Exploitive, abusive groups use methods of thought reform in an effort to gain total control over their recruits and members. This consists of coercion, fear tactics, deception, control of information, shame, and guilt.

The use of these behavior conditioning techniques may be dangerously effective, leading to a state of deep dependence.

Two Basic Principals:

  • If you can make a person behave the way you want, you can make that person believe the way you want.
  • Sudden drastic changes in environment can lead to heightened suggestibility and to dramatic changes in attitudes and beliefs.

Awareness and education are the only weapons against the subtle recruitment tactics of a deceptive group. Don’t be a target of exploitation and abuse under the guise of religion.

Almost all exploitive religious groups employ some type of thought-reform program to ensure control over their members. Not all of the marks below need be used in order for a group to be considered a destructive religious group.

Abusive Groups:

  • use abusive, manipulative methods to attract and retain members
  • require unquestioning submission and loyalty to the leadership (known as “the government” in certain groups)
  • instill the notion that nowhere else will you find as accurate an understanding of “the truth”


  • getting the recruit to agree that the state of the world or the state of their own personal condition is undesirable
  • telling them what they need to do to make themselves or the world better
  • keeping the member always investing in the future and never really enjoying the present
  • keeping their mind always on something else
  • getting members to believe that the leader alone has the solution(s), and to deny that there could be anything wrong with their leader or their organization
  • redirecting the member to remake himself or herself, or to look forward to remaking the world (i.e., helping to bring in the Kingdom), while actually molding him/her to satisfy the grandiosity or financial aspirations of the leader.

Four Main Characteristics:

  1. ISOLATION (control of information; encourages members to devote large amounts of time to the group and to socialize only with group members [referred to as their “family”]; often cuts off with immediate family and friends)
  2. NON-THINKING (members–and prospective members–don’t study and come to understand on their own, but simply look up the Scriptures given them, which agree with what the leader is saying; avoidance of thoughts that are contrary to the group’s beliefs)
  3. ABSOLUTE OBEDIENCE (questioning, doubt and dissent are strongly discouraged)
  4. GIVING EXCESSIVELY (tithes, offerings, contributions are required to be given to the group leader or “headquarters”)

Other Main Characteristics:

  1. Focused on a Living Leader (who often lives in luxury and is not accountable to anyone; members are devoted to this person whom they believe speaks for God) Read: Profile of a Sociopath.
  2. Exhorted to Strive for Perfection (obedience to certain laws and rituals is emphasized)
  3. Their Doctrine is Considered to be the Ultimate Truth Beyond Questioning (to question is to “come under the influence of Satan”)
  4. No Gray Areas (the group has all the answers to the questions, which they receive from the leader who has all the answers; everything is either right or wrong, “black or white.”
  5. Control (a member’s life is controlled by policies and procedures originating with the leadership)
  6. Conformity to established practices and beliefs (uses fear, intimidation and guilt)
  7. A Gap between the picture projected to the general public and the inner reality
  8. Preoccupied with Bringing in New Members
  9. Those Outside the Group are Regarded as Less Enlightened (usually they are screened before being allowed to attend services)
  10. Deceptive Fundraising Techniques (members and public assume contributions go to social causes, while most of money goes to the leader and expansion of the group)
  11. Distinct Hierarchy with the Group (everyone has his or her place; those at each level of the pyramid do not know what is going on at the level above them)
  12. Secrecy (there is an inner truth and outer truth; a gap between what is projected to the general public and the inner reality known only to the members)
  13. A System of Merits (“works-righteousness” orientation)
  14. Perceived Persecution (one of their hallmarks)
  15. Misuse of Scripture (taken out of context, manipulated, to support the teachings of the leader)
  16. Increasing Loss of Freedom for a Member (the demands of the group/leader destroy any other relationships or personal growth, and destroy freedom in every significant sense)


  • Say the leader is the “Apostle,” “God’s Messenger,” “the Elijah,” “That Prophet,” etc.
  • Preach that God’s Kingdom is “coming soon” (within your lifetime)
  • Tell their members that they are the special “elect”
  • Proclaim that their “church” is the only one that has the “truth,” “God’s revelation,” or the “restored gospel”
  • Teach that salvation is contingent on remaining in their group
  • Twist (or redefine) Scriptures
  • Use fear, guilt, threats and phobia indoctrination to keep the members obeying and to keep them from leaving
  • Have “black and white” thinking and see situations as all good or all bad; a “blessing” or a “curse”
  • Believe that they are being “persecuted” if someone criticizes or exposes their group
  • Often state that “the end is near” with a focus on end-time prophecies (apocalyptic teachings)

What Should I Look For?

