How Cults Trick You Into Believing

Right now, you may feel like you're reading this article as a curious outsider. Perhaps you're thinking, "Well I would never fall for that cult stuff." But you're wrong, according to professional research about cults and their recruits, structures, and behaviors. Anyone can be drawn into a cult, no matter how smart you think you are.

They've got to have charisma

Charismatic people have the proverbial golden ticket to success because they're great at manipulating people. If someone's persona is captivating, alluring, and commanding, they attract followers and admiration very easily. This is key to understanding how cults work. No average Joe lures people into cults. It's someone with the kind of personality that fits the job description.

The New York Times reported on the psychology of the cult experience by interviewing several experts in the field of psychiatry, one being Dr. Stanley H. Cath of Tufts University. The definition of a cult that he gave to the Times is "a group of people joined together by a common ideological system, fostered by a charismatic leader." Often, when people think about cults, they think about an organization, but as Dr. Cath points out, the leader is just as if not more important than anything the group stands for.

They tap into your weaknesses

Everybody's got 'em.

No matter how they portray themselves, all humans have vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Identifying and tapping into these aspects of your character is part of a cult leader's scheme. If you feel there is a problem in your life or with the world around you, you are vulnerable to being swayed by a cult member. If you feel like no one understands you or listens to you, you are also vulnerable.

However, a person doesn't need to be depressed to be subject to the will of a cult leader. A relatively happy, normal, intelligent person can be swept into a cult just as easily as anyone else. All it takes is figuring out what your wants and desires are, and a cult leader will find a way to exploit that for their own means. As this Vice interview with a previous cult member reveals, it's all about "hitting an area of interest." Humans are emotional beings, and that's what these people count and prey on.

They provide hope and solutions

Cults portray themselves as the best possible solution to whatever problem you're dealing with or whatever negative emotions you are experiencing. They set up a formula like, "X has hurt you, I can make X go away and make you feel all better." In short, it's the idea of comfort that they offer you and that ultimately persuades you. The term for this approach to recruiting cult members is called love-bombing.

Ever have someone shower you with all sorts of affection, attention and compliments to make you swoon? Think back to a few of the people you've dated. Was there one (or more) who totally enraptured you because they made you feel so wanted and good about yourself that it was like you were on cloud nine? But then the relationship took a turn. It started to include less love and affection and maybe even a broken promise or two. But you denied it because you were still under their spell. That's exactly what love-bombing is, and it's what cults do to their recruits.

According to a Psychology Today article on the subject, "Cults start seducing people with love-bombing, paying a great deal of attention to and being very affectionate with potential recruits—a very effective way of connecting with someone who is feeling lonely and isolated." Still think it could never happen to you?

They isolate you

Cult leaders want total psychological control over you. Once they've got you fooled into believing that the cult is a great place for you to belong, they begin to isolate you from your old life. They are your friends and family now, not the people you depended on before. To many outsiders, this would seem like a huge red flag. It's hard to believe that if they were in the same situation they'd completely abandon those they cared about. But when you're presented with what you're convinced is the ideal life filled with comfort, unity, and purpose, it can be an easy decision to make.

The importance of this step is monumental. The cult is no longer just exerting emotional manipulation over a new recruit but social manipulation as well. It's not just about the mind anymore—it's also about the environment. By disconnecting you from the rest of the world and making the cult your new home, they are fulling immersing you into their system of lifestyle and belief.

The group's identity is now your identity

After a cult has successfully thrown away your old life and replaced it with a new one, they focus on reshaping your identity. They break down your conception of yourself as an individual and replace it with the group. You are no longer the name you received at birth. You are now, for example, a disciple of the People's Temple. This tactic is discussed in an article published by San Diego State University about Jim Jones and his psychological revolution. The article reads, "The cost for Jones' followers was to further lose their independence of thought and opinion." The cult's identity consumes your own, and there becomes no difference between you and the rest of the group.

If it still seems hard to understand, think about this process in a different context. It is precisely how any extremist group works, not just cults. Cult tactics are employed by charismatic leaders to indoctrinate their followers and grow their cause. A perfect example of this is the rise of Hitler in the 20th century. A young man who was an outcast on the fringe of German society was able to persuade people to his cause with his charisma and incredible oratory skills. His small fringe group ended up growing into an entire army because he presented them with a vision of the world that made them feel hopeful and like they belonged to something greater than themselves. According to an interview Broadly did with Dr. Alexandra Stein, who herself used to be in a cult but now focuses on spreading awareness, "No matter what the ideology of a cult, the techniques are the same. Their leaders operate in the same way as both totalitarian leaders and domestic abusers, and to understand that is to protect yourself from their coercion." So really, cults and cult tactics are almost everywhere you look. But you never saw it that way before, did you?

