Archive for July 10th, 2014

Cult expert Steven Hassan describes four general types of cults: religious, political, psychotherapy-educational, and commercial. (There is obviously some degree of overlap between the categories.)

My searches for techniques in mind development have brought me into contact with a number of organizations and movements that, if they are not an outright destructive cult, they certainly have some cult-like characteristics.

Most books, websites and documentaries that I have seen on cults tend to define the organization as a cult in terms of the actions of the leader or management of such groups, how the group is organized, and how it manages its followers. It is also very worthwhile looking at the characteristics of the followers.

In fact, it has been the behaviour of the followers that, more than once, has alerted me to the cult-like nature of the group.

The following are some general observations I have made over the years while studying the self-development techniques of various organizations.

1. The group is very precious about “their” material, even when similar information and techniques can readily be found elsewhere.

One international quasi-religious organization in particular is highly litigious, and it uses copyright and trade mark law not merely to protect its own material in a reasonable manner, but to attempt to prevent use of the techniques contained therein by anyone else. While a work can be copyrighted and a brand or company name can be trade marked, no single person or group can hold a monopoly over an idea. Yet that is precisely what the group leadership or the main guru wants, even when “their” material is a reworking or repackaging of already publicly available information.

I have also seen similar tactics used by a number of other groups.

2. Policing the Internet or elsewhere for open discussions. The guru or group officials dislike any discussion of their materials, techniques or business model anywhere on the Internet.

One self-development guru I knew about used Google Alerts to flag up any discussion of him or his organization. This person went to unusual lengths (threats and coercion) to keep the Internet free of any dissent.

Recently, European legislation was passed making it possible to request that material that is embarrassing to the individual is not included in Google searches. Upon Googling for this person’s name, the following notice appeared: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” I find it entirely believable that this person would have jumped at the chance to make such a request as soon as the law was passed.

Another self-styled guru, a former stage entertainer, does not tolerate any open discussion, product review or short fair usage quotes being posted up anywhere, and makes liberal use of DMCA take down notices.

If members of the public are interested enough in someone’s work to write reviews or opinions about it, then surely the intelligent thing to do would be to handle them a little better. I feel this person has a lot to learn about maintaining friendly relations with the public and not creating antagonism.

Many of these gurus and groups do not need to police the Internet themselves, because they have armies of doting hangers-on with too much time on their hands and too much to say, who are eager to do it for them.

3. Criticizing the competition.

While it is a known cultish technique to criticize the competition and encourage adherents to ditch what they previously learned from other groups, of particular interest to me are organizations where it is the followers themselves who take this to a whole new level.

Case in point on the memory training scene. Even respected names in the field come under heavy fire on forums, while Guru X is presented as the one purveyor of truth on the scene. Very little actual investigation and comparison of all the available techniques is done by many of the most vocal followers. The guru doesn’t have to make unreasonable criticisms of his competitors because these folks will happily do it for him.

As my grandmother used to say, there are none so blind as those who see.

4. Highlighting flaws and weaknesses in the system, or that the same information is available elsewhere, or that a better system is available, is not tolerated.

Anyone who asks too many searching questions, expresses concerns, or whose view of how the group conducts its business is less than flattering, is automatically characterized as a hater or critic. Genuine concerns are never addressed head on, and criticism is never met with counter-arguments and evidence, only volleys of immature ad-homs.

5. When someone finds out something the group’s leadership would prefer they hadn’t, or he thinks they might be about to, the person is rapidly excommunicated.

In some cases, criticism or persecution of the former member follows. Particularly where the guru feels threatened by the former member, or has some other axe to grind.

6. The program or technique is often very aggressively promoted by the group.

What do I mean by “aggressively promoted”? Every Google search, every YouTube search, every forum or social networking site post generates sponsored ads for the organization.

The leader of one particular brain training business, in a bizarre twist, even has what at first blush looks like a critical exposé type of video of him and his company appear at the top of the list on YouTube. It is only once you actually get into the video you realize it is actually an advertisement for their techniques.

7. Too many skeletons in the closet.

I’m not saying every cult-like group has something to hide, but in my personal observations to date, rather too many do.

I have seen at least two leaders turn out to have a colourful past or criminal connections.

Dodgy business models, rip-offs, lack of adherence to own refund policy, and harrassment of unhappy customers who complain, seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

8. Using distractionary tactics to avoid the customer finding something better.

The last thing the guru or group leadership want is for the customer to find something more effective, simpler to use or understand, something that will give them more discernment or judgement in the future, or something based in more modern research.


None of the above should be construed to mean that I think all self-development leaders and groups are cults. Far from it.

Does any of this mean that I regret looking in strange places for techniques that work, or that I will stop looking? Absolutely not! I have learned a great deal, and found all sorts of things in the most surprising places that are not exactly reproduced elsewhere.

Bear in mind that just because some information is juicy, or a technique works well, does not automatically mean that the group or individual who lays claim to it is all good. Similarly, just because the group or individual is unpleasant does not mean that everything they put out is bad. It has long been my aim to create a distinction between the two.

I will continue searching for workable development techniques and writing about what I have explored – good, bad, or a mixture.

I do not expect that everyone will share my opinions about my findings, but the one thing I won’t do is compromise my integrity regarding how I express my own experiences and observations of them.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: