How Cult Tactics Affected the Duggar, Holmes, and Maxwell Court Cases

Manipulation, grooming, and cult-like behavior don’t just stay in the shadows. These tactics are used by religious leaders, business owners, and influencers all the time.

We can see the effects of cult tactics in recent federal court trials of Josh Duggar, Elizabeth Holmes, and Ghislaine Maxwell.

  • All defendants took advantage of innocent victims (allegedly).
  • All three were heavily influenced by a powerful, manipulative cult-like leader.
  • And all helped to develop an organizational culture that excused horrendous behavior, allowing them to callously inflict damage on their victims for years.

Manipulation and Cult Tactics in the News

Josh Duggar, TV star of the popular TLC show 19 Kids and Counting, is accused of receiving and possessing hundreds of images and videos of child abuse, as well as inappropriate contact with underage children including younger siblings. His parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are original members of Advanced Training Institute, the homeschooling arm of the Institute for Basic Life Principles which has been embroiled in accusations of abuse, neglect, and brainwashing.

(Read more about my experiences in this organization, and how I moved past religious and workplace trauma).

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Why #MeToo Inspired Me to Be Transparent and Share My Failures

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of blood-testing startup company Theranos, was the first female “paper billionaire.” She is charged with criminal fraud for misleading investors and customers and greatly exaggerating claims that her technology could change the world. Court documents show that her business partner and COO, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, was emotionally abusive; but Elizabeth was directly responsible for creating a culture of fear and intimidation toward whistleblowers.

(Read more about whistleblowers and Devil’s advocates)

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14 Incredible Devil’s Advocates Who Refused to Stay Silent About Injustice

Ghislaine Maxwell is accused of grooming dozens of girls and young women for victimization by powerful financier Jeffrey Epstein over several years and in multiple countries. She and Epstein manipulated and groomed children and their parents with the promise of a glamorous life but instead, they trafficked and imprisoned the victims.

According to clinical psychologist Elizabeth Jeglic, Ph.D., there are 5 distinct phases of grooming:

  1. Select a vulnerable victim.
  2. Gain access to and isolate the victim.
  3. Develop trust with the victim, guardians, and their community.
  4. Desensitize the victim to sexual content and physical contact.
  5. Once the abuse has occurred, maintain contact to facilitate future abuse opportunities and/or prevent the victim from telling anyone about the abuse.

Grooming tactics are just one piece of the larger picture of how cults operate. In all 3 of the above examples — Josh Duggar, Elizabeth Theranos, and Ghislaine Maxwell — the abusers were supported by organizations that allowed manipulation and cult tactics to thrive.

How the BITE Model Works

Steven Hassan, Ph.D., is an expert in cult and manipulation tactics. At age 19, Steven was recruited by the Moonies (Unification Church cult). He has written a best-selling book Combating Cult Mind Control and is a speaker at the annual Multi-Level Marketing Consumer Protection Conference.

Dr. Hassan has developed a helpful tool called the BITE model. This tool is based on the research of Robert Jay LiftonMargaret SingerEdgar ScheinLouis Jolyon West, the cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger, and brainwashing techniques used in Maoist China.

It describes the methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people and cause them suffering and pain.

“BITE” stands for

  • Behavior Control
  • Information Control
  • Thought Control, and
  • Emotional Control.
BITE model by Dr. Steven Hassan
Dr. Steven Hassan’s BITE Model with 4 quadrants of control: Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional

Behavior Control is used to

  • regulate the victim’s physical environment,
  • isolate them from outsiders,
  • restrict their activities, and
  • exploit their finances.

Information Control is used to

  • systematically alter the victim’s reality by withholding or distorting their perceptions,
  • demonizing contradictory sources of information,
  • establishing an “Us versus Them” mentality,
  • flooding the victim with a barrage of self-serving truth,
  • coercing confessions, and
  • establishing false memories.

Thought Control involves

  • repeating the group’s doctrines,
  • altering one’s name, identity, appearance, clothing, speech, and mannerisms
  • only allowing approved ideas to be discussed
  • using hypnotic and “thought-stopping techniques” such as chanting and prayer, and
  • rejecting critical thinking or constructive criticism.

Emotional Control occurs when

  • the victim is told their feelings are “evil” or selfish,
  • they are taught to block self-doubt and fear,
  • they are told that failure is their own fault,
  • if they don’t adapt to the group’s norms, they risk being rejected and losing their friends, reputation, and finances
  • they must constantly adapt to alternating highs and lows (“love bombing” and constant praise, followed by public humiliation and threats of terrible consequences).

Dr. Hassan also developed an Influence Continuum, which shows the differences between Constructive and Destructive behavior in an organization.

BITE model, Influence Continuum by Dr. Steven Hassan
Dr. Steven Hassan’s Influence Continuum as it applied to Leadership decisions

Here is another graphic of the Influence Continuum, comparing Constructive and Healthy traits to Destructive and Unhealthy ones for individuals, leaders, and organizations.

BITE model, Influence Continuum by Dr. Steven Hassan
The Influence Continuum by Dr. Steven Hassan shows Healthy and Unhealthy traits

The BITE Model Applied to the Duggar, Holmes, and Maxwell Trials

Let’s take a look at how this model can help us to identify cult and manipulation tactics in the three cases mentioned above.

