Guest post: What cults are

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug at Miscellany Room.

I have recently taken an almost obsessive interest in the study of cults. I have thus far been reading Cults Inside Out by Rick Ross, Losing Reality by Robert Lifton, and Cults in our Midst by Margaret Singer [1]. Rather than write a separate summary or review of each book, I will try to make a synthesis of what I take to be some of the main points. “Cult apologists” often dismiss the cult label as a pejorative to stigmatize new or unconventional religions. All the authors are therefore careful to stress that cults are defined by their behavior rather than their beliefs, and while many cults are religious in nature, almost any cause, ideology, or belief system can form the basis of a cult. There are cults based on political ideologies, philosophies, business plans, health fads, alternative lifestyles, self-help programs, meditation techniques, martial arts etc. Even abusive and controlling relationships can be understood as a kind of “Cult of One” (cf. Ross) and display much of the same dynamics as larger cults.

Robert Lifton provided what still seems to be the most widely accepted definition of a “destructive cult” [2] based on 3 main criteria (my formulation):

1. The group is centered around a charismatic leader (or, in some cases, a small ruling elite) with little or no meaningful accountability. The leader is believed to possess some unique insight or knowledge and increasingly becomes the subject of worship until – no matter what the group was initially supposed to be about – the “cause” mutates into “whatever the leader says”.

2. The group uses certain highly coercive persuasion techniques – known as “thought reform” or (in everyday speech) “brain washing” – to gain undue influence and control over its members, the end result being that the members become increasingly dependent on the leader and end up making decisions that are clearly not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the leader.

3. The leader uses his/her influence over the members in harmful ways, ranging from financial exploitation and the extraction of unpaid labor to medical neglect, criminal acts, sexual exploitation, violence, terrorism, mass-suicide, mass murder etc.

One common myth is that only people who suffer from other major problems join cults. While it is certainly true that people going through a difficult period in their lives are especially vulnerable to recruitment by cults, no one is immune. In fact, cults are usually not interested in “damaged goods”, but are mainly looking for healthy, intelligent, resourceful individuals who can do useful work for the group and bring in a steady stream of cash. The Church of Scientology famously specializes in recruiting celebrities – hardly a notoriously weak group – and Aum Shinrikyo (infamous for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway) disproportionally recruited scientists.

Nobody deliberately joins a cult. Indeed, another common feature of destructive cults is the use of deceptive recruitment techniques. More often than not potential members are first recruited into a “front group” with no obvious connection to the cult. The first encounter might be a perfectly innocent looking course, lecture, or seminar on some interesting topic, a political meeting, a personality test, a therapy session, a yoga class etc. Only after luring potential recruits more deeply into its web does the group start gradually revealing its true nature as well as its more eccentric doctrines. E.g. scientologists go through years of “auditing” and indoctrination before hearing a single word about Xenu the evil galactic overlord.

Expressions like “thought reform”, “mind control” and “brain washing” conjure up associations to all sorts of science fiction-like techniques for “reprograming” people’s brains and turning them into mindless robots or zombies (Winston Smith, Darth Vader, the Winter Soldier, Peeta Mellark, Dreykov’s Widows etc.). By comparison the real thought reform process is almost disappointingly mundane (or at least that’s my impression). Some cults do indeed employ more “exotic” techniques like hypnosis (in itself not all it’s cracked up to be in popular fiction), guided imagery (to instill false memories), hallucinogenic drugs, various methods for inducing hyper-ventilation and dizziness (to be re-interpreted as spiritual epiphanies) etc. Cult leaders like Jim Jones also bolstered their credibility by performing what appeared to be miraculous healings and by appearing to have access to uncannily accurate information about total strangers, seemingly through direct revelation from God. However, by far the most common (and almost certainly the most effective) techniques are all familiar from non-cultic setting, e.g. (non-verbal) social cues, deference to authority, conformity and peer-pressure, overwork, sleep-deprivation etc. What’s different about the thought reform process is both the intensity and the coordinated nature of the persuasive effort as well as the recruit’s own ignorance that any such effort is going on.

