I don’t want to ghettoize this post by making it about Mormonism, but since that’s why we’re all here, it’s natural to gravitate to that. But this pertains to so much more than one group.
I recently watched a video (not the best) that got me thinking about what it means to be a member of a cult and how we could recognize if we were a member of a cult. I decided to gather a list of characteristics common to cults. [1, 2, 3, 4]
That same day, I heard a radio program about a young woman’s story of joining and leaving a sorority. I got really excited and yelled “She was in a cult!” (Don’t listen to that program yet. Wait until after you’ve read the list.)
So cults aren’t just religious organizations. They could be sororities, political parties, clubs, and so on. And cults exist on a spectrum; some groups are more cultish than others.
The list that follows comes from the most extreme cults,1 but assessing a group against this extreme can help us see where it falls on the spectrum.
I realize that some of these descriptions are general enough to encompass a large number of relatively healthy groups, because we can find some level of cultishness in virtually all groups. A positive answer to any one question is not a smoking gun. The list doesn’t answer a binary yes-no question. It paints a picture. The question is no longer “Is this group a cult?” but has become “How cultish is this group?”
All of the following refer to a single leader, but applies equally to situations with more members in leadership positions.
- Is the leader charismatic? Cults are often created and maintained by the force of the founder’s personality.
- Is the leader always right?
- Does the leader not tolerate or receive criticism, while criticizing everyone else? Does the leader discourage negative feedback about the group?
- Is the leader treated like royalty or considered with reverential awe?
- Is the leader coercive? Does the leader try to compel members by force, intimidation, or authority against the member’s individual will?
- Is the leader self absorbed? Cult leaders are often preoccupied with how people perceive them and seek to aggrandize themselves.
- Does the leader seek sexual gratification from the members?
- Is the group organized in an authoritarian, hierarchical power structure?
- Does the leader claim divinity or special knowledge and authority from God?
- Is disagreeing with the leader considered the same as disagreeing with God?
- Does the leader expect unquestioning obedience?
- Does the leader hold out the promise of salvation, power within the group, enlightenment, or other ultimate rewards in return for membership and obedience?
- Is the leader not held accountable for his actions or the actions of his authority structure?
- Does the leader ask for money as a sign of loyalty, to be in good standing, or to go to the next level?
Cults go to extreme means to recruit new members.
- Does the group provide an instant community by love bombing a newcomer or presenting itself as a happy family?
- Do the members always appear happy and enthusiastic for newcomers? Or have they been encouraged to appear that way?
- Are members unable to tell the truth about the group? Members will often lie or evade the truth about the group in order to present a more palatable vision to newcomers. However, this issue goes much deeper, because members are often unable to acknowledge the truth to each other.
- Does the group withhold the full truth about its ideas and practices from newcomers? Cults often refrain from divulging the complete picture until newcomers have gotten themselves in deep.
- Do group members keep near constant contact with interested newcomers? This prevents the newcomer from having time to rethink their involvement and to think with a cooler head away from the love bombing.
- Does the group isolate newcomers from family and friends? Cults will try through various means to cut off contact between newcomers and outsiders to prevent the truth about the group from coming to light and to replace familial bonds with bonds to the cult.
- Do new members estrange themselves from family and friends? Even if group members don’t actively try to cut off newcomers from outside influences, newcomers may start to distance themselves from others who don’t share their new outlook and seem to misunderstand or be overly critical.
- Does the group emphasize the unimportance or worthlessness of the new member while hyping membership in the group? A cult will seek to break down an individual’s self worth in order to foster dependence on the group. A weakened individual becomes pliable to coercion.
- Does the group solicit confessions of guilt, weakness, or fear? Cults seek to break down normal personal boundaries in order to foster a new identity centered around the group.
- Does the group demand that new members take some action to affirm their loyalty? These demands may start out small and get progressively bigger. This primes the newcomer to follow directions given by group members. It also causes newcomers to unconsciously justify their actions. For example, “I gave money to this group. I’m a smart person who wouldn’t get cheated. This group must be good.”
- Do newcomers need to be trained to think correctly (i.e. according to the group’s ideas)?
- Does the group encourage new members to renounce former values or beliefs?
- Does the group test members before completely accepting them?
Dissolution of Individual Identity and Independence
The cult draws strength through the number of followers and their degree of commitment (as all groups do). Cults secure committed members through damaging a member’s sense of independent identity and will. Cults fill the void with dependence on the group.
- Do members use a language that no one else can understand?
- Do the members have special ways of dressing or other special behaviors that mark them as members? Having a common lingo and similar modes of dress fosters a sense of group cohesion and identity. It also serves to further separate members from the wider society.
- Do the members have solidarity within the group with little or no outside allegiance? Cults will try to become the entity that members are ultimately loyal to instead of more natural loyalties like family or friends.
- Does the group use guilt to motivate obedience?
