Church of Wells/YMBBA Ministries

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10/28/2013 1:23 am  #21

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame 
(Version 2.6)


Events in the last several decades have clearly indicated just how dangerous some religious and secular groups (usually called “cults” by those opposed to them) can be to their own members as well as to anyone else whom they can influence. “Brainwashing,” beatings, child abuse, rapes, murders, mass suicides, military drilling and gunrunning, meddling in civil governments, international terrorism, and other crimes have been charged against leaders and members of many groups, and in far too many cases those accusations have been correct. None of this has been very surprising to historians of religion or to other scholars of what are usually labled “new” religions (no matter how old they may be in their cultures of origin). Minority groups, especially religious ones, are often accused of crimes by members of the current majority. In many ways, for example, the “Mormons” were the “Moonies” of the 19th century — at least in terms of being an unusual minority belief system that many found “shocking” at the time — and the members of the Unification Church could be just as “respectable” a hundred years from now as the Latter Day Saints are today.

Nonetheless, despite all the historical and philosophical warnings that could be issued, ordinary people faced with friends or loved ones joining an “unusual” group, or perhaps contemplating joining one themselves, need a relatively simple way to evaluate just how dangerous or harmless a given group is liable to be, without either subjecting themselves to its power or judging it solely on theological or ideological grounds (the usual method used by anti-cult groups).

In 1979 I constructed an evaluation tool which I now call the “Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame” or the “ABCDEF” (because evaluating these groups should be elementary). I realize its shortcomings, but feel that it can be effectively used to separate harmless groups from the merely unusual-to-the-observer ones. 

The purpose of this evaluation tool is to help both amateur and professional observers, including current or would-be members, of various organizations (including religious, occult, psychological or political groups) to determine just how dangerous a given group is liable to be, in comparison with other groups, to the physical and mental health of its members and of other people subject to its influence. It cannot speak to the “spiritual dangers,” if any, that might be involved, for the simple reason that one person’s path to enlightenment or “salvation” is often viewed by another as a path to ignorance or “damnation.”

As a general rule, the higher the numerical total scored by a given group (the further to the right of the scale), the more dangerous it is likely to be. Though it is obvious that many of the scales in the frame are subjective, it is still possible to make practical judgments using it, at least of the “is this group more dangerous than that one?” sort. This is if all numerical assignments are based on accurate and unbiased observation of actual behavior by the groups and their top levels of leadership (as distinct from official pronouncements). This means that you need to pay attention to what the secondary and tertiary leaders are saying and doing, as much (or more so) than the central leadership — after all, “plausible deniability” is not a recent historical invention.

This tool can be used by parents, reporters, law enforcement agents, social scientists and others interested in evaluating the actual dangers presented by a given group or movement. Obviously, different observers will achieve differing degrees of precision, depending upon the sophistication of their numerical assignments on each scale. However, if the same observers use the same methods of scoring and weighting each scale, their comparisons of relative danger or harmlessness between groups will be reasonably valid, at least for their own purposes. People who cannot view competing belief systems as ever having possible spiritual value to anyone, will find the ABCDEF annoyingly useless for promoting their theological agendas.



10/28/2013 1:54 am  #22

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

Maximum highest score = 180

Church of Wells:  142
Factor    Score
1-5          10   (50)
6              5
7              8
8              6
9              8    Modesty, clothing, reproduction (controlling sexuality), choosing marriage partners.
10            0    We don't know
11-13      10    (30)
14            5    Aggressive. Reduced inhibition, disregard of boundaries, defiant/oppositional behavior.
15-17      10    (30)

Last edited by Hythlodaeus (10/28/2013 3:06 am)


10/28/2013 9:08 am  #23

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

My score for them was 149. I scored them higher on #6 and #8.


12/21/2013 1:35 am  #24

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

How Could Anyone Join a Cult?!!

Maureen Griffo
Written after the Heaven's Gate suicides at Rancho Santa Fe, California in 1997.

With the Heaven’s Gate tragedy still so fresh in all of our minds certain questions seem to come up: What kind of person joins a cult?  Why do they stay and put up with the abuse? How could anyone be SO devoted that they would kill themselves?  Can’t they see that what they are doing is crazy?  Are THEY crazy?
I feel that I am in a unique position to address these questions as I spent 10 years with a communal cult.  Yet, now being out for 11 years, I also can look at the horrors that happened at Rancho Santa Fe and ask, along with the rest of a stunned nation, “Why did they die like this?” 

