How cults exercise control over the way their members think… and how Mary Kay might be similar.

Cult expert Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control, provides lots of information about cults. He is a former cult member as well as a certified counselor.

Cults exercise four distinct types of control over their members:

  1. Behavior control
  2. Information control
  3. Thought control
  4. Emotional control

Behavior control can include controlling basic activities of people, including what they eat, where they sleep, where they work, rituals they engage in, etc. Cults have strict schedules for their members, and there is always an activity going on. Every cult has its own custom behaviors and rituals. Behavior control can even become powerful enough that members participate in their own punishment and believe that they deserve it.

Mary Kay connection:

  • Directors and up are required to wear the same suit (including an approved blouse). Yet they all believe it is a privilege for them to wear it. Lower levels also wear “uniforms.” These include “Red Jackets” (we’ve all heard of red jacket purgatory), shirts in black or white (depending upon level), and black skirts.
  • There are constantly events going on in Mary Kay. I have seen Directors have as many as 4 meetings a week (attendance is usually dependent upon your level within the unit). There are also debuts and NSD events/lectures, in addition to the official company events such as Seminar, Career Conference, and Leadership Conference. All of these are done to keep the consultants “in front of” the MK opportunity and all it has to offer (i.e. Keep them motivated and reaching for the “dream.”)
  • The punishment in Mary Kay is quite subtle. It is so subtle that many will deny it ever happens. There are stories of people holding rubber chickens or wearing a dunce cap for saying something negative. Most women went along with those shaming rituals because of their fear of retribution or shunning by other members or the sales directors. Oftentimes, they agree that they deserve to hold the chicken, so to speak, because they know they shouldn’t have said anything negative in the first place

Information control focuses on denying a person necessary information to make a sound judgment. Cult members are trapped because they are denied access to critical information that would help them evaluate their situation. Psychological chains can be just as strong as physical chains. Cult members become unable to process any critical information given to them.

Mary Kay connection:

  • Many would like to see Pink Truth taken down. They don’t like what we do here. We tell the truth to those who need the information to make a sound decision about Mary Kay. Does MK deny information? Yes! Directors don’t present the $225 level during inventory talks. They don’t offer this site for some information from the “other side.” They don’t tell recruits to seek input from their husbands. You get the idea.
  • If you placed “negative” information in front of a Mary Kay consultant, would she be able to process it for use in her MK decisions, or would be become agitated and maybe hateful in her defense of MK? One only needs to read the posts on this site from MK consultants to know the answer.

Thought control uses the indoctrination of members so that they manipulate their own thought processes. The ideology of the cult is accepted and internalized as “the truth.” All new information received by the person is filtered through these beliefs. Thought control may also include “thought stopping” techniques. This is accomplished by doing things such as chanting, meditating, singing, or concentrated praying. These techniques stop members from thinking about reality, and instead, they are focused on positive thoughts about the group.

Mary Kay connection:

  • Many Mary Kay consultants take what their directors or NSDs say as gospel. They fervently defend deceptive statements like “Mary Kay is the #1 selling brand” and “Mary Kay is taught at Harvard.”
  • Directors hold up large commission checks and tout their larger-than-life lifestyle that was funded by those checks.The same directors never disclose the expenses associated with acquiring those commission checks. The unit members accept the “truth” that that the almighty commission check is easily attainable (they can do it too) and there is no concern over the sacrifices or expenses connected with the check.
  • Social media has made it easier than ever for directors and NSDs to repeatedly present a picture of a fabulous lifestyle funded by Mary Kay. Women see the material goods, the supposed free time, the carefree lifestyle, and they forget about the long hours and the fact that the money might not even be there for most of these directors.
  • Mary Kay is famous for its lingo, and I’m sure many have heard numerous quotes and sayings, either those of Mary Kay Ash herself or someone up the food chain. These sayings are mostly what consultants hear when they go to those events, instead of any kind of real information. Just a few: “You have to show up, to go up.” “Short term sacrifice, for long term gain.” “Slow is hard, fast is easy.” We could probably fill a book with these!
  • Consultants are trained from the beginning NOT to speak negatively about MK or their MK experience. Any question about Mary Kay should be answered with the word “great.” This is the only acceptable answer, even if you have had a bad week.

