Several checklists of cult behavior have been circulated by members of the anti-cult movement. These lists vary by the terminology they use, and how they group the behaviors they describe.
The check lists for problematic groups and new religious movements that are generally not labelled "cult checklists" and that have been made by people or organizations not associated by the anti-cult movement, such as sociologists and scholars of new religious movements are treated here too.
- 1 Eileen Barker
- 2 Shirley Harrison
- 3 Steve Eichel
- 4 James R. Lewis
- 5 Robert J. Lifton
- 6 Isaac Bonewits
- 7 Anthony Storr
- 8 Canadian Security Intelligence Service - Report # 2000/03 on Doomsday Cults
- 9 Whittier
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
A checklist, made by professor Eileen Barker, in which traits of groups that can evolve to be dangerous are described. Barker stated that her list was based on empirical research. The traits named include:
- A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially;
- Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality;
- Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others;
- Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion;
- Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers;
- Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal.
In her book "Cults - the battle for God", Shirley Harrison has a list of the characteristics of a potential destructive cult:
- A powerful leader who claims divinity or a special mission entrusted to him/her from above;
- Revealed scriptures or doctrine;
- Deceptive recruitment;
- Totalitarianism and alienation of members from their families and/or friends;
- The use of indoctrination, by sophisticated mind-control techniques, based on the concept that once you can make a person behave the way you want, then you can make him/her believe what you want;
- Slave labour - that is, the use of members on fundraising or missionary activities for little or no pay to line the leader's pockets;
- Misuse of funds and the accumulation of wealth for personal or political purposes at the expense of members; and
- Exclusivity - "we are right and everyone else is wrong".
In his "Building Resistance to Manipulation", the psychologist Steve K.D. Eichel created a checklist of signs of a sect designed to brainwash its members into loyal followers:
- Isolate them in new surroundings apart from old friends or reference-points;
- Provide them with instant acceptance from a seemingly loving group;
- Keep them away from competing or critical ideas;
- Provide an authority figure that everyone seems to acknowledge as having some special skill or awareness;
- Provide a philosophy that seems logical and appears to answer all or the most important questions in life;
- Structure all or most activities so that there is little time for privacy or independent action or thought, provide a sense of "us" versus "them";
- Promise instant or imminent solutions to deep or long-term problems;
- Employ covert or disguised hypnotic techniques.
James R. Lewis
In his book Cults in America, a scholar named James R. Lewis explains and then summarizes a number of properties he would expect a dangerous sect to have. The summary follows: (direct quote)
- The organization is willing to place itself above the law. With the exceptions noted earlier (in the full document linked below), this is probably the most important characteristic;
- The leadership dictates (rather than suggests) important personal (as opposed to spiritual) details of followers' lives, such as whom to marry, what to study in college, etc.;
- The leader sets forth ethical guidelines members must follow but from which the leader is exempt;
- The group is preparing to fight a literal, physical Armageddon against other human beings;
- The leader regularly makes public assertions that he or she knows is false and/or the group has a policy of routinely deceiving outsiders.
Robert J. Lifton
In 1961 Robert J. Lifton wrote Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism after studying the effects of mind control on American prisoners of war under the Communist Chinese. Lifton outlines eight major factors that can be used to identify whether a group is a destructive cult or not:
- Milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world)
- Mystic manipulation (the group has a higher purpose than the rest)
- Confession (confess past and present sins)
- Self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards an unattainable perfection)
- Aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
- Loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-and-white thinking)
- Doctrine over person (the group is more important than the individual)
- Dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)
Isaac Bonewits provides an "Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame"  (first published in his book "Real Magic" in 1979) intended to evaluate the degree of resemblance of a given religious or secular group to what the observer using this tool might consider a "cult." As he puts it,
"The purpose of this evaluation tool is to help both amateur and professional observers, including current or would-be members, of various organizations (including religious, occult, psychological or political groups) to determine just how dangerous a given group is liable to be, in comparison with other groups, to the physical and mental health of its members and of other people subject to its influence."
His checklist, known as the ABCDEF ("Because understanding cults should be elementary"), allows the user to evaluate groups on a scale of 1 to 10, on the basis of 18 factors, namely:
- Internal control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.
- External control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.
- Wisdom or knowledge claimed by leaders; amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.
- Wisdom or knowledge credited to leaders; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.
- Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or“fundamentalism;” hostility towards relativism and situationalism.
- Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones.
- Front groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden.
- Wealth: Amount of money and/or property desired or obtained by group; emphasis on members’ donations; economic lifestyle of leader(s) compared to ordinary members.
- Sexual manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.
- Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
- Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
- Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
- Dropout control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
- Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).
- Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
- Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
- Surrender of Will: Amount of emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions; degree of individual disempowerment created by the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
- Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.
The ABCDEF is available in multiple languages, including German, French, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese, on Bonewits's website.
Anthony Storr, a psychiatry professor in the United Kingdom, discusses common traits of good and bad gurus in his book, Feet of Clay - A Study of Gurus.
Storr defines the term guru as people having "special knowledge" who tell, referring to this special knowledge, how other people should lead their lives. He applies the term "guru" to figures as diverse as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Jim Jones and David Koresh.
He argues that most gurus promise followers "new paths to salvation", share common character traits (e.g. being loners without friends) and that some suffer from a mild form of schizophrenia. He also wrote in the book that the gurus who are eloquent, authoritarian, or interfere in the private lives of followers are the ones who are more likely to be unreliable and dangerous. He further refers to Eileen Barker's list to recognize dangerous situations in religious movements.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service - Report # 2000/03 on Doomsday Cults
- the persecuted chosen
- salvation through conflict
- control over members
- lack of restraint
Actions by Authorities
- lack of comprehension
- unsound negotiation
- hasty action
- spiral of amplification
- chemical / biological weapons
- crimes against individuals
- transnational crime
Early warning signs
- Intensification of illegal activities
- Humiliating circumstances
- Relocation to a rural area
- Increasingly violent rhetoric
- Struggle for leadership
A 1979 Cult checklist, from a United States Congressional Research Service report.
|This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. |
Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations where appropriate. (October 2008)
- Steve K.D. Eichel. "Building Resistance to Manipulation". The Journal of Professional & Ethical Hypnosis, 1, (Summer 1985), pp. 34–44.
- Lewis, James. Common Signs of Destructive Cults. Available online
- Lewis, James R. (1998). "Early Warning Signs". Cults in America : A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO. p. 42. ISBN 1-57607-031-X.
- Shirley Harrison. "Cults - The Battle for God" ISBN 0-7470-1414-0 (May 24, 1990)
- Dr. Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform from Robert J. Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism Chapter 22 (Second Edition, Chapel Hill, 1989) Chapter 15 (First Edition, New York, 1987) first published in 1961.
- How to determine if a group is a destructive cult from the anti-cult website factnet.org