Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 164, 2015 September)

For many people, traditional religion no longer offers satisfying answers to life's problems and this factor is probably one of the reasons for the explosion of cults that began to occur in Western society in the latter half of the twentieth century.

All cults have the potential to be dangerous just as all religions have the potential to be dangerous. The cults that are most dangerous are those whose beliefs are radically antisocial, and whose methods of indoctrination are highly effective at making and keeping converts. Some of the cults that meet these criteria and who have self-destructed in an orgy of violence are listed below:

•    1978, Guyana: 913 members of the People's Temple killed.
•    1985, Philippines: 60 members of the Ara Tribe killed.
•    1993, Waco: 80 members of the Branch Davidian Killed.
•    1994, Switzerland, Quebec & France: A total of 69 members of the Solar Temple killed.
•    2000, Uganda: 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments killed.

Although these tragedies are the most obvious sign of the harm that dangerous cults can cause, much of the damage can remain hidden from the public eye. For example, sexual and physical abuse of the group's children, exploitation of its members, and the breakup of families that can result from conversion to the cult are all causes for concern.

The purpose of this essay is to examine cult characteristics, those who are most vulnerable to the conversion process, the recruitment strategies cults employ, the mind control techniques they use, and methods of protection that can be employed to safeguard individuals from these groups.


Although many cults are based on religious ideas, others are founded upon secular principles, and examples of these are as follows:

(1) Political — The Aryan Nation, an American white supremacist group whose aim is to seize control of the USA.

(2) Psychotherapy/Educational organisations whose aim is to make money by convincing people to sign up for expensive courses in personal development of which Scientology is an instance. Broken marriages, financial ruin and even suicide have resulted from the activities of these groups.

(3) Commercial — these are the pyramid-style and multilevel marketing organizations who exploit their salespeople.

The relationship cults have with mainstream society may be described as "closed": where members of the group have little contact with the outside world, The Children of God, for example; or "open": where members are encouraged to participate in society, and even seek positions of influence in the public service, politics and other professions as is the case with Scientology. However, regardless of whether a cult is open or closed, they all have common features that can be summarised as follows:

•    All doctrines must be blindly accepted. The group's dogma must not be questioned, and any doubts a member may have are attributed to his or her own spiritual blindness, sin or intellectual immaturity.

•    The cult believes that it alone has a monopoly on the Truth, and the human situation is usually reduced to two diametric components: good versus evil and "them" (any person not of the group) versus "us." Consequently, all cults have their personifications of evil — demonic supernatural beings, secular institutions, professions and conspiracy theories.

•    Most cults have an elitist mentality that often derives from the belief that the group has been especially chosen by God or Destiny to bring about the fruition of a grand mission — the establishment of a utopian society, Heaven on Earth and so on.

•    There is a dominant leader who discourages individuality and freedom. Members of the cult must be subordinate to the leader — everyone must model their thoughts, dress and actions on this person.

•    The psychological characteristics of many cult leaders appears to fit the following profile:

"It seems obvious to me that some cult leaders have an inferiority complex and a somewhat antisocial personality. Although many cult leaders want and need material opulence, what they require, in my opinion, is attention and power. In fact, power can and does become an extreme addiction. Over time, cult leaders develop a need for more and more power. One thing that makes these people so dangerous is their psychological instability, and the fact that they actually believe their own propaganda. They are not just cunning con artists who want to make money. From my experience, I think that most actually believe they are "God," or the "Messiah," or an enlightened master."
(S. Hassan: Combating Cult Mind Control, page 98.)


Although anyone can become a cult victim, generally speaking, those most at risk are individuals who are experiencing some form of emotional turmoil or dissatisfaction with life — states of mind that tend to reduce a person's ability to think critically:

"The most vulnerable people are those discontented with some aspect of their life, or are going through a life crises (such as job loss, bereavement or ill health), who have above average intelligence and/or good concentration. People who have a strong need for intimacy in their life are also particularly vulnerable, as are those who are idealistic and disappointed in what society has to offer.

The general discontentment or life crises these people are experiencing means that they are likely to be already operating at a higher than normal level of arousal. Higher arousal dampens the ability to think clearly or critically." (L. Samways: Dangerous Persuaders, pages 96-97.)

Taking the above factors into account, it is not surprising that most conversions occur between the ages of 10 and 20, a time when many young people are experiencing the turmoil of adolescence, or dealing with its aftermath:

"Most of the studies which have examined the age of conversion have found that the majority take place during adolescence. Argyle (1958), reviewing the research dealing with the age of conversion, found that experiences mostly occur between the tenth and twentieth year. The most frequent year in which conversions take place seems to vary with the investigator and perhaps with the date of the research."  (G.E.W. Scobie: Psychology of Religion, page 51)


There are four basic recruitment strategies that cults employ, and they are as follows:

(1) Advertisements offering personal development courses, yoga and meditation classes, or lectures on "world peace," "cosmic consciousness" or some equally vague and idealistic title.

(2) Cult members can also gain access to people by going door-to-door selling goods and asking for donations to some worthy and legitimate sounding cause.
(3) Others loiter in malls, bus and train stations, and airports looking for vulnerable people.

