Dr Arthur J. Deikman was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. His main focus of study was on popular mysticism and became a pioneer of humane psychotherapeutic treatments for sufferers of psychosis.  His work often focused on the psychology of the patient, their emotional drives and consequent reactions to frameworks of belief. He coined the term “mystical psychosis” to categorise first-person descriptions of psychotic episodes that strongly resemble religious experiences.

He studied numerous new religious movements that became fashionable in America in the 1960s and 70s, to uncover what made them so attractive to educated, affluent white people.  The result of this work was the book The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behaviour in American Society.  This article is an analysis of that book.

What is Cult Behaviour?

Cult behaviour is an interlaced pattern of behaviours that enable specific kinds of groups to form, sustain and grow. We characterise these groups as cults because of these specific behaviours exhibited from all members of the group, with varying levels of frequency and intensity.

“The structure of cults is basically authoritarian; obedience and hierarchical power tend to take precedence over truth and conscience when they conflict, which they often do. Unfortunately, certain psychological benefits can make authoritarian groups very attractive – they provide the opportunity to feel protected and cared for.” – Page 73

These often-unwitting actions taken by individuals are both practical and performative. They serve to reinforce the cult in direct ways by providing necessary boundaries, structure and normalcy, and also signal intentions and loyalty to both other members of the group and potential recruits.

It’s important to note that the cult is a manifestation of key extreme behaviours on the part of many individuals. Not all groups, even tightly-knit ones, become cults even if members exhibit some cult behaviours.

“What I wish to stress is not that every group is a cult, but that cult thinking is the effect of psychological forces endemic to the human mind, and that these forces operate in the everyday life of each of us; they distort perception, bias thinking, and inculcate belief.” – Page 49

Characteristics of Cult Behaviour

Deikman states there are four basic interrelated behaviours that are found in cults in extreme forms:

  1. Compliance with a group
  2. Dependence on a leader
  3. Devaluing the outsider
  4. Avoiding dissent

Deikman believes these behaviours stem from a desire to regress back to a childlike state, one in which the individual is cared for by a loving parental figure, so they can abdicate responsibility for their own wellbeing.  He terms this desire the “dependency dream”:

“The regressive wish for security that uses the family as a model, creating an authoritarian leadership structure (the parent) and a close-knit, exclusive group (the children). Since the leader-parent has many of the insecurities of the follower-child, reality must be distorted by both to maintain the child’s illusion (or wish) that the parent can always provide protection, that he or she has no weaknesses.  Dissent is stifled because it casts doubt on the perfection of the leader and the special status of the group. Group compliance preserves security by supporting the beliefs crucial to the fantasy of superiority, beliefs which also explain the powers and entitlement of the leader and can no more be challenged than he or she. Outsiders, non-believers, are excluded and devalued for they do not believe what the group believes; if the group and leader are superior, the outsider is inferior.” – Page 48

Deikman likens this feeling to a child relaxing in the back seat of the car while their parents drive. The person wishes to regress to recapture this feeling of security, safe in the knowledge that a loving parent is in total control.

Compliance with the Group

Deikman observes that in childhood, a person’s family life moulds and prepares their expectations for adult life. When people join groups as adults, an informal family structure can still be detected. Certain members of groups naturally become dominant, adopting parental roles, while others become subordinate, adopting child roles. In most groups these are usually quite faint and what we would describe as leadership and agreeability.  

Psychiatrists have long known the power that groups can have over their members, and Deikman proposes this is due to a dependency that develops within some groups, and supports this with references and work from various other psychologists. Deikman speculates that this is likely to have come from a reason rooted in evolutionary psychology.

“Human survival has been enhanced by the tendency for families to combine in bands or tribes for mutual protection and support. As banishment from the larger group could endanger an individual’s survival, an acute sensitivity to the group’s wishes and requirements probably carried an evolutionary advantage. Socially aware, adept individuals would eventually dominate the gene pool through the process of natural selection.” – Page 54

In cults, this desire to comply with the group metastasizes into full-blown groupthink, with the group demanding and justifying total control over the lives of its members. Cults often discourage or disrupt married couples and their families to sever existing dependencies, incentivising the individual to become increasingly dependent on the group.

