Common Cult Characteristics|
Most of the following information was condensed from several pages
of the REVIVE web site at
[Dead Link — the web site is gone]
Even though some of this information appears to have been tailored to fit Alcoholics
Anonymous, it has not. This is just your generic run-of-the-mill cult
description. In fact, the major concern of the Revive web site is currently
a new cult called "International Churches of Christ" that is
sweeping campuses. They don't even mention A.A.. They just coincidentally
describe it. What is the slogan in A.A.? "There are no coincidences..."
— Agent Orange
Dr. Robert J. Lifton, one of the pioneers in the study of brainwashing and coercive
thought reform, wrote,
Whatever its setting, thought reform consists of two basic elements:
confession, the exposure and renunciation of past and present "evil";
and re-education, the remaking of a man in the Communist image.
These elements are closely related and overlapping, since they both bring
into play a series of pressures and appeals — intellectual, emotional, and physical —
aimed at social control and individual change.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of
"Brainwashing" in China,
by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963, page 5.
Lifton was speaking specifically about Chinese Communist brainwashing. It would be
years before he learned that the same thing was happening in the U.S.A., done by
organizations like the Moonies — Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
In a television interview, Dr. Robert J. Lifton also said that cults exhibit these characteristics:
- The guru is worshipped, rather than the principles or doctrines (on which the sect is supposed to be based).
- The group exhibits thought-reform-like characteristics.
- The members experience heavy exploitation from above.
Eight Conditions of Thought Reform
as presented in
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of
"Brainwashing" in China,
by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963.
This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological
current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication.
Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over
not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and
hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses), but also — in its
penetration of his inner life — over what we may speak of as his communication
with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's
There is purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with outside
There is the control of human communication through control of the environment.
The cult doesn't just control communication
between people, it also controls people's communication with
themselves, in their own minds.
There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but, in fact, were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.
The inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal manipulaton.
This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred character, and uses every possible device
at the milieu's command, no matter how bizarre or painful.
Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and
emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously
from within the environment.
This element of planned spontaneity, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient
group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical quality.
Potential convert is convinced of the higher purpose within the
Everyone is manipulating everyone, under the belief that it advances the
Experiences are engineered to appear to be spontaneous,
when, in fact, they are contrived to have a deliberate effect.
People mistakenly attribute their experiences to spiritual causes
when, in fact, they are concocted by human beings.
The Demand for Purity
The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
The experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into
the absolutely good and the absolutely evil.
The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which
are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to
be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood
of stern moral judgements.
The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity
is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately
The cult demands Self-sanctification through Purity.
Only by pushing toward perfection, as the group views goodness, will the recruit be able to contribute.
The demand for purity creates a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu
by holding up standards of perfection that no human being can attain.
People are punished and learn to punish themselves for not living up to the
The Cult of Confession
Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
There is no confidentiality: members' sins, attitudes, and faults are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
Closely related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with personal
Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions
to the point of becoming a cult in itself.
Public confessional periods are used to get members to verbalize
and discuss their innermost fears and anxieties as well as
The environment demands that personal boundaries
are destroyed and that every thought, feeling, or action that does not conform with the
group's rules be confessed.
Members have little or no privacy, physically or mentally.
Aura of Sacred Science
The groups doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma,
holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence.
This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against
the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded
for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the
Word itself. While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however,
the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic,
of absolute "scientific" precision.
Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who
dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes
not only immoral and irreverent, but also "unscientific".
In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce
their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of
The cult advances the idea that the cult's laws, rules and regulations are absolute
and, therefore, to be followed automatically.
The group's belief is that their dogma is
absolutely scientific and morally true.
No alternative viewpoint is allowed.
No questioning of the dogma is permitted.
Loading the Language
The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief,
highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.
The cult invents a new vocabulary, giving well-known words
special new meanings, making them into trite clichés.
The clichés become "ultimate terms", either
"god terms", representative of
ultimate good, or "devil terms", representative of ultimate evil.
Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon,
prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but
its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: the language of non-thought.
