Cult Psychology

Cults are a complex phenomenon. When does a religion turn into a cult?

How much choice do we have in joining these toxic organizations or is

everything determined from cause and effect? This is a topic that excites such

debate, as can be seen in Misunderstanding Cults edited by

Zablocki and Robbins, but debate is needed. There are undeniable stresses

that ex-cult members describe in their stories, but there are also personal

deficits and susceptibilities that are exploited by these cult leaders. Cult

behaviour can exist in governments, corporations, political groups, religions,

psychology clinics, self-help groups and families. When people are emotionally

invested in one organization or another, the need to defend arises in them, which

clouds the problem. Because there is so much backlash from Cultists themselves

who need to defend their own religion or belief system, I've decided to focus more

on the phenomenology of Cults, instead of doing a diatribe about one particular

cult or another. This way the debate between agency and determinism can be

dealt with personally. By seeing how YOU are affected, because if negative

relationships concern you, then you can make up your own mind based on how

badly or well off you are after you complete a social transaction with a

particular group.  The controversial anti-cultist Margaret

Thaler Singer wrote in Cults in our midst that...

This is the correct strategy for

me. In the end we are the ones that decide where we invest our time, money

and emotions. Does it really matter if a cult is religious or secular? If the

results are the same, then no.

Where the controversy lies is Margaret's insistence in finding a brainwashing

method where cult leaders are able to control people against their will.

As can be read in Cults by James R. Lewis, he lays out the history of this

intellectual conflict. Margaret was an expert witness in court cases involving

cults, because of her expertise with soldiers dealing with thought-reform in

Korea in the 1950s. But her role as an expert for courts ended when the

American Psychological Association couldn't find enough scientific rigor to

backup her claims. It's possible to go too far one way or another, because there

are clear patterns of manipulation that leaders use, but there are also personal

attitudes that make victims a perfect target. "It takes two to tango" as the

saying goes. There are many weaknesses that victims have, but the most

overlooked one is that of the natural search we all have, which is to believe

there is a greater happiness somewhere else than where we are.

When people realize they are victimized, they have trouble letting go of their

belief that they found this better happiness. The fear in having to let go

of an emotional investment and start all over again

is a big reason that there is resistance to change. Margaret says that...

The term, lure, that Margaret uses is a good one. It brings up images of fishing

and applying bait to a hook.

We have limited, or deterministic environments, but in most cases we can

choose in those environments among at least two choices or more. As Albert

Bandura pointed out in Self-efficacy, the environment acts on us but we are

also a part of the environment and can act on it. To act as if the environment

is the only place where there's agency creates too much dualism between the

human and the environment. Even if we have limited choices throughout our

upbringing, the desire to try something new is partially a choice

and the brain's natural deterministic tendency to seek novelty, which can propel a person

to add new experiences to their life for comparison. As people age, they've tried a

lot of things and fell down some holes in the wrong direction. Many will have

discovered what activities make them most happy and engaged

because they had experiences to compare. Ultimately the seeking of new

experiences, and the cherishing of favourite ones, is an ebb and flow that

adds variety to life coming from both the deterministic and agency

perspectives. Does our brain feel bored with old experiences? Does the brain feel

excited by encountering new experiences? When people have a variety of

experiences, can people resist novelties that are suspicious and return to safer

experiences? Without bad experiences it may not be easy to detect suspicious

behaviour. Agency and determinism are intertwined and any brainwashing science

must advance with this understanding. Science has to progress into DNA

differences between people and their emotional content when they make choices.

If some people have a desperate desire to connect with others and other people

can resist more easily, science would have to explain that. Why do people

tolerate human rights abuses in a cult, and why do some resist it? Why do some

people escape cults and others remain all of their lives?

Certainly there are influences that groups can act with on an agent, but

agents also have weaknesses and beliefs that respond in the wrong way.

By outlining the predictable methods, hopefully the reader can

detect suspicious activity faster so they can avoid exploitation in any


For Margaret Singer, cults don't happen only to "weak and silly

people." She says that..

Her research indicated...

Margaret also describes people who are young and looking for quick solutions to

problems, and the elderly who are recently widowed and lonely. Some older

persons also feel the urgency to find a spiritual meaning for their lives as

death approaches. The most important vulnerability is in modern life itself.

It's not only the youth that are confused. Canadian Professor Stephen Kent

talks of a cult he has studied that had in its attendance...

If there's a thread that

groups all these people together in these examples, it is a population of

people looking for purpose and meaning in their lives and can't find it in

conventional ways. Economic destruction, technological complexity, broken

relationships, loneliness, victimization, addictions, conflict, fear

and isolation, lead to so many types of people to become primed for joining a

cult. Margaret says that...


Since cults need money, they focus on people who already have enough resources.

The main way to get money is via donations and selling courses. Cults...

These courses teach how to...

This is a selfish element to self-development, but not all people want

to be rich and master the world.

