4 psychological techniques cults use to recruit members

Hint: They hold off on talking about their alien god until much later.

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  • The beliefs of cults and other extreme ideologies are patently bizarre to any outsider observer.
  • Despite how strange their beliefs are and the stereotype, most people who get sucked into cults are relatively normal and healthy at first.
  • Watching out for these four manipulative tactics can help you from getting suckered by cults, scams, and other extreme organizations.

Scientologists believe that human beings are vessels for the ghosts of brainwashed aliens. Heaven's Gate believed that committing mass suicide would enable them to enter a spaceship flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. The leader of the Branch Davidians said he was the messiah and all women were his "spiritual wives." With views this crazy, the only thing crazier is that people seem to buy into cults at all.

Well, it turns out that human beings are—under the right conditions—extremely gullible. Cult members target likely candidates and use proven techniques to recruit new members into the cult. Even though cults can have wildly different beliefs, the way they recruit and retain new members tends to follow a general pattern. Here are the four steps to getting sucked into a cult.

Picking the right target

Scientologists often target celebrities for recruitment due to their influence and wealth.

(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

As it turns out, most people can be susceptible to cult influence under the right conditions. Research has shown that the people who are the most susceptible to recruitment are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions. New college students are a prime example of good targets for cult recruitment since they're still forming their identity and have recently been separated from their families. In addition, people who were neglected or abused as children may be easily recruited because they crave the validation denied them in their childhood.

There's a bit of a false belief out there that cult recruits tend to be mentally ill, but this usually isn't the case. Cults don't want completely unpredictable people to join; rather, they want relatively stable people who can work to forward the cult's goal and donate money. Relatively healthy people going through stressful periods, therefore, are their prime targets.

Love-bombing

Originally coined by the Moonies, love-bombing is more or less self-explanatory. Having identified a stressed, emotionally vulnerable target, cults flood that person with affection, flattery, and validation. Cult awareness educator Ronald N. Loomis described this practice on college campuses as involving "a recruiter approaching the student and doing everything [they] can to make the student feel special and unique. They're quickly trying to convey the message that I am your new best friend. And they will fake mutual interests in order to give the impression that they share many things in common." He also described how one cult trained its members to wait outside counseling centers to poach troubled students and offer them the comfort they would otherwise get from a trained professional.

Isolation

The Waco compound of the Branch Davidians, where they had stored up an arsenal of firearms. In 1993, federal agents engaged in an armed standoff against the cult that lasted for months, ultimately ending with the compound going up in flames.

(BOB STRONG/AFP/Getty Images)

Once they've enticed a recruit with approval or the promise of some fulfilling understanding of the universe, cultists then work to isolate the recruit. Often, this takes the form of a weekend retreat, where the recruit is immersed in the cult's ideology over the course of a few days. Not only are recruits physically isolated from friends and family members who might otherwise provide a reality check, but cults often isolate recruits from outside information. Newspapers, books, TV, and web access are all censured, ensuring that the only reality the recruit gets to experience is the one presented by the cult.

Keeping control

After convincing you that they're the best friends you've ever had and bombarding you with the cult's ideology, the cultists' next job is to make sure they hang on to you. There's a variety of techniques they can use to accomplish this, but these usually involve iteratively subjecting the cult recruit to terror and love.

In an interview with Aeon, social psychologist Alexandra Stein explained that "when we are frightened, we don't simply run away from the fear, but run to a safe haven, 'to someone…'—and that someone is usually a person to whom we feel attached. But when the supposed safe haven is also the source of the fear, then running to that person is a failing strategy, causing the frightened person to freeze, trapped between approach and avoidance."

By keeping cult members totally off-balance in this way, cults increase their members' dependency on the leader, ensuring they retain control. The exhausting, frozen state of "terror and avoidance" overwhelms cult members and their ability to think critically about the ideology they've suddenly committed themselves to.

Breaking out of this situation usually requires some other ally—another cult member who has become fed up with the system or another outside influence. Broadly, cults retain control over their members by controlling the narrative. Dissenting voices offer a landmark to cult members that they can use to situate themselves and find their way back to objective reality.

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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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