For eight and a half of the ten years I was with my former group, each payday I would sign my check over to the group. I would receive a meager allowance in return and would have to beg for the basics of life such as clothing and medical care. Often I lived in substandard housing with rats, filth, and overcrowded conditions in neighborhoods with extremely high crime rates. After working a full day at work, I often would have to spend several hours on the street proselytizing. 
After returning, I would have to sit in meetings that lasted to the wee hours of the morning. These meetings were intense. Public humiliation was common place, and sometimes we would sit in silence for hours on end believing ourselves to be too reprobate even to speak. After getting an insufficient night’s sleep, I would be expected to repeat the same routine of work and group activities all over again. In other words, there was no doubt that I was in a cult.

Yet, if you had passed me in the street during the 10 years that I spent in the group, I can tell you that I wouldn’t have been all that different from others in the crowd. My skin had not turned green, and I did not grow antennas. I had eyes, ears and a nose just like anyone else. I looked both ways before crossing a street. If somehow we got in an idle conversation that didn’t involve my trying to recruit you, you may have been shocked to know that I had likes and dislikes just like any other person. I still liked pizza (even if I didn’t have much access to it) and still hated pork sausage. Blue was still my favorite color, and I still loved sunsets.

People who are in cults are just that - PEOPLE -  although sadly, cults suppress much of what makes an individual unique. Heaven’s Gate, I believe, has forced all of us to come to grips with the realization that they were people not too unlike us, and that is indeed something tough to face. Whether one has been in a cult or not, the realization deep in our hearts that perhaps we could have shared a similar fate makes us want to turn away and believe that they had to be made of different stuff than we are. I am here to tell you that they are not.

Why did the people in Heaven’s Gate seem to go willingly to their deaths?  Why did I stay in a clearly abusive situation for 10 years?  The activities I felt trapped to do while within the group give some generous clues to how this can happen. And, when we can come to understand how one person can gain control over another, we can peer into the world of an average cult member.
Indeed, one human being controlling another is nothing new to civilization. We need only look at the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to see the lengths that a person will go to in order to be “on top”— even if that means murder. It is no secret that sleep deprivation hinders clear thinking and decision making abilities. Through instituting a poor diet and strenuous routines, a group can break persons down further, making them even more vulnerable to the group’s ideologies.

While the specific techniques may differ, almost every group has a way of inducing hypnosis. In my former group this was accomplished through the format of our meetings which in reality were the focal point of what had become an intense system of peer scrutiny. Sitting in silence for hours affected me. I remember leaving many a meeting in which we had not spoken for hours with heaviness in my heart and feeling like my head had been put between two cymbals. Having to stand in front of my peers to be critiqued by them would seize me with panic. We would have to present ourselves one by one in front of a group of several hundred of our peers, stating what we did and where we were at in our hearts. The group would vote on us and the final vote became our did not matter how we felt about things in our hearts. Often I was found to be deficient and would have to endure taunts by my peers between meetings. All of that was very intentional, coming from the leader himself and carried out through the ranks. There was no going home to escape all of this. I was home, and there was not a minute of privacy. I often could not think clearly and if I could get through a day feeling I held onto my sanity that was a major accomplishment.

My mind was too under siege to even think of packing my bags and leaving. This was purposeful as cults know that no one would make a rational decision to live like this and thus create an environment in which a person has no time or freedom to think. I have heard life in a cult compared to living in a fire constantly. Most of us can invoke images of people we’ve seen on the news who have lived through a fire. When persons are in the middle of a fire, they simply do not have access to certain parts of their thinking that they normally would have. However, when the fire is over, we see them collapse and say things like “Oh my God, I can’t believe what happened. It was so terrifying.” They are able to reconnect emotionally to their experiences and likely will be able to integrate what happened to them, thereby dealing with the trauma. 

Cults do not allow you to reconnect. I was kept so busy and off balance that the fire was never allowed to be over. Thus, outsiders could look at the way my fellow members and I lived in sheer horror; yet, while living in the midst of it, I simply could not get it. I get it now because I have been out, and as a person after a fire begins thinking again, I now have my critical thinking abilities back. Along with everyone else who hears about what happened to me, I am horrified to have spent 10 years of my life like that.

