from ICSA Website
Adapted from Cults: Questions and Answers
by Michael D.Langone, Ph.D.
A cult is a group or movement exhibiting
a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or
thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of
persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s
leader, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their
families, or the community.
Such methods include the following:
Who Joins Cults and
They include the young, the middle-aged,
elderly, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, and the uneducated
from every ethnic and religious background. There is no easily
identifiable type of person who joins cults.
New converts at first frequently appear
to be shell-shocked; they may appear "spaced out," rigid and
stereotyped in their responses, limited in their use of language,
impaired in their ability to think critically, and oddly distant in
their relationships with others. Intense cultic manipulations can
trigger altered states of consciousness in some people.
Sometimes even the most dedicated
members may feel so inadequate in the face of the cult’s demands
that they walk away because they feel like abject failures. Others
may renounce the cult after reconnecting to old values, goals,
interests, or relationships, resulting from visits with parents,
talks with ex-members, or exit counseling.
There is no way
to predict who will leave, who won’t leave, or who will be harmed. ?
Two main concerns should inform our moral and psychological perspective on cults:
There is now a worldwide epidemic of totalism and fundamentalism in forms that are political, religious or both. Fundamentalism is a particular danger in this age of nuclear weapons, because it often includes a theology of Armageddon--a final battle between good and evil.
I have studied Chinese thought reform in
the 1950s as well as related practices in McCarthyite American
politics and in certain training and educational programs. I have
also examined these issues in work with Vietnam veterans, who often
movingly rejected war related totalism; and more recently in a study
of the psychology of Nazi doctors.
Cults can be identified by three characteristics:
The first method characteristically used by ideological totalism is milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment. In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group. There is an attempt to manage an individual's inner communication.
Milieu control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint. Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events such as seminars, lectures and encounters which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically.
Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call doubling: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time.
When the milieu control is lifted, elements
of the earlier self may be reasserted.
Creating a Pawn
A second characteristic of totalistic environments is mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity. This is a systematic process through which the leadership can create in cult members what I call the psychology of the pawn. The process is managed so that it appears to arise spontaneously; to its objects it rarely feels like manipulation.
Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting and limited sleep are used. Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular chosen' human being is the only source of salvation. The person of the leader may attract members to the cult, but can also be a source of disillusionment. If members of the Unification Church, for example, come to believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder, is associated with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.
Mystical manipulation may also legitimate deception of outsiders, as in the "heavenly deception" of the Unification Church and analogous practices in other cult environments. Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose.
For instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny
their affiliation with a cult that has a dubious public reputation.
Purity and Confession
Two other features of totalism are a demand for purity and a cult of
confession. The demand for purity is a call for radical separation
of good and evil within the environment and within oneself.
Purification is a continuing process, often institutionalized in the
cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt and
shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.
As Albert Camus observed,
Young cult members confessing the sins of their precultic lives may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware of or reluctant to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior existence.
Repetitious confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses an arrogance in the name of humility. As Camus wrote:
Three further aspects of ideological totalism are "sacred science," "loading of the language," and the principle of "doctrine over person." Sacred science is important because a claim of being scientific is often needed to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age.
The Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency to combine dogmatic religious principles with a claim to special scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology. The term 'loading the language' refers to literalism and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, cliché-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality.
The principle of doctrine over person'
is invoked when cult members sense a conflict between what they are
experiencing and what dogma says they should experience. The
internalized message of the totalistic environment is that one must
negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the dogma.
Contradictions become associated with guilt: doubt indicates one's
own deficiency or evil.
That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse. Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere, people were put to death for alleged doctrinal shortcomings. In the People's Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana, a cult leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a suicidal mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group's ideology.
The totalistic impulse to draw a sharp
line between those who have the right to live and those who do not
is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.
Totalism should always be considered within a specific historical context. A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or psycho historical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic structures that organize ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a decay of belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death.
One function of cults is to provide a
group initiation rite for the transition to early adult life, and
the formation of an adult identity outside the family. Cult members
have good reasons for seeing attempts by the larger culture to make
such provisions as hypocritical or confused.
Furthermore, in their assault on autonomy and self-definition some cults reject a liberating historical process that has evolved with great struggle and pain in the West since the Renaissance. Cults must be considered individually in making such judgments. Historical dislocation is one source of what I call the "protean style."
This involves a continuous psychological experimentation with the self, a capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same time, and a tendency to change one's ideas, companions and way of life with relative ease. Cults embody a contrary 'restricted style,' a flight from experimentation and the confusion of a protean world. These contraries are related: groups and individuals can embrace a protean and a restricted style in turn.
For instance, the so-called hippie ethos
of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the present so-called
Yuppie preoccupation with safe jobs and comfortable incomes. For
some people, experimentation with a cult is part of the protean
The cult environment supplies a
continuous opportunity for the experience of transcendence -- a mode
of symbolic immortality generally suppressed in advanced industrial
Role of Psychology
Cults raise serious psychological concerns, and there is a place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members.
But our powers as mental health professionals are limited, so we should exercise restraint. When helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important to maintain a personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working for the cult or for the parents.
Totalism begets totalism. What is called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense dialogue on the one hand to physical coercion and kidnapping, with thought-reform-like techniques, on the other. My own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and others who consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process. Cults are primarily a social and cultural rather than a psychiatric or legal problem.
But psychological professionals can make
important contributions to the public education crucial for dealing
with the problem. With greater knowledge about them, people are less
susceptible to deception, and for that reason some cults have been
finding it more difficult to recruit members.
We must continue to seek ways to
encourage a social commitment to individual autonomy and avoid
coercion and violence.