• What are the characteristics of a destructive "cult" or group?

Margaret Singer, clinical psychologist and once Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley was the preeminent cult expert of the 20th Century. She counseled and/or interviewed thousands of people affected by controversial groups often called "cults." Dr. Singer offered meaningful definitions of unsafe groups or "cults" in her book Cults in our Midst.

According to Singer, unsafe groups or cults can generally be defined by three factors:

1. The origin of the group and role of the leader.
2. The power structure, or relationship between the leader[s] and the followers.
3. The use of a coordinated program of persuasion, which is called thought reform [or more commonly, 'brainwashing'"].

• What typifies an unsafe group or "cult's" leadership and structure?

Again, a good working understanding has been provided by Margaret Singer: "In most cases, there is one person, typically the founder at the top...decision making centers in him or her." Illustrating the structure Singer says, "imagine an inverted T. The leader is alone at the top and the followers are all at the bottom". There is little if any accountability and as Singer says, "the overriding that the ends justify the means, a view that allows [such groups] to establish their own brand of morality, outside normal society bounds".

• What specifically would define a group or "cult" as unsafe?

Unsafe groups or "cults" often abuse and exploit their members. This abuse may occur in the areas of finances, physical labor, child abuse and neglect, medical neglect, sexual exploitation and/or psychological and emotional abuse (for example, the shunning of family by the Jehovah's Witnesses).

Extreme examples of destructive behavior have been historically recorded in such groups as the Waco Davidians, the cult suicides of "Heaven's Gate" and the Solar Temple of Switzerland and the suicide/murder of almost one thousand members of the Peoples Temple ordered by Jim Jones. In 1995 the Japanese cult known as Aum, the followers of Shoko Asahara, gassed the subways of Tokyo with the deadly poison gas sarin, killing twelve and injuring thousands of citizens. Perhaps the most deaths ever caused by a single cult in modern history can be attributed to the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments" of Uganda. Shortly after the turn of the century 780 bodies were found after a reign of terror that included murder and possibly mass suicide. But due to the isolated circumstances of the group many believe all the bodies will never be recovered, placing the actual loss of life much higher, possibly greater than Jonestown.

• Are all unsafe or destructive groups isolated in compounds?

No. Isolation can often be less obvious. Many destructive groups create isolation through their control of a member's associations with outside society. The group members may be discouraged from associating with outsiders, especially those who express a negative attitude about the group and its leader(s). Isolation can also be fostered by a kind of hyper-activity that allows little time for family, outside interests or friendships. Marshall Applewhite the leader of "Heaven's Gate" controlled his followers through carefully subscribed daily schedules and regimentation, though the members were seemingly free to come and go at anytime. This regimentation and control took place in a mansion within a plush California neighborhood, not an isolated compound.

• Doesn't the First Amendment protect these groups?

Yes. The First Amendment certainly protects all religious groups in the United States in the areas of freedom of belief and speech, but this is not blanket protection for any actions done in the name of those beliefs. If a group breaks the law they are accountable for their actions just like everyone else. Psychiatrist and cult expert John Clark once commented, "The First Amendment is not a suicide pact."

• Isn't criticism of so-called "new religious movements," a form of religious bigotry, hatred and persecution?

Americans historically have been sensitive to the issue of religious intolerance since before the Revolutionary War. Roger Williams, a dissenter who disagreed with the Puritans founded Rhode Island as a safe haven for religious minorities. But the members of many groups called "cults" often characterize virtually any criticism of their behavior as religious "persecution," "intolerance" and/or "bigotry."

It seems that many so-called "cults" have forgotten that the First Amendment is expansive and protects both their freedoms and the free speech of their critics. Margaret Singer once said that "The conduct of certain cults, however, especially groups that tend to overtly exploit and abuse people and engage in deceptive, unethical, and illegal conduct, does provoke the surrounding society into a critical stance."


• What types of people become leaders of unsafe and/or destructive groups?

Many cult leaders seem to be narcissistic personalities often fantasizing about messianic visions that will change the course of human history, while appearing to have little if any conscience. Some make claims that they are the exclusive voice of God, "psychic" connections to historical figures, or aliens from outer space. Often these leaders seem deeply delusional and disturbed and some have been called psychopaths. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of "Heaven's Gate" was once confined to a mental hospital.

Extreme examples of destructive and delusional behavior by cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh and Shoko Asahara have caused many mental health professionals to question their sanity. Still others simply may be opportunistic con men or women, exploiting their followers for personal profit and self-interest.

• What kind of relationship do destructive group leaders have with their followers?

The leadership most often defines what is right and wrong and group followers are essentially expected to defer making meaningful value judgments regarding almost any issue of significant importance. And any member of the group who questions or doubts the authority of the leader is likely to be labeled wrong, rebellious, suppressive, negative and in some situations even "demon possessed" or "satanic".

