November 18th 1978, Jonestown, French Guiana. 918 people lie dead – men, women, children. A tub of grape-flavoured Flavour Aid sits in the centre of the town, still half-empty. The graphic scene of the mass suicide of a thousand people sits deep within the memories of the American people. Members of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ had been active for 23 years, drawing in 20,000 fellow believers. In their dramatic exit, they have not only coined the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid (believing excessively in a dangerous idea hoping of profit), but also established themselves as a prime example of a cult gone wrong.
In the face of such an extreme course of action, it may seem like madness to join an organisation such as the Peoples Temple. However, as we see shocking indictments of harmful and destructive cults such as NXIVM and the despotic regime in North Korea, it is important to note that other, less pernicious groups, such as the Church of Scientology and Mormonism, may be called cults. What defines a cult, and why do people join them?
Cults are generally defined as being a group of people who believe in a non-orthodox system, whether it be extreme forms of Christianity or extraterrestrial beings. In more recent years, especially after the Jonestown incident, the word has taken on a more negative connotation, largely to do with clandestine and closed communities, drastic and fatal actions, and ritual brainwashing. One key part of many cults is the presence of a charismatic leader, often proclaiming to be some sort of prophet or Messianic figure. This can be seen in L. Ron Hubbard’s rise to power or that of Jim Jones. The method these leaders employ to attract people is that of pure personality and ideology. Kim Il Sung was largely venerated and adored by his people, to begin with, due to his stature as a war hero and role model. As such, many cults start with numerous followers looking up to and respecting a key figure, whose personal charm and dogma converts them to his own belief. This is the first basis of expansion. One example covered by the Atlantic sees a college student roping his friends into a personal cult by claiming to receive religious visions and the ability to be in touch with the supernatural. By convincing a core group of fanatic followers, the cult is able to spread more easily. This core group is most likely to consist of friends who have been convinced through repeated exposure and a genuine belief that what the leader is preaching is true.
Once a base is achieved, the cult starts expanding and organising itself. Most cults operate on the basis of hierarchy. For example, the Ku Klux Klan has many levels of leadership, most famously the ‘Grand Wizard’ (overall leader) and ‘Kleagles’ (recruiters), as well as ‘Dragon’, ‘Titan’, ‘Cyclops’ and many others for different leadership roles. By creating a military-style hierarchical structure, members of cults are induced into a sense of normality and a desire to climb these ranks when induced. Furthermore, the ranks are designed such that the higher the rank, the more fanatic the person. In implementing this system, the cult can keep unsuspecting and moderate initiates segregated from the more extreme members of the leader’s circle. Over time, these recruits are integrated into the inner workings and beliefs of the cult, as they grow more accustomed to the beliefs that they are exposed to. In fact, this process does not even need to happen over time. Around two-thirds of cult members are indoctrinated by friends or family, whose invitations are harder to refuse. Often, the doctrine preached by the organisations is that of a solution to life’s deepest problems, whether that be through the supernatural, religion, political belief or self-help. Thus, they can reach out to vulnerable people, in the form of friendly support to those who are new to an area or those who have suffered significant losses, quickly converting them. By reaching out to people with simple solutions in the form of persistent sermons and lectures, cults can quickly rope in unwitting victims, from whose perspective, the ideals will become normal.
Once the cults have integrated new members through psychological means such as providing support and faking friendships, as well as proposing dogmatic solutions to fundamental societal problems, they often engage in brainwashing and emotionally abusive activities to maintain these people and to ensure that they can feed off them in terms of political or financial support. Basic methods of social coercion include large group gatherings in which the human tendency to mimic others is exploited. Others lean towards shocking their victims towards staying, by preaching messages of guilt and shame, for example claiming that a hesitant member lacks faith or is full of evil and plotting against the movement. In doing so, the cult weeds out critical thinking and manipulates its followers to ascribe to its ideals. The resulting inner conflict, known as cognitive dissonance leads to self-entrapment, as every compromise makes it harder to acknowledge that you have been tricked and deceived. They also require a high level of commitment, mandating that believers put the community above their family or friends. By swarming them with a new group of associates and cutting off previous ones, the cult focuses the emotional and social needs of individuals onto themselves, thus ensuring that they feel trapped, as they would be leaving behind their entire life alongside the cult. By concentrating all of a member’s interactions and experience within the cult, they exploit the loss-aversion many potentially dubious or reluctant members will have when acting against the cult.
Overall, although at first the notion of the cult seems bizarre and at times insane, the use of key psychological manipulation and exploitation of basic social cues and normative mindsets can lead to many intelligent and rational individuals being deceived into joining such organisations. The pressure and gradual implementation of brainwashing tactics as members join then lead to a loss of free will and autonomy, reducing people to devoted cult members. With hindsight, these factors and strategies may be easy to identify, but in practice, the signals that the cults use are often so subtle that they go unnoticed until it is too late.