5 Characteristics Of A Cult
You Need To Be Aware Of

The 5 characteristics of a cult listed here are for destructive cults. A cult is simply a group of people who believe something different from the mainstream. There is nothing wrong with that, people are allowed to believe what they want.

A destructive cult, however, is something else altogether. In such a group, the individuals are no longer making their own decisions, although they are absolutely convinced that they are. The power dynamics, the hierarchy, the agenda and the results in a destructive cult are very different from those of a simple cult. You can read more details about what a destructive cult is here. In this article we will be discussing destructive cults.

With that idea in mind, the major 5 characteristics of a cult are:

  • The personality of the members is changed
  • The leader is all powerful and answers to no-one
  • There is deception in what is being offered
  • There is a system of thought reform in place
  • The members are unaware that they are being controlled

Let's look at each of these in turn.


5 characteristics of a cult:
No. 1 Personality change

In a destructive cult, previous behaviors, attitudes and beliefs are repressed. New behaviors and beliefs are installed. This is done in various ways, including the use of a system of rewards and punishments. When the new cult behaviors are performed, the member is rewarded and praised. Old patterns, those unwanted by the cult leader, are punished. The members don't usually recognize this system as a simple reward/punishment setup. They are trained to think emotionally. If it feels good, they do it. If it feels bad they stop doing it. In this way, their critical thinking is also shut down over time.

So, if you change someone's perceptions, thinking, decision making, emotions and behaviors, you have basically changed their personality, or their identity. This new cult personality, or pseudopersonality, is installed in all the members. This is why people will say that since their friend, brother, or whatever, joined the group, they don't recognize them anymore. What the family sees is this new personality that was imposed by the group.

So why do cults do this? Well, the pseudopersonality is programmed in certain ways. It is programmed to trust and believe in the leader and the doctrine of the group, the doctrine simply being the set of beliefs of the leader. It is programmed to be dependent on the leader. It is programmed to defend the leader and the group. It is programmed to refer to the doctrine if ever there are any confusion or doubts. It is programmed to believe that the group has unique knowledge in some way and typically, that if the rest of the world had this knowledge, then the world would be a much better place.

This last idea explains why people in destructive cults are always trying to talk about the group to others. They genuinely believe that they are helping them. The members 'just know' that what they are doing is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives. Anything else would be a waste of time. They are happier than they have ever been before. If only other people would come along then their lives could be fantastic, too. They believe that they are doing good in the world by inviting others to the group. The reality is that what they are doing is called 'recruiting new members into a cult'.


5 characteristics of a cult:
No. 2 All-powerful leader

In a destructive cult, the leader is judge and jury. The leader is the referee, the final arbiter. Whatever they say goes. It's their way, or the highway.

They may give the appearance of having subgroups or committees that have some say in how the group is run, but when it comes down to it, they do whatever they want themselves.

Very often leaders of destructive cults are psychopaths or narcissists. These people have very particular ideas about rules. It's their rules for everybody else and their own rules for themselves. And they often don't follow the regular rules of society. That's why the technical term is antisocial personality disorder.

Some cult leaders have been caught for tax evasion. They don't even consider that they need to follow the tax laws. Many psychopaths break the law and even go against court orders. They believe themselves above the law and are not going to have anyone tell them what to do! As far as they are concerned, they are superior beings and the usual rules and regulations don't apply to them. They basically do whatever the hell they want to!

The cult leader is in it for the power and control. They may use money and sex in their group but these things are typically used to augment their domination over the members.

A cult leader can be very against an idea one day, but if he or she realizes that actually using the idea gives more money, sex and power, then they will switch on a dime and adopt that very idea. The group members, who one minute are anti this idea, are now expected to be very pro this idea, simply because the leader says that this is how it is.

Something that many people do not know is that psychopaths and sociopaths do not have emotions. No empathy, guilt, remorse, love, fear etc. This means that they never feel bad about anything they do. They can abuse, take advantage of, cheat, lie, steal and destroy people's lives and it does not bother them in the least!

They will always do what suits them, at whatever cost to others. And they often decide what suits them in the moment. Which means they can change their mind in an instant if something better comes up for them.


5 characteristics of a cult:
No. 3 Deception

People don't voluntarily join a cult. They go along to a martial arts class, or a yoga class, or go to a sales training course to improve their business, or they go to a church because they want a relationship with God. People go to groups because of what the group is offering. The individual believes they will learn martial arts, or learn yoga, or improve their bottom line, and so on.

What the person does not know initially is that the leader of the group will soon be giving them instructions for how to live every aspect of their lives. He will be telling them what to eat, who to spend time with, how to think, how to feel, how to make decisions, how to spend their time and money, etc. etc.

Nor does the new member realize that their personality is about to change, for the benefit of the leader and the group.

