Psychology Of Cults Essay Research Paper Cults

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Psychology Of Cults Essay, Research Paper

Cults: Reasons People Join

Cults are intriguing and arouse curiosity in the minds of people who have accepted life in society and joined humanity the way it is. It is amazing to think that people leave their life of normalcy to put their trust in something that is alien but promises them something in return or will save their souls from whatever will harm them. There are many causes that affect people s minds to make them join cults. Cults are very promising, can be very eye-opening, and may be the only option left for some people because of what has happened to them in their life or the mental state they are in.

Cults, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, are systems or communities of religious worship that may include obsessive devotion to a person or ideal. In our society, cults are common and have the potential to be destructive. This paper will focus on the factors such as education, stake in conformity, turning points, and strength of local religious organizations that may cause people to join cults, as determined by Stark and Bainbridge. It will also discuss the methods used by cults to influence new recruits and current members. Cult leaders employ tactics such as information deprivation, extinction of former identities, and scarcity in order to maintain their authority. All these techniques combined create an environment that can be classified as a cult.

Traditionally, cults have formed after or during turbulent periods of history, when people are most vulnerable. However, not until the nineteen seventies did cults begin to raise considerable alarm among the general population. In 1978, over nine hundred followers on the Reverend Jim Jones committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana (Hall, 1981, 1987, as cited by Robbins, 1988). Several anti-cult groups began to form and call for free minds and reunited families (Sage, 1976, as cited by Robbins, 1988). Then, in the nineteen eighties, professionals began to tackle the problem of destructive cults, moderating the intense deprogramming methods that had been previously used (Shupe and Bromley, 1987, Shupe, 1985, as cited by Robbins, 1988).

Currently, the most publicized cult is the Moonies, or the followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. This movement draws attention because of its media and political linkages, financial practices and commercial diversification (Bromley, 1985; Grafstein, 1984, Robbins, 1985a., as cited by Robbins, 1998). More recently, twenty-one female and nineteen male followers of the Heaven s Gate cult committed mass suicide in order to follow the Hal Bop comet (Zimbardo, 1997). This incident raised a new awareness of the damage cults can cause.

Another example of cults would be the Branch Davidian Cult that existed in Waco, Texas. This was clearly a case of a people who were vulnerable psychologically and were easy to be manipulated. It is amazing to see how one man can attract all of those people and make them believe he is more than just a human being and that he is someone who will take care of them forever. What made these people decide to leave their life in society and join such a cult, live in a compound sacrifice everything to live with this stranger?

In a recent study, Chris Bader and Alfred Demaris use the Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion in order to determine what factors cause people to join to cults. In 1987, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge created three hundred and forty-four propositions that explain nearly every aspect of religion, including why people join cults (Bader and Demaris, 1996). First, the terms sect and cult were operationalized as follows: Cults are new religious movements-movements that have not split off from another religious organization and sects are movements that split off from churches because of a dispute over beliefs and practices (Bader and Demaris, 1996).

The specific propositions that Bader and Demaris chose to study are 1) Persons with low stakes in conformity tend to have less favorable evaluations of conventional [religious] explanations than do persons with higher stakes in conformity. (P204)

2) Persons who desire limited rewards that exist but who lack the social power to obtain them will tend to affiliate with sects, to the extent that their society possesses a dominant religious tradition supported by the elite. (P219). 3) Persons who desire limited rewards that exist, but who lack the social power to obtain them, will tend to affiliate with cults, to the extent that their society does not posses a dominant religious tradition supported by the elite. (P220). 4) People who repeatedly experience turning points in their lives are more likely than other people to become chronic religious seekers. (P221). As cited by Bader and Demaris, Stark and Bainbridge defined a turning point as a period of markedly decreased attachment, investment, involvement, and belief, taken singularly or in any combination.

In order to test the hypothesis suggested by the propositions, Bader and Demaris used a survey distributed by the National Survey of Families and Households. The survey yielded 12,415 subjects, with those who chose none as religious preference serving as the control.

Four independent variables were set up in reference to the propositions: stake in conformity, education, strength of conventional religious organizations, and turning point measurements. To measure turning points, questions concerning number of marriages, number of jobs, number of authority figures from a subject s youth, and number of moves were used. Stake in conformity was measured in terms of attachments, or important relationships that keep individual from deviating, investments of money, energy or time, and involvement in conventional activities (Bader and Demaris, 1996).

