Week 1 – Understanding Cults and Coercive Control

Understanding Cults and Coercive Control

Welcome to our primer on understanding cults and coercive control. This resource combines perspectives from general education on the dynamics of cults and the unique insights of a second-generation cult victim, aiming to provide a well-rounded understanding of this insidious world.

What is a Cult?

A cult is a group or movement that, while perhaps outwardly appearing benign or even beneficial, uses psychological manipulation and coercive tactics to control and exploit its members. Cults can take many forms, from religious or spiritual groups to self-improvement seminars, political organizations, or online communities (Lalich & Tobias, 2006).

Understanding Cults and Second-Generation Victim Experience

Second-generation cult victims—those born into or raised within a cult from a young age—face unique challenges. Since birth, they have been immersed in the cult’s teachings and worldviews, making recognizing coercive and manipulative tactics harder.

The Mechanisms of Coercive Control

Cults exercise control over their members through a variety of psychological tactics:

  1. Deceptive Recruitment: Cults may present as a harmless social club, a group of like-minded friends, a life-changing personal development course, or a spiritual awakening retreat. Second-generation victims, however, are born into these deceptive environments (Garrido & Herrero, 2004; Goldberg, 2014; Masip, 20014).
  2. Isolation and Controlled Socialization: Cults often encourage members to cut ties with the outside world. This isolation and controlled socialization within the group leave members more susceptible to the cult’s influence (Laisure, 2015; Matthews & Salazar, 2014; Stein, 2021).
  3. Induced Dependency and Manipulated Worldview: Cultures create a sense of dependency by dictating every aspect of a member’s life, from personal beliefs to daily routines. This is particularly true for second-generation victims who grow up knowing no other way of life (Anthony & Robbins, 2013; Doychak & Raghavan, 2020; Hassan, 2020; Lalich, 2004).
  4. Fear and Guilt: Cults often utilize fear and guilt to manipulate members into compliance. They may warn of dire consequences for leaving the group, questioning its leaders, or failing to live up to its expectations (Duron, et al., 2021; Matthews & Salazar, 2014; Nesci, 2017).

Recognizing the Signs of Cult Involvement

Recognizing the signs that someone may be involved in a cult includes:

  • Abrupt personality changes
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Extreme dedication to the group and its leaders
  • Unwillingness to discuss or question group beliefs or practices
  • Noticeable changes in personal goals, aspirations, or lifestyle

As we strive to comprehend cults, these signs may be less apparent for second-generation victims, as the cult environment is all they have known (Lalich, 2015).

The Path to Recovery

Whether you are a first-generation or second-generation victim, leaving a cult can be extremely difficult, often involving significant psychological distress. Individuals exiting cults must have access to support networks and professional help, including counseling services, online support communities, and organizations specializing in cult recovery.

Through education and awareness, we can all play a part in recognizing, preventing, and helping those affected by cults. International Cult Awareness Month is here to provide hope, support, and resources to those affected by cults. You are not alone; help is available.

Hashtags: #internationalcultawarenessmonth #icam #icam2023 #KnowTheFacts #UnderstandingCults #CoerciveControlAwareness #SecondGenerationSurvivors #ImpactofCults #BreakingFreeFromManipulation


Anthony, D., & Robbins, T. (2013). Religious Totalism, Exemplary Dualism, and the Waco Tragedy. In Millennium, messiahs, and mayhem (pp. 261-284). Routledge.

Dikötter, F. (2019). How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Doychak, K., & Raghavan, C. (2020). “No voice or vote:” trauma-coerced attachment in victims of sex trafficking. Journal of human trafficking6(3), 339-357.

Duron, J. F., Johnson, L., Hoge, G. L., & Postmus, J. L. (2021). Observing coercive control beyond intimate partner violence: Examining the perceptions of professionals about common tactics used in victimization. Psychology of violence11(2), 144.

Goldberg, L. (2017). Therapy with former members of destructive cults. In New Religious Movements and Counselling (pp. 63-79). Routledge.

Hassan, S. A. (2020). The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law (Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University).

Laisure, R. B. (2015). Employing trafficking laws to capture elusive leaders of destructive cults. Or. Rev. Int’l L.17, 205.

Lalich, Janja. (2004). Bounded choice : true believers and charismatic cults. University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520384026/bounded-choice

Lalich, J. (2015). True believers and charismatic cults. The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts, 126-35.

Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. (2006). Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.

Masip, J., Garrido, E., & Herrero, C. (2004). Defining deception. Anales de psicologia.

Matthews, C. H., & Salazar, C. F. (2014). Second-generation adult former cult group members’ recovery experiences: Implications for counseling. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling36, 188-203.

Nesci, D. A. (2017). Revisiting Jonestown: An interdisciplinary study of cults. Lexington Books.

Stein, A. (2021). Terror, love and brainwashing: Attachment in cults and totalitarian systems. Routledge.

Resources to Share for Understanding Cults

The following are various resources for this week for understanding cults. These are meant to share on your social media. These are just suggestions. If you share articles or books, it is recommended that you read them and describe why you like them. This also ensures you agree with the principle of each resource. If there are Amazon links, the sponsoring organization, The Freedom Train Project Incorporated, is receiving a percentage of sales to help victims of cults and coercive control.


Link to Indoctrination podcast by Rachel Bernstein, LMFT - Welcome to IndoctriNation: A weekly podcast covering cults, manipulators, and protecting yourself from systems of control.
Butterflies & Bravery focuses on leaving, living, and loving after a cult.
A podcast offering in-depth insight into some of history's most infamous Cults, modern-day sects and conspiracies within these groups.
The Cult Vault – A podcast offering in-depth insight into some of history’s most infamous Cults, modern-day sects and conspiracies within these groups.
LTAS looks at the history of a sect’s leaders, the recruitment of members, their experiences, psychological aspects, and notable incidents during its existence.


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