• Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

How Cults Work


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
When most of us hear the word "cult," we see a bunch of brainwashed zombies feeding their children cyanide-laced fruit drink, mass murders, a burning compound in Waco, Texas -- it's not a pretty picture. But is it a true picture? What exactly is a "cult," and how is it different from a "religion"? Are all cults dangerous? Are people who join destructive cults mentally disturbed, or are all of us equally susceptible?

In this article, we'll separate fact from propaganda and learn what a cult actually is, what practices characterize a destructive cult and look at some of the more notable cult incidents in recent history.

The cults that make the news and drive fear through the hearts of parents sending their kids to college are the exception, not the rule. At its most basic, a cult is simply a small, unestablished, non-mainstream religious group that typically revolves around a single leader. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult" this way:

1. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.

2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.

The first definition is closer to the common usage of the term today, but you'll notice there's no mention of b*rainwashing, murder or mass suicide. There is no meaningful difference between a cult and a religion in terms of faith, morality or spirituality. The primary differences are that a "cult" operates outside of mainstream society, often calls on its followers to make an absolute commitment to the group and typically has a single leader, whereas a "religion" usually operates within mainstream culture, requires varying levels of commitment from its members and typically has a leadership hierarchy that, in practice, can serve as a series of checks and balances.

But destructive cults are a different story. There is a big difference between a destructive cult and a non-destructive religion (or a non-destructive cult). A destructive (or totalist) cult exploits its members' vulnerability in order to gain complete control over them, often using unethical psychological techniques to bring about thought reform. It can be said that a non-destructive religion or cult attempts to alleviate its members' vulnerability through spiritual guidance in an effort to help them exercise control over their own lives.

Cult Leadership Structure

There is no cult without a powerful, charismatic leader. A charismatic leader has the uncanny ability to get people to follow him unquestioningly. The phrase "cult of personality" refers to this type of group dynamic. Cult members are devoted to the leader, not to the leader's ideas. The leader has complete control over his followers -- there is no questioning of his decisions, and he is accountable to no one within the group.

It's possible for a cult to have more than one leader, but that's atypical. Most destructive religious cults demand absolute devotion to a single person who is considered to be God or connected to God, the Messiah, a prophet or possessing some other holy status. This is a critical component in maintaining absolute devotion: To the members of a cult, only this single person can lead them to salvation. Without this single person, they will spend eternity in Hell.

How does a person fall into a role like this? One common scenario is the preacher or church member who gets "banished" from a mainstream church for preaching extreme or unconventional ideas or showing signs of corruption or instability. When he leaves, his followers go with him, or else he joins an already existing cult and eventually vies for control. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian cult that was destroyed during a U.S. government siege in 1993, was active in a mainstream Christian church before he was thrown out for "negatively influencing" some of the church's younger members. Reverend James (Jim) Warren Jones, who ordered hundreds of members of The People's Temple to drink poisoned punch in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, was ordained a mainstream Christian pastor.

But not everybody starts out in mainstream religion. Some cult leaders are simply anti-social, destructive individuals who find out they have a knack for manipulation. Charles Manson fits this description.

Manson was the charismatic leader of a doomsday cult (which the media would eventually dub "The Family") with more than 100 members near Los Angeles, Calif. He spent most of his youth on the streets and in and out of prison. At one institution, Manson was described as "a very emotionally upset youth who is definitely in need of some psychiatric orientation." He was also described as violent and manipulative. After the age of 18, his crimes grew from robbery and car theft to pimping, rape and fraud. In 1967, Manson was paroled from one of his prison stints and landed in San Francisco, where he slipped into the hippie scene and developed a following -- mostly young women who were generally troubled and disillusioned with America. "Charlie" became their guru. He preached that the world would end in a racial war. Blacks would destroy wealthy whites and win a position of dominance, but the black power structure would quickly collapse due to inexperience. And then, the Manson Family would come out of hiding in the desert and rule the world.

