This information came from the SOS Europe Site, which is down now. This is yet another list of cult characteristics. The author is unknown.

Key Cult Features

The following characteristics of cults and sects are based upon the cult classification systems of the world's leading cult experts like, Singer, Langone, Lifton, and Hassan. An organization doesn't have to have all of these characteristics to be a cult — there are many variations on these characteristics — it just has to have a good number of them to be a cult, or to be moving in the direction of becoming one.

Recognizing "Group-think"
Singer stresses that all cults are based firstly on a thought reform program. Such programs aim to dilute people's individuality, change their core belief systems and alter their concept of themselves. This is done by imposing a "totalistic ideology" which "explains everything" Such groups will say they are "THE WAY", the "ONLY WAY" be it in religion, science, self-help, psychotherapy or politics. Lifton points out that "included in this mystique is a sense of 'higher purpose', of 'having directly perceived some imminent law of social development', of being themselves the vanguard of this development" Consequently, all other groups are charlatans, shams, impostors, degenerate, etc. Normally they have authoritarian leaders and lieutenants at all levels and/or they venerate the works of dead leaders to justify their totalistic ideology and actions. Not choosing the group's Way will usually lead to humiliation, damnation or death. Members undergo what has been called "brainwashing", or "mind control" in order to achieve "Group-think".

Below are some key techniques used for achieving this:

1) The cult relies on the vulnerability and naïvety of the person, who is unaware of the indoctrination process being used. Most cult members are from the educated middle class, including lawyers, doctors, psychologists, business people etc. A good proportion, though not all come from dysfunctional families and/or suffer alcohol or drug problems. In general, new members are usually undergoing a personal crisis and are easy prey for all-embracing solutions. They are then pressurized to gradually adjust to their environment so subtlety, that they don't notice the changes to themselves or, indeed, when they do, they view those changes as positive ones. From the beginning they are unwittingly seduced into replacing their own beliefs and values with those of the group and persuaded that everything about their former lives, their personality, and their character before joining the group, was worthless and degenerate.

2) A regime exists where the individual feels a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and the lack of other alternatives, under an authoritative or authoritarian system. Members are told that they will be destroyed or corrupted by negative pressures, and that they can maintain their purity only within the group's ranks.

3) Cults prey on human aversion to uncertainty. The group supplies ready-made answers for everything, thus helping to reduce insecurity and fear. Everything is seen in terms of black and white, pure and the impure, good and evil. There are set answers for everything and no room for uncertainty, controversy, healthy debate or doubt. The member is given a complete solution. In return, members of the group are expected to be unquestioning in their commitment to the group's identity, its ideas and leaders (or past leaders).

Environmental & Time Control
4) The group asserts increasing control over a member's time and social and psychological environment. Members are expected to attend many meetings and involve themselves in other activities, reducing their contact with the outside world. Members may be directly encouraged to break relations and social contact with former friends, acquaintances and even loved ones. Gradually, it becomes more and more difficult for members to imagine a life outside their organization.

5) Other group members work in meetings and on a private basis to undermine new members' confidence in their own perceptions and opinions. A personal mentor may be appointed to accelerate integration and mind control.

Bad feelings are always the fault of the person and not the group. Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged and "negative" thinking is jumped on. Members are to report their thoughts, feelings and activities to the group or their mentor. They are expected to ask permission when taking any major decisions in their lives and sometimes minor ones, making them less and less able to think or decide for themselves or function without the group. A person's ego is destroyed, they begin to doubt their own judgment and soon there is a loss of free will.

Reward & Punishment
6) Within cults there is immense pressure to conform. They use a combination of flattery, threats and guilt. A system of punishments and rewards is used to encourage group learning and reduce unwanted behavior. Punishments like isolation, shunning, "tut-tuts" and humiliation are used to cause fear and obedience, while, alternatively, recognition, praise and "strokes" are sparingly awarded by older members for obedience and loyalty to Group-think by the newer ones.

7) Group meetings often include confessional sessions where members admit to past or present sins against the norms of the group — doing bad deeds, thinking bad thoughts, etc, and in return, they receive both admonition, warnings and praise for their confessions.

To help cultivate emotional control public exhibitions of emotional highs and lows are often encouraged and applauded as a form of ritual self-flagellation.

