What Makes A Cult?
What Makes It Dangerous?

What makes a cult a cult? The short answer is that a cult is a group of people who have certain beliefs or ideas that differ from the mainstream. It could be a group who have particular religious ideas, a group of people who believe in UFOs or a group who consider that a particular movie is fantastic and they get together to discuss facets of the movie, wear clothes from the movie and so on.

A slightly different, and very important, question is "When is a cult destructive?" The answer to this is not so short.

A destructive cult tricks it's members, it forces them psychologically to perceive things in a particular way, to make decisions according to the ideals of the cult, it takes away their free will and independence and basically takes over every aspect of the members' lives.

The wants of the members are subsumed by the goals of the group. The members may have joined the group to learn a skill, to better themselves in some way or to do some sport or hobby, but all that is replaced by adoration of the leader or leaders.

The members keep returning to the group, not because they want to do the sport or learn, but because they have been convinced that the group, in particular the leader, is amazing and is helping them in all sorts of ways.

They come to believe that if the rest of the world only knew what they knew, then the world would be a better place. This is why they start to talk to anyone they can about the group. They want people to come along and learn to be happy, too.

All these things are just the effects of a destructive cult, the results created by such groups. Let's have a look at the elements that are present in controlling groups that give rise to these effects. There are 3 fundamental characteristics of destructive cults we need to examine...


What makes a cult? - No.1 Authoritarian Personality

There are people on this planet who control and exploit others for the sake of controlling and exploiting. Some of these people are content to dominate their family. Others want bigger groups to control. Some of these types develop a skill in some area and then set up groups, ostensibly to teach their skills to others. They lure people in with the promise of all sorts of things.

These types are often very charismatic, confident and seemingly clever. They have answers for everything. They are friendly, helpful, kind, caring, and they seem to understand others very well. They can sit and give talks for hours without notes.

The fact is that they know only too well how to hide their true nature.

It's not until someone has been in the group for some time that they begin to see what this leader is really about. They make the rules. They change the rules when it suits them. They decide everything about the group. They answer to no-one. They may ask others for advice about various things, but if you watch closely, they will typically do their own thing anyway.

Even if the group has committees, sub groups or a hierarchy within the group, careful observation will reveal who is actually in charge.

One thing that happens in destructive cults is the sudden changing of beliefs among the members. The typical example are the end of the world cults where the leader predicts the date of a worldwide catastrophe. The date comes and the leader is proven wrong. Nothing happens. The leader comes out with some excuse for why this is so and choses a date in the future. Very few members get disillusioned and leave.

The vast majority simply accept the new date and carry on in the group, more convinced than ever that the leader is amazing. There are many factors involved here, but one of them is the authoritarian control the leader has over the members.

Another example of the authoritarian nature of the leader is where he announces that the path of the group is not necessarily a spiritual one. Later, he realizes that by claiming to be a spiritual path, he may attract new members. New members equal more money. Hey presto, the path becomes a spiritual one and the members will, from that moment on, act as if they are on a spiritual path, as if it had always been like this.

Cult leaders have often previously spent some time in other cults and have learnt various manipulative techniques that they then use in their own groups.

These authoritarian types are often psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists. These people believe they are superior beings, they are above the law, and they deserve to be treated as special. More than a few cult leaders have been caught for tax fraud because they act as if the usual rules don't apply to them. They often break the law in many other ways, too. In fact, an accurate description of a destructive cult is that it is an immoral, unethical psychological experiment.

The phrase, "It's their way or the highway," applies particularly to the leader of a destructive cult. The leader is the judge and jury, the final arbiter of all that occurs in the group.


What makes a cult? - No.2 Deception

Nobody willingly goes along to join a controlling group. They are tricked into it. People go to a karate class, to the dentist for dental care, to a sales training course to improve their bottom line or to a support group for those who have recently lost a loved one, as examples. They go along to a group expecting to get a very particular outcome.

Instead, what they get is a change of belief systems, a change in their thinking, altered perceptions, a new decision making process, they are manipulated emotionally and they end up behaving differently. In other words, they have a new personality imposed upon them. All the members of a cult have this cult personality installed by the leadership. This is why cult members think and act the same, they use the same jargon and they may even dress in a particular fashion. They hang out a lot together because they share the same beliefs and feel like they are with kindred spirits when with other cult members.