Manson referred to himself as the reincarnation of Jesus. His followers called him "God" and "Satan" seemingly interchangeably. Manson and the members of his cult brutally slaughtered people, committing what is probably the most famous cult mass murder -- the shooting and stabbing of seven people over two days, including actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski), who was eight months pregnant when she was killed. Most reports conclude that Manson ordered his followers to brutally kill their victims, but he never killed any of them himself. His power over his cult family was absolute. While Manson was on trial for murder, one of his followers, Lynette Fromme, protested the trial by carving an "X" into her forehead on the courthouse steps. Fromme would later attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in order to bring attention back to Manson's cause. As of March 2006, Charles Manson is still in prison, receiving tens of thousands of letters every year from people hoping to become members of The Manson Family.

While Manson found his followers in the drugged, anti-establishment haze of 1960s San Francisco, not all cult leaders have such a ready-made base of potential recruits. Cult recruiting is a controversial topic, in that some believe active recruiting has died down since its heyday in the '70s, and others think it has only gotten quieter. Whatever the degree of the problem, there are people out there looking for potential cult members. In the next section, we'll learn about cult recruiting techniques.

Cult Recruitment

You may have an idea of a "cult recruit" as an obviously troubled young person, maybe "mentally ill," easily exploited by unethical cultists. But studies show that people who join cults have only a slightly higher incidence of psychiatric disorders than the general population.

Cult members come from all walks of life, all age groups and all personality types. However, one common thread among most cult recruits is heightened stress: Research indicates that a majority of people who end up joining a cult were recruited during a particularly stressful period. This could be the stress associated with adolescence, leaving home for the first time, a bad breakup, losing a job or the death of a loved one. People undergoing significant stress can be more susceptible when a person or group claims to have the answer to all of their problems. Michael Langone, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in cults, also identifies some psychological traits that can make a person more likely to be successfully recruited, including:

* dependency - an intense desire to belong, stemming from a lack of self-confidence
* unassertiveness - a reluctance to say no or question authority
* gullibility - a tendency to believe what someone says without really thinking about it
* low tolerance for uncertainty - a need to have any question answered immediately in black-and-white terms
* disillusionment with the status quo - a feeling of marginalization within one's own culture and a desire to see that culture change
* naive idealism - a blind belief that everyone is good
* desire for spiritual meaning - a need to believe that life has a "higher purpose"

Is My Loved One in a Cult?

If you suspect someone you love is in a destructive cult, the first thing to do is remain calm and rational. Temporarily discard the whole "cult" thing and ask yourself why you're worried -- what behaviors are causing you concern? Write them down. Are these behaviors dangerous? Destructive? If so, the next step is to try to find out if they might be a result of your loved one's involvement with the group in question. There are no absolute, scientifically proven checklists for involvement in a totalist cult, but here are a couple of sources that can help:

If your research leads you to believe that your loved one's behavior can in fact be attributed to her involvement with a destructive cult, your next step is the same as your first step: remain calm and rational. Talk to your loved one about your concerns and listen to her responses. If your fears appear to be valid, consult a psychologist or exit counselor to find out how you can help your loved one without causing further damage. There are lots of organizations out there dedicated to educating and assisting the concerned families of cult members. See the following links for more information:

Cult recruiters hang out in places where you might find people in a period of extreme stress or possessing the above personality traits -- which is anywhere. Some particularly fruitful recruiting locations might include college campuses, religious gatherings, self-help and support groups, seminars related to spirituality or social change and the unemployment office. In a 1990 article in the San Francisco Examiner, an unnamed ex-cult member commented on how easy it is to get sucked in: "People don't realize how susceptible we all are. Those smiling faces lead you to buy it when you're naive and accepting." She was recruited on the UC San Diego campus when she was 19. Her parents arranged for her to be "deprogrammed" eight years later (more on deprogramming in the "Getting Out" section).

