Feelings of isolation are increasing these days. Limiting the number of people we’re in close contact with, and sticking to the same tight circle feels a bit better than isolating ourselves completely, but we still miss those friends who make the circle too big, our regular offline meetings and gatherings, favorite public events, and our old offline hangouts. Performing and literary artists in particular are feeling the strain of cancelled plays, concerts, readings and open mics. Even if you’re busy writing new songs or poems, and happy just to spend time with your spouse or partner, or love being home with your kids all day, you probably wish you could spend more of that time together at your favorite hangout.
Joining groups online, or joining small offline groups that take all necessary precautions is one way to alleviate some of that feeling of being shut away. Some groups even promise to alleviate some of the financial worries of the time, offering jobs or business opportunities. But not all groups are safe to join. Cults and cult-like groups make the news when things take a horrific turn, but financial, psychological, and relationship damage can occur in any group that employs cult-like tactics.
Devotion to a Person
Whether you joined an online musicians’ networking group or an offline support group for single parents, signed up for a business opportunity, or took a job with a small business, be wary of any group that demands allegiance and devotion to an individual, family, or small group. It is not “team building” when a boss expects you to shun everyone who crosses them, take up their personal causes that have nothing to do with the work, or jump and do things for them beyond what you would do for anyone else. Pastors should never give the impression that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, or impressions that have nothing to do with the Bible are the word of God. Leaders of networking and support groups should never demand excessive online chatting, correspondence, or personal details.
This is commonly known as an “us versus them” atmosphere, and can be one of the most alluring features of a cult-like group. Being part of the group, seeing yourself as accepted, and feeling like you belong someplace is great. There are some elements of “us” and “them” in any group you join for any reason. Your pastor at your perfectly safe church probably talks about what you as a congregation can do. When you work for a company, you hope they’re chosen by advertisers, clients, and customers over others in the field. But when people in groups you do not belong to become enemies without doing anything to someone else, or by doing something that merely displeases one person, that is a red flag.
Attempting to Control Your Information
Before the days of twenty-four hour news cycles, and the ability to look things up, order books, or instantly stream films came along, cult-like groups directly controlled what their members learned or heard. Today, they are well aware that keeping people away from information is nearly impossible, so they try to discredit any information that paints them in a bad light or provides an alternate point of view, and encourage members to reject that information. Multi-level marketing groups, most of which use cult-like tactics to lure people in and keep them, are famous for this feature. Any video, article, or other report from someone who tried to make money selling for them and earned nothing but a host of problems is brushed aside as the whining of someone who just didn’t work hard enough.
Off-kilter Reward and Punishment System
The presence of rewards and punishments alone does not indicate a cult. Every time you get a paying gig or assignment, or it’s payday at your second career or day job, you get a reward for your behavior. You play the music, write the article, work your shift, or get your tasks done, and you get money. If you don’t do the work, you get punished, in the form of being fired, lacking funds, and getting a bad reputation. Reward and punishment becomes a red flag for a cult-like group if the rewards and punishments are based on loyalty to the leader or the group, rather than for what you actually contribute. Not being asked to be a mentor or moderator in your online support group because you rarely contribute anything when someone else has a problem is understandable. Not being asked because you don’t navigate over to the leader’s private page for personal chats is suspicious.
Interference in Healthy Relationships
This is another cult-like trait common in multi-level marketing companies. Anyone who tells you that your new “business” is not a franchise of a cosmetics company, just you hiring yourself out as a commission only sales person to a major corporation, is to be mocked. People who tell you that you will likely lose, not earn, money with this type of work are to be pushed aside. You will be told they do not have your best interests at heart, do not support you, and do not truly love or like you. It does not matter if the person is the love of your life, an adopted sibling to you, or the supervisor you’ve enjoyed working under for several years. If they don’t tell you what the multi-level marketing company wants to hear, the multi-level marketing company wants them gone, or at least pushed aside. All dangerous groups are not as blatant as this, but any business, group, or organization that encourages you to treat those who love you poorly in any way is not a place you want to stay.
These are not the only five features of a cult or cult-like group, just the ones you are most likely to notice first. Look for a pattern of these traits in any group you join for any reason, and leave as soon as you see it emerge. It is better to suffer a few moments of embarrassment, or even give up a side income or activity, than to immerse yourself in psychological or financial danger.