Controlling words helps to control people's thoughts.
The group uses black-or-white thinking and
The special words constrict rather than expand human understanding.
Non-members cannot simply comprehend what cult members are talking about.
Doctrine over Person
Another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of
human experience to the claims of doctrine.
Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
Past experience and values are invalid if
they conflict with the new cult morality.
The value of individuals is insignificant when compared to the
value of the group.
Past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored
to make them consistent with doctrinal logic.
No matter what a person experiences, it is belief in the
dogma which is important.
Group belief supersedes individual conscience and integrity.
The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence
can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.
Lifton gave a Communist example: In thought reform, as in Chinese Communist practice generally,
the world is divided into "the people" (defined as "the working class,
the peasant class, the petite bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie"),
and "the reactionaries" or "the lackies of imperialism"
(defined as "the landlord class, the bureaucratic capitalist class,
and the KMT reactionaries and their henchmen").
The group decides who has a right to exist
and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, are unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology.
If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
The group has an elitist world view — a sharp line is drawn
by cult between those who have been saved, chosen, etc.
(the cult members) and those who are lost, in the dark, etc.
(the rest of the world).
Former members are seen as "weak, " "lost,"
"evil," and "the enemy".
The cult insists that there is no legitimate alternative to
membership in the cult.
Criteria for Thought Reform ("Brainwashing"):
A Comparison of Theories
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (Themes)
Prof. Margaret Thaler Singer (Conditions)
Dr. Edgar H. Schein (Stages)
Milieu control (environment, medium, or condition)
Loading the language (special vocabulary)
Self-sanctification through Purity (demand for purity)
Aura of Sacred science
Doctrine over Person
Control recruit's time and/or
Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, guilt,
Suppress much of recruit's old behavior,
attitudes, and/or beliefs
Implement group doctrine over person's beliefs
Dispense existence — enforce a closed system of logic
Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
Instill new behavior and attitudes:
- new identification
- behavior modification
- mystical manipulation
- mind-altering techniques
- confession eliciting
Allow little input or criticism from recruit while refreezing.
A detailed synopsis of the
"changing" process is printed below.
From: Cults in Our Midst: How They Capture
Individuals, Families, and the Workplace by Margaret Thaler Singer
with Janja Lalich, page 63.
Marks of a Destructive Cult
Mind Control (undue influence)
Manipulation by the use of coercive persuasion
or behavior modification techniques without informed consent.
Claiming divinity or special knowledge and
demanding unquestioning obedience with power and privilege.
Leadership may consist of one individual or a core of leaders.
Recruiting and fundraising with hidden
objectives and without full disclosure.
Secretiveness or vagueness by
followers regarding activities or beliefs.
Separation from family, friends, society,
a change in values and substitution of the cult as the
"new family"; evidence of subtle or abrupt personality
Can be financial, physical, psychological;
pressure to give money, to spend a great deal on courses or give
excessively to special projects and to engage in inappropriate
sexual activities, or child abuse.
Totalitarian World View
Also known as the "we/they" syndrome,
effecting dependence, promoting goals of the group over the
individual and approving unethical behavior while claiming
These five steps of mind control were
outlined by Dr. Edgar H. Schein. His five criteria for a person's
"changing" or conforming to the group norm are
- new identification,
- behavior modification,
- mystical manipulation,
- mind-altering techniques, and
- confession eliciting.
This is a brief description of each of them:
A new "cult
identity" is created and imposed formally in
indoctrination sessions as well as informally through
personal relations with cult members, tapes, books on group
Behavior Modification Techniques
Behavior modification techniques
include the reward/punishment cycle, the use of thought-stopping techniques, and the
control of environment.
Mystical manipulation is the perception
of coincidental or inevitable events as spiritual signs.
Recruits are trained that such signs are symbols of
the greatness of the group.
Hypnosis, repetition, monotony, and
rhythm are often used to numb the thought processes of recruits.
These are often carried out through excessive chanting,
praying, decreeing, and visions.
Eliciting of Confession
Testimonials and/or confessions are
forcibly and continually extracted from recruits as a means
of keeping recruits dependent and obedient.
