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Since cults make liberal use of many influence techniques, I find them fascinating and study them whenever the chance arises. The following page discusses cult influence tactics, but I think it's important to first define what I mean when I use the word "cult," and examine some important issues surrounding the topic before diving in.

"What exactly is a cult, anyway?"

A cult is a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure. Cults, like many other groups, attempt to expand their influence for the purposes of power or money. However, to achieve these ends, destructive cults employ a potent mixture of influence techniques and deception to attain psychological control over members and new recruits. This fundamental level of control is known alternatively as 'brainwashing,' 'thought reform,' or 'mind control.' A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person's former identity and replaces it with a new one. That new identity may not be one that the person would have freely chosen under her own volition (Hassan, 1990).

There are over 3,000 destructive cults in the US, with approximately 4 million members. They fall into 4 basic types:

  • Religious -- the type we hear about most frequently;
  • Psychological/Enlightenment -- offering expensive "enlightenment" workshops;
  • Commercial -- including certain pyramid and multi-level marketing organizations;
  • Political -- which are organized around a political dogma. Nazism was originally a cult, and cults can still be found lurking in the left and right wings of American politics.

Question"What's the difference between a cult. . . and my church, my service club, or, say, Alcoholics Anonymous?"

There are lots of differences, but the major difference is that of ultimate goal. Established religions and altruistic movements are focused outward--they attempt to better the lives of members and often, nonmembers. They make altruistic contributions. Cults serve their own purposes, which are the purposes of the cult leader; their energies are focused inward rather than outward (Singer, 1995). Also, religions and altruistic movements typically lack the distinguishing characteristics of overbearing authoritarian control, the use of deception in recruitment, the use of coercive influence techniques, and the replacement of one identity with another which would not have been freely chosen by the individual before joining the group (Hassan, 1990).

Upon hearing about cult influence techniques, some of my students reason thus: if cults use influence tactics A, B, and C, and my church (or health club or debate team) also uses influence tactics A, B, & C, then my church (or other group) is no different from a cult.

This sort of reasoning represents the logical fallacy called "affirming the consequent."

Here's the same type of argument using a different example. Fact 1: When it rains, the sidewalk gets wet. Fact 2: The sidewalk is wet. Conclusion: It must have rained. You can see that there are a myriad of other reasons that might have caused a wet sidewalk, including the neighbor's garden hose, your leaky can of soda, the neighbor's dog (yuk!), or a universe of other wetting agents. Similarly, there are a number of other defining characteristics that make a cult a cult, aside from the influence tactics they use.

Question"What kinds of people join cults? What's wrong with them?"

In the wake of the UFO/Heaven's Gate cult suicide, I have heard several media personalities ask these questions of former and current cult members. The questions make me laugh, because they're a perfect example of how the wrong questions can frame and obscure an issue. Even when cult experts correctly point to the powerful environmental constraints generated by cults, rather than to the personalities and backgrounds of individual cult members, these media personalities single-mindedly press the question, "But what's wrong with cult members?" The answer, for the vast majority of inductees, is that there was nothing "wrong" with them--at least, not until they were persuaded to join a cult.Cult Frequencies

For the most part, normal, average people join cults--people like you and me. Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of cult members are psychologically healthy people that come from normal families. The remaining third are likely to have depressive symptoms, usually related to a personal loss--perhaps a death in the family, a failed romantic relationship, or career troubles. Only 5 to 6 percent of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to joining a cult (Singer, 1995). Cults don't want, and don't recruit, people with psychological problems or physical handicaps--they represent a loss rather than a gain of cult-oriented productivity. Cults prefer intelligent, productive individuals who are able to contribute money and talent to "the cause," whatever it may be (Hassan, 198-).

 Lewin's formula

 Here's some psychological background that can provide insight regarding cult induction--it's somewhat dense, so buckle in and hang on.

Behavior is a function of both a person's personality and her situation (those of you who've taken psychology may recall the classic Lewinian formulation B=f[P,E] which indicates that behavior is a function of, or an interaction of, both the personality and the environment). One of social psychology's great discoveries has been the overwhelming influence that the environment--the immediate situation--exerts on people's behavior. Yet, when assigning cause, observers will usually attribute cause to a person's personality, not the constraints of the environment.

This is such a persistent and reliable human bias--to assign cause to the person rather than to the environment--that it has been given the name of "the fundamental attribution error."

The fact is, the environment can easily dominate personality-based differences among people, making person differences a relatively minor variable in the equation. In other words, given a powerful and engaging situation, people often react to it in a uniformly similar fashion, regardless of personality differences. This truism has been demonstrated numerous times in the laboratory (Sharif, Asch, Milgram. . .) and more frighteningly, in real life (Nazism, Bolshevism, Jim Jones . . .).   Enviro vs. Personality

True to this discovery, there appears to be no reliable personality factor that predicts cult membership. However, certain situational elements make people more vulnerable to cult recruitment, and they include: loneliness (as experienced by someone who has recently moved to a new location); depression (as we feel after a failed relationship); and uncertainty about how to proceed (as I felt when I first went to college). These situations create the desire for quick, simple solutions. Cults provide a myriad of "solutions," which are more importantly accompanied by structure, authority, and close social contacts--elements that people want, need, and which most of us take for granted in the course of our everyday lives.

According to psychologist and cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer, cults flourish during periods of social and political turbulence and "during breakdowns in the structure and rules of the prevailing society." Cults were prevalent after the fall of Rome, during the French Revolution, and in England during the Industrial Revolution. Cults arose in Japan after World War II, and in Eastern Europe after the breakup of the Communist regime. Here in America, cults flourished during the rule of the 1960s counterculture. Civil unrest, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, and the weakening of the family left people looking for answers and assurance--which cults enthusiastically provided.

Question"OK, so how do they do it? How do cults recruit an keep members, and then get them to behave in irrational and sometimes immoral ways?"

Read on . . .

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

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