Margaret looks at the power hierarchy

not even as a pyramid, but an inverted T ┴ where the cult leader receives the

vast majority of the rewards. One can easily make fun of the symbol.

it's shaped like a prick so cultists are pricks and they screw you.

It's shaped like a prick, so cultists are pricks

As people are primed by a sense of lack, depression and even personality

disorders, their lack distorts their perception with hunger and yearning.

Perception is coloured by emotion. Like putting on glasses with a tinted colour,

the vision desperately searches for THE answer.

Margaret lists

historical events that increased the power of cults including, the fall of

Rome, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, European

colonization, the aftermath of World War II in Japan,

the 1960's rebellion in the West, and the breakup of Communist regimes.

Whether it's people on streets with signs, well dressed people standing

next to sidewalk recruitment displays or people selling get rich quick schemes,

they are offering you the answers to life. Once a possible recruit has engaged

with a cult recruiter the problem is how to keep the momentum going until the

recruit makes big commitments that are hard to get out of. How to keep people in

cults and to have them continue giving money, time, and free labour requires a lot

of misdirection as you can expect. Victims must be unaware that they are

being duped. Many recruits who lost all their money and property, only became

aware of their trap after they became dependent on the cult. Recruiters with no

money left have to work for the cult by becoming recruiters themselves. This

pattern recycles over and over again. Old cults fall only to have new ones pop up

with a different mission. People who are aware of these tactics escape, and avoid

them, but adults still ignorant of cults and younger generations with less

experience, become the new targets. It's important to know these tactics because

they can be used in any legal organization. How you get caught is

believing in the front the cults use to disguise themselves their clothing their

acting, their lifestyles, and their promises of happiness. This includes, in

my experience with a door-to-door religion

I shall not name, pimping out women to use sex to gain followers. The first step

is to find a place to recruit people. Cults need a front so that people are

unaware of their secret agenda to exploit people. Sidewalk displays are

obvious to many people, but they still work. Many cult members try to

develop successful careers to recruit people who admire them and treat them as

role models. Another area is finding a big-tent mainstream religious group to

target people who are disappointed with their religion and are open to join a

sect or a cult. For non-religious types, a secular approach is to teach courses and

rent out locations in the city. Courses include teaching public speaking,

learning English as a second language, getting rich quickly with vague business

ideas, learning how to buy and sell risky investments, and many other skills. As

people are up-sold more courses, they eventually meet the more embedded cult

members. Like with George Orwell's 1984, Cults in our Midst shows the power of

language. Language can harbour a premise with a worldview. If you adopt the

language, without vetting the premise, you adopt the worldview. By wanting to

imitate senior role models in the organization to bolster self-esteem, the

new recruit starts to speak like them and view the world in the same way.

Limiting the language allowed begins to limit the thought process. This can be

found even in normal society when political correctness covers up facts.

Many recruits already have a compromised sense of self.

They have shame, low self-esteem, and low self-efficacy. This can continue and

deepen further by creating an environment of fear, powerlessness, and

dependency. This is done with social conditioning. In Cults: Faith, Healing, and

Coercion by Marc Galanter, he explains this relationship.

That was a neat description

of intermittent reinforcement, where positive rewards are loaded at the

beginning of the relationship which becomes a lure to make victims

tolerate ever more abusive behaviour with the promise that the positive rewards

will return. The bond is furthered with confessions. By giving personal

information about indiscretions, no matter now small and trifling, it's used

against the person to make them feel even more inferior and dependent on the

new system to bring the recruit out of wretchedness. This is precisely how an

authority figure can be put inside of your mind, just like a parent. The mind

self-polices and represses healthy defense mechanisms, critical thinking, and

normal human desires. This can be seen in my review of Daniel Paul Schreber and

the book Soul Murder. This kind of conditioning helps to foster Stockholm

Syndrome where victims identify with the abuser, because the abuser has personal

information they can blackmail the victim with. Leaders also create a lot of

paranoia. They look omnipresent and have other

recruits who can stalk for them. For many victims, the only person who can relieve

the stress is the leader who can choose to relax these threats, so they choose to

support them in their activities in order to gain relief. Once the "bad self"

is exposed for the pathetic, disgusting, perverted,

incapable wretch that he or she is, then the only group that can help them is the

cult. Purchasing ever more expensive courses, because each course is never

enough, leads to financial dependence. Slave labour for little or no pay prevent

escape from those who have no money left or job. All the prior conditioning

forces isolation from family, friends and normal jobs. The courses themselves also create

lots of damage because the person is now so dependent on the leaders that the

feeling of teaching and learning on one's own is replaced with a learned

helplessness and codependency. Any decisions made on one's

own feel risky and require validation from the cult to develop confidence. The

irony is that, like with tarot cards, the answers that people find in these

courses are actually self-created. We fill in the gaps, including filling in

the empathy the leader is missing. The courses themselves are so general and

lack details, they are next to useless. In an article I read on a Canadian

Christian cult, one follower describes her leader's speeches. "

That snap is explained by Stephen Kent.

