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The DIY Prison Why Cults Work Ben Gibran

The DIY Prison Why Cults Work

Ben Gibran

Copyright Š 2010 Ben Gibran Published by Cult-Aware Campus Campaign The author grants permission for this work to be copied for non-commercial use only, no modifications allowed. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA. Cover image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. More information on this license may be found at The contents of this work are solely the personal opinion of the author and are not intended to be a substitute for expert advice, counselling, therapy or treatment of any kind. The author assumes no responsibility for errors, omissions or contrary interpretations of the content or any works cited herein. There is no guarantee of validity or accuracy. Any perceived slight of specific persons or organizations is unintentional. If expert advice or counselling is needed, services of a competent professional should be sought. The author assumes no responsibility or liability and specifically disclaims any warranty, express or implied for any techniques or practices described herein. The reader of this work assumes responsibility for the use of these materials and information. The cover image is a modification by Ben Gibran of the work stored in the file on_book.gif by Dominique Toussaint. The use of this image does not entail any endorsement by its original creator/s for the content of this book. Cover image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.




3.0/deed.en. The Publisher makes no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this book and specifically disclaims any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any commercial damages.

This book is dedicated to the memory of George Orwell, who taught that totalitarianism begins in the mind. ď §

Acknowledgements I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Danielle Clode and Ms Jenny Lee, who made invaluable editorial comments on the style (not the content) of earlier drafts of this work. Any errors, omissions and other shortcomings are entirely my own.

Contents Chapter 1

You Could Be In One Now .................... 1

Chapter 2

From Recruitment to Indoctrination .... 9

Chapter 3

The Cult Tool-Box .................................. 15

Chapter 4

Leaving Cults .......................................... 22

Chapter 5

Staying Cult-Free ................................... 26


................................................................. 28

1 _______________________

You Could Be In One Now

The most common misconception about cults is ‘I’d never join one’. If you think that, you may well be wrong. The error is rooted in the word ‘cult’: an expression often used to label fringe groups with bizarre beliefs and sometimes violent ends. In 1997, thirty-nine members of an American UFO group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide, believing they would be reincarnated as a higher lifeform. In 1978, disciples of the People’s Temple gave cyanide to their own children, before taking it themselves. 914 people died that day, including 276 children. These groups are called ‘cults’ by the media; but cults can take the form of families, schools, workplaces, teen gangs, political parties and selfimprovement groups, if they use the same techniques as Heaven’s Gate and the People’s Temple to change beliefs and motivations. Cults can be subtle in their indoctrination methods, yet highly effective in


controlling members. Most families are


examples, though largely of the more benign or even beneficial sort. We can’t avoid indoctrinating our children to some extent, but most of us (hopefully) allow them to think for themselves eventually. Cults don’t: they relate to members pretty much the way parents do to their kids, and recruits often end up behaving accordingly. For too long, cults have been labelled a ‘problem’ only when they turn violent, or seriously damage members’ lives. Not that the damage isn’t significant. For every media story about cult violence, there are thousands of unreported victims who sacrifice their time, energy, money and even mental health to cults. The basic problem is that cults often impair our ability to make balanced decisions, because they exploit our vulnerability to situational influences. Suppose you pass a used-car lot on the way to work, and the salesman persuades you to buy a car when you’re not looking for one. You drive away happy with the bargain, but as the miles roll by it gradually dawns that buying a car wasn’t a good idea. You can’t afford the gas and insurance, don’t own a garage and walk ten minutes to work. The car is turning into a money pit. You realize that the


salesman used psychological techniques to get you to overlook the negatives and see the car as a better deal than it really is. Your initial happiness turns to regret. You resolve to avoid slick salesmen in future, so you’ll make better decisions. You’ve






influences: the door gift that put you in a good (and more receptive) mood, the salesman’s winning smile, his flattering remarks about your good judgement, his constant flow of talk that never gives you time to think, his unceasing emphasis on the positives, and simple techniques like ‘dropping’ the (over-inflated) price so you felt you had a bargain. The salesman behaved much like a cult, with one big difference. Once he’d made his sale, he left you alone. He ‘switched off’ the situational influences, allowing you to regain your objectivity (albeit too late). Cults don’t. Cults are potentially harmful for what they do rather than their beliefs. They manipulate situational variables to exert a high degree of control over members. Involvement in a cult may disrupt a member’s education, career, finances, social life or family ties. Extreme cults are able to persuade members to cause harm or break the law. The techniques used by cults are also used in a wide range of less extreme settings. This book aims to raise your


