Cults: Public Perceptions vs. Research

July 1998

By John Stacey, Student at Rutgers University

Edited by Rick Ross



What is a Cult?
Popular Perceptions
Why Do People Join Cults?
Characteristics of Thought Reform
Milieu Control
Mystical Manipulation
Demand for Purity
Cult of Confession
Sacred Science
Loaded Language
Doctrine over Person
Dispensing of Existence

What is a Cult?

A cult is a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure--most often that person is attempting to expand their influence for the purposes of money or power. However, in order to achieve their goals destructive cults, as opposed to harmless ones--use a strong combination of influence techniques to psychologically control their members (Rhoads 1998). This set of techniques is often called "mind control" or "thought reform". Today in America studies show that between 2 and 5 million young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are involved in approximately 2,000 to 5,000 cult groups (Robinson, Frye and Bradley 1997).

Popular Perceptions

There are many articles and media reports about cults and their victims, but how do people become involved with cults? It seems easy to dismiss this question by simply saying--"only foolish, lonely, or disturbed people join the ranks of destructive cults". Most people believe that individuals who join cults are insecure and are motivated by a desire to find a tight knit community within which they can find a stronger sense of identity and security--a haven from the outside world. A common perception is that such people typically cannot make decisions for themselves or bear the pressure of making choices independently. Thus, some reason that cult members were on a quest to find someone to control them and dictate their actions and lifestyle. Cult members, according to this logic, are people who prefer cultic control and dependency--instead of the burden of autonomous decision-making.

It seems to me that these notions are usually an expression of ignorance, foolish and perhaps a form of denial. That is--such notions make us feel comfortable in the seeming security that cult members are "them" and could never be "us". Before conducting my research such notions about cultists seemed reasonable to me. However, this issue touched my personal life when a close friend, who was a healthy and well-balanced person, became involved with a cult. There is a body of research regarding the cult recruitment process. It is important to review and discuss the tactics of cult leaders and their proselytizing in an effort to explain and how intelligent psychologically healthy people--can be persuaded to join a destructive cult.

One goal of this paper is to recognize that thousands of people are actually tricked into joining cults. Another is to respectfully remember those who perished under the psychological oppression of deranged leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite and to set straight the mistaken notions about people in cults. Also--to inform the public about the techniques of cult formation and recruitment.

Why Do People Join Cults?

Again and again in my research I have encountered the same phrase: No one joins a cult, rather people are recruited. Philip Zimbardo explains, "People join interesting groups that promise to fulfill their pressing needs. They become cults when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society" (Zimbardo 1998). The fact is, the recruitment techniques that cults employ are quite effective. An explanation of these techniques will follow later in the paper. Cults obviously want to be successful, so they seek to recruit the most capable people who can effectively serve them. Many cult members are doctors, lawyers, professors, and high profile celebrities--responsible citizens. This is why some cults have survived for decades and functioned efficiently despite a high turnover rate, public disapproval and angry parents. People often believe cult members must have been neglected by their families. But this conclusion is in sharp contrast to the actions taken by many concerned families who will devote their money and time in intervention efforts to bring their children out of such groups and home again.

Zimbardo urges us not to stereotype cult members. Rather than asking--"What kind of people join cults?" he suggests we should instead ask, "What was so appealing about this group that so many people were recruited/seduced into joining it voluntarily? What needs did the group fulfill that were not met by 'traditional society?'" (Zimbardo 1998). It is also important to note that cults make many promises to potential recruits in the initial phases of induction--it is often not until months or years later that the recruit realizes that these promises were ploys to gain their compliance. However, by that time, the member is already submerged in the group and likely in submission to and under the undue influence of its leadership.

People who become cult members do not know that their recruiters have a hidden agenda. If they did initially know the actual intentions of the group--it is more likely they would resist their persuasion. It is natural for most people to not want others dictating to them. Indeed, for most of society this often seems presumptuous if not insulting. A respected psychologist, Margaret Thaler Singer, who has studied mind control since the 1950s, states that during the indoctrination process, the cult recruit is not aware how much he or she is changing. George Orwell understood that successful manipulation is "subtle and covert" (Singer 1996). The appearance of a benign Big Brother is the best way to ultimately control someone. Most people do not respond to overt efforts of persuasion.

