A Primer on Cults and Ideologically Extremist Groups

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

A primer on how cults and ideologically extremist groups work

Alexandra Stein (2009)

The headlines are trying to tell us something important. In April of 2008 over 400 children were removed from a Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints compound in Texas due to widespread child abuse. The church leader, Warren Jeffs, was already in prison, convicted of marrying off an underage girl. In Uganda, residents of Gulu work to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers press-ganged into the Lord's Resistance Army. The toughest rehabilitation cases, reports one Ugandan youth worker, involve children who have been forced to kill their parents, an unthinkably brutal LRA indoctrination tactic. In Russia, about 30 adults and four children were entombed for months in a flooded, crumbling cave awaiting the apocalypse; two group members died there.

Meanwhile, around the world, activists known only as "Anonymous", organized protests against Scientology, the leaders of which, they claim, engage in human rights abuses and fraud. A recent protest highlighted the Disconnect policy "used frequently by the Cult of Scientology to separate families, creating a rift between those outside the "Church" and those trapped within it". The "anonymous" organization and framing of their protest is a practical response to the heavy-handed tactics Scientology wields against its critics. These Anonymous protests come at the same time as a new website, exscientologykids.com, documents abuses and neglect experienced by children born and raised in this group. A new generation of young people raised in a variety of such groups are now coming forward to report the traumatic experiences they have suffered.

What is it about these groups? And why is it that they so often seem to threaten family relationships or the wellbeing of the children within them? The general public calls these groups cults. They are a fixture of modern life. Sad anniversaries roll by: last year saw one of the most gruesome: the 30th anniversary of the murder of over 900 people, including 276 children, at Jonestown where Jim Jones forced his followers to take poison while trapped in the jungles of Guyana.

Cults come in a great variety of forms: from the largely religious examples above, to political cults on both right and left - including terrorist groups that train suicide bombers - and from get-rich-quick to personal growth groups. Although they are not all violent, they do share common structural and ideological features that create situations in which they are able to exert extraordinary levels of control over their members. It behooves us, for the democratic health of our civil society, to research them, understand them, to analyze them, and to teach young people about them.

This primer explores the question "What is a cult?" and attempts to explain some of these behaviors that may often seem incomprehensible. It describes how isolated social structures buttressed by all-encompassing belief systems and headed by charismatic and authoritarian leaders can create situations in which followers become excessively obedient and dependent upon the group. If we examine the common threads that link these diverse groups we can begin to comprehend the social-psychological dynamics that lead to the destructive actions that make the headlines. These actions are not, in fact, incomprehensible, but rather, given certain features of life within these types of groups, the tragic results are often sadly predictable.

Scholarship on totalitarianism, cults and brainwashing
After the horrors of World War II, followed swiftly by Stalin and Mao's totalitarian regimes, scholars did groundbreaking work to try to understand the forces at work that produced extreme obedience to charismatic leaders. This was the period that saw, among others, Hannah Arendt's great work, The Origins of Totalitarianism; Milgram's extraordinary experiments where ordinary people administered seemingly excruciating electrical shocks to strangers, and Robert Jay Lifton's insightful work on brainwashing crystallized in his eight criteria for Totalist Thought Reform.

A new set of contemporary scholars have taken up this work, often after a personal encounter with a cultic group. Janja Lalich's theory of "Bounded Choice", for example, sees the individual as enmeshed in the center of a structure consisting of charismatic authority, a transcendent belief system, a system of control, and a system of influence. Benjamin Zablocki, author of a 30-year longitudinal study of urban communes, is working on what he calls a scientific and testable theory of brainwashing (also known as coercive persuasion or thought reform), the process of control that takes places within cultic or totalist groups. It is here that my own work fits: most recently a comparative study of a New York-based political and therapy cult, the Newman Tendency, with a non-cultic political group: the Green Party.

Although some scholars dismiss the concepts understood by the terms "cult" and "brainwashing", these organizations and processes of extreme control have not abated. And the general public has a pretty good understanding of these terms. As one teenaged Anonymous protestor I recently interviewed said, "A cult is where individuals are ensnared in a scam; there are no real beliefs. People get brainwashed: they're not in it of their own free will, but because of the organization."

What are cults, and how do they work? A useful definition of a cult builds on the work of Lifton, Singer, Arendt and others and encompasses the following five points:
• The group is led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader
• It has a closed, steeply hierarchical inner structure
• The group adheres to an exclusive or total belief system
• Processes of coercive persuasion (or brainwashing) are used to retain followers
• Followers are exploited


Cultic or ideologically extremist groups are controlled by a leader who is both charismatic and authoritarian. Both charisma and authoritarianism (or bullying) are required as they are the source of the group's central organizing dynamic of "love" and fear. For example, this is how a former member of the Newman Tendency described its leader:
I liked him! I would have a problem disliking him now, even after what I already know about him. If he sat down right there next to me, I'd say, 'Hey Fred, how are you doing? Are you still corrupting people?'