awareness of the effects of situational influences on decision-making, regardless of their origin. Much like a vaccine, your awareness of situational factors increases your immunity to them, and your ability to make more objective decisions. The warning signs of cult activity are outlined in this book, along with advice on helping cult members and ex-members. The aim is not to cast judgement on particular groups, but to help readers make well-informed decisions for themselves. It is always






problematic) to label any particular group a ‘cult’. Rather than resort to name-calling, we should focus on compensating for situational influences wherever they crop up. Not all cults are religious groups (and not all religious groups are cults); some promote political causes, pseudo-therapies or even marketing schemes. To help you identify potential cults, the table on the next page lists their main features, compared to mainstream groups that are less open to abuse. If a group clearly displays three or more cult features, it’s advisable to give it a miss and tell others to do so.


Cults: The Difference  Leaders demand unquestioning and unconditional obedience from members.

 Leaders are not accountable to anyone else, their deliberations are secret.

 The same leader has been running the group since it started, or leadership has passed to confidants.

 Members who leave are harassed, or emotionally blackmailed.

 Members are discouraged from forming relationships outside the group.

 Non-members are regarded with suspicion, hostility, or merely as potential recruits.

 Recruiting new members is a mandatory activity.  Members are required to spend most of their time on group activities.

 Members have to consult group leaders on even minor decisions.

 Members have to give a high proportion of their income to the group.


Non-Cult Groups  Leadership is open to questioning and criticism.  There are checks on the abuse of power, through elections, external audits, or open meetings.

 There have been several changes of leadership through impartial procedures.

 Members are free to leave the group.  Members are free to mix with family and friends outside the group.

 Non-members are not viewed with hostility, and are under no obligation to join.

 Members are not required to recruit others.  The group’s activities leave time for work, family and a social life outside the group.

 Members make their own decisions, guided by broad principles rather than comprehensive instructions.

 The group does not demand large donations.


Some Common Cult Types  Religious Cults are the ones that probably spring to mind when we think ‘cult’. However, not all religious groups are cults. Religious cults shape their teachings and practices around the task of controlling situational factors to facilitate recruitment and indoctrination. They are cults first, religions second.


Cults exploit the fast growing

demand for secular alternative therapies, including motivational training, addiction counselling and stress relief. Unlike legitimate groups, such cults aim to promote dependence leading to long-term feepaying membership. Therapy cults tend to be secretive about their methods and expect members to recruit others.

Gangs recruit young people in their teens to early twenties, the most vulnerable age group for cult recruitment. At this stage in life, we’re often searching for identity and meaning, and have a strong desire for peer approval.

 Families are the oldest and most common cults of all. Being a parent is like having your own little personal cult, with your children as disciples. Most


parents loosen the reins as kids grow, but some families maintain a cult-like grip on kin into adult life. This can harm members in psychologically or physically abusive families. It helps to maintain a mental






personal and family lives, to insulate yourself against harmful influence from domineering kinfolk.

Workplaces don’t turn up on most lists of cults,

but many employers adopt the same methods as cults to enhance staff loyalty and ‘productivity’. We often invest too much of our selves in relationships distorted by the bottom line. Many of us only realize it when we lose our jobs, and feel suddenly empty. As with families, it helps to maintain a social life outside work and a sense of perspective to insulate yourself emotionally from office politics.


Cults are informal groups such as

friendship circles, clubs, fraternities, peers, colleagues, communities: any social or professional setting where authority figures or peers may use situational factors to influence members. Balanced decision making calls for alertness at all times to situational influences. Learn to constantly weigh your beliefs and attitudes against such influences, to avoid making decisions you might later regret.


2 _______________________

From Recruitment to Indoctrination

Who’s Vulnerable?

We tend to think of cults as fringe groups full of eccentric ‘nutters’. In fact, most cult members start off as normal people, and only behave strangely after joining a cult. Cult recruits are often highly educated, successful and idealistic. Through psychological manipulation, cults can turn such people into dysfunctional individuals who may harm themselves or others.