The unsuspecting person is a prime target for cult recruiters. Some would contend that a person must be strong and courageous in order to withstand the efforts of cult indoctrinators (Putman 1997). However, it is my contention that such a perspective is foolish. In order for a recruiter for a radical and destructive cult to be successful--their target most likely will not know their actual agenda. Thus there is an element of deliberate deception. A person within the milieu of cult indoctrination might detect that their new friends are trying to persuade them about the group's philosophy, but he or she probably believes this being done for their benefit. It is therefore difficult to feel that agreeing with them is wrong when they seem so "happy" and "genuinely concerned". According to the Journal of Psychohistory, "techniques of mind control can be imposed on virtually anybody and becoming educated to the techniques used and the existence of cults is our best defense" (Johnson 1994).

To blame the victims of successful cult recruiting strategies is an error. Everyone is vulnerable to persuasion given the right circumstances. Every day we can find examples of deceit, deception and trickery working effectively within society. There are numerous examples such as people duped into paying for unnecessary auto repairs or being persuaded to have costly surgical procedure not really required for their health. Salesmen, advertisers, lawyers and politicians and even some doctors--expend great effort developing their abilities to persuade others.

However, for cult recruiters the stakes seem higher than the material world--their frequent belief is that they are vying for souls and essentially providing salvation. Many people join cults at a very young age when they are naive and ill equipped to face the cold realities and deception of the world. Moreover, when people are in transitional periods in their lives they are more vulnerable. That is--someone who is essentially in great shape psychologically may be approached during a major life transition or during a crisis. They might be recruited more easily after the death of a parent, after moving to a new and unfamiliar location or perhaps after a major relationship breaks up. We should not blame cult victims for their naivete or temporary vulnerability--certainly not when there is little education in our society about the dangers of destructive cults. Many people who have previously held that cult members must be weak or disturbed people--suddenly change their mind when a close friend or family member joins such a group.

The Media and Cults

The media presents varying images of the kinds of people who become involved in cults. Some sources blame the victim--claiming those involved sought such destructive relationships. Other sources report the insidious techniques employed by cult leaders to deceive and persuade people. A typically negative magazine article I read recently focused on the bizarre nature of cults and how members must be defective or previously troubled to be willing participants. It is my opinion based upon research that this is a form of what is commonly called "victim bashing". The article stated that cultists must have had a "tragic void in their lives" (Fennell and Branswell 1997). Tabloids have learned that sensationalizing this issue sells and can be lucrative. However, such reporting fails to tell the more compelling story of how normal people are deceptively coerced into cult affiliation. This also can be seen as unjustly dishonoring the memory of people who have often been brutally and sometimes criminally victimized.

One article published recently portrayed cult victims in a more realistic manner. Within this report titled "Trying to Save Josh" (Reminick 1997), a mother tells of her battle with a major religious cult to rescue her son. Josh joined when he was only 19 after he moved to the East Coast from San Francisco to attend college. The fact that he was temporarily in transition in a different geographical locale and attending a new school probably made Josh more vulnerable. His parents were divorced and Josh grew-up with his mother. This background might have contributed to his vulnerability--especially to an elder father-figure type cult recruiter. However, an older woman actually recruited him. Josh appeared to be a relatively normal and average young man. This article added to my growing interest in researching whether cult members were victims of deceptive thought reform programs, or had willingly and knowingly turned their lives over to the whims of their leaders and gurus.

Lifton's Eight Characteristics of Thought Reform

Robert Jay Lifton who is often viewed as the founding father of "thought reform" authored perhaps the most pivotal study on mind control. He studied the indoctrination techniques of Chinese Communists engaged in the conversion of American POWs and others during the Korean Conflict. Later, when the cult phenomenon arose in the United States, Lifton's findings were applied to cult indoctrination and recruiting practices. In his seminal book, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism", Chapter 22 "Ideological Totalism" , describes eight themes that distinguish thought reform--that also match many of the coercive persuasion methods often used by cults. Lifton states--"In any combination they may temporarily energize or exhilarate, which at the same time poses the greatest of human threats" (Lifton 1961).