What could have been done to “reach” me during the 10 years I was in the communal group?  What can we do to reach others who are in groups who may be heading down paths similar to that of Heaven’s Gate or the other groups in recent times who have committed mass suicide? 

The biggest mistake people can make in reaching out to persons in a cult is forgetting that they are people too and that there are some logical reasons behind what on the surface appears to be bizarre behavior. If we remember that outside of the group’s influences we would likely be dealing with a totally different person, he or she becomes less scary and more reachable to us. The dynamics of a cult are not too different from that of a battered wife staying with an abusive husband, or what happened in Nazi Germany or the Cultural Revolution in China. On the outside, they all seem to be beyond comprehension, but as we look at the underlying dynamics, their tactics are not that hard to understand. In our society today, all of us are being bombarded with huge amounts of information and people vying for our every dollar. Learning about techniques of influence and control can only benefit all of us as we are trying to navigate our way through an increasingly complex world. When it comes to understanding someone in a cult or other controlling situation, it can literally be life saving. 

The people who had the biggest impact on me were not the ones who screamed at me “You’re in a cult!” (Believe me, I had plenty of those.)  Rather the ones who made me think were those willing to care about me as a person, whether I stayed or left. Despite their initial allure, cults do not offer unconditional love. When I saw people on the outside acting differently toward me than my own supposed all-loving peers, it affected me. I may not have left right away, but I could not shake that there was someone who would be willing to be my friend and care about me with no strings attached. Like anyone else faced with a decision, someone “decides” to join a cult based on the information available to him or her.

Unfortunately, cults are notorious for not letting a potential recruit know about the full package. What I thought I was joining and what I actually joined were vastly different from each other. In other words, if the group had been up front about the kind of life I was going to have to live and what was going to happen to me, I would have never joined. Helping a person make a decision to leave a cult in reality is educating them by filling in the blanks that the group deceptively didn’t. With more information, there is a good chance that a person will make an informed choice to leave. The information such a person needs includes understanding techniques of manipulation and control — particularly how this may be practiced in his/her particular group. 

People in cults are not stupid. After leaving my former group, I was so convinced that I had to be intellectually deficient that I actually took an I.Q. test. Much to my surprise, instead of scoring way below average, I scored in the 97th percentile. As I have learned more about the kinds of people cults recruit, I have found that I am the rule and not the exception. Because the rigors of cult life are arduous, these groups do not want someone who will break down easily. Cults go after the best and the brightest — robbing all of us of people who could be making a huge difference in this world.

Who joins cults? They are anyone you could meet anywhere. I was a teen living in a small town when I had been recruited. I may have been naive and not able to see through the deception as someone older may have been, but most teens are naive and easily impressed by those who are slicker than themselves. I was not a drug addict or a prostitute, but rather I had been a good student in school who worked two jobs.

So, the next time you are approached by someone whom you strongly suspect may be living in a far out commune somewhere, remember you are likely to be dealing with a highly intelligent person who was deceived into joining what may appear to us as a bizarre cult. Instead of looking at such people as freaks or crazies, keep in mind that if they had access to more information and saw that there was a life outside for them, they probably would leave.


2/23/2014 11:16 am  #25

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

Devil's playground: Rev. Dr. David Millikan
Live interview transcript
Sunday, March 21, 2004

ninemsn in association with 60 Minutes present a live interview with Rev Dr David Millikan, a Uniting Church Minister and university lecturer on new religious movements. 

Interviewer: Reverand Millikan, thank you for joining us tonight about this very disturbing and confusing issue.

Rev Dr David Millikan: Happy to be here.

Interviewer: Reverand Millikan, we will go directly to the questions from our guests who have been eagerly awaiting the interview start.

Q: David, just wondering, what do you classify as a "cult"?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Cults are different from sects and religions. Cults stand alone. They are extreme in the demands they place on people in terms of their time, their money and their social life.
All cults are religious and they become cults when they isolate people from their families and friends and capture them in the particular world view of that group and rob its members of its capacity to make judgments about what's best for them and their families.

Q: How do you find out if a "religious" group is a cult?

Rev Dr David Millikan: I would put three tests.
One, does the group allow internal criticism and discussion?
Two, does it have a hostile relationship with the world outside and, three, has it sought to isolate its members?
If those things are in place I think it's beginning to move in extreme directions.

