How to recognize a cult leader (and common brainwashing tactics)



I have been getting more and more questions lately about how to find local witchcraft groups to practice in and how to join IRL pagan spaces, so I’m posting this mostly in regards to that but most of this stuff also applies to online spaces even though it isn’t as thoroughly researched. 

We’ve all heard of ISIS using online spaces for recruitment, but it’s a lot more insidious than that and the far right uses the exact same tactics, just to different ends (if you’re interested in this and want to read more about it, I recommend Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow)

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

  1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
  4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
  8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
  9. The group/leader is always right.
  10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Source: The Cult Education Institute [bold mine]

Common Brainwashing Steps

Each of thes­e stages takes place in an environment of isolation, meaning all “normal” social reference points are unavailable, and mind-clouding techniques like sleep deprivation and malnutrition are typically part of the process. There is often the presence or constant threat of physical harm, which adds to the target’s difficulty in thinking critically and independently.

  1. Assault on identity: 

    This is a systematic attack on a target’s sense of self and their core belief system.

  2. Guilt: Repeated attacks on the target by focusing on errors, big or small, and creating a sense of shame.
  3. Self-betrayal: The target is forced to accept that they are “bad” and turns on any others that shared their previous world-view. This strengthens the bond between the target and the agent committing the brainwashing.
  4. Breaking point: The target experiences a breakdown. Symptoms may include a deep sense of isolation, depression, uncontrollable sobbing. Their sense of self is up for grabs.
  5. Leniency: The agent offers a small kindness which the target experiences as an impossible kindness. 
  6. Compulsion to confess: To reciprocate the kindness that has been offered, the target “confesses” the sins they have been accused of.
  7. Channeling of guilt: The old belief system is attached to pain and guilt, and the new belief system is attached to redemption.
  8. Releasing of guilt: The target feels a sense of redemption and righteousness from rejecting the old belief system in favour of the new one.
  9. Progress and harmony: The new identity provides a sense of security and safety
  10. Final confession and rebirth: The target “officially” commits to the group via pledge, initiation, or public promise.

Source: How Brainwashing Works by Julia Layton

If you’re thinking “these look a lot like what you’d see in an abusive reltionship”, you would be correct. 


The Striking Similarities Between The Seduction Into Violent
Domestic Relationships And Induction Into Abusive Cults
Noelle C. Nelson. Ph.D