- Is there a system of punishment and reward? Such a system infantilizes the member, creating a relationship that resembles that between parent and child.
- Do members feel a sense of powerless, dependency, covert fear, or guilt?
- Does the group demand complete loyalty or trust in the group and its beliefs? Is the expression of doubt suppressed through guilt or character assassination?
- Do members feel dependent on the leader? Would they feel lost without the leader’s direction and presence?
- Do members allow the leader to make decisions for them?
- Do members lose the ability to make choices contrary to the group’s beliefs? Nearly all decisions are weighed against how the group would look at the choice.
- Does the group deprive members of the sense of time by removing clocks and watches?
- Does the group encourage child-like or uninhibited behavior? Disinhibition fosters child-like dependence and further opens members to coercion.
- Does the group demand public identification with the group or expressions of solidarity with the group? The more often a member publicly identifies with the group, the more membership in the group dominates individual identity.
- Does the group have rules that govern every aspect of life? Members get in the habit of following rules and the cult comes to dominate their thoughts throughout the day.
- Do members endure verbal abuse or character assassination?
- Are the members malnourished or sleep deprived? Members who are physically weak are less able to resist mental coercion.
- Does the group employ peer pressure and the desire to belong to change member’s behavior?
- Are members punished and rewarded for similar behaviors? This confuses the members and keeps them off balance.
- Do members report each other’s misbehavior to the leader?
- Does the group keep members so busy with activities and meetings that they don’t have time and energy to think about their involvement or to spend time with non-members?
- Are the members’ personal boundaries and privacy violated?
Suspension of Rational Thought
If evaluated rationally, the claims of a cult loose most of their appeal. A successful cult manages to suppress rational thought directed at their beliefs and practices.
- Is the member blamed for all failures or dissapointments? (E.g. you aren’t recruiting because your heart is full of sin.) This allows the cult to shift blame for its own failings to the member while simultaneously breaking down their self worth.
- Does the group use hypnosis (sometimes presented as meditation or relaxation)? The difference between legitimate use of these techniques and how cults employ them is that the cult uses them to suppress rational thought in order to make the member more pliable.
- Does the group tell members what they should read or watch? Leaders want members to avoid opposing points of view so the spell the cult has woven over its members won’t be broken.
- Does the group employ thought stopping language, clichs, or slogans? These sayings are presented as self-evidently true, but their true purpose is to shortcut logic and critical thinking.
- Do members repeatedly chant or sing mind-narrowing phrases? These techniques make an end-run around rational thought and implant ideas through sheer repetition.
- Does the group discourage members from asking questions?
- Do they encourage the experiential instead of the logical? For cults seeking to hide the truth or foster dependence, it is simpler to manipulate emotions than to provide a reasonable chain of logic.
- Does the group present incomprehensible doctrine that confuses members and discourages the use of logic? Members may try to reconcile contradictions in doctrine, but their efforts prove ultimately fruitless. At this point, cults can insinuate that logic is impotent and discourage its use.
- Do members neglect to verify information they receive from the group? Do the accept something as the truth simply because it came from the group?
- Do members avoid thinking in ways that are contrary to the group’s beliefs? Members may have a strong mental aversion to merely entertaining an opposing point of view.
Attitudes about the Group
Cults are characterized by a high level of exceptionalism.
- Does the group have all the answers to the important questions in life?
- Does the group claim to be the only or the best source of truth?
- Do members consider themselves to be the elite or the chosen?
- Do members consider themselves the only ones who will be saved or earn the ultimate reward?
- Does the group see its role as preparing for the imminent end of the world?
Attitudes Toward Outsiders
Outsiders are dangerous to the cult—unless they feel an interest in joining—because they threaten to disrupt the spell of the cult over its members.
- Do members avoid association with non-members?
- Are virtually all of a member’s close associates also members?
- Do the members live together, sequestered from non-members?
- Do members attack the character of critics or those who are not in the group?
- Do members devalue the opinions of outsiders?
- Are non-members considered less enlightened?
- Does the group encourage thinking in us-versus-them terms?
- Do members avoid listening to the perspectives of non-members?
If outsiders are a threat, members who leave are doubly so, especially if they appear to be doing well after leaving. Cults typically demonize those who leave or portray them as miserable and pitiable.
- Is it difficult to leave?
- If members try to leave, are they considered rebellious against the will of a higher power or of the leader?
- Are people who leave considered deserters, weak, or evil by members?
- Do members avoid association with onetime members that have left the group?
So, how do some of your groups measure up? What level of cultishness can we accept in the groups we belong to?
[Crossposted to Blank Canvas.]
1. “Cult” is not generally a technical term with a clear definition. Scholars of religion eschew the term, although it is used in some academic circles. Even though it lacks a technical definition, I’ll use it as a working term since we can all recognize a cult (as long as it’s not our own).