Coercive Persuasion: A Socio-psychological
Analysis of the "Brainwashing" of American Civilian
Prisoners by the Chinese Communists, Edgar H. Schein with
Inge Schneier and Curtis H. Barker, New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
What is a Cult?
For those having difficulty
understanding what is a cult and what is not, it is best to keep
in mind the idea that cults generally B.I.T.E —
that is, they use:|
to obtain and maintain their flock. These four components are
guidelines. Although most cults practice these four aspects of
mind control, not all will practice them to the extreme.
- Thought, and
- Emotional control
What is the Overall Effect?
What matters most is the
overall impact these thought-stop processes have on a recruit's
feelings, will, and ability to make personal choices. A person's
uniqueness, talents, skills, creativity, and free will should be
encouraged and not suppressed in any healthy group. Cult mind control
seek to mold recruits into the image of the cult leader(s),
although the recruits may not be aware of this. This process is
called "cloning" from a psychological perspective.
"new identities" within a cult are the result of a
systematic process that works to dissociate them from their
including beliefs, values, and significant relationships.
The end result is the creation of a dual identity:
a dominant "cult identity" that is constantly at war
with the subconscious old identity.
*Taken from Steve Hassan's Combatting Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press, 1988).
Visit his web site:
Behavior control is described
as the regulation of one's physical and mental reality. A new
recruit is coerced repeatedly to squelch his/her critical-thinking
skills and gut instincts in return for group approval and inclusion.
Exerting such a control over people allows high-pressure groups
to determine most or all of the following:
- Where, how, and with whom recruits live and associate.
- What clothing, colors, and hairstyles to wear.
Which foods/drinks are accepted or rejected.
- How much financial dependence recruits are to have on the group,
what percentage of recruits' income is collected for the group's purposes.
- How much time is spent on leisure activities such as relaxing,
sleeping, leisure activities, and vacationing.
Once behavior control is put into
effect, recruits respond and react accordingly. The recruits:
Unwittingly commit themselves to the required indoctrination
sessions and group rituals.
Relinquish many personal decision-making processes and go to the
group to determine minor and/or major life decisions.
Are required to report all doubts about the group, perceived
negative thoughts, personal feelings, and external activities to their superiors.
Undergo endless cycles of verbal and/or physical abuse, then
being praised or rewarded.
(When husbands do that to wives, it is called The
Battered Wife Syndrome.)
Steer clear of individualism and independent thought as group-thought
Adhere to often unforeseen rigid rules and regulations.
Develop a need for obedience to and dependency on the group
Information control in cults can involve six key elements:
Outside Information Forbidden
Levels of Information
Spying and Survelliance
Cult members will often:
- Deliberately withhold
information from recruits
- Distort information to make it
- Lie to obtain their goal
Outside Information Forbidden
Access to information outside of that of the group is minimized
or discouraged. These restrictions are set on:
- Certain books, articles,
newspapers, magazines, TV and radio shows that expose the group
- Critical information
pertaining to the internal problems within the group
- Written critiques, letters,
editorials, or history of involvements of former members of the group
Levels of Information
Often, and necessarily so within cults, information is
compartmentalized. That is, only certain top-notch members are privy to exactly what is
happening in the leadership and with the group as a whole. Information pertaining to the
group doctrine is fed in small, digestable spoonfuls to new recruits for a reason — so
that they remain ignorant for the time being of the workings of the system. Leaders are
seen as possessing what Lifton called "sacred science," or having the ability to
decipher and interpret doctrines, philosophies, etc, in a way that no one else has ever
done or could ever do.
- Information is not freely accessible
- Information varies at different levels and missions
- Leadership decides who "needs to know" what
Spying and Survelliance
- Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and
- Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to
- Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes,
- Misquotations, statements taken out of context from
- Information about "sins" is used to abolish
- Past "sins" are used to manipulate and control; no
forgiveness or absolution is given.
Here are a few guidelines for thought control:
Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "the truth".
