Why do people adhere to cults?


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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 who can be recruited into a cult. The term “cult” conjures up images of people standing in a ring of candles, or entire families dead in their beds wearing matching tracksuits. But renowned sociologist and cult expert Dr Janja Lalich says a cult is more likely to resemble a cult. overly enthusiastic self-help group that takes over your schedule, or a tiered marketing business that gets you chasing all of your friends.

Have you ever been asked to get the additional warranty from the car dealership? Have you ever taken a friend’s free kickboxing class and then signed up for an 18 month membership during your post-workout high? Have you ever found yourself frantically cleaning a chocolate cake off the wall of a hotel, smashed by your drunk sorority sister and wondering… 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 are specifically looking for people who are idealists and optimists, and a 2017 study of former cult members found that 61% had more than 12 years of study. Cults need members who are passionate – for personal development, for the betterment of humanity, to live more fulfilling lives. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Survivors describe being made extremely welcome, feeling they have found instant friendship and acceptance. Psychologists call it “I love the bombing.” Cults make you feel special, and we all suspect deep down that we are more special than our peers.

Cults do not start by “kicking a sex worker in a forest”. They start out as a normal group and it’s only when they’ve fully invested in you that things start to heat up. Everyone has some experience with toxic work environments, emotionally abusive relationships, or insidious fraternal organizations. This is how it begins, with familiarity.

They feed off your desire to be the best version of yourself, convincing you that the group is helping you achieve whatever you want. They have given you love and acceptance before, and you believe you are on the road to financial freedom, self-enlightenment, or a meaningful life. And it’s easy to believe these things, because we believe them when our jobs, churches, and self-help gurus say so too.

Every day, we “accompany” 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 corporate emails. We listen and nod when our friend says they’re a little sighted. Even the church demands a certain suspension of unbelief – how many people go to Mass without believing that the Eucharist is actually transformed into the flesh?

After having established relationships of love and trust within the group, the cults start using peer pressure to get more involved, another familiar feeling. They will tell you that you can achieve all of your goals if you work harder, take one more class, and recruit one more friend. Your failure becomes your fault and don’t you want to be the best version of yourself?

Deborah Layton, former People’s Temple member and survivor of the Jonestown massacre, explains it’s like an abusive relationship. This sentiment is echoed by many other former members of the sect. 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’m not stupid, so it can’t be a cult, can it?” People who have been deprogrammed from cults are extremely intelligent and educated people, and they will tell you that the “crazy” things they believed made perfect sense back then. Cults start out as groups that we are already familiar and comfortable with.

Between a sect and any other group, the difference is a matter of degree, not type. Everyone carries corporate merchandise to work, lets someone you love too get away with, or invests too much in a new hobby that’s getting completely out of hand. We can all be manipulated, especially when we think we can’t.

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

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