The main methods of cult recruitment revolve around deception and manipulation. Potential recruits are not told the true nature or intentions of the group. Instead, recruiters portray it as something mainstream, low-pressure and benign. They may tell people at a church gathering that their group meets once a week to brainstorm ways to raise money for a new homeless shelter. They might invite a high school student to a talk about how public service can enhance a college application. Recruiters identity the specific needs or desires of their targets and play to them. They learn to pick up on a person's fears and vulnerabilities and portray the cult accordingly. For instance, if a young woman just went through a bad breakup, and she's feeling depressed and alone, a cult member might tell her that his group helps people to overcome interpersonal problems and rebuild their confidence for a fresh start. If a man just lost his wife in a car accident, and he can't bear that he didn't get to say goodbye to her, a recruiter might claim that his group helps people reach peace in the wake of sudden death.

It might seem strange that someone would accept these types of invitations, but there are a couple of factors that make it seem more palatable. First, the recruiter might be someone these people know. He could be in that young woman's college dorm or that man's survivors' support group. And someone who is sad, lonely or desperate might be more inclined to trust someone who claims to know the path back to happiness. Also, cults typically isolate recruits so they can't get a "reality check." They may hold meetings or services at times that would normally be spent with family and friends; they may hold "retreats" that submerge the recruit in the group's message for days at a time; and they may ask recruits not to discuss the group with others until they know more about it, so they don't mislead people or give them only part of the story. This kind of isolation narrows a person's feedback structure drastically for a period of time, to the point that the only people they're really communicating with are the members of the cult they're being invited to join. Their doubts about the group, therefore, are never reinforced, and they end up turning into self-doubt, instead. Looking around them at all of the smiling, friendly people who have obviously found peace and happiness by following this path, it appears that it must be the right way.

Once a person attends one meeting or service or lecture, he's invited to another, and another and another. He's welcomed into the cult family and invited to commit himself to the group. From day one, it's a process of manipulation and deception. And for those who stay on, the recruiting process culminates in the submission of their own personalities to the "will of the group." In the next section, we'll see what cult indoctrination entails.

Cult Indoctrination

A destructive cult uses countless techniques to get its members to stay, commit themselves and take part in what may be harmful activities. The sum of these techniques constitutes what some people call "mind control." It's also known as "thought reform," "brainwashing" and "coercive persuasion," and it involves the systematic breakdown of a person's sense of self.

Sounds Like Boot Camp

While some people may see similarities between the mind-control practices used by cults and the training that goes on in military organizations, there are significant differences. For one thing, military recruits know from day one that being in the military means giving up some of their autonomy -- that's how the military hierarchy works. A person who joins the military makes an informed decision to relinquish that autonomy, whereas a cult recruit does not know that total submission is a requirement of membership. Also, a person who joins the military does so for a definite period of time -- he is a party to a legal contract that states how long he will be a soldier and what he will get in return. A person who joins a cult thinks he can leave whenever he wants, but in reality, his commitment to the group is supposed to be indefinite. Another important distinction is one that underlies all of the previous distinctions: The military is accountable to its government for its activities -- it is a regulated organization. A cult answers to no one.

Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune, became famous in the 1970s after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (the SLA, which some deem a "political cult") and allegedly brainwashed into joining the group. There are reports that Hearst was locked in a dark closet for several days after her kidnapping and was kept hungry, tired, brutalized and afraid for her life while SLA members bombarded her with their anti-capitalist political ideology. Within two months of her kidnapping, Patty had changed her name, issued a statement in which she referred to her family as the "pig-Hearsts" and appeared on a security tape robbing a bank with her kidnappers.

Thought reform is an umbrella term for any number of manipulative techniques used to get people to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. The concept of thought reform itself is a controversial one -- some say it's mere propaganda designed to scare people away from new religions and political movements. But most psychologists believe that cult brainwashing techniques, which are similar to techniques used in prisoner interrogation, do change a person's thought processes. In cult recruiting and indoctrination, these techniques include:

* Deception - Cults trick new recruits into joining the group and committing themselves to a cause or lifestyle they don't fully understand.

o Cults mislead new recruits/members as to the true expectations and activities of the group.
o Cults may hide any signs of illegal, immoral or hyper-controlling practices until the recruit has fully immersed himself in the group.
o A cult leader may use members' altered consciousness, induced by activities like meditation, chanting or drug use, to increase vulnerability to suggestion.