This commitment to the group becomes emotionally gratifying. Acceptance by the group becomes uplifting and nurturing, engendering a feeling of safety, security and homeliness. Cults often reinforce this by use of altered states of consciousness, such as praying, chanting, meditation, singing, dancing, sleep deprivation or substances.

Cult behaviour is at its most pernicious when operating on people who have no friends or contacts outside of the group.  In these situations the group has total control over its members, who are hopelessly dependent on the cult for emotional and economic support.

Dependence on the Leader

All cult leaders are authoritarian. It is easy for an authoritarian leader to encourage cult behaviour to strengthen their own position and solidify the cohesiveness of the group they command. A willingness and desire to obey the leader, the parent figure, and be rewarded with approval and benefits which gives a strong incentive to group members.

The leader is usually respected for their admirable qualities and accepted despite their less admirable ones. Cult leaders enhance their reputation by suppression of less-desirable information and the constant emphasis of their virtues.  The cult leader is selling a dependency fantasy that is willingly purchased by the group members in exchange for their own personal freedom of thought and action; in exchange for their autonomy they are guaranteed protection by the leader, and by extension, the group.

The cult leader is afforded a special status due to the burden of responsibility put upon them by their followers. This plays into the fantasy of infallibility that the group derive security from, and buttresses the leader’s power over them so that any defence of the leader, no matter how obviously contrary to reality, can be justified.

“When a leader’s actions conflict with the group’s principles, standards, or values, followers may twist words and meanings to reduce cognitive dissonance and maintain the fantasy.” – Page 78

Deikman describes this process as Orwellian doublespeak, used to justify the otherwise-negative actions of the leader in order to preserve the more-important myth of their absolute power and goodness.

“A leader’s role is more complex than it might appear. As powerful as he or she might seem, a leader is also the captive of the group and may not fail the group’s expectation or waver on the pedestal. If a leader does, the group may annihilate him.

“The leader, as much as as the group members, wishes to believe that an omnipotent, perfect parent is possible. And when a person assumes the mantle, he or she participates in the fantasy as faithfully as does the follower.” – Page 76

The power a leader has over the followers is not only based on fear.  The leader uses the group member’s idealism, usually made as an appeal to the greater good. Often this is couched in hypothetical, abstract or metaphysical terms, such as structures, systems or demographics, and plays directly on an emotional desire to do good over evil.

“This appeal to the perception of a larger reality, to unsatisfied idealism and the wish for meaning can be very powerful, and can be put to good or bad use.” – Page 81

The leader empowers the group by giving them a source of confidence and righteousness that enables them to delegitimise dissenting points of view through the air of authority the leader carries. The surrender of the self to the group and to the leader is at once comforting and uplifting because it plays directly into the desire of the individual to feel protected, welcome and wanted, while at the same time maximising the power of the leader, thereby reinforcing the fantasy of the leader’s power in a self-sustaining and ever-intensifying loop.

“There is no place in such groups for reasoned, independent judgment; no free will, no responsible choice, only literal adherence to sacred text as selected and interpreted by the church leader or organisation. With surrender, the authority of the leader is maximised, the follower feels relieved of uncertainty and choice and can then experience the ‘bliss’ of someone who has “returned home”. – Page 89

Deikman refers to this kind of veneration of the leader as a form of idolatry and suggests the group falls into a version of Milgram’s agentic state, abandoning their personal autonomy to see themselves as little more than agents carrying out the commands of the leader.

The mythology the disciples build up around the leader is, of course, almost entirely fiction.  The leader has no special powers, no magic spells and rarely even any unique knowledge inside the collective.  The leader and the group are cut from the same cloth; the flock has made a shepherd of one of the sheep.

Devaluing the Outsider

The allure of the cult is the fantasy of security, which is deeply entwined with a sense of togetherness and belonging.  In order to create that fantasy, firm lines of demarcation between the group and outsiders must exist.

The distinction between group member and civilian is important for building a sense of being special, being different. The group needs to feel that they have not only made a good choice, they have made the best choice. People outside the group obviously do not share this belief, which should raise doubts about the wisdom of the decision, and so must necessarily be devalued whenever possible. The reason they refused the call and chose to remain as part of the outgroup was due to some form of intellectual, emotional or moral deficiency, which is, of course, the very reason the participant chose to join the cult in the first place.

