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The Psychology of Cults and Groupthink by Lauren Christiansen

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Photo credit: Pexels

For some, the events of November 18th, 1978 are still as vivid today as they were 42 years ago. While people around the world made their coffee, got ready for work, or played with their children, a group of 900 individuals in a South American jungle were getting ready to commit an unspeakable action. By the end of the day, the radical religious movement, known as the People's Temple, was now known to the world. All 900 of those individuals were dead from drinking poison at the urging of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones. Only a few survived. Jonestown was an event in history that forever altered the way we as a country think about cults, strange religious movements, and groupthink.

Of course, from an outside perspective, cult behavior does seem irrational and strange. We can’t understand how a group of seemingly intelligent, normal individuals can completely lose their identity to a group and give up everything and everyone that they love. But what most people don’t recognize is that many, many individuals are susceptible to groupthink or cults, and it doesn’t always reflect upon how “strong willed” someone is, or how “intelligent” they may be. Groupthink is an alluring path for many who are suffering from loneliness, low self-esteem, and for those who are seeking acceptance. The young and those from marginalized groups can also be especially vulnerable. Here is what to know about cults, and how to protect those you care about.

1. Cult Leaders Seek out the Vulnerable. Jonestown was a community composed of those who had been marginalized in society. Many were people of color who had been ostracized and treated poorly in their everyday lives, and they were looking for a place that offered an escape from that. In every cult, there is a similar pattern of leaders who seek out vulnerable people and then offer a Utopian, idyllic paradise as the answer. Charles Manson picked up young people who came from broken homes or who didn’t fit in with the rest of their friends. The Children of God (Family International) movement, a radical Christian cult, lured in young, vulnerable women and men, promising them an answer to their woes. Regardless of the type of cult, the leaders tend to portray themselves as an answer to whatever pain a person is facing. Those who come from broken homes or suffered abuse as children are most at risk because they are usually looking for a community and sense of belonging.

2. Religion is Used as a Weapon. Not every cult is religiously based, but most are. They typically take different ideas from different religions and then create a radical set of beliefs that are adhered to. For example, the Children of God movement took mainstream Christianity and used verses in the Bible to promote pedophilia and other abnormal, deviant behaviors. Traditional churches do not force people to attend, or accept beliefs that are illegal, or completely outside of the mainstream. Cults use peoples’ natural inclination to find God in times of trouble, and then weaponize that to draw in vulnerable members of society.

3. Targets are Isolated & Brainwashed. Once cult members are lured into the group, new members are gradually isolated from friends and families. Many are threatened, or coerced, or brainwashed, into thinking that anyone outside of the group is a threat. If a member thinks of leaving the group, leaders use damaging and personal information to blackmail them into staying. There is a pervasive level of fear that can be subconsciously implanted onto the victim. Because cult leaders can also be loving, charismatic, and paternalistic, there is enough “good” to make the victim justify the fear. Those involved in cults believe they are doing the right thing and that the group is working towards a good cause. Any strong-armed tactics are justified because there is enough love doled out to keep vulnerable people in place.

4. Help is Available. Once someone escapes a cult or if a cult disintegrates, it is virtually impossible to just reenter society and move on. There is psychological damage and harm that has been inflicted upon the individual, and counseling is a must. Those who leave cults have a difficult time trusting others or finding help because they are weary of anyone who claims they might have answers to their problems. It takes time and there might even need to be de-brainwashing therapy in order to assist them, but recovery is absolutely possible.

Do you come from a dysfunctional family? Do you find yourself in an abusive relationship? If so, contact Straight Talk Clinic at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our counselors would be happy to speak with you.

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