Emotional control is used to manipulate a person’s range of feelings. Guilt and fear are used heavily to maintain control. Cult members do not recognize the control exercised through guilt. Fear is used by cults to create an enemy (us versus them). The fear of punishment is also used to manipulate members who may not feel they are good enough. Cults also instill panic at the thought of leaving the group. Members cannot even imagine a life outside of the group.

Mary Kay connection:

  • To see how much emotional control there is in Mary Kay, replace the word “cult” in the above paragraph with “unit” (as in MK unit). How many of us STILL blame ourselves for “failing” at MK? Many. And there are even more of us out there that just aren’t sure if we really tried hard enough?
  • Directors and up are trained to use inventory as a means of guilt manipulation. If you’re not making money in MK, then it’s because you don’t have enough inventory! If you had a “full store” you would HAVE TO sell and then you would make money! You will never be SERIOUS about your MK business unless you stock a “full store”. How many have bought into the $600 level of Inventory and felt “guilt” about not having the $1,800 or $3,600 level?
  • How many here have already confessed ill feelings about the very thought of telling their director or recruiter about wanting to leave MK because of the guilt they will feel? This guilt didn’t happen by accident; it has been instilled since day one in MK.
  • The outside enemy in Mary Kay includes your family, friends, parents, husband, or anyone who speaks even remotely negative about MK. You can also be your own enemy in MK. You are NOT to speak of your negative experiences in MK. Do you have a husband who is not in favor of taking out a loan for your $4,000 inventory? He’s unsupportive. Is your mom worried because you put $2,000 on your first credit card out of college? She’s not being supportive either. Is your best friend skeptical of the MK opportunity and about the claims of big money? She’s just jealous and doesn’t have what you have to succeed. You must alienate yourself from all negative forces to be in good graces with MK. (In other words, you must alienate yourself from anyone who cares enough to tell you the truth.)
  • No, there really isn’t a physical gun held to your head, but rather a psychological one! Everything in MK is emotional… they bring you in because you have a “need.” Recruiters are trained to find the need of each woman and emphasize how Mary Kay will fit that need. The recruit is elated. She wants more money for her family, and MK can provide it. So you sign up, you’re excited, you brag to everyone, you can’t wait to get started. Your business kit comes in the mail… it’s like Christmas! The next day you have your first “career” meeting with your Director where she is about to tell you how to be everything you ever wanted to be with MK… and what does she give you? The inventory talk. No gun. Just her and your decision to make your dreams come true or not. Again, no gun.

One more comment about thought control, which can be so subtle. The victim doesn’t know who is the enemy because the enemy seems like their best friend who only has their best interests at heart.

Was your director or recruiter your best friend? Did she say things like “love and belief” and talk about how much she “loves” you? In the same email or conversation, did she also “encourage” you to put in a Star Order? Maybe for the sake of the “team”? Didn’t you want to help your director earn a pink Cadillac? After all, she spent so much time helping you, encouraging you, lifting you up, providing spiritual motivation for you? So you order more inventory, even if you don’t really need it. You don’t have much on your books, but she’s your friend and she deserves that car.

Many completely overlook the debt that is encouraged in Mary Kay, the alienation from family and spouses, the indoctrination by repetitive events, etc. Because they desperately want to help their “friend.”

A group does not have to be religious to be cultic in behavior. Beware, especially if you are bright, intelligent, and idealistic. The most likely person to be caught up in cult behavior is the one who says “It won’t happen to me. I won’t fall for it. I’m too smart.”


  1. Thought control is key to hiding the reality behind the cash flow mechanisms in Mary Kay. The aggregate losses in the downline are necessary, so it is paramount that no one catches on that nearly everyone is losing money. These techniques help keep members from noticing their losses early on, and once they do notice, they are conditioned to believe they are the only ones losing money.

