Common Cult Characteristics

Most of the following information was condensed from several pages of the REVIVE web site at [Dead Link — the web site is gone]

Even though some of this information appears to have been tailored to fit Alcoholics Anonymous, it has not. This is just your generic run-of-the-mill cult description. In fact, the major concern of the Revive web site is currently a new cult called "International Churches of Christ" that is sweeping campuses. They don't even mention A.A.. They just coincidentally describe it. What is the slogan in A.A.? "There are no coincidences..."
— Agent Orange

Dr. Robert J. Lifton, one of the pioneers in the study of brainwashing and coercive thought reform, wrote,

Whatever its setting, thought reform consists of two basic elements: confession, the exposure and renunciation of past and present "evil"; and re-education, the remaking of a man in the Communist image. These elements are closely related and overlapping, since they both bring into play a series of pressures and appeals — intellectual, emotional, and physical — aimed at social control and individual change.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963, page 5.

Lifton was speaking specifically about Chinese Communist brainwashing. It would be years before he learned that the same thing was happening in the U.S.A., done by organizations like the Moonies — Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

In a television interview, Dr. Robert J. Lifton also said that cults exhibit these characteristics:

  • The guru is worshipped, rather than the principles or doctrines (on which the sect is supposed to be based).
  • The group exhibits thought-reform-like characteristics.
  • The members experience heavy exploitation from above.

Eight Conditions of Thought Reform

as presented in
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963.
Milieu Control This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses), but also — in its penetration of his inner life — over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.... (Page 420.)

There is purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with outside world.

There is the control of human communication through control of the environment.

The cult doesn't just control communication between people, it also controls people's communication with themselves, in their own minds.

Mystical Manipulation There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but, in fact, were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

The inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal manipulation. This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred character, and uses every possible device at the milieu's command, no matter how bizarre or painful. Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. This element of planned spontaneity, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical quality. (Page 422.)

Potential convert is convinced of the higher purpose within the special group.

Everyone is manipulating everyone, under the belief that it advances the "ultimate purpose."

Experiences are engineered to appear to be spontaneous, when, in fact, they are contrived to have a deliberate effect.

People mistakenly attribute their experiences to spiritual causes when, in fact, they are concocted by human beings.

The Demand for Purity The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

The experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgements. (Page 423.)

The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.

The cult demands Self-sanctification through Purity.

Only by pushing toward perfection, as the group views goodness, will the recruit be able to contribute.

The demand for purity creates a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu by holding up standards of perfection that no human being can attain.

People are punished and learn to punish themselves for not living up to the group's ideals.

The Cult of Confession Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality: members' sins, attitudes, and faults are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

Closely related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with personal confession. Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. (Page 425.)

Public confessional periods are used to get members to verbalize and discuss their innermost fears and anxieties as well as past imperfections.

The environment demands that personal boundaries are destroyed and that every thought, feeling, or action that does not conform with the group's rules be confessed.

Members have little or no privacy, physically or mentally.

Aura of Sacred Science The groups doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself. While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific" precision.

Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also "unscientific". In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of natural science. (Pages 427-428.)

The cult advances the idea that the cult's laws, rules and regulations are absolute and, therefore, to be followed automatically.

The group's belief is that their dogma is absolutely scientific and morally true.

No alternative viewpoint is allowed.

No questioning of the dogma is permitted.

Loading the Language The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. [Slogans] The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.

The cult invents a new vocabulary, giving well-known words special new meanings, making them into trite clichés. The clichés become "ultimate terms", either "god terms", representative of ultimate good, or "devil terms", representative of ultimate evil. Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: the language of non-thought. (Page 429.)

Controlling words helps to control people's thoughts.

The group uses black-or-white thinking and thought-terminating clichés.

The special words constrict rather than expand human understanding.

Non-members cannot simply comprehend what cult members are talking about.

Doctrine over Person Another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. (Page 430.)

Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

Past experience and values are invalid if they conflict with the new cult morality.

The value of individuals is insignificant when compared to the value of the group.

