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The Dangers and Warning Signs of Cults, Part 1

In part one of a two-part Phil in the Blanks podcast, Dr. Phil speaks with cult expert Rick Alan Ross who explains how people can lose themselves inside organizations that can sometimes be dangerous. They also discuss how to define a cult, the methods that cults often use to entice people to join, and how some of these organizations come to manipulate, isolate, and control the lives of their members. Plus, hear how experts are able to reach out and extricate those who have been caught up in cult communities.


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Twitter: @RickAlanRoss

Cults and other controversial groups deceptive when they recruit people:

  • Yes, they often are. They may employ deception in the recruitment process by using front organizational names and/or not clearly identifying themselves or their purpose.

  • For example, a religious cult may not even initially advise potential recruits that it has a religious agenda.

  • Groups with controversial leaders may withhold that information and also keep their more radical beliefs hidden or secret until they achieve more influence and compliance thorough their indoctrination process.

Types of people recruited by cults or become involved in potentially unsafe or destructive groups and relationships:

  • They recruit all types of people. Individuals from strong and troubled families, with and without histories of psychological problems.

  • People who have had and have not had drug problems, with a solid or weak religious background, the educated and uneducated, the wealthy, poor, middle class, intelligent and not so intelligent.

  • One of the myths about cult involvement is that a certain type of person is more vulnerable.

  • Another myth is that healthy, strong, intelligent well-educated people from good families don't become involved.

  • Or, that somehow if someone has clearly defined religious convictions they cannot be recruited.

  • These theories have never been proven or substantiated through research.

  • In fact, repeated studies continue to indicate a wide and varied background for cult recruits.

  • Frankly, cults are quite good at persuasion and indoctrination; it's their stock and trade.

  • And most people simply are not prepared, either through education and personal experience, to be sensitive to the possible impact of cult methodology.

  • The truth is, almost anyone could potentially become involved with an unsafe or destructive group.

  • We are all especially suggestible at certain times, when depressed, lonely, during an awkward transition, when within a new environment such as a college campus away from home, after a romantic breakup, death in the family or some other personal problem or ordeal.

  • Since all people have such experiences, we all have periods of vulnerability.

  • And many destructive cults/groups have honed their skills, timing and focused their programs to exploit such situations as opportunities for recruitment.

About Rick Alan Ross

Rick Alan Ross is the founder, CEO of Cult Education Institute (CEI). The CEI’s mission is to study the destructive cults, controversial groups and movements and to provide a broad range of information and services easily accessible to the public for assistance and educational purposes online through the Web. His most recent book, Cults: Inside Out, covers the most infamous cults in America’s history, including the Jonestown Massacre.

He is an internationally known expert regarding destructive cults, controversial groups and movements. Since 1982 he has been studying, researching and responding to the problems often posed by such groups or movements.

He has personally assisted thousands of families in an effort to help the victims of destructive cults, groups and movements.

Ross has been qualified and accepted as an expert witness and testified in court cases across the United States. He has also frequently assisted local and national law enforcement and government agencies.

Rick Ross is one of the most readily recognized experts offering analysis about destructive cults, controversial groups and movements in the world today.

He has been a paid consultant for the television networks CBS, CBC and Nippon of Japan. And also was retained as a technical consultant by Miramax/Disney.

Ross' commentary has been quoted within publications such as Time, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

His appearances on national television have included a wide range of venues from news programs such as the "Today" show, "CNN World News," "Dateline," "Nightline" and "48 Hours" to popular interview shows such as "Oprah," "Donahue," "Extra" and "Inside Edition."

Ross has lectured at such prestigious institutions as Dickinson College, the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University, Baylor University, and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Ross' analysis has been sought on virtually every major cult story for more than a decade.

About Cults Inside Out

Cults Inside Out provides a practical and accessible synthesis of both relevant research and working experience regarding destructive cults. It carefully connects and footnotes the most relevant and meaningful research. This 584-page book includes more than 1,200 research footnotes with an 18-page bibliography and 15 page index.

Cults Inside Out contains accounts of those affected by some of the most horrible cults in modern history. There are chapters about large, organized groups as well as about small but deadly cults. These historical chapters reflect the diversity and disturbing behavior of destructive cults. It is this history that demonstrates so vividly the cause for concern about cults. There are also chapters devoted to certain hi-profile controversial groups such as Falun Gong and Scientology and to the subject of large group awareness training used by companies such as Landmark Education, Lifespring and the notorious criminally convicted “sweat lodge guru” James Arthur Ray. There is also a chapter about the cult-like aspects of abusive controlling relationships.

One chapter within Cults Inside Out is specifically devoted to defining a destructive cult, which has generated considerable debate over the years. Some scholars say that any attempt to put forth a definition is pejorative. However, within the chapter “Defining a Destructive Cult” the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult is explained in detail. This nucleus is based upon a specific set of objective criteria, which encompass the most common features and core characteristics found within all groups that have been considered destructive cults. These practical criteria are based upon behavior, not beliefs.

Cults Inside Out also delves into the much debated subject of “cult brainwashing.” That is, how do groups called “cults” control people? A chapter in this book focuses on the existing body of research, which explains the process of cultic manipulation and control. The same process we can see in the context of large organizations called “cults” is also used by smaller groups. There is also evidence of similar manipulation in abusive, controlling relationships and in families that behave like cults. Some multilevel marketing companies and large group awareness training seminars have also employed a similar blend of coercive persuasion techniques to gain undue influence and control over people.

Cults Inside Out breaks down the cult intervention process into simple, easy to understand blocks. Each of these blocks include specific categories of inquiry and corresponding dialog. One chapter in the book explains the history of cult intervention work and how the process of so-called “cult deprogramming” was developed. The description of how a cult intervention works is sufficiently detailed to enable the reader to fully understand its elements. Cults Inside Out is a step-by-step guide, which leads the reader through a process of evaluation and response to a cultic situation. There is a chapter devoted to initial assessment and another focused upon ongoing coping strategies. There are also chapters about the preparation necessary for an intervention and another explaining in-depth the intervention process itself. Each chapter serves as a potential template and practical guide, taking the reader from the initial point of identifying a possibly harmful cultic situation to the use of relevant research and practical tools to effectively address concerns that may arise. There is also a chapter about moving on and recovery after a leaving a destructive cult or cultic situation.

There are chapters within Cults Inside Out that specifically recount actual cult interventions. These case vignettes include an array of groups, which vividly illustrate the fact that groups called “cults” may appear in many forms. Destructive cults often appear as a religious or spiritual group, but they may operate as a commercial enterprise, diet or exercise program, therapy, political group or social movement. What all destructive cults share in common, regardless of the facade they present to the public, is essentially the same organizational structure, dynamics, and practices that exploit and hurt people.

There is also a chapter included within Cults Inside Out specifically about failed interventions so that readers can see mistakes that may contribute to, or cause, failure. This chapter also very specifically defines the basis most commonly used to determine if an intervention has been a success or failure, which is based upon an objectively observed outcome by the conclusion of the intervention effort.


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