Additional Reading: Former NXIVM Member Sarah Edmondson Talks About Being Recruited Into and Escaping Keith Raniere’s Cult

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1.Basic Principles of Social Psychology and Group Dynamics

Cognitive Dissonance

Human Potential Movement – The Hot Seat, Hypnosis

2.The BITE Model: The Four Components of Mind Control 

Behavior Control

Information Control

Thought Control

Emotional Control

3. Cult of Personality: The Effects of Indoctrination on Personal Identity




4. Cult Life: Illusion and Abuse

The Doctrine Is Reality

Reality is Black and White, Good Versus Evil

Elitist Mentality 

Happiness Through Good Performance

What Do Phobias Have to do with Cult Groups?

Emotional Highs and Lows 

No Way Out 

5. Identifying Cults



  1. Basic Principles of Social Psychology and Group Dynamics

The remarkable power of behavior modification techniques, group conformity and obedience to authority.

These three factors are known in psychological terms as “influence processes” and demonstrate that situations often determine human behaviors, often more than the values and beliefs of the individual. One of the most remarkable discoveries of social psychology is that people are hardwired to unconsciously respond to social cues. For example, a class of psychology students once conspired to use behavior modification techniques on their teacher. As the professor lectured, the students would smile and seem attentive when he moved toward the left of the room. When he moved to the right, the students acted bored and listless. Before long, the professor began to drift to the left, and after a few classes he spent each lecture leaning against the left wall. But when the students let the professor in on the experiment, he insisted that nothing of the sort had happened. He saw nothing odd about leaning against the wall, and angrily insisted that it was merely his personal lecturing style— something he had chosen to do of his own free will. This psychology professor was completely unconscious of how he had been influenced. Of course, under ordinary circumstances, the people around us are not all secretly conspiring to make us do anything. They simply act more or less as they have been culturally conditioned to act, which in turn conditions us. This is the way in which a culture perpetuates itself.

 In a destructive cult, however, the behavior modification process is completely stage-managed around new recruits, who of course have no idea of what is going on. If behavior modification techniques are powerful, so too are the influences of conformity and obedience to authority. A famous experiment in conformity by Dr. Solomon Asch demonstrated that most people will conform— and even doubt their own perceptions— if they are put in a social situation where the most confident people in the group all give the same wrong answers.  Another social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, tested people for obedience to authority and found that over 90 percent of his subjects would obey orders, even if they believed that doing so caused physical suffering to another person. Milgram wrote, “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his own actions.” 

Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted a world-famous prison experiment in the basement of the Psychology building at Stanford University in 1971. He demonstrated the “power of the situation,” which he described in detail in his book The Lucifer Effect. Healthy, normal young men were randomly divided into two groups: one of prisoners and one of guards, who were to manage the prisoners. This was to be a two-week experiment, but it had to be called off after only six days, because some of the guards had become sadistic, and some of the prisoners had broken down mentally.

The groundbreaking work of Philip Zimbardo and others has enormous implications. Zimbardo, who is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and former President of the American Psychological Association, taught a course for 15 years called The Psychology of Mind Control. 

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger published his seminal work on what has become known as “Cognitive Dissonance Theory.” Festinger summarized Cognitive Dissonance’s basic principle this way: 

“If you change a person’s behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance.”  What did Festinger mean by “dissonance?” In basic terms, he was referring to the conflict that occurs when a thought, a feeling or a behavior is altered in contradiction to the other two. A person can tolerate only a certain amount of discrepancy between his thoughts, feelings and actions, which after all make up the different components of his identity. 

Festinger’s theory states— and a great deal of later research has confirmed— that if any one of the three components changes, the other two will shift to reduce the dissonance. How does this kind of shift apply to the behavior of people in cults? Festinger looked for a place to examine his ideas in the real world. In 1956 he published a book, When Prophecy Fails, about a Wisconsin flying saucer cult, whose leader had predicted the end of the world. The cult leader claimed to be in mental contact with aliens from another planet. Followers sold their homes, gave away their money, and stood at the appointed date on a mountainside, waiting all night to be picked up by flying saucers before a flood destroyed the world the next morning. When morning came with no saucers and no flood— just a spate of satirical news stories about the group— the followers might have been expected to become disillusioned and angry. And a few did— but they were fringe members who had not invested much time or energy. Most members, however, became more convinced than ever. Their leader proclaimed that the aliens had witnessed their faithful vigil and decided to spare the Earth. Members wound up feeling more committed to the leader, even after they took a dramatic public stance that resulted in public humiliation. Cognitive dissonance theory helps explain why this heightened commitment occurred. According to Festinger, people need to maintain order and meaning in their life. They need to think they are acting according to their self-image and their own values. If their behavior changes for any reason, their self-image and values change to match. 

Human Potential Movement – The Hot Seat, Hypnosis

Two generations ago, the human potential movement in psychology began to experiment with techniques to direct individual and group dynamics

During the late 1960s, a form of group therapy known as sensitivity training became popular. In such a group, people were encouraged to speak about their most intimate personal matters in front of other members. One technique widely popular at that time was the “hot seat” which was first used by the drug rehab cult, Synanon. A member of the group sat in the center of the circle, while other members confronted them with what they considered to be the person’s shortcomings or problems. Needless to say, without the supervision of an experienced therapist (and sometimes even with it), such a technique opens up considerable possibilities for abuse. Today the “hot seat” is used by some destructive cults to demean and control their members.

Another development that began to affect the general population was the popularization of hypnosis. People were introduced to certain techniques for inducing hypnotic trance— but often without adequate consideration of the ethical aspects of working with the subconscious mind. Originally these group process methods were used only on willing participants, and many people reported positive experiences.

