represent one aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or
fundamentalism. They tend
to be associated with a charismatic leader, thought reform, and
exploitation of members. Among
the methods of thought reform commonly used by cults are milieu control,
mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, a cult of confession,
sacred science, loading the language, doctrine over person, and
dispensing of existence. The
current historical context of dislocation from organizing symbolic
structures, decaying belief systems concerning religion, authority,
marriage, family, and death, and a "protean style" of
continuous psychological experimentation with the self is conducive to
the growth of cults. The
use of coercion, as in certain forms of "deprogramming," to
deal with the restrictions of individual liberty associated with cults
is inconsistent with the civil rights tradition.
Yet legal intervention may be indicated when specific laws are
Two main concerns
should inform our moral and psychological perspective on cults: the
dangers of ideological totalism, or what I would also call
fundamentalism; and the need to protect civil liberties. There is now a
worldwide epidemic of totalism and fundamentalism in forms that are
political, religious, or both. Fundamentalism
is a particular danger in this age of nuclear weapons, because it often
includes a theology of Armageddon -- a final battle between good and
evil. I have studied
Chinese thought reform in the 1950s as well as related practices in
McCarthyite American politics and in certain training and educational
programs. I have also
examined these issues in work with Vietnam veterans, who often movingly
rejected war-related totalism; and more recently in a study of the
psychology of Nazi doctors.
themes that recur in these various historical contexts also arise in the
study of cults. Cults can be identified by three characteristics:
1) a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of
worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the
group lose their power; 2) a process I call coercive persuasion or
thought reform; 3) economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group
members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The first method
characteristically used by ideological totalism is milieu control: the
control of all communication within a given environment.
In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to
the group. There is an attempt to manage an individual's inner
control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous
psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance,
unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint.
Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of
events, such as seminars, lectures and encounters, which makes leaving
extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically.
Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of
identity which I call "doubling": the formation of a second
self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a
considerable time. When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier
self may be reasserted.
Creating a Pawn
characteristic of totalistic environments is mystical manipulation or
planned spontaneity. This
is a systematic process through which the leadership can create in cult
members what I call the psychology of the pawn. The process is managed so that it appears to arise
spontaneously; to its objects it rarely feels like manipulation. Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting, and limited
sleep are used. Manipulation
may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular
"chosen" human being is the only source of salvation.
The person of the leader may attract members to the cult, but can
also be a source of disillusionment.
If members of the Unification Church, for example, come to
believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder, is associated with the Korean
Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.
may also legitimate deception of outsiders, as in the "heavenly
deception" of the Unification Church and analogous practices in
other cult environments. Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the
realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose.
For instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny their
affiliation with a cult that has a dubious public reputation.
Purity and Confession
Two other features of
totalism are a demand for purity and a cult of confession.
The demand for purity is a call for radical separation of good
and evil within the environment and within oneself.
Purification is a continuing process, often institutionalized in
the cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt and
shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.
varying mixtures of revelation and concealment.
As Albert Camus observed, "Authors of confessions write
especially to avoid confession, to tell nothing of what they know."
Young cult members confessing the sins of their pre-cultic lives
may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware of or reluctant
to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior
confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses arrogance
in the name of humility. As
Camus wrote: "I
practice the profession of penitence, to be able to end up as a
judge," and, "The more I accuse myself, the more I have a
right to judge you."
Three further aspects
of ideological totalism are "sacred science," "loading of
the language," and the principle of "doctrine over
science is important because a claim of being scientific is often needed
to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age.
The Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency
to combine dogmatic religious principles with a claim to special
scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology.
The term "loading the language" refers to literalism
and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, clichι-ridden
language can exert enormous psychological force, reducing every issue in
a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody
the truth as a totality. The
principle of "doctrine over person" is invoked when cult
members sense a conflict between what they are experiencing and what
dogma says they should experience.
The internalized message of the totalistic environment is that
one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the
become associated with guilt; doubt indicates one's own deficiency or
Perhaps the most
significant characteristic of totalistic movements is what I call
"dispensing of existence."
Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are
wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually
metaphorical, lack the right to exist.
That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast
into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse.
Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of
existence is taken literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and
elsewhere, people were put to death for alleged doctrinal shortcomings.
In the People's Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana, a cult
leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a
suicidal mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group's
ideology. The totalistic
impulse to draw a sharp line between those who have the right to live
and those who do not is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.
always be considered within a specific historical context.
A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or
psychohistorical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic
structures that organize ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a
decay of belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage,
family, and death. One function of cults is to provide a group initiation rite
for the transition to early adult life, and the formation of an adult
identity outside the family. Cult
members have good reasons for seeing attempts by the larger culture to
make such provisions as hypocritical or confused.
substitute symbols for young people, cults are both radical and
reactionary. They are
radical because they suggest rude questions about middle-class family
life and American political and religious values in general. They are reactionary because they revive pre-modern
structures of authority and sometimes establish fascist patterns of
internal organization. Furthermore,
in their assault on autonomy and self-definition, some cults reject a
liberating historical process that has evolved with great struggle and
pain in the West since the Renaissance.
(Cults must be considered individually in making such judgments.)
Historical dislocation is one source of what I call the
"protean style." This
involves a continuous psychological experimentation with the self, a
capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same time, and a
tendency to change one's ideas, companions, and way of life with
relative ease. Cults embody
a contrary "restricted style," a flight from experimentation
and the confusion of a protean world.
These contraries are related; groups and individuals can embrace
a protean and a restricted style in turn.
For instance, the so-called hippie ethos of the 1960s and 1970s
has been replaced by the present so-called Yuppie preoccupation with
safe jobs and comfortable incomes.
For some people, experimentation with a cult is part of the
The imagery of
extinction derived from the contemporary threat of nuclear war
influences patterns of totalism and fundamentalism throughout the world.
Nuclear war threatens human continuity itself and impairs the
symbols of immortality. Cults
seize upon this threat to provide immortalizing principles of their own.
The cult environment supplies a continuous opportunity for the
experience of transcendence -- a mode of symbolic immortality generally
suppressed in advanced industrial society.
Role of Psychology
Cults raise serious
psychological concerns, and there is a place for psychologists and
psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members.
But our powers as mental health professionals are limited, so we
should exercise restraint. When
helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important
to maintain a personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working
for the cult or for the parents. Totalism
begets totalism. What is
called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense dialogue on the
one hand to physical coercion and kidnapping, with thought-reform-like
techniques, on the other. My
own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and others who
consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process.
Cults are primarily a social and cultural rather than a
psychiatric or legal problem. But
psychological professionals can make important contributions to the
public education crucial for dealing with the problem.
With greater knowledge about them, people are less susceptible to
deception, and for that reason some cults have been finding it more
difficult to recruit members.
Yet painful moral
dilemmas remain. When laws are violated through fraud or specific harm to
recruits, legal intervention is clearly indicated. But what about situations in which behavior is virtually
automatized, language reduced to rote and clichι, yet the cult member
expresses a certain satisfaction or even happiness?
We must continue to seek ways to encourage a social commitment to
individual autonomy and avoid coercion and violence.
Except for the
abstract, which was written by this journal's editor, this article first
appeared in the February 1991 issue of The Harvard Mental Health Letter.
It is reprinted with permission from The Harvard Mental Health
Letter, 74 Fenwood Road, Boston, MA
02115. This article appeared in Cultic
Studies Journal, Volume 8, Number 1, 1991.