What makes a cult a “cult”? And, given that no one intentionally sets out to hand their freedom and finances over to a toxic sect, how do you know when you’re in one?
Our collective fascination with cults—and what leads people down the path to zealotry—is reflected in the countless documentaries, TV series, books, and podcasts made about them over the years. Pop culture inspired by Charles Manson and his “family” is practically a genre unto itself, from Helter Skelter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Emma Cline’s fictionalized novel The Girls. While horror films like Midsommar present a stylized, extreme version of what we imagine to be a sect’s darkest practices, other real-life groups don’t seem sinister at all initially.
The Vow, HBO’s documentary series about Keith Raniere’s NXVIM group, profiles several people who initially thought they were part of a Landmark Forum-esque personal development organization, dedicated to helping people become the best version of themselves. Years later, they’d realize that NXVIM engaged in much more nefarious practices. Here, Hassan explains the warning signs that you or a loved one may belong to a cult, and why we’re all more vulnerable than you might think.
First, what is a cult, exactly?
That depends on who you ask, though Merriam Webster defines a cult as both the “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work” and as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” While the U.S. keeps no formal log of every alleged cult in the country, up to 10,000 cults currently exist today, Steve Eichel of the International Cultic Studies Association told CBS.
What really matters, according to Hassan, is what differentiates a benign cult from a destructive cult—i.e., the one you really need to watch out for. “There are healthy cults, in the sense that you know what you’re getting into,” he explains, saying this could apply to followers of the Grateful Dead, for example. “They don’t control who you talk to, and what you read. They answer your questions honestly, and you’re free to leave if it doesn’t work for you.”
Destructive cults often don’t fit the common stereotypes of communes and matching robes. “My experience is they live in their houses and apartments, going to work. You wouldn’t even know they’re in a cult unless you start having a conversation with them,” he says.
A destructive cult is dishonest from the beginning.
Destructive cults always lie to new members about their true intentions, according to Hassan, either through outright untruths or withholding and/or distorting vital information so it appears more tantalizing at first.
“You might think you’re getting a free dinner,” Hassan says, or, as with NXIVM, “you’re learning a self-help technique. You don’t realize that the goal is to get you to sign up for a week course. Then it’s a two-week course, a six-month course. And then they want you to divorce your wife, give over your assets, and work for no money.”
Know the warning signs of a cult to watch out for.
While no two cults are exactly alike, there’s significant overlap in the methods they use to burrow into people’s lives and become their primary influence. In his BITE Model, Hassan divides an extensive list of those common methods into four major categories. Based in research and theory from leading expert psychologists and scholars who’ve studied brainwashing, “BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control.
“With mind control cults, there’s that hook,” Hassan says. “You think you’re going to improve your life, or save children—who wouldn’t want to save the children? And then, there’s incremental disclosure about what the group is actually about. They only tell you what you think you’re ready to swallow. So while you’re getting indoctrinated, your critical faculties are getting worn away.” That might be through hypnosis, food or sleep deprivation, or forcing them to cut off contact with friends and family.
Here’s a small sampling of the many practices that are listed under each subcategory; read Hassan’s full BITE Model here. Any group member who encourages or enforces these behaviors should raise major red flags.
- A group member dictates where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates with, or isolates them from others.
- They regulate your diet through forced fasting.
- They manipulate a person and deprive them of sleep.
- They practice financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence.
- They impose rigid rules and regulations.
- They practice deception (by deliberately withholding or distorting information, and/or lying).
- They minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information (TV, internet, former members, and so on).
- They make extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda (YouTube, newsletters, movies and other media).
- They require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth (black-and-white, good vs evil thinking).
- They change a person’s name and identity.
- They use loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts, and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words.
- They employ hypnotic techniques to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and age-regress the member.
- They manipulate and narrow the range of feelings—some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish.
- They teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt.
- They make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault.
- They instill fear, such as fear of the outside world, enemies, leaving or being shunned by the group.
Do your research.
Be wary of any group that can’t give you straight answers to questions, telling you you’ll learn more after giving/paying for/achieving something. Conduct your own research, and train yourself on how to spot disinformation online.
Hassan points out that any web-savvy organization can “game” their site, or their multiple sites, so that they flood the top page of your Google search results (for example, the site New Cult Awareness Network sounds like a watchdog group, but it’s actually owned and operated by the Church of Scientology). Remember that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, because interested parties can edit an entry with false information.
Ask for the proof.
Another common cult tactic, Hassan says, is to deflect skepticism over their beliefs by placing the burden of proof on others to disprove it. For example, an online claim that top-ranking government officials are actually lizard people might send someone who disagrees on an hours-long Googling journey, all to convince the original poster that there’s no such thing as lizard people. But the believer is the one who needs to provide proof, instead of sending others into reaction mode.
“If something’s legitimate, it’ll stand up to scrutiny,” Hassan says. “The burden of proof is on whomever is claiming an expertise, or a new therapy, or a revelation that’s going to save the planet.” Again, check the veracity of their sources, and remember that a video or photograph can be doctored.
Fact-check the cult leader.
Not every cult has one leader at the top of the pyramid, says Hassan, but you should know the answer to some basic questions about their background. Do they go by their birth name? If not, why’d they change it? Are there any lawsuits? Do they have criminal records? Have they been involved in previous multi-level marketing schemes? Check every fact listed in their bio to see if they are who they say they are.
Hassan recommends that those who suspect their loved one is under the influence of a cult leader hire a private investigator to uncover what internet research might miss.
Be aware of your own vulnerability.
Hassan calls mind control a “bi-directional process between the predator and the person targeted.” What plays on one person’s fears and vulnerabilities won’t work on someone else with a different life experience—but Hassan insists that something will work on everyone, if they’re not properly educated on what to watch for.
“How fast does it take someone to get recruited? Ten seconds, if the right variables are in place,” he says.
Or, it can take years of erosion. “Say you’re approached and asked if you want to take a free stress test,” Hassan says. “You’re told, ‘You’re really smart, and you have so many gifts. But there’s a few little areas, and if you just fix those, your life will be amazing.’ You might leave, but you make the mistake of giving them your phone number or email address. They pester you for weeks, months, years.
Then, maybe you break up with your boyfriend, or your friend dies. Six months later, you get the email from them again, saying, ‘I can really help you be more successful!'” This can finally convince someone to try it, when what they should be doing is surrounding themselves with people they trust.
Has someone in your life started spouting theories and beliefs that seem not just absurd, but also wildly out of character? Hassan says the stress and uncertainty of our current social, economic, and political situations—stoked by disinformation that’s amplified on social media, unchecked—has put all of our defenses down.
“Between the pandemic and the economic pressures, everyone’s super vulnerable,” he says. “The only way to protect people is by educating them.”
I’ve long been guilty of thinking I’m too smart to get sucked into a cult, myself. But after almost an hour of speaking with Hassan, I realized something. If someone promised to protect my family and I from the virus, violence, and all of modern society’s looming threats—and all I had to do was follow their directions—would I maybe, possibly consider attending an affordable information session? I’m not sure, but I am wearing this tinfoil hat just in case.