by Michael D.Langone, Ph.D.
A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leader, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
These groups tend to dictate, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel, claim a special exalted status for themselves and/or their leader(s), and intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.
Because the capacity to exploit human beings is universal, any group could become a cult. However, most mainstream, established groups have accountability mechanisms that restrain the development of cultic subgroups.
How Many Cults Exist and How Many Members Do They Have?
Cult-education organizations have received inquiries about more than 3,000 groups. Although the majority of groups are small, some have tens of thousands of members. Experts estimate that five to ten million people have been involved with cultic groups at one time or another.
What is Mind Control?
Mind control (also known as “brainwashing,” “coercive persuasion,” and “thought reform”) refers to a process in which a group or individual systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s).
Such methods include the following:
extensive control of information in order to limit alternatives from which members may make “choices”
intense indoctrination into a belief system that denigrates independent critical thinking and considers the world outside the group to be threatening, evil, or gravely in error an insistence that members’ distress-much of which may consist of anxiety and guilt subtly induced by the group-can be relieved only by conforming to the group
physical and/or psychological debilitation through inadequate diet or fatigue the induction of dissociative (trance-like) states via the misuse of meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, and other exercises in which attention is narrowed, suggestibility heightened, and independent critical thinking weakened
alternation of harshness/threats and leniency/love in order to effect compliance with the leadership’s wishes isolation from social supports pressured public confessions
Who Joins Cults and Why?
Contrary to a popular misconception that cult members are “crazy,” research and clinical evidence strongly suggests that most cult members are relatively normal.
They include the young, the middle-aged, elderly, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, and the uneducated from every ethnic and religious background. There is no easily identifiable type of person who joins cults.
How Do People Who Join Cults Change?
After converts commit themselves to a group, the cult’s way of thinking, feeling, and acting becomes second nature, while important aspects of their pre-cult personalities are suppressed or, in a sense, decay through disuse.
New converts at first frequently appear to be shell-shocked; they may appear “spaced out,” rigid and stereotyped in their responses, limited in their use of language, impaired in their ability to think critically, and oddly distant in their relationships with others. Intense cultic manipulations can trigger altered states of consciousness in some people.
Why Do People Leave Cults?
People leave for a variety of reasons. After becoming aware of hypocrisy and/or corruption within the cult, converts who have maintained an element of independence and some connection with their old values may simply walk out. Others may leave because they are weary of a routine of proselytizing and fund-raising.
Sometimes even the most dedicated members may feel so inadequate in the face of the cult’s demands that they walk away because they feel like abject failures. Others may renounce the cult after reconnecting to old values, goals, interests, or relationships, resulting from visits with parents, talks with ex-members, or exit counseling.
Is Leaving a Cult Easy?
People who consider leaving a cult are usually pressured to stay. Some ex-members say they spent months, even years, trying to garner the strength to walk out. Some felt so intimidated they departed secretly.
Although many cult members eventually walk out on their own, many, if not most, who leave cults on their own are psychologically harmed, often in ways they do not understand. Some cult members never leave, and some of these are severely harmed.
There is no way to predict who will leave, who won’t leave, or who will be harmed. ?
by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
Two main concerns should inform our moral and psychological perspective on cults:
the dangers of ideological totalism, or what I would also call fundamentalism
the need to protect civil liberties
There is now a worldwide epidemic of totalism and fundamentalism in forms that are political, religious or both. Fundamentalism is a particular danger in this age of nuclear weapons, because it often includes a theology of Armageddon–a final battle between good and evil.
I have studied Chinese thought reform in the 1950s as well as related practices in McCarthyite American politics and in certain training and educational programs. I have also examined these issues in work with Vietnam veterans, who often movingly rejected war related totalism; and more recently in a study of the psychology of Nazi doctors.
Certain psychological themes which recur in these various historical contexts also arise in the study of cults.
Cults can be identified by three characteristics:
a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power
a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform
economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie
The first method characteristically used by ideological totalism is milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment. In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group. There is an attempt to manage an individual’s inner communication.
Milieu control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint. Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events such as seminars, lectures and encounters which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically.
Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call doubling: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time.
When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier self may be reasserted.
Creating a Pawn
A second characteristic of totalistic environments is mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity. This is a systematic process through which the leadership can create in cult members what I call the psychology of the pawn. The process is managed so that it appears to arise spontaneously; to its objects it rarely feels like manipulation.
Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting and limited sleep are used. Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular chosen’ human being is the only source of salvation. The person of the leader may attract members to the cult, but can also be a source of disillusionment. If members of the Unification Church, for example, come to believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder, is associated with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.
Mystical manipulation may also legitimate deception of outsiders, as in the “heavenly deception” of the Unification Church and analogous practices in other cult environments. Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose.
For instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny their affiliation with a cult that has a dubious public reputation.
Purity and Confession
Two other features of totalism are a demand for purity and a cult of confession. The demand for purity is a call for radical separation of good and evil within the environment and within oneself. Purification is a continuing process, often institutionalized in the cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt and shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.
Confessions contain varying mixtures of revelation and concealment.
As Albert Camus observed,
“Authors of confessions write especially to avoid confession, to tell nothing of what they know.”
Young cult members confessing the sins of their precultic lives may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware of or reluctant to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior existence.
Repetitious confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses an arrogance in the name of humility. As Camus wrote:
“I practice the profession of penitence to be able to end up as a judge,” and, “The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.”
Three further aspects of ideological totalism are “sacred science,” “loading of the language,” and the principle of “doctrine over person.” Sacred science is important because a claim of being scientific is often needed to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age.
The Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency to combine dogmatic religious principles with a claim to special scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology. The term ‘loading the language’ refers to literalism and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, cliché-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality.
The principle of doctrine over person’ is invoked when cult members sense a conflict between what they are experiencing and what dogma says they should experience. The internalized message of the totalistic environment is that one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the dogma. Contradictions become associated with guilt: doubt indicates one’s own deficiency or evil.
Perhaps the most significant characteristic of totalistic movements is what I call “dispensing of existence.” Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist.
That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse. Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere, people were put to death for alleged doctrinal shortcomings. In the People’s Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana, a cult leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a suicidal mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group’s ideology.
The totalistic impulse to draw a sharp line between those who have the right to live and those who do not is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.
Totalism should always be considered within a specific historical context. A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or psycho historical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic structures that organize ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a decay of belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death.
One function of cults is to provide a group initiation rite for the transition to early adult life, and the formation of an adult identity outside the family. Cult members have good reasons for seeing attempts by the larger culture to make such provisions as hypocritical or confused.
In providing substitute symbols for young people, cults are both radical and reactionary. They are radical because they suggest rude questions about middle-class family life and American political and religious values in general. They are reactionary because they revive pre-modern structures of authority and sometimes establish fascist patterns of internal organization.
Furthermore, in their assault on autonomy and self-definition some cults reject a liberating historical process that has evolved with great struggle and pain in the West since the Renaissance. Cults must be considered individually in making such judgments. Historical dislocation is one source of what I call the “protean style.”
This involves a continuous psychological experimentation with the self, a capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same time, and a tendency to change one’s ideas, companions and way of life with relative ease. Cults embody a contrary ‘restricted style,’ a flight from experimentation and the confusion of a protean world. These contraries are related: groups and individuals can embrace a protean and a restricted style in turn.
For instance, the so-called hippie ethos of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the present so-called Yuppie preoccupation with safe jobs and comfortable incomes. For some people, experimentation with a cult is part of the protean search.
The imagery of extinction derived from the con temporary threat of nuclear war influences patterns of totalism and fundamentalism throughout the world. Nuclear war threatens human continuity itself and impairs the symbols of immortality. Cults seize upon this threat to provide immortalizing principles of their own.
The cult environment supplies a continuous opportunity for the experience of transcendence — a mode of symbolic immortality generally suppressed in advanced industrial society.
Role of Psychology
Cults raise serious psychological concerns, and there is a place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members.
But our powers as mental health professionals are limited, so we should exercise restraint. When helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important to maintain a personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working for the cult or for the parents.
Totalism begets totalism. What is called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense dialogue on the one hand to physical coercion and kidnapping, with thought-reform-like techniques, on the other. My own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and others who consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process. Cults are primarily a social and cultural rather than a psychiatric or legal problem.
But psychological professionals can make important contributions to the public education crucial for dealing with the problem. With greater knowledge about them, people are less susceptible to deception, and for that reason some cults have been finding it more difficult to recruit members.
Yet painful moral dilemmas remain. When laws are violated through fraud or specific harm to recruits, legal intervention is clearly indicated. But what about situations in which behavior is virtually automatized, language reduced to rote and cliché, yet the cult member expresses a certain satisfaction or even happiness?
We must continue to seek ways to encourage a social commitment to individual autonomy and avoid coercion and violence.