Characteristics Associated With Cults

Characteristics Associated With Cults

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale,” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult; this is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

    • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
    • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
    • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
    • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (e.g., members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry—or leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
    • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (e.g., the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
    • The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
    • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders, or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
    • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (e.g., lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
    • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
    • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
    • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
    • The group is preoccupied with making money.
    • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
    • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
    • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave—or even consider leaving—the group.

    Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may be manipulated, exploited, or even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may help you assess a particular group or relationship.

      • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
      • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
      • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members.
      • The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality.
      • The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
      • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
      • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
      • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
      • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
      • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave— or even consider leaving—the group.
      • How are people who left the group treated? What is said about them? Will the group give you names of people who left? Both those who were satisfied and those who were not?
      • Are former members willing to speak about their experiences? How do they evaluate their time with the group or person?
      • What is the process for filing complaints? Is there a feedback mechanism that is real and honored? Are complaints made public? Is there a money-back guarantee?
      • Are your questions answered directly? Are you told time and again to listen to your heart and not your head? Are you told that you are too new, too uninformed, too nosy, and so on, and shouldn’t be asking such questions?
      • Is there a leader who appears to be the ultimate authority, spokesperson? Are his or her views challenged by others? Must the leader’s opinion be accepted without question?
      • What is the attitude of the followers toward the leader? Are there checks and balances to hold the leader accountable?
      • Is more than one point of view presented? Are other points of view recognized? Are other points of view seen as valid but different?
      • What kind of commitment is expected? In time, money, lifestyle changes?
      • Does it appear that there are secrets? Is information restricted in any way? Is there some information that you are told must not be shared with outsiders? Is there information that you’re told you can’t get until you’re a member of the group or reached a certain level?

      This excerpt written by Janja Lalich and Michael D. Langone is from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships (Bay Tree Publishing, 2006). Do not reprint without permission of the publisher.