few years ago, I did a video about cults and predicted that we are living in conditions that make cults thrive. Today, a few years later, that seems to be the case, with cult activity skyrocketing not just in the US, but around the world. Today we look at what’s causing this problem, and what you can do if a friend or loved one goes a little too far down the rabbit hole.


2024 is already shaping up to be a very stressful year. With the world still recovering from a global pandemic, technology advancing at an alarming pace, and another highly contentious election on the horizon, our society feels more fractured than ever.

In times like these, we often grasp for meaning and safety, and that safety is often found in groups and ideologies that can go from enthusiastic to toxic at the drop of a hat.

It’s easy for people to lose themselves in these movements, make them their very identity and reason for living. It takes over their minds, controls their thoughts and actions, drains their wallets and uses them for their own ends.
And these groups are on the rise, not just in the United States but all around the world. The intellectual term for these groups is “high-control organizations.” But the term that gets used most often is “cults.”

These can take all types of forms, from religious to business-oriented, self-improvement organizations and political movements. Chances are you know someone who has fallen under the spell of a charismatic leader who they adore without question, whose word they trust above all else and who is above the law in their eyes.

It can be really frustrating, even heartbreaking to lose someone to a group like that. And you can’t help but feel helpless, like there’s just no way to reach this person, to snap them out of it. Far too often the easiest option is to just cut them off, so we do. So many families have been splintered over highly coercive groups.

And yet, “snapping out of it” does happen. People escape the grip of these groups all the time. So how does that work? What’s the mental process that causes people to fall into these groups, and more important, what is the mental process that causes them to break free?

With cult activity at an unprecedented level, I thought it would be good to put the judgement and the sideshow antics aside and really look at what it takes, if you’ve lost a loved one to one of these groups, to bring them back to reality?

For this video, we’ve sifted through the latest research, and I sat down with a leading expert in cult psychology, who specializes in helping former cult members reacclimate to society, so that we can get closer to an answer to the question, how exactly do you deprogram a cult member?

So before we get into this video, I should probably start by saying despite what the title I might have chosen, the word “deprogram” is kind-of an antiquated term. For reasons that I’ll get into in this video.
About three years ago, I did an episode about the all-time five worst cults.
I defined “worst” as in the ones with the highest body count, so it was more of a collection of stories of when things went totally wrong, but I did talk a lot about how people get caught up in cults, and how they get recruited and fall victim to them. I’ll link it up here and down below, this video is definitely a bit of a follow-up to that one.

I also talked about how cults tend to thrive in difficult times, and that with the pandemic and everything, we may be entering a new golden age of cults.

Then, a little after that I had cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich on my Conversations with Joe podcast, and I asked her if that statement was accurate.

And has time has gone on, it’s really starting to feel like unfortunately we were both on to something. I like being right. But sometimes I don’t like being right.
So yeah, it’s time for a follow up, but this time I want to look at the psychology of people in cults, how their beliefs continue to be reinforced, how they push back against any evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and what techniques or messages finally got through to them.

This time I sat down with cult expert Dr. Steven Hassan, who was gracious enough to share his time with me, I’ll be sharing clips from that conversation in this interview and I’ll be releasing the full conversation with him later on this channel.

So, let’s talk about a defining quality of cults, and what we mean when we use that word.
It gets thrown around a lot these days, but what’s the difference between a cult and extreme fandom?

I mean, are Swifties, the Beyhive, and Deadheads members of a cult? Those fans do seem to have a figurehead whom they follow, either in person or through social media.

They have clothing styles. They give money to the movement in the form of album sales and concert tickets. They gather for celebrations, I mean, concerts. And they pretty much push back on any criticism of their leader.
And sometimes fans will say that a singer looked at them during a show and saw who they were.

Feeling seen is a thing that almost everyone craves. Looking at it through attachment theory, being seen helps us form how we view ourselves and others. And we never outgrow this want.
There are some parallels between being in a cult and being part of an extreme fan group.

Namely, we want others to accept us, love us for who we really are, and forgive us when we mess up.

Both cults and fandoms offer a sense of community.

But the difference is that in fandoms, the person you look up to gives you tools to be your best self.

In a cult, the leader exploits a person’s personality for their benefit.
As author Courtney Summers told Psychology Today in 2021,
“The question is, are you exploiting an experience or are you creating a shared experience?”

To understand how someone can exploit another person, you have to know a bit about how the mind works.

You also need to understand what a cult is, how they recruit members, and the ways they manipulate them.

According to Dr. Steven A. Hassan, no one volunteers to join a cult. Instead, they are recruited into a cult and there isn’t any informed consent.

Hassan is a mental health professional and a leading expert in cults. As he wrote in Psychology Today in 2021:
“Everyone has vulnerabilities. Possible situational vulnerabilities include illness, the death of a loved one, breakup of an important relationship, loss of a job, or moving to another city, state or country.”

