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  • Educator Janja Lalich
  • Director Hernando Bahamon
  • Art Director Andrés Landazábal
  • Animator José Arce
  • Compositor Jorge Jaramillo
  • Composer Manuel Borda
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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Cults did not fade away after the 1960s and ’70s, when they were first recognized for their growing presence and sometimes controversial practices and activities. Today, cult groups and relationships are thriving. If there is less overt stranger recruitment today, it is because many cults now use professional associations, campus organizations, self-help seminars, and the Internet as their main recruiting ground. People of all ages are being drawn into a variety of groups and movements focused on everything from therapy to business ventures, from New Age philosophies to Bible-based beliefs, and from martial arts to political change. The word cult denotes a group with a certain kind of power structure and internal relations of power based on charismatic authority.

A cult can be defined as follows:

A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through a
shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of commitment from its members in words and deeds. Most importantly, it requires a personal transformation orchestrated by the cult.

This definition is convey a systemic view of such a group. It is not meant to be evaluative, dismissive, or one-sided in the sense of implying that a group is good, bad, or other. Not all cults are the same, and they may vary across time or location. Cults differ in their ruling ideologies or belief systems, as well as in specific practices, requirements, and norms. Some may be more extreme than others. Cults exist on a continuum of influence (i.e., the effect on members and on society) and a continuum of control (i.e., from less invasive to all-encompassing), rendering them from benign to dangerous and harmful. Each group must be observed and judged on its own merits and its own practices and behaviors.

According to Janja Lalich’s theory of “bounded choice,” four interlocking dimensions make up the framework of a cult’s social system and internal dynamics. While separated here for the purpose of explanation, these dimensions are overlapping and interlocked.

1. Charismatic Authority. This is the emotional bond between a leader and followers. It lends legitimacy to the leader and grants authority to the leader’s actions while at the same time justifying and reinforcing followers’ responses to the leader and/or his ideas and goals. Charisma could be seen as the “hook” that links a devotee to a leader. The general purpose of charismatic authority is to provide leadership. The specific goal is for the leader to be accepted as the legitimate authority and to offer direction. This is accomplished through privilege and command. The desired effect is that members believe in and identify with the leader, as well as regard him or her as someone special, someone to be revered.

2. Transcendent Belief System. This is the overarching ideology that binds adherents to the group and keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms. It is transcendent because it offers a total explanation of past, present, and future, including the “path to salvation.” Most importantly, the leader/group specifies the exact methodology (or recipe) for the personal transformation necessary to travel on that path and be an accepted member of the group. The goal of the transcendent belief system is to provide a worldview that offers meaning and purpose through a moral imperative. This imperative requires each member to subject him- or herself to a process of personal transformation. The desired effect is for the member to feel a sense of connection to a greater goal while aspiring to salvation. This is solidified through the internalization of the belief system and its accompanying behaviors and attitudes.

3. Systems of Control. This is the network of acknowledged—or visible—regulatory mechanisms that guide the operation of the group. It includes the overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control members’ behavior. The purpose of the systems of control is quite simply to provide organizational structure. The specific goal is to create a behavioral system and disciplinary code through rules, regulations, and sanctions. The effect is compliance, or better still, obedience.

4. Systems of Influence. This is the network of interactions and social influence that resides in the group’s social relations. This interaction and resultant group culture teach members to adapt their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to their new beliefs. The purpose of the systems of influence is to shape the group culture. The specific goal is to create institutionalized group norms and an established code of conduct by which members are expected to live. This is accomplished by various methods of peer and leadership pressure, and through social-psychological influence and modeling. The desired effect is conformity and the self-renunciation that is required not only to be part of the group but also to achieve the professed goal.

The combination of these four dimensions results in a “self-sealing system” that exacts a high degree of commitment (as well as expressions of that commitment) from its core members. A self-sealing system is one that is closed in on itself, allowing no consideration of disconfirming evidence or alternative points of view. In the extreme, a self-sealed group is exclusive and its belief system is all-inclusive, in the sense that it provides answers to everything. Typically, the stated quest of such groups is to attain a far-reaching ideal. However, a loss of sense of self for the individual adherent is all too often the by-product of that quest.

If you go to www.cultresearch.org, you will find many articles, videos, and other material to learn more about this topic.