No area of a member or follower's life appears to be immune from such a group's scrutiny and/or criticism. A kind of learned dependency often develops. Group followers appear highly dependent upon their leaders to resolve problems and provide them with an ongoing sense of clarity and purpose.

• Are there any meaningful boundaries in such relationships?

No. It seems that most destructive cult leaders do not provide appropriate boundaries regarding the relationship they have with their followers. Because of this and other factors such as learned dependency, thought reform and little if any meaningful accountability, a formula for abuse and exploitation often exists in such group relationships.

Also, the adulation of followers may have a negative impact upon the leader(s), almost like an intoxicating and addictive drug. This may deepen a codependent relationship between the leader and his or her followers. And such virtual worship may also provide seeming proof to some cult leaders that their grandiose delusions of greatness, power and absolute authority are true. The more obedience and adulation such leaders receive, the more they may want and eventually require. This may then become the foundation for ever-escalating bizarre and/or destructive behavior.


• Is there actually a kind of mindset within potentially unsafe or destructive groups?

Yes. There seems to be a typical mindset within most destructive cults. This is often characterized by black and white thinking, a low tolerance of ambiguity and a relentlessly judgementa1 attitude. Members of such a group often think in "we, they" opposing terms regarding those outside their group. This mindset frequently produces feelings of superiority and/or spiritual elitism, claims of supposed "persecution" and unreasonable fears. These fears typically concern the outside world and the consequences of disagreeing with or leaving the group.

• How is such a mindset achieved?

Most often destructive cults, groups and/or leaders are able to shape a mindset based upon control of communication, association, and information through hyperactivity and/or isolation. This in turn provides the basis for further control of behavior, emotions and thinking, which has been called "mind control." This is frequently a gradual step-by-step process that includes facets of psychological persuasion and the principles of influence.


• How can cults use communication to control people?

One example is through "loading the language," a feature of thought reform, characterized by thought terminating cliches. Such cliches are easily memorized phrases and terms that essentially become communication shortcuts or "ultimate terms." This can have the effect of stopping critical thinking and independent analysis, essentially restricting and ultimately often constricting the mind.

• How can cults control information?

Information is controlled in many cults by creating strict rules and/or guidelines regarding such things as books and outside reading, television, movies, radio, music and often even restricting associations with anyone who might express independent ideas, doubts or negative feelings about the group. The group and its leader(s) thus may become much like a filter, supposedly needed to help eliminate the "pollution", "poisons" and negativity of the outside world.

• How can hyperactivity or isolation contribute to cult control?
When people are busy with group activities there may be little if any meaningful time away from the group, except for work, school or sleep. Group members are thus often cut off and isolated from any outside frame of reference or objective feedback. They become constrained through their largely exclusive associations within the group, this may also include being substantially removed from family and old friends. All these factors can create a kind of vacuum regarding any meaningful critical analysis. And then the group and/or its leadership fills that vacuum with its own perspective and agenda.

• How is "coercive persuasion" really different from normal persuasion?

Essentially, coercive persuasion relies largely upon thought reform techniques and may also utilize unreasonable fear to compel people to change. Through such a process many can be changed without their knowledge and/or informed consent. This is done in a rigid way that frequently precludes any meaningful exchange of ideas, is fairly one-sided and seems to have little respect for differences. Margaret Singer clinical psychologist and author of the book "Cults in Our Midst" made distinctions between various types of persuasion such as education, advertising, propaganda, indoctrination and thought reform.

• What "unreasonable fears" do many cult members have?

These are fears often not based upon objective reality, such as bizarre conspiracy theories, baseless projections of an impending catastrophe, crisis and/or physical danger. Members of some cult groups are warned of an extreme punishment beyond death proscribed specifically for those who refuse to submit to the group and its leader. They may also be told stories about those who left or were disobedient and how their lives were tragically ended or impacted as a direct result. Many of these stories may be made up, grossly exaggerated and/or distorted, but they reflect an implicit purpose, which is to intimidate members and thus retain them within the group.

• What is "undue influence"?

This can be seen as an individual who becomes so dependent upon others through cult indoctrination that they often make decisions which are not in their own best interest. Our judicial system has made such distinctions by determining diminished capacity, which subsequently may be exculpatory regarding responsibility and/or mitigate sentencing concerning a crime.

There is a notable difference between the levels of influence employed through education, advertising, propaganda, indoctrination and thought reform. Undue influence usually is the result of unethical and/or improper techniques of persuasion that is administered by an authoritarian figure and/or hierarchical structure.
Some have offered the analogy that the Marines are not unlike authoritarian cults and that they also use undue influence to train and control recruits. However, there are stark and basic differences between the operation and conduct of the Marines and most destructive cults in such areas as meaningful accountability, the ability to address grievances and communication.

• Can one individual gain destructive "cult-like" control of another person?

