Cult Dynamics 101

Cult Dynamics 101

Written by Matthew Remski, cult survivor and independent researcher

Here are some basics I’ve lived, researched, and written about through the years. Please note: We’re offering this resource because “cult” is increasingly being used to characterize the conspirituality and QAnon movements, not because the cult literature as it stands is sufficient.

For example, QAnon confounds many conventional analyses through its leaderlessness and gamification. Most cult research has roots in the predigital era, and analysts are struggling to keep up. Nonetheless, these foundational concepts are useful in developing an eye for indoctrination, networked abuse, and emotional contagion.

Classic definition of “cult”

“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”

West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986).   “Cultism:   A conference for scholars and policy makers.”  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 119-120.

Accessible frameworks

Michael Langone defines the cultic dynamic as dependent on the 3Ds.

  • Deception. The fundamental premise of recruitment. Come for the Buddhism; stay for the trauma bonding.
  • Dependence. Can be social, financial, existential. The group becomes the sole source of info and meaning. Q himself says: “No outside comms.”
  • Dread of Leaving. Consider for a moment what it would cost a hardcore Q devotee to give up their affiliation. Consider their challenges in rebuilding bridges.

Steve Hassan’s BITE model. (His “Influence Continuum” is also useful in assessing organizational health.)

  • Behavioural control
  • Information control
  • Thought control
  • Emotional control

Cathleen Mann’s MIND model.

  • Manipulation
  • Indoctrination
  • Negation
  • Deception

Janja Lalich’s “Bounded Choice.” (Lalich’s reading list is excellent.)

  • Charismatic leadership
  • Transcendent ideology
  • Systems of control
  • Systems of influence

Alexandra Stein’s amazing work on disorganized attachment in cults. Very accessible usage of a common psychotherapeutic model to investigate group trauma-bonding. The following slide is from a recent webinar series I gave in the spring of 2019.

Useful Axioms

No one joins a cult. People delay leaving orgs that misrepresented themselves.” — Cathleen Mann, personal interview

  • In two sentences, this profound statement deconstructs the most harmful narrative around cult recruitment we have: that adults freely choose to be indoctrinated and exploited. No one chooses this. And if they appear to, they’ve been coercively influenced. 
  • The most pertinent comparison we can look at to drive this home is the question of why people stay in domestic violence situations. They’re not choosing it. Over time, they are groomed into confusing abuse with love, while losing outside perspective and resources. Those losses can be gradual or instantaneous.
  • Ergo, replacing a few key words renders:
    • “No one joins an abusive relationship. People delay leaving relationships that presented themselves as loving and safe.”

There are few clear predictors for who is recruited to a group or stays in a group beyond “situational vulnerability.”

  • This comprises normal transitional life tensions: sickness, divorce, death in the family, unemployment. Or a pandemic.
  • Researchers have inconclusively speculated on vulnerable psychological profiles, or how ACEs or addiction disorders might predict recruitment. Besides being weak, these correlations tend to bend the conversation towards victim-blaming, ignoring the techniques and strategies of domination that can overcome literally anyone.
  • This is a particularly important point with regard to limiting ableism in the discourse: the false premise that psychological or psychiatric illness is a causal factor in cultic recruitment. This is as harmful as claiming that psychiatric conditions are predictive of criminal activity. 
  • This is also important as we watch the social, racial, and economic diversity of QAnon emerge. It’s less about where you come from than what you are subjected to.

The content of the cult isn’t the point. Cults can be political, spiritual, economic (think Enron), military, therapeutic, self-help. Focusing on the content distracts from the mechanisms. Also if deception is the gateway, the group is never really about what it says it’s about. 

  • Examples:
    • Sogyal Rinpoche wasn’t really teaching Buddhism. He wanted to eat steaks and sexually abuse women. Buddhism was the cover.
    • Same thing with Bikram Choudhury.
    • Lyndon LaRouche wasn’t seriously running for president. He was running a high-demand group as a personal vanity project.
    • Thought experiment: Was Harvey Weinstein a movie producer or a serial assaulter who exploited the movie world?

