Healthy Family | Home Safety | Health and Wealth | Relationship Issues | Career Advice | Growing Family
Get the SixWise e-Newsletter FREE!
Google Web
Free Newsletter Subscription
Get the Web's Most trusted & Informative Health, Wealth, Safety & More Newsletter -- FREE!


Share Email to a Friend Print This

How Cults Lure New Members

"[Cults] prey on the most lonely, vulnerable people they can find, cage you with your own mind through guilt and fear, cut you off from everyone ... they don't need armed guards to keep you. Liars, tricksters, it's been the same ever since Eve got the apple, and I doubt it will ever change. They're all basically, really the same, con men," explained Margaret Singer, Ph.D., author of "Cults in Our Midst" and, according to some, one of the foremost cult experts of the 20th century.

All destructive cults have personable, persuasive and often charismatic leaders, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.

The mention of cults usually conjures up images of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, Jim Jones and members of the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, or Charles Manson and his followers -- all of which involved deceit, exploitation and murders/suicides.

But cults can take on many different forms, from religion-based to commercial, and not all are dangerous. So experts have compiled several criteria to identify destructive cults, the type mentioned above and the focus of this article. According to Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, dangerous cults have the following three factors:

  • A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.

  • A process is in use called coercive persuasion or thought reform.

  • Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

How Cults Recruit New Members

There are an estimated 3,000-5,000 cult organizations operating in the United States, all with active members seeking to recruit new members.

"There are always sharpies around who want to hornswoggle people," said Singer. "You find it again and again, any time people feel vulnerable."

Cults play on people's emotions and often seek to target people who are going through a difficult or transitional time:

  • College students who have just moved away from home

  • People recently widowed or divorced

  • People who are depressed or isolated

  • People seeking spirituality or belonging

However, anyone can become a victim of a cult because everyone, at some point or another, longs for acceptance, comfort and security.

When cults first introduce new members, they will offer unconditional love, instant friends and family, and a feeling of security that this new "family" will protect and provide for.

The introduction is fun, and the new member finds they are spending more and more time with the cult, and less and less time in their "old" life.

"It was fun at first," said 30-year-old Beth, an ex-member of a religious cult. "There were parties and dances. They kept you very busy. And I was so impressed by the pastor's knowledge of the scriptures. I thought I was doing the right thing -- and having a good time too."

Anyone can fall victim to a cult, but those who are going through a difficult time (divorce, job transfer, death in the family) are particularly vulnerable.

Said another former member of a separate religious cult, "All of a sudden, I was surrounded by the nicest people I had ever met who seemed to offer unconditional love."

However, soon, as is the pattern of many destructive cults, the organization began to demand more time and required meetings, and introduced more rules. Often members are expected to live with other members and donate a portion, or all, of their earnings to the group. Socialization with people outside of the cult is soon forbidden.

The cult's leader also takes on a surreal role; members feel they cannot live without him or her, and will willingly obey any rules for the greater good of the cult, or the cult's mission.

Is It a Cult or a Worthwhile Organization?

Before you consider joining a new group or organization, perhaps one that seems "too good to be true" and has you a little wary, go through the following checklist and do a little research first:

  • Who is the leader and what are his/her qualifications?

  • Have you received information independently, or has all information come from the group?

  • Are you being pressured to accept, or not question things?

  • Has the leader claimed exclusive wisdom, knowledge or love?

  • Does the group have excessive rules and demand obedience and submission?

  • Have any allegations been made against the group?

  • Are there signs of hypocrisy, such as the leader wearing expensive clothing and denouncing materialism?

  • Are there secret texts or rituals reserved only for members?

What to Do if a Family Member Needs Help

There are several signs that a family member may exhibit if he or she has joined a destructive cult:

  • Drastic changes in personality, career, goals or relationships.

  • Surrendering money to the group, or having to depend on it for money.

  • Changes in physical appearance, style of dress, way of speaking, attitudes or beliefs.

  • Neglects to attend family functions and loses contact with friends and family.

  • Changes in beliefs about medical care, eating or sleeping.

  • Changes in living situation and group of friends.

If you feel a friend or family member needs help, you can first attempt to "research" the group by pretending you are interested in membership, while being sure to keep yourself out of harm's way. At the very least, this allows you to maintain contact with the person.

If you determine the group is in fact dangerous, there are many professional resources that can help:

Recommended Reading

The Modern Goth Subculture: Who Are These Youths, and is the Goth Rate of Self-Harm Really Higher Than Normal?

How to Argue Constructively, Effectively, and Without Hurting Your Loved Ones' Feelings

The Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements

Steve Alan Hassan's Freedom of Mind Center

California Institute of Technology Counseling Center

San Francisco Chronicle

To get more information about this and other highly important topics, sign up for your free subscription to our weekly "Be Safe, Live Long & Prosper" e-newsletter.

With every issue of the free newsletter, you’ll get access to the insights, products, services, and more that can truly improve your well-being, peace of mind, and therefore your life!

Share Email to a Friend Print This