Soon, though, some of these techniques percolated out into the general culture, where they became available for anyone to abuse. Unscrupulous persons began using them to make money and gain power by manipulating a coterie of followers. 

A Note On Hypnotism

People who are hypnotized enter a trance-like state that is fundamentally different from normal consciousness. The difference is this: whereas in normal consciousness the attention is focused outwards through the five senses, in a trance one’s attention is usually focused inwards. One is hearing, seeing and feeling internally. Of course, there are various degrees of trance, ranging from the mild and normal trance of daydreaming to deeper states in which one is much less aware of the outside world and extremely susceptible to suggestions that may be put into one’s mind.

In addition, being in a trance is usually a pleasant, relaxing experience, so that people wish to re-enter the trance as often as possible. Most importantly, it has been clinically established by psychological researchers that people’s critical faculties are diminished in the trance state. One is less able to evaluate information received in a trance than when in a normal state of consciousness. The power of hypnosis to affect people can be considerable. People who are “high hypnotizables”— can be put into a trance very quickly and perform remarkable feats. 

Destructive cults commonly induce trances in their members through lengthy indoctrination sessions. Repetition, boredom and forced attention are very conducive to the induction of a trance. Looking at a group in such a setting, it is easy to see when the trance has set in. The audience will exhibit slowed blink and swallow reflexes, and their facial expressions will relax into a blank, neutral state. With people in such a state, it is possible for unscrupulous leaders to implant irrational beliefs. I have seen many strong-willed people hypnotized and made to do things they would never normally do.

2. The BITE Model: The Four Components of Mind Control 

Clearly, one cannot begin to understand mind control without realizing the power of behavior modification techniques, as well as the influences of conformity and obedience to authority. As I have come to see it, mind control can be largely understood by analysis of the three components described by Festinger.   Cult groups deliberately create dissonance in people to exploit and to control them. This is done through control of behavior, control of thoughts and control of emotions. Each component has a powerful effect on the other two: change one, and the others will tend to follow. Succeed in changing all three, and the individual will be swept away. However, from my experience in researching destructive cults, I have added one more component that is vital: control of information. If you control the information someone receives, you restrict his ability to think for himself. 

To make it easier to remember, I call it the BITE model of mind control: Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional Control. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these components. 

Behavior Control

Behavior control is the regulation of an individual’s physical reality. It includes the control of their environment— where they live, what clothes they wear, what food they eat, how much sleep they get, and what jobs, rituals and other actions they perform. This need for behavior control is the reason most cults prescribe a very rigid schedule for their members. Each day a significant amount of time is devoted to cult rituals and indoctrination activities. Members are also typically assigned to accomplish specific goals and tasks, thus restricting their free time— and their behavior. In destructive cults there is always something to do. In some of the more restrictive groups, members have to ask permission from leaders to do almost anything. In other groups, a person is made so financially dependent that their choices of behavior are narrowed automatically. 

Every hour of the cult member’s day has to be accounted for. In these ways the group can keep a tight rein on the member’s behavior— and on their thoughts and feelings as well. Behavior is often controlled by the requirement that everyone act as a group.

Individualism is fiercely discouraged. People may be assigned a constant “buddy” or be placed in a small unit of a half dozen members. The chain of command in cults is usually authoritarian, flowing from the leader, through their lieutenants, to their sub-leaders, down to the rank and file. In such a well-regulated environment, all behaviors can be either rewarded or punished. If a person performs well, they will be given public praise from higher-ups, and sometimes gifts or a promotion. If the person performs poorly, they may be publicly singled out and criticized, or forced to do manual labor such as cleaning toilets or polishing other members’ shoes. 

Other forms of punishment may include prescribed fasting, cold showers, staying up for an all-night vigil or doing remedial work. Those who actively participate in their own punishment will eventually come to believe they deserve it. Each particular group has its own distinctive set of ritual behaviors that help bind it together. These typically include mannerisms of speech, specific posture and facial expressions, as well as the more traditional ways of representing group belief. In the Moonies, for instance, we followed many Asian customs, such as taking off our shoes when entering a Moonie center, kneeling and bowing when greeting older members. Doing these little things helped make us feel we were special and superior. Psychologists call this “social proof.

A cult’s leaders cannot command someone’s inner thoughts, but they know that if they command behavior, hearts and minds will follow.

I. Behavior Control – Summary Points

1. Regulate individual’s physical reality
2. Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
4. Control types of clothing and hairstyles
5. Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
7. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
8. Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
9. Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self-indoctrination including the Internet
10. Permission required for major decisions
11. Thoughts, feelings, and activities (of self and others) reported to superiors
12. Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
13. Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
14. Impose rigid rules and regulations
15. Instill dependency and obedience 

Information Control 

Information control is the second component of mind control. Information provides the tools with which we think and understand reality. Without accurate, up-to-date information, we can easily be manipulated and controlled. Deny a person the information they require to make sound judgments and they will become incapable of doing so. Deception is the biggest tool of information control, because it robs people of the ability to make informed decisions. Outright lying, withholding information and distorting information all become essential strategies, especially when recruiting new members. By using deception, cults rob their victims of “informed consent” and in the case of religious cults, this lack of honest disclosure most certainly violates people’s individual religious rights.

In many totalistic cults, people have minimal access to non-cult newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and online information. Certain information may be forbidden and labeled as unhealthy: apostate literature, entheta, satanic, bourgeoisie propaganda, and so on. 

Members are also kept so busy that they don’t have free time to think and seek outside answers to questions. 

Information control also extends across all relationships. People are not allowed to talk to each other about anything critical of the leader, doctrine, or organization. 