Deikman believes this stems from the child-like desire of the followers to have their parental figure to be the most powerful and wise, to maximise the feeling of protection for members of the group. They feel comfort and bliss that calms their anxieties. Partisan cult behaviour is so common people hardly realise they are doing it.

“Devaluing the outsider is probably the most common cult-like behaviour in everyday society, where it takes the form of regarding one’s opponents as if they were a homogeneous group with only negative traits.  Bad motives are attributed to the other, but not to oneself. This devaluation is usually done by designating the adversary as, for example, “stupid,” “rigid,” “lazy,” “reactionary,” “bleeding heart,” “cold”.” – Page 101

Outsiders are devalued by projection. This is when group members attribute to outsiders personality traits that they themselves possess but wish to deny. Projection is a way of protecting the self from punishment and rejection. By applying negative personality traits to others, we are inferring we do not also suffer from them.

“Projection offers protection from the anxiety of being bad and the punishment of being abandoned. In addition, by making other people bad in our own mind, we can legitimise behaviour toward them that would otherwise be morally unacceptable, even to the point of sanctioning cruel and vicious actions.” – Page 103

“The effect of projection is often a perception of the other person as being fundamentally different, a morally inferior species, undeserving of empathy.” – Page 103

“Projection protects us all from what we fear.” – Page 104

Projection is is infused with self-righteousness to increase moral security. If the group member represents all that is good and the outsider represents all that is bad, it is natural to feel morally superior. It allows the group member to separate the world into a false dichotomy in which they have chosen the sacred path and the path the outsider has chosen is profane.  Cults project decadence onto the outgroup to preserve the righteousness of the ingroup.

This projection of immorality onto others is scapegoating. The sins of the ingroup are transferred to the outgroup and then cast out. Once the scapegoat has been determined to carry the group’s sins for them, anything is permissible. It becomes acceptable to hate the outgroup.

“Perhaps the most important thing to understand about devaluing the outsider is that it is a necessary preliminary to harming others, to doing violence. Whether the conflict is between nations or individuals, the attacker devalues the victim prior to the violent act.” – Page 102

Avoiding Dissent

Dissent is a corrective component of discourse. It anchors a person in reality and is necessary for a healthy and accurate world view.  However, dissent is rarely emotionally gratifying. It is natural to see a contradiction as an attack and to egotistically and reflexively deny any arguments or evidence that do not fit a person’s existing beliefs.

“Only a lively appreciation of dissent’s vital function at all levels of society can preserve it as a corrective to wishful thinking, self-inflation and unperceived rigidity.” – Page 138

A cult is a group fantasy created and maintained around specific beliefs for the emotional protection of its members. If information or opinions exist that contradicts the dogma or goals of the group, the only protective measure the group can take is suppression. Thus the core philosophy of the group becomes rooted in the distortion, if not outright fabrication, of reality. This censorship does not have to be as overtly authoritarian as one might imagine.

“Reality may be distorted by simply by screening out dissenting views without the outright censorship seen in totalitarian countries; reality may be distorted by giving great prominence and validity to the established view while devaluing dissenters and making them marginal.” – Page 114

Partisan groups often fall into cult behaviours and find it particularly easy to ignore outside views. When a group has an agreed-upon dogma, to indulge outside perspectives brings in unnecessary doubt. This becomes a source of weakness and divisiveness for the cult and must be expunged.

“The exclusion of doubt has a price. Intellectual parochialism may be fostered by restricting contact with outsiders and by building walls of indifference, or in the most extreme cases, hate.” – Page 143

Confirmation bias is a method by which the group ensures the integrity of its beliefs, whether they are grounded in reality or not. Ideologically-motivated groups are usually inclined to consume media that reinforces their worldview. Dissenting views are summarily dismissed as belonging to outsiders, thereby being wrong by definition.

This happens because members of the group want to believe. To maintain the fantasy of the infallibility of the leader and the subsequent feelings of safety and security they provide to the group, it becomes necessary for the group to police itself without any intervention from the leader. The group members police one another not only to ensure integrity to the shared delusion, but also because this policing increases their power in the group’s internal politics.

