In the age of information, most of us are free to choose our values, religious beliefs or lack thereof and political affinities. Most of us, should we seek it, have immediate access to data documenting any imaginable field, from history and physics to philosophy.

It’s fair to say that it’s easy to research any belief or opinion in order to verify whether it actually holds water, or to at least find nuances, creating a broader perspective.

Nonetheless, the success of groups which replace critical thinking with a simplified, restrictive doctrine proves it remains easy to recruit and radicalise those looking for answers to difficult questions or a higher purpose.

Groups creating fanatical devotees tend to offer the unattainable – “the truth” (regarding the world, the meaning of life, interpersonal dynamics etc) and a “winning formula” (a way to live that is guaranteed to bring fulfilment to the new member).

Although many groups are not religious in nature, their overreaching tenets can regulate every aspect of a member’s life, from re-engineering the way they think and speak to how they relate to others, what type of media they consume, what activities they engage in, their approach to their health and even what they eat. Some changes they implement are indeed radical and lead to isolation.

Groups convincing people to make radical changes which appear irrational to those around them are often referred to as cults, although they may not fit the exact definition, depending on how they operate. The new recruit, in these cases, speaks and behaves like a bona fide cult member, in various ways:

-They are obsessed with the group/guru and pitch their newfound ways to anyone who will listen;

-They adapt their lives and those of their families, to their highest ability, to the group’s tenets;

-They claim the group has changed their lives irreversibly (they’ve had a revelation) and possesses the ultimate answers, and has a chance of making a strong impact on the world;

-They make heavy use of the group’s jargon, even when it’s unintelligible to most people;

-They show disdain to those who reject their newly found ideas (they become elitist), to the point of breaking relationships with significant others.

-They (very often) give their time, labour and money to the group (even to the point of becoming bankrupt).

-They seek comfort in the group, claiming they are now privy to a “secret” understanding and those around them “just don’t get it”.

At that point it matters less whether the group brainwashing them fits the dictionary definition of a cult, as their worrying, alienating, often insufferable behaviour is identical.

Here are a few warning signs in the PR material of any seemingly innocuous organisation, which guarantee (99% in my opinion) you are about to be sold a lot of (potentially dangerous) bullshit:

Offering answers they cannot possibly possess

The key to happiness, the true meaning of life, the real nature of God, the purpose of human existence, the way to world peace, communicating with the dead or aliens, how to survive an apocalypse and so forth.

These are questions left unanswered since the beginning of conscious thought, but you’re supposed to believe some guy had a revelation one night after too much acid. You’re supposed to believe that in this complicated network of seven billion people, dramatically evolving through the millennia, twenty or thirty have found the truth in a basement, and the optimal way to live. You can probably hear all that if you visit a ward for people with severe schizophrenia – and it would probably make more sense as well.

One might look at such a community and think “oh well, they are delusional but at the end of the day they are harmless; there must be some value to what they are preaching”. Yet when members break the silence the same old story comes out – mind control, forced labour, physical abuse (often sexual as well) and financial exploitation.

Offering one person’s “ultimate wisdom”

The group needn’t be religious, but merely based on following the teachings of a single person/guru, either alive or dead. Decades after Hubbard’s death, thousands across the world still believe this one ego-maniacal science-fiction writer managed to decipher the mysteries of the universe. They are enticed enough by the man’s number of worshippers that they go bankrupt to ultimately be “revealed” the story of an intergalactic warlord named Xenu.

Ideological groups led by one person, who dictates to the rest unquestioned, have same dynamics, even on a smaller scale. What starts out as a small group of like-minded people might just turn into Freedomain Radio. Just saying.

Some people spend their lives awaiting the ultimate teacher; others simply stumble upon such figures at a low point in life.

No one is omniscient, infallible, incorruptible or right about everything. Truly intelligent people have the wisdom of remaining humble enough to not portray themselves as such and reject the temptation of being worshipped. When someone embraces that status or seeks it to begin with, something is awry.

Self-help gurus, or people perceived as such, are the modern replacement of faith healers, to whom many flock in a state of confusion, in need of  a direction. The thought that someone with a one-size-fits-all solution can school thousands or millions on what to do with their lives, down to details (based on the guru’s own obsessions) is, of course, preposterous. The most popular ones today do not have a background in psychology, but are merely confidence tricksters.

Offering a quick fix to your problems

Spend a few days with us; it will transform your life!

This course will revolutionise your way of thinking!

A new miraculous therapy will make you bin your medication! You can not only benefit but help us spread the word and help humanity!

Join us and become a millionaire by Christmas! It’s easy! 

The most you can get out of a quick fix of any kind is a temporary betterment, often based on the placebo effect. Many times though, you are plainly scammed. It’s your eagerness to find a solution that leaves you prone to bombastic claims and deceptive people.

Using identity politics to form a hive mind

As a disclaimer, I’m not referring to civil rights groups seeking equality or the protection of persecuted groups (such as Muslim apostates). I’m also not referring to “watchdogs” assessing the potential threats to communities which have been historically persecuted and towards which organised hatred is still directed.

This is perhaps the most common method nowadays. One trait members (and prospective members) share is selected as the basis of forming a group, conducting activism to “advance the goals or image of the community” etc. From there on, said trait becomes the core of the member’s identity and rules are soon imposed, such as:

– how members should see themselves in relation to that one trait;

– how they should relate to the world around them (they are taught how others see them by default, even if that doesn’t always apply);

– how they should promote the group;

– how their daily choices and attitudes could harm the group.