At the same time this former member recounted how Newman would "unleash the dogs" on followers who were not toeing the line.

The inner structure of a cult is closed, and steeply hierarchical. At the top sits the leader whose every whim must be obeyed. Followers must renounce ties to outsiders - unless they can be recruited or used in some way. Yet within the group itself, belying the stereotype of close "community" that exists within cults, followers are, in important ways, isolated from each other, allowed to communicate only within the narrow confines of the group's belief system.

In fact, if within-group relationships become too close, they are often broken up in order to prevent competing with the primary relationship to the leader or group as a whole. So while a follower may have many relationships with others in the group, the quality of those relationships is monitored and constrained to operate only within approved limits. But woe betide the follower who expresses doubts, or worse, who leaves and criticizes the group - then, as for example with the Scientology Disconnect policy - they are "fair game" for threats, intimidation and shunning. Jenna Miscavige, a woman who was raised in Scientology (and has now left) illustrates both of these forms of isolation.

In an open letter to Scientology she tells how she was separated from her parents from the age of 12 while they were all still in the organization. Her parents finally left Scientology when she was 16, but she, having been "thoroughly engulfed in the beliefs of the Church since birth decided not to go with them. Not only was I not allowed to speak to them, I was not allowed to answer a phone for well over a year, in case it was them calling me."

While the inner structure is rigid and closed, looser front groups often (though not always) exist in cults for recruitment, funding and influence purposes. Hannah Arendt refers to these as "transmission belts" between the inner world of the cult and the rest of the world. Sociologist John Lofland, for example, documented hundreds of front groups (from youth groups to businesses to media ventures) run by The Unification Church in his classic and profound study of that group, Doomsday Cult.

The closed hierarchy is supported and represented by an exclusive belief system, also known as a total or extremist ideology. This all-encompassing belief system rejects all other points of view entirely, claiming to have the one truth that explains everything for all time. The single truth is a reflection of the single point of power and control of the leader, and often changes at the leader's whim. Lyndon LaRouche's political cult, which is currently recruiting on US campuses, is a good example of this: he veered from a leftist Trotskyist stance early in his career to the right-wing, anti-semitic position he now holds as head of the Worldwide LaRouche Youth Movement (Scott McLemee's July, 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives a good overview of the LYM).

The cultic total ideology is also used to justify followers' separation from loved ones in the name of a higher commitment. In A Life in Orange, Tim Guest quotes Bhagwan Rhajneesh, the leader of the cult he grew up in: "In a commune you will not be too attached to one family - there will be no family to be attached to." This removal from one's family would supposedly enable the children to "have a richer soul". Similarly, Masoud Banisadr, recruited while in the UK to the Iranian Mujahadin, a political cult, recounts how members were forced to divorce their spouses as part of the "ideological revolution".

Processes of coercive persuasion or brainwashing are used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of "love" and fear. These processes take place within the isolating cultic structure and can lead to group members following the group's orders even when it puts their own interests or even their lives at risk. Many isolating, weakening and influence strategies are used in this effort such as sleep deprivation, control of relationships, lack of privacy, control of information, diet, and so on. Isolation - especially from very close relationships, as described above - is of particular importance. The fundamental process is to induce in the follower a traumatic state known as "fright without solution" which is more fully described below.

Finally, as a result of these processes, followers are exploited. Regardless of what the group may claim, the flow of resources in cultic groups moves upwards to the leadership, typically in the form of money and other material assets, labor and sexual favors. For example, both the FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army are thought to have at least 60 wives. In the Newman Tendency group members are punished if they do not pay their dues on time even if they have do not enough to eat. As one former member reported: "I added it up once, so between my dues, my therapy, my rent, I was $200 in the hole. [...] So, to me it was just crazy. I mean there were times I was living on papaya, you know the dried papaya stuff." Meanwhile Newman lived in a prime Manhattan property and vacationed in the Hamptons. But this pales in comparison to the global fortunes accumulated by larger groups such as Scientology or the Unification Church. Financial gain is, however, merely a useful by-product of what I consider a cult leader's fundamental motivation: that of seeking guaranteed attachments. And of course, once a leader has succeeded in controlling group members' attachment to him or herself, then other benefits can accrue: sex, financial wealth and political power among them - though there is definite variation in if and how leaders take advantage of these possible benefits.

While resources flow up, orders and ideology flow down to the followers. But not all followers need to be controlled entirely as long as they contribute in some way - thus many groups have peripheral members who may give money, time or other resources through front organizations. However, when consolidated in the group most followers may demonstrate uncritical obedience, regardless of their own survival needs. Lofland and Zablocki call this resulting highly obedient follower, a "deployable agent". The Al Qaeda suicide bombers of 9/11 are extreme and tragic cases of the utter loss of self-interest of the deployable agent, with, of course, terrible consequences for their victims.