Josh Duggar Case

Behavior Control

  • Josh and his siblings grew up in a very oppressive environment where their daily activities were constantly monitored.
  • They were isolated from outsiders, especially anyone outside their strict faith.
  • Their daily activities were restricted.
  • Jim Bob Duggar is often in control of the Duggar children’s finances, occupations, and housing.

Information Control

  • Growing up, Josh and his siblings were in distorted reality with very little access to outside information.
  • Outside sources of news that contradicted the family’s values were renounced.
  • The Duggar established an “Us versus Them” mentality,
  • They were encouraged to confess their sins aloud.
  • When Josh was accused of molesting sevral underage girls, his parents established false memories to downplay the frequency and severity of abuse.

Thought Control

  • The Duggars frequently quote group doctrines and sayings.
  • Family members are strongly urged to adapt their identity, appearance, clothing, speech, and mannerisms to a specific standard (clean-cut, suits and dresses, nothing to “cause your brother to stumble”).
  • Only approved ideas can be discussed.
  • As with many relgious cults, hypnotic and “thought-stopping techniques” are frequently used to influence behavior including chanting, repetition, and prayer.
  • Critical thinking and constructive criticism are not allowed.

Emotional Control

  • Josh’s victims were told that their feelings and memories were “evil” and selfish. Several of his sisters have come out publicly to speak their truth about what happened to them.
  • The Duggars were taught to get rid of self-doubt and fear.
  • Failure is viewed as one’s own fault, not the fault of the system or of the abuser.
  • Refusing to adapt to the group’s norms results in rejection, and several siblings have been cut off relationally and financially.
  • Behavior is kept in check with alternating praise and humiliation.

Elizabeth Holmes Case

Behavior Control

  • Elizabeth’s company, Theranos, had strict policies and video surveillance to monitor daily activities.
  • Theranos employees were isolated from outsiders.
  • Employees’ activities were restricted.
  • They were threatened with lawsuits and financial ruin if they spoke up.

Information Control

  • Elizabeth systematically altered the reality of what was actually going on at Theranos. She withheld data about the lab testing results and distorted the perception of how successful the company actually was.
  • She demonized contradictory articles and negative press.
  • Theranos established an oppressive “Us versus Them” culture.,
  • Employees were required to attend staff meetings which barraged them with self-serving truth.
  • Empkloyees were coerced into confessing behavior that went against Theranos policies.
  • Elizabeth and Sunny established false memories for employees that disagreed with the company’s outcomes.

Thought Control

  • The group’s doctrines were repeated constantly.
  • Elizabeth altered her voice and speech patterns, identity, appearance, clothing, and mannerisms and patterned them after Apple’s founder Steve Jobs.
  • She only allowed approved ideas to be discussed.
  • Theranos used hypnotic and “thought-stopping techniques” such as chanting in staff meetings.
  • Elizabeth refused to hear critical thinking or constructive criticism of her methods.

Emotional Control

  • Employees who spoke up were told their feelings were “evil” and selfish.
  • They were told to look the other way and to block self-doubt about how successful Theranos could be.
  • If an employee was unable to get the results Elizabeth and Sunny wanted, they were told it was their own fault,
  • Employees who did not adapt to the group’s norms were rejected and threatened with a lawsuit.
  • The culture included alternating highs and lows with praise, followed by humiliation and threats of terrible consequences.

Ghislaine Maxwell Case

Behavior Control

  • Ghislaine and Jeffrey Epstein monitored the daily activities of their victims through hidden videocameras and phone taps.
  • The underage victims were totally isolated from outsiders,
  • Their activities were severely restricted.
  • The victims ahd no access to their own finances and were entirely dependent on Maxwell.

Information Control

  • Maxwell systematically altered her victims’ reality by withholding or distorting their perceptions.
  • She refused withheld access to communication devices.
  • She and Epstein established an “Us versus Them” mentality.
  • They flooded their victims with a barrage of self-serving information about how they were better off with them.
  • Maxwell coerced confessions from victims who tried to escape.
  • She pushed the victims to replace true memories with false ones.

Thought Control

  • Maxwell and Epstein used repetitive abuse techniques on their victims.
  • They altered the victims’ name, identity, appearance, clothing, speech, and mannerisms.
  • They only allowed approved ideas to be discussed.
  • They used “thought-stopping techniques” to control their victims.
  • They rejected critical thinking or constructive criticism.

Emotional Control

  • If their victims spoke up, they were told their feelings were selfish,
  • Victims were taught to block self-doubt and fear.
  • They were told that failure to please Epstein was their own fault,
  • If victims refused to adapt to the group’s norms, they were threatened with physical harm and financial ruin.
  • Maxwell and Epstein used alternating “love bombing” and humiliation to control their victims.

Final Thoughts

While manipulation and abusive behavior used by predators can be extremely damaging, influence can be applied for good instead of evil. The key is to determine your philosophy and core beliefs are, and decide what you will and won’t do. Then compare your decisions against that standard.

If you’re willing to hear from Devil’s Advocates and have a teachable and empathetic attitude, the chances of your organization facing problems like those mentioned above is very low.

Respect and listen to others, and they will respect and listen to you.


If you’re interested in finding out how your organization could be at risk of profit leakage and other problems, find out more here.

Grace LaConte is a business strategist, writer, and speaker. She is the founder of LaConte Consulting, which offers guidance for business owners who want to improve their profit, growth, and value. Grace also helps accounting and finance professionals to become top-tier business consultants.

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