Hassan says that once someone is in a vulnerable state, they can fall for several recruitment strategies. Things like, a person at work or a friend recruiting someone or being recruited through social media or YouTube videos.

And unlike extreme fandom, a cult is usually authoritarian. As Hassan wrote:
“Cult influence is designed to disrupt a person’s authentic identity and replace it with a new identity.”

So, how could someone get to a place where they’re influenced into wanting a new identity?
Rachel Bernstein is a therapist who specializes in treating cult survivors. According to her, people who end up joining cults are never given the full story about a group.

They end up making a judgment based on the selected information the cult tells them.
But there are common things that draw people to cults.
One, they often want to better themselves personally or professionally. Two, they desire a sense of community.

As Bernstein told Business Insider in 2020:
“Sometimes people are just wanting to connect with people they think they have something in common with, and a cult provides instant community and love-bombing and a language that suddenly you all speak.”

And third, people who end up joining cults are in extremely vulnerable positions.
These people could have recently lost a job or a loved one, or they may be experiencing an illness. Something tragic has happened to them.

Cults take advantage of this timing to recruit new members.
Researchers published a paper in Psychiatry Research in 2017 in which they interviewed 31 former cult members to understand what contributed to them joining a cult.
What they discovered is that former members reported being dissatisfied with life, wanting personal development, and spirituality as the main factors.

There was also the issue of access. As the researchers wrote:
“Additionally, cultic groups were present in the member’s environment before his or her commitment, be it in the neighborhood, at work or through social associations (32.2% reported a social presence of the group), or in their family (19.4% reported having family members in the group).”

When asked what influenced them to stay in a cult, the former members mentioned:
“… an inability to question the creeds of the group, regressive and reassuring feelings resulting from being part of the group and a relationship with other cult members or with the cult leader…”

Also, if the members had lost support from their family or friends, they felt helpless and found it hard to resume the life they had before joining the cult.
But if they did end up leaving, there were a few reasons why.
Things like a loss of faith in the cult’s beliefs, imperfections or contradictions in the cult leader, and internal group conflict.

And a higher chance of leaving increased with one factor: family.

As the researchers wrote:
“The probability of departure is greater when one’s family keeps in touch with the member in the context of mutual understanding, while avoiding criticism.”

But once a person has left a cult, then what? Assuming family and friends are there to support the person, what can be done to get them back into their former life, socially, emotionally, and mentally?
In other words, can you deprogram someone who joined a cult?
Maybe. Depends on how it’s done.

See, some researchers think that people will gravitate to ideas they already believe in on their own.
And while these people are doing things of their own volition, family and friends may believe they’re being brainwashed.
Michael Kropveld heads up the Center for Assistance and for the Study of Cultic Phenomena, or Info-Cult. Over time, his organization has stopped using deprogramming methods on former cult members.

As he told Popular Science in 2021:
“Using terms like brainwashing or mind control tend to imply some magical kind of process that goes on that happens to people that are unaware of what’s happening to them.”

But he understands that using the term “brainwashing” is a simple message that gets people’s attention.
Counteracting brainwashing with, well, brainwashing began in the early 1970s.
That’s when a man named Ted Patrick thought that the Children of God group was brainwashing his family members.
He believed that since cults were using indoctrination tactics like hypnosis and repetition, he could reverse them with “deprogramming.”
Cult members would be physically held or abducted and put in a secret location or detained while at home. It was like an extreme intervention.
The cult member could be held for several days or weeks while a deprogrammer gave them information until they snapped out of the mind control.
This was successful for thousands of people, but it also failed a lot of the time.

Exit counseling became the preferred method in the 1980s. This approach is legal and noncoercive.
Free will is respected, and it’s voluntary.
So, what kind of person joins a cult? I’ve already talked about how they’re usually extremely vulnerable and they’re seeking community.

But what about their deeper personalities?

Researchers published a study in Personality and Individual Differences in 1995 in which they sampled 75 former cult members.
They had them take two personality inventories: The short form of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire and the Beck Sociotropy-Autonomy Scale.
When compared to norms, the ex-members showed elevated marks in neuroticism, sociotropy, and autonomy.
But their neuroticism scores approached the norm the longer they had been out of a cult.

Also, ex-members showed reduced neuroticism and sociotropy levels when they were in contact with support groups, compared to those who were not.

As the researchers wrote in the study:
“While it is not possible to draw firm conclusions from a study of this design, the results are consistent with the view that people with high autonomy scores are likely to leave or be ejected from cults or new religious movements and that doing so may cause psychological difficulties which are ameliorated by time and attendance at a support group.”

