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It’s easy to assume that people who join cults have something wrong with them, but usually the people who join cults are just like the rest of us. So, how does it happen?

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Sources:
https://archives.law.virginia.edu/dengrove/writeup/jonestown-top-aide-reverend-jim-jones-trial-attempted-murder
http://www.icsahome.com/articles/former-members--perceptions-almendros
https://www.psy-journal.com/article/S0165-1781(16)31994-1/abstract
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01639625.2010.548302
http://www.icsahome.com/articles/the-influence-of-persuasive-strategies-used-by-cultic-groups-in-the-context-of-forewarning
[ ♪OUTRO ].

When you hear the word cult, you might think of a dark chamber with a bunch of robed people chanting because of weird, sinister beliefs. Or tragedies like the over 900 people who committed mass suicide in 1978 because they were instructed to by Reverend Jim Jones.

It’s easy to wonder who would ever join a cult, and assume there’s something wrong with those people. But cults come in many forms, and are more common than you might think. And most of the time, the people who join are just like you and me.

Defining cults is tricky, even for researchers. They pretty much agree that cults involve extreme devotion to some idea, thing, or person. But some researchers emphasize a religious element, calling them a New Religious Movement.

Others focus on manipulative persuasion tactics. And some highlight destructive groups that seek to control and isolate people, as opposed to groups that might share some cult-like qualities but aren’t harmful or could even be beneficial. The reality is, it’s sometimes hard to give a clear-cut answer as to whether a group is a cult.

But psychologists are still trying to figure out who joins cults and why. Most studies involve recruiting former cult members from all over the world to ask them what their experiences were like. It’s hard to interview current cult members or people before they join.

So, while researchers have learned many things from these people who left, there’s still a lot we don’t know. But what we do know is a bit surprising. For instance, in one study from 2007 at the Autonomous University of Madrid, researchers interviewed 101 former cult members and found that they’re just normal people.

Some said that they joined cults because they were dissatisfied with their life, or were looking for self-development or spiritual growth, which are totally normal psychological phenomena. Everyone usually wants to belong to a group of people that cares about them, and might look for answers to big picture questions, work to improve themselves, or seek spiritual enlightenment. Sometimes, people just find those things in cults.

And, even though all this research is far from conclusive, there might be factors that put us more at risk of joining one. Who you’re around could matter. For instance, if your family or friends are already part of a cult, your chance of joining is greater.

Same with having a dysfunctional family that’s not very supportive or even abusive. But family can also be a source of protection if you do join. Having a supportive family that isn’t judgmental and critical can help you leave.

Some personal qualities might also matter, like being more spiritual or religious, or being curious about other people’s views. People who are having a difficult time in their life, dealing with stress, or having problems managing emotions or daily life pressures, are also at a greater risk. All this makes it sound like everyone is at risk, which… we kind of are.

But also in that 2007 study, the former cult members rated manipulation as the most important factor in joining. People usually thought they were joining a normal, healthy community, because of various persuasion techniques and lies. This manipulation is often a long, gradual process, taking months or years to change your attitudes so that you’ll commit.

The leaders are typically very charismatic and confident. They do things to make you like them and their group, which is called ingratiation. Sometimes they’ll give small gifts or do favors.

Thanks to reciprocity, it makes us want to give something back. Then, to get you to stick around, they use techniques like fear, humiliation, or shutting down any dissent or questions. And they often isolate you, restricting your independence, like if and where you work, and whom you’re allowed to talk to.

When everyone around you seems to believe in the group’s mission, and any voices that say otherwise are quickly shut down, it’s hard to question what’s going on. And if your old life is gone and you have no job, friends, or family to return to, it’s a lot harder to leave. But it is possible.

Once out, people often deal with many mental health problems because of the trauma and abuse they might have experienced, developing things like PTSD and other issues. The good news is that research is being done to understand how to better help people leave cults, return to regular society, and live a healthy life. A lot of therapeutic techniques are involved, from focusing on basic mental health to unpacking why they joined a cult in the first place and unlearning any harmful beliefs the cult gave them.

And the other good news is that psychologists do know a thing or two about how to resist persuasion. For instance, there’s forewarning: If you know that someone’s going to try to convince you to do something or buy something, you tend to evaluate them and their message more negatively, so you’re less persuaded. But, according to a 2009 study by a researcher at Opole University in Poland, this doesn’t work equally well on all kinds of messages.

Forewarning helps us resist persuasion more if the cult is focusing on your personal life. Because when we think about ourselves and our personal values, we’re more protective. But if the persuasion is focused on bigger philosophical things, like why the answer to life, the universe, and everything could be 42, the warning doesn’t have as much impact.

So it’s normal to want to belong, figure out who you are, and hang out with cool people. But not every group has your best interests in mind… so just be careful. And there are plenty of awesome communities out there, too.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. If you want to know more about different ways group identity can get destructive, you can watch our video about why people riot. And if you want to keep learning about humans with us twice a week, you can go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe. [ ♪ OUTRO ].