The two most important defences against cults are awareness of our own vulnerability, and knowledge of the methods used by cults to recruit and indoctrinate. Anyone is vulnerable to cult recruitment, but we tend to be most vulnerable when feeling lonely or insecure. You may feel this way when moving into a new environment such as a city, university or workplace. Major life crises such as divorce, unemployment, bereavement or addiction may also trigger such feelings.



tend to target people whom they know to be vulnerable, and therefore likely to develop an emotional dependence on the group. Young people are particularly vulnerable, as they’re often searching for identity and meaning, and have a strong desire for peer approval. However, vulnerability to recruitment is determined more by the situation we’re in than by any innate tendency. We can reduce our vulnerability to cult recruitment by building a network of emotional support, instead of just relying on one group or individual. When moving into a new environment, it helps to stay in touch with those left behind.

 Many cult recruiters will befriend someone to create an emotional bond that the cult can exploit, so don’t feel obliged to reciprocate if you suspect an agenda. Tempting as it may be, avoid committing yourself to anything simply out of fear of being rejected if you don’t. Don’t feel you have to confide your most personal thoughts or feelings to someone unless you are sure they will treat you with respect and discretion. Above all, don’t assume you’re immune to cult indoctrination. Always weigh your decisions soberly against the influence of situational factors, and adjust accordingly.


Cults usually rely on members to recruit others. The two main ways are open meetings and personal contacts.


Cults often hold open meetings to which members of the public are invited. These meetings are usually advertised as lectures, seminars or informal gatherings, with no hint of their real purpose. The advertised topic may have something to do with self-improvement, spirituality or politics, aimed at drawing the most open-minded or idealistic.

The recruitment event will often feature an inspirational talk, aimed at whipping up strong emotions in the audience, to render them even more suggestible. ‘Spontaneous’ occurrences, from cheering in the audience to apparent psychic phenomena, may be orchestrated to create the right mood. At such meetings, potential recruits are approached by cult members, who will take down their contact details and encourage them to attend further meetings.

 Potential recruits are often invited to such meetings by cult members who are acquaintances, friends or family. We tend to view a group more favourably if someone we know is in it. To begin with, invitees are asked to make small commitments. These may involve giving contact details, participating in ice-breaker activities, or attending an introductory course or camp. Small commitments are easier to make, and harder to reject without seeming unreasonable or prejudiced.

 By gradually increasing the level of commitment, cults are able to build up a recruit’s emotional dependence on


the group. Once involved, recruits are reluctant to back out of something they have invested time and effort in. This reluctance gives rise to ‘effort-justification’, in which they will persuade themselves to remain in the cult and overlook its faults, in order to justify their sacrifices. Recruits also fear losing the relationships they’ve built up in the cult.


New recruits are given a warm and affectionate welcome in a practice called ‘love bombing’, but the friendliness cools down at any sign of disobedience. Cults exploit our desire to conform to the group and not be the odd one. Lonely people tend to be recruited because they’re more vulnerable to such exploitation. Once recruited, members are usually discouraged from building relationships outside the cult, thus increasing their emotional dependence on the group.

A cult can also foster emotional dependence by undermining members’ self-esteem (for example, through self-criticism sessions), and then insisting they need the group’s help to re-build their confidence. Outsiders are viewed with hostility or suspicion, alienating former friends and family. Members would be expected to devote increasingly more time to the cult, which becomes a surrogate family.


 The head of the cult ‘family’ is usually a charismatic authority figure, modelled on familiar ones such as pastors, teachers, counsellors, experts, and even parents. We are more likely to obey authority figures than equals. This flows from our natural acceptance of authority in social arrangements. However, the influence of an authority figure is quickly undermined by visible disobedience. Hence, cult leaders tend to be intolerant of any open questioning or criticism.

 Cults put recruits through a process of disorientation and depersonalization to soften them up for indoctrination. Disorientation tends to heighten recruits’ suggestibility. Cults can disorientate recruits through intense emotional experiences, mind-numbing activities, confusing instructions, physical and mental exhaustion, or hunger. Disorientation is sometimes enhanced by taking recruits to a remote ‘retreat’, where they are cut off from family and friends for a few days.


is an attempt to undermine a recruit’s individuality, so as to induce conformity to the group. Cults try to depersonalize recruits by imposing restrictive rules, getting recruits to renounce their former selves, undermining their self-esteem, addressing them as groups rather than individuals, or otherwise suppressing the expression of independent ideas and personalities. Depersonalization exploits our natural desire to fit in with those around us, not be the ‘odd one out’.


Cult leaders usually try to promote conformity through ‘groupthink’. The term was coined by psychologist Irving Janis, to describe conditions that lead normal individuals to make abnormal decisions when in group settings. Groups which prize unanimity highly tend to practice self-censorship, in which individuals don’t reveal their true beliefs for fear of rejection. Silence is interpreted as agreement, and the group tends to gravitate to more extreme views as each member assumes the others are more radical.

