How Cults and High-Pressure Groups Function

This Page Contains a summary of our thoughts and the distillation of some major pieces of literature from various sources.  We attempt to present the general thrust of the forces operating within cults.  The page is quite long and can easily be read offline www.rcgadget.org .
 

Some Basic Common Characteristics of Cults

  1. Common Types of Cults
  2. Facets of Mind Control - B.I.T.E. - Hassan
  3. Outcomes of Mind Control.
  4. How Cults Recruit
  5. Lifton’s 8 Criteria for Psychological Totalism
  6. Singer’s 6 Conditions for a Thought Reform Environment 
Some  Basic Common Characteristics of Cults: 
  1. Members are expected to be excessively zealous and unquestioning in their commitment to the identity and leadership of the group. They replace their own beliefs and values with those of the group. 
  2. Members are manipulated and exploited, and may give up their education, careers, and families to work excessively long hours at group-directed tasks such as selling a quota of books, fundraising, recruiting or proselytizing.
  3. Harm or the threat of harm may come to members, their families, and/or society due to inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, psychological and physical abuse and sleep deprivation.   
  4. Occasionally, cults engage in criminal activities as serious as drugs, theft or money laundering. 
  5. Cult leaders tend to be charismatic and domineering.
  6. Cult leaders are usually self-appointed and claim to have a special mission in life.
  7. Cults have an elitist mentality (“We are God’s chosen ones” etc.)
  8. Life is seen in very "black and white" or "Good vs Evil" terms.
  9. Group will (= leader’s will) over-rides individual will.
  10. Happiness is through performance, through conforming to group’s norms.
  11. Cults tend to have a double set of ethics. Members are urged to be open and honest within the group and to confess all to the leader. At the same time, members are encouraged to deceive and manipulate non-members. The over-riding principle in many cults is that ‘the end justifies the means’, a view that allows cults to establish their own brand of morality, outside normal social bounds.

 

Common Types of Cults 

EASTERN MEDITATION: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The Leader usually distorts an Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

RELIGIOUS – CHRISTIAN UNORTHODOX: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, often combined with an apocalyptic view.  Often the group is very strict in terms of physical discipline. Techniques used: chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, long hours spent evangelizing, confession sessions.  Departs from Historical Christianity and may see itself as "the true Church".  Unorthodox practices are almost invariably accompanied by unorthodox theology.

RELIGIOUS - OTHER MAJOR RELIGIONS - FRINGE GROUPS:  Marked by an excessive or extreme commitment to parts of a major religion to the exclusion of normal life.  Examples:  Hare Krishna.

POLITICAL: fuelled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the ‘enemy’. Often the group will meet in secret with coded language, handshakes etc.  Members consider themselves an elite, ready for battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination.

PSYCHOTHERAPY/HUMAN POTENTIAL: motivated by the belief in striving for the goal of personal transformation or improvement. The leader is all-knowing, with unique ‘insights’ into the human condition. Sexual abuse is common in these groups. Techniques used: encounter sessions, hypnosis, other trance-inducing mechanisms, shame and intimidation, financial control.

NEW AGE: founded on the ‘you are God’ philosophy. Power through knowledge. Often the leader presents himself as mystical, ultra-spiritual being or channeller. Crystals, astrology, shamanism devices. Techniques used: magic tricks, altered states, peer pressure.

OCCULT/SATANIC: generated through belief in supernatural powers, sometimes the worship of Satan. The leader may profess to be evil incarnate, or may profess a special relationship with Dark Spiritual Forces of one kind or another.   Animal sacrifice and physical and sexual abuse are reported in such groups. Some involved in human sacrifice.  Techniques used: exotic rituals, secrecy, fear, intimidation, extreme  violence.

ONE-ON-ONE: based in belief in one’s partner or teacher above all else. Generally an intimate relationship is used to manipulate and control the partner or student who believes the dominant one to have special knowledge or special powers. Often there is severe and prolonged psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Techniques used: pleasure/pain syndrome, promoting self blame and dependency, induced fear and insecurity, enforced isolation.

 (Tobias & Lalich 1994)

Hassan’s  Four  Facets of "Mind Control"  In  Cults (*Taken From Hassan 1988)   

"Mind Control" is an emotive term.  Instead of this term, consider using "Unethical manipulation, deception and control".  Unhealthy groups seek control:  The leadership will exert control in some of these ways:

B.I.T.E.
  • B EHAVIOUR CONTROL  
  • I NFORMATION CONTROL 
  • T HOUGHT CONTROL  
  • E MOTIONAL CONTROL

 BEHAVIOUR CONTROL  
1. REGULATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL’S PHYSICAL WORLD
 

  • Where and with whom the member lives.
  • What clothes, colours, hairstyles the person wears.
  • How much sleep the person is able to have.
  • What food the person eats.
  • Financial dependence.

