Daniël Maritz | 13 April 2021 | 15 min read
While part 1 of this article reflected on the general sociological mechanics of cults and the role and profile of a typical cult leader, this second part will now focus on the so-called control mechanisms of cults.
Control mechanisms refer to the different areas or components of someone’s life and social environment that the leadership of cults will attempt to control with the goal of keeping them for as long as possible. This phrase was especially labelled and developed by Henk Stoker. A good way to think of the control mechanisms is as different links in a chain. Although they are separate links in a certain sense, they do overlap with one another, and, at the end of the day the strength of these control mechanisms lie in their total effect on an individual when applied and implemented together.
Since our space is limited here, we will limit this discussion to the control over membership, control over thoughts, control over emotions, and the control over language.
Control over Membership
It is no secret that active recruitment is an essential part of cults. In fact, Margaret Singer narrows the purpose of a cult down to “the recruitment of new members.” It has also been said that “for the most part, people don’t join cults. Cults recruit people.” Although this might be an exaggeration, it nonetheless emphasizes the great efforts of cults to recruit new members. Cults will typically have a strategic method of approaching potential new members in conversation. The recruiters will therefore be well-equipped to be able to “size-up each newcomer, and package and sell the cult in whatever way is likely to succeed.” Singer further adds: “Cults recruit everywhere. They hold lectures, seminars, retreats, revivals, and meetings of all sorts, and they go door to door.”
It is usually the cult recruiter who makes the first contact with a target. The recruiter will first consider people in his immediate locality like family and friends whom he can approach but will then also target those who give the “impression of having time on their hands, and few relationships.” People who are going through a time of instability and vulnerability because of an event like a divorce, problems at work or moved to a new city and environment are sometimes easy targets for cults.
The initial phase in recruitment can be referred to as the “seduction phase.” This involves that the recruiter must appear like a pleasing person but must also distort the truth and deceive his target. The recruiter must set up the “cult illusion” to “attract potential followers.” He must present the cult as “a brilliant Utopia” over against the “drabness of daily existence.” He must offer “simple answers to complex questions,” exploit the “register of emotions,” and omit “any reference to logic.” The cult, where “idyllic love” reigns must be opposed to the apparent “morbidity of reality” of the potential recruit. The use of deception during the process of recruitment and membership is a “hallmark of a cult.” Just like a jack-in-the-box, a cult must seem like an attractive container, but when it is opened, it surprises you with a scary pop-out figure. Everything is therefore not what it seems during recruitment and throughout one’s membership in a cult.
The recruiter will attempt to get as much information as possible from a potential recruit to make manipulation down the line easier. He will also share as few things as possible about himself and the cult since “the rule of thumb is, ‘Tell the new member only what they are ready to accept.’” At the end of the day, the “prospective devotee is wooed with the promise of reward, be it personal fulfilment, special knowledge, spiritual growth, political satisfaction, religious salvation, lifelong companionship, riches, power – whatever is most dear to that person at the time. This connection to a person’s innermost desire is the recruitment ‘hook.’” The recruiter will therefore play to the desires and the needs of the prospective member at the time by offering “instant, simplistic, and focused solution to life’s problems.” The target will always have a disadvantage in the conversation since he is not aware of the hidden agenda driven by the recruiter.
After the first contact is made and the target started showing interest and even accepting the recruiter’s invitations to events “the first fatal step” is made. Sometimes former cult members look back and realise that “for a combination of reasons, their first step of acquiescing to an invitation or a request was the start of weeks, months, or years in a cult.” Once a person is more and more surrounded by other cult members, group psychology also comes into play. The target eventually lowers his defense mechanisms and accepts the leader and the ideology of the group. The recruit is now convinced that the right thing to do is to join the cult. This is the start of the “fascination phase.”
At this point, the cult will position itself as the only shelter of safety for the new member, and also isolate him from any meaningful previous relationships. To achieve this a “monopolizing of the recruit’s time” will kick in through the scheduling of cult activities in the form of camps, retreats, workshops, seminars, lectures, and social events. Sometimes, members are only allowed to spend time with their family and friends outside the cult as long as they are still potential recruits for the cult. However, the moment family and friends start to express their discomfort and concern with the group, the new member will be ordered to “disconnect” with them, since they are then perceived as the enemy and as potential “escape hatch” relationships for the member.
