A Sideways View

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Why Do People Join Cults?

Why do people join and even appear to thrive in cult-like groups?

Why do people join the Masons, the Rotarians or a political Party? Because of what they offer: friendship, connections, identity, an opportunity to make a contribution. Are the motives the same as joining the Order of the Solar Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Taliban, Hamas, or the Al Qua-eda? How are acceptable social groups and organisations different from (dangerous) cults.  

There is a great deal of interest in “cults” which can take many forms: They may be religious or racial, political or mystical, self-help or pseudo-psychological, but they all have half a dozen recognizable characteristics:

  • Powerful and exclusive dedication/devotion to an explicit person or creed.
  • They use of “thought-reform” programmes to integrate, socialize, persuade and therefore control members.
  • A well thought through recruitment, selection and socialization process.
  • Attempts to maintain psychological and physical dependency among cult members.
  • Cults insist on reprogramming the way people see the world.
  • Consistent exploitation of group members specifically to advance the leaders goals.
  • Cults nearly always go in for milieu control signals: a different,unfamiliar setting with different rules, terms, behaviour patterns.
  • Ultimately using psychological and physical harm to cult members, their friends and relatives and possibly the community as a whole.

Most cults start their induction by trying to stop both individualistic and critical thinking like the army their job is the first to break you than remake you as one of them. This involves the introduction of a “sacred creed” that members may have to live by. Through open confession and subordination of the individual to the doctrine the cult ensures control and “purity”. Cults deliberately induce powerful emotions like fear, guilt but also pride. They tend to develop their own language, dress and signals which shows their specialness.

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But the central question is whether usually-thought-of good, legitimate organizations do things differently than cults. Do the Boy Scouts or the Round Table or the Women’s Institute operate psychologically at any rate?

All too often, we explain strange, unexpected behaviour (like joining a cult) in terms of the dispositions (personality) of others; they (the poor gullible naïve indoctrinated members) have quite defective personalities  But we explain more common behaviour in terms of the appeal of an accepted group's philosophy, leaders or benefits. Thus sad inadequates join cults; but altruistic, caring people join the church.

Applying misunderstood psychiatric labels to those who join extremist groups offers little or no explanation for their behaviour. It often represents little more than a moralistic condemnation. Rather than immediately trying to blame extremists for being different, it is equally important to try to understand the psychological appeal of cults, extremist groups and political cells, as well as some business organizations.

Any analysis of the make-up of individuals in cult groups shows surprising large diversity in terms of age, career, education, ideology and talents. They can attract the post-graduate and the illiterate; the teenager and the "senior citizen"; the solidly middle class and those on the fringes of society. It is not so much their demography that is important as their psychological needs.

Studies on those who have signed up for all sorts of cults and extremist groups have, however, shown that they do have similar and sophisticated recruitment promises, induction techniques and social influence agendas. They use methods of "indoctrination" and "mind-control" no different from all groups, though they maybe a lot more intensely applied. 

The mind-controlling techniques of extremist groups are little different form those of the army, religious organisations and prisons. These "wicked" techniques are in fact well known; demanding total, consistent compliance and conformity; using heavy persuasive techniques; creating dissonance; emotional manipulation. They differ only in intensity and duration…and thus in effectiveness.

What do all groups (cult and non-cult) offer a potential recruit? Answer: friendship, identity, respect and security. They also offer a world-view: a way of discerning right from wrong; good from bad.  These are powerful incentives for all people whatever their background. We are social animals. But they offer more: a structured life-style and the ability to acquire new skills. Through their (very different) ideologies they also offer moral explanations into how the world works. They provide clear answers to difficult and big questions: what it all means; the secret of happiness; life after death; the difference between right and wrong, who is with us and who against us; the saved and the damned.

Even political groups have a sort of religious agenda and the language of revenge, purification, justice which are often very "old testament". There is usually within most extremist cult groups surprisingly little violence and often a healthy life-style, at least in terms of exercise, diet, etc. And many promise the ability to heal physical and psychological illnesses...even the illness of society as a whole. Many promise the greatest gift of all: immortality.

Essentially five things make extreme groups dangerous to their member: 

First, they demand that they sever all ties with people (family, friends) and organisations (schools, churches). This naturally makes them more dependent on the cult itself and helps create the person's new identity. They start again, wipe the slate clean. This rule is also found in extreme in Christian Monastic orders. 

Second, the members are required to show immediate and unquestioning obedience to rules and regulations which maybe arbitrary, petty or pointless. The idea is to ensure allegiance and obedience. This strategy is used to "break-in" all army recruits. It is the very staff of boot camps.

Third, group members often have to do long hours of tedious work. It maybe drilling, begging for money, cooking, followed by compulsory reading, chanting or mediating. Recruits usually become physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Sleep deprivation is a good start. It's all part of the induction process.

Fourth, all groups need money to exist. Some are very much into money both as an end and as a means. This may, therefore, quickly involve recruits getting involved in illegal, or semi-legal activities. Groups that are state supported or those with a long history of operation may, however, be different. Members need to understand how, when and why money is required and to set about getting it quickly.

Fifth, groups make exit costs very high. Leaving is associated with failure, persecution and isolation. It is more than just a waste of time and effort. They make you feel as if nothing will ever be the same as you will be an outcast. It is made to sound a very unattractive, indeed impossible, option.

But it is true that certain individuals are more receptive to the message of cults than others? Recruiters know that what they appear to have in common is they are at some transitional phase in their life: something has gone and not been replaced. They may have moved location or given up work or education. They may have just left the bosom of the family because of age or poverty or divorce. They may have drifted away from their religion or ideological roots. They are dislodged from their social group…and looking for another.

In short, they often feel alienated; they experience all the meaningless, powerlessness and helplessness that goes with the state. They can feel increasingly isolated form the commercial, political and technical world that offers little for them. Disaffected, often angry and resentful they can seek each other out.

Enter the group recruiter. They are introduced into a group with simple (but "sensible") answers.  They offer simple rules and a simple life-style and social support. Most are happy to trade off their liberty (and assets such as they are) for the (illusory) glory, power and security of that group. The group (cult) appears to offer all they need and want.

Rather shy, unassertive people who seem inhibited and awkward in social situations are particularly attracted to groups with formulaic interaction patterns with their predictability and rule following.

Extreme groups offer simple, clear messages in an increasingly complex world. Old certainties are crumbling; ethics even science is portrayed as having only relative truths. The world is corrupt, evil, unfair and very complex. So a group or leader who offers a "sensible, sane" explanation for the complex world, a secure group and personal salvation is very attractive. They come in many forms: politicians of the extreme left or right; religious leaders; romantic revolutionaries; persuasive writers; power-hungry individuals, brilliant orators; movie-star saviours.

People who join extreme groups are not strange, disturbed, sheep-like idiots. We are social animals and members of many groups. The more secretive the group the more we are likely to label it a cult. The more zealous the member them more likely we are to call them deviants. And if they are involved in quasi-military activity, they are terrorists.

All the above applies to saboteurs or Luddites, if people are group members and act on behalf of groups. A lot of dark-side behaviour in organizations is group work. Certain forms of stealing and cheating cannot be done by individuals alone. People club together to revenge themselves. And they do things on behalf of groups that many seem strange and unacceptable primarily because they do not fully comprehend the value of group membership.

No one sees themselves as a cult-member. Cult is pejorative. Indeed even members of fairly extreme groups like Trappist monks or Amish farmers would never think of themselves as cult members. But they owe their survival to many of the principles outlined above.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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