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Signs You’re In A Cult: Understanding the Psychology of Undue Influence

signs of a cult

Have you ever wondered how ordinary, intelligent people find themselves trapped in a cult? The answer is deceptively simple and concealed within the everyday, rooted in nuanced techniques of psychological manipulation. The workings of cults extend beyond the stereotypical secret ceremonies; more often, they involve a gradual and calculated stripping away of personal independence and freedom of thought.

In this blog we dive into the world of cults, unraveling how they operate, the psychological techniques they employ, and most importantly, the signs that might suggest you’re in one. Whether you’re questioning a group’s intentions or simply curious about the psychology of undue influence, this blog is your guide to understanding the hidden dynamics of cults.


What is a Cult?

When you hear the word “cult”, you probably think of an extreme religious group with strange beliefs. You may wonder how someone could possibly fall prey to a cult, or think that only the weak-willed could wind up a victim. However in reality, many cults hold beliefs that seem reasonable at first, and many intelligent people fall victim to the powerful psychological tools that cults employ.

At the heart of every cult lies a structure of dominance and submission, where members are subjected to various forms of control. This control can manifest in numerous ways – it might be psychological, where the member’s thoughts and beliefs are heavily influenced and reshaped; it could be emotional, where members’ feelings and connections are manipulated; it might be financial, with members required to contribute significant portions of their income or assets; or it could even extend to physical control, with restrictions on members’ movements and physical autonomy.

Cults can arise from any foundation – they might be rooted in religious doctrines, political ideologies, or even revolve around specific lifestyle or philosophical concepts. Despite their diverse origins, cults exhibit a set of common characteristics that differentiate them from more benign groups or organizations. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, an unwavering devotion to a particular cause or leader, a tendency to isolate members from outside influences, and a common narrative that often positions the group against an external threat or misunderstanding. This blend of isolation, devotion, and perceived persecution creates an environment where normal societal rules and norms are reinterpreted or dismissed, often leading members into a reality markedly different from the outside world.


signs of a cult


The Psychology Behind Cult Influence

The power of cults lies in their ability to manipulate the human psyche. They prey on universal human needs such as belonging, purpose, and identity. Cults provide a sense of community and offer simple answers to complex life questions. This is particularly appealing in times of personal crisis or societal upheaval.

Cults also employ sophisticated mind control techniques. These can range from love bombing (showering new recruits with attention and affection) to gaslighting (making members doubt their own perceptions and even sanity). Members are often isolated from outside influences, making the cult their sole source of truth and community.


Recognizing the Signs of a Cult

Being able to recognize the signs of a cult is crucial. Warning signs include:

  • Undue Influence: The group exerts excessive control over members’ lives, dictating personal choices, relationships, and finances.
  • Isolation: Members are encouraged or forced to cut ties with family and friends.
  • Black-and-White Thinking: The group promotes a simplistic worldview, often positioning itself as good and the outside world as evil.
  • Fear Tactics: The use of fear to control members, such as the threat of eternal damnation, shunning, or physical harm.
  • No Room for Questions: Critical thinking or dissent is discouraged, and members must conform to the group’s beliefs without question.


cult control


Signs Someone Is In A Cult

Identifying whether a friend or loved one is involved in a cult can be challenging, especially if the changes in their behavior are gradual. Key indicators to watch for include a sudden and intense devotion to a new belief or group, often accompanied by a marked change in personality and priorities. They may become secretive about their activities and hesitant to share details about the group or its leader. Additionally, they might withdraw from long-standing relationships and show disdain for their previous beliefs and values. If they express guilt or anxiety over not meeting the group’s expectations or fear repercussions for questioning or leaving the group, these are significant red flags. Cult involvement often leads to a noticeable shift in language, adopting a group-specific jargon, and they may also urge others to join, displaying a newfound fervor that seems out of character. If you observe these signs, it’s crucial to approach the situation with sensitivity and support, as confrontation can often push them further into isolation.


Why Do People Join Cults?

Joining a cult is rarely a deliberate choice. Often, individuals find themselves involved during vulnerable periods in their lives. Factors like a desire for belonging, the search for meaning, or a need for certainty in an uncertain world can make cults appealing. Cults provide structure and community, albeit in a distorted form. Individuals who struggle with depression,  anxiety or a lack of meaning and satisfaction in life (for example stuck in a job they hate) may find the certainty of the cult dogma extremely appealing, making these individuals particularly vulnerable.


Escaping a Cult

Leaving a cult is challenging and requires courage and support.

  • Recognize the Situation: The first step is realizing that the group you’re involved with exhibits cult-like characteristics. This realization often comes from noticing red flags in the group’s behavior or feeling uncomfortable with the level of control exerted.
  • Seek External Support: Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or professional counselors who are not associated with the cult. They can provide emotional support and practical advice.
  • Educate Yourself: Understanding the tactics used by cults can help you see through the manipulation and regain control over your thoughts and decisions.
  • Plan Your Exit: Leaving a cult can be complex, especially if you’ve been isolated. Plan your departure carefully, considering your safety and well-being. In some cases, this may involve quietly distancing yourself, while in others, it may require a more immediate exit.
  • Rebuild Your Life: Post-cult life can be challenging, as you may need to rebuild relationships, find employment, or seek psychological help. Support groups and counseling can be invaluable during this time.


freedom from control


Protecting Yourself and Others

  • Education is Key: Understanding how cults operate can protect you and your loved ones from falling prey to them. Awareness of common tactics used by cults can be a powerful defense.
  • Critical Thinking: Always approach groups and organizations critically, especially if they seem too good to be true. Be wary of any group that discourages questions or outside contact.
  • Trust Your Instincts: If something feels off about a group or its leader, trust your gut. Cults often use sophisticated psychological tactics, but an individual’s instincts can be a powerful tool in recognizing these.
  • Work On Yourself: A mentally healthy and self-confident individual is less likely to fall prey to the promises of a cult. Achieving some amount of Self-Actualization can help provide a layer of protection from those who might seek to manipulate you. 


Recovering From Being In A Cult

Recovering from the experience of being in a cult is a journey that involves not only healing from past trauma but also rebuilding one’s sense of self. A crucial aspect of this healing process is the restoration of self-esteem, which is often severely undermined in a cult environment. Cults typically strip individuals of their autonomy and self-worth, making the reclamation of these integral parts of oneself a vital step in recovery. Trust must be restored in oneself, and simultaneously, in others. This means gradually opening up to new relationships and community connections, learning to discern healthy, supportive interactions from manipulative ones. Counseling can be an invaluable resource during this time.

Certain books and other resources from former cult survivors can help give a new perspective. Dr. Steven Hassan has written many excellent books on recovering from a cult, and is a former cult survivor himself.

The trained professionals at the Truism Center can help you or your loved one create a plan for recovery from being in a cult. With locations in Grand Rapids, Grandville, Troy, Commerce Township, and a virtual office available anywhere in Michigan, we can help you get back on track.



Navigating the intricate and often perilous world of cults requires vigilance, self-trust, and a keen, critical mind. Understanding the underlying psychological mechanisms that drive these groups, being alert to their tell-tale signs, and having the knowledge to extricate oneself or others from their grasp are essential tools for ensuring your safety. It’s important to remember that reaching out for help and support in such situations is not a mark of vulnerability, but rather a testament to one’s courage and resilience. For anyone entangled in the clutches of a cult, or for those who know someone who is, it’s crucial to recognize that there are dedicated resources and supportive individuals who can provide the necessary assistance and guidance. Reach out to a counselor today if you need help.



Robb Kornoelje is the owner of The Truism Center, a relationship counselor, and the creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day email course offers gentle guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.