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.”