(4) Possibly of greater concern is the infiltration of schools by these groups in the guise of youth fellowships and counseling services.

In order to increase the likelihood of a successful conversion, cults often tailor their beliefs to suit the temperament of the person they are targeting, and towards this end many divide people into four basic types:

(1) Thinkers — those people who will be attracted by the group's philosophy, and would be interested in meeting other intellectuals.

(2) Feelers — those needing love, acceptance and, possibly, a substitute for family life.

(3) Doers — those attracted by the idea of improving the world.

(4) Believers — those needing a spiritual dimension to their life.

Once the potential convert is brought more fully within the sphere of the cult's influence — by attending classes, meetings or ceremonies — then various techniques (collectively referred to as Mind Control) can then be employed to modify their beliefs and initiate the conversion process.


The primary difference between the brainwashing techniques employed by totalitarian regimes and methods of mind control is that with brainwashing the victim is often subjected to physical and/or psychological torture and, generally speaking, knows what the intentions of his captors are. With mind control, however, the techniques are more subtle, and the victim is usually unaware that his or her beliefs are being deliberately manipulated towards a particular end.

The secret of mind control lies in the ability of the manipulator to inhibit a person's capacity to think critically, and induce states of suggestibility that allow new beliefs to be implanted. One of the ways that this can be achieved is as follows:

Stirring up strong emotions of anxiety, guilt, or anger, causing mental conflicts, exhausting the individual mentally or physically, prolonging stress by leaving him in doubt for varying times without knowing what his fate is going to be, all bring about states of suggestibility... The fundamentalist Christian evangelist employs three methods. Firstly, he never argues but inculcates beliefs by affirmation (Jesus is waiting for you!), by repetition (Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!), and by crowd contagion. Secondly, he utters terrible warnings of hellfire so that the possible non-existence of Hell never enters the listener's minds... Thirdly, having induced fear and guilt in his audience, the evangelist tells them how they may be saved and as the agent of the divine holds out promises the fulfilment of which is never questioned. (J.A.C. Brown: Techniques of Persuasion, page 230-231)

Converting a person to a particular cult is, in itself, insufficient as they may revert to old ways of thinking. In order for the group to consolidate their hold on an individual, commitment to the cult must be engendered in order for the convert to be continually exposed to mind control techniques, and I shall now proceed to outline how this can be achieved.

The biggest threat to any cult is critical thinking on the part of its members. Consequently, if a person questions or criticises some aspect of the cult's doctrines or practices, then they must be silenced, and a common tactic employed to achieve this end is to turn the criticism back on the individual. For example, it might be implied that the group's beliefs will become clear only after the person commits themselves more fully to the cult, or that it takes real courage to change, or that doubts are indicative of a lack of trust, or the individual's doubts arise from a condition of ignorance or sin. Alternatively, less subtle methods such as ridicule or verbal abuse may be used to silence dissenters.

When subjected to these tactics, many people may experience feelings of inadequacy (they are led to believe they don't understand because they are ignorant, lack commitment, are distrustful and so on), and may uncritically accept doctrines because they have been led to believe that they are not capable of, or have no right to criticise the cult's beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, once a person is convinced that this lie is true, the more power the group has over them. These techniques, combined with peer group pressure and rewards for compliant behaviour become powerful tools for manipulating others.

When a person is prepared to uncritically participate in the cult's activities, the following additional methods can be employed to produce trance-like states of suggestibility in which new beliefs can be implanted, and the individual's natural personality submerged: Prolonged ceremonies that focus the mind on candle flames, ritual objects, mantras, rhythmic sounds or music can be used to achieve this end. An additional objective of these activities is to occupy the mind to such a degree that there is little, if any time for the person to critically evaluate what is happening to them or the ideas they are being asked to believe.

Dependency on the cult can be established by a number of means: Isolating the individual from family, friends and work by involving them in the group's commune, inducing mental and physical fatigue through lengthy sessions of prayer, physical activity designed to deprive the individual of sleep and rest. The cumulative effect of these techniques results in a state of mental confusion that reduces the person's ability to make decisions, and consequently reduces their autonomy. It is not surprising that under these conditions many people hand over all their financial assets to the group, and as a result become even more dependent on the cult.

Additional methods of mind control may be employed, such as encouraging individuals to reveal their inner feelings, and the information obtained through these confessions can then be used to manipulate the person by playing on their fears, hopes and anxieties. All of these methods are often combined with actively discouraging the person from contacting family and friends, and blaming loved ones for a variety of real or imagined problems. If the individual's relationships with their family, work, and all other familiar reference points are successfully broken down as a result of these processes, then the victim may come to believe that the cult is the only group that offers sanctuary from a hostile world. Indeed, mind control techniques can induce phobias about leaving the cult —  the individual fears they will incur the wrath of God, be killed in an accident, or be persecuted by the Forces of Darkness.

