Personal Growth

How Cult Leaders Co-opt Your Brain

Charles Manson. David Koresh. L. Ron Hubbard. Their names are famous — or rather, infamous — for the control they exerted on their followers. At least one of the men on that list is arguably still exerting a lot of control on the world even after his death. All of these men could be described as cult leaders. But what draws people to cults? And once they're in, why is it so hard to get out?

A Cult of Personality

There's one ingredient that pretty much every cult has in common, and that's a charismatic leader. That's because the key to building a community around yourself is convincing others that you've got what they need, whether that's spiritual answers, creature comforts, or simply a method to ease their mind. Crucially, people seek a way to soothe their fears and anxieties, and cults have a special advantage when it comes to addressing those needs. They can make promises that no other group can hope to match — as long as the charmer in charge is convincing enough. According to California Institute of Technology psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen, those promises might include "complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life."

One way a recruiter might start is by asking a small favor (Benjamin Franklin effect, anyone?). For former cult member Ian Haworth, that favor was simply to fill out a short survey. From there, the recruiter played on his anxiety that he might have a greater purpose in life, asking, "Isn't it time you considered giving something back to the community instead of taking from it all the time like most people do?" After that, it was simply a matter of making him feel inferior for things like his cigarette habit, along with promising to be able to help him break it. Soon enough, Ian had pledged his money, time, and labor.

Ian is quick to point out that the success of the recruiting methods that hemmed him in weren't due to his lack of willpower or a mental illness. He was perfectly capable of making rational decisions and actually considered himself to be rather incredulous and skeptical. "The easiest people to recruit are ones with alert, questioning minds who want to debate issues with other people," he told Vice. "You take a strong-willed, strong-minded person and put them into a cult environment and the techniques used will break a person down very, very quickly." Maybe it's that strong-mindedness that makes it so easy. Someone used to doubting themselves might be more inclined to realize that a person is attempting to manipulate them.

Keeping You Close

Recruiting is one thing, but how does a cult prevent its members from falling away from the fold? Generally, that comes down to making five demands that "protect" the faithful from forces that might lead them astray. It's all about minimizing each member's agency, whether by eroding their sense of self-worth, draining their bank accounts, or blocking out voices that might lead them to question the leader's vision. The plan works like this, presented in no particular order:

  1. Isolation. Often one of the first demands made of a convert are that they cut off ties with friends and family members. If they aren't in line with the cult's vision, they represent a danger to it. Besides keeping potentially positive influences out of the recruit's life, this has the effect of grounding the recruit's entire social life in the organization.
  2. Obedience. Well, this is a pretty obvious one. Is it even a cult if the leader doesn't demand absolute obedience? By requiring members to follow a set of rules that might be arbitrary, nonsensical, pointless, or petty, the cult leader instills a reflexive obedience that can later be exploited to get the members to perform harmful and even violent deeds.
  3. Labor. Besides the obvious benefit of free labor that the cult reaps by requiring endless work of its members, putting people to work is a great way to keep them from questioning their leaders' goals and thought processes. You can't shake off an oppressor if you're always exhausted.
  4. Money. By requiring members to raise money for or donate all of their money to the cause, cults don't just fund their organization; they also prevent members from having the wherewithal to leave. It's hard to flee if you can't even afford a cab.
  5. Isolation (Part Two). The goal of these onerous demands is to leave members feeling as if the only thing worthwhile is the vision of the leader and the sense of community. But if a person does escape, they might find more purpose on the outside. To combat this, a cult will stigmatize those "apostates" even more than the uninitiated, and will equate leaving the church with failure and persecution.

It's not a coincidence that these demands share many qualities with those made by abusive partners — in both circumstances, an individual is attempting to exert control by manipulating their victim's sense of self-worth and value. It's just something that's worth thinking about. If you think you may be in a cult, here's a guide on how to leave.

For a harrowing tale of surviving one of the most notorious cults in history, you've got to check out Deborah Layton's "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple." It's free with a trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas January 16, 2018