2. MAJOR TIME COMMITMENT FOR GROUP RITUALS, LESSONS ETC

  • Time is fully booked for group activities if at all possible.
  • Education may be discouraged as "not applicable" to the group’s mission - you don’t need a degree to be in touch with God, and it is more important to be saving the planet than finish your degree.
3. NEED TO ASK PERMISSION FOR MOST DECISIONS.
This includes decisions on dating, jobs, which city you live in etc.

4. A SYSTEM OF REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS.

5. INDIVIDUALISM IS DISCOURAGED - THE GROUP IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS.

6. THE ENFORCEMENT OF OBEDIENCE AND DEPENDENCY.

 

INFORMATION CONTROL
1. USE OF DECEPTION
  • Deliberately holding back information - not telling recruits the full story on the purpose and methods of the group.
  • Distorting information to make it acceptable. 
  • Outright lying or selective honesty.
2. ACCESS TO NON-CULT SOURCES OF INFORMATION DISCOURAGED  OR NOT ALLOWED
  • Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio.   - May be viewed with enmity.
  • Information critical of the group.   ("Obviously controlled by Satan or they wouldn’t be critical")
  • Former members are not to be associated with.
  • Keep the members so busy they have little time to think.  

3. INFORMATION WITHIN STRICT GUIDELINES

  • Information not freely accessible.  
  • Information varies at different levels with a ‘pyramid’ structure.  
  • Leadership decides who ‘needs to know’ what.  
 
4. SPYING ON OTHER MEMBERS IS ENCOURAGED
  • Pairing up with a ‘buddy’ system to monitor and control.
  • Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership.

5. EXTENSIVE USE OF CULT GENERATED INFORMATION AND PROPAGANDA

  • Newsletters, magazines, journals etc.  
  • Statements quoted out of context from non-cult sources.  

6. USE OF CONFESSION 

  • Information about ‘sins’ used to bring in new cult identity
  • Past ‘sins’ used to manipulate and control - no forgiveness.

 

THOUGHT CONTROL 
1. NEED TO INTERNALIZE THE GROUP’S DOCTRINE AS “TRUTH”

  • Black and white thinking
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Us vs. Them (‘only we have the truth’)  

2.  ADOPT A “LOADED LANGUAGE" 

The groups buzz words and normal conversation serve to prompt automatic thoughts and stop debate.

Examples:

swiss replica watches

  • “Gentile” (those outside the group); 
  • “Cross” (pagan and sexual to a Jehovah’s Witness); 
  • “Christendom" ie any old church which is part of an institution .

3.  ONLY “GOOD” AND “PROPER” THOUGHTS ARE ENCOURAGED 

  • Anything else (ie critical of the group) is evil, from the devil, sinful etc.
  • Internal doubts about the group ought to be extinguished.

4.  THOUGHT-STOPPING TECHNIQUES

  • Denial, justification
  • Chanting  
  • Meditating
  • Singing
  • Speaking in "Tongues"

5.  NO CRITICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE LEADER,swiss replica watches DOCTRINE OR  POLICY ARE LEGITIMATE

  • If there is an inconsistency, it’s your problem (ie not spiritual enough etc.)

6.  NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE BELIEF SYSTEMS ARE LEGITIMATE OR AS GOOD

  • There is a highly valuable uniqueness about the group’s message.

 
EMOTIONAL CONTROL
1. MANIPULATE AND NARROW THE RANGE OF A PERSON’S FEELINGS
Reduce the range of emotional responses the person naturally feels.

2. MAKE THE PERSON FEEL LIKE IF THERE ARE EVER ANY PROBLEMS IT IS ALWAYS THEIR FAULT
Reinforces the authority of the leadership, which must not be spoken against.

3. EXCESSIVE USE OF GUILT

  • Who you are (not living up to your potential) 
  • Where you came from
  • Your family
  • Your past
  • Your affiliations
  • Your thoughts, feelings, actions

4. EXCESSIVE USE OF FEAR

  • Fear of thinking independently
  • Fear of the ‘outside’ world
  • Fear of enemies
  • Fear of losing one’s ‘salvation’
  • Terrible consequences will take place if you ever leave
  • No chance of happiness outside the group

5. EXTREMES OF EMOTIONAL HIGHS AND LOWS
"Love Bombing" used on new recruits - that is, unusual levels of affection, appreciation and respect.  Emotional rewards are given for agreeing with the group.

