It can be challenging to understand how an adult becomes part of a cult. When one is exposed to the infamous cults like ‘Jonestown’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ it can seem incredulous to an outsider that anyone would want to belong to such a group.
So what attracts a member to a cult and why do some people get hooked and others not?
Some of the things that might attract a person to a group may include: doctrine, religious salvation, spiritual enlightenment, healing potential, human potential and global restoration. Or perhaps it’s the environment the cult offers or the lifestyle and promises of a better future and happiness. Or more controversially it can sometimes be the personality of the leader itself that can be the strongest draw.
There are many things that can initially attract a potential member to a cult and although research would suggest that those between 18-25 are more susceptible, people in their thirties, forties and fifties are also being attracted and recruited. With the growth of the internet and social media, it has also become possible for cults to attract those that haven’t even reached adulthood.
It is important to understand the situational elements that can have a powerful effect on a person’s susceptibility to cult recruitment. There is evidence that a year prior to entry it is common for there to have been an event that destabilises the individual. Events such as a relationship breakdown, moving, a death of a loved one, a job change, leaving home for the first time to go to University etc. All these situational elements can be a precursor to the emotional and mental state that can leave a person vulnerable to being drawn to the promise of belonging to a group that offers a better future.
For some people it is bad luck that they are exposed to a cult during a period when they are vulnerable; for others they might be actively and consciously seeking ‘something’ and during this search they are captured.
Cults will use literature, social media and websites, personal recruiters, advertisements, social cooperatives, churches, health food stores, non-profit organisations and other means to attract and recruit potential members.
Because there is limited cultural awareness of such issues (although this is slowly changing), many people really have no idea of the insidious nature of these groups and how they touch all parts of our social networks.
Outside of the situational elements, there can be some traits that make a person more vulnerable to becoming part of a group that behaves as an abusive system. These can include:
- A deep need to belong and have purpose and meaning
- Gullibility and idealism
- Unawareness of human pathology and manipulation
- Susceptibility to trance-like states
- A desire for spiritual meaning
- Difficulty in saying no
For a person to become a fully fledged member of a cult once attracted, there needs to be a successful recruitment and indoctrination period. People that have the above traits are more likely to be put through the recruitment and indoctrination process, compared to someone who is assertive and questioning. It is during this initial process that possible members are assessed.
Many make the mistake of believing that somehow people make a choice to enter a cult. No-one can make an informed choice if they are being tricked and deceived. People do not join cults they join an organisation that promotes global peace, a meditation centre, a money making workshop, a church, a yoga class, a lecture about spiritual enlightenment, to name but a few.
Once a member has been attracted to the group, cults use a very seductive and powerful persuasion process. They utilise intense techniques that disable a person from making rational decisions. It’s only when a member is fully involved that they get exposed to the hidden agendas of the cult and its leadership. At this point, many are already passionately committed.
When one understands the recruitment process that cults use it becomes easier to see how it is possible for people to get trapped in abusive groups. The packaging of the cult is what people first get attracted to; if it was clear what was really at the heart of the cult, in this initial stage, it is doubtful that anyone would ever join such an organisation.
Ex-members in recovery may sometimes feel a great deal of shame that they were ever part of a cult. By understanding the different contributing factors that attract, indoctrinate and hold hostage a member it can be easier to feel compassion rather than blame.
Part of recovery includes education on how cults work. Once the mechanics have been exposed ex-members can really start to heal the complex range of feelings that the journey uncovers. This education transforms baffled thoughts into a coherent narrative and helps ex-members see it was not their fault.
It is critical that a person in recovery comes to understand the nature of what they were part of. All cults use the same techniques and these can be easily assessed by a trained professional.
These techniques come in three main types: alienation, dissociative and emotional arousal. Each cult will differ in the ratio and combination they utilise. All cults, without exception, use intense psychological indoctrination.
The attraction to a destructive group can have many contributing factors. What starts off as being an innocent life experience, can quickly become a horror story that can last for many years.
Cults are everywhere and it is vitally important that people are made aware of how they attract and recruit. Through this awareness, we can find ways in which to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
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