You are attracted to a particular group and you would like to know whether its true nature is being revealed by the recruiter. Here are some questions to ask so that you can make your own evaluation.

  1. How is criticism perceived by the group? In certain groups, criticism is not well received. The leaders are often perceived as those who possess the truth as a result of their own testimony or from God. If this is the case, it can become difficult to criticize the leaders of the group.
  2. Are there members who do not do everything the leaders ask of them? If so, what is their reputation within the group? Certain groups limit the freedom of its members and do not accept dissent.
  3. Are all your questions answered? The leaders or representatives of groups sometimes avoid answering questions which they feel the newcomer is not ready to understand. This could be a sign that they wish to hide something from you, namely the real nature and goals of the group. (Also see: Questions to Ask Before Becoming Involved)

Important Measures to Take:

  • Be wary of sending money to a person or group that is unknown to you.
  • Keep careful records of names, addresses, and phone numbers of persons known to be associated with a suspected destructive or controlling group.
  • Maintain a written chronology of events associated with the group.
  • Collect critical information about the group from newspaper and magazine articles, books, the Internet, and even publications of the group itself.
  • Be wary of spending your money for treatments, seminars, or counseling for either yourself or a family member until you have thoroughly verified the credentials and qualifications of the program.
  • Be on the alert for false-front operations.

Dangerous Behaviors:

A group can be dangerous if it camouflages itself as encouraging Bible study or self-improvement, but does some or all of the following:

  • Uses mind manipulating control techniques or propaganda to influence its subjects
  • Conceals criminal acts or the criminal backgrounds of leaders
  • Approves of destroying enemies
  • Uses sexual abuse as a means of control
  • Uses physical or mental punishment for those who are not “obedient”
  • Regresses members to a child-like dependency and total obedience
  • Prostitutes young people to recruit new subjects or to manipulate others
  • Insists that they alone are right and have all the answers
  • Inculcates the belief, fear or phobia that to leave the group, or disobey the leader, would cause self-destruction, insanity, disease, suicide, death, or eternal death for themselves or their loved ones
  • Levels bizarre accusations against others in order to alienate members from family
  • Indoctrinates subjects with phobias about outside sources of help
  • Discourages or disallows medical attention
  • Detains or kidnaps subjects to keep them in the group
  • Maintains guarded premises to keep people away
  • Starves and exposes subjects whose resources are depleted
  • Drives subjects to madness and/or suicide
  • Murders dissenters or perceived enemies
  • Incites or commits mass murder or mayhem

Pyramid Structure of Authoritarian Groups:

Top level: Leader (speaks for God)

Second level: International or national leaders who are controlled by the leader

Third level: Regional leaders who are controlled by international or national leaders.

Fourth level: State or local leaders who are manipulated and controlled by regional leaders.

Lowest level: Members who are controlled by state or local leaders and are controlled by them.

High demand, destructive religious groups teach that God1 is at the top, then Jesus Christ2, then the leader, then the church (the organization;; i.e., the “government“), which is broken down to the various offices and ministry and then members. (The above “pyramidal structure” shows the true picture.)

~Info compiled and arranged by AJW
Exit & Support Network™


Footnotes by ESN:

1 This is “God” as defined by the cult leader of the group.

2 This is “Jesus” as defined by the cult leader of the group.  

Related Material:

Leaders of Totalistic Groups Have These Traits in Common

Profile of a Sociopath

Prayers for Freedom From Spiritual Strongholds (very effective in gaining liberation from strongholds and oppression due to involvement in any harmful, abusive group or occult practices)


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