While people might have had the freedom to join a cult, they do not have the freedom to leave. According to the standards of the cult “there is no ‘legitimate’ reason for a person to ever leave the group.” Those who do leave are defined within the cult as being as weak, insane, prideful, and sinful. Members are manipulated to believe that “if they ever do leave, terrible consequences will befall them, their family and/or humanity.” Henk Stoker reminds us that is exceedingly difficult for a cult member to leave the group. They are entrenched into the group to such an extent that the “life of the group becomes the life of each one, and the goal of each member merges with the goal of all.” The act of leaving the group is one of the hardest things for a member to do, psychologically and socially. Accordingly, everything the cult implements to control membership is aimed at minimising the possibility of the member ever leaving the group.
Control over Thoughts
In his book, 1984, George Orwell introduced the concept of “Thought Police.” The Thought Police monitored the thoughts of the citizens in this novel, since it is possible to commit crimes against the government in your thoughts. The task of the Thought Police was not to identify and catch people who act against the law, but to identify and catch people who commit a “thoughtcrime.” This kind of crime entailed a thought that in one way or another opposed the ideology of the ruling party. This was one of the worst crimes that one could possibly commit, as it is stated: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Although this is just a work of fiction, it is still based on the reality of rigid thought control patterns that happened within many totalitarian systems in the past, and it is still something that one can identify in many cults today.
One scholar describes cults as “snatchers of the minds… of our children, our friends, our relatives, our loved ones.” The manipulation of minds in cults is an elemental part of making someone dependent on the group. Stein, who was herself in a cult for many years, explains that “[cults] detach our higher-order cognitive thinking from our sensory perception and emotions and leave us, thus, helpless to understand which way to turn to avoid danger.” By “mentally hijacking normal thought processes” cults consequently gain control over the thoughts of its members.
It is notable how members from the same cult, for example, will respond in a similar way when they are confronted with evidence against their group’s ideology or practice. They are typically not interested in a rational evaluation of facts. It rather seems as if the ideology and organisational structure of the cult interprets the facts for the cult member. To do this, the Bible, together with the cult leader’s ultimate authority is invoked.
One way in which the leadership of cults control the thoughts of their followers, is with “thought-stopping techniques.” This phrase refers to the capacity of the individual cult member to keep his mind focused on the apparent truthfulness of the group itself and shut out any evidence against the cult in question. It is the ability of the cult member to enhance his cognitive dissonance when a confrontation with reality shows the cult to be wrong in some or other way. The cult’s version of reality is therefore preserved in spite of contrary evidence and, in time, the cult member loses his ability to critically test reality. For the cult member everything within the cult is “positive, constructive, and dynamic” while everything external to the cult is “negative, destructive, and lethal.” It is as Singer explains:
“Reflective, critical, evaluative thought, especially that critical of the cult, becomes aversive and avoided. The member will appear as you or I do, and will function well in ordinary tasks, but the cult lectures and procedures tend to gradually induce members to experience anxiety whenever they critically evaluate the cult. Soon they are conditioned to avoid critical thinking, especially about the cult, because doing so becomes associated with pangs of anxiety and guilt.”
Cultic belief systems are therefore characterized by a certain “close-mindedness.” The thought-stopping techniques of cultists will automatically block certain information and this reaction becomes mechanical in nature since the cult member becomes programmed to do this “at the first sign of doubt, anxiety or uncertainty.” Factual information will lose its proper place in healthy dialogue, which is needed within any community, and reality will have less and less of a role to play.
This is a consequence of a rigid and isolated totalistic ideology in which everyone must subscribe to a single set of beliefs. In such an isolated system of logic “you are not allowed to question or doubt a tenet or rule or to call attention to factual information that suggests some internal contradiction within the belief system or a contradiction with what you’ve been told … In cultic groups the individual member is always wrong, and the system is always right.” Accordingly, cults put forth an “all-or-nothing point of view” where rational thoughts and logical consistency is not a criterion that cult members are able or allowed to apply to their own group. Their beliefs exist in “separate compartments in the cultist’s mind and are almost incapable of penetration or disruption if the individual cultist is completely committed to the authority pattern of his organization.”
In the attempt to control someone’s thoughts, the impact of repetition should not be underestimated. In cults “material is repeated over and over and over,” focusing on one central theme. Repetition can cause someone to start believing in the cause and ideology of the group, the authority of the leader, and the exclusive truth which are only possessed by the one group. According to Hassan “Recruits are told, ‘Your old self is what’s keeping you from fully experiencing the new truth. Your old concepts are what drag you down. Your rational mind is holding you back from fantastic progress. Surrender. Let go. Have faith.’”