* Isolation - Cults cut off members from the outside world (and even each other) to produce intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality. The members of the cult become the person's only social contact and feedback mechanism.

o Cults may keep new recruits from talking to other new recruits. They may only be allowed to speak with long-committed members for a period of time.
o Cults may not allow unsupervised contact with the "outside world." In this way, there is no chance for a "reality check" or validation of a new member's concerns regarding the group.
o Cults typically instill the belief that "outsiders" (non-cult members) are dangerous and wrong.

* Induced Dependency - Cults demand absolute, unquestioning devotion, loyalty and submission. A cult member's sense of self is systematically destroyed. Ultimately, feelings of worthlessness and "evil" become associated with independence and critical thinking, and feelings of warmth and love become associated with unquestioning submission.

o The leader typically controls every minute of a member's waking time. There is no free time to think or analyze.
o Members are told what to eat, what to wear, how to feed their children, when to sleep ... the member is removed from all decision-making.
o Any special talents the member has are immediately devalued and criticized in order to confuse the member's sense of self-worth.
o Any doubts, assertiveness or remaining ties to the outside world are punished by the group through criticism, guilt and alienation. Questions and doubts are systematically "turned around" so that the doubter feels wrong, worthless, "evil" for questioning. The member is loved again when he renounces those doubts and submits to the will of the leader.
o The member may be deprived of adequate sustenance and/or sleep so the mind becomes muddled.
o The leader may randomly alternate praise and love with scorn and punishment to keep the member off-balance and confused and instill immense self-doubt. The leader may offer occasional gifts and special privileges to encourage continued submission.
o The member may be pressured to publicly confess sins, after which he is viciously ridiculed by the group for being evil and unworthy. He is loved again when he acknowledges that his devotion to the cult is the only thing that will bring him salvation.

* Dread - Once complete dependence is established, the member must retain the leader's good favor or else his life falls apart.

o The leader may punish doubt or insubordination with physical or emotional trauma.
o Once all ties to the outside world have been cut, the member feels like his only family is the group, and he has nowhere else to go.
o Access to necessities depends on the leader's favor. The member must "behave" or he may not get food, water, social interaction or protection from the outside world.
o The member may believe that only group members are "saved," so if he leaves, he will face eternal damnation.

Indoctrination, or thought reform, is a long process that never really ends. Members are continually subjected to these techniques -- it's part of daily life in a cult. Some adjust well to it after a period of time, embracing their new role as "group member" and casting aside their old sense of independence. For others, it's a perpetually stressful existence.



Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Dear spnadmin ji,
Thank you for this wonderful set of articles about cults and brainwashing. I think it is super important that we all educate ourselves so that we do not fall into these traps. The cult that is always on the news is the church of scientology. Unfortunately, there seem so be many cults trying to fit under the umbrella of Sikhi also. Education is the key so that these 'groups' do not have a hole to fill. The brainwashed groups always seem to show so much intolerance towards others views and way of thinking and rarely engage in intellectual debate but resort to people bashing (maybe because there is nothing of substance under the armour?!)

Life is about contsantly learning and growing as people-not being fixed in one line of thought and only one way to live!





1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
findinmyway ji

Thanks for your kind remarks. "It takes 2 to tango," as they say in Argentina. Cults and thought control have probably been on the planet from the earliest eons of time. It takes only 1 person without any morality who is out to make a buck, and another person who is filled with inner uncertainty, and BINGO you have the founding members. Next step is to hire a good PR representative, who is also out to make a fortune, and then you can have it, a "vision" and "message." The rest is history.