6. RITUAL AND PUBLIC CONFESSION OF ‘SINS’
Even sins confessed in secret may be brought back to remind the recruit and may be publicly exposed.

This B.I.T.E. control leads to the group having control of:
1.  What is going on inside the recruit’s mind - as outlined above.

2. Over the recruit’s possessions:
  • Seek donations to group of money or possessions.
  • Expect members to hold treasured possessions in common.
  • Personal savings viewed as group property.
3. Over the recruit’s time:
  • Demanding schedule of teaching / discipleship
  • Put groups activities as higher priority than work or study
  • Limit time for rest
  • View hobbies or recreation as "evil" or time-wasting. 
4. Over the recruit’s relationships:
  • "Exclusivist" view, "This group alone has the truth".
  • Limit or discourage access to former friends.
  • View family / parents as "lost and on wrong path".
  • Encourage recruit to expect opposition from parents / friends.
  • Dictate romance / dating time, place, selecting suitable partners.
  • Some groups will arrange marriages. (e.g. Unification Church - aka "Moonies")

5. Over recruit’s individual rights:

  • Expecting recruits to be "eternally indebted" to group.
  • Recruits expected to see their personal rights as less important than the group’s demands.
  • Not respecting confidences – confessed sins may be published widely.
  • Reduced view of individual recruit’s ability to think critically and analytically.
  • No tolerance for diversity, or forming opinions contrary to leadership is "sinful".
  • Threats of dire consequences (either physical in this life, or "eternal") if a member should consider leaving. 
     

Recruitment 
We promote the view that the most important variable in joining a group is the level of skill of the recruiter.  Most people experience vulnerability to cult recruitment at some point in their life.  Most cult members are of above average intelligence, and have the courage to seek truth even if the cost is high.

Typical cult recruits are highly moral or  "ready to be used to change the world" or "make a breakthrough" for a higher cause, or "really seeking the truth".

While there appears to be no particular personality type that would increase susceptibility to cults, there could be predisposing factors in joining:

  • Short term emotional vulnerability due to life changes
  • High level of idealism
  • Low tolerance for ambiguity (need for absolute answers)
  • Cultural disillusionment (alienation, dissatisfaction with the status quo, rejection of Western Consumerism lifestyle.)  
  • The Need for a Cause or a Mission in life.
  • Tenuous or deteriorated family relations and support systems.
  • Non-assertiveness (inability to say no or express criticism or doubt)
  • Gullibility (impaired capacity to question critically what one is told or observes)
  • Naivety - the expectation that the world or the church can be made perfect.
  • Dependency (the desire to belong, lack of self confidence)
  • History of severe child abuse or neglect

The two most common themes in recruitment are being in a state of transition or depression. For example, a broken relationship, new town, first year at Uni etc.  

There are also some very ‘human’ responses that help us understand the recruitment process:  

RECIPROCATION.   In cults personal disclosure is often made reciprocal; that is, you are expected to reveal things about yourself and others to the group, just as others reveal to you. This reciprocity creates a social bond wherein you say yes to things you wouldn’t ordinarily say yes to. 

CONSISTENCY.   Once you give (or give in) you give (or give in) again. This sets the stage for greater compliance. Actions that are publicly performed in front of others and supposedly un-coerced, tend to reinforce the conditions necessary for lasting commitment.

AUTHORITY.   If an expert says it, it must be true. This logic causes people to stop thinking and simply react. In cults, the leader is all-knowing, speaking the Ultimate Truth.

LIKING.   Initially, cults make you feel wanted; in this way, you become a part of something. There is a strong sense of belonging.

SCARCITY.   You value what is rare. Cults make themselves valuable by saying that their way is the only way. By saying they have exclusive information, cult leaders become all the more persuasive.

CONSENSUS.   In general, people follow the lead of others, especially similar others. This is combined with systematically cutting you off from prior sources of information so that your information only comes from similar others saying the same thing.        (Cialdini 1993)

Lifton’s 8 Point Criteria for Psychological Totalism.
Lifton’s Eight Criteria - (From Lifton’s classic 1961 study of changes in prisoners in China)

Cults and high-pressure groups will make use of these techniques.

