Cults I: Why is allegiance to cults so hard to eliminate?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Pete”) is fictional. The post presents speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Why do people join cults and persist so strongly in their loyalty, even when the cult fails? In the 1950s a small cult gathered on a hillside on a date specified by their leader as the day the world would end. According to the leader, God would save them and destroy everything else. In preparation for this day, these folks sold all their belongings, their houses, cars, clothes – everything! They made an incredibly strong commitment to their leader.

The world survived and the group experienced cognitive dissonance, but they did not turn on their leader as a false prophet. Instead, they joined him in praising God for rewarding them for their great faith and saving the world. They reduced their dissonance by distorting reality, not by changing their beliefs about their prophet. They decided the world continued to exist because of faith in their leader. Faced with the possibility that they were a bunch of knuckleheads who fell under some idiot’s spell, they kept their mental balance with perceptual distortions and irrational thinking, which allowed them to continue to worship their leader. If you said to one of them, “Your leader was all wrong and caused you to get rid of all your worldly possessions! He’s a fake!” Their reply would be, “You’re wrong. God was so impressed with us and our prophet that He decided to spare the world. We saved you! And it was all because of our prophet!”

In the 1960s and 70s, several cults sprang up, and they preyed on young people, especially teens, who are often in a rebellious stage of questioning their parents’ values. The cults tried to convince the kids that cult membership would resolve their confusion about life and their role in it. The Hare Krishna movement, which focused on questioning Western values, grew quickly in the hippie culture of the time. Members were so prevalent in public places – they really liked airports – that laws had to be passed to prevent them from accosting people with their often aggressive and intimidating demands for money. Many young people were attracted to the movement with promises of an improved life, both physical and mental, if they just discarded their parents’ values and beliefs. Also prominent at this time – and equally dangerous for impressionable young people looking for a sense of higher purpose in their lives – were the “Moonies,” the colloquial name for members of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myun Moon.  

Beginning in the 1970s, horrified at how their children often became rigid adherents to these cults, many parents responded by hiring “deprogrammers.” The essence of deprogramming was to abduct cult converts – some called it kidnapping – isolate and physically restrain them, and barrage them over long periods of time with continuous arguments and attacks against their new “religion,” threatening to hold them forever until they agreed to reject the cult. The process was not easy, very expensive – upwards of $10K – and bordered on torturous brainwashing. Deprogramming eventually lost favor in society because the process seemed every bit as dangerous as the cult itself.

In 2020 and on into 2021, many mental health professionals see a resurgence of cult thinking, although it is often centered on political beliefs in adults, not so much the “tune-in, turn-on, and drop-out” youth drug culture of the 60s and 70s. Whether political or altered-consciousness enlightenment, however, the dynamics of cult allegiance is the same: Reality distortion, irrational thinking, unquestioned acceptance, and illogical devotion to the leader that is incredibly resistant to change. Why is such devotion so impervious to reality checks?

Cult allegiance is hard to overcome because the cult complements adherents’ personalities. They join because the leader compensates for their inner insecurities and weaknesses, often unconscious. If Pete joins a cult because they pay him a really great salary, it would be easy to dissolve his loyalty to that cult: Pay him more than the cult pays him! But if Pete is tormented by fears and helplessness – “minorities will take over my country” – that cult membership mitigates with the reassuring message, “Join us and together we will prevent that from happening” – in this case, weakening Pete’s loyalty to the cult requires helping him resolve his inner psychological conflicts without the cult, not an easy task.

Loyalty to a cult and its leader is not a political, legal, financial, or patriotic enterprise. It is a psychological undertaking based on one’s search for meaning, purpose, truth, and values. The simplicity and definitiveness of cult principles attracts those who are adrift, confused, and bewildered in that search. Unerring loyalty to the cult may fly in the face of logic, rationality, and self-preservation, but challenging believers that their loyalty is illogical, irrational, and self-destructive is futile when that loyalty satisfies psychological needs. Finding ways to help the follower satisfy those psychological needs without the cult and its leader, is the only way to show cult devotees the way out of their commitment. The key is to show them how to re-calibrate the search for values that brought them to the cult in the first place. It’s not an easy process, but few things worthwhile are easy. The point is, appealing to reason, logic, and level-headedness is not the way to go.

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