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NXIVM and Heaven's Gate Cults Used Common Persuasion Methods

Cults use ordinary persuasion principles that we're all susceptible to.

Catherine Oxenberg, Mark Vicente, and Bonnie Piesse in a scene from "The Vow".
Source: HBO

In a stirring moment in the HBO docuseries The Vow, NXIVM cult ex-member Mark Vicente angrily reflects on his experience, exclaiming, "Nobody joins a cult – nobody! They join a good thing and then they realize they were f*cked!"

Vicente's observation raises an important question: If cults are full of ordinary well-meaning people (and they surely are) why do so many join in the first place?

Most psychology research has focused on the unique characteristics of the people who join: their personality types, their lack of social support, or events in their lives that make them more vulnerable. Other research has focused on what happens to them after they join: For example, cults typically demand that members cut off existing social ties and strictly regulate members' lives in an effort to strip away their identities.

Both aspects of cult membership are well-documented in The Vow and in another recent documentary series, Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults (both are available on HBO Max). The Vow chronicles the rise and fall of the NXIVM cult, whose leaders were criminally prosecuted for sex trafficking, due largely to the valiant efforts of the ex-members featured in the series. Heaven's Gate details the history of the famous "UFO cult" of the same name that ultimately led to mass suicide in 1997 of all of its members.

But while watching these documentaries, I was struck by what else these two cults had in common: the use of some pretty common and ordinary persuasion principles that we're all susceptible to.

Researchers have known for some time, thanks largely to psychologist Robert Cialdini, of a number of factors that make people more persuadable. The video below walks through these factors with examples.

Heaven's Gate heavily features commentary from sociologist Robert Balch, who infiltrated the group in the 1970s to study them. (His first research report on the group, written with David Taylor, was published in Psychology Today in 1976.) He says that the group didn't use brainwashing and was very much about "free choice." But that doesn't mean they weren't acting like salespeople, employing time-tested psychological persuasion principles to win over more converts.

Whether intentionally or not, members of both NXIVM and Heaven's Gate used several of these principles in their recruiting efforts quite effectively.

Liking: People are more persuaded by people they like

One of NXIVM’s most prominent and famous (now infamous) members was Smallville actor Allison Mack. She appeared in marketing materials and was instrumental in recruiting other actors and influential people into the group. Similarly, an early and prominent member of Heaven's Gate was actor Dick Joslyn.

Putting attractive and charismatic people front and center of their group's recruiting efforts likely made the groups seem safer and more inviting.

Scarcity: People value things more if they seem rare

Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven's Gate cult.
Source: HBO Max

At the core of the Heaven's Gate theology was the belief that humanity was about to move on to the next level of its evolution, but only those who had properly prepared themselves would be able to do so. In other words, the idea that only a small number of dedicated people would get to live on for eternity was baked into their belief system ("supplies are limited!"). Moreover, as outlined in the documentary, in the early 1990s, they believed that this evolution was imminent, and they made a strong final push to recruit more members ("Limited time offer! Act fast!").

NXIVM's concerns were far more earthly, like business success and achieving personal goals. But within their organization, they exploited people's sensitivity to scarcity by introducing a hierarchical system of colored scarves. As people moved up in the organization (partly by spending exorbitant amounts of money) they earned increasingly rarer scarves that signaled their elite status to others.

Authority: People are more likely to trust information from authority figures

NXIVM’s leader Keith Raniere routinely touted his connections to billionaires and Mexican politicians in a bald-faced effort to lend public legitimacy to his cult. The Vow also documents his most shameless effort: using his wealthy connections to arrange a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

To an outside observer, Raniere's and NXIVM's connections to these respected and well-connected people were powerful signals that this was an organization that could be trusted.

Consensus: People want to do what other people are doing

Perhaps the stereotype of a cult member is a confused loner. But many of the people that were recruited into NXIVM and Heaven's Gate were recruited with their friends or by someone they trusted.

For example, two ex-members prominently featured in The Vow, Sarah Edmonson and Bonnie Piesse, were introduced to the group by Mark Vicente. And Heaven's Gate introduces viewers to several couples who joined the group together.

Some of these people may not have joined these cults if their friends and loved ones weren't already in the group. But the feeling that "everyone is doing it" can be a powerful draw.

Has this been studied?

In the aftermath of a tragedy like the Heaven's Gate suicides or the revelations about the years of sexual abuse and manipulation taking place within NXIVM, it's natural to focus on the psychological factors that made such horrifying acts possible. But it's important to note that these cults have to successfully recruit everyday people in the first place. To my surprise, however, how and whether cults use these sorts of common persuasion principles hasn't been studied much.

The most relevant research I could find was an unpublished study by Maria Kjaerland, Laurence Alison, and Samantha Lundrigan from 2003 that compared ten websites of fairly traditional religious organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Seventh-Day Adventists to 10 websites of so-called "new religious movements" like Scientology and Hare Krishna. They examined the front pages for instances of things related to Cialdini’s persuasion principles. Overall, they found that the sites of the new religious movements seemed to use these principles about twice as often as the sites of the traditional religions, though the study was too limited to draw strong conclusions. I think this question deserves more study.

A "fundamental attribution error"

Near the end of Heaven's Gate, Steven Hassan, an expert on cult psychology, expresses frustration about how people, particularly in the media, tend to think about cults and their members: "It’s this fundamental attribution error of 'like, what’s wrong with these people' instead of saying they were just programmed and influenced in a systematic way".

Mark Vicente is right: Nobody intentionally joins a cult. Just like nobody intentionally sets out to get screwed over by a car dealer. But these persuasion principles can be highly effective, no matter what someone's selling.

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