 The most common levers of control in cults are guilt and fear of rejection. Members are often held up to impossible ideals, and may have to confess their failings in front of other members. Cult leaders are exempted from confession, and portray themselves as being closest to the ideal. Group confession creates a sense of personal inadequacy, which members try to make up for by increasing their commitment. They feel obliged to remain in the cult, since outsiders are portrayed negatively.

Cults exploit the fear of rejection by isolating members from the outside world socially or physically, and making an example of those who were expelled or disciplined. Cult leaders often give contradictory teachings, so that members are unable to use the teachings to make independent decisions, or judge the leaders’ own actions. Instead, out of fear of doing the wrong thing, members follow the leaders’ instructions from one moment to the next without question.


3 _______________________

The Cult Tool Box

 Mind-Control Techniques Cults exploit a few basic human weaknesses to gain recruits and ‘brain-wash’ them. Knowing these can help you resist manipulation:

 Effort-Justification The more we sacrifice effort, time and money on an activity, the greater our desire to defend it. Psychologists call this tendency ‘effort-justification’. In one experiment on effort justification, volunteers underwent either a mild or severe initiation ceremony to join the same activity. The volunteers who got in ’the hard way’ rated the activity more highly.


Cults promote effort-justification by getting members to sacrifice their time, energy, relationships, self-esteem or money for the cult. Members will then block out critical thoughts and view the cult positively, to justify their efforts on behalf of the cult. Effort-justification is reinforced by hostility and ridicule from outsiders, which members are often exposed to when trying to recruit others. Further Reading: Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959). ‘The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59: 177-181.


Authority Figures

Authority figures are a standard fixture in cults. In a famous experiment in 1961, the psychologist Stanley Milgram found that when asked by an experimenter, most volunteers were willing to give very severe electric shocks to a total stranger (really an actor pretending to be ‘shocked’). Milgram found that when the volunteers were allowed to choose the voltage, most stopped at the lowest levels. He





representing an authority figure, was able to override the conscience of most volunteers. Cult authority


figures are even more compelling, because they can manipulate feelings of guilt and fear of rejection to induce obedience. Further Reading: Milgram S. (1963). ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371-378.

  Role-Playing Cults exploit our readiness to conform to a role. In 1971, Stanford University psychologists set up a mock prison, recruited twenty-four volunteers and divided them randomly into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’. The experimenters set initial conditions promoting mild depersonalization, such as different uniforms for the two groups, and the use of numbers in place of names for prisoners. ‘Guards’ were allowed to run the prison as they saw fit. The results were unexpected. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘guards’ quickly internalized their roles, with ‘guards’ behaving sadistically and ‘prisoners’ accepting abuse. The experiment was abruptly cancelled to prevent psychological harm to the ‘prisoners’. Cults use similar methods as the Stanford prison experiment to induce conformity in recruits by assigning them well-


defined and often hierarchical roles within the organization. Further Reading: Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). ‘Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison.’ Naval Research Reviews 9: 1-17.

 Group Conformity We all have a desire to conform to the group, and not be the one ‘sticking out’. This desire is a highly effective control lever for cults. Experiments led by Solomon Asch in the 1950s demonstrate the extent to which we would second-guess our own judgements to conform to a group. In the classic Asch experiment, a group of volunteers were asked which one of three lines on a card was the same length as a fourth reference line on another card.

________________________Reference Line _____________________A ____________________________B ________________________C


The subjects were to take turns giving their answers. Under normal circumstances, an average of one person out of thirty-five gives a wrong answer. However, in some experiments one participant was unaware that before his turn, the others (who were ‘plants’) would each deliberately call out the same wrong answer. In those ‘rigged’ experiments, about one-third of (genuine) subjects gave the same wrong answer as the plants. The ‘conformity effect’ was severely reduced when one of the plants disagreed with the rest. This explains why cults are paranoid about the slightest dissent within the ranks, because it has a huge deflationary effect on conformity. Further Reading: Asch, S. E. (1951). ‘Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment.’ In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

 Compliant States A compliant state is a frame of mind which is more open to suggestion. Cults can induce compliance by undermining members’ self-esteem, through group confessions, fault-finding or disorientation. People


with low self-esteem are more receptive to messages that are inherently unconvincing, because they put less trust in their own opinions and more in those of others. Cults can also induce compliance through dissociative states, in which someone is not fully conscious of what is going on. All of us experience brief dissociative states, when ‘daydreaming’ or more severely, after an emotional shock. Dissociative states can be induced by meditation, hypnosis, chanting, intense emotions, conflicting demands, fatigue or fear. Further Reading: Simeon, D. (2008). Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. USA: Oxford University Press.

