Understanding Cult Psychology


Obviously every destructive sect is different with a different cult psychology, but when you examine different groups, it's startling the similarities that can be found. If you're an ex-cult member, you will recognize many of the following aspects of cult thinking, and if you're looking for information about someone you know who may be in a cult, the following information about cult psychology will help you to understand what's going on for them. The ideas are in no particular order and the article is in 3 parts. Part 2 Part 3

Doctrine is reality

Cult's doctrine is considered the 'Truth' with a capital T, it covers every eventuality and members are expected to except it completely, even if they don't understand it. Eric Hoffer says that the best cult doctrines are unverifiable and un-evaluable. This means they cannot be proven or disproved, they have to be accepted on faith.

A fundamental aspect of cult psychology is to get the person to distrust themselves, and to develop a new identity where the doctrine is the master program for all thoughts, feelings and actions. This pseudo-identity (see later) does not need to be in the presence of the group leader to know what to do. In any given situation, the program tells them how they should act, think or feel, (in order to satisfy the cult leader!)

Black and white, good versus evil

Cults typically reduce things to black and white. Shades of grey are not allowed. After all if they have the ultimate Truth, (with a capital T) then every other group must be wrong, which leads to an 'us versus them' mentality. You're either with the group or you're an outsider. (This is often as aspect of the paranoia of cult leaders, too)

This goes part of the way to explaining how group members end up distancing themselves from family and friends. They are made to believe that outsiders (i.e., those not in the group) are a bad influence and are stopping them from growing, evolving, progressing in some way.

The cult psychology of black and white thinking extends to many other areas, too. You are fully committed or not, you accept everything the leader says or not. You are sexually liberated or you are not (how's that for powerful manipulation?!?).

Words like 'never', 'always', 'everyone' are used frequently.

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Modeling the leader

One reason that destructive sects seem very weird or strange is that every member seems to have common habits or mannerisms. They have their own jargon. They may dress the same. This is because the members believe that they should be modeling or copying their leader, or the people higher up in the organization, (who of course have been modeling the leader).

Obedience and loyalty are highly regarded in destructive cults and copying the leader is a way for members to show these values.

Very often the members don't just want to be like the leader, they want to be this person. (They may want to be the leader or have a leadership role, but very, very few actually do!) And, of course, they are urged to give up who they are in order to be someone else. Hence it is often said of cult members that ' they are not the same person' or 'they're not who they used to be'.

Pseudo-identity or pseudo-personality.

Edgar Schein described the process of coercive persuasion as a 3 stage process.

  • an unfreezing of the identity - breaking the person down,
  • changing - the indoctrination process, and
  • refreezing - which is reinforcing the new identity.

There are many techniques used in the process (it is important to be aware that it is a process and occurs over time), and in the end what remains is for all intents and purposes a clone of the cult leader. The cult psychology is, after all, that of the leader, and the leader typically wants people devoted to him and thinking as he or she does.

Recognize these things?

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Family and friends notice radical changes in the person and the changes can be very difficult to undo, partially because the pseudo-identity is designed to protect itself. Arguing with reason and logic is usually hopeless and often counterproductive because it only serves to isolate the person further.

Very often in destructive groups they teach that family and friends will not understand, are not evolved enough, are evil, and will try to hamper the person's attempts to better themselves. Consequently when the family does try to intervene, the leader's warnings are confirmed and the pseudo-identity feels a need to protect itself. Fortunately, with expert care, these effects of cult psychology can usually be undone.



This topic merits it's own page!



Very often the doctrine of cults creates impossibilities and the members are urged to try and obtain these. The members, of course, don't see these as impossibilities. Typically the leader claims to have these abilities and the members are simply trying to be as good as the leader. For example, working without emotions, never making judgments, having perfect days whenever you want them, never breaking the rules, never sinning (notice the black-and-white thinking!)

Another form is the use of double binds, the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Two opposing messages are given and if you follow one, you are disobeying the other. But the leader insists that both are obeyed at the same time, which leaves members caught in a closed loop - but unable to recognize the contradiction. Therefore manipulators can use these to create guilt and confusion to augment control and dependency. For example, a member may not be able to choose between the two alternatives and has to ask the leadership which to do, making them dependent on the leader.

In some cults members learn to access a particular state, in which they can experience all the emotions. But if they are experiencing negative emotions, they are not in their state! (Negative emotions are typically not allowed in cults, especially towards the leadership. Any such emotions are typically directed at outsiders.)

Other cults say they are teaching members to be independent, but when they do things on their own, there are negative consequences (punishments, isolation, not allowed access to the leader etc.)

Or it can be more subtle. For example the decision making process they learn to 'make their own decisions' may actually propel them further into the doctrine and mindset of the pseudo-identity. If they don't use this model, there are negative consequences. They lose. If they do use the model, they are more caught up in the sect. They lose!



These various aspects of cult psychology do not occur in isolation. Keep in mind that all these things are stacked one upon the other, in different ways in different groups, and to different extents depending on the leader, too, and you begin to get an idea of the forces and pressures that cult psychology applies to its members.

And although there may be no physical coercion or force, the pressures are enormous. The interesting thing is that the members may not experience it as such. They think they are making their own decisions and choices.

Read more in Part 2, cult tactics and Part 3 cult control...

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