So, how do you get someone out of a cult?
Kidnapping a person and forcing them to stay somewhere against their will is no longer the preferred method. Also, it’s illegal.
As Lalich told The New York Times in 2018, you should do your best to stay in touch with the person who’s in a cult.
If you can get one-on-one time with the person, even better. Ask questions. Offer anti-cult evidence. Maybe even work with another friend or family member to play good cop bad cop.

But basically, show that the cult member has a safe and non-judgemental place to come home to.
Hassan recommends that you keep conversations positive, adopt a curious tone about a cult member’s beliefs, and don’t “tell” them anything. Let them discover things on their own.
It’s a journey, Hassan says. You have to be patient. Try not to get discouraged.

Hassan developed the Strategic Interactive Approach to combat cult mind control.

It’s about developing a positive, healthy, and warm relationship between families and cult members. It’s non-coercive.
It’s also a “dual identity” model, focusing on a person’s cult pseudo-identity and their self.
It invites cult members to imagine themselves in the past and helps them reconnect with their authentic selves.

It’s different from deprogramming, which doesn’t address any prior issues before someone joins a cult and that may continue after membership.
Deprogramming also doesn’t usually deal with any family member counseling or prepare cult members for follow-up care.

As Hassan wrote in Psychology Today:
“The goal of post-cult counseling is to empower the individual to think critically, to evaluate, to reality-test; and to exercise their own free will. The person learns to listen to their inner voice rather than the instructions of an authority figure. The aim is to empower them to make their own decisions, take back their lives and learn to detect and remove the virus of mind control.”

Being in a cult can take a drastic toll on one’s mental state, so how can you support a loved one who is recovering from cult trauma?
First, it’s best to understand what type of ex-cult member you’re dealing with. Are they someone who experienced an intervention? Or did they walk away on their own? Or maybe they were expelled from the cult.
Those who walked away or were expelled will need the most help with recovery. They may feel angry, guilty, and inadequate.
According to exit counselor Carol Giambalvo, the best tool for recovering ex-cult members is to understand what mind control is and how their specific cult used it on them.

They need to understand that mind control effects don’t last forever. This will help lower any anxiety they feel about it.
Giambalvo also suggests developing an attitude about the positives gained from being in a cult.

As she wrote on the Spiritual Abuse Resources website:
“When former members learn about mind control, they can use that understanding to sort through their cultic experience, to see how they came to change their behavior and beliefs as a result of mind control.  They can then assess what out of that experience is good and valid for them to hold on to.”

And if there is an active support group meeting in the area, Giambalvo says that ex-cult members should participate in them.
A supportive family is critical during the first month of an ex-cult member’s life back into society.

For some ex-cult members, all they have is their family. Their friends may have abandoned them long ago.
But if you have a friend who’s in a cult or recently left one, there are several things you can do to help them transition back into society and prevent them from backsliding.
The first thing is to reach out to them. Let them know you missed them. If you were critical in the past, maybe apologize and ask to start over.

Basically, be compassionate and non-judgmental.
Second, offer them resources to help them better understand what is true or false about their beliefs.

Another thing you can do is to suggest they take a break from media and online activity. In its place, you can do things like share music with them that you enjoy together, exercise together, or help them reconnect with other, old friends.

Finally, be willing to listen. Help them empower themselves by thinking for themselves. You can also remind them that others have left their specific cult and may be willing to meet with them to talk things through.
There’s a loneliness epidemic happening around the world.

In fact, almost half of U.S. adults say they experience measurable levels of loneliness.
It’s even worse for people aged 15 to 24, with 70 percent saying they have less social interaction with their friends.
Loneliness can lead to all sorts of increased health issues like heart disease, stroke, and dementia.

I talked about how cult members crave a sense of community. So, it’s no surprise that many people who join cults may be suffering from loneliness.
And if our loneliness is increasing, then that makes sense as to why more people are joining cults.

The best way to combat this is to help others be seen.
Maybe someone crosses your mind. Take a moment then to send them a text or email saying you’re thinking of them and that you hope they’re doing well.
Sometimes, just a small message like that can have a huge, and positive, impact on a person’s world.

In other words… the thing that works best is also probably the hardest thing to do. Especially when that person in question has really fallen down a rabbit hole and it’s been difficult to deal with them.

I feel like it’s a lesson we just have to keep learning over and over again. And it seems so easy to forget. When you’re at your most frustrated, when you most want to scream, the most powerful thing you can do is to show love.

And offer understanding. Which is usually the last thing you feel like doing.
2024 is going to be a very difficult year. And if we’re going to get through it… we’re going to have to be nicer to each other. We’ve tried the yelling and screaming. Maybe in the words and the great Glen Campbell, we need to try a little kindness.

Sounds naive, I know. But it’s the only thing that works.

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