As well as these imaginary threats, there is also a real possibility that people who have left the cult or, who are seeking to leave one, will face a campaign of intimidation and violence instigated by the group:

"To leave or even speak out against a cult is not only to face excommunication and what is perceived as the very real prospect of damnation in the eyes of God, but to risk mental or physical abuse. This can take many forms. In the extreme it may result in the assassination of the ex-cult member, but psychological pressure is more commonplace... Often years of abuse follow the leaving of a cult. This emanates from other cult members living in the neighbourhood and enormous damage is wrought to individuals and families." (M. Jordan: Cults, page 76)


If anyone is approached in the manner outlined under the Recruitment Strategies section of this article, then there are a number of questions that can be asked which may be of assistance in determining if the organization is a dangerous cult.

However, before I outline these questions, it is important to keep the following in mind:

Firstly, never give out personal details such as your family name, address or telephone number.

Secondly, remember that dangerous cults rely on lies, deception and have a hidden agenda — namely, their desire to exploit you. Consequently, you may receive vague and evasive answers, and encounter attempts to change the subject.

Thirdly, when you do encounter these evasions, continue to seek a direct answer to your questions until you receive one, or until it becomes obvious that no direct and unambiguous answer will be forthcoming.

Fourthly, if you do decide to attend a meeting, class or lecture, make sure that you: (A) Obtain as much independent information on the group as you can. (B) Go with a friend, and under no circumstances become separated. (C) Leave immediately if you suspect that mind control techniques are being used.

The following set of questions is based on those suggested in Combating Cult Mind Control, and may prove useful for identifying dangerous cults:

•    How long have you (the recruiter) been involved with this group, and are you trying to recruit me?
A person who is new to a destructive cult is, generally speaking, inexperienced in recruitment techniques, and therefore less likely to lie, and what lies he or she does tell will be easily detected. A common response to this question is a denial, followed by the claim that the person merely wishes to share some information.

•    What organizations are affiliated with your group and what are their names?
Many cults use front groups to conceal their true identity, and it is very important to establish who you are dealing with. Remember, always do independent research to confirm any information you are given.

•    What is the name of the person who has ultimate control of your organisation? What is his background and what qualifications does he have that entitle him to this position? Does he have a criminal record, or has he ever been subject to a criminal investigation?
Many cult leaders have a shady past, and if the person starts a monologue on how all great men have been persecuted or misunderstood, or is evasive and uncomfortable when you request straight answers to this set of questions, then this may indicate that the group has something to hide .

•    What are the beliefs of your group? Do these beliefs include the idea that the end result justifies the means by which it is obtained?
If the person can't give a clear and concise summary of the organisation's tenants, then they may be hiding some unpleasant facts. At this point you may be invited to attend a meeting for an explanation. However, this may be a ploy to lure you into a venue where mind control techniques will be used.

•    What would be expected of me if I were to join your group? Would I have to leave school or work, provide donations of any description? Disassociate myself from friends and family if they do not approve of or oppose my membership?
This question should make most members of a destructive cult very uncomfortable and defensive. If the person is uneasy or is evasive upon hearing this question, then regard their reaction as a danger signal.

•    Are there people who consider your group dangerous, controversial or are critical of it and, if so, why?
If the person claims media bias, suggests a conspiracy theory or ignorance on the part of the uninitiated, then beware. Remember; keep probing until you obtain a clear and concise answer. Failure to obtain direct and unambiguous answers may indicate that the person is hiding something.

•    Has anyone ever left your group? Have you ever asked them why they left and If not, then why not? How do you feel about those who have left your group? Does your group discourage contact with former members, and if so, why?
Destructive cults always actively discourage contact with former members and often regard them in a very negative way. The cult missionary may claim that one of his/her best friends has left the group. However, you must obtain specific and detailed answers to these questions as the person may be lying.

•    Can you name at least three things that you dislike about your group and your leader?
Members of destructive cults often say that they can't think of anything negative about their organisation or leader. This response is due to the fact that they have been conditioned not to have such thoughts. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect person or organisation, so be very suspicious of an "all is rosy" answer.

•    Can you name at least three things you would rather do with your life than be a member of your group?
If the answer is "nothing", or a version of the "all is rosy" response, then beware. Such devotion and single-mindedness in a member of the group is probably a good sign that mind control techniques may be being used.


Dangerous cults are totalitarian in spirit. They thrive on the exploitation and manipulation of their members, and therefore are a threat to individuals and society. In the former case the threat comes from the psychological damage that mind control techniques can cause, and in the latter because the aims of the group are often antisocial.

In a democratic society, people have a right to hold as being true whatever they so desire, and to attempt to convince others that their beliefs are true. However, when this involves deceit, and the exploitation of others, then we have the right and the obligation to object to the activities of these groups. In my opinion, it is essential that the public be educated as to the dangers posed by these organisations, and I hope that this essay contributes in some way towards this goal.


Brown, J. A. C. 1972 Techniques of Persuasion, Penguin Books, England,

Cinnamon, K. & Farson, D. 1979 Cults and Cons, Nelson-Hall, Chicago

Hassan, S. 1990 Combating Cult Mind Control, Park Street Press, Rochester

Jordan, M. 1996 Cults, The Book Company International Pty Ltd, Brookvale

Samways, L. 1994 Dangerous Persuaders, Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood

Scobie, G. E. W. 1975 Psychology of Religion, B. T. Batsford Ltd. London.