Why Do People Join Cults? An Animated Primer Explains

As much as we might like to think we make free choic­es as ratio­nal indi­vid­u­als, we are all more or less sug­gestible and sub­ject to social pres­sures. Social media mar­keters aren’t under any illu­sions about this. Guides for how to exploit psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and influ­ence behav­ior pro­lif­er­ate. (One of the top-sell­ing busi­ness books on Ama­zon is a man­u­al titled Influ­ence: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Per­sua­sion.) Such tech­niques form the basis of a mas­sive, glob­al ad-based indus­try that also hap­pens to traf­fic in polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da and dis­in­for­ma­tion. None of this would be as wild­ly prof­itable and effec­tive as it is if human beings could eas­i­ly resist manip­u­la­tion.

But there are degrees of influ­ence and sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty. Not every­one who makes an easy mark for adver­tis­ers, for exam­ple, is liable to join a cult or an extrem­ist group. What makes peo­ple sub­ject to the induce­ments of a cult leader? What makes them—in the clichéd phrase cal­lous­ly drawn from the mass sui­cide at Jonestown—“drink the Kool-Aid”? The TED-Ed video above, script­ed by cult expert Dr. Jan­ja Lalich, pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty, Chico, begins with some basic qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

Not all cults are reli­gious: some are polit­i­cal, ther­a­py-based, focused on self-improve­ment, or oth­er­wise.

Not all new reli­gions are cults.

Lalich defines a cult as a “group or move­ment with a usu­al­ly extreme ide­ol­o­gy, typ­i­cal­ly embod­ied in a charis­mat­ic leader…. Most cults share some basic char­ac­ter­is­tics,” such as a “high-lev­el of com­mit­ment from its mem­bers,” a strict hier­ar­chy, and “claims to pro­vide answers to life’s biggest ques­tions.” Cults have lit­tle tol­er­ance for dis­sent from either the inside or out­side.

The dis­tinc­tions between cults and reli­gions can seem slight, but cults sep­a­rate their mem­bers from the larg­er soci­ety and seek direct and total con­trol over their lives, while most main­stream reli­gions (which may have begun as cults) do not. Reli­gions may pros­e­ly­tize, but cults use meth­ods more akin to pyra­mid schemes to pres­sure recruits into per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing with the ide­ol­o­gy and spread­ing it. By exploit­ing our desires for con­nec­tion, com­fort, mean­ing, and belong­ing, they cre­ate what the DSM‑V terms “iden­ti­ty dis­tur­bance due to pro­longed and intense coer­cive per­sua­sion.”

Cults “dis­cour­age crit­i­cal think­ing, mak­ing it hard to voice doubts when every­one around you is mod­el­ing absolute faith.” New recruits expe­ri­ence painful cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance that, over time, they try to over­come by strength­en­ing their devo­tion. The sense of sunk cost makes it increas­ing­ly hard for them to admit they have been lied to, manip­u­lat­ed, and used. Cults stunt their mem­bers’ “psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al growth,” which is “a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for chil­dren” who are born or indoc­tri­nat­ed into them. Belief, Lalich’s les­son states, should not force a per­son to sac­ri­fice their fam­i­ly, friends, per­son­al moral­i­ty, and mon­ey to an author­i­tar­i­an leader.

Lalich her­self under­stands cults not only as an aca­d­e­m­ic researcher but as a for­mer mem­ber of a polit­i­cal cult in which, she says, “you weren’t allowed to think for your­self at the same time as you were told to think for your­self.” Which brings us to the burn­ing ques­tion that has been asked so many times over the past four years. Does the absolute, unwa­ver­ing devo­tion to the cur­rent pres­i­dent con­sti­tute cult-like behav­ior? Is “Trump­ism” a cult? An open let­ter on Lalich’s Cult Research site, signed by a num­ber of promi­nent psy­chol­o­gists, psy­chi­a­trists, and oth­er experts, advis­es, “We should look to the evi­dence, and there is evi­dence aplen­ty.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

Christo­pher Hitchens Dis­miss­es the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advo­cat­ing Self­ish­ness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Rein­force­ment”

Isaac Asi­mov Laments the “Cult of Igno­rance” in the Unit­ed States (1980)

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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