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If I were to say the word 'cult' to you, what would you think of? 'Don't drink the Kool-Aid', chanting and the Manson family, perhaps? I think that's all the stereotypes covered, isn't it?
But it isn't all suicide pacts and tambourines. Cults can take loads of different forms; they could look like self-help or community groups, they could be posing as charity or yoga clubs, or, of course, they could be among the more well-known 'religious group' types, too.
Cult expert Ian Howarth reckons there could be as many as 1000 cults in the UK, and the types of people they target probably aren't so different to you or me.
Ian, who runs the Cult Information Centre, tells LADbible: "The types of people who are often recruited aren't the frail and vulnerable. This is a myth. People want to think cults can only pick up vulnerable and weak people, but in reality, the more 'together' people are, the easier they can be recruited. They want intelligent and well-educated people. The easiest people to recruit are those who have quick minds and inquisitive natures. The 'healthier' the mind, the quicker you can be recruited.
"Cults are likely to approach college and university students. They're just as likely to go for younger people as they are for people in the 40s, 50s or 60s. Part of the problem is that people don't want to hear this. They want to feel that it can't happen to them, but it can happen to anyone."
And Ian would know. While in his 20s and living in Canada, he was approached by a woman at a shopping centre. She asked him if he could take part in a short survey, which he did, and invited him to a meeting to get involved with a local community group, asking him if he would like to 'give something back'.
Thinking he had nothing to lose, Ian went along. During a coffee break at the meeting, Ian popped out for a smoke. He was approached by someone who asked if he had ever thought of quitting and said they could help. Ian had been trying unsuccessfully to quit for a while, so he agreed to take part in the four-day course - and was told it was a 'guaranteed success'.
Just four days later, he'd handed in his resignation, given them all his money and signed up to dedicate his life to them. As quick as that.
Ian only managed to break free when the group involved, known as PSI Mind Development Institute Ltd, was exposed in the media. But that wasn't the end of the nightmare for Ian. It was really just the beginning.
"The 11 or 12 months after leaving a cult are tough," he explains. "People go through a pretty severe withdrawal. This is almost like withdrawing from a drug. People can have hallucinations, guilt, delusions, insomnia, amnesia, suicidal thoughts... I wouldn't wish those months on anyone."
When it comes to hooking people in, cults will use a variety of techniques to get people to completely give themselves over, Ian says. And it works fast; most people will fall under with three or four days.
"It's subtle, but certainly not soft or slow. Psychological coercion techniques, like hypnosis, which may be described as 'meditation'; creating a sense of belonging and group pressure, are often used," Ian says. He reckons he was hypnotised 16 times during his four-day 'course', but at the time was completely unaware.
"They'll also use things such as time-sense deprivation, so people aren't aware of what time it is or the passage of time; sleep deprivation and isolation," he says. "The 'leaders' may introduce a dress code to help remove identity, as well as changing diet, enforcing uncompromising rules - which must be obeyed - and verbal abuse.
"It's the same sort of techniques used to radicalise people. When [former UK Prime Minister] David Cameron referred to ISIS as a cult, he wasn't wrong. Mind-control techniques have to be used to get people to commit these sorts of atrocities.
"People are programmed in cults to believe anything; they can be made to do anything. If you're told two plus two is seven, you'll believe it. It doesn't matter if people show you evidence to the opposite, you're programmed to refuse that."
Pretty scary stuff. Ian's advice? "If you're invited to any sort of meeting or group, just check them out first," he says. "Do a bit of research; see what you can find out about them.
"It doesn't matter where you're approached. On the street, over the internet, or at university; always do your homework. Just because you met them on university campus, doesn't mean they've been approved; just because they say they're collecting for a good cause, it doesn't mean they are."
You can find out more about cults from the Cult Information Centre.
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