How To Spot A Cult
Updated: May 24
If you stop at a busy street corner and do some people watching, do you think you could pick out any cult members that walk by?
Maybe there's some people in funny clothes - or even hand-sewn dresses. Are those the cult members?
What about the people handing out leaflets for their community outreach program - are they in a cult?
Or how about the people protesting outside of the local clinic - do they qualify as cult members too?
All of these are valid questions, and you're not alone if the thought "cult member" crosses your mind when you see the things described above.
But spotting a dangerous cult (and its members) is so much more complex than you might think.
Determining whether a group can be classified as a cult can be a difficult and emotional task, as it requires careful examination of various factors and characteristics.
In this post, we look at some of the ways you can try to spot a cult - and why it's not as easy as you might think.
8 Ways to Determine if a Group is Cult-Like
It's important to approach this matter with sensitivity and respect. Keep in mind that not all groups exhibiting cult-like traits are seeking to harm or gain power.
Before jumping to conclusions, it's best to watch and learn about the group in question.
Here are some tactics you can use when evaluating whether a group may be a cult:
#1: Look for Manipulation and Control
Cults employ manipulative techniques to control their members' thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. The goal is often to instill fear in members so that continued participation in the group seems like the only option.
Some of the ways that cults utilize coercive control include:
Isolation from friends, family, and society
Strict rules and regulations
Arbitrary punishments for unknown infractions
Pressure to conform to the group's beliefs and practices
These tactics can also be used to push potential members into participating further despite personal misgivings. If someone's internal "alarm system" starts to go off about a group, it's always worth stepping back and critically assessing further involvement.
#2: Evaluate the Level of Isolation and Exclusivity
Cults often isolate their members from the outside world, creating an "us versus them" mentality. They will also discourage interaction with individuals or sources of information that contradict their beliefs.
This element can be difficult to ascertain and overcome because it impairs a person's ability to recognize the validity of an idea that doesn't support the cult's worldview.
One of the best ways to find a person's level on in-group/out-group thinking is to utilize benign curiosity. Resist the urge to fact-check or criticize.
Establishing a trusted relationship with an individual in an isolated or exclusive group can be difficult, but it may also provide a way out for that person if they ever decide to leave the cult.
#3: Determine if Indoctrination and Mind Control are Present
Cults employ various methods of mind control and indoctrination, such as:
Intense group sessions aimed at breaking down individuality and critical thinking
Intimidation and inducing fear
Gradual escalation of extreme beliefs
Pressure to conform one's identity to the group
While not exhaustive, this list can help someone be aware of mind control in a friend or family member.
#4: Learn if Emotional of Psychological Abuse Occur
Cults can subject their members to emotional and psychological abuse, including humiliation, shaming, and the use of fear tactics to maintain control over individuals.
If you learn of such abuse in a current member, your instinct will likely be to go all-out to remove them from the group - but keep in mind that such a proposal will be difficult for the cult member.
In some instances, helping people in a cult is best done by empowering their freedom of choice and ultimately letting them leave on their own terms.
Most people in cults question the group at some point, so establishing a safe relationship can allow you to be there for them when the time comes.
#5: Look for Financial Exploitation of Members
Many cults have a strong focus on financial exploitation, often pressuring or manipulating members into giving significant amounts of money or assets to the group or its leader.
Other ways that groups use financial exploitation can include:
Required participation in expensive workshops or courses
Forced participation in the group's business
Convincing members to join investment scams or pyramid schemes
Forced labor or unpaid work
Unfortunately, financial exploitation can deepen the psychological connection a person has to their group - as leaving may mean losing a significant portion of their wealth.
#6: Check for Loss of Autonomy
Cult members often have limited decision-making power and must defer to the leader or the group's doctrine for guidance on new ideas or major life choices - including career, relationships, and lifestyle.
A simple way to test this is to invite the group member to a social event or gathering with someone they care about - like a birthday party or graduation. You may even try to engage in a safe activity with minimal social pressure like a movie or play.
If participation in these kinds of activities are deferred to leadership and potentially denied, your loved one could be participating in a cult-like group.
#7: Confirm the Presence of Unethical Beliefs or Practices
Cults may engage in unethical activities or espouse beliefs that go against generally accepted societal norms.
This can include:
Promoting discrimination or racism
Engaging in illegal activities
A group member may not personally hold these beliefs before joining, but do not underestimate the influence of cults over time. Continued adherence to a destructive group can - over time - convince someone to espouse harmful beliefs and take action against others.
Optional #8: Identify a Charismatic Cult Leader
Cults often revolve around a charismatic and dominant leader who holds an elevated status within the group. This leader tends to exert significant influence over the members and exerts a high level of coercive control over members.
The reason this element is optional may surprise you - a cult leader isn't necessarily a requirement for a group to qualify as a cult. We walk more about this in our free What Is A Cult? guide.
That said, identifying cult leaders is usually one of the easiest ways to identify one of these groups. Such people wield an enormous amount of power that's typically acquired by deceptive means.
People Leave Cults
If you identify a cult and are concerned about someone that may be involved, you're not alone.
There are potentially millions of cult members (or former members) who participate in dangerous groups. Your loved one's participation is cause for concern, but does not mean that their fate is sealed.
It is essential to remember that the presence of one or more of these signs does not automatically classify a group as a cult.
However, if several of these characteristics are consistently observed and are accompanied by harmful behaviors or potential dangers, it may be prudent to seek further information or consult with experts.
Whatever path forward you choose, know that PLC is here to help in any way we can.