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What is a cult?
A cult is an ideological organization, held together by charismatic relationships, and demanding high levels of commitment.
Cults are at risk of becoming exploitatively manipulative and abusive to members.
Many professionals and researchers use the term "cult" to refer to a continuum of manipulation and abusiveness.
Different people respond differently to the same cultic environment.
ICSA does not produce an official list of "cults."
Because of the ambiguity in the concept "cult," ICSA tries to use the term judiciously and focus inquirers’ attention on potentially harmful practices, rather than a label.
For more information on definitions, see the essays, “On Using the Term ‘Cult’,” and “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission.” Also see ICSA Today's special issue on the challenge of defining cult.
Is “X” a cult?
Before deciding whether or not you think a particular group is a "cult," please see our FAQ, "What is a Cult?" above and the definitional articles associated with that FAQ.
Our Checklist of Group Characteristics that tend to arouse concern can focus your attention on the kinds of questions and issues that have caused others to consider the "cult" label for groups. However, much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific "test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a "cult."
Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term "cult," ICSA does not produce an official list of "cults," even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of "cults." Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups. A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label "cult" implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type "cult," when in fact it has only some of those attributes, or none at all. Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned.
Thus, when inquirers ask us, "Is such and such a cult?” we tend to say, "Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you." Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.
If you go to our Group Page, you may find that we or colleagues in the field have newspaper articles, links, or other information on a group that concerns you. Broad Web searches may also turn up useful information.
Keep in mind, however, that much of the available information is simplistic or inaccurate. Tagging a label on a group is not as important as understanding it.
Sometimes talking to former members of the group in question can be of great value, for they often know about what goes on "behind the scenes." They also know how the leadership deals with dissent and independence. Highly manipulative groups rarely tolerate either.
Our workshops and conferences provide opportunities to meet former group members, families, helping professionals, and researchers - all of whom can help you gain a more nuanced perspective on the group that interests you.
Why do people join cults?
People join cults for many different reasons; there are many ways to enter a cultic group. However, it appears that people are most receptive to joining when they are stressed or in a normal transition, when their normal way of operating in the world is not working for them.
There is no “personality profile” of people who become involved in cults. All kinds of people become involved for all kinds of reasons. Although some cult members may have had psychological problems before joining their groups, the majority were psychologically normal before becoming affiliated with a cultic group.
People may get involved with cults at any age. ICSA’s research has found that the average age of affiliation is about 25 years old, although some people become involved as children while others join as senior citizens. (For more information, see Prevalence and Research.)
Although a sizable number (about 25%) of cult members were recruited by people who were strangers to them at the time, most affiliate with a group because of friendships or other reasons. Sometimes, however, prospects seek out the group, e.g., because they read group materials that interested them.
The vast majority of people who are approached by cult members—whether strangers or friends—do NOT join. Yet some do. Why some and not others?
Research and clinical work with thousands of former members suggests that those who join cults were experiencing significant stress (frequently related to normal crises, such as romantic breakup, school failure, vocational confusion, or transitions, such as college graduation) prior to their cult conversion. Individuals are especially vulnerable to cult recruitment during late adolescence, when they might be separating emotionally and physically from their families and, therefore, more open to new groups. Because their normal ways of coping are not working well for them, these stressed individuals are more open than usual to people selling a “road to happiness.”
Whether or not prospects “buy” is a function of their personal vulnerabilities (Are they gullible? Afraid to say, “no”? Unable to think critically about what is presented to them?), the content of what is presented to them (e.g., a distressed Christian may be more open to somebody selling an “alive” Christian community than to somebody selling an eastern guru), and the sales techniques of the presenter.
Because some cultic groups utilize highly orchestrated and manipulative programs of recruitment, there is a common misconception that people become involved in cults because they are “brainwashed” into joining by recruiters using powerful “mind control” techniques. Although there are some striking examples of such manipulative recruitment, there are many pathways into a group, and not all involve manipulation.
Dr. Michael Langone has written about three models of cult recruitment:
The deliberative model says that people join because of what they think about the group.
The psychodynamic model says that people join because of what the group does for them (e.g., meet unconscious psychological needs).
The thought reform model says that people join because of what the group does to them (i.e., manipulation).
In fact, says Langone, all three models probably play a role in most cult conversions: “Those observers who are rigidly partial to one or another of the models will, in my opinion, have difficulty understanding a particular cult recruitment.”
How can cults harm people?
People harmed by cults often will report feeling betrayed and abused, psychologically if not physically or sexually. They may feel traumatized, depressed, guilty, angry, anxious, distrustful, and confused.
There are a wide variety of cults. Different people respond differently to the same environment. Therefore, not all people who have been in cults are harmed by the experience. But some, perhaps a majority, are harmed. Part of ICSA’s mission is to help these people, so our focus here is on this subgroup of cult members.
