Post No.: 0417
This post isn’t really about teaching people how to start a cult(!) Its purpose is learning about and watching out for some of the common signs of cults so that you or someone you care about doesn’t get unwittingly drawn into one that could be seriously unhealthy and detrimental…
The first common feature is a harsh, embarrassing or costly initiation ritual. To complete one is to demonstrate to the rest of the group that one is serious in committing oneself to the cult.
Whether a person was drawn into joining a cult because they eagerly wanted to (e.g. due to falling for the promise of a utopia or its charismatic leader) or it was more down to being pressured to join (e.g. because of peer pressures) – from the perspective of a person who has just completed a costly or toilsome initiation ritual – completing this procedure will also strengthen their own self-justification that their membership with the group is worth preserving. Especially if one really wanted to join the cult, it feels senseless to invest so much of oneself into something that isn’t considered worth it hence one will convince oneself that it was worth it to remove any cognitive dissonance. So (voluntary) labour can lead to commitment, as well as commitment lead to labour. Most people don’t think they’re stupid so they’re going to rationalise that they didn’t do something stupid. We don’t want to believe we did something harsh, embarrassing or otherwise effortful or costly for nothing. It therefore strengthens one’s own loyalty to the cult for putting oneself through the pain and/or effort of such a ritual.
This is the sunk cost effect, and it fallaciously makes people justify further investments of devotion, which further reinforces their commitment, especially if they believe there’s some reward like ‘a better next life’ if they stay. This is one reason amongst many why, the more time a person spends in a cult, the harder they might find trying to leave it.
A pain experienced in common with another person – in this case with other members of the cult – fosters a strong bond between them too. If the initiation ritual involved something embarrassing then that shared secret also strengthens the members’ bonds and loyalties towards each other.
In contexts like fraternities or sororities, initiation procedures also tend to get more severe for new members or new generations because no generation wants to give the next generation an easier or less embarrassing time than they had experienced because then they’d feel that this next generation wouldn’t deserve to be a part of their group. There have been cases when initiation or hazing rituals have escalated and gone too far, and a fraternity or sorority has behaved less like a supportive community and more like a toxic cult.
Another common feature is a highly charismatic leader who might perform ‘miracles’ like a divine being, and who has the ego to behave as if they are divine or (akin to) a messiah. The aura of charisma is something that most of us want but need to watch out for when others have it. It’s sad that, in leadership, being charismatic is more persuasive than being factually correct. In a way, we cannot just blame the charming but incorrect but also those who trust them – in an ideal world, we would never be persuaded or manipulated by a person’s charisma but simply by whether his/her arguments are sound. The content should matter far above the presentation. But, in cults, these charismatic people make us believe that they are special and can do things that others cannot. They might achieve this by feeding our expectations of how a deity or demigod behaves, or by fooling the suggestible with ‘magic tricks’. There are therefore religious-type beliefs. Cults are hierarchical, with the cult leader at the top, who is also deified or tantamount to being so.
So beware of highly charismatic people – their persuasive charm is often used to serve merely themselves. It’s not the case that charming individuals are on average better people in society – it’s just that they get away with more things than less charming individuals because many people are seduced by their charm. So it’s up to us to look deeper at people and think more critically. Although a cult leader will fool some into following them, it’s harder nowadays for someone to fool enough people into thinking they really are the Messiah though. (He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!)
Cults also encourage people to join and/or reward people for joining their cult. Although some cults seek exclusivity, cults usually want to build membership to strengthen their group. There may therefore be a drive towards recruitment to capture new members, with current members essentially acting like missionaries (often covertly e.g. by tempting a new bunch of people to come do a leisure activity with them without mentioning their true agenda until they’re all there). In addition, people will further rationalise and reinforce their bond, loyalty and commitment for something if they speak highly of that something publicly and recommend it to others.
Building membership can strengthen the group’s resolve in what they believe in too – although it’s fallacious logic, the more people who follow and believe in something, the more convinced we’ll be that it must be right or true, all else being equal. So the more other people you can see around you who believe in the same thing as you believe, the more you’ll tend to believe that surely your own beliefs must make sense and are correct. Capturing more and more members will also further reinforce the egos of the leader and other high-ranking members of the cult.
Increasing popularity will increase external attention and scrutiny though, hence those cults that are really more about grooming people for sex and/or labour than about maximising money and/or power tend to seek exclusivity, they choose their potential members more carefully, and they seclude their members once they’re in.