One can find better information

at a library for free than what are found in so many of these courses. Instead of

self-development, it's more like regression where one can only survive

and make decisions with permission from the group. The independent mind is gone.

Then when there are needs for self-protection, the victim falls back

and tolerates weakening themselves to prop up the group's activities. Marc says...

Cults gain more power over the agency of others by

learning from feedback. As members come and go, certain tactics will seem to be

more effective than others and can be repeated. One of the typical tactics is

to focus only on positive feedback within the group, and to minimize focus

on negative feedback. This includes scandals within the organization that

are kept secret from newer and more skeptical members. Remember, the cult

leader is in it for the goodies that all psychopaths and narcissists want.

They want consumption, easy sex, sadism, and the pleasure of duping people. They are

constantly bored and need stimulus. Eventually you have layers of people who

are more "in the know" than others, controlling the morale of the group. This

dance continues as negative feedback about the outside world is emphasized

as well as positive feedback related to being part of this significant group.

Good results for the cult lead to members applying self-censorship of

negative feedback so that they can independently recruit others from the

rest of the world and persuade them to stay using their own zeal. As individuals

move up the hierarchy, some naturally don't believe in the system, but only

what they can gain from it. Others continue believing all the way up

the leadership and can be counted on by the cult leader to follow their orders,

no matter how insane.

Margaret talks at the end of her book about what happens to victims who

escape. Ex-cultists often aid counsellors by showing escapees a new way

of living without the cult. Providing evidence of the leader's vices and

misdeeds provides sobering realizations and a counter to all the conditioning

and idol worshiping. Many have relationships that need mending and

defensiveness over being manipulated by a cult has to be let go of. The

conditioned trance-like states that were sustained for so long can continue for

years, but they fade over time. In a safe environment, thoughts about what the

leader will say or do if you exercise your freedom, that caused so many

stressful thoughts about the future, fade away when there's no cult to reinforce

them. Relief! The big consequence of being in a cult for so long is that people

didn't develop themselves during that time with the real skills that they needed.

When they leave a cult, they have a lot of re-skilling to do. The real self-development.

New technologies and methods used in the workplace have to be adopted.

Some employers are understanding and others are not.

It's not easy to explain gaps in your resume in an interview by saying that

you worked for a cult for 11 years. Honesty and communicating lessons that

were learned, is the only way to gain back trust from others in the outside

world. Dating also becomes difficult for the same reason. Is the ex-cultist

trustworthy? Are they mentally ill? More hits to the self-esteem happen, but the

lesson is learned because a free life can now be compared to the cult life.

There's no confusion on which is life is better. The victim learns to see where

they gave their power away and takes on all those responsibilities themselves.

The reward is learning to enjoy one's own company, trust one's own

decision making skills, and to benefit from those choices. It's real feedback

that is not filtered through the distorted mind of a personality

disordered cult leader. The best way to deprogram from my point of view is to

look at the world as a place full of promises. Sometimes the actual product or

experience surpasses the promises, which is fantastic. Much more often promises

fail. Ask the question: "Does the promise point to a place, person or thing that

gives you more mental peace and nourishing love?" The answer will be NO in

most situations. Eventually you go back to your old hobbies that you used to enjoy.

Relationships are realistic and based on skills, and in fact you find that you

only go into Flow states when you are engaging in activities where you have skill.

Developing skills at the beginning is the stressful setup, but enjoying the

skills afterwards is the payoff. When you realize that you control more of your

happiness than people promising you something, you'll never want to give that

power away again. The healthy feeling is being a person that enjoys doing things

themselves. People are always looking for projects to relieve boredom. Why give

decisions and credit to other people when you can do it yourself?

Ex-cultists now become outsiders. Cult leaders often have derogatory terms for

their "enemies" and it's all based on how the mind can objectify people. Followers

are essentially uses and tools to gratify the leader. Their care is only

based on how useful you are to them. Since that's all that's important for

the leader then that's all they'll remember of you. I'm reminded of a meme I

saw that someone posted on Facebook to describe how Narcissists see you. It

It replaces the word LOVE with USE.

Senior members in the cult are not in an envious

position. They are still draining their limited life span with parasites. The game

for the cult leaders is to get enough money so that they can enjoy their

lavish lifestyles long enough to retire to a warm climate and fade into

anonymity. Victims often think of Karma and all the bad things that will happen

to those people, but this is also an illusion. Our happiness cannot be

dependent on what happens to them. Many will meet Karma and others will not. One

thing is for sure. The cult leader knows what they are and because of that they

can't trust anyone else. Their life is chasing higher mental states making them

addicted to externalities. As these people age, they will have to suffer

withdrawal symptoms every time they have to give something up as they move closer

to natural death. The worst legacy they leave behind is an illusory template of

happiness that new generations will imitate.