Escaping Utopia (Routledge, 2017), which I co-authored, tells the stories of 65 people from 39 different cults in more than a dozen countries.
My co-author, sociologist Janja Lalich, PhD, is an internationally renowned expert on cults, indoctrination, extremist groups, and terrorist groups, and she is a cult survivor. So am I.
Janja’s work on cults is groundbreaking because she knows cults from the inside out, and she shows that a cult is simply a social group using everyday social behaviors that get out of hand. Cults can be any size, and they can be focused on all kinds of beliefs or ideas, such as saving the world.
Janja developed a brilliant way to explain cults with her bounded choice model. In this model, she shows that cult members aren’t out of their minds; they’re usually idealists who want to change the world. Cults and cult leaders take advantage of their members’ idealistic dedication, but they turn all of it toward the cult’s own needs.
Every successful social group finds ways to engage people and energize them, but cults use four specific dimensions to bring people in and trap them.
The Four Dimensions That All Cults Share
I’ll focus on each of Janja’s dimensions and help you identify whether they’re active in your relationships, or in any group you belong to. I’ll also help you understand whether these dimensions are being used in healthy or unhealthy ways.
What Are Systems of Control?
Successful groups create systems and rules that help them organize themselves, build a sense of group identity, and distinguish themselves from other groups.
In healthy groups, these systems of control tend to be flexible, and they often provide a stable and reliable structure for group members.
For instance, a singing group might have specific times to meet, assigned parts for each person, and an expectation that people will learn their parts, warm up their voices, and show up on time. This is a simple example, but without these rules, a singing group would not be able to create music worth listening to.
Healthy and successful groups create reasonable rules, attainable expectations, and systems of control that help them function as a team and develop a unified sense of group identity.
High-demand groups and cults, on the other hand, create harsh and unbending systems of control that are carried out by rigid authority figures who enclose members inside a tightly constricted universe. These strict systems consist of the rules, regulations, and procedures (including discipline and punishment) that guide the group and control each member’s behavior and thinking. The desired outcome is compliance and, better yet, total obedience.
In some cultic groups, every aspect of life is controlled, such that communication, education, diet, exercise, dress, personal hygiene, sexual habits, health care, family planning, child-rearing, social life, and interpersonal relationships are intricately managed. As a result, the group becomes completely self-sealed and closed off from all outside influences.
In many cultic groups, hierarchical authority, endless rules, and strict discipline and punishments create a sealed and bounded world that is nearly impossible to break away from. Absolutely every area of life – personal, financial, and social – is regulated by or connected to the group’s systems of control.
The Unique Features of Cultic Systems of Control
The social structures in cults can be compared to the concept of “total institutions,” introduced by sociologist Erving Goffman in his classic work, Asylums.1 Goffman outlines the essential features of total institutions (such as asylums, prisons, and concentration camps), which include removal of personal boundaries, stripping of a person’s identity, interrogations, constraint, forced relations with others, and control of time.2 We would also add control of information to these features.
While the asylums studied by Goffman were locked facilities, cultic groups can create the same kind of total obedience through systems of control that are focused on each member’s submission to the perfectionist belief system and utter worship of the charismatic leader. No locked cells, debilitating drugs, or pointed guns are necessary to get a cult member to comply (although there are some extreme cults where such measures have been used.)
For instance, the energy company Enron created cultic systems and enforced compliance in many ways. One particularly harsh system was a performance review process called “Rank & Yank,” in which employees were evaluated on a scale from 1 (best) to 5 (worst). Employees who received a 5 had their photos published on a shaming internal website, and they were given two weeks to find another position within the company or be fired.
Up to twenty percent of Enron employees were fired in this way each year. The harshness of the Rank & Yank system turned Enron into a cutthroat environment where employees – in order to survive and live up to the company’s expectations – lied, cheated, and exploited their colleagues, other businesses, and the world energy market before the company ultimately destroyed itself in 2001.3
This type of enforced, group-wide compliance doesn’t arise overnight; instead, it occurs over a period of time and in a variety of ways. Cult researchers Louis West and Margaret Singer focus on some of the most common ways that cults control their members, including isolation of the person and manipulation of his or her immediate environment; control over communication and information; debilitation through fatigue and inadequate diet to disable the capacity for critical thinking; alternating harshness and leniency in a context of discipline; and assignment of monotonous tasks or repetitive activities, such as chanting, meditating, praying, speaking in tongues, or copying written materials by hand.4
You may ask yourself, “Why would anyone put up with any of this?” It’s a valid question, because sometimes a cult’s demands and behaviors are outrageous and inexcusable, especially when they involve children. So it’s important to remember that cult members become psychologically entrapped in the leader’s charismatic belief system and by his or her promise of perfection or salvation. Devoted members can become so deeply entangled and indoctrinated that they will truly come to believe that the ends justify the means.
We all develop coping mechanisms to help us deal with abusive systems of control, and these mechanisms always involve resistance and rebellion in some form. Cults respond to resistance and rebellion with punishment or abuse, both of which tend to make people to fall into line and silence themselves.
As you observe the systems of control in your own life, note whether they are healthy or toxic, and also note how you respond to them. If you feel your resistance and rebellion arising in response to them, this may be a sign that you are in the presence of a toxic system of control.