Like good (or contemptible) salespeople – cults and cult leaders often exploit the vulnerabilities, insecurities or desires of people. For example, they may claim that they can provide a cure for your illness or another problem, or ‘ensure your passage into heaven’. Vulnerable people, such as those with terminal diseases, bad debt problems or crippling insecurities, are thus frequently targeted by cults. Those with developmental disorders are also vulnerable to cults or grooming.
Lastly and quite notably, any non-believers or defectors are punished, and believers are distanced away from any dissenting voices. Believers may even be separated from their own families if it’s felt that they must be. A cult attempts to create an insular and self-reinforcing echo chamber environment where no one thinks for themselves or seriously considers dissenting or ‘outside’ perspectives that might cause any members to doubt and defect.
So a cult tends to take a fundamental control of one’s relationships – who one can hang around with and who one cannot, including friends and family members, and whether one can freely leave the group without heavy consequences. This includes applying psychological coercion, such as bullying anyone who defects as ‘losers’ and essentially brainwashing members into believing they’ll be nothing and are useless without the group. A cult can therefore be quite isolating despite being a group. Non-believers are shunned and mocked as if they are the ignorant ones, and members cannot say anything negative or share doubts about the group without receiving threats from other members.
Cults can create strong ingroup bonds between their members to the point that they’ll protect each other. However, this can go too far and members won’t snitch on each other even if any crimes are committed, with possibly dangerous consequences for anyone who does snitch or otherwise shows disloyalty to the group. (This can happen within police forces too, where officers won’t snitch on other officers if any are behaving corruptly, because of the ‘blue wall of silence’.)
It can be incredibly difficult to leave a cult because of the shadow it leaves on a victim, from its effect on one’s social connections, one’s identity, to a possible ‘Stockholm syndrome’ (forming a psychological, emotional bond with one’s captors during captivity) in some rare cases for some who were coercively captured rather than duped but voluntarily joined. (‘Lima syndrome’ is the proposed inversion, where the captors develop an empathy or sympathy for their captives.) Those who were born or taken into a cult from birth or very young won’t know any differently than the life they’ve experienced within the cult and the beliefs they were inculcated with, and so will find it difficult, although never impossible, to integrate into proper society if released.
…There are debates about comparing cults with religions. I’ll just briefly state that there are for sure some commonalities, such as having leaders who are believed to be holy, and the use of initiation rituals (see Post No.: 0349 for more about how costly rituals, in particular, are CREDs). But some differences include the coercive nature of cults (on all kinds of levels from monetary to psychological), and members of cults are sometimes secluded and told to sever contact with those who aren’t in the group. So I personally don’t believe that all religions or religious sects are basically cults, but certain individual religious sects might be.
Maybe not every aforementioned feature needs to be present, or present quite to their extents, in order for a group or movement to be considered a cult? If so, we’ll also need to question it when people appear to form a cult-like following with a certain brand or corporation? Some customers of certain products can be accused of being ‘brainwashed’ to the point of cult-like brand loyalty (and perhaps purchasing an expensive product from that brand is equivalent to the costly initiation into their cult?) What about organised fan bases who virtually deify and worship certain celebrities? So-called ‘cult classics’, such as certain films or books, have passionate and dedicated followings (although using the term ‘cult’ in this particular context probably trivialises what a real cult is like). Fraternities or sororities that go too far have already been suggested. How about pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing schemes in finance and business?
Every organised religion needs a bit of money in order to operate but money sometimes becomes the primary focus – some cults that call themselves religions have quite steep membership fees, and continuous contributions are pretty much deemed mandatory rather than voluntary too. They’re often really just moneymaking schemes for those at the top of the organisation, and those at the top might have political aspirations too. Money, power and/or sex are what cult leaders ultimately want. There are also many directly political and/or philosophical echo chambers that shut out dissenting opinions and mock ‘outsiders’ – so do some extreme political groups behave like cults too?
Of course, not many members of cults want to believe that they’re members of cults because of the connotations of cults – but are they cults nevertheless? Maybe some or all of these groups are examples of cults too, to varying levels of harm or cost, success or scale?
Woof. If you wish to discuss what makes a cult the same as or different to a religion, or whether you think echo chambers and other types of groups like those mentioned above should be regarded as cults or quasi-cults too, then I’m very interested in hearing your views. Just reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.