Checklist of Characteristics
Deception lies at the core of mind-manipulating and high-demand ("cultic") groups and programs. Many members and supporters of these groups/movements are not fully aware of the extent to which they have been abused and exploited. This checklist of characteristics helps to define such groups. Comparing the descriptions on this checklist to aspects of the group with which you or a family member or loved one is involved may help determine if this involvement is cause for concern. If you check any of these items as characteristic of the group, and particularly if you check most of them, you might want to consider reexamining the group and its relationship to you. Keep in mind that this checklist is meant to stimulate thought. It is not a scientific method of "diagnosing" a group.
We suggest that you check all characteristics that apply to your or your loved one's group, then print this browser page for future reference. You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.
- The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used 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 from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, 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 or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us- versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
- The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
- Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Copyright 1996 ICSA/AFF, Inc. How do you define a "cult"? ICSA, a cultic studies research and educational nonprofit organization, published this definition accepted by many researchers:
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 judgement, 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.
Excerpted from Cultic Studies Journal, 3, (1986): 119-120.
If a group that you belong to has many of the following criteria to a significant degree, you have cause for concern:
- The group is led by a one or a few individuals, charismatic, determined, domineering.
- The leader(s) are self-appointed and claim to have a special mission in life. Frequently, that mission is messianic or apocalyptic. Leaders answer to no higher authority, such as an oversight board. They are sole interpreters of doctrine and policy -- which may change frequently and whimsically.
- The group centers its veneration on the leader(s) directly, rather than on God, a higher political power, science, or whatever.
- The group structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. Rarely will you find an open election in a cult.
- The group tends to be totalitarian, with elaborate rules and rituals that occupy large parts of every day. To break a rule or ignore a ritual carries the danger of expulsion from the group.
- The group usually has two or more sets of ethics: one for the leadership, another for the membership; one for outsiders, another for insiders; a relaxed set for recruiting purposes, a much more demanding set for the committed member.
- The group usually presents itself as innovative and exclusive, even elitist.
- The group has two main purposes: recruiting new members and fund-raising. It's unlikely to support or even encourage legitimate charity work, except as a front for recruitment.