Oct 30, 2020

A look behind the curtain of cult psychology

A look behind the curtain of cult psychology
Verena Daniel
The State News
October 29, 2020

Since the popularization of cults in the mid-20th century, the intrigue surrounding these organizations and how they attract their members has grown. Despite the typical negative connotation, the controversial nature of cults is what some say makes them so appealing.

In recent years, there's been a noticeable uptick in the portrayal of cults in popular culture. Documentaries about the Children of God, songs like Post Malone's "Jonestown," and abundant references to the saying "don't drink the Kool-Aid" made recognizable by The People's Temple are all examples of the prevalence of cults in media.

Psychology junior Siena Fontanesi has had a longtime interest in the psychology of cult influence. According to Fontanesi, a lot of the recruitment process is about convincing a target that they are loved and that any questions they are seeking answers to can be addressed by belonging to something that is bigger than themselves.

Once a target has been identified, cult members deploy a variety of tactics to establish power over the individual. These mental manipulation tactics include techniques like love-bombing, inciting paranoia about the outside world, and public humiliation. While anyone could fall victim to this, young adults and women are most vulnerable.

"Women are way more likely to be recruited into a cult," Fontanesi said. "... Women are the majority of cult members, and men are the majority of cult leaders. It definitely changes the overall experience. Cults are very 1950s about everything. Women are inferior, so you probably aren't having the best time in a cult as a woman. ... You don't really know that. You're being brainwashed."

A study by Columbia University, focused on three groups of people, all between the ages of 22 and 32 with one group being ex-cult members, offers some reasoning behind the age demographic.

The study release said this group "can be characterized by difficulties with identity, particularly feelings of depression specifically related to identity formation ... Difficulties with identity formation appeared to have made this group more vulnerable to cult recruitment techniques that offer clear cut identities and prescriptions for living."

"There's a lot of psych tactics that are used to recruit, super negative ones," Fontanesi said. "Paranoia, manipulation, deception, all that stuff goes on a lot. And I think its kind of easy. I think that cults kind of look for people who are insecure, and those people are usually more susceptible to manipulation and all these negative psych tactics used to rope them in."

Arguably one of the most effective and widely used methods is love-bombing.

The concept is to gain a target's trust by making them feel loved and accepted to essentially disguising any sign of manipulation in order to be able to influence them and the way they behave without raising suspicion.

"They prey on vulnerable people and they use a lot of tactics like love-bombing and acceptance and offer answers to everything. The leaders will come or the recruiters and they say 'oh we know why you're feeling sad or why you're feeling vulnerable but we can fix this and this is what we do' and they really rope you in with all these promises that they won't deliver," Fontanesi said.

Religion resonates with potential recruits as well. A lot of cult leaders like David Berg and David Koresh preached to their followers as a "prophet" or someone sent by God himself in order to make what they had to say convincing.

"It's a safety blanket to explain things that are unexplainable," Fontanesi said. "You just blame it on God or the universe or whatever you believe in. There's so many cult leaders that think that they're the second coming of Christ or something, that they're an apostle coming down to save the world again."

Chemistry freshman Raegan Swartz and her family have seen firsthand the impact a cult can have on someone's life.

Her great-grandfather was involved in a small cult near her hometown. During his high school years, he was a devout Christian. He was invited by some friends to join a spiritual group that seemed innocent initially. He realized shortly after that something more sinister was happening around him.

"They started controlling how he dressed, what food he ate, when he ate, what he was drinking, how much of it," Swartz said. Around the time the shift in the nature of the club occurred, he met Swartz's great-grandmother. Not long after, they decided to get married.

The leaders of the organization he was part of refused to allow them to get married at their own church. Instead, they let him invite his family and friends to the ceremony, where they addressed their suspicions as outsiders. Swartz's grandfather denied anything was wrong.

"He had to get married in this building where they put everybody's families in and they were all supposed to live here together. So, they got married in this building with all of his friends and his family was there and his mom was like 'hey, this seems a little weird,'" Swartz said. "He was like, 'no, it's fine, it's just our little club. It's kind of like the Freemasons.'"

