Cults: What Are They and How Do They Operate?
Updated: Mar 7
Trigger Warning: sensitive, triggering material about cults is discussed. Please be advised.
When we think of a cult, a few things might come to mind: the Jonestown massacre, the Manson family, or the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Wikipedia defines a cult as "a social group that's defined by its unusual spiritual, religious, or philosophical beliefs and rituals, or its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal." It's common for you or I to believe that we would never be the ones to get caught up in a cult, however, due to the complexities of cults, it's far easier than one might think.
Cults can be identified by their ability to follow a model created by leading cult expert, Dr. Steven Hassan, called the BITE Model:
Let's dive into each section of the BITE model.
Cults will attempt to control your behavior. This might look like controlling types of clothing or hairstyles that are allowed, dictating where the member lives and who the member should associate with, causing financial exploitation, manipulation, or dependence, and requiring the member to ask for permission before making major decisions. Through behavior control, cults slowly begin to regulate the member's physical reality. This can result in an instilled dependency and obedience from the member, discouraging their individualism and encouraging a group-think mentality while separating the member from their family.
In more extreme cult cases, behavior control looks like kidnapping, murder, rape, and torture.
One of the more deceptive ways cults work is by controlling the information that's received by the member. This is conducted by deliberately withholding information, distorting information, or lying to the member. Having access to outside resources of information, like the Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, media, and even former members is discouraged by the leaders.
It might seem bogus that someone could have this much power over accessible information, right? But it's done by teaching members to compartmentalize information through an "outsider vs insider" lens. This means that information from the outside is not only looked down upon, but it's also mostly inaccessible due to being monitored by leadership. Leadership decides what information gets in and what information stays out.
Manipulation is a key tactic for cults in every area of the BITE Model, but it's specifically used in information control by manipulating memories of the member, or even implanting false memories. It's also common for information about a member's confession/admission of guilt (or sins) to be used against them in order to dissolve their identity.
"Mind control is any totalistic system of influence that disrupts an individual’s authentic identity and replaces it with a false, new one. The decisions made by people with this new identity are not always their own, often lacking critical thought process." - Dr. Steven Hassan, PhD
Our thoughts are one of the most powerful aspects to being human. They hold an immense amount of power, so it might not be much of a surprise to find out that one of the major ways cults work is through controlling the member's thoughts.
By requiring the member to internalize the group's doctrine as truth, black and white thinking is instilled. The member is forced to view people as outsiders vs insiders, and there's a constant battle in their mind between good vs evil; there is no in-between.
Multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) have been psychologically classified as commercial cults. A common theme in MLM companies is this use of loaded language (buzz words) in order to reduce complex thoughts, which is a form of thought control. Toxic positivity is often seen in MLM companies as well, where members are encouraged to only have "positive" thoughts.
One last form of thought control is teaching thought-stopping techniques to halt reality in order to stop the negative thoughts and only allow positive thoughts. The following techniques are commonly seen/used in churches, religious settings, politics, and MLM companies:
Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
Speaking in tongues
Singing or humming
Thought control creates a new map of reality for the member. Their old map of reality no longer exists, and they essentially function as a new person. It's common for individuals in cults to change their name and/or identity.
In cults, emotions are an easy way to manipulate the member because emotions require vulnerability, and vulnerability is the main reason people get stuck in a cult. Once a cult accesses your emotions, it can be difficult to leave. Emotional control causes the member to experience feelings of guilt and unworthiness, including identity guilt, social guilt, feeling as though you're not living up to your potential, your family wasn't good enough, and the thoughts, feelings, and actions you have are selfish.
Cults will manipulate the member's emotions and make the member feel as though certain emotions (or needs that derive from that emotion) are wrong, selfish, or evil. To compliment this, emotion-stopping techniques are taught in order to block those feelings. It's common for cults to teach what's called Phobia Indoctrination, which means that irrational fears are produced regarding leaving the group and/or questioning authority. Examples of phobia indoctrination include:
No happiness or fulfillment outside of the group
Shunning those who leave
Terrible consequences if the member leaves (hell, demonic possession, accidents, insanity, incurable diseases, etc)
Those who leave are deemed as weak, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed, seduced by the world, undisciplined, etc.
Threats of harm to ex-member and family
Why Does This Matter?
Cults are operating in more places than we realize. Leading psychologists have identified three types of cults: religious, political, and commercial cults.
One thing we all have in common that makes us susceptible to join a cult is our vulnerability. At one point or another, any one of us will be vulnerable because we're humans. Cults prey on vulnerable people. Knowing the signs of cult-like behavior can help you think critically, prevent you from joining a cult, or even help someone you know get out of a cult. The more we understand about cults, the more we can work to fight against this type of mind-control.
If you or someone you know might be in a cult, you can access resources for information and help by going to freedomofmind.com
We see therapy as a process that allows all of who you are, including your experiences, to be safe to exist. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, visit our therapists here.
Advisors, S.F.W. (2022, September 6). Steven Hassan's BITE model of authoritarian control. Freedom of Mind Resource Center. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/
Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, September 23). Cult. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult