Cults? In my life? It’s more likely than you think.
In my last post, I talked about how the Law of Attraction and Christian prosperity gospel both use the same thought control techniques as cults. I’ve received several public and private replies to that post: some expressing contempt for “sheeple” who can be lead astray by cults, and others who say my post made them scared that they might be part of a cult without knowing it.
I want to address both of those types of replies in this post. I want to talk about what a cult really looks like, and how you can know if you’re dealing with one.
If you type the word “cult” into Google Images, it will bring up lots of photos of people with long hair, wearing all white, with their hands raised in an expression of ecstasy.
Most modern cults do not look anything like this.
Modern cultists look a lot like everyone else. One of the primary goals of most cults is recruitment, and it’s hard to get people to join your cause if they think you and your group are all Kool-Aid-drinking weirdos. The cults that last are the ones that manage to convince people that they’re just like everyone else — a little weird maybe, but certainly not dangerous.
In the book The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, author Jeff Guinn says, “In years to come, Jim Jones would frequently be compared to murderous demagogues such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. These comparisons completely misinterpret, and historically misrepresent, the initial appeal of Jim Jones to members of Peoples Temple. Jones attracted followers by appealing to their better instincts.”
You might not know Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by name, but you’ve probably heard their story. They’re the Kool-Aid drinkers I mentioned earlier. Jones and over 900 of his followers, including children, committed mass suicide by drinking Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide.
In a way, the cartoonish image of cults in popular media has helped real-life cults to stay under the radar and slip through people’s defenses.
In her book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control, Luna Lindsey says: “These groups use a legion of persuasive techniques in unison, techniques that strip away the personality to build up a new group pseudopersonality. New members know very little about the group’s purpose, and most expectations remain unrevealed. People become deeply involved, sacrificing vast amounts of time and money, and investing emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and socially.”
Let’s address some more common myths about cults:
Myth #1: All cults are Satanic or occult in nature. This mostly comes from conservative Christians, who may believe that all non-Christian religions are inherently cultish in nature and are in league with the Devil. This is not the case — most non-Christians don’t even believe in the Devil, much less want to sign away their souls to him. Many cults use Christian theology to recruit members, and some of these groups (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) have become popular enough to be recognized as legitimate religions. Most cults have nothing to do with magic or the occult.
Myth #2: All cults are religious. This is also false. While some cults do use religion to recruit members or push an agenda, many cults have no religious or spiritual element. Political cults are those founded around a specific political ideology. Author and cult researcher Janja Lalich is a former member of an American political cult founded on the principles of Marxism. There are also “cults of personality” built around political figures and celebrities, such as Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao, and Donald Trump. In these cases, the cult is built around hero worship of the leader — it doesn’t really matter what the leader believes or does.
Myth #3: All cults are small fringe groups. Cults can be any size. Some cults have only a handful of members — it’s even possible for parents to use thought control techniques on their children, essentially creating a cult that consists of a single family. There are some cults that have millions of members (see previous note about Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Myth #4: All cults live on isolated compounds away from mainstream society. While it is true that all cults isolate their members from the outside world, very few modern cults use physical isolation. Many cults employ social isolation, which makes members feel separate from mainstream society. Some cults do this by encouraging their followers to be “In the world but not of the world,” or encouraging them to keep themselves “pure.”
Myth #5: Only stupid, gullible, and/or mentally ill people join cults. Actually, according to Luna Lindsey, the average cult member is of above-average intelligence. As cult expert Steven Hassan points out, “Cults intentionally recruit ‘valuable’ people—they go after those who are intelligent, caring, and motivated. Most cults do not want to be burdened by unintelligent people with serious emotional or physical problems.” The idea that only stupid or gullible people fall for thought control is very dangerous, because it reinforces the idea that “it could never happen to me.” This actually prevents intelligent people from thinking critically about the information they’re consuming and the groups they’re associating with, which makes them easier targets for cult recruitment.
So, now that we have a better idea of what a cult actually looks like, how do you know if you or someone you know is in one?