How do cults control followers?

How does all this work? How do followers become controlled, and why don't they just fight back or leave? Attachment theory can help us to understand this. This theory states that an evolutionary adaptation fundamental to humans is the drive to seek proximity to others (initially as infants to caregivers) in order to gain protection from threat, thus improving chances for survival. A child seeks its parent when ill, tired, frightened, or in any other way under threat. The parent then functions as a safe haven for the child from whom they may gain protection and comfort. But once comforted, the child eventually wishes to explore its world again, and now the parent functions as a secure base, from which the child explores and to which they can return when protection and comfort is once again needed. Similar dynamics take place with adults in their very close relationships with spouses, partners or close friendships.

However, attachment relationships do not always function well. In particular, when the caregiver is not only the source of potential comfort, but also the source of threat, a relationship of disorganized attachment results. Seeking comfort from the source of fear is a failing strategy: it not only brings the individual closer to the source of fear, instead of escaping the threat, but it also fails to produce the required comfort, thus impeding a later exploration phase from a secure base. The person freezes - like a deer in the headlights. They are in a situation termed "fright without solution"; they cannot escape the threat. This failing attachment strategy causes dissociation and disorientation regarding the relationship in question. It creates what is termed a "trauma bond" or disorganized attachment; the individual is in a state of trauma and can no longer think clearly about their condition. This is a dynamic we often see in relationships of controlling domestic violence, in child abuse, or in the Stockholm Syndrome where kidnap or hostage victims identify with their captors.

In these situations of "fright without solution" there are severe impacts on how the mind processes experience: cognitive processing in the neo cortex and language areas of the brain is impeded while the "older" areas of the brain - the brain stem and central nervous system - continue to record sensory information. These dissociative effects can be seen, sometimes decades later, in how former members of cults narrate their experiences. In my study of former members of the Newman Tendency, all but one participant showed evidence of dissociation within situations of fright without solution in their narratives of their group membership. In my comparison group, none showed such evidence.

It is in this creation of dissociation that the group can hijack the follower's normal survival instincts - the group unhooks the follower's perception of experience from their ability to think about what is happening, and so can now insert their own ideology and orders. Thus it is in this separation of cognitive from emotional or sensory processing that the power and dangers of brainwashing lie.

Within cultic groups the isolation of followers from the outside world and from trusting relationships with others in the group, leaves the group as the sole "safe haven" available to the follower. In the Newman Tendency, as in other cults, this was done by involving followers in numerous group activities, and by discouraging them from maintaining relationships with family and friends outside of the group. The highly leader-controlled, polygamous marriages of the FLDS can be seen as a way to prevent close and trusting family relationships even within the group.

As involvement in the group increases, and outside involvements decrease, the group can then ramp up its demands. Part of this stage is also to induce fear, or some other kind of threat. This can be fear of the outside world, fatigue, fear of some kind of apocalyptic event, or any other form of threat. For example, in the Newman Tendency members were verbally attacked in group therapy; in the FLDS stories of a wrathful God serve this purpose, while in the Lord's Resistance Army rape and simple physical terror are used.

Once the follower is isolated, the arousal of fear causes them to turn to the group - their only remaining "safe haven" - to seek comfort and protection, even though it is the group itself that is causing the fear. In the ensuing "fright without solution," with the follower's thoughts disoriented and dissociated, the group can now further insinuate its exclusive belief system and exert even more control over the follower. The follower may now become a deployable agent, and, with their own survival needs no longer in play, they can carry out the group's orders. It is in this context that those incomprehensible actions - such as suicide bombings - take place. As one Newman Tendency member said, "I remember feeling like I would take a bullet for Fred."

What helps to break the situation of "fright without solution" is alternate trusting or attachment relationships that allow an escape, a solution to the threat which in turn allows the person to think clearly again, to reintegrate their thought processes. It is thus imperative that the cult prevent any such trusting relationships from developing. This is why we can predict that cults will systematically attempt to interfere in followers' close relationships. Romantic relationships, relationships between parents and children, other family relationships and close friendships are all likely to be monitored and controlled in cults.


It can be difficult to determine, from the outside, whether a particular group is cultic or not. However, by looking at the five points described above, by researching beyond the cosmetic "front stage" the group shows to the outside world, and by considering carefully whether isolation is an organizing principle of the group, it is possible to make informed evaluations of whether cultic processes are at work.

It is vitally important to understand these dynamics to which most of us are vulnerable - they operate based on universal human (and usually adaptive) responses of seeking comfort and connection when afraid. We can learn about these mechanisms of control to help protect people against this type of exploitation. And we can see from this the importance of maintaining healthy and open networks of friends and family and to beware of situations that threaten these protective human connections.

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