"Us" versus "them"

To further erase your own identity and replace it with that of the group, cults frame the world as "us" versus "them." It pits the cult's view of the world and all of its ideals against the outsiders and the non-believers. Former cult member Diane Benscoter details this approach in her Ted Talk about how she once became a "Moonie," or a member of the cult started by Sun Myung Moon. "It becomes impenetrable," she says of the cult mindset. "And the most dangerous part of this is that is creates 'us' and 'them,' 'right' and 'wrong,' 'good' and evil'. And it makes anything possible."

The New York Times interview with Dr. Stanley H. Cath affirms what Benscoter has to say. "Often they set up a we-they philosophy," Dr. Cath says. "'We have the truth and you do not.'" This framing technique further brainwashes cult recruits and solidifies their connection to and belief in the group's values. This makes it virtually impossible for someone to convince a cult member that the cult is bad.

Reinforce with ritual

Once a recruit believes, the cult leader's work is far from over. They have to make sure that the recruit's faith does not waver, and the performance of rituals help with this task. The American Psychological Association details how cults keep people in line. "With thought-stopping techniques," their article says, "members are taught to stop doubts from entering their consciousness about the cult, often with a key phrase they repeat." "Repeating a key phrase" is also known as chanting a mantra. Repeating mantras is a form of psychological ritual that reinforces belief. In the case of cults, it is also an important aid in brainwashing.

So why do mantras and rituals work so well for cults? Scientific American has also researched and analyzed the significance of ritual. According to the article "Why Rituals Work," "the superstitious rituals enhanced people's confidence in their abilities, motivated greater effort—and improved subsequent performance." While ritual can be used for many purposes, even good and simple ones like how to manage your weight, they can be weaponized. In the eyes of a cult leader, this is a perfect tool to keep recruits obedient and passionate about the group's cause.

Impenetrable logic

Part of the success of a cult depends on how it sets up and reinforces its logic and ideals. One example of the kind of logic that a cult employs is this: "We know the truth, and we know what is good. By complying with us, you know the truth and what is good. Anyone who doesn't follow suit is lying to themselves and is bad." Even though this may seem like BS to an outsider, it has its own internal system of logic and rules. If a person buys into the first premise that the cult knows truth and goodness, the rest makes perfect sense. This kind of logic makes it easier to see people outside the cult as enemies or targets.

If this sounds like mind control, it's because it is. A cult teaches you what to believe, how to demonstrate your belief, and what to say to people who question the cult's authority. As part of their research about the cult mentality, the APA spoke with several former cult members about their experiences. Kerry Noble, a former leader of a cult called the Covenant, Sword and the Arm of the Lord, became militant and hateful toward gays, blacks, and Jews while in the cult. After a stint in prison, he spoke to the APA about his recovery from cult mind control and brainwashing. "I've learned that hate is a learned behavior," he said. And that's how, with the proper dominoes in place, a kind and utopian-seeming group can turn into an armed and extremist organization.

The chosen one

What ultimately sells a person on the idea of being part of a cult is the notion that they have been uniquely chosen for a cause, that they are part of an important revolution or a divine plan. Remember what we said about love-bombing? It's not only being loved and accepted that attracts people to cults, it's the idea that they are being recognized as special and important. A woman named Lisa Kerr shared her story with The Huffington Post about being indoctrinated into a cult. "Almost immediately," she writes, "the Master's Commission disciples had me convinced that, by joining them, I would be joining an elite group of soldiers for Christ that would change the world by drawing people closer to God." For someone who might be feeling lost or like they want to change the world, what better line can you feed them than that?

Dr. Sharon K. Farber explains this phenomenon further in her article, "Cults and the Mind-Body Connection." "The cult preys upon the tendency of many to rely on magical thinking," she writes, "which reinforces the tendency to endow the leader with omnipotent and magical powers, much like the child's early mental representations of the parent who, at that time, did control his universe." You are loved, you are valued, you are special and you are wanted. You are looked after and I will show you the way. Who doesn't want to hear that? From a young age, these are the things we yearn for.

That's exactly what makes a cult so appealing. They lure you in with the promise of fulfilling those desires, and just a few weeks later, they send you on a crusade that you'd otherwise never have participated in.

Ultimately, what you do with your life is entirely up to you. You can choose to be part of something or you can choose not to be. But psychological manipulation is a powerful weapon, and with it, a cult can break down even the strongest person's defenses.