 Sales Techniques Certain techniques used by salespeople are also used by cults to win new recruits. One common technique is the ‘foot in the door’. This involves asking potential recruits to make an easy commitment (such as meeting for coffee), which they may accept to avoid seeming







commitment, potential recruits make a small sacrifice in time and effort, which allows the cult to leverage


on effort-justification to request a slightly larger commitment (perhaps, attending a seminar). Another





reciprocity. By doing a favour for a potential recruit (maybe giving them a free meal) cults are able to ask for something in return (for example, contact details). Simple friendliness is an effective technique, building a relationship of trust with a potential recruit before making the ‘sales pitch’ for the cult. Further Reading: Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Much like a flu shot, awareness of your own


to situational influences helps to

inoculate you against them: with one important condition. You have to take the threat seriously. Further Reading: McGuire, W. J. (1961). ‘Resistance to Persuasion Conferred by Active and Passive Prior Refutation






Counterarguments.’ Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology 63: 326-332.


4 _______________________

Leaving Cults

If Someone You Know is a Member

Do question them in a casual and non-hostile way to find out if they’ve really joined a cult.

DON’T assume they’ve joined a cult simply because they’ve changed their beliefs.


identify and research the cult, so you’ll be

better informed to discuss it with them.


try to talk them out of the cult without

knowing much, your ignorance may alienate them.


encourage them to discuss their beliefs with

you, make positive comments but gently lead them to think critically about the cult’s teachings.


DON’T ridicule, scold or reject them for their beliefs, this may reinforce their dependence on the cult for emotional support.


get them involved in groups and activities

outside the cult, to provide an alternative social life.

DON’T get involved with other cult members; they may try to turn your friend against you.

Do try to help them work out and deal with any underlying reasons for joining a cult (such as loneliness or lack of self-confidence).

DON’T suggest possible reasons yourself (it sounds patronising), instead help them find solutions to potential reasons without saying why.


be emotionally prepared for them to distance

themselves from you.


take it personally, but try to reach out to

them instead.

DON’T blame yourself for them joining a cult. DON’T blame them either.


After Leaving a Cult

Members who leave a cult may experience psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. Cults often have nothing more to do with those who leave, after trying to persuade them to return. Former members may have trouble adjusting to this loss of fellowship. They may also experience ‘anomie’, a loss of purpose in life which had been previously fulfilled by the cult. Ex-members will need to work out a new belief system, and separate their core beliefs from the cultic teachings that were used to indoctrinate them.

 Anger is a common emotion, and ex-members may need to be steered away from seeking to confront the cult. Many ex-members suffer loss of confidence, particularly if they feel responsible for their own predicament. They need reminding that cult members are victims of circumstance, and anyone is vulnerable to cult recruitment. Above all, ex-members need reassurance that the distressing emotions they feel are normal and transient.

Some former members may try to transfer their dysfunctional cult relationships (such as overdependence on an authority figure) to family or friends. To aid recovery, it would be best to steer such relationships gently towards a normal pattern.


 Cults often ‘keep in touch’ with former members, to persuade them to return. A complete break is advisable. Maintaining contact tends to result in an unsatisfactory outcome, because cults do not want former members to feel happy outside the group. Those who leave are usually subjected to emotional blackmail, intended to create a crisis in which they have to choose between total separation or re-joining the cult.

Members Who Leave May Also Feel LOST Cults provide a sense of purpose which former

members may find difficult to replace. It may help to get back in touch with pre-cult interests. LONELY Cults provide instant fellowship, which fades

away just as quickly. Former members may need to lower expectations from new relationships. INSECURE Cults may undermine a member’s self-

esteem in order to promote emotional dependence. Former members need assurance of their intrinsic self -worth, in a realistic perspective. GUILTY Ex-members may have developed a guilt

complex while in the cult, or later blame themselves for joining. They will need to find a balance between forgiving themselves and taking responsibility for their own actions.