  • Milieu Control

The first technique many totalistic groups use is what Lifton would describe as "Milieu Control". This is when cult members attempt to bring a potential recruit onto group territory, a milieu or area they can control. Surrounded by people who enthusiastically share a common belief, the individual may become insecure in his beliefs--and is often too far from friends and family to talk with them and do a "reality check." Speaking or acting in ways that are in conflict with the group members who dominate this environment makes the visitor feel awkward and wrong--though he may be acting in an acceptable manner according to societal norms. It is often difficult for a person to remain confident for very long when a group of seemingly kind individuals surround him and use this soft-sell approach to indoctrination.

The group also rewards potential member's agreement with the group--active members praise and encourage feelings of acceptance whenever he/she complies with the group and/or responds favorably to group doctrine. It is within this rather tightly controlled environment that recruiters keep the potential recruit out of contact with family and friends--who might be familiar with the organization and thus could warn of its dangers. In such a controlled environment, one is more vulnerable to the urgings of hosts.

  • Mystical Manipulation

The second theme Lifton introduces is called Mystical Manipulation. The group gives new recruits the impression that they are "God's elect"--such as some elite corps serving a heroic cause to save the world. Each member sincerely believes that the world is counting on him to fulfill his/her special responsibility. The members of the group share this profound sense of mission with the newcomer. They may claim that God has supernaturally/mystically guided the person to join their group in order to save humanity. The members frequently have a special ceremony of induction for the "chosen few". This type of induction makes the new recruit feel profoundly significant--thus the pull to join becomes almost irresistible. Despite the fact that the group members have used powerful practical tools such as milieu control, psychological pressure and possibly even lying about the nature of the group. They create the illusion that the recruit has chosen to join as an act of individual free will.

At this stage the recruit may think he/she is joining a fun social club where the group caters to their every need. After all, during the initial phases of recruitment the recruiters treat a newcomer like royalty--often giving the impression that this may be what the group is all about. But actually this is only done to gain initial commitment. Once the newcomer makes his/her commitment to the group, often even in writing--things change. Gradually, the warmth and affection, which was a principal motivating factor for joining fades--as the new member is now pushed into the same demanding submission that most cults expect. In some groups (e.g. the Unification Church ) this may include working 16 to 20 hours every day with little rest. There may also be a low protein diet, which makes members more malleable.

Eventually destructive group leaders will use extreme psychological pressure to force the new members to conform to the group's mind-set. This process is again part of "Mystical Manipulation" . In most cases the recruit will not know the actual expectations or agenda of the group and its often-grueling lifestyle. Of course they will be informed after "freely" making a commitment to join. Destructive cults promote the impression people join as a decision based upon individual free will. That impression is carefully ingrained in members and prevents complaints later that they were forced to into their hard life. But they most often fail to inform potential members what they are really committing themselves to--until it is too late. Thus--this manipulation of the group's recruitment process does not provide for truly informed consent.

  • Demand for Purity

The Demand for Purity is another common constraint within the cult milieu. Destructive cults teach the new member that everyone who is not a part of the group is somehow tainted, negative and/or generally unenlightened--while group members are holy and have the revealed and/or perfected truth. In fact, many groups additionally employ strictly enforced separation in the name of "purity" between males and females to prevent the development of special intimacy. However, the real motivation is more often the jealously of cult leaders regarding any commitment to someone or something else. Thus cult leaders can wield more control over their followers whose attention and time is not subverted by an "impure" romantic involvement with a significant other. In some groups only the leader(s) may decide (e.g. Rev. Moon of the Unification Church ) who is dating whom, who marries or divorces.

The "Demand for Purity" serves to lower a member's self esteem. More specifically--in many groups there is a demand for "sexual purity" people may not have known this when they first joined. Frequently they did not know they would be expected to become celibate until the group approved of a sanctioned sexual relationship. It is obviously often difficult to accept such a way of life. Before joining many members may have been romantically involved, engaged, or even married. If a new recruit expresses difficulty in complying with this demanding new lifestyle--subsequent harsh rebukes make him feel bad and negative about these seemingly personal flaws and failings. Through continually finding ways to lower a follower's self-esteem, often through a relentless and ever-increasing "demand for purity"--cult leaders can more effectively maintain their control and promote dependency upon the group/leader(s) for a sense of self-worth.

