Checklist of Cult Characteristics

by Michael Langone, Ph.D.

  • 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 type 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 leaders 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 feeling of guilt in members in order to control them.
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family, friends, and personal group 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.

[This list was composed a couple of decades ago and has become a classic, widely quoted, as in Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Landau-Tobias & Lalich, Hunter Press, 1994, Appendix, pp 276-7]

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