The Four Factors of Cultish Thinking

This isn't limited to religion. 

Jim Jones spent his childhood exploring religion and torturing animals. These seemingly odd bedfellows do, in fact, make sense: Any human who believes a special creator crowned our species atop a kingdom would not necessarily exhibit much empathy for other animals. This lack of caring for others — humans included — became a lifelong occupation.


Jones went on to found the People's Temple in 1955 at age 24. According to experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman, the third thing Jones focused on during his youth was death, which would play heavily into the cult he led for 23 years until its abrupt ending in Guyana.

The question of how one man could influence over 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking spiked Kool-Aid has been asked ever since. In his book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There, Wiseman attributes it to four key factors. 

First is getting a "foot in the door." Wiseman cites a Stanford University study regarding traffic accidents. Suburban residents were much more likely to display a large, ugly placard in their front yard only after displaying a much smaller, less invasive sign first. When asked if they would display the obnoxious signage first, they were unwilling. Charismatic cults operate on the same principle. The stepladder of Scientology is an example of this: Start here; hook them; and then you really get to climb.

Conformity is also an important factor. Former cult member Steven Hassan discusses this in his book, Combating Cult Mind Control. When indoctrinated into the Unification Church (aka the "Moonies") he was strung along by people who he thought were simple members, not realizing they had moved up that stepladder and were tasked to hook newbies. Later he would become one of the lead indoctrinators. Espousing shared principles is sacred; criticism of the group’s platform is not tolerated.

These two principles exploit the human brain’s penchant for tribalism. We want to feel a part of a community. The third factor takes advantage of our habit of magical thinking: Jones claimed he had God’s direct number. Once his foot was in the door and you were part of his tribe, the next logical step — no matter how illogical — is that Jones is the chosen one. Because he already has you emotionally, and because you don’t want to upset your crew of new BFFs, believing the leader is prophetic completes the mind control.

Almost. You eventually have to justify why you’ve left your family and friends behind for this group’s cause. In the self-justification phase, you’ve now decided reasons why you were fated to be involved in saving/leaving the world all along. Meaning in life is a crucial component of psychological welfare. As Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

This quest for meaning has a neurological correlate. Leonard Mlodinow writes in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

The motivated reasoning we engage in when we have a personal stake in an issue proceeds via different physical process within the brain than the cold, objective analysis we carry out when we don’t.

It is this unconscious processing that Jones and numerous other cult leaders have exploited for their personal gain. The first three factors in some way support this fourth. As Wiseman writes,

People have a remarkable ability to explain away evidence rather than change their cherished beliefs.

Which is why Hassan has spent the last few decades of his life saving cult members and returning them to their loved ones. This process is not easy; it takes months if not years to soften their cultish psychological state. Even then the process sometimes just takes a new form: I’ve watched people raised heavily in religion become drug addicts only to return to religion as priests and other church leaders. The internal craving, the impetus for 'something" shifted from idea to idea, but the process remained the same.

Wiseman supports this idea in his conclusion of the four factors. Salespeople, politicians, advertising agencies, all proponents of the same "foot in the door" segue to gain control of people’s minds. The way we align ourselves with brands is a modern example of this. Successful Instagram "stars" accept free schwag and sometimes get paid to pimp products, making it appear as though that product is aligned with some spiritual principle. If your brand can seem like it has a tribe behind it, your bottom line is the thing that really prospers. 

As a longtime yoga instructor, I’ve watched numerous people fall under the same spell: They are searching for meaning, find one in a school or instructor, and quickly their entire philosophy has shifted into alignment with whatever has been preached to them. For the most part, these people suffer more benign consequences — indeed, they often receive positive benefits along the way, as do people in all sorts of cults — but the underlying process of mind control remains intact. As Wiseman concludes,

The practitioners of mind control are not restricted to cult leaders and religious sects. Instead, they walk among us on a daily basis. 

Image: Don Hogan Charles / Getty Images

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