It is important to note that many leaders of such groups have had sexual affairs, and are guilty of sexual abuse despite such demands (e.g. David Koresh ).

  • Cult of Confession

Destructive group recruiters also often use the "Cult of Confession" to gain control over new recruits. Through a potential member's personal confession--cults gain valuable information about someone's vulnerabilities and sense of shame. Thus the group gathers meaningful information later used to manipulate the newcomer. Cults use this knowledge, found through personal confessions, as proof that the newcomer's life before the cult was corrupt and repugnant--compared to the correct way of living as prescribed by the group. In this way, the group accesses valuable/critical levers, which can assist them in molding a new recruit to conform to their mindset and preferred personality type (as demonstrated by psychological evaluations of International Church of Christ members ). It also produces a "shaming milieu" that reinforces the group's "demand for purity"--as opposed to an old lifestyle filled with "sins". And again ultimately this will likely lower the confessing members sense of self-esteem--increasing their passivity and submission to the will of the group.

  • Sacred Science

Cultists present their ideology as a virtual "Sacred Science" to newcomers. Cult recruiters relate their doctrine often with an air of scientific certainty--to convince the more critical thinkers amongst recruits of the validity and precision of their beliefs. People are more apt to accept an ideology that appears to be scientific. Chinese Communists in Lifton's Model (i.e. "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism") likewise presented Communism as the ultimate, scientifically provable, evolved attainment achieved by any truly "progressive" society. Those who disagreed were then labeled "unscientific" or somehow stubbornly ignorant of the seemingly scientific laws of meaningful social evolution. Or, in supposedly "bible" based groups--the organization's often unique and idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture is offered as not an interpretation, but the "truth", absolute and thus unquestioned revelation from God.

However, despite such claims, actual critical analysis proves repeatedly that such cult claims are typically not scientific, or often defensible exegetically. But most new recruits are not allowed the opportunity to scrutinize such claims to prove their validity through objective evidence. Also the group's members appear so sincere--newcomers tend to trust them and may feel embarrassed to ask questions or challenge their "truth". In fact--most cult recruiters themselves actually sincerely believe the group's doctrines and claims. Though they probably joined the cult through the same process of undue influence. The sheer emotional force of the group's recruitment efforts may not convince some, so a needed little extra push comes from the presentation of the group's doctrine as "scientific truth" or "biblical truth"--this is often the clincher.

  • Loaded Language

"Loading the language" is another common theme in a cultic setting. A special jargon that gives the members a feeling of exclusiveness and that they possess some esoteric knowledge. This "loaded language" helps build solidarity amongst an elite group that speak the same cultic verbiage/lingo. It also gives the newcomer yet an extra incentive to become more involved with the group--in order to learn this language and understand what everyone is saying. Loaded Language is characterized by "thought terminating" buzz words and phrases that constrict thinking and typically replace any meaningful and independent critical analysis. This can become overwhelming and dominate the member's speech and conversation--while also binding the group together through their common language.

  • Doctrine over Person

"Doctrine over Person" occurs when cultists insist that the newcomer completely surrender to their teachings--by placing the group's rules and needs and subordinate their own. The leaders typically teach that the group's stated purpose and goals are much more important than the members needs. Therefore the opinions and concerns of individual members such as personal plans--should always be abandoned in favor of service to the group and its ideas. Cultists teach that members should filter their experiences and even thoughts through the cult's mindset. That is--subject personal perceptions of reality to what the group's doctrine offers as its reality. People are taught to essentially interpret almost everything in a way that is consistent with and reinforces the claims of doctrine. The will of the group always takes predominance over the individual--coupled with a likely intolerance to any outside frame of reference.

  • Dispensing of Existence

Lifton's final theme is the "Dispensing of Existence". This amounts to a claim that only members of the group meaningfully exist. They alone essentially are "good" and/or "saved". This is in stark contrast to non-members who are "bad" and/or "damned". Only group members are really "walking in the light", know the "truth", or are in "the Kingdom of God"--while others are somehow negative and excluded. Summing up this belief--those outside the group are essentially somehow inferior and those within the group are seen as superior. Destructive groups often foster and reinforce this mentality by claiming to be the only ones who have a valid claim to truth--or in extreme circumstances even the earth itself. Those who are inferior, base, and/or simply seen as not yet ready to take-on the their proper responsibilities--may be treated with less concern, respect or sometimes even contempt by cult members (e.g. critical family members, government authorities, old friends etc.) Regarding that treatment--"the ends [may] justify the means". Often this feeling of superiority or worthiness becomes a motive for people remaining within cults.

