The word “cult” is a loaded, pejorative term. A number of alternatives has been proposed, of which “new religious movement” is the most neutral. However, it would be difficult to apply this term to the Mormon church which was founded well over 180 years ago.
Throughout this article, the term “manipulative group” will be used, referring to an important characteristic which many cults have in common: exerting undue influence over the emotions, thoughts and behaviour of their members.
Why, then, “manipulative” rather than a more neutral term such as “undue influence” which is currently replacing earlier terms such as “brainwashing” and “mind control” among cult theorists? The reason is the asymmetrical relationship between the interests of the group and the individual. Influencing is a normal form of interaction between humans. Parents influence their children, managers their employees, companies their customers, etc.
The person who exerts the influence, however, is in turn influenced by the individual needs of the persons being influenced and usually is open to feedback. Parents have the best interest of their children at heart, employers are often attentive to their personnel’s need for personal development and companies are, to a large degree, led by consumer demand.
In a manipulative group, the process of exerting influence is not reciprocal. The interests of the group supersede the interests of the individual. The individual has little to no influence over the leadership of the group while the leaders, on the other hand, dictate the personal lives of the members down to the most minute details (food, clothing, entertainment, etc.). It is this asymmetry between the leadership of the group and the members that makes a group manipulative rather than merely influencing.
This asymmetric influencing is implemented through the use of manipulative techniques such as:
- Inducing anxiety, guilt and fear (e.g. over one's eternal well-being);
- Cultivating a strong us-versus-them mentality;
- Promoting group think, discouraging independent thought;
- Enforcing strict lifestyle rules;
- Using rewards and punishments;
- Exerting social control and group pressure;
- Causing stress and overloading;
- Disparaging external information;
- Engaging in black-and-white thinking, polarizing.
Even if manipulative processes don’t necessarily require central control, there are certain conditions that must be met for such processes to be sustained in a group over the long term. Manipulative processes thrive in groups with the following characteristics:
- Hierarchical, top-down governance;
- Many administrative layers;
- Authoritarian, undemocratic decision making;
- Obscure financial structure;
- Native, often layered, information services;
- Inward focused, isolated;
- Extensive control apparatus.
Authoritarian structures and manipulative processes can evolve together because they reinforce each other. It is possible for a group to initially have an open and democratic character, and then become more isolated and authoritarian over time.
Variation and intensity
Manipulative processes and authoritarian structures are found in many places where people live together. Sometimes they are purposefully and structurally implemented, at other times they emerge spontaneously and incidentally.
Also, not all of these processess and structures are present to the same degree in every manipulative group. Moreover, manipulative processes and authoritarian structures rarely are the only characteristics of an organization and their importance in a group’s dynamic may vary. In short: not all manipulative groups are the same.
Not only are there differences between groups, the groups are not always internally homogenous. When a group is large, there may be geographical and cultural differences between countries and continents. If a group has existed for some time, it may have undergone a transformation from non-manipulative to manipulative or vice versa.
The Mormon Church as a Manipulative Group
To determine the impact of a manipulative group on a random individual, several journalists, psychologists, professional associations and government agencies have constructed models and questionnaires.
Below are links to six such questionnaires, applied to the Mormon church. The answers to the first questionnaire have been extensively documented. That article is very long but hopefully also very recognizable for readers who are familiar with the Mornon church.
The questions on the other lists have only been answered with yes or no. These lists partly overlap because they concern the same subject but on the other hand, they also enhance each other because they have been constructed from different perspectives.
- Swiss journalist Hugo Stamm (the Mormon church meets 40 of the 45 criteria on this list, or 89%);
- Steven Hassan’s BITE-model (59 out of 74 criteria, 85%);
- The Cult Education Institute (19 out of 20 criteria, 95%);
- The International Cultic Studies Association (14 out of 15, 93%)
- The Professional Association of German Psychologists (25 out of 28, 89%);
- The Belgian government’s Information and Advisory Centre for Harmful Cultic Organizations (15 out of 20, 75%);
The Mormon church exhibits a relatively high percentage of characteristics of manipulative groups because of its authoritarian, hierarchical structure and its far-reaching, one-sided influence on, and control over the behaviour, emotions and thoughts of its members.