Due to the authoritarian nature of cults, suppression of dissent is often confused with loyalty to the group. This creates a predisposition towards secrecy, covering up any immoral or unethical actions by the leader or other group members, and increasing the power and control of the group over its members by omission of information. Combined with the conformity demanded by the group, the devaluation of outsiders and the cultivation of feelings of specialness, group members welcome this echo chamber mentality, and even encourage it to protect and further their higher purpose.

“We want agreement for our beliefs so we can feel the security of being right. Dissent threatens that, it reduces our status, our certainty, our claim to privilege.” – Page 146

Isolation from the outside further increases the intensity of cult behaviours and the subsequent emotional reaction to having these patterns of behaviour disrupted.

“Cults further restrict dissent through decreased contact with non-members. Outsiders are likely to raise critical questions about the leader and the group’s activities, thus weakening the group fantasy. In addition, as discussed earlier, outsiders are a threat because they may be sources of support, self-esteem and comfort, offsetting the need for the group. Research suggests that the fewer social ties a cult convert had before joining, the more likely it was that he or she would remain in the organisation.” – Page 124  

As dissent is suppressed for emotional reasons, it becomes a source of emotional distress if it cannot be avoided. Critical thinking is curtailed to prevent wrongthink and maintain the integrity of the group. Any facts that cannot be ignored are classified as lies created by the now-hated outgroup and any cult members caught spreading them are necessarily punished.

“In such extreme cases, the individual’s perception has to be narrowed and critical thinking suppressed. Groups have effective means of doing this.
“Groups, as well as leaders, may punish dissent or deviation when maintenance of the superparent fantasy requires that no imperfections be revealed lest the whole structure be put in jeopardy.” – Page 79

Ironically, the suppression of dissent makes people more vulnerable to propaganda. Deikman gives the example of American prisoners of war he interviewed who had been captured by the Chinese during the Korean War.  The American soldiers had been prevented from hearing arguments against America or capitalism.

“He had been susceptible to their arguments because, coming from a small Midwestern town, he had never heard the United States criticised and was impressed that some of their criticism was undeniably true.” – Page 147

“Not having been exposed to dissident views, he had been a sitting duck for skillful propaganda; indeed, most of those who were similarly won over were from unsophisticated environments.” – Page 148

When exposed to an alternative worldview that contained elements of truth that have been withheld, it becomes easy for a person to uncritically accept the new worldview over the half-informed worldview they had previously held.  In both cases, the worldview is inaccurate but the person being manipulated does not understand this.

The Life of a Cult

Deikman gives us a comprehensive overview of the life of a cult. From page’s 4 and 5:

“The variety of personalities involved, of differing racial, economic, religious, educational, and social backgrounds, was impressive. What was most striking was that no matter whom we interviewed, the stories of involvement in exploitative, harmful cults was similar. A distinct pattern of seduction, coercion, corruption, and regression emerged, no matter what the outward trappings, no matter what dogma or purpose the group espoused. Basic human responses had been elicited by a process fundamentally the same.

At the time they joined their particular cult, most of the people we interviewed had been dissatisfied, distressed, or at a transition point in their lives. Typically the desire a more spiritual life, a community in which to live cooperatively; they wanted to become enlightened, to find meaning in serving others, or simply to belong. An encounter with an enthusiastic, attractive, friendly person served to introduce each of them to a group whose outer appearance was quite benign.

At some point during that introductory phase an intense experience took place which was interpreted as validating the claim that the leader and the group were special, powerful, spiritual; that they could give the person what he or she wanted. This experience might have been an altered state of consciousness (induced by the leader or the group via meditation, chanting, or the laying on of hands), a powerful therapeutic experience, or just a wonderful feeling of being accepted and welcomed – of “coming home”.

Won over, the newcomer joined the group, embracing its doctrines and practices. Soon the cult’s demands increased and the new member was asked to devote increasing amounts of time, money, and energy to the group’s activities. These demands were justified as necessary to fulfill the group’s goals; willingness to comply was always interpreted as a measure of the recruit’s commitment and sincerity.  In order to continue, most did comply, sacrificing much for the sake of the stated high purposes of the group (often put in terms of saving the world).

