Science, Wellness, Now + Beyond

5 reasons why “normal” people join cults – and why they stay

People don't join cults because they want to join cults. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "Hey, I'd love to join a cult today!"

The actual definition of the word “cult” is a loaded one, but for our own understanding a cult is defined as “a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control”.

You may even hear people jokingly call Apple users a “cult” – they love their Apple products and are so loyal to the brand, borderline crazy loyal. Apple products aside, getting into the brain of a person who chooses to submit themselves to a cult can be both disturbing and fascinating.  Contrary to what you may think, joining cult behavior is not a characteristic of the brainwashed, uneducated, or poor. People join cults for different reasons, and while all cults may not be as fatal as, for example, the infamous People’s Temple in Jonestown, the potential for abuse and intimidation can never be ruled out.

Here are 5 insights into understanding the inner workings of a person who is converted and eventually brainwashed by a cult.

1. Their behavior may be partly explained through scientific understanding.

[Image Description: A well-dressed woman stood up rolling her eyes with the caption – I’m confused.] via Giphy.com
Note my term here: partly. This one is interesting because it helps us understand the scientific workings of the cult member’s brain. Just a few years after the People’s Temple massacre happened in 1978, a 1982 New York Times article examined the psychology of cults. One of the theories (emphasis on theories) from researchers of the time was experiences described by cult members resembled personality changes regularly associated with disorders of the temporal lobe of the brain.

Unfortunately,  cult leaders know the brain can be manipulated and successfully exercise mind control techniques to create these personality changes.

 2. They want to belong to something important.

belong GIF by Lost & Found Music Studios
[Image Description: A young woman smiling, nodding her head and saying “I feel like I belong here”.] via Giphy.com
This is especially a risk for young people – and women.

By young people, I mean anyone between the ages of 16-35.  It is no wonder why cults love to invest their recruitment services at university campuses. It is healthy for human beings to want to feel a sense of purpose. This world is a tough place, and to understand our place can be overwhelming, and maybe even intimidating. Sometimes, it may be easier to completely submit to something that perhaps helps us put the world in a neat little gift box with a pretty bow wrapped around it.

3. They feel a deep sense of fear of their external environment as it currently stands.

[Image Description: Seth Meyers smiling and nodding at the camera whilst saying “Yes, everything sucks”.] via Giphy.com
The world’s realities may seem depressing.

Sometimes, we keep asking ourselves why history keeps repeating itself. We may believe there is no real hope or silver lining in anything.

Cult leaders (and hey, even political ones like Donald Trump) know this very well. In a world of deep insecurity and uncertainty, these leaders prey upon the most insecure. They heighten that fear. And no, this does not mean that people who are recruited by cults are weak individuals. Because we can all have these feelings at some point in our lives.

4. They may not even know that they are a part of a cult

[Image Description: Man talking to someone of the camera saying “We’re not a cult”.] via Giphy.com
Contrary to what you expect, cults are not only terrifying groups that wrongfully promise seventy (or maybe more, I lost track) heavenly virgins or Jesus freaks who promise salvation through opening up your wallet to fund your private jet (ahem, Joel Olsteen).

Ever heard of those crazy groups on American university campuses who get college freshmen to belligerently drink glass after glass of beer till it stops becoming fun, all in the name of “rush week”? And for what? Acceptance into a group of people who pretty much look the same and may get you some contacts and networks for a job after college?

Yes, I am talking about a good number (not all) of fraternities and sororities that exhibit cult-like behavior, and also get glorified for this in popular culture.

5.  They seem to only see a better world through the lens of their cult

[Image Description: A boy giving an inspirational talk saying “We can and we will”.] via Giphy.com
Inspiration is important.

Inspiring leaders and people are also important in order for us to have examples to follow to make our lives better.  But when inspiring people use doing good as a way to exert force or discourage any critical thinking, the seeds for cult behavior and psychological trauma within followers are born.  Many of the followers of Jim Jones in The People’s Temple believed deeply in the cause for creating a more equitable society. Jim Jones himself was passionate about the civil rights, and many of his followers were African-American. They would not have left the U.S. for a jungle in Guyana if that was not the case.

Cults do not necessarily have to be infamous examples and can live among us in our everyday lives. It is easy to judge people who join cults as “weirdos”, but it is always important to keep in mind: people can be manipulated. That manipulation is powerful.

A cult leader can have the power to play upon people’s emotions in order to drive them to submission to one ideology, cause or thought process.

That kind of submission makes me realize the complexity of human beings, especially when it comes to our behavior and vulnerabilities.