Past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored to make them consistent with doctrinal logic.

No matter what a person experiences, it is belief in the dogma which is important.

Group belief supersedes individual conscience and integrity.

Dispensed Existence The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.

Lifton gave a Communist example: In thought reform, as in Chinese Communist practice generally, the world is divided into "the people" (defined as "the working class, the peasant class, the petite bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie"), and "the reactionaries" or "the lackies of imperialism" (defined as "the landlord class, the bureaucratic capitalist class, and the KMT reactionaries and their henchmen"). (Page 433.)

The group decides who has a right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, are unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

The group has an elitist world view — a sharp line is drawn by cult between those who have been saved, chosen, etc. (the cult members) and those who are lost, in the dark, etc. (the rest of the world).

Former members are seen as "weak, " "lost," "evil," and "the enemy".

The cult insists that there is no legitimate alternative to membership in the cult.

Criteria for Thought Reform ("Brainwashing"):
A Comparison of Theories

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (Themes) Prof. Margaret Thaler Singer (Conditions) Dr. Edgar H. Schein (Stages)
Milieu control (environment, medium, or condition)

Loading the language (special vocabulary)

Self-sanctification through Purity (demand for purity)

Mystical manipulation

Aura of Sacred science


Doctrine over Person

Dispensed Existence

Control recruit's time and/or physical environment.

Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, guilt, and dependency.

Suppress much of recruit's old behavior, attitudes, and/or beliefs

Implement group doctrine over person's beliefs

Dispense existence — enforce a closed system of logic

Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.

Instill new behavior and attitudes:

  1. new identification
  2. behavior modification
  3. mystical manipulation
  4. mind-altering techniques
  5. confession eliciting

Allow little input or criticism from recruit while refreezing.

A detailed synopsis of the "changing" process is printed below.

From: Cults in Our Midst: How They Capture Individuals, Families, and the Workplace by Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich, page 63.

Marks of a Destructive Cult

Mind Control (undue influence) Manipulation by the use of coercive persuasion or behavior modification techniques without informed consent.
Charismatic Leadership Claiming divinity or special knowledge and demanding unquestioning obedience with power and privilege. Leadership may consist of one individual or a core of leaders.
Deception Recruiting and fundraising with hidden objectives and without full disclosure.
Exclusivity Secretiveness or vagueness by followers regarding activities or beliefs.
Alienation Separation from family, friends, society, a change in values and substitution of the cult as the "new family"; evidence of subtle or abrupt personality changes.
Exploitation Can be financial, physical, psychological; pressure to give money, to spend a great deal on courses or give excessively to special projects and to engage in inappropriate sexual activities, or child abuse.
Totalitarian World View Also known as the "we/they" syndrome, effecting dependence, promoting goals of the group over the individual and approving unethical behavior while claiming goodness.


These five steps of mind control were outlined by Dr. Edgar H. Schein. His five criteria for a person's "changing" or conforming to the group norm are

  1. new identification,
  2. behavior modification,
  3. mystical manipulation,
  4. mind-altering techniques, and
  5. confession eliciting.

This is a brief description of each of them:

New Identification

A new "cult identity" is created and imposed formally in indoctrination sessions as well as informally through personal relations with cult members, tapes, books on group doctrines.

Behavior Modification Techniques

Behavior modification techniques include the reward/punishment cycle, the use of thought-stopping techniques, and the control of environment.

Mystical Manipulation

Mystical manipulation is the perception of coincidental or inevitable events as spiritual signs. Recruits are trained that such signs are symbols of the greatness of the group.

Mind-altering Techniques

Hypnosis, repetition, monotony, and rhythm are often used to numb the thought processes of recruits. These are often carried out through excessive chanting, praying, decreeing, and visions.

Eliciting of Confession

Testimonials and/or confessions are forcibly and continually extracted from recruits as a means of keeping recruits dependent and obedient.

See: Coercive Persuasion: A Socio-psychological Analysis of the "Brainwashing" of American Civilian Prisoners by the Chinese Communists, Edgar H. Schein with Inge Schneier and Curtis H. Barker, New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.