Q: How do we know if our youngsters are involved with a cult group?

Rev Dr David Millikan: You'll know very quickly if they are. Their beliefs will change dramatically, they'll become aggressively evangelistic, and their time and energies will be taken up almost completely.

Q: How can usually "normal" people possibly believe in this sort of thing. What type of person is more gullible? Do they have a particularly dependent personality and are unable to "stand on their own 2 feet"?

Rev Dr David Millikan: One of the myths of cult membership is that only weak and easily led people tend to join. In fact, the opposite is the case. People who join cults are generally well-educated, strong, creative people with lively imaginations, and often with a history of concern about matters of injustice of the world.
Joining a "cult" is a thing of the mind. People who do not have active minds will not join.

Q: David, have you ever seen any evidence of demonic possession?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Once or twice.

Q: What differentiates a "church" from a "cult"? Isn't it just a different set of beliefs?

Rev Dr David Millikan: No. The essential difference between a cult and other religious organisations is the question of freedom. People in legitimate religious groups have the freedom to decide for themselves how involved they'll be, how much of the theology of the church they'll accept, how much money they'll give, how they dispose of their social life and so on. In a cult this freedom is not allowed.

Q: Minister, do you think that a lot of people are looking for spiritual nurturing/guidance but don't feel mainstream churches meet their need?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Yes I'm sure that is the case. I think the Australian mainline denominations have a certain responsibility to bear in these matters.

Q: If the cult leaders are not insane, why do they brainwash people, etc.??? This is insane to be doing this.

Rev Dr David Millikan: I don't believe there's any such thing as brainwashing. It's an invention of the media and not accepted in academic circles and is not an adequate explanation of what happens when people join these groups.

Q: Minister, are you saying you believe its impossible to psychologically condition people by reinforcement of beliefs?

Rev Dr David Millikan: People join these groups for a range of reasons and they stay for a complex range of reasons. To say this is all explained by mind control or brainwashing treats them as victims. It allows for no subtlety in understanding the decisions they make to join and to stay and the brain washing mind control model is destructive in counselling ex cult members. 
It is not good enough to say to an ex-member you joined through no reason of your own but because you were brainwashed. It does not help them understand what has happened to them. People who are counselled using the brainwashing model take a long time to recover; they maintain a high level of rage and anger; and often end up joining the anti-cult movement which I believe is almost as bad as the cults themselves.

Q: David you say you've seen evidence of demonic possession. How do you differentiate between that and a medical disorder? How can you tell the difference?

Rev Dr David Millikan: They believe because the explanation that is given to them seems coherent and explains all of the things they believe. It doesn't help to move too quickly to say they are mentally ill that explains nothing.

Q: Are there any real evidence of satanic cults acting within Australia?

Rev Dr David Millikan: I haven't seen any hard evidence.

Q: Do you believe in Satan, and if so do you believe people have the right to worship him/her as they do other gods in other religions?

Rev Dr David Millikan: I believe in God, and for that reason I also believe in some demonic personification of evil. I also believe in the pluralist democracy like Australia people have a right to believe what they wish, provided they cause no mischief to others.

Q: How do you deprogram people who have been in a cult?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Deep programming is based on the mind control model, so to de-program people means you are re victimising them. 
It requires gentle and loving counselling, which enables them to explore why they joined, why they stayed, and why they left. De-programming is a blunt instrument that doesn't allow this to occur.

Q: Good evening Dr. Our governments do not tolerate deceptive activities in the sale of goods, in the name of protecting the public, so why do they permit these cults to operate and even tacitly support them by giving tax concessions and the like?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Cults do not get tax concessions unless they gain sufficient respectability to be regarded as religions. It is a difficult thing to balance the freedom of people to believe what they wish and to protect the society from pernicious groups that prey on others. That's what makes this issue difficult.

Q: Minister, I have to do a investigation for my religion class about cults, can you give me some tips to where I might find some useful information on different cults.

Rev Dr David Millikan: Look on the Internet … it's all there.

Q: Do you or do you not believe there is evidence of satanic ritual abuse, either inside Australia or anywhere?

Rev Dr David Millikan: Over the years I have heard many, many stories of satanic ritual abuse but I have not yet encountered evidence that convinces me that it happens.