If a person knew that, by going along to a particular group to learn how to communicate more effectively at work, they were going to have their personality changed, they would spend 1000s on other courses, the leader was going to take their time and creativity, take advantage of them sexually, have them work for him for free recruiting new members and that they may even lose their spouse, they would run a mile!!

Therefore, the cults hide their intentions from new, unsuspecting members. They create a façade, a front, whereby the new people are led to believe that they will get what they came along to the group for.

However, as soon as the members get involved, what they came for is soon forgotten because the members attention is directed to things that are apparently much more important. The members are tricked into wanting to be more involved in the group. They are led to believe that doing 'the work' of the group is the most significant thing they can be doing. They are programmed to 'spread the word', in other words, they are sent out to recruit new people into the group. In this way, the twofold agenda of the group (recruit new people and take their money) becomes the desire of the individual. Their own personal goals become subsumed by the goals of the group. The members are not aware that they have been tricked. They firmly believe that they have been making their own decisions during the whole process.


5 characteristics of a cult:
No. 4 Mind control

How does the cult achieve all these things? By manipulating and mind controlling the members.

There are techniques that the cults use to control the behavior, thoughts and emotions of the members. They also control the information available to members. these techniques are not special, esoteric techniques known to only a special few. They are ordinary, psychological influence techniques used in everyday situations but they are used with a specific motivation in the destructive cults.

The specific motivation is to make the members dependent on the leader, to take away their free will and to cause the members to make very specific decisions.

In effect, the member's perception of reality is destroyed and they are changed at their very core so that they accept the ideology of the leader. This in turn leads the person to behave accordingly. Once they have adopted the reality of the cult, the member is submissive and compliant.

The members are basically forced to adopt the cult personality, the pseudopersonality mentioned above. This is why cult members use the same jargon, have the same beliefs and behaviors and often even dress in a similar fashion.


5 characteristics of a cult:
No. 5 Members unaware

All of these things occur without the knowledge or consent of the members.

As I mentioned, the members are super sure that they are all making their own decisions. They will even get aggressive if anyone suggests that they are in a cult or being controlled. This is the trick of mind control.

Friends and family members are often afraid to say anything to cult members because they think that the person has made their own decision to be in the group. This is a myth. The cult member is no longer making their own decisions. They are living in a reality where it makes sense to be thinking and doing in the manner in which they do. But the reality they are living in may have nothing to do with the real world.

How is this possible?

There are many factors. The members are often love bombed at the start. They are made to feel unique, special and intelligent. They are told that they can expect to do very well in the group because they are progressing and learning so quickly.

The other members and even the leader can be very friendly. You trust your friends, right? They will look out for you and help you. They have your best interests at heart. There are happy smiling faces all around. What's not to like?

And the emotional manipulation is very strong in cults. Initially there are lots of great feelings, euphoria even. When emotions are running high, not only do people not perceive any problems, but their ability to think rationally and logically is poor. People just want the good times to continue and they will commit to all sorts of things in order to continue feeling so good.

For example, on a Friday, people arrive to a group weekend and they assess the problems in their lives. On Sunday, because of the emotional manipulation, they are euphoric. They can think of the things that were problems on Friday and they are no longer an issue. This has several long lasting effects.

The people believe that the techniques applied over the weekend work. They believe that they have had a life transforming weekend. The euphoria can last up to 6 or 8 weeks. The individuals believe that they have met incredible people, many of whom already feel like great friends. And the new members want to tell their friends and family about this amazing weekend.

The difficulties with these things come later. The euphoria wears off. The member needs to go to another course to get a boost. The initial problems return. The techniques seem not to be so effective. The individual blames themselves because they know for sure that the techniques work! So, back to do another course! Or worse, they pay the leader for a private session because he will surely know how to get the techniques to work again.

These new friends? It's great to talk to them about the weekend and what was learnt. But all this does is reinforce the doctrine of the group. Telling family and friends about the weekend, trying to convince them to come along? Well, once again, this just reinforces the ideas and beliefs of the group.

The cult members know that no-one held a gun to their head. They will tell you clearly that there was no external pressure, threats or punishments on the first weekend. The problem is that they are not aware of the very strong, psychological tactics that were being used against them. They have never learnt about mind control, coercion or undue influence. They do not understand the power of peer pressure. They got sucked in by the flattery. In short, they had no idea of the huge amount of trickery being used against them, practiced and honed by the leadership over years, and in some cases, decades.

So it was all done out outside of their consciousness and absolutely without their consent. There was never any fully informed consent. This is why destructive cults are actually unethical, immoral, psychological experiments.


5 characteristics of a cult - more reading

You can read more here about the pseudopersonality, the details of how it is formed, how to brainwash someone, some cult psychology, the signs of a cult at the different stages of membership, how to escape a cult and recovery from cultic abuse.

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