Traces of some of the characteristics that Lifton describes can be found in other groups or areas in life. However, this does not necessarily mean that the group or situation is cultic or dangerous. When all eight (or at least six) of these themes occur simultaneously in an environment or are concentrated together in some potent combination is there a need for concern.

Cognitive Dissonance

There are other explanations for the tactics of cults. Leon Festinger's findings regarding "Cognitive Dissonance theory" (Festinger 1964) explains how cults are able to gain the compliance of recruits. Festinger explains that in order to alter a human being it is necessary to affect at least one of three aspects of a person: behavior, thought, or emotions. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (authors of "Snapping" 1978,1997) pioneered the addition of another component--the control of information, which they say has a profound influence in behavior modification. Conway and Siegelman have diagnosed the results of such information control--"Information Disease".

Cults try to control recruits by controlling one or more of the above components. The more components they can control effectively--the more quickly and totally they can conquer the individual. Cults try to control recruits by controlling one or more of the above components. The more components they can control effectively--the more quickly and totally they can conquer the individual.

Examples of behavior control can be seen through a cult's attempts to monitor the daily activities of their members--shaping and molding their behavior through habits and rituals they have developed. Cults may decide how much a member sleeps and what kind of food is eaten. By steering a newcomer along this prescribed path of daily activities, habits and rituals the leaders begin to reduce dissonance within the new recruit. In this way they can further affect their thoughts and emotions. As Festinger himself said, "If you change a person's behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance" (Festinger 1964).

By indoctrinating people with cult dogma and attitudes through a process of "Thought Reform" as described by Lifton--cultists are ultimately able to control the thoughts of new recruits. The cult provides its people with a new "Loaded Language" to match their worldview. A cult's philosophy typically provides simplistic and/or almost magical answers to all of life's mysteries. And thus, cultists do not really "teach" their doctrines, rather they program the minds of individuals to accept such doctrines without question. During that programming process, cult recruiters subject new recruits to their dogma repetitively and often hypnotically (e.g. trance induction, meditation techniques)--so that the doctrine eventually overwhelms the person. Once the cult thus inculcates the mind with its ideas--the newcomer avoids personal dissonance by trying to remold his/her behaviors and emotions to match this new way of thinking.

Emotional control is another means by which cults change people. Cults manipulate emotions in order to gain a recruit's compliance. Their goal is to convince people that within the group everything is joyful--while in the outside world there is most often negativity, "spiritual blindness", or even misery and despair. Groups may try to create a high-spirited atmosphere--especially during the initial recruiting period. This reinforces the contrived perception that there is a certain euphoria in living within the group--while again suggesting an impersonal coldness in the outside world. Cults often attempt to turn people against their loved ones by claiming that the only authentic kind of "love" is essentially the property of the group. They often use unreasonable guilt, shame and fear to maintain the loyalty of members through their public confessions and by indoctrinating members with seemingly phobic/unreasonable fears about leaving. Individuals will try to change their thoughts, behaviors and emotions to match a program the cult has managed to instill through their process of indoctrination.

Cults try to regulate the flow of information to their members--especially during the early stages of the indoctrination process. Within many communal cults, or retreats designed for induction--an individual may have little or no access to newspapers, television, or radio. They are instead bombarded by a barrage of group propaganda--such as publications and recordings made by leader(s). Through such isolation from normal society, cults are able to cocoon a person and avoid critical information about their group and immediate access to advice from friends or family. Generally, this blocks out accurate feedback about the cult and its practices.

