The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Cults Are Mindless

Mindless obedience keeps religious cults together.

Whenever some cult clashes with the law, the public is fascinated, and horrified, by the capacity of leaders to control members. Perhaps the members surrender all of their property. Or they are sworn to celibacy so that the leader has sexual access to all of the women after the manner of the David Koresh cult destroyed in a Waco, Texas, fire (1). Or they drink poison on command as in the Jonesboro, Guyana, tragedy.

The secret recipe of all such cults may be in the members rather than the leaders. Social psychologists discovered that members get very attached to cults that ask a great deal of them.

When a lot is asked …

Research on U.S. communes suggests that organizations need to be quite demanding to get their members committed enough to stay the distance. When sociologists Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler (2) studied 83 19th-Century communes in the U.S they found two intriguing patterns. The first was that more demanding communes lasted longer. Bigger sacrifices engendered greater emotional commitment to the group.

The communes could be extreme. Some required vegetarianism, or celibacy, or surrender of all worldly possessions to the collective. The more demanding a religious commune was, the greater the level of cooperation it elicited from members and the longer the community survived. Groups with fewer than two costly requirements lasted less than ten years, on average. Communes that had between 6 and 8 burdensome costs lasted for over 50 years and those with more than 11 were still in business after 60 years.

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Costly commitment helped groups stick together only in religious communities which offers a fascinating glimpse into the socially cohesive function of supernatural beliefs.

Secular communities were particularly unstable, generally lasting less than ten years. Contrary to the pattern for religious communities, the more demanding secular communities folded more quickly. Indeed, the most demanding secular community closed its doors after only a year.

Why was there such a difference between religious and non religious communes? Evidently, sacrifices made for the community are interpreted differently for members of religious communes compared to secular ones.

Ratcheting up the costs of membership works well only for religious communities. A supernatural belief system can justify heavy membership costs in terms of a higher purpose. Without supernatural justification members might ask themselves why they are paying so much to be in the commune. Lacking a religious justification, they may conclude that they are being exploited, by the leadership. The logical solution is to leave.

When they are backed up by a religious belief system, communes can tolerate considerable inequality. This may be illustrated by differences in permissible sexual behavior.

Sexual inequality

A secular commune requiring celibacy from all male initiates would be destabilized by the free sexual expression of the leader.

Yet, that sort of inequality may work if members believe that the leader is a divine incarnation. Something close to this scenario played out in the David Koresh cult (the Branch Davidians), that was wiped out in a fire following a standoff with federal authorities near Waco, Texas, in 1993 (1). Evidently, Koresh had free sexual access to female members consistent with his divine status whereas other men were expected to be celibate (3).

So religious cults that survive for more than a few years are characterized by blind obedience. The really difficult question for relatives, clinical psychologists, and researchers is why inductees are so willing to surrender their autonomy in the first place.

Yet, cults are not unusual in this respect. Mindless obedience to authority figures is evident in many other settings. These include the army; Greek societies; sports organizations with their Byzantine rules; business corporations with their company men (and women); and the groupthink of political life. World religions can also be included, of course. 

Mindless obedience is good for the cult but it is generally not good for the member. The same principle applies to entire countries. The less inequality there is, the better the quality of life experienced by everyone (4).

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

2. Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. (2003). Cooperation and commune longevity: A test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 211-239.

3. Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The branch Davidians of Waco: The history and beliefs of an apolalyptic sect. New York: Oxford University Press.

4. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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