Identifying Cults, Brainwashing Techniques And How To Avoid Them (Part III)

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How to identify cults

In my indepth chat to uncover the psychological mindsets of cult leaders and their headspace, I spoke to Ian Haworth from the Cult Information Centre. In my extensive conversation with Ian, he shared insights about his experience being an ex-cult member in Part I of our story,  in  Part II we discussed how cults recruit and mind control tactics and here we’ll discuss how to identify cults and the steps to avoid the audacious brainwashing techniques used by cult members to get new recruits.

How would somebody identify a cult? For example, what if someone has seen an advert to meet new friends or a meditation or a self help group. How can they identify if it is the real deal or a cult?

The term meditation means absolutely nothing unless it is defined. If the group or the advert reads, ‘this programme/course involving meditation will be like reading the last page of an exciting book, if we tell you more, it would spoil it for you’ then there is something fishy. Anything which is ambiguous and involves a lot of psychobabble might sound good but doesn’t mean anything, so that's always a clue.

Another way to identify a cult is when you see a cult member soliciting funds on the street. So if this person looks bored to tears and is shaking a can and looks like they are fed up shaking a can, then they are probably legit. Because if it is a cult, they won't be just shaking a can, they will be dancing around in front of you,  they will be blocking your path, they will be full of joy as a spring and they will say, ‘it’s the most marvellous thing’ or ‘don't you care about the starving people in Somalia’ when you’ve just come out of a fancy restaurant. They prey on guilt.

So if a person is full of life, start asking a lot of questions.

So are you saying if someone asks questions they would perceive the person as a hassle and hence move on to the next person?

Yes. You are either a demon or you are full of negativity, either way, they won’t need you.

According to you where is the line drawn between a cult, a genuine religion or a like minded community?

One way to identify is to understand if these groups use any techniques of psychological coercion, or radicalisation to recruit people. When those techniques are employed you are removing the basic human right of free choice on one level and if you use these techniques, you will finish up with full control of one person, control of everything they stand for, their relationship, their money and that is a very serious matter.

The first criteria of cults is the full usage of psychological coercion to recruit, induct and retain members. The second thing is to form an elitist, totalitarian society and thirdly the founding leader is always self appointed, dogmatic, not-accountable and has charisma. Finally the leader always believes and justifies the means to recruit people, solicit funds or both, and finally the wealth that is generated which is often considerable does not go to the members of the group or adds value to the society as it would in a legitimate religious group or charity.

So it is not for the community or the group, obviously fuelling right back to this one person. So is it more about the money and the means to gain wealth?

He may or may not use wealth. I mean Jim Jones that brought about the mass death of about 900 people in Jonestown in November 1978 did not use his millions. This man seemed to be rather ill and just enjoyed the power of exploiting psychologically, sexually and believing that he was very special in the eyes of god.

In this case, are you are saying he was ill because of the mass suicide?

If you look at the photographs towards the end of his life, he was always wearing sunglasses. I knew somebody who lived with him, she actually managed to get congressman Lee Ryan to go down to Indiana to investigate what was going on, there were other ex members as well, she said that Jim Jones’s eyes were bloodshot from misuse of drugs and/ or alcohol but what they said to the members of the congregation was, there was so much of god’s light in his eyes, he had to wear sunglasses to not blind other people.

Do you think he ever believed he was God or was it just a lie to cover up facts?

I would say that he knew he was lying, because he could look in the mirror and see the blood shot eyes and also he lied through his teeth about how he could change water into wine, because he had a plumber nearby. So when he tapped on a tap on one side of the wall, the plumber would turn the tap on the other side and wine would come out.

If you knew there was a cult, would you ever recommend somebody, even if it was a journalist, infiltrating or attempting to look at the cult.

No, because journalists have got a healthy mind and will be opening themselves to be manipulated. I know a lot of journalists don’t want to hear that and they would go, ‘it won’t happen to me’ but it does. I feel so strongly about it.

Thirty eight years ago, I started in this field, I said I will not work with any journalist that wants to infiltrate because then I have got a responsibility towards that journalist and I don’t know what can happen and some will say, ‘forget that, I'm going in there’  and they have suffered accordingly.

One journalist went into a well known group to infiltrate and came out after being in there for a week and it took her six months before she could stop the involuntary chanting while showering every morning.

“...the people who are pulling you back in the cult are decent people but are victims who don’t know. So they are sincere and a lot of people equate sincerity and the passion that goes with  it with reliability or truth….. But you can be sincere and sincerely wrong and sincerely in trouble and sincerely needing help. But if you don't know it, you are not going to ask for that.” - Ian Haworth

In your opinion, how easy is it to leave a cult?

Very difficult. While talking about cults, I should have talked about two types of cults, religious cults and therapy cults and in both categories, some of them are into communal living and when you are living in a commune, everybody is watching everybody else and reporting in on them. So it is very difficult to start having doubts and for someone else to not to realise that there is something going on and then getting it together to work on you. But if you do manage to escape in some way, they will come after you to try and pull you back.

The average person who is able to break away from the cult normally at least needs a year to fully recover the damage done. Just like I needed eleven months to recover after I was in there for two and a half weeks. In that recovery time, we have two lives - so in my case, there is the real Ian, and when I became a cult member, I’m cult Ian.  These two personalities are quite separate and discrete and cult Ian is not a nice person at all and the real Ian has a rotten sense of humour. But even after you escape the ultimate intent of a cult is to keep you for life or until you cease to be of value.  

When you escape, you will find a tug of war between two personalities. ‘Boy, i am glad I am out of that group, it was a cult’ or ‘No it wasn’t’ because you don't want to believe what’s written in the papers about the group you were in. So there is a lot of confusion and disorientation and in that time if the cult get hold of you, they can pull you back in. They will work on you to get you back. It is difficult and the thing is the people who are pulling you back in are decent people but are victims who don’t know. So they are sincere and a lot of people equate sincerity and the passion that goes with  it with reliability or truth. I was  giving a lecture yesterday, where I said, ‘you can be sincere and sincerely wrong and sincerely in trouble and sincerely needing help’. But if you don't know it, you are not going to ask for that.

Is there a database regarding all the ongoing cults?

Yes there is a database, but we cannot publish that but that is why I urge people to research online.

If you find a group, look them up and if you don’t find the organisation - then you can always phone an organisation like ours and find out what information we have on them. We can tell you if the group you are talking about is of concern or not.

So in a nutshell how do we go about understanding cults and their techniques?

The key to understanding cults and terrorist groups is grasping the whole business of extremism, radicalisation and what constitutes psychological coercion and to fathom the 26 techniques. Some of these include hypnosis, love bombing, controlled approval, isolation, sleep deprivation, guilt, fear. You can find more information on the Cult Information Centre blogs.

If people become familiar to those techniques and if they suddenly find themselves in an environment where some these techniques are being applied, then they can get out of there quickly. But preferably they would have Googled the group to the nth degree first, then got out of it and found critical material on the internet about cults, like an organisation like ours or critical material from other relevant sources.

People really need to check things out first but if a group sifts through the net, they really need to know the techniques of mind control and that is how they can see a cult from a mile away.

In my opinion ex cult members can offer an array of information to educate the public but this can be only be effective with the government realising the need for it. Raising awareness about how cults operate can help the British society understand cults psyche and avoid their manipulative methods.

This interview is a Part III of the cult series. Click here to read Part I and Part II of the story. To get interesting stories like this straight to your inbox and get a chance to win a limited edition t-shirt, sign up for free.

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