As the cult recruiters bombard the potential member with favorable information about their group--it is difficult for any newcomer to develop an informed, objective opinion. When a person does not hear "both sides of the story"--it is difficult to make a meaningful judgment. Cults often shield new members from their higher level teachings (e.g., Scientology ) because this might scare off potential recruits--by seeming too bizarre in the early stages of indoctrination. Instead, cultists are incrementally fed information as they demonstrate loyalty, devotion and become more pliable through their increased suggestibility (Walsh and Bor 1997). That suggestibility is often the end result of the "Thought Reform" process. With such limited access to objective information about the group and its history, it is difficult for a person to sort through their difficulties, reason rationally and leave such a controlling, yet often seemingly warm environment.


Dr. Solomon Asch conducted now famous experiments in which he studied social conformity (Asch 1956). The results of these experiments can help us to understand how healthy and intelligent people often become involved with cult groups. In once such experiment he instructed confident, assertive sounding people in his class to give wrong answers, which then led other students to doubt their own judgments. Cults often use these same tactics. When a cult speaker is teaching the doctrine of the group--some newcomers may doubt the ideas of the group. However, when the vast majority of cultists surrounding someone enthusiastically agree with the speaker--eventually many people will feel overwhelmed and submit to the group's way of thinking. Asch clearly demonstrated this through his practical experiments. That is--how anyone could be vulnerable to the power of conformity within certain social situations despite their level of previous confidence and self-esteem.


Stanley Milgram also conducted experiments that are helpful in understanding cult dynamics. Again--helping us to understand how normal people often exhibit seemingly bizarre behavior in cults. Milgram's famous shock experiments demonstrated that people would likely obey another person in a position of authority --even to the point of hurting someone in a bizarre and punitive exercise of power.

In brief--Milgram enrolled students unwittingly in an experiment regarding their reactions to influence. He put some in the role of enforcers--administering ever-increasing levels of electric shock to other students who were seemingly their victims. The shocks were administered on the basis of whether answers were given successfully to questions within a prescribed period of time. Failure to respond properly and promptly required a punishing electric shock--increased incrementally. The supposed "victims" of this experiment were actually feigning their reactions and merely playing a role--there was no actual electric shock. However, those students who acted as enforcers--administered the electric shock believing their subject was receiving ever increasing voltage and subsequent pain. They were willing to perform as instructed--seemingly content that their responsibility was obviated by submitting to legitimate authority.

Obviously cult leaders are viewed by their followers as legitimate, if not divine or divinely ordained figures of authority. Cult members convinced of this authority and controlled by such leaders (who are often psychologically unstable themselves) will do increasingly bizarre things. It seems that cult followers will do almost anything to advance the goals and interests of such leaders--fulfilling the philosophy that "the ends justify the means". An imminent pioneer in cult education Rabbi Maurice Davis once commented that the doctrine of "the ends justify the means" is not only a questionable doctrine itself, but could be a "proscription for tragedy". Specifically he pointed out that within groups where dictatorial leaders "determine what is just and good and the members cannot disagree" almost any behavior might be rationalized. At the behest of such leaders many cultists have committed crimes against others or against themselves that such individuals would not normally commit independently.

The crimes of Hitler's followers during the Nazi era is one such example--and there are many others historically e.g. Stalin's purges, Mao's "Cultural Revolution". In recent years the violence of Aum the Waco Davidians and the suicides of the Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate offer further proof of the seemingly irrational behavior promulgated by destructive cult leaders.

Millions of unsuspecting people have been victimized by the coercive persuasion techniques employed by many cults and their resulting undue influence. Our best defense is facing the reality that many destructive cults work hard every day to recruit new members using such techniques. We must recognize that the techniques of persuasion and influence they use have proven to be very successful. A healthy dose of informed caution is needed, so that when we come in contact with such groups seeking our involvement--we are better prepared.

The type of people who join cults are typically no different than the vast majority of society. Some have been experiencing a time of stressful transition or a temporary crisis. We are all more susceptible to persuasion techniques during such times. It is important to be sensitive to those vulnerable periods especially when being approached by a new group or organization. True, many of us have heard about cults, we have read about them or have seen sensational stories on television, but more often than not we feel that somehow we are immune to them. Many continue to believe in the myth that only troubled people with serious problems become their victims. But the truth is--healthy "normal", but often naïve people become involved unwittingly every day. We must become more sophisticated concerning our response to destructive cults, our own susceptibility and share that information with others we care about.


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