In essence, one could say, that the cult gives its members a new frame of reference through which the cult’s version of reality is supported. When the cult member accepts this frame of reference, the leadership can “exert significant control over the individual, ultimately controlling a person’s mental activities, even while she or he is physically away from the group.”
Control over Emotions
The leadership of cults will aim to diminish the “emotional control” of their followers to destabilise them. This is a major part of the way cults operate. Stoker briefly refers to the attempt to control someone’s emotions as “emotional molesting.” Some consider the cult’s attack on one’s emotions as their most potent one:
“The most potent persuasive appeals have their wallop by reaching beyond reason to emotions, beyond awareness to unspoken desires and fears, beyond trivial attitudes to basic concerns about self-integrity and survival.”
When someone is a new member in a cult “they are made to feel very special as they embark on a new life with the group.” The cult community will make sure that they experience high levels of love, acceptance, and support. This overwhelming offer of friendship and unconditional love is sometimes described as “love bombing.” This can also be thought of as the “captivation phase” with the sole goal of “drowning the subject with reassuring emotional ties that give him a feeling of belonging.” Unfortunately, this unconditional love and friendship is not a lasting phenomenon in the cult. Gradually the attention is turned away from certain members and aimed towards the latest new recruit of the cult. Cult members eventually learn that love is a reward for hard work in service of the group’s cause.
In any cult, fear is “a major motivator.” On the one hand, cults will convince its members to fear everything outside of the cult due to their enemies who are supposedly persecuting them. On the other hand, cult members must also fear the leaders of the group, especially when it comes to the possibility of punishment when the member did not perform well in one way or another. Cult members usually reach a point where they believe that they will have no meaning or purpose outside of the group. In this manner the cult feeds on members’ fear of meaninglessness, which will apparently befall them if they ever leave the cult.
The combination of love and fear in the life of a cult member can lead to a disorganized and confused attachment to the cult. Once the cult replaces a person’s attachments in the form of relationships with family and friends with new relationships inside the cult itself, the member will embrace these new attachments as his only “safe haven” and “source of protection.” However, while the cult is now the member’s place of love, safety and stability in an emotional sense, the cult itself also becomes a source of fear and terror. This then causes a disorganised attachment to the group with the result of emotional confusion and cognitive collapse. 
Besides the alternation of love and fear, guilt also plays an important role. When someone feels guilty towards someone else, the person will feel like he owes the other person something in return. If this is the case, then the feeling of guilt can be manipulated in order to make a cult member feel that he owes something to the group. Feelings of guilt might be induced in members who spend too much time with people outside of the cult or those who might be having thoughts of leaving the cult. Singer explains that “just as the initial love bombing awakened feelings of warmth, acceptance, and worthiness, now the group condemnation leave recruits full of self-doubt, guilt, and anxiety. Through this kind of manipulation, they are convinced that they can be saved only if they stay with the group.” When someone’s “guilt potential” has become the property of the leadership, it amounts to a strong emotional bondage to the cult.
Cults will also abuse our natural sense and desire of belonging somewhere. John O’Donohue claims that “each one of us wants to belong. No-one wants to live a life that is cut off or isolated.” This is also one of the reasons why cults will present themselves in a way which offers purpose, fulfilment, and meaning. The matter is indeed very different inside the cult since all the cult’s promises are usually just pathways to psychological enslavement. The members are kept prisoners while manipulated into feeling that they are actually free. In this way the rise of the cults also testifies to the dreadful loneliness of postmodern culture and therefore should provoke one to consider the “crisis of belonging in our society and religions.”
Control over Language
Language is an integral part of being human. One needs it to speak, access information, and express oneself. However, language is also powerful and can accomplish many things if it is used in a certain way. In this sense, it is not only the ideology of the cult that are important, but also the language that is used to deliver that ideology to the members. Cults will therefore make use of the traditional tools of propaganda to distort the language and “use of specific words intended to mask the truth or to create a stronger impact.” Students of cultism must accordingly be able to “scale the language barrier of terminology.” This means that cult members will usually have their own unique terminology which they will know very well and are able to use very effectively.
A cult’s attempt to control the language of its members has been called “loading the language.” This refers to a situation where “the most far reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.” “Loaded language” is therefore the language through which “fictions of total ideology” manifests itself in cults.