Relationships outside the group became difficult to maintain.  The former life of the new member was given up; contact with outsiders was discouraged and the demands of the new life left little opportunity for extra-group activities. However, the sacrifices were compensated for by the convert’s sense of belonging and purpose.  The group and leader (at least initially) gave praise and acceptance.

Gradually, however, an iron fist was felt. Deviation from group dogma brought swift disapproval or outright rejection. The message to the convert became clear: what the group had given, the group could take away. In time, he or she submitted to – and participated in – cruel, dishonest, and contradictory practices out of fear of the leader and the group, who by then had become the converts sole source of self-esteem, comfort, and even financial support. Actions that conflicted with the convert’s conscience were rationalised by various formulas provided by the leader.

Critical evaluation of the leader and the group became almost impossible, not only because it was punished severely, but also because the view of reality presented by the cult has no challengers. Discordant information was excluded from the group’s world.  

Exploitation intensified and the recruit regressed into a fearful submission. Couples might be separated, members would inform on each other. Morals were corrupted and critical thinking suppressed. Often the group’s leader deteriorated as well, becoming increasingly grandiose, paranoid, or bizarre. In most cases, paranoid thinking tended to mark the entire cult and reinforced the group’s isolation.

Our witnesses told of how, eventually, the demands became unbearable; a mother might be told to give up her child or her husband, or a spouse directed to take a different sexual partner. Although often the person would agree to the new requirement, sometimes he or she would not. In such cases, when the member finally refused to comply with the leader or group’s demands, he or she left precipitously, often assisted by a person outside with whom, some contact and trust had been maintained

Leaving such a group was a flight because the group’s reaction was known to be severe and punitive. Apostates were excommunicated.” – Pages 4 and 5

Where Do Cults Exist?

Cults are social organisations and so can exist in almost anywhere in modern society. Deikman observed that cult behaviours and thinking are so pervasive that almost everyone in society can be considered to be part of various “invisible cults”. Almost all people exhibit some cult behaviour in their daily lives. Almost everyone conforms to group norms in some way, are dependent on one or more leaders, devalues those outside their groups and avoids media that does not confirm what they already believe.

Deikman suggests this cult thinking is embedded in our societies but is, usually, not all-encompassing enough to be considered an actual cult.  Usually, people do not have the opportunity to voluntarily prevent themselves from receiving outside information or opinions, and cannot choose to entirely disassociate themselves from people with whom they disagree.

Even when cult thinking manifests in social groups, it is rarely to the extent and intensity of an actual cult.

“In ordinary society, the cult processes of censorship and decreased contact with outsiders are often found, but in diminished intensity. Censorship of discordant information and isolation from heretical outsiders is usually done voluntarily rather than at the insistence of the group, although expression of deviant views is seldom encouraged.” – Page 148

People of like mind tend to associate with one another for many reasons, and this provides the foundation upon which a cult mentality can be built. Instead of creating a space to interrogate any shared beliefs, the group becomes an exercise in mutual validation. Censorship becomes the de facto norm, creating what Deikman terms as “social ghettos”.

“Eventually, we in the seminar were unable to maintain the belief that cults were something apart from normal society. The people telling us stories of violence, cruelty and perversion of values were like ourselves. After listening and questioning we realised that we were not different from nor superior to the ex-cult members, that we were vulnerable to the same dependency wishes, capable of the same betrayals and cruelty in which our sense of reality was manipulated.” – Page 7

Why do people join cults?

The most common misconception about cults is that the people who join them are crazy. This is not true. People do not join cults because they are crazy. In fact, people who have severe cognitive and social handicaps probably cannot successfully join a cult and participate in one at any meaningful level because of the degree of emotional reciprocity a cult requires to function.

“After listening to many variants of this story [people’s reasons for joining a cult], I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home. The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling cult leaders to elicit behaviour directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group.” – Page 6

Intelligent, well-educated people join cults because they simultaneously desire a sense of working for a higher purpose and because they are afraid of being on their own. They are people who wish to regress back to the security of childhood so they can feel as if there is still a benevolent and omniscient parental figure watching over them.