Evaluating the Systems of Control in Your Own Life
The following checklist can help you identify systems of control that are healthy, useful, and appropriate – and it will also help you identify systems that are rigid, unyielding, toxic, or abusive. Remember, as you look through these lists, that systems of control aren’t limited to groups; people can be controlled by single individuals as well (think of abusive marriages or unhealthy teacher/student relationships, for instance).
Unhealthy systems of control treat people like cogs in a machine, and they require total submission and unquestioning obedience, regardless of the personal cost.
You can use this checklist to gauge the health of the systems of control you deal with at home, at work, at school, or in any other relationship or social situation. See if any of the following statements are true.
- The rules and regulations come from above: members have no say in the system.
- The system of control is undemocratic and does not allow for independent thought or action.
- Members must be perfect in their obedience or face dire consequences.
- Rule-breaking is treated as a direct attack on the group or its leader.
- Rule-breaking has extreme consequences, such as public shaming, beatings, starvation, isolation, shunning, or excommunication.
- Publicly shaming or abuse of rule breakers is used as a scare tactic to keep other members in line.
- Members are encouraged to report rule breakers – including their own family members.
- Leaders or members in the inner circle can break rules without consequences.
- The system of control is connected to the working lives of cult members; hard work and even abject slavery are accepted parts of the rules and regulations.
- The leader can change the rules, regulations, and system at will or on a whim.
If you checked yes to one or more of these statements, you may be dealing with a toxic system of control. However, this does not mean that the person or group that developed the system is dangerous, and it does not mean that you’re involved in a cult. This troubling system of control would have to be combined with the other three aspects of bounded choice (a transcendent belief system, a charismatic and narcissistic leader, and a toxic system of influence) before the group or relationship could be considered cultic.
However, if this system of control disturbs you (even if the other aspects of bounded choice aren’t present), you may be able to suggest changes and see if the people inside the system can address the problems.
You can also share the features of healthy systems below to help the person or group understand the specific ways in which their system has gotten out of hand. If they can’t or won’t change, you can use these features to find a new person or group with systems of control that are healthy, supportive, nurturing, and fair.
Signs of Healthy Systems of Control
Healthy systems of control involve rules that make sense, clear checks and balances on power, responsive and respectful leadership, and goals that are livable and beneficial for everyone.
- The system is democratic; all members have a say in how the rules and regulations are developed and implemented.
- Members have the right to question, doubt, and challenge the system.
- Checks and balances are in place so that the system remains flexible, responsive, and fair.
- The system supports equality, and no person is above the rules.
- The system incorporates fairness, justice, and leniency; no one is humiliated, abused, or shunned.
- Members appreciate the sense of structure and discipline that the system provides.
- The system provides a healthy sense of belonging and camaraderie.
- The system helps members develop a unified group identity that does not erase their own identities.
- The group encourages critical thinking and welcomes ideas from outside the system.
When a system of control is healthy, its structure supports and nurtures the people inside it. When a system is toxic, its structure crushes, demeans, and dehumanizes the people trapped within it.
With the help of the bounded choice model, we can see that toxic systems of control use cult members’ hard work, obedience, and need for community against them.
Though cult members may gain a sense of pride through fitting in and following the rules perfectly, this form of pride has a tragic outcome because it depends on the good opinion of people who actually mean harm to the members. Hard work, community values, and obedience are excellent qualities; however, when they are required by an inhumane and toxic system of control, they lead to enslavement.
Breaking free from toxic systems of control can be painful and difficult, but it can be done. And people can learn how to identify – and support – positive groups and relationships that create healthy systems of control.
Challenging a Toxic System of Control
My cult started out as a relaxed and casual group of people who met in various members’ homes to hear the channeled wisdom of our leader. Only later did the group join together and pool their resources to start a group of businesses in Southern California. That was when the systems of control arose and intensified.
I didn’t respond well to these systems, and in Escaping Utopia, Janja and I share the many ways that our narrators fought against these systems, usually in very subtle and secret ways, but sometimes in ways that were open (and sadly dangerous, because they would invite punishment).
My punishments were not too terrible at first — being called out for wearing jeans instead of dresses to work in the group kitchen, or being watched more and more closely and having my privileges taken away.
But I’ve never been a controllable person; I control myself. Sticks, carrots, punishments, rewards — I only respond to them if I feel like it. This made school an often-difficult thing for my teachers and principals, but it’s how I’m built. So the more the group tried to control me, the more ways I found to assert my freedom. I was never going to be a valuable cult member.
When they threw me out at 17 for talking to outsiders, it sent a warning message to everyone in the group. I had once been a special person there, and kicking me out probably cast a pall over the whole organization. But in order to maintain their system of control, they had to do it. I see that now.
May we all learn how to be together without trying to control the life out of each other.
May our groups arise out of camaraderie and healthy vision.
May we create healing and justice in ways that are healthy and just.
May we all be free, together.
1 Erving Goffman, Asylums. (Garden City: NY: Anchor Books, 1961).
2 For a study of this phenomenon on a national scale, see Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951).
3 Frans De Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), 38-9.
4 Louis J. West and Margaret T. Singer, “Cults, Quacks, and Nonprofessional Therapies,” in Harold I. Kaplan, Alfred M. Freedman, and Benjamin J. Sadock, eds., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/III (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1980), 3248.