The cult personality, or pseudopersonality, is programmed to believe and trust the leader and the group. It defends the leader, the group and the group ideas. It is led to believe that giving up it's own wants and desires and to take on those of the group is the best thing to do. And what are the goals of the group? To recruit new people and take their money! The members believe that they are happier than ever and want to share the good feelings with those around them. They have been led to believe that the ideas of the group are very special and if everyone knew about them, the world would be a different place, a better place. Therefore, they think that they are helping others by introducing the ideas of the group to them. The reality is that they are recruiting people into a cult.

An important aspect about the ideas of the group is that they are the specific beliefs of the leader. Or at least what the leader wants the members to believe in. I say that because these people are professional liars. They may claim to believe in something but their actions belie their words. They say one thing and do another.

Often cult leaders will learn some skill, as I mentioned, and then they put their own twist on it. They take something that may have value in society, sales skills, some sporting activity, some knowledge, and then apply their own thinking to it. Then they offer something unique to the members, something that cannot be gotten elsewhere. In this, they are telling the truth. You can't get what they are offering elsewhere, but what you actually get is tainted.

They put a twist in what they have learnt, and in that twist they do damage. So, for example, the sales technique requires you to have the attitude of the cult leader for it to work. That attitude is selfish, self centered and goal oriented, 'the end justifies the means' kind of thing.

Obviously, that part is hidden from the members. They are told that they are too soft to sell, they have to change their way of thinking to be successful. They are told not to worry about the wallet of the buyer. If the buyer wants it, they will pay. The trick is to make the buyer want it. So telling lies becomes part of the process. The problem is that telling lies them becomes normalized for the members.

And because normal, feeling people will never have the same attitude as a psychopath or narcissist, the members typically never get the same results as the leader. But they firmly believe that they can, if only they try hard enough, if they just develop the right attitude, and the way to do these things is to spend more money on the next course with the leader!

The trick is that no-one signs up to learn how to tell lies to con other people. But step by step they are led into an alternate reality where these things make perfect sense and the members believe that these types of things are not just justified, but benefiting everybody concerned.

So, overall, the members have their personality changed, they are pushed to do things that normally would be off limits for them and they are forced to live in a new reality. Nobody willingly signs up for something of that nature. They are deceived into it.


What makes a cult? - No.3 Mind control

All of the above is achieved by having a system of mind control, or coercive control in play.

Mind control is a series of psychological techniques that is used to influence others. These are not special techniques known only to a special few. They are the normal influence techniques used in everyday situations.

Parents use influence techniques with their children and the purpose is to raise healthy, independent individuals who can make their own decisions, have loving, caring relationships with those around them and who contribute to their communities.

Cult leaders use influence techniques to take away the members' free will and independence, to force them into making certain decisions and to control them into working for the benefit of the leader and the group. We could call this end of the influence spectrum 'destructive mind control'.

The members' behaviors, thoughts and emotions are manipulated and controlled using the influence techniques. The information they are fed is also highly controlled. First of all, they are told lies. Much of the information they receive is made up and has little value in the real world. However, they are led to believe that this information is vital to living the best life they can. They are also 'inoculated' against outside information that goes contrary to the cult ideas. They are told that most people don't understand the group's ideas so they are in no position to criticize.

More insidiously, the group members are told that outsiders who try and convince them to leave the group are not allowing the members to make their own decisions, they do not want the members to be happy and independent and, really, they have never been to a group event, so how can they even comment on what goes on in the group?!? This also works as a factor in isolating people from their friends and family.

The individual members of a group are typically good people. They are motivated to learn. They are usually keen, energetic people. They don't suspect that the leader might be taking advantage of them. But the fact is that they are being exploited in a major way by the leader of the cult, financially, and often sexually. This is done outside of their awareness and without their consent.

There is control of all communication within the group, even to the point of control of the individual's internal dialogue. The attention of the members may be focused on the activity of the group but underlying this, and more importantly, they come to worship the leader of the group. There is a very strong tendency to black and white thinking in the members. The group is good, outsiders are bad. The group is the best, others are less than. Our leader is right. Other leaders are wrong. These things may seem extreme, twisted even, but this is what occurs in destructive cults. Such is the level of control that the manipulators have on the members.


What makes a cult? - more reading

If you recognize these attributes in your group, or a group in which you have a friend or family member, it would be useful to understand more about mind control, cults and psychopaths.

For example, in order to a cult member, it's useful to know when the pseudopersonality is dominant and when the real personality is leading. It makes a major difference in what you can or cannot say and how you say it.

You can red more about what a cult is, cult psychology, cult contradictions, how cults brainwash people, how to escape a cult and recovery from psychopathic abuse.

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If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.

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