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4 psychological techniques cults use to recruit members

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

Wikimedia Commons
  • 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.

Why our hearts and minds are easy targets for cult leaders

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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