Why Do People Join Cults

By Barbara Gurgel

I have bad news for you.

If you are a happy, well-adjusted person, with a loving family and a degree, then congratulations! You are exactly the kind of person that can be recruited into a cult. The term “cult” evokes images of people standing in a ring of candles, or whole families dead in their beds wearing matching tracksuits. But Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist, and renowned cult expert, says a cult is more likely to look like an overly-enthusiastic self-help group that takes over your schedule, or a multi-level marketing company that makes you drive all your friends away.

Have you ever been talked into getting the extra warranty at the car dealership? Have you ever taken a friend’s free kickboxing class then signed up for an 18-month membership during your post-workout high? Have you ever found yourself frantically cleaning chocolate cake off a hotel wall, smashed there by your blackout drunk sorority sister, and asked yourself… how did I get here?

No one joins a cult on purpose, but everyone is vulnerable to being manipulated into joining. Cults know exactly what they are doing, according to psychologist Steve Eichel. In fact, they specifically look for people who are idealistic and optimistic, and a 2017 study of former cult members found that 61% had more than 12 years of education. Cults need members who are passionate – about self-improvement, about the betterment of mankind, about living a more fulfilling life. Isn’t that what we all strive for?

Survivors describe being overwhelmingly welcomed, feeling like they found instant friendship and acceptance. Psychologists call that “love bombing.” Cults make you feel special, and we all suspect, deep inside, that we are more special than our peers.

Cults don’t start at “kicking a sex worker to death in a forest.” They start like a normal group, and only when they’ve made you fully invested do things begin to escalate. Everyone has some experience with toxic work environments, emotionally abusive relationships, or pushy fraternal organizations. This is how it begins, with familiarity.

They prey on your desire to be the best version of yourself, convincing you that the group is helping you achieve everything you wanted. They have already given you love and acceptance, and you believe that you are on your way to financial freedom, or self-enlightenment, or a purposeful life. And it is easy to believe those things, because we believe them when our jobs, our churches, and our self-help gurus say them too.

Every day we “just go along” with situations out of politeness or social expectations. These things seem harmless, and we accept them with little thought. At work, we say we read all the corporate emails. We listen and nod when our friend says they are a little psychic. Even church requires some suspension of disbelief – how many people go to mass without believing that the eucharist is actually transformed into flesh?

After forming loving and trusting relationships within the group, cults then begin to use peer pressure to get you more deeply involved, another familiar feeling. They’ll tell you that you can achieve all your goals if you work harder, if you take one more course, if you recruit one more friend. Your failure becomes your fault, and don’t you want to be the best version of yourself?

Deborah Layton, a former member of the People’s Temple and survivor of the Jonestown massacre, explains it’s like an abusive relationship. This sentiment is echoed by many other former cult members. No one goes on a first date and says “hello, I’m an abuser”, because no one would stay. Once members start to question themselves, it becomes a self-reinforcing logic loop. “Only stupid people join cults, and I am not stupid, therefore this can’t be a cult, can it?” People who have been deprogrammed from cults are overwhelmingly intelligent, educated people, and they’ll tell you that the “crazy” things they believed made perfect sense at the time. Cults start off just like groups that we are already familiar and comfortable with.

Between a cult and any other group, the difference is a matter of degree, not a matter of type. Everyone wears the corporate merch at work, or lets someone we love get away with too much, or invests too much into a new hobby that gets completely out of hand. We can all be manipulated, especially when we believe that we can’t.

Don’t miss the premiere of EPIX’s four-part original docu-series Fall River, May 16, only on EPIX. Get the channel or the app.

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