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.

How to spot manipulative people before it's too late

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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