The Psychology Behind Why People Join Cults

At best, cults are predatory organizations intent on scamming people out of their funds or possessions. At their worst, cults are terribly dangerous groups, with leaders procuring sexual favors from their followers or in the most infamous cases, leading dozens to their deaths. The dangers of cults have been displayed on the news and pop culture alike, so what makes someone join them?

People who become cultists are most often lacking important qualities in their life to make them feel comfortable and accepted (via Online Psychology Degree Guide). Cults can offer health, financial security, and peace of mind, providing an illusion of comfort. Others, such as Heaven's Gate, offer fantastical benefits like eternal life or a divine afterlife. Cults present themselves as a social group filled with love and connection that can be very appealing to the right kind of person, which is why they are very careful to recruit the most dedicated and loyal members possible.

Cult leaders prey on vulnerable people

Most cultists are average people. Not one race or income level is targeted, although women are more likely than men to join a cult. The key unifier between cultists is low self-esteem. Cult leaders will target those new to an area, those who have gone through recent professional or romantic loss, and people who are lonely (via TED). Recruits are then often "love bombed" — showered with compliments, affection, and seduction — to provide a feeling of acceptance and being wanted, which is associated with the cult. The recruitment process can take months, and more often than not, the target is a friend or family member of a cultist who finds it hard to turn down the offer.

Once someone joins a cult, a leader begins to manipulate them. After the honeymoon period of love bombing, leaders can force public humiliation and self-indoctrination to return the low self-esteem that plagues their followers. Paranoia sets in, and members who might object to the claims and requests of a leader are afraid to break from the example of blind obedience set by their fellow cultists. Even if most cults don't end in death, the already fragile mental state of a cultist can be severely damaged by the manipulation of their leader.