A good rule of thumb is to compare the group’s actions and teachings to Steven Hassan’s BITE Model. Steven Hassan is an expert on cult psychology, and most cult researchers stand by this model. From Hassan’s website, freedomofmind.com: “Based on research and theory by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, Louis Jolyon West, and others who studied brainwashing in Maoist China as well as cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger, Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. ‘BITE’ stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control.”
Behavior Control may include…
Telling you how to behave, and enforcing behavior with rewards and punishments. (Rewards may be nonphysical concepts like “salvation” or “enlightenment,” or social rewards like group acceptance or an elevated status within the group. Punishments may also be nonphysical, like “damnation,” or may be social punishments like judgement from peers or removal from the group.)
Dictating where and with whom you live. (This includes pressure to move closer to other group members, even if you will be living separately.)
Controlling or restricting your sexuality. (Includes enforcing chastity or abstinence and/or coercion into non-consensual sex acts.)
Controlling your clothing or hairstyle. (Even if no one explicitly tells you, you may feel subtle pressure to look like the rest of the group.)
Restricting leisure time and activities. (This includes both demanding participation in frequent group activities and telling you how you should spend your free time.)
Requiring you to seek permission for major decisions. (Again, even if you don’t “need” permission, you may feel pressure to make decisions that will be accepted by the group.)
Information Control may include…
Withholding or distorting information. (This may manifest as levels of initiation, with only the “inner circle” or upper initiates being taught certain information.)
Forbidding members from speaking with ex-members or other critics.
Discouraging members from trusting any source of information that isn’t approved by the group’s leadership.
Forbidding members from sharing certain details of the group’s beliefs or practice with outsiders.
Using propaganda. (This includes “feel good” media that exists only to enforce the group’s message.)
Using information gained in confession or private conversation against you.
Gaslighting to make members doubt their own memory. (“I never said that,” “You’re remembering that wrong,” “You’re confused,” etc.)
Requiring you to report your thoughts, feelings, and activities to group leaders or superiors.
Encouraging you to spy on other group members and report their “misconduct.”
Thought Control may include…
Black and White, Us vs. Them, or Good vs. Evil thinking.
Requiring you to change part of your identity or take on a new name. (This includes only using last names, as well as titles like “Brother,” “Sister,” and “Elder.”)
Using loaded languages and cliches to stop complex thought. (This is the difference between calling someone a “former member” and calling the same person an “apostate” or “covenant breaker.”)
Inducing hypnotic or trance states including prayer, meditation, singing hymns, etc.
Using thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thinking. (“If you ever find yourself doubting, say a prayer to distract yourself!”)
Allowing only positive thoughts or speech.
Rejecting rational analysis and criticism both from members and from those outside the group.
Emotional Control may include…
Inducing irrational fears and phobias, especially in connection with leaving the group. (This includes fear of damnation, fear of losing personal value, fear of persecution, etc.)
Labeling some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, low-vibrational, or wrong.
Teaching techniques to keep yourself from feeling certain emotions like anger or sadness.
Promoting feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthiness. (This is often done by holding group members to impossible standards, such as being spiritually “pure” or being 100% happy all the time.)
Showering members and new recruits with positive attention — this is called “love bombing.” (This can be anything from expensive gifts to sexual favors to simply being really nice to newcomers.)
Shunning members who disobey orders or disbelieve the group’s teachings.
Teaching members that there is no happiness, peace, comfort, etc. outside of the group.
If a group ticks most or all of the boxes in any one of these categories, you need to do some serious thinking about whether or not that group is good for your mental health. If a group is doing all four of these, you’re definitely dealing with a cult and need to get out as soon as possible.
These techniques can also be used by individual people in one-on-one relationships. A relationship or friendship where someone tries to control your behavior, thoughts, or emotions is not healthy and, again, you need to get out as soon as possible.
Obviously, not all of these things are inherently bad. Meditation and prayer can be helpful on their own, and being nice to new people is common courtesy. The problem is when these acts become part of a bigger pattern, which enforces someone else’s control over your life.
A group that tries to tell you how to think or who to be is bad for your mental health, your personal relationships, and your sense of self. When in doubt, do what you think is best for you — and always be suspicious of people or groups who refuse to be criticized.
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