Within the psychological research, there are different explanations for involvement in cults. Some researchers believe that involvement in cults is an evolutionary trait. We know that our bodies have evolved to adapt to our environment and is passed on from generation to generation. However, evolutionary psychologists suggest that our minds evolve in the same way. They propose that society and groups have changed so rapidly that we simply haven’t been able to evolve our mind as quick. Therefore, they propose that involvement in cults occurs because we want and need to belong to small groups, or tribes, to satisfy a need for comfort.
We learn though observing others and imitate their behaviour. Therefore, if we have family members, friends, or relationships with those who are involved with a cult we are more likely to copy that behaviour and join the cult.
Social Identity Theory by Tajfel (1979) proposes that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. We divided the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorization (i.e. we put people into social groups). Others have suggested that involvement in cults leads to a psychological process called Stockholm syndrome. Those who are intimidated, controlled, or made to suffer, begin to love, admire, and even sometimes sexually desire their controllers or captors. This would certainly be relevant once a person is part of a cult but fails to explain why people would join in the first place.
Involvement in cults is likely to be very complex. Therefore, we need to draw from several areas within psychology in order to explain it. Many researchers have rejected the use of the word cult and prefer a more generic description. Cults can be seen as an organised group or solitary person whose purpose is to dominate cult members by using psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.
One thing that researchers agree on is that those who join cults are vulnerable individuals. People are often surprised to learn that those who join cults are, for the most part, average people. They come from a variety of backgrounds. But research done in the past two decades has found that many people successfully recruited by cults are said to have low self-esteem. This isn’t to say that cult leaders actively seek out those with clinical depression or other traits. However, those with lower self-esteem are easier to break down, then build back up in an effort to teach them that the cult is the supportive environment they’re looking for.
Most people who join cults are looking for emotional comfort and reassurance. Very often, they will have experienced some difficulties and the cult appears to be an attractive solution for this. The need to seek emotional comfort and reassurance is a basic human instinct. Almost everyone attempts satisfy this need in one way or another.
People follow religions, they go to places of worship and pray to their gods and this gives them some comfort to know that there is an entity bigger than us who can take care of us. For Christians, it is God. For Muslims, it is Allah, for Buddhists it’s Buddha, for Pagans it is the Gods and Goddesses of the various elements, for Scientologists it’s their own spiritual identity and a God that is not described. Even those who profess to not believe in any religion may still believe that energy exists and cannot be destroyed.
All of these forms of religion or beliefs have some structure. They satisfy a need for belonging within us and give us hope. However, when we become diss-illusioned with these beliefs, it causes anxiety and a deep sense of loss. Any number of events can trigger this sense of loss and psychological trauma. It could be a breaking down of family or intimate relationship. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be drug use or abandonment. This is the point at which people are most likely to join a cult. A study by Rousselet and colleagues found that the reasons people joined a cult were most often due to spirituality, life dissatisfaction, and personal development.
How to leave a cult.
Leaving a cult can be difficult and requires a great level of strength. A person may have been born into a cult meaning that they have no friends outside of this. Those within the cult will most likely turn their backs on those that leave. Cult leaders use emotional manipulation to keep members.
You will need emotional and practical support so look for organisations that can help. An internet search or social media group can help support you and it is always comforting that others have successfully made the journey before you. Surround yourself with supportive people who understand your issues. The journey to recovery can take time so be kind to yourself and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Remember, there will be good times and bad days which is completely normal. Don’t rush into the arms of another seemingly supportive group and build up friendships slowly.
Thousands of people have taken this brave, daunting and liberating journey. It will take time to adjust to the unfamiliar freedom which at times can feel like loneliness. Try not to feel guilt, regret or bitterness, but go easy on yourself when you do. Nobody can change what has already happened, but we can acknowledge our part in that journey and be mindful not to make the same mistakes again.
People are always growing and changing. We never stop learning so don’t be too hard on yourself. It is only by making mistakes that we learn what we don’t want. Seek out a counsellor to work on forming your own new beliefs and build on your self-esteem.
Most people who join cults are looking for emotional comfort and reassurance. Therefore, you may need to learn how to identify healthier ways of getting that comfort and assurance.
Leaving a cult is similar to leaving a controlling and coercive partner in a relationship. It can be hard at first but gets easier over time. It is best not to make any major life decisions while you are healing. Accept help and support from voluntary organisations. Join new social groups or try volunteering to connect with others again. You now have an opportunity to reclaim activities that were previously denied.
Finally, learn how to put yourself and your own needs first. It is likely that cult life took away any sense of individualism. You have an opportunity to build your life up again how you want it to be. This isn’t going to be a quick process and you may need help. Take one day at a time.