Yes. It is possible for a cult to be composed of one leader and only one follower. This also can be seen as an abusive/controlling relationship, which is a one-on-one deliberately manipulative and exploitative intimate relationship between two people. Some marriages or domestic partnerships where there is spousal abuse may be characterized and explained in this way. This is sometimes called a "cultic relationship."

Those dominated within abusive/controlling relationships may be so completely under the influence of another person that they appear to have lost the ability to think independently, much like the member of a destructive cult. The person in submission is also frequently isolated from family and friends and becomes very dependent upon the dominant authority figure.


• Are cults and other controversial groups deceptive when they recruit people?

Yes, they often are. They may employ deception in the recruitment process by using front organizational names and/or not clearly identifying themselves or their purpose. For example, a religious cult may not even initially advise potential recruits that it has a religious agenda. Groups with controversial leaders may withhold that information and also keep their more radical beliefs hidden or secret until they achieve more influence and compliance thorough their indoctrination process.

• What types of people are recruited by cults or become involved in potentially unsafe or destructive groups and relationships?

All types of people. Individuals from strong and troubled families, with and without histories of psychological problems. People who have had and have not had drug problems, with a solid or weak religious background, the educated and uneducated, the wealthy, poor, middle class, intelligent and not so intelligent.

One of the myths about cult involvement is that a certain type of person is more vulnerable. Another myth is that healthy, strong, intelligent well-educated people from good families don't become involved. Or, that somehow if someone has clearly defined religious convictions they cannot be recruited. These theories have never been proven or substantiated through research. In fact, repeated studies continue to indicate a wide and varied background for cult recruits.

Frankly, cults are quite good at persuasion and indoctrination; it's their stock and trade. And most people simply are not prepared, either through education and personal experience, to be sensitive to the possible impact of cult methodology.

The truth is, almost anyone could potentially become involved with an unsafe or destructive group. We are all especially suggestible at certain times, when depressed, lonely, during an awkward transition, when within a new environment such as a college campus away from home, after a romantic breakup, death in the family or some other personal problem or ordeal. Since all people have such experiences, we all have periods of vulnerability. And many destructive cults/groups have honed their skills, timing and focused their programs to exploit such situations as opportunities for recruitment.

• But aren't these people just weak and stupid?

No. As previously mentioned cult recruits are often caught at a particularly vulnerable time and probably did not recognize the warning signs necessary to make a more balanced and informed decision. In everyday life this can be seen to some extent when people make poorly informed decisions largely based upon the influence of slick advertising and sales gimmicks. There are many examples of such successful, but often unethical, methods of persuasion through high-pressure car deals, land and stock swindles, misleading infomercials and boiler room phone solicitations.

Many intelligent and successful celebrities and stars have become involved with groups that have been called "cults," such as Madonna, Tom Cruise , Elizabeth Taylor and John Travolta.

Specifically because these well-known personalities are so strong and compelling, some have been used to promote controversial groups and defend them. Ironically, the very reason they are useful to such groups is the public admiration and respect they enjoy and the perception that they are role models and often trendsetters.

People are often frustrated and anxious about the world around them. And most of us seem to have a need for answers, security, a sense of control, a feeling of belonging and a desire for personal recognition. Today there are millions of "true believers," who faithfully accept psychics, UFOs, angels, questionable multi-level marketing schemes, political extremism, conspiracy theories and demagoguery. People often find things to believe in that fulfill a need for explanation about an increasingly complex world. At a time of crisis such beliefs may also fill a personal void. Personal voids, burning questions and the need for answers are not unique to any single type of person, instead they appear to be part of the human condition.

• If such a system exists to coerce, persuade, influence and control people, then why doesn't somebody use it to take over a nation or the world?

This has already happened. The politics of fear, control of the environment and manipulation of both information and communication has been used successfully to control nations. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, the Ayatollah's Iran and Sadam's Iraq are just a few examples. Such intense influence and control allowed Hitler to set the stage for the Holocaust.

Many dictators have historically been labeled as "megalomaniacs" and "psychopaths." They are not unlike destructive cult leaders, who often have messianic pretensions and delusions about world influence. Movements such as Nazism, Stalinism and Maoist China can be seen as cults that fit well within the criteria advanced by Robert Jay Lifton in his paper concerning "cult formation." Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all "charismatic leader[s] who increasingly be[came] an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the[ir] group[s] los[t] power". These leaders also employed obvious thought reform techniques and exploited their followers.

In the United States during the "Red Scare" of the 50s there was a mindset that came be known as "McCarthyism." This mindset produced overwhelming intimidation, information control, propaganda and unreasonable fear. During that bleak era of American history Senator Joseph McCarthy dominated and profoundly influenced the thinking of a nation.

By Rick Ross, Expert Consultant and Intervention Specialist
flexible Families Against Cult Teachings