Protecting youth from cult methods of psychological coercion/mind control and encouraging the development of critical thinking


When I talk about protecting our youth regarding the dangers posed by over 500 cults in the UK, I always feel obliged to first point out that cults recruit people of all ages. In other words, whilst the students at a typical academic institution are certainly at risk of cult recruitment, so are the lecturers, counsellors and other staff members. It can happen to anyone and does.

Since cults tend to recruit people who are usually intelligent and well educated, it follows that those working and studying in educational institutions are easy targets. Ideally a school, college or university needs to invest time and effort into trying to protect, everyone in the educational community. However, for the purposes of this paper I am focusing on the ways of protecting the youth. I believe that this is best achieved through education. As a consequence, I have been giving educational lectures on this topic for the last 25 years, mainly in the UK, but previously in Canada, where I lived for several years.

The Problem

Before looking at ways to protect our youth, we first need to determine what the problem is. I define a cult as a group with 5 characteristics (see booklet – ‘Cults: A Practical Guide’, Haworth, 2001), but the most important characteristic is the use of psychological coercion to recruit indoctrinate and retain members. The problem of cults therefore revolves around their use of unethical psychological force to recruit their members. Consequently, it is important to warn youth about these recruitment methods.

When young people reach a stage where they can easily recognise techniques of psychological coercion, they will be less likely to stay in any environment where these tactics are employed. In addition, since psychologically coercive methods are the common denominator in all cults, it follows that all cults can soon be recognised by their practices and avoided.

However, one difficulty that I encounter is that most young people seem to be in denial when it comes to considering the possibility of their own recruitment into a cult. They usually want to subscribe to one of the myths that cult members have to be vulnerable in some special way. It is popular to imagine that cult members must be people of low intelligence or little faith or poor education or from deprived and dysfunctional families or a combination of all of the above. As a consequence, the more that these and other misconceptions about cults are addressed in front of young audiences, the safer young people will be.

There are other popular misconceptions about cults too. I feel it is very important to try to overcome as many of these misunderstandings as soon as possible in a talk on the topic, so that an audience of young people realise that it can happen to them and will be much more likely to listen to the warnings that will follow.

Misconceptions to Overcome

To explode some of the most popular myths, I like to emphasise several points including the following...

1. People don’t join cults. They are recruited.

2. People are recruited by a method, not a message.

3. People do not stay in cults because they have nothing better to do with their lives, but because psychological coercion holds them there.

4. Cults intend to retain a hold on people for life, or for as long as they are valuable to the cult. It is not a fad or a phase.

5. Normal people from normal families are recruited into cults.

6. Cults should be blamed for the problems caused, not the individual members, ex-members or their families (blame the victim syndrome). It can happen to anyone.

7. Cults recruit people of all ages. Not just young people.

8. Cult recruiters are rarely visually identifiable. They usually look like quite normal people who appear to be very friendly.

9. Anyone can become a victim of cult techniques of psychological coercion. However, the safest people are those who know how to recognise a cult.

10. Accurate information on cults is not best obtained by trying to infiltrate a cult. This is far too dangerous.

The above list of points can be re-emphasised during or after a talk as well, whilst one looks at the different topics related to the cult phenomenon under a variety of headings.

Topics to Address

In a typical lecture to young people, I find it useful to discuss the following topics):

· Why cults represent a problem

· The extent of the problem in the UK

· Who is the easiest person to recruit

· My own story as a cult member and how I escaped

· The definition of a cult

· The two categories of cults

· The 26 cult techniques of psychological coercion

· Harmful effects of cult involvement

· Ways of staying updated and aware of cult activity

By including real life stories of being in a cult as I do, young people start to see the theoretical become real. I believe that personal experiences are always useful in this regard and usually prove to be particularly interesting and memorable for young audiences. But, who should we be talking to?

The Target Audience

In the UK, because of our laws, it is difficult for cults to recruit our youth when they are under the age of 16yrs. As a consequence, I rarely address any groups of young people who have not yet reached the age of 15yrs. However, I realise that in the Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe this may not be the case, so you may need to devise programmes for younger groups than I address.

In the British high school system, students usually between the ages of 16 and 19 yrs are in what are known as ‘Years 12 and 13.’ Those years are commonly called the ‘Sixth Form’. Their studies are aimed at helping them to pass examinations, called ‘Advanced Level’, that allow them to enter college or university.

Advanced Level students are taught to enquire debate and question to a far higher degree than is the case during earlier life at school. Consequently, at that age, they are much happier to enter into dialogue and comprehend the issues related to cults at a greater depth than when younger.

Because cults use both deceptive and manipulative practices to recruit, a warning lecture on cults is also an opportunity to encourage Sixth Form students to question every new association. This in turn helps to encourage and enhance their critical thinking skills. In turn, it hopefully encourages more young people to use the word ‘no,’ which seems to be an unpopular word in many contemporary circles.

