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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.

SOME 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 askingfor 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 demand absolute loyalty from their teams.  Many victims of medical accidents have claimed that the tendency of doctors to stick together makes it impossible to pursue a justified grievance.  Similarly, it takes great courage for a member of hospital staff to become a whistle-blower, knowing of the ostracism that may well ensue from the entrenched management.  Whistle-blowers in all fields, despite benefiting the common good, tend to lose their jobs.


The cult devalues outsiders including those from other cults and anyone who criticises them — including members' families.  Again, this has its roots in prehistoric times when a natural caution towards approaching strangers was appropriate; they could be intent on your destruction or be diseased or plain old thieves. 

But the cult message massively distorts that survival template to, essentially, “we're safe and everyone else is damned!”  So, the logic goes, if you are in the cult, you must be superior to outsiders.  Is not your 'superiority' the basic reason for your being in the cult in the first place? 

This view can harden even further to, “Outsiders are evil, we are right!”  Everything is seen in black and white.  No successful cult ever proclaimed, “Maybe we're wrong!”

Once outsiders are declared to be evil, it is a simple step to legitimise rationally whatever needs to be done to destroy or 'save' them.  Even torture and killing can become a sanctified activity.  This pattern can be seen throughout history — just consider, for instance, the appalling intolerance and cruelty of many conquering people towards those they overran in the past. 

And today, stemming from most cultures, including Muslim, Jewish, Christian and atheistic ones, we can see the effects of fundamentalism.  Even our own government, steeped in the cult of patriotism, sanctify cruel and inhuman behaviour towards anyone they regard as possible threats — and feel right in doing so.  (The cruel way we treat people seeking sanctuary on our shores for example.)  Righteousness always makes perpetrators feel good whilst doing shameful acts to others.

Another important cult characteristic is projection, where we see in others a trait we don't want to see in ourselves and then attack them for it. This too is common in ordinary life. A bigot, for example, might say; “I wouldn't listen to him. He's from down south, and all southerners are prejudiced!”

The above does not mean, of course, that one should not point out human folly, corruption or crazy, harmful ideas.  It is often helpful to do so.  

Are cults harmful?

To remain within the strict mental and social confines of a cult for even a short time can have the following effects:

  • Loss of choice and free will
  • Diminished intellectual ability, vocabulary and sense of humour
  • Reduced use of irony, abstractions and metaphors
  • Reduced capacity to form flexible and intimate relationships
  • Poor judgement
  • Members may become poorer as the cult siphons off their wealth
  • Physical deterioration
  • Malnutrition
  • Hallucinations, panic, dissociation, guilt, identity diffusion and paranoia
  • Neurotic, psychotic or suicidal tendencies

Inoculation against cult behaviour

The best way to protect oneself from the more destructive aspects of the human tendency towards cultishness is to be informed about how these groups arise and be aware of why. 

We should observe them from a detached standpoint; question our own assumptions instead of simply accepting them; ensure we have adequate support systems in our lives so that our innate emotional needs are being met, including getting adequate sources of attention (so that we are not swept off our feet by the lure of being given attention and being included and taken care of by a strange group). 

As with all areas of study it is helpful to develop a willingness to accept the greys and uncertainties of life, instead of looking for black and white answers to difficult questions.

Cult behaviour always employs emotional arousal to prevent objective thinking and put people into trance states where they are more open to suggestion.  So learn about what emotional arousal does.

Become aware of the mind control techniques used in cults and see how many of these are only one step away from normal behaviour.  Some cults only employ one or two of these techniques — but that can be enough.

Cults can be so big they are rarely recognised as such.  I recently heard someone, on hearing a Tony Blair policy being criticised, forcefully say, “I won't hear anything said against him. He's my leader right or wrong!”

Mind Control techniques include:

Peer group pressure:  Suppressing doubt and resistance to new ideas by exploiting the need to belong

Love bombing:  Exploiting the innate need for intimacy by creating a sense of family and belonging through hugging, kissing, touching and flattery

Hypnosis:  Inducing a state of high suggestibility by using trance-inducing techniques such as relaxation, musical chanting, emotionally arousing music, rhythmic movements or techniques thinly disguised as meditation

Rejection of old values:  Accelerating acceptance of new life style by constantly denouncing former values and beliefs

Confusion:  Encouraging blind acceptance and rejection of logic through interminable complex lectures on incomprehensible doctrines

Metacommunication:  Implanting subliminal messages by stressing certain key words or phrases in long harangues often called lectures.

Removal of privacy:  Achieving a loss of the ability to evaluate experience logically by preventing private contemplation

Time sense deprivation:  Destroying the ability to evaluate information, personal reactions, and body functions in relation to passage of time by removing all clocks and watches

Disinhibition:  Encouraging child-like obedience by orchestrating child-like behaviour such as circle dancing, chanting

Uncompromising rules:  Inducing regression and disorientation by soliciting agreement to seemingly simple rules which regulate mealtimes, bathroom breaks and use of medications

Verbal abuse:  Desensitizing through bombardment with critical, foul and abusive language

Sleep deprivation and fatigue:  Creating disorientation and vulnerability by prolonging mental and physical activity and withholding adequate rest and sleep — typical brainwashing process

Dress codes:  Removing individuality by demanding conformity to the group dress code — sometimes by removing all clothes in ritual circumstances

Chanting and singing:  Eliminating non-cult ideas through group repetition of mind-narrowing chants or phrases

Confession:  Encouraging the destruction of individual ego through confession of personal weaknesses and innermost feelings of doubt

Financial commitment:  Achieving increased dependence on the group by 'burning bridges' to the past, through the donation of assets

Finger pointing:  Creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world and other cults

Flaunting hierarchy:  Promoting acceptance of cult authority by promising advancement, power and salvation

Isolation:  Inducing loss of reality by physical separation from family, friends, society and rational references

Controlled approval:  Maintaining vulnerability and confusion by alternately rewarding and punishing similar actions

Change of diet:  Creating disorientation and increased susceptibility to emotional arousal by depriving the nervous system of necessary nutrients through the use of special diets and/or fasting

Games:  Inducing dependence on the group by introducing games with obscure rules

No questions:  Accomplishing automatic acceptance of beliefs by discouraging questions

Guilt:  Reinforcing the need for 'salvation' by exaggerating the sins of the former lifestyles

Fear:  Maintaining loyalty and obedience to the group by threatening soul, life or limb for the slightest 'negative' thought, word or deed

Replacement of relationships: Destroying pre-cult families by arranging cult marriages and 'families'

The parallel in the corporate workplace

Deikman has shown how the patterns that characterise cults are found in all kinds of human activities, including the military, politics, religious, sport, psychotherapy, academia, entertainment, education and training.  Below is just one of his examples: corporate business and administrative organisations.

In any such organisation, the chief executive usually becomes the chief authoritarian.  They tend to manipulate the truth about situations and abuse their power.  Negative reinforcement is often used, and threat of punishment is linked with power.  Most companies automatically develop an authoritarian structure.  The lives of employees are often regulated to some extent by the firm.  There is 'sibling rivalry' in competition for advancement and the need for approval by 'parents' — one's managerial superiors. Everyone hopes for promotion.  Managers tend to feel that they personally should have more power and their subordinates should have less.

The similarity between cult induction and joining a company is striking.  The new employee may have to become totally immersed, leading to overwork, exhaustion and having only enough time to mix with other workers, thus reinforcing the company ethos.

Company personnel exhibit 'in-group' identification. Certain uniforms of dress and behaviour become company trademarks.  Subordinates curry favours and copy superiors, often in silly ways such as wearing the same shoes or sporting the same style of coloured tie.  Dress cues become important statements that give away individuals' ambitions and signal who they would like to be.  This is really sympathetic magic: “If I wear what the boss wears, I'll become like the boss”.

Subordinates may also fear the consequences of dissent. They won't speak out if they disagree with the group or its leaders, fearing the consequences of becoming outcasts.  Dissent from the company ethos is not encouraged in companies unless it is ritualised 'token' dissent.

Family needs are often sacrificed for the needs of the company.  Commonly, a family is expected to move with the job.  This may cause family disintegration, loneliness and insecurity for children, etc. Also, when a family announces they are going to move on, people they know often 'drop' them. The family suddenly becomes invisible to neighbours. No one wants to invest any more time with them.  It's as if they have already gone. This is very painful for wives and children who don't understand what's happening and who tend to blame themselves for 'being unpopular'.

Despite the pain that moving causes, the company must come first. Loyalty to the larger group is seen as more important than loyalty to the family. The employees most likely to get themselves into this fix are those still looking for a 'parent', and their need to be part of a greater family is more powerful than duty to the real families that they are now responsible for themselves.

Another common conflict occurs when the working partner must take work home from the office, resulting in neglect of the family.  Failure to do this extra work may indicate to superiors that advancement isn't wanted. Catch 22!

Colleagues at work may become an 'in' group (cult) and the main source of friends for the employee, leaving the partner at home lonely and resentful. Yet to back out of this business 'in' group would nullify all the previous sacrifices made by the employee and family.

Companies are generally parental and protective in nature.  Some companies even arrange a necessary house move, or look after medical and educational arrangements.  This is very comforting for most of us and does not encourage us to leave — and step out into the cold.

Company values override individual values, in that a person can have a separate thought and behaviour structure for home and work. The 'violent soldier' goes home and becomes the 'kindly father'.

If employees come to believe that the company is greater than themselves and their families, this can have a tragic outcome for the family.


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


This article first appeared in "Human Givens Journal" Volume 1 - No. 2: 1993

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