This makes cults and cult behaviours highly appealing to people with low levels of emotional maturity. The promise of security, order, direction and certainty appeals to people who are not confident in their own ability to provide these things for themselves.

How to Leave a Cult

To the cult member, the cult is a secretive, all-consuming fantasy world that is opaque to those outside of it.  Reality is distorted so that there is one source of evil on which all of the cult’s problems can be blamed, and anyone outside of the cult is an agent actively working against the group to undermine and destroy it.

To leave a cult, one must first understand that they are a part of a cult, invisible or not. Deikman offers six behaviours one can identify in themselves to establish whether or not they participate in cult thinking.

  1. Speaking of adversaries or outsiders as if they were all the same; characterising them by negative traits only; attributing unflattering motives to them but not oneself.
  2. Lacking interest and information concerning the actual statements and actions of opponents or outsiders.
  3. Failing to consider the possible validity of an adversary’s point of view.
  4. Not taking a critical look at one’s own position.
  5. Disapproving or rejecting a member of one’s group for departing from the group position, devaluing the dissident, regarding him or her as an annoyance or a problem.
  6. Feeling self-righteous.

Leaving a cult is extremely difficult because cults prey on the emotional instability and dependency fantasies of their members.. To an outsider, it might seem that there is little forcing the individual to remain in the cult. Ostensibly they possess freedom of movement and self-determination, but from the perspective of the person within the cult, the cult is all-consuming. All of the people closest to them direct and reinforce their cult beliefs, bully them into compliance with the group and withhold companionship and affection when the individual attempts to dissent from the group’s narrative.

This puts the individual under tremendous duress. Not only will they be unable to pursue their higher purpose through the group, they will lose their entire social circle and, in many cases, are financially dependent on the cult to live. These pressures are often insurmountable, and so people become trapped in cults even if they appear physically able to leave.

In addition to this, Deikman puts emphasis on the “special” nature of cults and how they maintain their cohesion by making their members feel better than others. The devaluing of outsiders combined with the veneration of the leader and group make an egalitarian worldview very difficult and unsettling. This is what Deikman calls the ‘eye-level world’, a worldview in which the person views other people as their equals rather than their inferiors. After a prolonged period of projecting negativity onto outsiders, it is understandably difficult to become an outsider oneself.

“In the service of realism, it is important to diminish projection and establish an eye-level perspective, for in our fears, hopes and capacity for nobility as well as self-deception, we can recognise each other, see that ‘the enemy is us’.” – Page 166

The capacity to see the humanity of the outsider is key in breaking out of cult conditioning. The cult fosters a distorted perception of reality that is an intellectual hinderance to the cult members. It is very difficult to admit one’s need to be humble and abandon self-righteousness. This goes directly counter to the atmosphere fostered by the cult and the person’s dependency on feelings of moral superiority to give them emotional security.

Leaving a cult is traumatic and requires deprogramming. It is difficult to remove the lens of the cult and view the world in a more realistic, rational way. The cult member’s fear of abandonment becomes an obstacle which is enhanced by increased authoritarianism from the group brought about by their scepticism and lack of cooperation. The dependency fantasy is used against them as, ironically, threats of ostracism are leveled to prevent the individual from wanting to leave.

It is very rare for a person to voluntarily leave a cult without any kind of outside influence. In most cases, people can only leave a cult when provided with a lifeline to people on the outside.  Given the homogenous, deliberately insular nature of cults, the cult member has likely defooed their friends and family and repeatedly affirmed that people outside of the cult are bad people, working not only against the group but the individual’s own higher goals entirely. Electing to join a group the cult has demonised is challenging.

Trusting someone from outside the group is a very difficult affair, even for a cult member who realises they are in a terrible situation that they desperately want to leave. Usually it happens when a cult member has stayed in contact with a family member or long-time friend, someone close to them, whose bond they have been unable or unwilling to break.

On returning to reality, the person often finds themselves in need of therapy. They have endured a traumatic experience and need to adjust to life in the real world, in many ways resembling the rehabilitation of prisoners.  The most important thing to remember is that these people are not insane and this could have happened to anybody.