8) "Group-speak" is another feature of all cults. Groups use what Lifton calls "the thought-terminating cliché". Repetitive phrases, clichés, sayings, platitudes, and buzz words are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent further analysis or discussion. Any disagreements are usually settled by referring to the sayings or writings of wise leaders (past or present), rather than by turning to independent analysis. Members are rewarded for their ability to regurgitate this "Group-speak" and for their willingness and talent for putting down dissenters with cult clichés.

Lifton argues that the effect of group-speak is critical for mind control, "since language is so central to all human experience, ... capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed." Moreover, the "secret vocabulary" reinforces the idea of distance from the outside world.

9) Cults "clone" people into smaller versions of the cult leader(s) and members. Visit a branch of the same cult in Toronto or Tokyo and you will find yourself in the presence of the same "person" or type. Cults rob people of their individuality, personality and uniqueness, and replace it with the cult "Self", which implants a cult personality in place of the person's real self.

10) Not content with just creating a false conception of the present, cults are also not adverse to rewriting history. Whenever historical facts or the truth doesn't fit in with the cult leader's designs and aspirations, they simply change it. As Lifton says "past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic." The new line "simply replaces the realities of individual experience..."

Lies & Deceit
11) The cult leader(s) is prepared to lie blatantly and obscenely about other individuals or organizations, with total disregard for the truth or any sense of moral objectivity. A frequent tactic by cult leaders is to divert attention from their own sins by accusing others inside or outside their organization of the very crimes of which they themselves are guilty. (In psychology, this is called "projection.")

Only those who are group members are truly good, sane, wise or sober. Since members lose the faculty of critical judgment and the ability to think for themselves, they never question the lies and distortions of their leader(s). Members feel total loyalty to those who have "saved them" and follow in blind obedience.

12) Leading figures, either alive or dead, are honored and venerated. Statements are often supported by quotations and sayings from sacred writings or speeches. Predictions of catastrophe or damnation are common. This can be anything from Armageddon, to madness, persecution or alcoholic/drug relapse. Very frequently those who have come from crisis situations are warned that leaving the group will bring certain relapse.

Undemocratic Reality
13) The direction of the group comes from a shadowy leadership, rarely seen and with little or no real democratic controls. There are assurances about the democratic character of the group and its strident democratic checks and procedures. Indeed, on paper the cult may appear to be super democratic, but in practice everything is run by leader(s) and cliques and committees, and committees within committees, picked from the chosen few and frequently made up of the same people.

The cult uses a closed system of logic, where no feedback is allowed and revisions are only made by higher authorities.

Leaders often amass personal power, often including wealth and sexual favors.

Mystique & Mission
14) Cults often have an internal aura of mystique in which members feel they have "a sense of 'higher purpose', of 'having directly perceived some imminent law of social development', of being themselves the vanguard of this development" (Lifton) This includes delusions about historical roles, being "chosen ones", the "vanguard" "pioneers" and leading new, mass social, political, religious or scientific movements. This gives a sense of purpose in life, for members who entered feeling that their life had no meaning or goal.

Disturbed Gurus
15) Cult leaders are often charming, charismatic figures with above-average intelligence. The "charismatic charmer" is one their personalities — a pseudo-personality.

Many cult leaders suffer from borderline, disassociate or multiple personality disorders. Members feel honored to be with, and be seen, around them. But their personality can change dramatically in a flash. Cult leaders are always very disturbed individuals. They are usually victims turned persecutor, having a history of involvement in other social, political or religious cults and/or suffering the effects of a traumatic childhood. Behind their strong and confident exterior (pseudo-personality) they need their leader position to compensate for a very fragile sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-identity.

This is also shown by the fact that they cannot "hack it" in the real world and need to live in a cult/sect environment to live out their problems. Their past histories show social marginality and a tendency to drift from one cause to another, one cult to another, one job to another, one marriage to another, etc. They spend their lives dedicated to their cause (also, increasing through the Internet, now). They are obsessive-compulsive, fanatical and manipulative.

Nothing will stand in the way of their visions, schemes and self-glorification — not even the well-being of their partners or children. They manipulate the minds of vulnerable members, extorting money and sexual favors and/or abusing them psychologically, physically and/or sexually.

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Last updated 10 April 2009.
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