Take the fat acceptance movement for example. For some people, this one trait, often temporary, has become the core of their identity. The benign concept of body positivity has morphed into propagandising about how wonderful it is to be overweight and how encouraging weight loss is detrimental. Whilst I agree that a lot of bullying goes on, some have become bullies themselves – criticising and shaming those who decide to lose some weight, even children, under the accusation of being “traitors to the cause”. That is truly toxic.

Veganism is another example. When embraced, initially as a dietary choice, group adherence transforms life into a quest of respecting every ethical rule pertaining to it. This extends to choosing non-animal clothes or upholstery, make up, and anything in between. The person’s life, when shared with/ policed by a group, becomes an endless attempt to avoid transgressions, small and unintended as they may be. The comparison to religion is not unwarranted.

Fishing for the vulnerable

Do you feel lost? Do you feel like you can’t find your place in the world? Has life lost its meaning? Are you depleted of energy after the loss of a loved one or relationship breakdown? Come to our retreat and you will never feel down again.

It’s no secret that exploitative groups evaluate one’s level of susceptibility to brainwashing and cast the net for people who are, temporarily, not in a good place.

Of course there are genuine groups dedicated to supporting people in specific situations. What they don’t do is coerce those they support to any kind of action, demand money or control over their lives. Also, what they don’t do is promise happiness or the solution to a person’s every problem.

Offering enlightenment in instalments

Why don’t you come to our orientation meeting? It’s free. Then you can sign up for our basic course and become a better person. It will be so efficient you won’t resist signing up for our next three, which will bring you more success than you’ve ever dreamt of. And if you truly want to maximise your potential, you will proceed to the fifth one and become the best you can ever be.

When people have invested into a self-betterment project, the incentive is already there to continue on “the path to enlightenment”, which usually involves more and more spending as they progress. In the process of becoming their best, they might just find themselves delousing for body thetans or the sins of their ancestors, as well as pushed to recruit others from their immediate environment.

An ultimate revelation becomes the carrot dangled before someone as they are fleeced of money, sometimes down to their last penny.

Offering unconditional love and companionship

Do you often feel alone and unnoticed in a sea of strangers? Do you feel depressed? Do you feel like no one listens to you or cares about you? Does your family not accept you for who you are? Join our loving family; we welcome you with open arms.

What many fail to consider when they are love-bombed by a group of any kind is that friendship is formed based on similar personalities, values or interests, and not for the sake of friendship. They also don’t consider that for complete strangers with different views to get along, a level of uniformity must be in place (imposed by the organiser).

Offering affection to those who crave it is often a trap, when the person becomes isolated from their former environment. As soon as this love comes with demands or requests (move in with us, support our cause) it becomes exploitative.

Offering you a way out of “the Matrix”

Are you tired of life in an overcrowded, polluted city? Are you tired of cameras spying on you wherever you go? We invite you to visit our peaceful, secluded farming commune. We are self-sustaining; with us you can enjoy working outdoors (just not carpentry like those other fuckers who managed to build a raft).

Your government has been lying to you since you were born. Everything you know about the world is false. Join our community of researchers and we will show you the truth; stop being a sheep. 

As more and more people become preoccupied with surveillance or being lied to by governments (which has always been the status quo, I imagine), they turn to those who claim to have “inside information” based on “trustworthy sources”, and when one thing leads to another, they might find themselves thinking they are ruled by aliens or that the Earth is flat.

Seeking to “get off the grid” is doable individually or with friends and family – joining a group of strangers however might lead someone to subject themselves to community rules and control, to a regimented life, as that seems almost unavoidable.

Offering you a chance to help them change the world

Whenever you hear a similar invitation, there should be no guilt associated with declining, as it is a ridiculous claim.

Of course, there are charities and organisations doing actual work to help some of those in need (volunteering to build infrastructure in third world countries, helping the homeless etc). But they do not promise to change the world, as that is simply unfeasible.

Groups making that claim are famous for basing it on changing how people think, by brainwashing members into an ideology and manipulating them into recruiting others. At the end of the day, their positive impact on the world is, as expected, a big fat zero, apart from a cult of personality around the leader (Freedomain Radio comes to mind). In extreme cases members are told the ideology is humanity’s last and only chance to avoid destruction.

If everyone thought the way we do, the world would be a better place. Help spread the word!

In order to spread salvation, they ask for donations and members’ time towards propagandising. Donations, as you might’ve guessed, go into founders’ pockets, as their enthusiastic minions rush about thinking they can genuinely transform society. Money is also put into advertising, so more people can be brought into the machine.

Not only is such an effort futile – it can be downright destructive. Obsessed with advancing the “goals” of the group, members isolate themselves (often directed by the leader) and give their lives to the cause, to ultimately be left with nothing (no achievements and regrets over the money and time spent, ruined relationships etc).

We are social animals; our need to congregate, to belong, is innate. Companionship and mutual support can be very tempting, especially for those who are lonely or demotivated. Chances are most of us have been, at one point in time, lured into a deceptive group proving to operate differently than advertised, based on hidden interests.

No matter how appealing the proposition of a group sounds, scepticism is healthy. And nowadays, the internet allows us to do our homework before joining.