Most importantly, people are told to avoid contact with ex-members and critics. Those people who could provide the most outside— that is, real— information are to be completely shunned

Information is usually compartmentalized, to keep members from knowing the big picture. In larger groups, people are told only as much as they “need to know” in order to perform their jobs. A member in one city therefore does not necessarily know about an important legal decision, media story, or internal dispute that is creating turmoil in the group somewhere else. Cult members naturally feel they know more about what’s going on in their group than outsiders, but in counseling ex-members, I have found that they often know far less than almost anyone else. 

Destructive organizations also control information by having many levels of “truth.” Cult ideologies often have “outsider” doctrines and “insider” doctrines. The outsider material is relatively bland stuff for the general public or new converts. The inner doctrines are gradually unveiled, as the person is more deeply involved and only when the person is deemed “ready” by superiors.

A member can sincerely believe that the outer doctrines are not lies, but just a different level of truth. By creating an environment where truth is multileveled, cult directors make it nearly impossible for a member to make definitive, objective assessments. If they have problems, they are told that they are not mature or advanced enough to know the whole truth yet. But they are assured that all will become clear shortly. If they work hard, they’ll earn the right to understand the higher levels of truth. 

But often there are many inner levels or layers of belief. Often an advanced member who thinks they know a cult’s complete doctrine is still several layers away from what the higher ups know. Questioners who insist on knowing too much too fast, of course, are redirected toward an external goal until they forget their objections or they object too loudly and are kicked out and vilified. 

II. Information Control – Summary Points

  1. Deception:
    a. Deliberately withhold information
    b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
       c. Systematically lie to the cult member
    2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
       a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
       b.Critical information
       c. Former members
       d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
       e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
    3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
       a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
       b. Control information at different levels and missions within group
       c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
    4. Encourage spying on other members
       a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
       b. Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
       c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
    5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
       a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
       b. Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
    6. Unethical use of confession
       a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
       b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
       c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories 

Thought Control 

The third major component of mind control, includes indoctrinating members so thoroughly that they internalize the group doctrine, incorporate a new language system, and use thought-stopping techniques to keep their mind “centered.” In order to be a good member, a person must learn to manipulate their own thought processes. In totalistic cults, the ideology is internalized as “the truth,” the only map of reality. The doctrine not only serves to filter incoming information, but also regulates how the information can be thought about. Usually, the doctrine is absolutist, dividing everything into black versus white, or us versus them. All that is good is embodied in the leader and the group. All that is bad is on the outside. The doctrine claims to answer all questions to all problems and situations. 

Members need not think for themselves because the doctrine does the thinking for them. The more totalistic groups claim that their doctrine is scientific, but that is never truly the case. A destructive cult inevitably has its own “loaded language” of unique words and expressions. Since language provides the symbols we use for thinking, using only certain words serves to control thoughts. Cult language is totalistic and therefore condenses complex situations, labels them, and reduces them to cult clichés. This simplistic label then governs how members think in any situation.

 The cult’s clichés and loaded language also put up an invisible wall between believers and outsiders. The language helps to make members feel special, and separates them from the general public. It also serves to confuse newcomers, who want to understand what members are talking about. The newbies think they merely have to study harder in order to understand the truth, which they believe is precisely expressed in this new language. In reality, though, loaded language helps them learn how not to think or understand. They learn that “understanding” means accepting and believing. Another key aspect of thought control involves training members to block out any information that is critical of the group. 

If information transmitted to a cult member is perceived as an attack on either the leader, the doctrine or the group, a defensive wall goes up. Members are trained to disbelieve any criticism. Critical words have been explained away in advance— for instance, 

“the lies that the World Conspiracy prints in the news media to discredit us, because they know we’re onto them.” Paradoxically, criticism of the group is used to confirm that the cult’s view of the world is correct. Because of thought control, factual information that challenges the cult worldview does not register properly. Perhaps the most widely used, and most effective, technique for controlling cult members’ thoughts is thought-stopping.  Members are taught to use thought-stopping on themselves. They are told it will help them grow, stay “pure and true” or be more effective. Whenever cult members experience a “bad” thought, they use thought-stopping to halt the “negativity” and center themselves, thus shutting out anything that threatens or challenges the cult’s version of reality. 

Different groups use different thought-stopping techniques. 

Thought-stopping is the most direct way to short-circuit a person’s ability to test reality. Indeed, if people are able to think only positive thoughts about their involvement with the group, they are most certainly stuck. Since the doctrine is perfect and the leader is perfect, any problem that crops up is assumed to be the fault of the individual member. They learn to always to blame themselves and simply work harder. Thought control can effectively block out any feelings that do not correspond with the group doctrine. It can also serve to keep a cult member working as an obedient slave. In any event, when thought is controlled, feelings and behaviors are usually controlled as well.

III. Thought Control – Summary Points

  1. Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
    a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
    b. Instill black and white thinking
       c. Decide between good vs. evil
       d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
    2. Change person’s name and identity
    3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
    4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
    5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
    6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
    7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
       a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
       b. Chanting
       c. Meditating
       d. Praying
       e. Speaking in tongues
       f. Singing or humming
    8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
    9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
    10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful 

Emotional Control

Emotional control, the fourth component of the BITE model, attempts to manipulate and narrow the range of a person’s feelings. All or nothing. Either you feel wonderful as a “chosen” member of the elite, someone really special and loved and part of a wonderful movement; or you are broken, unspiritual, have bad karma, are guilty of overts, are sinful and need to repent, try harder and become a better, more devoted member. Guilt and fear figure mightily. However, most cult members can’t see that guilt and fear are being used to control them. They are both essential tools to keep people under control. Guilt comes in many forms. Historical guilt (for instance, the fact that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), identity guilt (a thought such as “I’m not living up to my potential”), guilt over past actions (“I cheated on a test”) and social guilt (“People are dying of starvation”) can all be exploited by destructive cult leaders. Members are conditioned to always take the blame, so that they respond gratefully whenever a leader points out one of their “shortcomings.” Fear is used to bind the group members together in several ways. The first is the creation of an outside enemy, who is persecuting the group and its members. For example, the FBI will jail or kill you; 

Second is the terror of discovery and punishment by cult members and leaders. Fear of what can happen to you if you don’t do your job well can be very potent. Some groups claim that nuclear holocaust or other disasters will result if members are lax in their commitment. In order to control someone through their emotions, feelings themselves often have to be redefined. 

