Destructive Cults -
How To Spot Them

This is the first part of a 3 part article. You can read cult and destructive cults definitions here.

What the experts say

Margaret Singer, clinical psychologist and cult researcher, says of destructive groups that:

They are authoritarian in their power structure - the all-powerful leader is answerable to no-one. Any power the subordinates have is usually to allow them to keep the members in line and doing the bidding of the leader.


They tend to be totalitarian in the control of the behavior of members - members are expected to devote more and more of their time, energy, skills, money and resources to the (professed!) aims of the group. The idea is that only those completely committed will attain the ultimate goal.

Members end up doing more courses, making bigger donations, working for free for the group leader, who is happy to have free web sites built, business cards designed for free, free legal and medical advice, free massages and so on! In some groups the leader dictates what the members wear, eat, work at, spend their money on, who they have relationships with, who they marry or have sex with, often in incredible detail.

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The ideology of destructive cults tends to be totalitarian too, with black and white thinking. And the members' decision making abilities have been significantly changed by the doctrine. See cult psychology for more details of this.

They have double sets of ethics - there is one set of rules for the leader and another set of rules for the members. For example, the members are celibate but the leader has sex with everyone. The members cannot criticize the leader but the leader criticizes them frequently. Members confess everything honestly in the group, but lie to outsiders to recruit them. See here for more cult contradictions.

Plus, there is typically one philosophy for outsiders and a different philosophy for the 'inner circle', the latter being hidden until members are indoctrinated, and they are 'ready' to understand it.

Non-destructive groups, on the other hand are open and honest about their ideologies and beliefs.

For cult leaders, the ends justify the means. That allows them to basically do what they like, with no morals or ethics. Remember that many leaders are psychopaths, with all that entails!


Cult leaders are self-appointed and typically have a special mission in life with special information for the followers. They have discovered, or been given by other-worldly powers, such things as new methods of healing, of earning money and great riches, communing with god, achieving success in every aspect of life, accessing profound personal power, political power etc.


Cult leaders are charismatic and domineering - they have enough charm or attraction to attract, manipulate and control their followers. They persuade their devotees to give up their families, jobs, etc. in order to follow them or their doctrines. And overtly or covertly, they eventually take control of the possessions, money and lives of these unsuspecting people.


They center the worship of members on themselves - In non-destructive groups, the leaders keep the veneration and attention on the groups aims, whether that aim in political, religious, education or something else. In destructive cults, the leaders keep the attention directed towards themselves. They may disguise this, humbly pretending that they do not want or need praise, but secretly using mind control to create dependency and obedience in the followers to the extent that typically the well being of the members is tied to the well-being of the leader.

When you consider that many leaders are psychopaths, this makes sense in that often the psychopath needs this kind of attention. What they want is power, power over others.


Cults appear to be innovative and exclusive - Cult leaders claim to be 'anti-system' and anti-tradition, they have new and different ways of living that they claim are the only way to successfully survive today's world of problems and difficulties. And this is only available to group members who stick with the leaders.

Destructive cults typically have two purposes - recruiting new members and fund raising. Other groups do this, too, of course, in order to better the members' lives or contribute to society. The difference is that in destructive cults, all work and funds serve the cult, or more specifically, the leaders.



These various aspects will be seen to differing degrees in different destructive cults. Some are very controlling with live in communes, same dress code, controlled relationships etc., while others have members who continue living in their own homes and say in their own jobs.

Some destructive cults want members to stay for life; others aim to have members take their courses for 2 or 3 years, knowing that they will drift off after this time. Some groups have small numbers who each pay a lot of money; others have bigger numbers who each pay a smaller sum.

There are groups with a lot of sexual abuse (where mind control is involved, it is always sexual abuse because of the power difference involved plus the fact that there cannot be 'informed' consent due to the manipulation) and in other groups it seems there is little or none.

Or it is hidden. Manipulators and psychopaths know that sexually intimacy with someone is an incredibly powerful way to control them, and often it is the last step in the 'objectification' of a person (no longer treating them as a person but treating them as an object to be used).

Read part 2... part 3

You can read a comprehensive list of cult characteristics here.


Been tricked by a destructive cult?

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And it will help other people, too! Knowing that others have shared the same experiences can be very healing, and it may prevent others falling prey to these unscrupulous manipulators and psychopaths.

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