Of the 12,415 subjects, 1,031 claimed no religious preference. Of the remaining subjects, 83.5% were church members, 7.1% were sect members and 1.1% were cult members. Among the cult members, only two of the variables really have an affect on membership. These two variables are years of education and stake in conformity. Every additional year of education increased the odds of cult affiliation by 19.94% and the greater a person s stake in conformity, the less likely he or she is to join a cult (Bader and Demaris, 1996). These results, when considered in combination with the results concerning church groups and sects, support the Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, has studied influence techniques for fifteen years. Over the course of his studies, he has come up with six fundamental social and psychological principles that are used in persuading people to join and remain members of cults (Cialdini, 1985). The first of these techniques is the Rule of Reciprocity. This rule occurs when one person [tries]

to repay, in kind, what another person has provided (Cialdini, 1985). This is a very effective rule because a sense of obligation is often overwhelming to an individual, driving him to be willing to give more than he received.

A second method especially common in cults, is the drive for commitment and consistency. Once a person has made a commitment, he or she desires to be consistent even to the point of ignoring his or her own self interests (Cialdini, 1985). Society values consistency and especially if a decision is made publicly, a person feels pressure to adhere to it (Cialdini, 1985).

People also tend to turn to others in order to evaluate their own decisions. In other words, we view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it (Cialdini, 1985). Similar to this tactic is liking. People are more likely to respond positively to those whom they like, whether it be because of appearance, similarity, or flattery (Cialdini, 1985).

Another technique, usually found once someone is already a member of a cult, is the authority technique. Those who are in authority, be it actual or superficial, are obeyed because of systematic socialization practices designed to instill in society members the perception that such obedience constitutes correct conduct (Cialdini, 1985).

The final method used is the principle of scarcity because people assign more value to opportunities when they are less available (Cialdini, 1985). In cults, restricted access to a message cause people to want to receive it (Cialdini, 1985). These techniques, when combined, allow for much manipulation within cults.

In his paper in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., describes another method of control used by cult leaders: Milieu control. In this type of environment, the leaders monitor all communication. This situation causes all individual autonomy [to become] a threat to the group (Lifton, 1981). He goes on to say that Milieu control often results in doubling or the formation of a second self as an individual struggles to assimilate to the group (Lifton, 1981).

Another set of characteristics of a cult is cited by Chambers, Langone, and Malinoski in their paper for the Psychological Association Annual Meeting in 1996. They discuss the methods of manipulation found by Singer and Ofshe in their 1990 study. The first tactic is to gain control over an individual s time and thought content, typically by gaining control over major element of the person s social and physical environment (Singer and Ofshe, 1990). A feeling of powerlessness is created within the individual and information is withheld from him or her (Singer and Ofshe, 1990). Finally, a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences is created in order to cause an individual to lose their original identity (Singer and Ofshe, 1990).

One common misconception is that the only people attracted to cults are those who suffer from some sort of mental disorder. The previously presented data disproves this theory. The information from the Stark-Bainbridge experiment alone is enough to show that all types of people join cults. For example, those with greater education are more likely to join cults. This fact demonstrates that cults are not always attractive to the ignorant, as one might expect.

In addition, many of the influence techniques are used in situations outside of cult recruitment. This makes them less obvious because they are seen as a non-threatening part of everyday life. For example, scarcity can be observed in sales promotions constantly. The same holds true for societal approval. We look for approval in everything we do so seeking it from cult members may not seem unusual.

Essentially, I think the influence techniques and factors that influence cult membership prove that everyone is susceptible to messages from cults. Not only do cults recruit all types of people, they tend to target those who are talented and mentally stable in order to strengthen their organization. Therefore, society as a whole must be very aware of cults so that everyone can remain protected.


Bader, Chris, Demaris, Alfred. 1996. A Test of the Stark-Bainbridge Theory of

Affiliation with religious Cults and Sects. Journal for the Scientific Study of

Religion. 285-303.

Chambers, William V., Langone, Michael D., Malinoski, Peter., 1996. The Group

Psychological Abuse Scale. Paper presented to Division 36 American Psychological Association Annual Meeting. Toronto, Canada.

Cialdini, Robert B. 1985.

Lifton, Robert Jay. 1981. Cult Formation. The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume

7, Number 8.

Robbins, Thomas. Cults, Converts, and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious

Movements. Bristol, United Kingdom: J.W. Arrowsmith.

Zimbardo, Philip. 1997. What Messages Are Behind Today s Cults? APA Monitor. 14.

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