Undue influence is any act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person. People can be unduly influenced by deception, flattery, trickery, coercion, hypnosis, and other techniques. In addition to religious cults, there are psychotherapy cults, political cults, commercial cults, terrorist organizations, and trafficking rings. There are also personality cults, particularly if one person exerts undue influence over another (or a small group of people, such as in a family).
There are groups which combine all or some of these elements, especially when the group is large and has a variety of “fronts” or other entities.
A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception to recruit new members and does not tell them what the group is, what the group actually believes, and what will be expected of them if they become members. It also uses undue influence to keep people dependent, obedient, and loyal.
You can use the BITE Model to help you assess the level of control that a group exerts over its members. You can also ask any of the questions below. Vague, evasive, deceptive, or manipulative answers are a huge red flag! Give yourself the time and space to investigate and think about any groups you are considering. Do independent research before you make any commitments. Don’t only rely on the recruiter’s information, and don’t let anyone put extreme pressure on you to make quick, impulsive, or uninformed decisions.
Ask these questions before joining any group!
Who is the leader?
What are their background and qualifications?
Do they have a criminal record, a legacy of allegations against them, or a history of misconduct?
Do they have addictions to power, drugs, alcohol, sex, media, or shopping?
Do they have emotional outbursts?
Do they physically abuse followers?
Do they financially exploit followers by expecting them to live in poverty while they indulge in luxury?
Do ordinary people find them inaccessible, unreachable, or elitist?
Is there honest disclosure of group history, doctrine, practices, and expectations?
Are there organizational secrets?
Are there “in” groups and “out” groups?
Are there restricted teachings for initiates only?
Are there secret texts and publications “for your eyes only”?
Is there real financial accountability and transparency?
If a group says that you can look at its accounting records, does it actually provide access?
Does the group culture discourage you from asking questions?
What structural checks and balances exist within the organization to prevent abuse of power?
Is there an independent “ethics” committee to challenge and change policies of the group?
If there are abuses or injustices, what structure exists to correct them?
Is there a “code of silence” against unethical behavior of leaders?
If “miracles” have been performed, can they be replicated under open observation and scientific conditions?
Are there other explanations for the “miracles,” such as magic tricks, hypnosis, etc.?
Does the group attempt to shift the burden of proof for extraordinary or unverifiable claims?
Are questions and doubts permitted within the organization?
Are all members expected to conform to group beliefs, or can they form independent belief systems?
What do former leaders and members say about the group?
Does the group claim to have access to absolute truth?
Does the group spread disinformation in promotional materials?
Are children encouraged to play, get an education, and have friends?
Does the group encourage the use of corporal punishment?
Are children able to receive adequate medical treatment?
Are children allowed to spend time with other children outside the group?
Does the group do background checks for people working with children?
What measures are in place to prevent child abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual?
Benign cult groups are any group of people who have a set of beliefs and rituals that are non-mainstream. As long as people are freely able to join with informed consent (which includes full and honest disclosure of the group’s doctrine and practices), and can choose to disaffiliate without shunning, fear, or harassment, then it is not a destructive cult.