In some groups, happiness simply means following the leader’s directions, recruiting a lot of new members, or bringing in a lot of money. Or, happiness is defined as the sense of community provided by the cult to those who enjoy high status within it. Loyalty and devotion are the most highly respected emotions of all. Members are not allowed to feel or express negative emotions, except toward outsiders. They are taught never to feel for themselves or their own needs, but always to think of the group and never to complain. They are never to criticize a leader, but to criticize themselves instead. 

Many groups exercise complete control over interpersonal relationships. 

Confession of past sins or wrong attitudes is also a powerful device for emotional control. Of course, once someone has publicly confessed, rarely is their old sin truly forgiven or forgotten. The minute they get out of line, it will be hauled out and used to manipulate them into obeying. Anyone who finds themselves in a cult confession session needs to remember this warning: Anything you say can and will be used against you. This device can even extend to blackmail, if you leave the cult. Even when it does not, former members are often scared to speak out, just in case their embarrassing secrets are made public. 

The most powerful technique for emotional control is phobia indoctrination, which was described in Chapter 3. Members will have a panic reaction at the thought of leaving the group. They are told that if they leave they will be lost and defenseless in the face of dark horrors. They’ll go insane, be killed, become drug addicts or commit suicide. Such tales are repeated often, both in lectures and in hushed tones through informal gossip. It becomes nearly impossible for indoctrinated cult members to feel they can have any happiness, security or fulfillment outside the group. When cult leaders tell the public, “Members are free to leave any time they want; the door is open,” they give the impression that members have free will and are simply choosing to stay. Actually, members may not have a real choice, because they have been indoctrinated to fear the outside world. If a person’s emotions are successfully brought under the group’s control, their thoughts and behavior will follow. Each component of the BITE model: behavior control, information control, thought control, emotional control— has great influence on the human mind. Together, they form a totalistic web, one that can be used to manipulate even the most intelligent, creative, ambitious and strong-willed person. In fact, it is often the strongest-minded individuals who make the most involved and enthusiastic cult members 

IV. Emotional Control – Summary Points

  1. Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
    2. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
    3. Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
    4. Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as
    a. Identity guilt
    b. You are not living up to your potential
       c. Your family is deficient
       d. Your past is suspect
       e. Your affiliations are unwise
       f. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
       g. Social guilt
       h. Historical guilt
    5. Instill fear, such as fear of:
       a. Thinking independently
       b. The outside world
       c. Enemies
       d. Losing one’s salvation
       e. Leaving or being shunned by the group
       f. Other’s disapproval
    6. Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
    7. Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
    8. Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
       a. No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
       b. Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
       c. Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family
       d. Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
       e. Threats of harm to ex-member and family.

3. Cult of Personality: The Effects of Indoctrination on Personal Identity


To ready a person for radical change, their reality must first be shaken up. Their indoctrinators must confuse and disorient them. Their frames of reference for understanding themselves and their surroundings must be challenged and broken down. Upsetting their view of reality disarms their natural defenses against concepts that challenge that reality. Unfreezing can be accomplished through a variety of approaches. Disorienting a person physiologically can be very effective. Sleep deprivation is one of the most common and powerful techniques for breaking a person down. In addition, new diets and eating schedules can also have a disorienting effect. 

Unfreezing is most effectively accomplished in a totally controlled environment, like an isolated country estate, but it can also be accomplished in more familiar and easily accessible places, such as a hotel ballroom. Hypnotic processes constitute another powerful tool for unfreezing and side-stepping a person’s defense mechanisms. One particularly effective hypnotic technique involves the deliberate use of confusion to induce a trance state. Confusion usually results whenever contradictory information is communicated congruently. For example, if a hypnotist says in an authoritative tone of voice, “The more you try to understand what I am saying, the less you will never be able to understand it. Do you understand?” the result is a state of temporary confusion. If you read it over and over again, you may conclude that the statement is simply contradictory and nonsensical. However, if a person is kept in a controlled environment long enough, and is repeatedly fed such disorienting language and confusing information, they will usually suspend their critical judgment and adapt to what everyone else is doing. 

In such an environment, the tendency of most people is to doubt themselves and defer to the group. Sensory overload, like sensory deprivation, can also effectively disrupt a person’s balance and make them more open to suggestion. A person can easily be bombarded by emotionally laden material at a rate faster than they can digest it. The result is a feeling of being overwhelmed. The mind snaps into neutral and ceases to evaluate the material pouring in. The newcomer may think this is happening spontaneously within themselves, but the cult has intentionally structured it that way. Other hypnotic techniques, such as double binds, can also be used to help unfreeze a person’s sense of reality. A double bind forces a person to do what the controller wants while giving an illusion of choice. For example, a cult leader may say, “For those people who are having doubts about what I am telling you, you should know that I am the one putting those doubts inside your mind, so that you will see the truth that I am the true teacher.” Whether the person believes or doubts the leader, both bases are covered. Another example of a double bind is, “If you admit there are things in your life that aren’t working, then by not taking the seminar, you are giving those things power to control your life.” The message is: Just being here proves you are incompetent to judge whether or not to leave. Exercises such as guided meditations, personal confessions, prayer sessions, vigorous calisthenics and even group singing can also aid unfreezing. Typically, these activities start out quite innocuously, but gradually become more intense and directed. They are almost always conducted in a group. This enforces privacy deprivation and thwarts a person’s need to be alone, think and reflect. At this stage of unfreezing, as people are weakening, most cults bombard them with the idea that they are seriously flawed— incompetent, mentally ill or spiritually fallen. Any problems that are important to the person, such as doing poorly in school or at work, being overweight, or having trouble in a relationship, are blown out of proportion to prove how completely messed up the person is. Some groups can be quite vicious in their attacks on individuals at this stage, often humiliating them in front of the whole group. Once a person is broken down, they are ready for the next phase. 


