How Cults Work

Cult Indoctrination

A destructive cult uses countless techniques to get its members to stay, commit themselves and take part in what may be harmful activities. The sum of these techniques constitutes what some people call "mind control." It's also known as "thought reform," "brainwashing" and "coercive persuasion," and it involves the systematic breakdown of a person's sense of self.

­Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune, became famous in the 1970s after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (the SLA, which some deem a "political cult") and allegedly brainwashed into joining the group. There are reports that Hearst was locked in a dark closet for several days after her kidnapping and was kept hungry, tired, brutalized and afraid for her life while SLA members bombarded her with their anti-capitalist political ideology. Within two months of her kidnapping, Patty had changed her name, issued a statement in which she referred to her family as the "pig-Hearsts" and appeared on a security tape robbing a bank with her kidnappers.


Thought reform is an umbrella term for any number of manipulative techniques used to get people to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. The concept of thought reform itself is a controversial one -- some say it's mere propaganda designed to scare people away from new religions and political movements. But most psychologists believe that cult brainwashing techniques, which are similar to techni­ques used in prisoner interrogation, do change a person's thought processes. In cult recruiting and indoctrination, these techniques include:

Deception - Cults trick new recruits into joining the group and committing themselves to a cause or lifestyle they don't fully understand.

  • Cults mislead new recruits/members as to the true expectations and activities of the group.
  • Cults may hide any signs of illegal, immoral or hyper-controlling practices until the recruit has fully immersed himself in the group.
  • A cult leader may use members' altered consciousness, induced by activities like meditation, chanting or drug use, to increase vulnerability to suggestion.

Isolation - Cults cut off members from the outside world (and even each other) to produce intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality. The members of the cult become the person's only social contact and feedback mechanism.

  • Cults may keep new recruits from talking to other new recruits. They may only be allowed to speak with long-committed members for a period of time.
  • Cults may not allow unsupervised contact with the "outside world." In this way, there is no chance for a "reality check" or validation of a new member's concerns regarding the group.
  • Cults typically instill the belief that "outsiders" (non-cult members) are dangerous and wrong.

Induced Dependency - Cults demand absolute, unquestioning devotion, loyalty and submission. A cult member's sense of self is systematically destroyed. Ultimately, feelings of worthlessness and "evil" become associated with independence and critical thinking, and feelings of warmth and love become associated with unquestioning submission.

  • The leader typically controls every minute of a member's waking time. There is no free time to think or analyze.
  • Members are told what to eat, what to wear, how to feed their children, when to sleep ... the member is removed from all decision-making.
  • Any special talents the member has are immediately devalued and criticized in order to confuse the member's sense of self-worth.
  • Any doubts, assertiveness or remaining ties to the outside world are punished by the group through criticism, guilt and alienation. Questions and doubts are systematically "turned around" so that the doubter feels wrong, worthless, "evil" for questioning. The member is loved again when he renounces those doubts and submits to the will of the leader.
  • The member may be deprived of adequate sustenance and/or sleep so the mind becomes muddled.
  • The leader may randomly alternate praise and love with scorn and punishment to keep the member off-balance and confused and instill immense self-doubt. The leader may offer occasional gifts and special privileges to encourage continued submission.
  • The member may be pressured to publicly confess sins, after which he is viciously ridiculed by the group for being evil and unworthy. He is loved again when he acknowledges that his devotion to the cult is the only thing that will bring him salvation.

Dread - Once complete dependence is established, the member must retain the leader's good favor or else his life falls apart.

  • The leader may punish doubt or insubordination with physical or emotional trauma.
  • Once all ties to the outside world have been cut, the member feels like his only family is the group, and he has nowhere else to go.
  • Access to necessities depends on the leader's favor. The member must "behave" or he may not get food, water, social interaction or protection from the outside world.
  • The member may believe that only group members are "saved," so if he leaves, he will face eternal damnation.

Indoctrination, or thought reform, is a long process that never really ends. Members are continually subjected to these techniques -- it's part of daily life in a cult. Some adjust well to it after a period of time, embracing their new role as "group member" and casting aside their old sense of independence. For others, it's a perpetually stressful existence. In the next section, we'll take a look at what it's like to live within the confines of a destructive cult.