Interviewer: Reverend Millikan once again, thank you and goodnight.

Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producers: Lincoln Howes, Shaun Devitt

     Thread Starter

2/28/2014 4:03 pm  #26

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources


     Thread Starter

3/01/2014 8:20 pm  #27

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

Signs that an organization may have cultish characteristics

•  Am I being pressured to recruit others?

•  Are my doubts and questions discouraged, avoided, or even forbidden?

•  If I’m critical of the group, am I told there’s something wrong with me?

•  Do I not have an opportunity to verify information provided by the group?

•  Am I expected to reveal fears and secrets?

•  Does the group’s leadership dictate how I should act, think, or feel?

•  Do I not get enough sleep now or have enough time to devote to outside pursuits and responsibilities?

•  Am I made to feel fear or guilt when I don’t do exactly as my leader or elders in the group told me?

•  Have I lost my old friends?

•  Have I missed important family occasions because I was encouraged to be with fellow group members instead or given an urgent task to complete?

•  Is there a belief that the leader has special powers?

•  Have I been promised things by the group that have yet to materialize?

•  Was I told that joining this group was my only path to happiness, peace, God, or even prosperity?

©2010 JBFCS Cult Hotline & Clinic

QUESTIONS? Need to know more? (212) 632-4640

Warning signs that someone may be in a cult

 Thinking in black and white terms
Using a new language/cultic jargon
Saying goodbye to all old friends and only seeing people affiliated with, or not critical of the cult
Creating distance from family, especially during holidays and family events
Euphoric, yet simultaneously tired and worn
A change in diet and sleep patterns
Low on money
Poor grades
A dismissal of their life prior to involvement with the group as "all bad"
A change in goals, priorities, and life plan
Return to child-like behavior
Dogmatic adherence to new beliefs/ideas, with the inability, or lack of interest to logically assess these new beliefs

     Thread Starter

3/01/2014 8:44 pm  #28

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

Guidance for families and friends
These situations can be most difficult as families and friends have rarely predicted, or prepared for, a situation like this to affect there loved ones.

What can I do for my loved one who is in a group?

    »  Don’t criticize the group or the member. Nothing is private in these groups and your communication and relationships can be severed if you are seen as critical or an enemy.

    »  One of the most important actions you can take is to try to communicate with the cult member. Communication must be conducted in a non-judgmental way. Instead of saying, "you’re in a cult", or "how could you believe this stuff", try "help me understand what you’re a part of now and what you feel you get from it."

    »  Don’t give original documents to any party (unless required by law); provide copies only.

    »  Don’t be persuaded by "professionals" to spend large amounts of money for "treatments" or legal action, until you have verified their credentials and qualifications for handling your problem.

    »  Don’t feel guilty or alone. This is a common problem nationally and internationally. It affects families of all religious, economic and family backgrounds. 

    »  Reach out to others in your situation. There are support groups in every part of the country, in every major city.

    »  Consider family or individual counseling to discuss the effect this has had on all of you, and to formulate a plan to help the cult member feel comfortable communicating with you, or even to help your loved one leave their group.

    »  Research the group. Find out about its history, leader, and teachings. Is it abusive, or dangerous? Explore cults in general; how they operate and what sets them apart from healthy organizations. Learn about post-cult issues, like anger, sadness, confusion, fear, shame, and problems with trust, so you’ll be sensitive to your loved one’s experience after leaving the cult.

It is most important to remember: DO NOT GIVE UP! Remember that your loved one is a product of your love, training, heredity and home environment. These influences can never be permanently eliminated by any technique or group or any amount of time.

©2010 JBFCS Cult Hotline & Clinic

     Thread Starter

3/01/2014 8:56 pm  #29

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources
How to avoid getting into a cult

Learn to cope with stress. When stress is getting the best of us, we are more likely to be seduced by someone selling happiness. If you are having difficulty coping, seek help from reputable, trustworthy persons.

Common sources of stress include:
• Troubled romances
• Academic difficulties
• Conflict with and tensions within the family such as parents’ marital problems, domestic violence, alcohol and/or drug abuse by a family member.
• Confusion about values and goals.
• Physical illness of self, family member, or other loved one
• Loneliness
• Transitions- for example, moving, changing schools, jobs
• Death of loved one
• Disillusionment regarding religion or people you once respected

                                  Never be afraid to question other people.
               Always be wary of anyone who tries to prevent you from questioning.
                                     Protect your freedom and autonomy.

Learn to recognize common cult-recruitment tactics and situations. Beware of: 

»  People who are excessively or inappropriately friendly; there are few genuine instant friendships.
»  People who are very persistent in trying to get you to join, and won’t take no for answer.
»  People with invitations to free meals, lectures, and workshops.
»  People who demand secrecy from you.
»  People who make you feel like there’s something wrong with you if you’re not interested in joining.
»  People with simplistic answers or solutions to complex world problems.
»  People who try to play on your guilt; you don’t always have to reciprocate a kindness, especially when it may have been a way to manipulate you.
»  People who are vague or evasive. If they are hiding something, it’s usually because they don’t want you to know the real answer.
»  People who claim to be just like you, so you feel you have a lot in common.
»  People who confidently promise that they can help you solve your problems, especially when they know little about you.
»  People, who make grand claims about how their group can save mankind, help you achieve enlightenment or show the road to happiness.
»  People who always seem happy. [Or the opposite - people who require solemn downcast behavior and consider joy and smiling to be bad.]
»  People who claim they or their group is really special, even the most special.
»  People who promise quick solutions to difficult problems.
»  People who put down reason and critical thinking, and tell you not to ask questions about the group - just open your mind to it. 

Ten Steps to Critical Thinking

Situations that seem to demand that you act in a certain way.


Always add "None of the above" to any multiple choice before deciding.

Recognize pressure to decide quickly. Don’t act under stress.

What is really being said? What is NOT being said? To whom, by whom, and why is it being said?

Trust your feelings when things you are being told don't make sense.

Ask blunt questions and don’t accept vague answers.

When receiving lots of compliments, question whether there may be a hidden agenda.

Challenge authority’s claims.

Don’t be afraid to be different.

©2010 JBFCS Cult Hotline & Clinic

     Thread Starter

3/11/2014 9:52 pm  #30

Re: What's a Cult? - Definitions, exit strategies, resources

In committing to a high-control group, persons undergo a conversion experience in which their fundamental assumptions about self and world change. This is a deeper and more extensive change than we see in people who are merely obedient. An authoritarian leader seeks only compliance. A cult leader, however, seeks compliance and identity change. Cult members must do more than obey. They must believe in the rightness of what they are told to do.

Why do People Leave Cults? How can I get my kid out of a cult? 

Each person leaves a group for different reasons, so each case must be analyzed individually. Consequently, there is no short answer.

Families and friends of a cult-involved person tend to ask the second question. Former group members and others interested in cults tend to ask the former question. However, since the answer to the latter question requires an understanding of the answer to the former question, we will first explain why people leave cults and then focus on the special problem of families and friends.

Cults typically invade the normal boundaries of those who join, intruding on most aspects of the members’ lives. Over time, cult members give up more and more control to the leadership and develop an identity, or pseudo-identity, that is congruent with the values of the group.

The social and psychological controls that are associated with "brainwashing" become most conspicuous after a person has spent some time in a highly manipulative and controlling cult. That is why Professor Benjamin Zablocki associates brainwashing with what he calls “exit costs.” In other words, the brainwashing associated with high-control cultic groups, in Zablocki's view, isn’t so much related to how people enter groups, but rather to the difficulty they have in leaving.

Lifton has described in detail the characteristics of environments that can achieve a totalistic level of control over people. In committing to a high-control group, persons undergo a conversion experience in which their fundamental assumptions about self and world change. This is a deeper and more extensive change than we see in people who are merely obedient. An authoritarian leader seeks only compliance. A cult leader, however, seeks compliance and identity change. Cult members must do more than obey. They must believe in the rightness of what they are told to do. 

When the cultic dynamic reaches its consummation, cult members act on their own; orders from leaders are superfluous. The members not only accept and believe in the system. They make the system part of themselves and carry it with them wherever they go. Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall: “So when group members sell their newspapers, raise money, persuade people to come to their events, sell their house and give their money to the group, etc.—they do these things because it reinforces the group identity that has become such an important part of their self-identity.” 

For somebody so bonded to a group, departure that requires a rejection of the group is a form of psychological self-mutilation, a very high exit cost, to use Zablocki’s term. If the cost of exiting a cult is so high, why would people ever leave their groups?

