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Exploring the CULT in culture

Following is a revised version (including additional material) of an article by Ivan Tyrrell, first published in 1993, that explores Dr Arthur Deikman's enlightening work on cult behaviour.

A FEW years ago Arthur Deikman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, took part in a research seminar on new religious movements, held at the University of California at Berkeley. Former cult members came to speak to participants. As the seminar progressed, Deikman was struck not only by how normal the people seemed but also by how similar their experiences in cults were to all sorts of every day experiences — in work, politics, psychiatry and traditional religions. Most people regard cults as dangerous but rare: Deikman argues that the patterns of cult behaviour are much more widespread than people think.  He went on to study cults extensively and published his findings in The Wrong Way Home: uncovering the patterns of cult behaviour (Beacon Press) and an updated version of that book called Them and Us: Cult thinking and the terrorist threat (Bay Tree Publishing).


Exploring the CULT in culture:

A CULT is most commonly thought of as a religious or utopian group with a charismatic leader, though not all cult leaders are charismatic.  Such groups can do a lot of damage causing anything from the breaking up of families to horrific acts of ritual murder, mass suicide and terrorist acts (Jonestown … Waco … 9/11).  Some cult members exhibit obviously bizarre behaviour and wear strange clothes.  Yet most cult behaviour is only a slightly more extreme form of the normal cultural behaviour that we are steeped in from childhood — for example, peer group pressure to conform.

Deikman noted that the desires that bring people to cults — including the need to feel secure and protected — are universal human longings (as we would say, human givens).  Their effect in our daily lives can be shockingly similar to the effect they have within the most bizarre cults, propelling people to take self destructive paths toward the security they seek, to fail to think realistically, suppress healthy dissent and autonomy, devalue outsiders and accept authoritarianism.

Deikman's message is an urgent one, because he sees these pervasive patterns throughout society as threats to our freedom.  As he says in the preface to his book, “The price of cult behaviour is diminished realism.”

Why people join cults

“Cults form and thrive,” says Deikman, “not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes.  They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.  The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling cult leaders to elicit behaviour directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group.

“Usually, in psychiatry and psychology, the wish to be taken care of (to find a home, a parent) is called dependency and this is a rather damning label when applied to adults.  Adults are not supposed to be dependent in that way, relying on another as a child would rely on a mother or father.  We are supposed to be autonomous, self-sustaining, with the capacity to go it alone.  We do recognise that adults need each other for emotional support, for giving and receiving affection, for validation; that is acceptable and sanctioned.  But underlying such mature interdependency is the longing of the child, a yearning that is never completely outgrown.  This covert dependency — the wish to have parents and the parallel wish to be loved, admired and sheltered by one's group — continues throughout life in everyone.  These wishes generate a hidden fantasy or dream that can transform a leader into a strong, wise, protective parent and a group into a close, accepting family.  Within that dream we feel secure.”

Cults and culture

Cults are a mirror in which we can see, more clearly focused, aspects of the wider culture — the process by which the norms, values, ideas and shared perceptions of a society are passed down from generation to generation. In conforming we become 'cultured'.  There are practical advantages in conforming and certain disadvantages in not doing so.  No group or country is one static culture but a special mix of interrelating lesser cultures.  The streetwise homeless in Britain today, for example, have a different 'culture' from a British farmer, accountant or a nurse.  At the same time, however, all British people share in something that is distinctive and different from, say, a South American, African or Middle Eastern culture.  In other words, each country's mix has a distinct 'flavour'.

How do cults work?

The four factors that Deikman cites as characteristic of cult phenomena are:

•  compliance with the group
•  dependence on a leader
•  avoidance of dissent
•  devaluation of outsiders.

Compliance with the group

Most of us probably think that, unlike members of cults, we think for ourselves and act on our own volition.  This is in fact far from the case.  Not only does much of our behaviour derive from (post hypnotic) conditioning, but as social beings we easily become subject to automatic group behaviour.

Group behaviour pattern is established very early on — in the family.  We comply with the way the family operates because, to survive, we have to.  Our parents are our first 'leaders'.  We compete with our siblings within the family groups, exhibiting jealousies and rivalries. When we grow up, we become independent in some ways, but, unless we are weaned from it, the primitive pattern remains, largely unperceived. As adults, much more than we usually realise, we still depend on leaders — parent figures — to look after us and take decisions.  The excuse, “I was only following-orders!” is the adult equivalent of “Mummy told me to do it”. (Social psychologist Stanley Milgram famously showed in his experiments on obedience that, when we obey authority, we do not see ourselves as responsible for our actions, however cruel.)

This basic pattern of group behaviour is found all round the world – in many other animals as well as us — and it arose out of the survival value of living in packs and herds.  In earlier times people cast out of the pack/herd/tribe would die quickly — eaten by predators.  Survival chances were much higher as a member of a group that could act collectively for protection.  So ‘don't be an outsider' is an instruction from our genes and that’s why, whatever environment we find ourselves in, we learn what behaviour is expected of us by imitating others and adhere to this approach most of the time.

The enormous power of the group is evidenced in the fact that, if we witness a mugging or attack in the streets, we are more likely to help if we witness it alone rather than in a crowd or group.  Many studies have shown this.  It happens because, if others are around, we look to others for cues on how to behave.  As undeveloped people, unless trained otherwise, we resort to the primitive pattern of looking for someone else to take responsibility.  At an earlier stage in human evolution this was probably a useful tactic because a tribe or group cannot enlist cooperation and operate in unity unless there is a good measure of agreement within it. 

But there are clearly times when this is inappropriate behaviour and leadership is sought.  Leaders are people who can detach themselves enough from the group to be able to make choices based on their individual judgement.  They then can point the way but, to get everyone going, they have to exploit group behaviour.  Their motivation for doing this may be selfish, altruistic or a mixture of both.

