What Is Undue Influence?

The phrase “undue influence” is often used when talking about cults, high-control religions, and abusive relationships or families. Undue influence is a legal term which means, in part, “…influence by which a person is induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences.”

Virtually any act of persuasion that over-comes the free will and judgment of another, including exhortations, importunings,insinuations, flattery, trickery, and deception, may amount to undue influence. Undue influence differs from duress, whichconsists of the intentional use of force, or threat of force, to coerce another into a grossly unfair transaction. Blackmail, extortion, bad faith threats of criminal prosecution, and oppressive Abuse of Process are classic examples of duress.

The term “undue influence” is applied when one person takes advantage of a position of power or authority over another; in court, the term is often used to describe situations where a person may be coerced or “unduly influenced” to make changes to their will or sign certain paperwork and agreements that are not in their best interests.

Cults and Undue Influence

Cults and abusive, high-control religions often use undue influence over their members; Margaret Thaler-Singer, PhD, referred to the “Thought Reform” or “Cult” model as including the following six stages:
  1. Isolation
  2. Creation of a siege mentality
  3. Dependency on the cult or its leaders
  4. Powerlessness
  5. Fear and vulnerability of cult members
  6. The victims is kept unaware
According to Thaler-Singer, cults use the following specific tactics:
  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place. 
  2. Control the person’s time and, if possible, physical environment. 
  3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency. 
  4. Suppress much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes. 
  5. Instill new behavior and attitudes. 
  6. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism. 

David Hominek, in his essay Cults in American Society: A Legal Analysis of Undue Influence, Fraud, and Misrepresentation, and quoted by International Cultic Studies Association, defined cults as a group that:

(a) exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some leadership, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members, (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.

Steven Hassan uses a BITE model when defining cults; this refers to the control a group has over its members Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions. To note a comparison of how Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular follow this BITE model, please see “Beware the Cult-Like Control and Abuse of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Healthy Religion Versus Cult

It is often difficult to define a healthy religion versus a cult; virtually every religion will have some type of influence on their members and congregants. However, note a few important differences between a healthy religion or other group, and a cult:

  • A religion respects a person’s autonomy or individuality; a cult forces compliance or a “cookie cutter” appearance and personality.
  • A religion encourages critical thinking and questions; a cult punishes or insults doubts, questions, or any criticism or critical thinking.
  • A religion encourages strong family bonds; a cult sees the family as the enemy and becomes the congregant’s family.
  • A religion is patient with those who consider joining, even encouraging them to do research and independent study; a cult encourages a quick decision and discourages outside research.