Whilst most high schools that I visit, organise a lecture on cults as part of their Advanced Level General Studies course, other schools include it under Health, Religious Studies, Drama/Performing Arts (where students write a play or sketch that shows how a person might be recruited), Psychology and other subjects too. I have even given talks to students of English, who then have to write an essay based on the talk they have just heard. In other words, at high school level there is a lot of scope for teachers to be very inventive in how they introduce the topic to students.

In my opinion, Sixth Form students represent the key target group of young people for lecturers on cultism to address. By speaking to students at this age, one is preparing them for the many cult approaches they will encounter when they leave the relatively protected environment of the high school. In addition, when at high school, students must attend the talks, which is not the case once they are involved in further education.

Once high school students go to college or university, they cease to be a captive audience and are less likely to attend a lecture on the topic of cults, because they assume they would never be recruited. However if a lecture is introduced as part of their course or as a lecture for a club or society to which they belong, there is a greater chance of having them attend.

Vetting Procedures on Campus

Since cults try to recruit students at university on campus as well as off campus, it is important for campus authorities to be vigilante and check as best possible the real nature of groups that wish to rent university premises for meetings. In my experience, far more could be done in this regard in the UK than is being done. The vetting procedures seem to vary from one institution to another, but in general they are usually inadequate in screening out the cults in an effective manner.

When a cult does manage to rent a room on campus, the credibility of the institution is automatically given to the cult operating there, in the minds of those present. Attendees of meetings assume the group must have been carefully vetted by the college or university.

Reaching a Wider Audience

Giving talks on the dangers of cults in British schools is clearly beneficial to the students and staff that hear the message, but public lectures have their obvious limitations. There are two main problems. One is that one cannot expect to be able to supply speakers for the majority of schools. There are simply not enough speakers with that sort of expertise. The other problem is that the majority of schools in the UK, which are state schools, do not have the budget to pay for speakers.

To overcome these two problems, we have produced a booklet called ‘Cults: A Practical Guide.’ It is a relatively easy and quick read, containing various tables of information, definitions, cult techniques and even a typical story of someone being recruited into a cult. Because it gives the reader an overview of the topic, it is used by teachers to enable them to teach the topic and students for their research. This has proven to be an invaluable tool in reaching a far greater number of people.

In addition, for many years the Cult Information Centre has published a leaflet called ‘Cults On Campus’. It is a short leaflet that gives the reader an immediate warning about cult ploys and the potential harm to those recruited. It has been so successful that it has been used in the USA and Canada as well as Great Britain. I understand that it has also been translated into French and Russian. It is particularly useful for including in an information pack for students either before they leave high school or when they first arrive at college and university.

I am also constantly working with the media to make radio and television programmes about cults to further disseminate information on the topic. I also help journalists with their articles for magazines and newspapers that target younger readers, which in turn assist in increasing awareness of cult ploys.

Critical Thinking

As you have probably gathered from this brief paper, when I use the term ‘critical thinking’ I am only defining it in the way that it is used in common language. I am referring to engaging the critical mind whenever possible and questioning the reliability of information rather accepting it at face value. Even though information may be imparted by someone in a friendly or passionate way or by someone who appears to be an authority figure, the information itself needs to be critically evaluated.

With the above in mind, I also encourage students to do the following:

· question people who are excessively or inappropriately friendly,

· question people with notions of quick easy ways to right the wrongs of the world,

· question people with invitations to free meals and lectures, where the objectives are not clearly stated,

· question people that pressure you because “everyone is doing it” and

· question people who try to use guilt to have you conform to their wishes,

However, I am aware of the term ‘critical thinking’ being used to refer to specific skills that can be taught to and practiced by young people from a very early age. Although I know very little about this type of education, the little I know suggests it would be of great benefit to young and old alike and would probably alert more people to some of the potential hazards, when faced with a cult recruiter.

I hope that those of you involved in education in the Ukraine are encouraged to begin warning your youth as quickly as possible, before the cults have too strong a hold on your society and I wish you well with your endeavours in this regard.
Cult Information Center,
General secretary
London, United Kingdom

Повернутися до збірника матеріалів міжнародної науково-практичної конференції «Профілактика психологічного насильства і маніпулювання свідомістю та розвиток критичного мислення в молодіжному середовищі»
3 января 2009


  • Report of the Ukrainian national center religious safety and help to victims of destructive cults "Dialogue" at the International scientific and practical conference "Children and sects", Barcelona (Spain), 10-11 May 2002
  • Resolution on Ukraine International scientific and practical conference "Children and sects", Barcelona (Spain), 10-11 May 2002
  • Final declaration of the International scientific and practical conference «Totalitarian sects - a threat to the human rights in Eastern Europe», Vinnitsa (Ukraine), October 8-10, 2002
  • Thought reform consultation, youth cult education preparation and sect family intervention work
  • Developing a framework for preventive educational programs