The answer to this question can be found in the basic psychological needs that we all share. According to Self Determination Theory developed originally by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Deci & Ryan, 2000), people have three intrinsic psychological needs, these are: (i) a sense of autonomy, (ii) a sense of competence, and (iii) a feeling of relatedness — sometimes described as belonging.
Perhaps the most important defining aspect of a cult is the reduction of the individual’s autonomy, after all a common alternative descriptor of a cult is a “High Control Group”. Cults control people’s thinking and behaviour, their choices about who to associate with, what jobs to do, who to marry or have relationships with, what to believe, and depending upon how extreme, when to eat and sleep and even in some notorious cases when to die. It is for this reason that cults are psychologically unhealthy places to live or become involved with. In addition to the psychological tole of living a life without being able to find expression of one of our fundamental needs, by removing a sense of autonomy, individuals become mere tools of the leadership and often do things that are not in their own interest.
Trying to measure the mental health of cult members is difficult. Studies that have tried to do this often find that people in cults self-report that they are happy and fulfilled within the group (Aronoff, Lynn & Malinoski 2000). Of course, the problem with this is that cult members may well claim to be happy because that is a requirement laid upon them by the leadership. I know when I was a member of a High Control Group, I would insist that I had the best life and was actively trying to help other people have what I had. I can now report that even when I was positively extolling the virtues of life in the Group, I was riddled with anxiety, unhappiness and frustration. Of course, it is possible that some people in cults are happy, at least for a time. Work continues on this question, but the problem is tricky because as a rule people in cults claim to be happy and people who leave claim they weren’t happy while a member. There is a further irony in that just by disbelieving cult members about their claims to be happy and certainly by trying to get them out, researchers are at risk of reducing their autonomy to stay a member.
This brings us to another important question about recruitment. Putting aside the fact that many cult members may have been born into the group, if people have an intrinsic need for autonomy, then why do they join cults in the first place? The answer is of course that most people who join a cult often don’t know the full level of commitment they are making, and the extent to which their autonomy is about to be curtailed. In fact, the very need to make choices about their life is itself a powerful reason for some to join.
The modern world can be an exhausting place. There are many demands upon us, including our families, workplaces, governments, our local communities etc. There are also political movements and questions that, for some people seem to be reducing choice about what can be said, what should be believed, what transport to take and what to eat. The increase in right wing conspiracy theories is, in my view, at least partly a response to the increasing demands for people to moderate their behaviour and speech around issues such as the climate crisis, social injustice, inequality etc. Conspiracy cults play upon this situation and promise a community where you “don’t have to worry about what you say all the time” and where you can behave in a way that reflects a utopian era when you didn’t have to worry about political correctness.
A person who is gravitating towards a cult may be feeling pressure from worried relatives to reduce their association or stop altogether. This sets up an apparent fight about autonomy. The cult may well prepare the new member for ‘opposition’ from family and friends and frame it as a question about whether you are going to allow others to determine for you how to serve God or save the world. The sad irony is that the final act of cult commitment may in fact feel like the ultimate act of an expression of autonomy.
A Sense of Competence
We all like to feel special. At very least we all want to feel that we are good for something. Many of us struggle with feelings of self-doubt. Modern life is increasingly complex, and society can be quite unforgiving and intolerant of mistakes, so we live constantly with the experience of getting things wrong, from failed relationships to forgetting to send that email. For some people, at various points in their lives there can be a sense that something is not quite right with the world - or a concern that “maybe the problem is with me”? In either case there are times when we may feel overwhelmed by the complexity and begin to feel that there must be a better way. Cults often promise a revelation, a recipe to the ‘secret sauce’ that will finally unleash the real ‘you’, ‘the successful you’, ‘the powerful you’, ‘the thin you’ and so on. Being offered the chance to finally work out how to navigate this complex world and be a success can be very attractive.
The promises of the cult are appealing to that need to feel a sense of competence. To make the attraction even more sweet the answer is often a secret that only a chosen few have access to and yes, you guessed it you are lucky enough to have been chosen to get that answer. In order to benefit from the ‘secret source’ however, a commitment is required and a period of difficulty endured as well as obedience, devotion, labour, money etc.
A desire for competence is therefore a major reason why people join cults, but as with autonomy, the sad reality is that the promise is far from the experience while in the Group. Many groups, whilst promising cosmic levels of competence continually tell their members that they are useless, good for nothing, sinners, losers, fat, unintelligent etc. Why people stay is complex but is partly because the promise of competence is still there. The problem they are told is with them individually, and requires more work, more devotion, more love for the leadership and so they are forever ‘on the hook’ with a promise of competence that never quite materialises.
Relatedness and Belonging
Most cults employ tactics to make the Group appear an attractive, wonderful community to be a part of. They may engage in a practice often called ‘love bombing’ where an interested person is made to feel special and loved. Everyone is so friendly and lovey. Often the most attractive people are paraded as examples of members in media and literature. It’s not surprising that individuals want to be a part of it. Advertisers long ago recognised that to make a person buy a product it’s not the product that counts but what it says about you and the people that it associates you with.
Many experts about cults speak about the situational element of cult recruitment. It’s no coincidence that when people are going through some sort of transition or are socially isolated, they are more vulnerable to damaging cults. Why sit at home all sad and lonely when there’s this bunch of beautiful, friendly people just down the road? Whilst the other two elements turn out to be simple deceptions the feeling of belonging and relatedness may remain and even strengthen. The longer a person remains in a cult, the greater the bonds with the community. Many cults use familial terms such as father, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts to describe cult members. This is no coincidence of course. The closer you feel to the members of the group the deeper the social bonds and greater the sense of belonging. Additionally belonging to the group may also claim a relatedness to something much bigger — a Universal truth, God, the future of mankind. The desire to maintain this community and the fear of losing it becomes a strong reason to stay despite any disillusionment the person might be feeling. It was the single biggest reason for my own staying in a religious cult that I no longer believed in.
Cults are often seen as something mysterious, deploying exotic methods of mind control. The reality is that, in the main they use well understood psychological and social processes that employ deception as well as coercion. While the actual beliefs and practices may seem strange, the processes are rooted in the exploitation of normal needs and desires such as the need to feel a sense of autonomy, competence and belonging. Unfortunately, many of these cults exploit these natural psychological needs and set up a situation where the individual behaves in ways that are not in their own interests. The cult’s promises turn out to be empty and the individual finds themselves in a coercively controlling situation without the autonomy and feeling of competence that attracted them initially. They may be left with a sense of community and a fear of losing it, but with little else to show for their years of service.
Stephen Mather MBPsS is a Podcaster and Corporate Leadership and Management Trainer & Coach with a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Organizational Psychology. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and studies cults and high control groups.
Podcast ‘What should I think about..?’: https://pod.link/1540824671
Aronoff, J., Lynn, S. J., & Malinoski, P. (2000). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?. Clinical psychology review, 20(1), 91–111.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.