The testimonies of the thousands of people who have sought help after a cult experience suggests that the core of their subjective experience is a sense of abuse and betrayal. The group promised them something wonderful, but ultimately they received disillusionment and pain.
As noted in our answer to the question, “Why do people leave cults,” exiting a cult can involve much pain and suffering, in part because the group environment is so demanding and in part because the group becomes a part of the person’s identity.
Departure, then, is a form of psychic trauma. Indeed, many former cult members have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
However, even for those who don’t reach the level of PTSD, the pain can be severe.
Among the problems ex-cult members have reported (adapted from Giambalvo):
Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected
Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life
Fear of going crazy
Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen
Tendency to think in terms of black and white
Tendency to spiritualize everything
Difficulty making decisions
Employment and/or career problems
Inability to concentrate
Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues
Impatience with the recovery process.
Even with professional help, it is not uncommon for ex-members to require one or two years to work through their problems and re-establish an identity and sense of purpose apart from their group.
What special needs have people born or raised in cultic groups?
Researchers estimate that at least 2,500,000 Americans have joined cultic groups during the past 30-40 years (see Prevalence). Some who joined groups during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s had children who were born or raised in highly controlling cultic environments.
In a need to maintain power and control over members, authoritarian cult leaders typically set the rules of child-rearing. Children are punished for not conforming and parents are often reduced to "middle-management" in the rearing of their children.
The thousands of children who leave such groups are called "second generation adults" (SGAs - some people are the third or higher generation in the group; the term "multi-generation adults - MGA - has been used for them). Unlike adult joiners who return to family and friends when they leave their groups, SGAs typically leave family and friends behind them. Moreover, SGAs are often scarred by trauma (including sexual abuse) and impeded by educational deficits. They need help in dealing with emotional turmoil, isolation, practical problems related to work, school, and interpersonal relations, and the transition to an open culture.
Because the common support networks of family and friends are often still in their cultic groups, SGAs have limited means and ability to obtain the professional help they may need.
Why do People Leave Cults? How can I get my kid out of a cult?
Each person leaves a group for different reasons, so each case must be analyzed individually. Consequently, there is no short answer.
The comments below apply mainly to what are called "first-generation former cult members," that is, people who joined as adults or young adults. The reasons why people born or raised in cults leave are complex and require more research.
Families and friends of a cult-involved person tend to ask the second question. Former group members and others interested in cults tend to ask the former question. However, since the answer to the latter question requires an understanding of the answer to the former, we will first explain why people leave cults and then focus on the special problem of families and friends.
Cults typically invade the normal boundaries of those who join, intruding on most aspects of the members’ lives. Over time, cult members give up more and more control to the leadership and develop an identity, or pseudo-identity, that is congruent with the values of the group.
The social and psychological controls that are associated with "brainwashing" become most conspicuous after a person has spent some time in a highly manipulative and controlling cult. That is why Professor Benjamin Zablocki associates brainwashing with what he calls “exit costs.” In other words, the brainwashing associated with high-control cultic groups, in Zablocki's view, isn’t so much related to how people enter groups, but rather to the difficulty they have in leaving.
Lifton has described in detail the characteristics of environments that can achieve a totalistic level of control over people.
In committing to a high-control group, persons undergo a conversion experience in which their fundamental assumptions about self and world change. This is a deeper and more extensive change than we see in people who are merely obedient. An authoritarian leader seeks only compliance. A cult leader, however, seeks compliance and identity change. Cult members must do more than obey. They must believe in the rightness of what they are told to do.
When the cultic dynamic reaches its consummation, cult members act on their own; orders from leaders are superfluous. The members not only accept and believe in the system. They make the system part of themselves and carry it with them wherever they go. Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall says: “So when group members sell their newspapers, raise money, persuade people to come to their events, sell their house and give their money to the group, etc.—they do these things because it reinforces the group identity that has become such an important part of their self-identity.”
For somebody so bonded to a group, departure that requires a rejection of the group is a form of psychological self-mutilation, a very high exit cost, to use Zablocki’s term.
If the cost of exiting a cult is so high, why would people ever leave their groups? This is an important question to answer, for research indicates that most cult members do leave their groups, although the probability of leaving appears to decrease substantially after several years of membership.
First of all, groups vary tremendously on the dimension of control, and many are not so “heavy duty” that departure involves painfully high exit costs. Therefore, the question above will not apply to many cult members, although even in their less controlling situations, one must still ask, “Why leave?”
To answer our question, let us consider the field of forces impinging on cult members from their group and from the world outside the group. From both directions cult members may feel attractions and repulsions.
Attractions to the group may be positive. Examples include genuine friendships, a sense of purpose and belonging, a strong sense of superiority to those outside the group, and the comfort of blind obedience in which one no longer has to deal with the stress of deciding.