After the initial encounter the next step is usually trying to lure the potential recruit to a more isolated setting free of external influences. The recruit is met with “love bombing” and made to feel special, chosen, part of an exclusive elite on a mission of cosmic significance. By observing the other members, the recruit quickly hones in on what the expected behaviors are and learns to model his/her own behavior on theirs. Since no explicit orders or instructions are given, everything feels voluntary and even spontaneous. What follows is a systematic process of destabilizing and breaking down the recruit’s sense of self by inducing shame and guilt (the “unfreezing phase”). Depending on the particular teachings of the group this may take the form of confessing your “sins”, confronting your inner demons, or overcoming the “excuses” that are “holding you back” and preventing you from “taking control” of your life etc. The details are irrelevant, since anything other than total surrender and obedience to the leader will be turned back against you and re-framed as sinful, pathological, excuses, signs of weakness, lack of commitment etc. Through endless attacks and confrontations combined with intense peer-pressure, physical and mental exhaustion, sleep-deprivation etc., the recruit is finally reduced to a state of helplessness and dependency. In this state the recruit learns to parrot back whatever the group wants him/her to say (the “changing” phase). This in turn is met with social reward and re-interpreted by the group as a cathartic experience, a sign of progress, proof of finally “getting it” etc. (the “refreezing” phase).

To prevent backsliding, cults do everything in their power to monopolize the time and attention of their members and cut them off from other perspectives or sources of information. This can include anything from geographical isolation to demands that members shun friends or family members that are critical of the cult. Another method is simply keeping the members engaged in endless cult-led activities, which has the double benefit of limiting communication to other cult members while simultaneously keeping everyone too busy to think too deeply or carefully about anything. Most cults also develop an internal jargon that encourage circular reasoning and reliance on thought-terminating clichés while at the same time making it significantly more difficult to have an intelligible conversation with outsiders. Finally, cult members learn to fear and demonize everyone outside the cult, engage in self-censorship, and only trust information coming from the leader. Ironically, one common perception is that people join cults because they’re too “trusty”, or “naïve”, or “gullible”. On the other hand, most cults are into all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and quite often see themselves as the only people on the planet who have not been “brainwashed”, “taken the blue pill”, “drunk the Kool-Aid” etc. It’s the “sheeple” and the “systemites” outside the group who are living in the Matrix while the enlightened few on the inside are the ones who have taken the red pill, had their eyes opened and see the world as it really is. Apparently extreme distrust, suspicion, and cynicism (especially of the selective kind) can be manipulated as easily as trust, naivety, and gullibility.

I don’t think any of the authors specifically mentions cognitive dissonance or justification spirals, but it’s clearly implied in various places. Once a concession to the cult has been made, you have a stake in defending it: “If this were a con game, only an idiot could fall for it. But I’m not an idiot, so it can’t be a con game”; “If this were immoral, only a despicable person would do it. But I’m not a despicable person, so it can’t be immoral”. The same justifications used to rationalize concessions a,b,c make it very hard to resist concessions d,e,f without looking inconsistent or hypocritical even to yourself (practically the definition of cognitive dissonance). On your path over to the dark side, you never “cross a line” where things instantly and abruptly change from “definitely ok” to “definitely not ok”, and before you know it you have gone all the way to x,y,z and burned all bridges behind you, and now there is no longer any “face-saving” way of turning back. There is also the closely related Sunk Cost Fallacy: More misery may be easier to accept than the realization that all those former sacrifices were in vain.

[1] I have also been watching Jonestown – Terror in the JungleThe Jonestown Massacre- Paradise Lost, and Going Clear – Scientology and the Prison of Belief, all available for free on YouTube.

[2] It has become a bit of a cliché to talk about how a certain group or movement (trumpists, QAnon, TRAs etc.) is “just like a cult”. Others are quick to identify the various ways in which said group/movement does not meet the formal definition of a cult and conclude that any comparison is therefore fallacious in principle. As Timothy Snyder has pointed out we see something similar in the case of “fascism”. There are people eager to portray everything about the current surge of authoritarianism as just “like the 1930s”, while others argue that since what we’re seeing now is not like the 1930s in every way, there are no lessons to be learned from the history of fascism that are at all relevant to our current situation. The latter clearly doesn’t follow. A movement can display cultish or fascistic traits to a lesser or greater extent, and the differences can be as enlightening as the similarities.

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