Sep 20th 2023
People who join cults often do so out of a strong desire to belong, matter, and give meaning to their lives. In reality, cults often don’t provide these things, instead demanding complete commitment to the organization, which can inflict severe psychological harm on their members - and often physical harm, too.
According to the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a cult is “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” 
Within this definition, we see the basis of cult psychology - it demands total commitment from its members. We also see some of the characteristic signs of a cult. Also, cults are based on a specific ideology led by someone charismatic and require you to put the organization first and yourself second.
Part of this process is what’s known as social influence. Cults have particular norms that all members must obey. These norms might dictate what you can or cannot do (e.g., you can’t leave the cult’s property), what you believe (e.g., that the cult leader is somehow exceptional), and who you have contact with (e.g., you might be forbidden from speaking to your family).
These and other norms are necessary for maintaining order within the cult. They also help create a group identity and a strong “us versus them” outlook that facilitates obedience among cult members to the cult’s cause and leader.
Before discussing how people are convinced to join a cult, it’s essential to consider factors that make someone more likely to be convinced to join in the first place.
A top risk factor for someone to join a cult is exposure to cultic behavior at some point in their earlier life. Whether that’s an extreme situation like being raised in a cult, a more low-level interaction like being aware that a cult’s compound is nearby, or something in between, exposure to cults increases the likelihood of joining a cult later in life by more than 32 percent.
One of the risk factors for joining a cult is when individuals are searching for something or missing something important. This ‘something’ could be a sense of belonging, a connection to a higher power, or something in between. However, most people join cults to address some affective or social issue occurring in their lives.
Another factor researchers have noted for people who join cults is that these invididuals tend to have psychiatric difficulties, especially within the year before joining. Anxiety disorders are the most common issue, with nearly 52 percent of former cult members reporting having an anxiety disorder. Mood disorders (45.2 percent) and substance abuse disorders (12.9 percent) are also common among cult members.
Given the vulnerabilities of people that join cults, it is often relatively easy to employ cult psychology techniques to convince people to join. As noted earlier, some of the perceived benefits of a cult by prospective members is a sense of belonging and purpose. Furthermore, prospective members might gain a sense of safety and appreciate cult life's structure.
When people are anxious, sad, abusing drugs, or all of the above, the promise of a hot meal, a comfortable bed, and a supportive network of like-minded people is highly alluring. In other words, cult leaders often don’t have to work that hard to convince people to join - even the promise of basic life essentials can usually do the trick.
One of the most common ways cults retain their members is through gaslighting. This type of psychological manipulation makes you question reality, including the validity of your own perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories. In fact, gaslighting can be so severe that you begin to question your very sanity.
Cult leaders employ gaslighting and other mind-control techniques to maintain control over their followers. After all, if you question the validity of your memory and point of view, you’re more likely to believe what the cult leader is telling you to be true.
Isolation is another key method for keeping people in cults and is one of the main signs of a cult as well. Cults are usually isolated from the outside world (e.g., having a compound in the middle of nowhere), and cult members are often cut off from the outside world, including family, friends, and other associates from their previous lives.
This isolationism creates a greater and greater level of control exerted by the cult and cult leader. For example, you might first be asked to tithe part of your income to the cult. Then you might be asked to move near the cult compound and then onto the cult property. Eventually, you might entirely rely on the cult organization for necessities and services.
Many cults also use what’s called “love bombing” to draw people in and keep them under the cult’s control. As noted earlier, many people that join cults have anxiety or mood disorders and abuse drugs. These activities are often associated with low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
Love bombing preys on those feelings by showering new members with praise. The constant stream of flattery, compliments, and other affirmations can be intoxicating to someone that has a negative self-concept. Even if alarm bells go off that the situation is inappropriate, unhealthy, or even dangerous, the constant love bombs often prove too powerful and keep people thoroughly ensconced in the cult environment.
The effects of being in a cult might be examined through two lenses: the effects of growing up in a cult and the psychological effects of leaving a cult.
The effects of growing up in a cult can be long-lasting and severe. Children in cults are often subjected to serious restrictions (e.g., no outside contact with other children) that can lead to difficulties with intimacy, low self-esteem, and the development of mental disorders. Furthermore, the restrictive nature of their upbringing can cause children in cults to develop identity confusion, panic attacks, and anxiety disorders when that restrictive structure is no longer there.
There are many other effects of growing up in a cult:
Untreated, these issues can cause further difficulties for children who formerly lived in a cult. Seeking appropriate psychological treatment is paramount for addressing these and other effects of cult psychology.
The other component of this is the psychological effects of leaving a cult. As just noted, children raised in cults face many potential psychological issues during and after their cult experience. The same goes for adults that choose to leave.
For example, former cult members can feel incredibly isolated and out of sorts and unable to navigate the basics of independent life. Moreover, these practical issues can lead to anxiety, depression, and even dissociative episodes.
Additionally, former cult members face psychological challenges because of the realization that their former belief system was not what they thought it to be. They may see themselves as lost, damaged, or helpless. They might also question other aspects of their lives, such as whether they are worthy of others’ love.
Periods of mourning can be experienced by former cult members, too. The loss of friends and a sense of community can be especially painful, as can the difficulties of reintegrating with society and family members. This is to say nothing of issues like finding a job, a place to live, and getting appropriate mental health care, difficulties with which can exacerbate existing psychological problems.
Leaving a cult is no easy task. However, there are some basic steps you can take that make your escape more likely:
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