This is an important question to answer, for research indicates that most cult members do leave their groups, although the probability of leaving appears to decrease substantially after several years of membership.  

First of all, groups vary tremendously on the dimension of control, and many are not so “heavy duty” that departure involves painfully high exit costs. Therefore, the question above will not apply to many cult members, although even in their less controlling situations, one must still ask, “Why leave?”

To answer our question, let us consider the field of forces impinging on cult members from their group and from the world outside the group. From both directions cult members may feel attractions and repulsions.

Attractions to the group may be positive. Examples include genuine friendships, a sense of purpose and belonging, a strong sense of superiority to those outside the group, and the comfort of blind obedience (in which one no longer has to deal with the stress of deciding). 
Attractions may also be negative; that is, the person conforms to the group in order to avoid actual or anticipated pain. If, for example, leaders subject dissenting or doubting members to public humiliation, members will tend to comply, to stay close to the group, in order to avoid that punishment. Also, the group’s teachings may incline members to expect failure in and/or rejection by the outside world, should they leave the group. Sometimes these expectations include supernatural punishments (e.g., to spend eternity in hell). Moreover, to the extent members have made the group part of their own personality, rejecting the group would entail, as already noted, the pain of psychological self-mutilation, so members will hold fast to the group in order to avoid this psychic pain.

In the member’s mind, then, exiting the group will result in the loss of positive attractions and the addition of pain that could have been avoided by obeying leaders and remaining a loyal member. These are exit costs.

Other exit costs relate to repulsions from the outside world. These may consist of fears that the person has avoided by “leaving the world.” Examples include: fear of sexual intimacy, the expectation of failure in college, not measuring up to parental expectations, and the challenge of committing to a career. These too are exit costs, for the member must confront these fears if s/he leaves the group, which provides “noble” rationalizations for avoiding these fears in the mainstream world.

There are, however, exit benefits, and these may sometimes come to outweigh the exit costs.

One set of exit benefits includes attractions to the mainstream world, including emotional bonds, stifled interests, and the sense of freedom that the mainstream world may represent to cult members recoiling from the oppression of their demanding group life. Emotional bonds to loved ones and friends stay alive within the person, for they are at least partly autonomous of cognitive evaluations. However much the group’s ideology may denigrate the member’s “old life,” contacts with family and friends, may stimulate these emotional bonds and create an impulse—perhaps unconscious—to move toward the mainstream world. 

Contacts with people outside the group may also rekindle old interests—artistic, intellectual, academic, career, sports—that were stifled or given up in order to meet the group’s demands. And the suffering a member experiences as a result of his/her attempts to conform to a demanding and sometimes punishing group environment may cause the outside world to look more and more attractive as a place of freedom. Paradoxically, then, the cumulative fears of what we earlier termed “negative attractions” may increase the strength of the outside world’s benefits. 

This impulse to escape may be reinforced by repulsive forces within the cult. Examples include: doubts about beliefs, practices, and predictions of doom that do not come true; personality conflicts with other group members; boredom; exhaustion; and a growing awareness of the manipulative techniques employed to exploit the member.

42% of cult defectors leave covertly

The field of forces described above will vary greatly from individual to individual and will shift over time for each person. Some may exit smoothly. But, at least in high control groups, many appear to leave with great difficulty. Indeed, one research study found that 42% of cult defectors left covertly (e.g., by sneaking out in the middle of the night). Indeed, it appears that for some cult members the pain of staying becomes so great that the pain of leaving constitutes relief.
It is no wonder, then, that research and clinical experience suggest that a large percentage of former cult members are in great distress when they leave their groups.

What does this mean for families and friends?
This analysis suggests that families and friends concerned about a loved one’s cult involvement should keep the following points in mind:

1. Families and friends can enhance their positive influence on a loved one by understanding the field of forces impinging on him/her and developing a strategy for altering the cost/benefit ratio of these forces.

2. Because the cult experience involves many complex interactions that change over time, simplistic assessments of a loved one’s situation and plans to change it are not likely to be helpful.

3. This complexity also means that persuading a loved one to leave a group is rarely easy.

4. It is often more realistic to set a goal of improving one’s relationship with the cult-involved loved one, rather than “getting him/her out” (which may, however, become a viable goal in the future).


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