top of page

High-control groups

What are high-control groups

And why are they so damaging?

Important: this site makes no comment whatsoever on whether or not Lighthouse International Group fits the criteria for a high-control group. 

Join the club

We all want to be part of something, to connect with others, to share our ideas, hopes, and fears. We want to have resonant and meaningful lives; perhaps working with others in the hope that we might leave the world in a better place than we found it.


It can be wonderful to join a movement to achieve those things – for social change, workers' rights, feminism, climate activism, dismantling racial injustice – or join smaller support and discussion groups that might point their gaze inwards, exploring philosophy, spirituality, worship, or self-improvement. Joining a group can be a fulfilling experience.

But sometimes, these groups can go awry. They can start to excerpt more and more control over their members, leaders might misuse their status in worrying ways, members might be coerced via immersive tasks, or give money when it is not in their best interests to do so.


Logical-thinking soon turns into magical-thinking, a spiritual or religious dimension could be revealed, and group-think might have a chilling effect on voicing concerns.

" is often too late to prevent serious harm to the people involved and affected by them."

Anastasia Somerville-Wong, Secular Liturgies

At this point, it can be argued these groups become "high-control" groups or cults and have the potential to be incredibly damaging.

High-control groups

"By the time serious problems with groups become apparent to wider society," writes Humanist Chaplain Anastasia Somerville-Wong, "it is often too late to prevent serious harm to the people involved and affected by them."

Ian Haworth at The Cult Information Centre defines a cult as a group having all of the following five characteristics:

  1. It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members

  2. It forms an elitist totalitarian society.

  3. Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.

  4. It believes the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds and recruit people.

  5. Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

Haworth notes that "most cults register with the government as religious organisations or simply charities of one form or another."

"So what is the problem?" he asks. "It is that people are being deceived and then psychologically coerced into association with the cults through the use of methods sometimes called mind control techniques."

Quoted above, Anastasia Somerville-Wong is the Founding Humanist Chaplain at the University of Exeter and an Executive and Trustee of the Devon Faith and Belief Forum. She has identified 25 Signs You're in a High-Control Group or Cult. The list appears below but do check out her own article here – it's great, and very even-handed... She also notes that one of the signs of a high-control group are "mind-altering practices":

25 Signs
You're in a High-Control Group
or Cult
Anastasia Somerville-Wong
  • There is opposition to critical thought,

  • And self-doubt is encouraged.

  • Magical thinking is prevalent,

  • And leaders claim to have special insight and supreme knowledge.

  • The leadership is authoritarian, charismatic and narcissistic,

  • And leaders are not accountable to other authorities.

  • There are draconian and intrusive rules for members,

  • But the leaders are above the law.

  • The flow of information is subject to censorship and control,

  • And the group as a whole is elitist, with an elite ‘inner circle’ at its core.

  • Threats are made against members who leave,

  • And outsiders or outsider groups are slandered and vilified.

  • Members become increasingly isolated from former companions,

  • And group identity takes precedence over (or replaces) individual identity.

  • The group performs secret rites and rituals,

  • And in general, their events involve mind-altering practices.

  • Members frequently experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear and dread,

  • And show zealous commitment, loyalty and dependence upon their leaders.

  • Groups have a preoccupation with new members and proselytising;

  • They target the vulnerable with ‘love-bombing’ and idealistic goals.

  • There is evidence of economic or financial exploitation,

  • And of punitive punishment, even physical abuse.

  • There is evidence of sexual exploitation,

  • And women, especially, are tightly controlled.

  • Deception is normalised, and the ends always justify the means.

Howarth goes one step further, identifying these mind-altering practices or "mind control techniques" as the following:

Peer Pressure
Love Bombing
Rejection of Old Values
Confusing Doctrine
Removal of Privacy
Time Sense Deprivation
Uncompromising Rules
Verbal Abuse
Sleep Deprivation
Replacement of Relationships

Financial Commitment
Finger Pointing
Flaunting Hierarchy
Controlled Approval
Change of Diet
No Questions
Dress Codes

Ian Howarth, Cult Information Centre (CIC),


Not all of these practices are evident in cults that use mind-altering techniques, but they seem to be common.

Therapy cults

Sometimes there are clear religious leanings of a high-control group, but sometimes we can consider a harmful group as a "therapy cult"; one that focuses on self-help and personal development. Without the religious aspect, these groups can seem less sinister, but they are just as harmful (and sometimes, a spiritual or religious dimension is revealed over time).

Offering services like coaching, mentorship, and what is purported to be "counselling", these groups can excerpt incredible influence over their members.

The two main headings under which the Cult Information Centre chooses to categorise cults:

Religious Cults

  1. Communal living common.

  2. Members usually leave or do not join society's workforce.

  3. Average age at the point of recruitment is in the low 20s.

  4. Registered as religious groups.

  5. Appear to offer association with a group interested in making the world a better place via political, spiritual or other means.

Therapy Cults

  1. Communal living rare.

  2. Members stay in society's workforce.

  3. Average age at the point of recruitment is in the mid 30s.

  4. Registered as not for profit groups.

  5. Appear to offer association with a group giving courses in some kind of self improvement or self help technique or therapy.

Ian Howarth, Cult Information Centre (CIC),

Many of these high-control groups and therapy cults can go undetected, hiding behind the veneer of a reputable business or organisation, and sometimes warning signs can seem subtle. Sometimes it's hard to show just how a group has used coercive control over its members, as they will often unanimously – and passionately – show intense love and loyalty to the group, and resist any criticism. And some groups start off benign, evolving over months or years to become problematic.


Group-think and peer pressure takes over, making it extremely problematic to question the actions of the group. And so, members have 'knowingly' stayed and supported the group, even as their lives slowly fall apart.

Families and friends who voice concerns are deemed to be toxic and communication can break down. Messaging inside the group keeps the idea that "those closest to us want our group to be wrong" front and centre in members' minds.

Finally, moving to transient shared accommodations organised by the group leaders further destabilises members. This is particularly concerning – ie if members have a change of heart and want to leave, and now have a tenuous relationship with family and friends, where will they go?


As Anastasia Somerville-Wong points out:

"Even when a group does not break the law and is never formally classified as a cult or extremist group, it can still cause considerable and long-term material and psychological harm to involved individuals and their families."
bottom of page