Changing consists of imposing a new personal identity— a new set of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions— to fill the void left by the breakdown of the old one. Indoctrination in this new identity takes place both formally (for instance, through seminars and rituals) and informally (by spending time with members, reading, and listening to recordings and videos). Many of the same techniques used in the unfreezing phase are also carried into this phase.

Material is repeated over and over and over. If the lecturers are sophisticated, they vary their talks somewhat in an attempt to hold interest, but the message remains pretty much the same. During the changing phase, all this repetition focuses on certain central themes. The recruits are told how bad the world is and that the unenlightened have no idea how to fix it. This is because ordinary people lack the new understanding that has been provided by the leader. The leader is the only hope of lasting happiness. Recruits are told, “Your old self is what’s keeping you from fully experiencing the new truth. Your old concepts are what drag you down. Your rational mind is holding you back from fantastic progress. Surrender. Let go. Have faith.’’ 

Behaviors are shaped subtly at first, then more forcefully. The material that will make up the new identity is doled out gradually, piece by piece, only as fast as the person is deemed ready to assimilate it. The rule of thumb is, “Tell the new member only what they are ready to accept.”

But the changing process involves much more than obedience to a cult’s authority figures. It also includes numerous “sharing” sessions with other ordinary members, where past evils are confessed, present success stories are told, and a sense of community is fostered. These group sessions are very effective in teaching conformity, because the group vigorously reinforces certain behaviors by effusive praise and acknowledgement, while punishing non-group ideas and behaviors with icy silence. 

Human beings have an incredible capacity to adapt to new environments. Charismatic cult leaders know how to exploit this strength. By controlling a person’s environment, using behavior modification to reward some behaviors and suppress others, and inducing hypnotic states, they may indeed reprogram a person’s identity. Once a person has been fully broken down through the process of changing, they are ready for the next step. Refreezing The recruit must now be built up again as the “new man” or “new woman.” 


They are given a new purpose in life, and new activities that will solidify their new identity. Cult leaders must be reasonably sure the new cult identity will be strong when the person leaves the immediate cult environment. So the new values and beliefs must be fully internalized by the recruit. Many of the techniques from the first two stages are carried over into the refreezing phase. 

During this phase, an individual’s memory becomes distorted, minimizing the good things in the past and maximizing their sins, failings, hurts and guilt. Special talents, interests, hobbies, friends, and family usually must be abandoned— preferably in dramatic public actions— if they compete with commitment to the cause. Confession becomes another way to purge the person’s past and embed them in the cult.

During the refreezing phase, the primary method for passing on new information is modeling. New members are paired with older members, who are assigned to show them the ropes. The “spiritual child” is instructed to imitate the “spiritual parent” in all ways. This technique serves several purposes. It keeps the “older” member on their best behavior, while gratifying their ego. At the same time, it whets the new member’s appetite to become a respected model, so they can train junior members of their own.

4. Cult Life: Illusion and Abuse 

Cult Recruitment: How It’s Done 

There are many different ways people can be ensnared into a relationship or group that uses mind control. Many cults deliberately seek out people who are intelligent, talented, and successful. As a result, its members are often powerfully persuasive and seductive to newcomers. 

The large cults know how to train their “salespeople” well. They indoctrinate members to show only the best sides of the organization.

Members are taught to suppress any negative feelings they have about the group, and to always show a continually smiling, happy face. Recruiters are taught to size up each newcomer, and package and sell the cult in whatever way is most likely to succeed.

Once a person joins a destructive cult, for the first few weeks or months they typically enjoy a “honeymoon phase.” They are treated as though they were royalty. They are made to feel very special as they embark on a new life with the group. The new convert has yet to experience what life in the group is really going to be like. Even though most cult members say publicly that they are happier than they’ve ever been in their lives, the reality is sadly different. Life in a destructive cult is, for the most part, a life of sacrifice, pain and fear.

People involved full-time in a destructive cult know what it is like to live under totalitarianism, but can’t objectively see what is happening to them. They live in a fantasy world created by the group.

 Some destructive groups essentially make addicts out of their members.

Cult members tend to spend all their time either recruiting more people, fundraising, or working on public relations projects. When people are fully hooked, they donate large amounts of their own money and assets to the group— sometimes everything they own. 

In exchange, they are promised care and meaning for the rest of their lives. This transaction leaves the person dependent on the group for everything: food, clothing, shelter and health care. In many groups, however, this care is less than adequate. Medical neglect is rampant. People are made to feel that any medical problem is the result of some personal or spiritual weakness. All they need to do is repent and work harder, and the problem will go away. Few cults carry health insurance for their devotees, so when a person becomes critically ill, they are often sent as an indigent to a hospital or free clinic. People who worked devotedly for years, sometimes making hundreds of thousands of dollars for the group, are told that the group can’t afford to pay their medical bills. 