Another aspect of language in cults has been called “thought-terminating cliché,” and indicates the idea that the leadership of cults can implement their own group jargon that can verbally restrain the followers and keep them from uttering anything that is situated outside of the limits that the leadership decided on. In this way the specific jargon of the group becomes “the start and finish of any ideological analysis,” and in effect terminates any critical thinking on the side of the followers. Lifton explains this dynamic as follows: “For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is, so to speak, linguistically deprived.” The principle is that when language is constricted and controlled, the person also becomes restricted. It would seem then that it is through loaded language that the single supposed ideological truth of the group is framed, delivered and imposed.
It has also been observed that the modern age in which we find ourselves has created an environment for the rise of new vocabulary:
“The revolutions in culture that have taken place in the vocabularies of technology, psychology, medicine, and politics have not left untouched the religions of the world in general and the theology of Christianity in particular.”
The creation of new vocabulary with new expressions is therefore to be expected in religious cults. The incorporation of a new language, or a “neo-language,” can help to center the minds of cult members. Control over language, combined with the apparent possession of a single and exclusive truth within the cult, will therefore create the rigidly controlled channels through which communication and thinking can take place for cult members. Singer summarises it as follows: “As members continue to formulate their ideas in the group’s jargon, this language serves the purpose of constricting members’ thinking and shutting down critical thinking abilities.”
What is interesting in this context is that “Orwell was perhaps the first to note that language, not physical force, is key to manipulating minds.” Turning again to Orwell’s 1984, it becomes clear that the idea of “Newspeak” can be helpful here. Although it originated in a fictional setting, “Newspeak” was a way of showing that language is indeed the “key to manipulating minds.” “Newspeak” refers to the “invention of new words” and also to the act of “eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.” Newspeak is therefore not just the development of a new vocabulary, but also manipulation on a semantic level in already existing words.
Regarding the idea of semantic manipulation of words new meanings and content can be poured into already existing words as well. This is part of the cult’s deception in order to not necessarily sound new to someone, but still mean something different from what the person might think. In this sense cults manufacture “neologisms or give ordinary words new meanings.” Cults will consequently “employ an esoteric language whose purpose is to warp the meaning of words into nonsense and to strengthen the closed character of the cult by making the language accessible only to its members.” Moreover, since language is so essential to any given community or culture, the continued revision of words and definitions “allows a cultural rebuilding to take place” inside the cult.
Newcomers in cults, who are surrounded by other members expressing themselves in the cult jargon, will start to “feel out of sorts, a bit alienated, and undereducated by cult standards.” To find some connection to the rest of the members and to understand them, the newcomer must also adopt the language of the cult. They will accordingly study harder to understand the truth as it is expressed in this new language or “cult jargon.” The effect of this is that “talking to outsiders becomes energy-consuming and awkward” and soon enough “members find it most comfortable to talk only among themselves in the new vocabulary.” In this sense the cult’s language and new vocabulary “put up an invisible wall between believers and outsiders. The language helps to make members feel special, and separates them from the general public.”
The use of buzzwords as it may be used by cults is also important to note. With the goal of attracting more people, cults have shown to be very effective when it comes to using the right buzzwords at the right time in the culture in which they find themselves. It would seem that their adaptive use of language is the way they modernise and stay influential. Because of this feature that is present in many cults, Singer’s warning remains very fitting:
“[J]ust as some sailors in Greek myth were lured to shipwreck by the Siren’s song, so some were saved when Odysseus stopped up their ears. We must constantly watch for the new buzzwords that might be used to entice the unsuspecting. We must know when the words that make us yearn to follow someone are a Siren’s song.”
Although there are many other control mechanisms worthy of discussion, these four will suffice for now. When these cultic control mechanisms are cumulatively considered, it is indeed like a chain that binds people tightly to the cult community to keep them there. Ultimately, the leadership of cults are interested in the ownership “of reality itself.” Cults tend to be a place where “all thinking, desires and action – except of course those prescribed by the cult – do not really exist.” The deeper the members of a cult move to the centre of the group as a result of being deceived, “the more distant from reality” they become, and eventually “enter the ‘fiction’ of the closed and secretive” world of the cult.
Hassan, Steven. Combatting Cult Mind Control. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2016.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultims, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry. New York: The New Press, 2019.
Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love & Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against their Hidden Menace. San Francisco, MA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Tobias, Madeleine, L. & Lalich, Janja. Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships. San Francisco, CA: Hunter House Publishers, 1994.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.
