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How to talk someone out of a damaging cult

A mass wedding of ‘moonies’ – followers of the South Korean leader Sun Myung Moon. Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA

How to talk someone out of a damaging cult

Many of you will know someone who has suddenly fallen head over heels in love with someone. Some will know people who have done likewise – but for a strange religion or group that you’ve never heard of. What do you say to them? How can you help? And how do you express your concern or surprise at their change of appearance or lifestyle and their utter devotion to someone or something that, to you, seems really crazy?

It’s a question we’ve thought about a lot. We have spent decades talking to current and former members of all kinds of cults, from religious-based groups like the Branch Davidians to political groups on the far right and far left and even psychotherapy cults like the Center For Feeling Therapy. We wanted to understand the attraction of these organisations – and why they’re so hard to leave.

Linda and Rod Dubrow-Marshall on cults and belief. The Anthill 7: On belief, CC BY-ND13.1 MB (download)

The first thing to realise is that people in cults are not crazy but are the same intelligent, creative and interesting individuals they were before. As with falling in love they are just crazy about the group, its amazing leader and its great potential to change the world and them with it. So the ideals of the group are probably quite attractive superficially – ending war and poverty, say, or promoting the healthy development of brain and body. After all, you don’t see many adverts saying “join this damaging cult that will destroy your life”.

Jim Jones persuaded his followers to move to Guyana and commit suicide … not what they initially signed up for. Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA

Your friend or loved one has probably fallen hook line and sinker for the positive message of the group and their whole identity is now focused on this message. The key thing to remember is that criticising the group, however strange or damaging it seems to you, is the same as criticising your friend or family member themselves. They love the group really deeply – for all intents and purposes, they are the group.

Think back to when you fell in love for the first time and got those disapproving looks or critical comments from your parents or friends. Remember how angry that made you feel? And how determined you were to love the person all the more.

The most important piece of advice is to not criticise, condemn or judge, even if you have serious concerns. Instead, focus on why this person identifies with the group so much, and what they believe they are getting from it. And try to reinforce the message: “It’s great that you’re developing yourself and your skills so positively and that the group is making you so happy.”

It may feel cheesy, but the point of this approach is to draw on the psychological technique of motivational interviewing, so that these positive statements, similar to those the person has made themselves, will eventually lead them to question whether they are really true – we call this the “strategic and personal oriented dialogue” approach. This means you have to keep talking. Keep the dialogue going and help your loved one measure the group against their own hopes and standards. In time, the scales will start to fall from their eyes, and you can be ready for that moment.

How it starts. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-SA

In truth, damaging cults are often run by charlatans. They offer world peace and the promised land while actually sucking people in, taking over their minds and unduly influencing them to give up their time, money, families and careers without any tangible results. Nirvana is always just around the corner, and cults coerce their members to work ever harder to get to the impossible.

Often members are made to feel unworthy and are humiliated. They can never measure up to the ideals and perfection of the leader, and bit by bit their hopes for what the group offers start to crumble. Remind them, supportively, that it’s great they’re moving forward with their life so positively in the group, and the penny will suddenly drop – “I’m actually not having a good time at all … what on earth am I doing?” Crucially, they will have come to this painful realisation themselves – with your help, but without you forcing it on them.

When what seems like the most loving group of individuals with the best ideas ever turns out to be a really big mistake, it is very hard and sometimes humiliating for cult members to admit to the outside world that they were wrong.

This is where you come in again: be there as the unconditionally loving and caring friend or family member that you really are. Where the cult judges and condemns its members, you will be there as the person who says:

Sure, it is a crazy destructive group, but I understand why you got involved. We all fall for con artists and swindlers once in a while – you still have a lot to offer and I can help you move on with your life.

After the cult, the world can seem a bleak and less exciting place. But, with the help of family and friends, the former member can build a new and more authentic life and purpose. Hang in there and you’ll be what they really do need at the end of the rainbow.


Linda and Rod Dubrow-Marshall discuss their work on cults in The Conversation’s latest podcast The Anthill 7: On belief.