Who joins a cult and why

At a recent party a friend and I were discussing the themes in my book, Borderliners. One topic in particular came up, that of handing over one’s advocacy to other people. My friend said she couldn’t understand why people did it but then we both remembered times in our lives when we had, in fact, almost done it ourselves. In my case, I was most susceptible to cult-like groups as a teenager (although never actually recruited). This is not surprising, consideringĀ ones teens are a time when many are looking for direction, often not from their parents or the people they grew up around. however, there are other times in a person’s life when they may be vulnerable.

Vulnerable people

Perhaps, more important than age is a person’s vulnerability at any given time. They may be going through life changing experiences, illnesses, death of family members, relationship breakdown or other traumatic incidences.

According to the author of this post on who joins cults and why, there are a few factors researchers have found cult members to have in common:

  • A desire to belong
  • Unassertiveness (the inability to say no or express criticism or doubt)
  • Gullibility (impaired capacity to question critically what one is told, observes, thinks, and so forth)
  • Low tolerance for ambiguity (need for absolute answers, impatience to obtain answers)
  • Cultural disillusionment (alienation, dissatisfaction with the status quo)
  • Idealism
  • Susceptibility to trance-like states (in some cases, perhaps, due to prior hallucinogenic drug experiences)
  • A lack of self-confidence
  • A desire for spiritual meaning
  • Ignorance of how groups can manipulate individuals

No spoilers here, but my book, Borderliners, contains examples of most of the above. I’m interested in human frailty and how it is manipulated, in power and control and why, sometimes, it corrupts. Why is this? And what are the consequences?

Charismatic leaders

In earlier post about charismatic leaders, I looked at what makes a powerful leader. Charismatic leaders aren’t always bad. Look at Martin Luther King, for example. However, lots are…or maybe become so as their power increases. Many people agree Adolf Hitler was a charismatic leader, for example.

Politics isn’t the only arena. At the heart of many religious cults you’ll also find a charismatic leader. Often it is possible to recognise you are dealing with a cult through the assumed importance of one leader who is crucial to the cult’s existence. This is a red flag. (NB. there can be political as well as religious cults, but my novel only deals with the former.)

Warning signs you are dealing with a cult

There are few other red flags, taken from this Wiki about how to avoid cults:

  • The cult may try to attack a person’s existing religious or moral beliefs
  • There may be a dubious past history associated with the cult
  • The cult may threaten their members (physically or psychologically)
  • Often cults operate in relatively isolated areas or in places where there are large proportions of isolated people
  • The cult may try to impose rules on non-moral aspects of life (e.g. where their members go shopping, which books they can read)
  • The cult may approach targets with lots of flattery, at first
  • The cult may say people not in their group will go to hell or come to some other sticky, usually violent end
  • Overall, the cult will want control over a large proportion of their members’ lives.

When I was researching Borderliners I found the sheer number of reported cults overwhelming. It seemed there were far more – everywhere – than I had ever imagined. The question I asked myself was…what does this say about humanity, what does it say about today’s world?