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Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised
Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael
D. Langone, Ph.D.
Concerted efforts at
influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and
relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not
fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited,
even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and
interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be
helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.
Compare these patterns to the
situation you were in (or in which you, a family member,
or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there
is cause for concern. Bear in mind that
this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine
if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it
is an analytical tool.
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its
leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology,
and practices as the Truth, as law.
Questioning, doubt, and
dissent are discouraged or even punished.
(such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and
debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts
about the group and its leader(s).
The leadership dictates,
sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example,
members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what
types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to
discipline children, and so forth).
The group is elitist,
claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for
example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the
group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
The group has a polarized
us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
The leader is not
accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders
or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
The group teaches or implies
that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they
would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for
example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
The leadership induces
feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control
members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Subservience to the
leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically
alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the
The group is preoccupied
with bringing in new members.
The group is preoccupied
with making money.
Members are expected to
devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Members are encouraged or
required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
The most loyal members (the
“true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group.
They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves
or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
This checklist will be
published in the new book, Take Back Your
Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive
Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine
Tobias (Berkeley: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006). It
was adapted from a checklist originally
developed by Michael Langone.