Cult group victims typically regard their controllers as friends or peers, so are much less on guard. They usually unwittingly participate by cooperating with their controllers, and by giving them private information that they do not realize will be used against them. A cult’s control often involves little or no overt physical abuse. Instead, hypnotic processes are combined with group dynamics to create a potent indoctrination effect. The individual is deceived and manipulated— but not directly threatened— into making the prescribed choices. On the whole, the victim responds positively to what is done to them.

The Doctrine Is Reality

There is no room in a mind control environment for regarding the group’s beliefs as mere theory, or as a way to interpret or seek reality. The doctrine is reality. Some groups go so far as to teach that the entire material world is illusion. Therefore, all thinking, desires and action— except, of course, those prescribed by the cult— do not really exist. The most effective cult doctrines are those “which are unverifiable and unevaluable, in the words of Eric Hoffer.” 

They may be so convoluted that it would take years to untangle them. By then people have been directed away from studying the doctrine to more practical pursuits, such as fundraising and recruiting. Doctrine is to be accepted, not understood. Therefore, the doctrine must be vague and global, yet also symmetrical enough to appear consistent. Its power comes from its assertion that it is the one and only truth— and that it encompasses everything. Since mind control depends on creating a new identity within the individual, cult doctrine always requires that a person distrust their authentic self. The doctrine becomes the “master program” for all their thoughts, feelings and actions. Since it is the “Truth,” perfect and absolute, any flaw in it is viewed as a reflection of the believer’s own imperfection. They are taught that they must follow the prescribed formula, even if they don’t really understand it. At the same time, the cult member is told that they should work harder and have more faith, so they will come to understand the truth more clearly.

Little or No Pay

The big groups can afford to hire outsiders to perform executive and professional tasks, but a hired professional is never trusted as much as someone who is psychologically invested in the group. Moreover, cult members don’t have to be paid for their services. Cults thus try to recruit talented professionals— to run their affairs, to put a respectable face on their organizations, and to ensure their success. 

Reality is Black and White, Good Versus Evil

Even the most complex cult doctrines ultimately reduce reality into two basic poles: black versus white; good versus evil; spiritual world versus physical world; us versus them. There is never room for pluralism. The doctrine allows no outside group to be recognized as valid (or good, or godly, or real), because that would threaten the cult’s monopoly on truth. There is also no room for interpretation or deviation. If the doctrine doesn’t provide an answer directly, then the member must ask a leader.

“Devils” vary from group to group. They can be political or economic institutions (communism, socialism, or capitalism); mental-health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, or deprogrammers); metaphysical entities such as Satan, spirits, or aliens; or just the cruel laws of nature. 

Devils are certain to take on the bodies of parents, friends, ex-members, reporters, and anyone else who is critical of the group. The “huge conspiracies” working to thwart the group are, of course, proof of its tremendous importance. 

Elitist Mentality 

Members are made to feel part of an elite corps of humankind. This feeling of being special, of participating in the most important acts in human history, with a vanguard of committed believers, is strong emotional glue that keeps people sacrificing and working hard. As a community, cult members feel they have been chosen— by God, history, fate or some other supernatural force— to lead humanity out of darkness into a new age of enlightenment. Cult members have a great sense not only of mission, but also of their special place in history. 

Ironically, members of cults look down on anyone involved in other cult groups. They are very quick to acknowledge that “Those people are in a cult” or “They are the ones who are brainwashed.” They are unable to step out of their own situations and look at themselves objectively. This feeling of elitism and destiny, however, carries a heavy burden of responsibility. Members are told that if they do not fully perform their duties, they are failing all of humanity. The rank-and-file member is humble before superiors and potential recruits, but arrogant to outsiders. Almost all members are told when they are recruited that they, too, will become leaders one day. However, advancement will be achieved only through outstanding performance or political appointment. In the end, of course, the real power elite stays small. Most members do not become leaders, but stay among the rank and file. Nevertheless, cult members consider themselves better, more knowledgeable, and more powerful than anyone else in the world. As a result, cult members often feel more responsible than they have ever felt in their lives. They walk around feeling as though the world sits on their shoulders. Cult members don’t know what outsiders mean when they say, “You shouldn’t try to escape reality and responsibility by joining a cult.” 

The Group Will Over Individual Will

In all destructive cults, the self must submit to group policy and the leader’s commands. The “whole purpose” or group purpose must be the focus; the “self-purpose” must be subordinated. In any group that qualifies as a destructive cult, thinking of oneself or for oneself is wrong. The group comes first. Absolute obedience to superiors is one of the most universal themes in cults. Individuality is bad. Conformity is good. A cult member’s entire sense of reality becomes externally referenced. They learn to ignore their own inner self and trust the external authority figure. They learn to look to others for direction and meaning. Rank-and-file cult members typically have trouble making decisions, probably because of the overemphasis on external authority. In their state of extreme dependency, they need someone to tell them what to think, feel and do.

Happiness Through Good Performance

Real friendships are a liability in cults, and are covertly discouraged by leaders. 

Relationships are usually superficial within cults, because sharing deep personal feelings, especially negative ones, is highly discouraged. This feature of cult life prevails even though a member may feel they are closer to their comrades than they have ever been to anyone before. Indeed, when cult members go through hardship (fundraising in freezing cold or broiling heat) or persecution (being harassed by outsiders or arrested for violating the law), they often feel a depth of camaraderie and shared martyrdom that is exceptional. But because the only real allegiance is to the leader, a closer look shows that such ties are actually quite shallow, and sometimes just private fantasy.

Manipulation through Fear and Guilt

Cult members come to live within a narrow corridor of fear, guilt and shame. Problems are always their fault— they perpetually feel guilty for not meeting standards. The leader, doctrine and group are always right. They are wrong.

