Social Control: Cults and Human Predators

Social Control


How do they find, recruit, and cultivate victims?

For the past couple years, predators—sexual or otherwise—have unfortunately been a constant feature in the news cycle. Prominent Hollywood figures were identified for inappropriate or even criminal behavior. Most recently, this past weekend singer R. Kelly was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse less than a year after a pair of documentaries aired, accusing him of, among other allegations, holding women against their will in a “sex cult.”

Most of the allegations against Kelly focus on his meeting women in various locations—birthday parties, his own concerts—and starting up relationships that would turn abusive, whether due to Kelly’s own actions or the alleged ages of the victims.

But some cult-like organizations don’t have a great deal of name recognition, and must therefore rely upon more strategic, often devious means of identifying potential members or victims.

Perhaps the first rule is that these organizations rarely utilize conventional persuasive or sales tactics. You won’t get the ‘hard sell’ from a counterculture or cult movement like you might expect at a used car lot. Rather, these initiatives often begin with an invitation to a fun or non-threatening event, or even an overture from an attractive member of the opposite sex.

Think about some of the more famous cults that have achieved notoriety over the years, and the characteristics they’ve exhibited. You’re not going to attract many people with a pitch such as, “Hi, I know a guy who lives on a big property who believes he exists on a higher plane than the rest of us. You should stop over sometime, and slowly cut off all contact with your friends and family members so you can devote all your time to furthering his cause!”

No, subtlety and slow manipulation of the mind are the keys of such individuals and organizations. If you agree to an initial meeting or date, you can expect to be showered with praise and accolades that may seem excessive. Any first date wants to make a good impression, but trust your instincts. Also, in a dating situation, be aware of any others who are introduced at what may seem like inopportune times. For example, it’s not common to meet a person’s best friends or family members on a first date.

Another common recruitment method is a reward, or gift of some sort that is dangled in front of the victim. In the R. Kelly documentaries and subsequent follow-up stories on his case, victims or their families spoke of being lured or drawn in by the notion of the ‘mentoring’ of a famous singer. In larger-scale organizations, the promise may be of a more mystical nature, such as ‘the hidden meaning of life’ or a ‘cure’ for an undesirable condition of behavior. Sometimes, the ‘reward’ is as simple as happiness or wealth.

Again, the concept of deception is pivotal, as most people would not join up with any organization knowing it was a cult. The core beliefs and practices that give them such a distinction are introduced to victims slowly, one at a time, and after a period of time. Before long, the manipulated individual is performing tasks and following tenets that would have alarmed them only weeks ago.

In the world of religion, few leaders—whether priests, rabbis, ministers, etc.—is likely to have much of an objection if a member of his or her congregation decides to worship at another church or synagogue. The religion itself is the focus, not the setting. Cult leaders, however, will often claim that theirs is the ‘true’ path to salvation or happiness at the exclusion of all alternatives.

Finally, cults are well known for manipulating or attempting to limit or completely cut off your relationships with others outside the organization. Communication with family members, friends, even coworkers, are discouraged for fear that these groups could influence the victim’s way of thinking—or worse, discourage the victim’s continued participation. Information, such as media or music, from the outside elicits similar reactions. As a general rule, what you do on your own time. Aside from general concern for your wellbeing (a sports coach who tells his players to avoid tobacco, for example) few organization should exert control on your outside life.


First of all, it’s important to include this distinction: in the vernacular of the world of psychology, ‘deprogramming’ is often associated with the forced removal or kidnapping of an individual from a counterculture or cult organization. So we’ll mainly use the term ‘reintegration’ or ‘exit counseling’ in this section.

People associate cults with brainwashing, manipulation, etc., but remember, when helping a victim you are talking to a person who slowly, over time, became very committed to a cause, organization or single individual. There are plenty of negative characteristics to associate with cult leaders, but no one can deny the likes of Jim Jones or David Koresh were extremely charismatic individuals who had great success drawing people to then and their respective causes.

It’s important to be reassuring and non-judgmental in such ‘exit counseling’ sessions, as there’s a good chance one aspect of the cult’s initiation program was instilling a distrust of all outsiders. Other effective strategies include:

  • Educating your loved one on thought-reform techniques, and helping him or her to recognize those methods in his own cult experience
  • asking questions that encourage the individual to think critically or independently, helping him or her to recognize that type of thinking
  • attempting to produce an emotional connection to his or her former life by introducing objects from the past and having family members share their memories of his or her pre-cult existence

And still there are no guarantees. Some studies suggest that more than one-third of ‘deprogrammings’ or ‘reintegrations’ fail. And those that do succeed face a long list of new challenges that must be overcome back in the real world. That’s why it’s important to recognize signs of cult-oriented of predatory behavior up front.

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