1. “Milieu Control” - Control of the environment and communication

The control of human communication is a basic feature in controlling people. This is the control of what the individual sees, hears, reads, writes and experiences. In this environment the individual is deprived of the combination of external information and internal reflection needed to test reality and to maintain a measure of identity separate from his environment.

e.g. in Jehovah’s Witnesses

  • No gatherings other than those allowed by the organisation
  • No membership of other organisations apart from the Watchtower

2. “Mystical Manipulation” - The mystique of the organisation

Group members deliberately plan either a single incident or a series of events in such a manner that they seem to have arisen spontaneously. Such experiences may to an outsider seem uncanny, mystical, or brought about by supernatural forces (i.e. God). Examples include planned Bible discussion groups, or sudden kindness or warmth expressed by several group members at once toward a newcomer.

3. “Demand For Purity” - Everything is black and white

Here the group carefully defines what is pure and impure. Only those ideas, feelings and actions that are consistent with the group’s beliefs are good. An individual’s conscience is not reliable. By having a narrow view of what is good, and a wide definition of what is bad, the cult member is set up to experience a constant world of guilt and shame which is then used. The more guilty one feels, the greater the hatred for what is outside the group and a sense of personal purity and belonging in the group.

e.g. In Jehovah’s Witnesses

  • No pants for ladies
  • Short hair on men
  • No beards, or moustaches

4. “Cult of Confession” - Reporting to leadership

Group members constantly confess “sins” usually to a person directly above them on the leadership pyramid. Members use this behaviour to purge themselves of all thoughts and feelings the group considers to be impure. These thoughts and feelings usually are not bad or evil in and of themselves, but are simply aspects of one’s personality not consistent with the group ideal.

This kind of extreme confession is an act of self-surrender, once again helping to merge the individual with the group - in other words, conformity.

5. “Sacred Science”- Absolute truth

Their truth is the absolute truth - beyond questioning. There is a reverence demanded for the leadership. They have ALL the answers. To question those in authority is to question God.

6. “Loading the Language” - Thought – stopping clichés

Basically the group has its own jargon. There are “good” terms used for what is pure and belonging to the group, and “bad” terms for that which is impure, evil or contradictory to the group. This helps isolate the person from the outside world, including close family. The only people who now really understand you are other members. This also limits a person’s thinking capacity.

e.g. “Apostate”, “Christendom”, “Trinity”, “Disciple”, “Theocratic Warfare”.

7. “Doctrine Over Person” - Doctrine more important than the individual

The doctrine of the group is more valid, true and precious than any aspect of the cult member. In other words, any personal feelings must be ignored or suppressed for the good of the group. This has the effect that the person’s character is moulded to that of the group’s character.

e.g. all illness is the result of a lack of faith or the result of sin in one’s life; no blood transfusions/medication at any cost

8. “Dispensing of Existence”- Who is worthy to live?

The group alone has the right to decide who is worthy of life and who isn’t. They also decide which history books are accurate and which are not. Only those in the organisation are worthy of life. Those outside are worthy of death. Members live in fear of being pronounced “dead” (disfellowshipped) which is worse than an ordinary outsider.

  
Singer’s Six Conditions For A Thought-Reform Environment 
(From Singer 1995)  

If a group is showing these conditions, consider carefully if it could be unhealthy.

1. KEEP THE PERSON UNAWARE OF WHAT IS GOING ON AND HOW HE OR SHE IS BEING CHANGED A STEP AT A TIME.

Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to buy more courses, or get them to make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aims and desires.

2. CONTROL THE PERSON’S SOCIAL AND/OR PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT; ESPECIALLY THE PERSON’S TIME.

Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.

3. SYSTEMATICALLY CREATE A SENSE OF POWERLESSNESS IN THE PERSON.

This is accomplished by getting members away from their normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.

4. MANIPULATE A SYSTEM OF REWARDS, PUNISHMENTS, AND EXPERIENCES IN SUCH A WAY AS TO INHIBIT BEHAVIOR THAT REFLECTS THE PERSON’S FORMER SOCIAL IDENTITY.

Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leader’s use of such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures and lengthy meditation sessions.

5. MANIPULATE A SYSTEM OF REWARDS, PUNISHMENTS, AND EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO PROMOTE LEARNING THE GROUP’S IDEOLOGY OR BELIEF SYSTEM AND GROUP-APPROVED BEHAVIORS.

Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s ideology, and compliance are rewarded, while questioning, expressing doubts, or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress, and possible rejection. If members ask a question, they are made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.

6. PUT FORTH A CLOSED SYSTEM OF LOGIC AND AN AUTHORITARIAN STRUCTURE THAT PERMITS NO FEEDBACK AND REFUSES TO BE MODIFIED EXCEPT BY LEADERSHIP APPROVAL OR EXECUTIVE ORDER.

The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.