B.I.T.E. *

What is a Cult?

For those having difficulty understanding what is a cult and what is not, it is best to keep in mind the idea that cults generally B.I.T.E — that is, they use:
  • Behavioral,
  • Informational,
  • Thought, and
  • Emotional control
to obtain and maintain their flock. These four components are guidelines. Although most cults practice these four aspects of mind control, not all will practice them to the extreme.

What is the Overall Effect?

What matters most is the overall impact these thought-stop processes have on a recruit's feelings, will, and ability to make personal choices. A person's uniqueness, talents, skills, creativity, and free will should be encouraged and not suppressed in any healthy group. Cult mind control programs seek to mold recruits into the image of the cult leader(s), although the recruits may not be aware of this. This process is called "cloning" from a psychological perspective.

Recruits' "new identities" within a cult are the result of a systematic process that works to dissociate them from their previous identities, including beliefs, values, and significant relationships. The end result is the creation of a dual identity: a dominant "cult identity" that is constantly at war with the subconscious old identity.

*Taken from Steve Hassan's Combatting Cult Mind Control (Park Street Press, 1988).
Visit his web site:

Behavior Control

Behavior control is described as the regulation of one's physical and mental reality. A new recruit is coerced repeatedly to squelch his/her critical-thinking skills and gut instincts in return for group approval and inclusion. Exerting such a control over people allows high-pressure groups to determine most or all of the following:

  • Where, how, and with whom recruits live and associate.
  • What clothing, colors, and hairstyles to wear.
  • Which foods/drinks are accepted or rejected.
  • How much financial dependence recruits are to have on the group, what percentage of recruits' income is collected for the group's purposes.
  • How much time is spent on leisure activities such as relaxing, sleeping, leisure activities, and vacationing.

Once behavior control is put into effect, recruits respond and react accordingly. The recruits:

  • Unwittingly commit themselves to the required indoctrination sessions and group rituals.
  • Relinquish many personal decision-making processes and go to the group to determine minor and/or major life decisions.
  • Are required to report all doubts about the group, perceived negative thoughts, personal feelings, and external activities to their superiors.
  • Undergo endless cycles of verbal and/or physical abuse, then being praised or rewarded. (When husbands do that to wives, it is called The Battered Wife Syndrome.)
  • Steer clear of individualism and independent thought as group-thought prevails.
  • Adhere to often unforeseen rigid rules and regulations.
  • Develop a need for obedience to and dependency on the group

Information Control

Information control in cults can involve six key elements:

Outside Information Forbidden
Levels of Information
Spying and Survelliance
Group Propaganda
Unconfidential Confessions


Cult members will often:

  • Deliberately withhold information from recruits
  • Distort information to make it appear acceptable
  • Lie to obtain their goal

Outside Information Forbidden

Access to information outside of that of the group is minimized or discouraged. These restrictions are set on:

  • Certain books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio shows that expose the group
  • Critical information pertaining to the internal problems within the group
  • Written critiques, letters, editorials, or history of involvements of former members of the group

Levels of Information

Often, and necessarily so within cults, information is compartmentalized. That is, only certain top-notch members are privy to exactly what is happening in the leadership and with the group as a whole. Information pertaining to the group doctrine is fed in small, digestable spoonfuls to new recruits for a reason — so that they remain ignorant for the time being of the workings of the system. Leaders are seen as possessing what Lifton called "sacred science," or having the ability to decipher and interpret doctrines, philosophies, etc, in a way that no one else has ever done or could ever do.

  • Information is not freely accessible
  • Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
  • Leadership decides who "needs to know" what

Spying and Survelliance

  • Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
  • Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership

Group Propaganda

  • Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
  • Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult sources

Unconfidential Confession

  • Information about "sins" is used to abolish identity boundaries.
  • Past "sins" are used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness or absolution is given.