Individuals may benefit from group protection when they join a cult — and there is evidence that many people are 'saner', safer and cause society fewer problems inside a cult than out — but there is a price to pay.  Not least that they restrict their potential to become independent human beings.  Group members become embarrassed by individualistic views, which might bring change and progress.  However, this tendency is not restricted to conventional cults. 

All traditional religions, which most of us still don't think of as cults, show the cult-like tendencies of idolising leaders and preventing independent thought.  When in the third century, for example, Christianity became cult-like, some of its followers rampaged around the Mediterranean destroying the great classical libraries, actively suppressing learning and scientific endeavour wherever they found it.  The effect was to plunge Europe into what became known as the Dark Ages, holding back human development here for hundreds of years.  This is not, of course, how Christians today like to have their history regarded, but it is hard to refute.  The rise of communism and fascism were major 20th century examples of cult-like behaviour that grew to such an extent that they had a disastrous impact on human progress.

In a group no one wants to be seen as the 'bad guy' who has individual thoughts that challenge the rightness of the group, and this is a big danger. Cult-like behaviour, wherever it is found, leads to, and traps people in, unrealistic, inflexible thinking.

Dependence on a leader

Cult leaders demand loyalty and suppress criticism.  For them, power must be absolute.  Authoritarianism takes precedence over anything else.  They often claim that 'special' knowledge, secret ancient doctrines or divine revelation is guiding them. 

Here again we can see how this developed out of a natural process that began in the family and the tribe.  A child is more likely to die if it does not obey its parents who are more aware of dangers in the environment than the young one.  As people grow up and the society they live in becomes more complex, individuals with expertise had to give direction and be followed and obeyed in certain circumstances.  That's how businesses work, military operations run, and schools and countries are governed.

But cults, because they only serve the leader, exploit and pervert that useful habit and, to establish and maintain itself, does everything possible to destroy family ties, and any other secure and conventional anchor in a person's life.  This has the effect of strengthening a member's bond with the cult and its leader.  From this viewpoint, the cults that promote celibacy and the cults that encourage indulgence in sexual promiscuity are seeking the same ends — the destruction of normal family life and the substitution of dependence on the cult group authority.  Although ordinary institutions in our society do not yet directly seek to destroy family ties, 'nanny state' interference may be having a similar effect. 

Dependence, the wish to have a 'parent' take responsibility for our lives, as many people have pointed out, can lead people to view 'God' as a father figure.  Political leaders can also become important fantasy figures who, for many people, take on the aura of 'big daddy', all-knowing and charismatic. Politicians we all observe are primarily concerned with preserving their positions than being useful to society.  We only kid ourselves if we think that they really know what’s going on and are taking genuine responsibility.

This becomes apparent when the contents of major, 'private', meetings of world leaders are leaked, revealing them to be as much in the dark as the rest of us — just reacting to events.  This is why so many politicians become obsessed with secrecy, cutting people 'out of the loop', seeking scapegoats and rarely answer straight questions with straight answers.  They are trying to maintain the structure and fantasy of being 'guiding shepherds' without knowing what is really needed.  They do have a real secret, however, and it is that they are sheep too!  They are not the omnipotent, far-seeing father figures that so many seem to long for.

Western leaders like to claim we live in democracies but that notion doesn't stand up to examination.  For a start, democratically voting over every decision is hopelessly inefficient: decisions tend to take forever, involve compromises that prevent anything working in a straightforward manner and pander to the lowest common denominator in a group.  Voting, of course, has a broad use in removing hopeless or tyrannical leaders from office.  But democratic processes are only useful where they are necessary.

There is another reason democracy is rare in human activity.  It is because there are always people who find out that taking power is easier than asking for it.  We all give up power easily — whatever we might like to think.  And a lot of the time this is appropriate.  If someone knows the path through a swamp you follow him.  This is natural behaviour, but the problem is that people in all fields of human activity still tend to respond like mesmerised rabbits to anyone who offers to take responsibility, without checking out that the person really is competent to do so.  If someone steals the clothes of the swamp guide and people follow him into the swamp, the likely result is that they will get lost and worse.  And this taking of power is exactly what happens in cults.  The problems arise because cult leaders promise what they cannot deliver – 'enlightenment', 'security', 'riches', 'happiness' etc. – yet people follow them anyway.

Nevertheless, someone has to run things in any organisation.  It is vital, therefore, that leaders in all types of organisation — political, business, educational, religious, social — can be trusted to withstand the development of cultish behaviour in themselves and those around them.

Avoiding dissent

Cults use various methods of indoctrination to keep cult members committed: alternative information about other ideas are banned and denigrated; cult ideals are endlessly promoted; and members are kept busy, thus distracting them from observing their changing state and what’s really going on.

Yet this sort of behaviour also happens all of the time in our ordinary daily life when we involve ourselves in activities that back up our prejudices.  We may, for instance, read newspapers that largely agree with and maintain our own views and political prejudices.  But this limits our perspective, as we can never understand other points of view if we don’t study them.

More than one observer has pointed out that the entire medical profession operates, to some extent, like a cult.  Medical students quickly realise they have to show allegiance to ‘their’ hospital and consultants may   


© Ivan Tyrrell (2006)

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The original article first appeared in Volume 1, No, 2 (1993) of the The Therapist journal, now entitled: the Human Givens journal.

IVAN TYRRELL is a psychotherapist, writer and lecturer who, with JOE GRIFFIN, developed the human givens approach










The Human Givens journal is one of the benefits of becming a member of the HGI, click here for details.
























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For more information about human behaviour see: Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking














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