 See Henk G. Stoker, Die Jehovah-Getuies: ‘n Onchristelike Kulte (Pretoria: Printburo), 9-52.
 Robert Lifton captures something of this in his statement that “In combination they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats” (Robert J. Lifton, Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: a study of “brainwashing” in China [Chapel Hill, London: The University of North Carolina Press], 419).
 Other control mechanisms include control over behaviour, control over norms, control over information & the environment, ‘control’ over God, control over salvation, control over the interpretation of an authority and doctrine. I will briefly unpack these here, since the space in the article itself is limited:
- Control over Behavior and Norms: Cults will demand a change in the behaviour and lifestyle of their members.
- Control over Information and Environment:
- ‘Control’ over God:
- Control over Salvation:
- Control over the Interpretation of an Authority and Doctrine:
 Margaret T. Singer, Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against their Menace (California: Jossey-Bass), 11.
 Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control (Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press), 100.
 Ibid., p. 87.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 88.
 Jean-Marie Abgrall, Soul Snatchers: The Mechanics of Cults (New York: Algora, 2000), 98.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 20 & 107.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 97.
 Madeleine Landau Tobias & Janja Lalich, Captive Hearts Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships (California: Hunter House Publishers), 41.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 113.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 128.
 Tobias & Lalich, Captive Hearts Captive Minds, p. 41.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 109.
 Henk G. Stoker, Die Jehovah-getuies: ’n Onchristelike Kulte? (Gezina, Pretoria, SA: Printburo), 49.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 116.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 104.
 Alexandra Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (London: Routledge), 52.
 Ibid. Singer also contributes to this feature of cults and explains it as follows: “When cut off from social support, social background, families, familiar surroundings, friends, jobs, schoolmates, and classes and brought into new environs with a new ambiance, few can resist the pull to fit in” (Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 114).
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 192.
 Ibid., p. 146-147.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 90.
 George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Penguin), 4, 21, 30.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 82.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 7.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 23.
 Marc Galanter, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion (New York: Oxford University Press), 31.
 Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults: The Definitive Work on the Subject (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2019), ??.
 Ibid., p. 121.
 Ibid., p. 80.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 118.
 Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, p. ??.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 121.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 10 & 71.
 Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, p.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 127.
 Ibid. This is nothing but a dangerous fideism of sorts.
 Tobias & Lalich, Captive Hearts Captive Minds, p. 32.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 60.
 Stoker, Die Jehovah Getuies, p. 17.
 P. Zimbardo & S. Andersen, Understanding Mind Control: Exotic and Mundane Mental Manipulations(In Langone, M.D. ed. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse [New York: W.W. Norton]), 113.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 102.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 114-115.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 118.
 Hassan phrases this as follows: “Life in a destructive cult is, for the most part, a life of sacrifice, pain and fear. People involved full-time in a destructive cult know what it is like to live under totalitarianism, but can’t objectively see what is happening to them. They live in a fantasy world created by the group” (Hassan, Combatting Cults, p. 102).
 Ibid., p. 144.
 Ibid., p. 122.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 19, 29-30 & 40.
 Stoker, Die Jehovah Getuies, p. 19.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 119.
 Lifton, Thought reform, p. 425.
 John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong (New York: Bantam Books), 164.
 Ibid., p. 163-164.
 Stoker, Die Jehovah Getuies, p. 28.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 128.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 115.
 Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, p. ??.
 Lifton, Thought Reform, p. 429. The label of “loading the language” has become very popular in counter-cult literature. Many subsequent scholars, including Tobias and Lalich, Singer, Ross, Hassan, and Stein has adopted the use of “loaded language” as it appears in cults.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 147.
 Lifton, Thought Reform, p. 429.
 Ibid., p. 430.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 148.
 Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 27.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 87.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 137 & 148.
 Singer, Cults in our Midst, p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 Orwell, 1984, p. 312-313.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 56.
 Orwell, 1984, p. 312-313.
 Stoker, Die Jehovah Getuies, p. 29.
 Abgrall, Soul Snatchers, p. 148.
 Ibid., p. 148-147.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 114-115.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 120.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 70.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 120.
 Singer, Cults in Our Midst, p. 51.
 Robert J. Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultims, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry (New Yotk: The New Press), 1.
 Hassan, Combatting Cult, p. 140.
 Stein, Terror, Love & Brainwashing, p. 116.