    Just imagine if at Seminar everyone was required to wear a headband that held a card revealing that individual’s true cumulative MK business losses to date (or effective hourly rate for those turning a true profit). It would then become a game to find someone who’s actually turning a true business profit. Shock and awe would follow when discovering most SD’s are in the red too, or making only pennies per hour worked.

    How long would it take for this house of cards to fall if such disclosure was available for all to see? How hard would it become to recruit if such knowledge was available prior to signing up?

    Thought control is required to power that upline cash flow. Real businesses can publish expected gross pay. MLMs would go out of business if they did the same.

  2. “Thought stopping techniques” are often short sayings and slogans that can derail a dangerous thought … an IBC questioning whether an order is too big can be derailed by “you can’t sell from an empty wagon”. An IBC wanting to spend time with family will be diverted by “short term pain for long term gain” or “don’t make your kids your excuse, make them your reason” … whew, another possible chargeback averted.

    And we have always been at war with Eastasia.

  3. This has been a great series, Tracy.

    My first look inside MLM was “The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe”, a documentary on Discovery, maybe half a year before I wound up here (at the time I had no idea MK was MLM). I wasn’t looking for info on MLM and wasn’t even really aware there could be something hinky about a company that sold ugly leggings.

    There were the Stidhams, whom I wanted to punch every time they showed up on screen. Deanne squeaked away like an overcaffienated Muppet about DREAMS and SUCCESS and YOU and AWESOME!!! If she paused for breath, Mark was smugging about “if you fail it’s because you didn’t take advantage of he opportunity we were kind enough to sell you, you failure who sucks.” It was such a pernicious good cop/bad cop act – We love you! You’re great! And if you fail you don’t deserve our love! The song of my emotionally abusive mother, who only showed love when I did what she wanted. So I was kind of predisposed to not like these people XD

    The part that really blew my mind was footage of one of their conventions: a hall full of bodies, almost all white middle-aged women dressed in nearly identical outfits, arms waving in the air, eyes closed, expressions of bliss on their faces, transfixed by the young man on stage singing a paean to Lula: “Seasons come and seasons go, but I’ve still got my LuLa Roe!” They’d been brainwashed by a goddamn clothing company.

    It took me straight back to the televangelists of the 80s who lived in luxury and sinned like crazy on the money sent to them by people who just wanted a shot at Heaven. Or, more recently, megachurches like HIllsong where becoming a VIP meant you were Somebody, and the way you became a VIP was buying yourself into it however it happened.

    Yet I felt nothing but sympathy for the people who’d lost everything to these jackasses. Such a promising dream, the embodiment of the American can-do spirit, screwed over by forces outside their control – crappy quality, damaged merchandise that the company tried to gaslight them about, no outlet to vent their frustrations. There were times when I’d been desperate for a job, money, and the support and love they SEEMED to offer when I’d have fallen hard for their bullshit, too.

    What impressed me most, however, were the experts in business and finance who explained exactly what an MLM is, how the compensation structure works (or doesn’t work), and why it’s unsustainable. The experts in cults and cultlike thinking who explained how the brainwashing process works. They explained why it’s bad and dangerous; it wasn’t just a bunch of sour grapes.

    I promise there’s a point to this, which is: just like the experts on the documentary, I so appreciate everyone who breaks down the numbers and the Mary Kay math, shows the cultlike and predatory behavior for what it is, and talks about how these pie in the sky promises shake out in the real life. I’ve learned an awful lot about both MLM and people since I landed here and I sincerely appreciate it.

  4. If someone is trying to get you to be compliant, they do it incrementally, in a series of small steps that take you farther and farther from what you know to be true, It’s not about breaking your will, it’s about altering your sense of reality.

    • True dat. Part of why it’s so hard to leave a toxic or abusive situation is that the badness seems normal to the victim, and people have a hard time accepting that their version of reality is wrong.


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