to lose the tension and "spaced-out," distant quality. They learn techniques, such as chanting, to stifle doubts and to make it easier to lie to others and themselves. They often lose contact with people from their pre-cult lives as a result of the cult’s isolating opposition to parents and society. And they receive rewards for conforming to the demands of the group on which they have become so dependent.

If allowed to break into consciousness, suppressed memories or nagging doubts may generate anxiety which, in turn, may trigger a defensive trance-induction, such as speaking in tongues, to protect the cult-imposed system of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Such persons may function adequately—at least on a superficial level. Nevertheless, their continued adjustment depends on their keeping their old thinking styles, goals, values, and personal attachments "in storage." A normal level of psychological development and personality integration is very difficult to achieve.
How Can Cults Harm People?

Because they often recognize the harmful changes that are not apparent to seduced converts, families are usually the first to be hurt. In their attempts to help cult-involved relatives, families experience intense frustration, helplessness, guilt, and, because so few people understand their plight, loneliness.

Members may be harmed in that they lose their psychological autonomy and frequently their assets. Furthermore, the group’s partial-to-total disconnection from society deprives members of the opportunity to learn from the varied experiences that a normal life provides. Members may lose irretrievable years in a state of "maturational arrest." In some cases, they undergo psychiatric breakdowns and/or suffer from physical disease and injury. Children in cults appear to be at high risk for abuse and neglect.

Those who leave cults frequently experience anxiety, depression, rage, guilt, distrust, fear, thought disturbances, and "floating," the shifting from cult to non-cult ways of viewing the world or the sense of being stalled in a foggy, "in-between" state of consciousness. This emotional turmoil impairs decision-making and interferes with the management of life tasks.

Indeed, many ex-members require one to two years to return to their former level of adaptation, while some may have psychological breakdowns or remain psychologically scarred for years.

Not all who join are psychologically damaged. Some may find the cult to be a safe haven from unmanageable difficulties in the non-cult world. Others who have histories of maintaining emotional distance may follow the cult without ever truly becoming part of it or being deeply affected by it. And some may have personal strengths, such as an unusual capacity to resist group pressure, that enable them to maintain a measure of autonomy, even in a powerful, compliance-gaining environment.

How Do Cults Harm Society?

The report, "Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy," outlines some direct ways in which cults have harmed society:


Infiltration of government agencies, political parties, community groups, and military organizations for the purpose of obtaining classified or private information, gaining economic advantage, or influencing the infiltrated organization to serve the ends of the cult.
Tax evasion.
Fraudulent acquisition and illegal disposition of public assistance and social security funds.
Violation of immigration laws.
Abuse of the legal system through spurious lawsuits, groundless complaints to licensing and regulatory bodies, or extravagant demands for services (such as those provided by the "Freedom of Information Act") as part of "fishing expeditions" against their enemies.
Pursuit of political goals while operating under the rubric of a nonpolitical, charitable, or religious organization.


Deceptive fund-raising and selling practices.
Organizational and individual stress resulting from pressuring employees to participate in cultic management training and growth seminars.
Misuse of charitable status in order to secure money for business and other noncharitable purposes.
Unfair competition through the use of underpaid labor or "recycled salaries."


Denial of, or interference with, legally required education of children in cults.
Misuse of school or college facilities or misrepresentation of the cult’s purposes, in order to gain respectability.
Recruitment of college students through violation of their privacy and/or deception.


Attempts to gain the support of established religions by presenting a deceptive picture of the cult’s goals, beliefs, and practices, and seeking to make "common cause" on various issues.
Infiltration of established religious groups in order to recruit members into the cult.

Cults also harm society in important indirect ways. Cults violate five interrelated values that sustain free, pluralistic cultures: human dignity, freedom, ethics, critical thinking, and accountability. Because they "cheat," cults are able to gain power far beyond their numbers. Furthermore, the majority seek the protection guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, even thought their ultimate goal is to eliminate the very freedom they claim for themselves. They thus pose a serious challenge:

How does a free, constitutionally-based society protect itself against the totalistic impulses and practices of cults and other groups of zealots without becoming closed and repressive? Simply put, how does the constitutional center hold together?

This question is especially important today because the American cultural identity has fragmented. The once-dominant Judeo-Christian tradition has been challenged, some say supplanted, by a secularism which, although consistent with the American Constitutional heritage, rejects many major tenets of traditional Judeo-Christian morality.

While these two camps have been battling, a third value system or world view, rooted in eastern mysticism and issuing from the humanistic psychology movement, has worked itself into the American consciousness. Commonly called the New Age movement, this world view’s fundamental tenet is that men are blind to the fact that they are all one, that they are all God, and that they are all capable of developing superhuman capacities.

Most proponents of these three world views tolerate disagreement and respect their opponents, even as they compete - knowingly or not- for dominance within the changing American identity. But on the fringes of each world view, zealots, many of whom belong to well-organized cults, seek to remake the culture in their own image.

If cultic zealotry is not ethically restrained, American culture will lose its ethical moorings and the values that have for so long under girded constitutional guarantees. The hundreds of thousands of families whom cults have torn apart and the millions of individuals whose rights and integrity they have violated testify to the gravity of this threat.

Why Do People Leave Cults?

People leave cults for a variety of reasons. After becoming aware of hypocrisy and/or corruption within the cult, converts who have maintained an element of independence and some connection with their old values may simply walk out disillusioned. Other members may leave because they have become weary of a routine of proselytizing and fund-raising. Sometimes even the most dedicated members may feel so inadequate in the face of the cult’s demands that they walk away, not because they have stopped believing, but because they feel like abject failures. Still others may renounce the cult after reconnecting to old values, goals, interests, or relationships, resulting from visits with parents, talks with ex-members, or counseling.

Is Leaving a Cult Easy?

Persons who consider leaving a cult are usually pressured to stay. Some say that they spent months, even years, trying to garner the strength to walk out. Some felt so intimidated that they departed secretly.

You may also like to view my article on Spiritual and Spiritual sexual abuse here.

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Michael King is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Insight Foundation


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