Thought Control

Here are a few guidelines for thought control:

Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "the truth".
  • Map = Reality
  • "All-or-none" mentality
  • Good against evil
  • Us against them (inside versus outside)
Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating cliches"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special" words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words". "Thought-terminating cliches" and simplistic slogans stop critical thinking.
Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged. Practice thought-stopping techniques, prevent "reality testing" by stopping "negative" thoughts and allowing only "good" thoughts, and prohibit rational analysis, critical thinking, and constructive criticism:
  • Denial, rationalization, justification, and wishful thinking.
  • Chanting, meditating, praying.
  • Speaking in "tongues".
  • Singing or humming.
The group is unquestionable. No critical questions about the leader, doctrine, or policy are seen as legitimate.
Exclusivity No alternative belief systems are viewed as legitimate, good, or useful.

Emotional Control

Emotional control allows cults to manipulate and narrow the range of a recruit's feelings. The objective of cults is to make recruits think that any doubts about the group is their fault, and never that of the leader(s) or the group. Any negativism toward the group is often misdirected back to the recruit — causing the recruit to internalize their doubts.

This section contains the following:

Guilt Association
Fear Induction
Phobia Indoctrination

Guilt Association

Cults induce large amounts of guilt, typically, in association with the following:

  • Who you are (and why you are not living up to your potential)
  • Who your family is (those from dysfunctional families are to attribute their dysfunctional past to their not being a member of the group yet; those from well-adjusted familes are to feel guilty for having had it so good)
  • What secrets lie in your past (sexual history, childhood mistakes, any past criminal involvement is overly emphasized)
  • With whom you are affiliated (the company you keep, boyfriend / girlfriend / fiancees shunned, family, friends, etc.)
  • What you think (how you feel, and what you do about your feelings, whether what you think and feel is acceptable to the group)
  • Social guilt (recruit is made to feel inadequate because of his/her social status)
  • Historical guilt (recruit is forced to take on the oppression of his/her ancestors and the plight of martyred persons)

Fear Induction

In order for guilt induction to successfully operate, cults must be able to instill fear in their followers:

  • Fear of thinking independently. (Recruits wonder whether they are making right decisions, what the consequences will be if they think independently.)
  • Fear of the "outside" world. (Recruits have a "we/they" mentality, and generally see all in the group as "saved," while all outside the group are "lost.")
  • Fear of enemies. (Recruits are indoctrinated to be very paranoid of all those on the outside, including the government, cult awareness groups, and/or society in general.)
  • Fear of losing salvation. (Recruits are taught that salvation is attained only through group affiliation and nowhere else.)
  • Fear of being shunned. (Recruits often risk losing family, friends, job, etc. if they decide to leave. Many cults "mark" or otherwise collectively shun former members.)
  • Fear of disapproval. (Recruits learn to live according to the laws of the leaders, and learn that deviating from these laws is detrimental to the well-being of both oneself and the others in the group.)


Cults often deal in extremes. Here are a few examples of extremism in cults:

  • Extremes of emotional highs and lows (rewards and punishments go hand-in-hand)
  • Ritual and often public confessions of sins (confessions provoked and exaggerated by inductor, i.e. a recruit who confesses to having had a few beers is labelled "an alcoholic.")
  • "We/they" mentality, in which group sees itself as better than the rest of the world, The group sees itself as the only people capable of accurate doctrinal interpretation (also called "sacred science").

Phobia Indoctrination

Phobia indoctrination is the programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group, or even questioning the leadership's authority. Recruits are manipulated to the extent that they cannot visualize a positive and successful future without being in the group. They are taught that horrific consequences will ensue if they are to leave (i.e., "hell," "demon possession," accidents, suicide, and/or insanity, etc.). Often, former cult members are so confused upon leaving that the group's predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many former cult members have killed themselves because that was exactly what the group said they would do. Those who leave are often shunned and rejected by the group. From the group perspective, there is never a legitimate reason to leave. Those who leave are perceived as "weak," "undiscipled," "unspiritual," "worldly," "brainwashed by family, friends, counselors", and/or seduced by the world of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.

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Last updated 25 December 2014.
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