5 _______________________

Staying Cult-Free

Some Simple Steps

BE SUSPICIOUS of strangers who appear overly

friendly or unusually helpful. They may be genuine, but it pays to be on your guard. Don’t let them find out your contact details, especially where you live (for example, by offering to drive you to or from home).

FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF with the list of cult features

in this book. If it helps, photocopy and pin up the page in a prominent place. Before joining a group, check if it has such features and if it does, avoid it.

NEUTRAL FRIENDS should accompany you if you choose to attend an open meeting. Do not allow yourselves to be separated. Compare notes after the meeting as a reality check. Do not immediately assume





‘miraculous’ events at the meeting are genuine.



in hypnosis, intensive

meditation, repetitive chanting, extended fasting, sleep or rest deprivation, group confessions or other disorienting practices, unless you are willing to bear the risks.

AVOID LONG RETREATS involving such activities.

When going on a retreat, find out what activities are scheduled. Make sure you can leave early if you have to. Some cults take recruits to remote locations so they can’t leave easily by themselves.

DO NOT COMMIT to anything straight away; always ask for a day to think it over by yourself. Be prepared to break off a commitment or relationship if you feel you are being emotionally blackmailed. You may not feel good about doing it, but it isn’t good to be manipulated either.

BE VIGILANT for any tell-tale signs of cult activity. When in a group, check to see if things are not what they seem; if people seem insincere, following a script, overly guarded when asked questions, or take the lead from an authority figure. Remember that cults always put up a facade to newcomers, and you may need to do some research or ask probing questions to find out what they’re really up to.



A grey area exists between cults and mainstream groups. As a result, it would be difficult to legislate against cults without undesirable restrictions to basic freedoms of religion and other civil liberties. Similar ethical and legal problems arise in the case of families or friends ‘deprogramming’ cult members by coercive means, such as detaining them against their will.

Cults exploit freedoms of religion, speech and assembly to openly recruit in the streets, campuses and the media. Cults are a feature of daily life in any open society. Our only protection against them is recognition of our own vulnerability, and awareness of the hidden agendas and techniques behind cult recruitment and indoctrination. That is why public education is so important in the fight against cults.

 Cult leaders often have personality disorders such as psychopathy or paranoia, or may even be mentally ill. These problems tend to worsen in a cult environment, in which followers are constantly mirroring the leader’s own beliefs. The leader’s growing delusions feeds back into the cult, taking it further to an extreme and perhaps violent end. This cycle of violence is a recurring pattern, leading to mass suicides in the People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate, and mass murders by violent cults. For


each atrocity that makes the headlines, there are many cases of cult abuse that go unreported.

The responsibility for keeping people out of cults rests with each one of us. Without naming names or being judgmental, we can warn others of the potential dangers of cultic manipulation. We can ask our local educational institutions to include a cult awareness program in orientation week, since cults often recruit on campuses. We can organize public talks on cults and lobby against special treatment for them, such as tax exemptions.

 Above all, we can try to ensure that those near and dear to us are not vulnerable, by informing them about the issues. You can start by emailing this free e-book to your friends, or uploading it to your blog or social media.

Thank you for passing this on!


Further Reading Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). ‘The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59: 177-181. Asch, S. E. (1951). ‘Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment.’ In H.Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press. Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). ‘Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison.’ Naval Research Reviews 9: 1-17. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research. Milgram, S. (1963). ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371-378. Simeon, D. (2008). Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. USA: Oxford University Press. Tobias, M. L. & Lalich, J. (1994). Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.


About the Author Ben Gibran is a researcher and writer with an interest in the philosophy and social science of communication. He holds an MA (Honors) from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia.


Cults are potentially harmful for what they do rather






situational influences to exert a high degree of control over members. Involvement in a cult may disrupt a member’s education, career, finances, social life or family ties. Extreme cults are able to persuade members to cause harm or break the law. The techniques used by cults are also used in a wide range of less extreme settings. This book aims to raise your awareness of the effects of situational influences on decision-making, regardless of their origin. Much like a vaccine, your awareness of environmental factors increases your immunity to them, and your ability to make more objective decisions. The warning signs of cult activity are also outlined in this book, along with advice on helping cult members and ex-members. The aim is not to cast judgement on particular groups, but to help readers make well-informed decisions for themselves. THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR SALE. THE AUTHOR GRANTS PERMISSION COMMERCIAL













The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work  

Welcome to the Cult-Aware Campus Campaign. Cults view the young, idealistic, and socially isolated as easy targets for recruitment. Hence, t...

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