Shame and guilt are used daily through a variety of methods, including holding up some member for an outstanding accomplishment or by finding problems in the group and blaming members for causing them. In every destructive cult I have encountered, fear is a major motivator. 

What Do Phobias Have to do with Cult Groups?

Phobias are the ultimate fear weapon of mind control.  In some cults, members are systematically made to be phobic about ever leaving the group. Today’s cults know how to effectively implant vivid negative images deep within members’ unconscious minds, making it impossible for them to even conceive of ever being happy and successful outside of the group. When the unconscious is programmed to accept such negative associations, it behaves as though they were true. The unconscious mind of the typical cult member contains a substantial image-bank of all of the bad things that will occur if they, or anyone, were to ever betray the group

Yet cult-induced phobias are so cleverly created and implanted that people often don’t even know they exist. 

Of course, these thoughts (phobic) are irrational and often nonsensical. However, keep in mind that most phobias are irrational. 

Imagine what it would be like if you believed that mysterious people were determined to poison you. If this belief were implanted deep in your unconscious, do you think you would ever be able to go to a restaurant and enjoy your meal? How long would it be before you only ate food that you bought and prepared yourself?

Such a belief— whether conscious or unconscious— would substantially limit your choices. If the belief were not conscious, you might try to rationalize your behavior by telling your friends that you don’t like eating out because you are on a diet, or because many restaurants are unsanitary. 

In the same way, cult phobias take away people’s choices. Members truly believe they will be destroyed if they leave the safety of the group. They think there is no way outside the group for them to grow— spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally.

However, once they become conscious of their desire to leave, it is usually only a matter of time before the authentic self develops a stronger and stronger voice. Why? Because mind control groups constantly change their doctrines and policies. Members are constantly exiting, and leaders need to keep lying and change policies to try to maintain control.

Emotional Highs and Lows 

Life in a cult can be like a roller-coaster. Members swing between the extreme happiness of experiencing the “truth” with an insider elite, and the crushing weight of guilt, fear and shame. Problems are always due to their inadequacies, not the group’s issues. They perpetually feel guilty for failing to meet objectives or not conforming to standards. 

These extremes take a heavy toll on a person’s ability to function. When members are in a high state, they can convert their zeal into great productivity and persuasiveness. But when they crash, they can become completely dysfunctional. Most groups don’t allow the “lows” to last very long. They typically send the member back through indoctrination programs to charge them up again. It is not uncommon for someone to receive a formal reindoctrination several times a year. 

Changes in Time Orientation 

An interesting dynamic of cults is that they tend to change people’s relationship to their past, present and future. Cult members tend to look back at their previous life with a distorted memory that colors everything dark. Even the most positive memories are skewed toward the bad. The cult member’s sense of the present is manipulated, too. They feel a great sense of urgency about the tasks at hand. Many groups teach that the apocalypse is just around the comer. Some say they are preventing the apocalypse; others merely believe that they will survive it. When you are kept extremely busy on critical projects all the time— for days, weeks or months— everything becomes blurred. To a cult member, the future is a time when they will be rewarded, once the great change has finally come. 

In most groups, the leader claims to control— or at least have unique knowledge of— the future. He knows how to paint visions of future heaven and hell that will move members in the direction he desires. If a group has a timetable for the apocalypse, it will likely be two to five years away— far enough not to be discredited any time soon, but near enough to carry emotional punch.  In many cults, these predictions have a way of fading into the background as the big date approaches. In other groups, the timetable is believed right until it actually fails to come true. Often the leader just issues a new timetable that moves the big event up a few years. After he does this a few times, a few long-term members may become cynical. Of course, by then there is a whole set of new members who are unaware that the leader has been shifting the timetable. 

No Way Out 

In a destructive cult, there is never a legitimate reason for leaving. Unlike healthy organizations, which recognize a person’s inherent right to choose to move on, mind control groups make it very clear that there is no legitimate way to leave. Members are told that the only reasons that people leave are weakness, insanity, temptation, brainwashing (by deprogrammers), pride, sin, and so on. Members are thoroughly indoctrinated with the belief that if they ever do leave, terrible consequences will befall them, their family and/ or humanity. Although cult members will often say, “Show me a better way and I will quit,” they are not allowed the time or given the mental tools to balance the evidence for themselves. They are locked in a psychological prison. 

Who Can Walk Away

I found that people who were able to walk away without intervention were those who had maintained contact with people outside the destructive cult. When people could maintain communication with outsiders, valuable information that could change their life could penetrate cult-constructed mental walls.


5. Identifying Cults

Authoritarian, Destructive Cult Structure 

When I evaluate a group and its use of the BITE model, it is important to use information that is descriptive of the pyramid and not the circle outside the pyramid— I refer to these people as “fringe members.” A person who is affiliated very loosely in a behavioral sense may still be indoctrinated into the belief system through sleep deprivation, trance states, intensive workshops, time on discussion boards, YouTube video indoctrination, not to mention telephone calls, texts, webinars and more. They are influenced and involved with the destructive cult, but not to the extent of someone who works on staff 80 hours a week and has no vacation time. That individual may be evaluated as less extremely mind controlled than the staffer, but is still in a destructive experience.


Even though destructive groups cloak the true nature of their organizations, a good starting point for information gathering and assessment is leadership. Who is the leader of the group in question? What is the leader’s life history? What kind of education, training and occupation did they have before starting the group?

