From an outsider’s perspective, what is a cult and what isn’t a cult can seem obvious. Not a cult: Your new book group. Cult: That group your second cousin joined where all the women are renamed Meadow and are betrothed to Jeremy, their unshowered leader. Simple!
Photo by Christopher Burns
In reality, cults aren’t always so obvious; sometimes the cult-like aspects of an organisation reveal themselves to you slowly, when you’re already fully invested.
Speaking to Lifehacker, cult specialist and deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross outlined the three criteria of establishing whether or not a group is a cult – as identified by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton.
- There is an authoritarian figure in charge of the group who is revered like a god. Everyone and every decision revolves around said figure.
- People in the group act against their own best interests, but in the best interest of the group (and the charismatic leader). This occurs through a process called “thought reform”.
- The group exploits its members. The degree of harm inflicted on each member varies wildly depending on the group – some may take your money, others might inflict physical and sexual abuse.
Here’s the paper by Robert Jay Lifton in its entirety – it’s fascinating and worth a read, especially if there are any organisations in your life you have doubts about. (Your book group leader is strangely charismatic, and everyone always loves her book suggestions…)