- Map = Reality
- "All-or-none" mentality
- Good against evil
- Us against them (inside versus outside)
Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by
Words are the tools we use to think with.
These "special" words constrict rather than expand
understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience
into trite, platitudinous "buzz words".
"Thought-terminating cliches" and simplistic slogans stop critical
Only "good" and "proper"
thoughts are encouraged.
Practice thought-stopping techniques, prevent
"reality testing" by stopping "negative" thoughts
and allowing only "good" thoughts, and prohibit rational analysis,
critical thinking, and constructive criticism:
- Denial, rationalization, justification,
and wishful thinking.
- Chanting, meditating, praying.
- Speaking in "tongues".
- Singing or humming.
The group is unquestionable.
No critical questions about the leader, doctrine, or
policy are seen as legitimate.
No alternative belief systems are viewed as
legitimate, good, or useful.
Emotional control allows cults to manipulate and narrow the range
of a recruit's feelings. The objective of cults is to make recruits
think that any doubts about the group is their fault, and never that
of the leader(s) or the group. Any negativism toward the group is
often misdirected back to the recruit — causing the recruit to
internalize their doubts.
This section contains the following:
Cults induce large amounts of guilt,
typically, in association with the following:
- Who you are (and why you are
not living up to your potential)
- Who your family is (those from
dysfunctional families are to attribute their dysfunctional
past to their not being a member of the group yet;
those from well-adjusted familes are to feel guilty for having
had it so good)
- What secrets lie in your past
(sexual history, childhood mistakes, any past criminal involvement
is overly emphasized)
- With whom you are affiliated (the
company you keep, boyfriend / girlfriend / fiancees shunned,
family, friends, etc.)
- What you think (how you feel, and
what you do about your feelings, whether what you think and feel
is acceptable to the group)
- Social guilt (recruit is made
to feel inadequate because of his/her social status)
- Historical guilt (recruit is forced
to take on the oppression of his/her ancestors and the plight
of martyred persons)
In order for guilt induction to successfully
operate, cults must be able to instill fear in their followers:
- Fear of thinking independently.
(Recruits wonder whether they are making right decisions,
what the consequences will be if
they think independently.)
- Fear of the
(Recruits have a "we/they" mentality, and generally see
all in the group as "saved," while all outside
the group are "lost.")
- Fear of enemies. (Recruits are
indoctrinated to be very paranoid of all those on the outside,
including the government,
cult awareness groups, and/or society in general.)
- Fear of losing salvation.
(Recruits are taught that salvation is attained only through group
affiliation and nowhere else.)
- Fear of being shunned.
(Recruits often risk losing family, friends, job, etc. if they
decide to leave. Many cults "mark" or otherwise
collectively shun former members.)
- Fear of disapproval. (Recruits
learn to live according to the laws of the leaders,
and learn that deviating from these laws is
detrimental to the well-being of both oneself
and the others in the group.)
Cults often deal in extremes. Here are
a few examples of extremism in cults:
- Extremes of emotional highs
and lows (rewards and punishments go hand-in-hand)
- Ritual and often public
confessions of sins (confessions provoked and exaggerated by
inductor, i.e. a recruit who
confesses to having had a few beers is labelled
- "We/they" mentality,
in which group sees itself as better than the rest of the world,
The group sees itself as the only people capable
of accurate doctrinal interpretation
(also called "sacred science").
Phobia indoctrination is the programming
of irrational fears of
ever leaving the group, or even questioning the leadership's authority.
Recruits are manipulated to the extent that they cannot visualize a
positive and successful future without being in the group.
They are taught that horrific consequences will ensue if they are to leave
(i.e., "hell," "demon possession," accidents, suicide,
and/or insanity, etc.).
Often, former cult members are so confused upon leaving that the
group's predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many former cult members have killed themselves because that was
exactly what the group said they would do.
Those who leave are often shunned and rejected by the group.
From the group perspective, there is never a legitimate reason to leave.
Those who leave are perceived as "weak," "undiscipled,"
"brainwashed by family, friends, counselors", and/or
seduced by the world of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.
Last updated 16 August 2014.
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