But a leader’s professional background can be useful in helping you see the full picture of any group. Cult leaders usually make exaggerated biographical claims.  It seems obvious that most cult leaders are narcissists and might even be full-blown sociopaths or psychopaths. Although many cult leaders demand material opulence, what they require above all is attention and power. In fact, power can and does become an extreme addiction. Over time, cult leaders develop a need for more and more power. Three things make these people terribly dangerous: 1) their psychological instability, 2) that they actually believe their own propaganda and 3) that they surround themselves with loyal devotees who are unlikely to disagree with them, so promote their narcissism. 

They are not merely cunning con artists who want to make money or sexually dominate their followers. Most genuinely believe they are God, or the Messiah, or have gained enlightenment. But, as Martin Gardner said, it is possible to be both a crank and charlatan. Most cult leaders believe in their own superiority, against all of the evidence, so they project certainty, which is a highly desirable commodity at times of personal uncertainty.

Even more useful is knowledge of a leader’s criminal background (or lack thereof). Has the group leader ever been arrested? By looking at the leader’s background, you can draw some general conclusions about how much trust you can place in them. 

Does the organization have a structure with a true balance of power? Many destructive groups have boards of directors, but typically they are puppets of the leader. The true structure is that of a pyramid with the cult leader as omnipotent head at the apex. Below the leader is a core of lieutenants who are totally subservient. Below them are subsidiary leaders. The operating structure allows for no checks and balances. The leader has absolute power.

If a leader has a questionable personal background, and their organization is totally centralized and under their control, beware. If, however, there are checks and balances built into the system, power seems to be genuinely distributed among many levels, and the leader is committed to meeting members’ needs and goals, you are probably looking at a much healthier organization.

Not every destructive cult has a leader who is glorified to outsiders, or who enjoys great personal wealth. 

I have counseled people out of several groups whose leaders were not in it for the money, but were simply addicted to personal power.


Beware of groups with any belief system that is simplistic and makes all or nothing categorizations— good/ bad; black/ white; us versus them. Beliefs that claim things as facts, but actually have no evidence-based research to support these claims. Absolutely key are honesty and transparency. Any group’s beliefs should be freely disclosed to any person who wants to join, before any pressure to join is exerted. Does the group’s doctrine claim publicly to be one thing when it is in fact quite otherwise? Are there separate insider and outsider doctrines? For a group to have integrity, its members must truly believe what it stands for (and says it stands for). However, destructive groups change the “truth” to fit the needs of the situation because they believe that the ends justify the means. Helping to “save” someone is a rationalization used to justify deceit or manipulation. Legitimate organizations don’t change their doctrine to deceive the public.


Once a person becomes a member, their sleep patterns often change significantly. Sleep deprivation is a common strategy for keeping people in line and in the fold. Anyone who has ever experienced several sleepless nights, or had to stay up all night to work or study, knows the difficulty of functioning normally without adequate sleep. Many cult groups make sure that members have only three to five hours of sleep each night. It’s not that they have a formal policy of sleep deprivation; they simply make sure that the new member is so overworked that they have little time to sleep. In many cults, leaders are routinely praised for sleeping very little, and rank and file members are belittled for sleeping too much. In time, members learn to sleep a minimum amount and work for the group as much as possible. Dietary changes also frequently occur during cult recruitment. Some groups practice strict vegetarianism. Some groups encourage long and frequent fasts, with little or no care given to the body before and after.

Usually, drastic weight shifts occur. Although most people lose weight during their cult membership, some become significantly overweight. What people eat, their attitude toward food and how they eat all contribute to a person’s sense of self. If a member is made to feel that they have to “die to themselves” and their human needs, they may agree to fast a good deal of the time and deny themselves any pleasure in eating. On the flip side, if a cult member is very unhappy from too much work, not enough sleep, and not having their emotional needs met, they may overeat. 

Destructive cults are characterized, however, by doing little to maintain their members’ good health in other ways. As we have seen, psychosomatic illnesses abound in members, perhaps as a reflection of their unconscious need for help and attention. Medical treatment is minimal, and in some groups virtually absent; 

In destructive cults, large amounts of time are spent in group activities, with a minimum of time allowed for privacy or time with friends and family. Little time is available for reading anything other than cult material, or for learning anything other than cult practices. Of course, members go out of their way to convince outsiders that they are living a “normal” life. 

One of the most obvious signs of a person in a mind control group is a lack of independent decision-making abilities. Even though cult members may try to convince outsiders that they are autonomous, once you probe beyond the surface it becomes obvious that they cannot make important (or, sometimes, even minor) decisions without first asking permission from superiors. This dependency is typical on all levels of cult membership, except at the very top.

In the day-to-day lives of members of destructive cults, there is often a wide variation in the degree to which they experience the BITE model: behavior control, information control, thought control and emotional control. Those persons who are forbidden to think “negative thoughts” or have contact with critics or former members, even though they may have outside jobs and live separately, may still be under mind control, though perhaps not as highly controlled as someone who is a full-time, completely devoted member. 

The final criterion for judging a group is the members’ freedom to leave. To put it simply, members of destructive cults are psychological prisoners. As I have explained, destructive cults plant phobias into members’ minds so that they fear ever leaving the group. By doing this, they shut the door on free choice. People had the freedom to join, but people don’t have the freedom to leave a destructive group. In fact, in the eyes of a destructive cult, there is no “legitimate” reason for a person to ever leave the group. Legitimate groups treat people as adults, capable of determining what is in their best interest. Although every organization wants to retain its membership, legitimate groups never go to the extremes of control through fear and guilt that destructive cults do. 

Some of the most destructive cults actually try to hunt down and silence former members— through violence, legal harassment, intimidation, or blackmail.

Additional Reading: Former NXIVM Member Sarah Edmondson Talks About Being Recruited Into and Escaping Keith Raniere’s Cult

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