The term “cult” is a widely misunderstood term. Certainly, over the years, “cult” as a descriptor has taken a pejorative cast, and is often used lightly and inappropriately by the media and the average person. However, I will use the term “cult” as a type of shorthand, along with the more euphemistic forms of the term, such as “high demand group or relationship” or “high impact group or relationship”. It is a myth that cults are always religious in nature. Many cults are political, commercial, or involve psychology or counseling.
When we discuss cults, certain elements are present to one degree or another. There is often a self-appointed leader who inspires devotion, and who makes decisions and limits choices in a top-down, authoritarian manner.
The cult leader (usually enlisting the help of current followers) practices deceptive recruiting; where a potential follower is not provided with the informed consent or information necessary to make a rational decision about affiliation or “joining”.
The group, relationship and/or leader practices a form of unethical control, also called coercive persuasion, thought reform, and/or undue influence. This is a deliberate attempt to alter the reality of a person by manipulating their environment. It may also unethically use trance induction or hypnosis as a form of rendering an individual more susceptible to the leader’s influence or imprint.
Of additional concern is the use of use of physical or medical issues to manipulate clients/adherents/followers, such as control over diet and intake of food, sleep deprivation, excess devotion to an idea or mysterious process, alienating a person from their former life and interests, deliberate alienation of family members who do not ascribe to the cult’s teachings, etc. Also, it is important to carefully consider how a cult leader, and by default, the followers handle criticism and dissent. Legitimate, psychologically healthy groups and relationships are open to criticism from the outside and from within, and they welcome dissent, view it as part of the process of change, and view open feedback as an opportunity to grow and develop. Cult leaders and their adherents/followers tend to react with anger and defensiveness when criticized, and take extraordinary efforts to quash dissent within their own ranks. They often use projection (blaming others for their own behavior) when confronted with criticism.
You can spot the quashing of dissent when you hear current clients/adherents/followers answer questions in an amazingly similar or exact way, such as denying everything out of hand. Another red flag is the practice used by many cult leaders and adherent/followers of deliberately creating disinformation about critics or defectors. This is accomplished by attacking peripheral friends or family members of the involved client/adherent/follower. The cult leader wants sole allegiance to only her or him, not to others.
In cults, there is a process of indoctrination using a vertical model of communication (hierarchal) as opposed to a horizontal model. The lack of transparency (an unwillingness to allow others to see the inner workings or know the true teachings of a cult), and the abuse of power are other factors to consider in evaluating whether a group or relationship is cultish in nature and function. No checks and balances or allowance of input contributes to the isolation and inner reinforcement so instrumental to success as a closed, totalistic group.
Often, one parent decides to renounce the cult group and leave. If there are children involved, this may give rise to a difficult child custody dispute and the behavior of the group may come into question. In most cult groups I’ve studied, children are often neglected and treated badly. They may lack the most basic human rights: education, medical care, adequate food, and other issues. There may be physical, psychological, and sexual abuse present. Closed groups with one sole leader, who does not have oversight, is an area where power can be abused. There are multiple incidents in legal cases where children have been the most at risk.
Cults membership occurs more frequently than most people think. If we work toward not focusing on beliefs, but instead on behaviors, it is easier to see how someone can be tricked into cult affiliation. Once in the group, it is very difficult to exit or leave. Many cult groups encourage marriage and involvement of children in the cult system in order to increase the chances of retention.