Attractions may also be negative; that is, the person conforms to the group in order to avoid actual or anticipated pain. If, for example, leaders subject dissenting or doubting members to public humiliation, members will tend to comply in order to avoid that punishment. Also, the group’s teachings may incline members to expect failure in and/or rejection by the outside world should they leave the group. Sometimes these expectations include supernatural punishments (e.g., to spend eternity in hell). Moreover, to the extent members have made the group part of their own personality, rejecting the group would entail, as already noted, the pain of psychological self-mutilation, so members will hold fast to the group in order to avoid this psychic pain.
In the member’s mind, then, exiting the group will result in the loss of positive attractions and the addition of pain that could have been avoided by obeying leaders and remaining a loyal member. These are exit costs.
Other exit costs relate to repulsions from the outside world. These may consist of fears that the person has avoided by “leaving the world.” Examples include: fear of sexual intimacy, the expectation of failure in college, not measuring up to parental expectations, and the challenge of committing to a career. These too are exit costs, for the member must confront these fears if s/he leaves the group that provides “noble” rationalizations for avoiding these fears in the mainstream world.
There are, however, exit benefits, and these may sometimes come to outweigh the exit costs.
One set of exit benefits includes attractions to the mainstream world, including emotional bonds, stifled interests, and the sense of freedom that the mainstream world may represent to cult members recoiling from the oppression of their demanding group life. Emotional bonds to loved ones and friends stay alive within the person, for they are at least partly autonomous of cognitive evaluations. However much the group’s ideology may denigrate the member’s “old life,” contacts with family and friends, may stimulate these emotional bonds and create an impulse—perhaps unconscious—to move toward the mainstream world.
Contacts with people outside the group may also rekindle old interests—artistic, intellectual, academic, career, sports—that were stifled or given up in order to meet the group’s demands. And the suffering a member experiences as a result of his/her attempts to conform to a demanding and sometimes punishing group environment may cause the outside world to look more and more attractive as a place of freedom. Paradoxically, then, the cumulative fears of what we earlier termed “negative attractions” may increase the strength of the outside world’s benefits.
This impulse to escape may be reinforced by repulsive forces within the cult. Examples include: doubts about beliefs, practices, and predictions of doom that do not come true; personality conflicts with other group members; boredom; exhaustion; and a growing awareness of the manipulative techniques employed to exploit the member.
The field of forces described above will vary greatly from individual to individual and will shift over time for each person. Some may exit smoothly. But, at least in high control groups, many appear to leave with great difficulty. Indeed, one research study found that 42% of cult defectors left covertly (e.g., by sneaking out in the middle of the night). Indeed, it appears that for some cult members the pain of staying becomes so great that the pain of leaving constitutes relief.
It is no wonder, then, that research and clinical experience suggest that a large percentage of former cult members are in great distress when they leave their groups.
What does this mean for families and friends?
This analysis suggests that families and friends concerned about a loved one’s cult involvement should keep the following points in mind:
Families and friends can enhance their positive influence on a loved one by understanding the field of forces impinging on him/her and developing a strategy for altering the cost/benefit ratio of these forces.
Because the cult experience involves many complex interactions that change over time, simplistic assessments of a loved one’s situation and plans to change it are not likely to be helpful.
This complexity also means that persuading a loved one to leave a group is rarely easy.
It is often more realistic to set a goal of improving one’s relationship with the cult-involved loved one, rather than “getting him/her out” (which may, however, become a viable goal in the future).
ICSA has a variety of resources designed to help thoughtful families and friends understand and respond to the complexity of a loved one’s cult involvement. Explore this website (particularly the study guides and free e-books), attend an event, or contact us directly.
Where can people get help for cult-related problems?
ICSA provides a variety of resources to help individuals, families, and helping professionals. Explore our support and Resources pages, attend an event, or contact us directly. We may be able to refer you to local resources.
What is the relationship of law, government, and cults?
The relationship of law, government, and cults varies greatly from country to country. (See Kropveld for an overview of different countries' responses. See Fautre for an article that focuses o religious freedom issues.)
Different countries will vary on dimensions of:
tolerance of deviant groups;
readiness to enforce existing laws that groups may violate;
willingness to consider or pass new laws to control cults;
willingness to spend public money on research or assistance to cult victims.
Western, pluralistic democracies tend to be tolerant toward the existence of cults, generally reluctant to pass new laws, and generally unwilling to spend public money to respond to the problems that cults pose.
What scientific research is relevant to cults?
There is a growing body of research that attempts to develop and/or apply instruments that measure the abusiveness of group environments, including cults. Several research studies have looked at prevalence and suggest that approximately one percent of the population has had some kind of cult involvement. Several studies have explored the psychological distress of former group members. Other than research conducted at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a residential facility for ex-cult members (now closed), there is little formal research on the effectiveness of treatment of former group members. There is very little research on the experiences and needs of families concerned about a loved one in a group. Academic disputes between so-called "pro" and "anti" cultists have died down in recent years and there is increasing communication between sociologists and mental health professionals. See ICSA's Researchers Collection.