The “We don’t really know, because they never submit themselves to psychological evaluation.”

  • Some may be diagnosable with forms of bipolar, NPD, sociopathy, or what Daniel Shaw calls “Traumatic Narcissism,” but we just don’t know. Shaw on video here.
  • In general, leaders have something about them we can call “charisma,” which is not so much a property of them personally, so much as a product of the social feedback loops of reward and amplification they generate. It’s not about the personality: this is why some people can’t get enough of Tony Robbins, and other people would rather gnaw their arms off than listen to him. Robbins is not universally attractive. His success depends on social and structural contagion. It’s not about the person. It’s about the network.

Cultic organizations usually have public-facing fronts. This is crucial to the process of deception. The front organization shields the public from what the cult is really doing. It also shields cult members from how the real world thinks and operates. The front allows the cult members to interface with the public in a controlled fashion.

  • Scientology offers personality tests. 
  • QAnon boosts #Savethechildren.
  • The cult I was recruited into ran restaurants, bakeries, construction companies.
  • Shambhala International offers secularized mindfulness meditation.

Here’s where Hannah Arendt (1956) is still so incredibly helpful:

[T]he proper image of totalitarian rule and organization seems to me to be the structure of the onion, in whose center, in a kind of empty space, the leader is located; whatever he does: whether he integrates the body politic as in an authoritarian hierarchy, or oppresses his subjects like a tyrant, he does it from within, and not from without or above. All the extraordinarily manifold parts of the movement: the front organizations, the various professional societies, the party-membership, the party hierarchy, the elite formations and police groups, are related in such a way that each forms the facade in one direction and the center in the other, that is, plays the role of normal outside world for one layer and the role of radical extremism for another. The civilian members of Himmler’s General SS, for example, represented a rather philistine facade of normality to the SS Leader Corps, and at the same time could be trusted to be ideologically more trustworthy and extreme than the ordinary member of the NSDAP.

The same is true for the relationship between sympathizer and party member, between party member and party officer or SA-man, between the Gauleiter and a member of the secret police, etc. The great advantage of this system is that the movement provides for each of its layers, even under conditions of totalitarian rule, the fiction of a normal world along with a consciousness of being different from and more radical than it. Thus, the sympathizers of the front organizations, whose convictions differ only in intensity from those of the party membership, surround the whole movement and provide a deceptive facade of normality to the outside world because of their lack of fanaticism and extremism while, at the same time, they represent the normal world to the totalitarian movement whose members come to believe that their convictions differ only in degree from those of other people, so that they need never be aware of the abyss which separates their own world from that which actually surrounds it. The onion structure makes the system organizationally shock-proof against the factuality of the real world.

Hannah Arendt. The Review of Politics, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), pp. 403-417

Cultic dynamics exploit the most tender parts of human relationships. They exploit the best parts of you as a human: your altruism, yearning, hope. 

Cult involvement can be traumatizing, causing significant psychological and cognitive impairments. 

  • In more severe cases, the group works members into illness and destitution. I watched two people die in one of the cults I was in: neither received adequate social or medical care. In Roach’s group, a young man I once knew had his mental health issues exacerbated by the cultic pressures and was eventually thrown out into the desert, and died there of exposure. In the worst cases, members are ordered to murder opponents, or are murdered themselves. 
  • On the whole: everyone recruited into a cult is defrauded of time and energy, often during periods in life where they would be otherwise doing crucial development. Cults break up families, marriages to reassign investment to the leader alone.

Leaving depends on personal realization plus social support. Recovery is relational. Stein suggests that the three groups that are most helpful for a cult survivor are

  • Those who left the group before, 
  • Those who have left similar groups, and 
  • Those who knew the survivor before they were indoctrinated, and can therefore reflect back to the survivor a more grounded version of themselves.