After the marriage, the cult began to exert even more pressure on the couple, even requesting they abort their first child. Swartz's great-grandmother fled the compound where the members lived and hid out in her husband's parental home. Her in-laws realized their earlier assumption of the religious organization was correct, and her great-grandfather came to stay with them late into the pregnancy.

This angered the leaders of his cult, so members were sent to retrieve Swartz's great-grandfather from his home, along with his newborn child.

"He ended up going and living with them for a while, and everybody in the cult was not having it," Swartz said. "... They ended up abducting him and bringing him back with the baby," Swartz said. "They raised my great-grandmother's daughter in the cult.

As the child grew up, members of the cult began exploiting her.

"They started abusing her and having her do things she didn't want to do," Swartz said. "They said it was the right way to get to God."

This was the final straw for her great-grandmother, Swartz said. She gave her husband an ultimatum: He could choose to stay and live in the cult, or he could choose his wife and daughter. He decided to defect, and members of the cult attempted to abduct him a second time.

"He ended up leaving, and he got hunted down by them," Swartz said. "But they ended up contacting officials right before they left and so the leaders got arrested."

Some of the cult members were sentenced to life for their participation in the physical violence and assault that was fairly routine in the organization.

"Beating up the children and the women, and if they wouldn't do the correct things they would assault them," Swartz said.

Fontanesi said the decision to defect from a cult usually comes from the realization that the promises made in recruitment were empty and meaningless.

"One factor is probably realizing the cults can't give you everything they promise," she said. "It's all pretty much based on lies. ... They're not going to give you eternal healing and peace and love," she said. "They slowly realize 'this isn't what it's chalked up to be, this isn't what I was promised.'"

Post-defection, a new journey begins for a victim of cult manipulation and their loved ones. There's a long road to recovering from the impact of the experience. While it's important to seek therapy, the psychological trauma cuts deep and, according to Fontanesi, sometimes can't be fully healed.

"There's a ton of long-lasting psychological consequences," Fontanesi said. "I think being manipulated and abused unknowingly for that long and then finally leaving the cult and realizing that is super traumatic and that can absolutely scar a person permanently. I feel like you can never really get over that regardless of how much therapy or anything that you do."

According to Swartz, after the family was no longer involved in the cult, her great-grandparents were always on edge. Swartz said coping with the manipulation they endured was hard and they didn't reach out for help or attend therapy.

The psychological trauma the family was left with was extensive.

"He didn't trust himself anymore," she said. "He ended up becoming an alcoholic later on in life to try to cope with it. He didn't like his wife and kids going out alone just in case something were to happen. He was just very untrusting of everyone, no matter who you were, family or not. ... He also had a lot of depression for allowing those things to happen to his family."

It's difficult for a victim to acknowledge that they've gotten themselves involved in a cult, according to Fontanesi.

"Nobody wants to admit that a cult is a cult," she said. "... I think people deny the fact they're in a cult after they've realized it because it has such a negative connotation to it for good reason. It's kind of embarrassing to admit that you're in a cult. They don't want to see it for what it is, especially if they're still in that organization."

In an effort to keep outside influence from infiltrating the cult, members were not allowed to watch certain TV channels. Communication with non-family members was prohibited and even their clothing was restricted. Leaving the compound was also largely prohibited unless a member was going to get absolute necessities, such as food or medication.

"They weren't allowed to send letters out to non-direct family members," Swartz said. "They weren't allowed to dress a certain way. If they were allowed to go out, but they weren't allowed to go shopping, it was only groceries. And then if there was a member that needed medicine, they were allowed to go pick it up."

Swartz echoes Fontanesi's sentiment on the word "cult" having a dark undertone.

"I do have a negative connotation when it comes to the word 'cult,'" she said. "... The word cult really puts me on edge. I don't think I ever want to be part of a cult."

Swartz said she believes her great-grandfather was unsure of how he felt about the cult during his time there. It was hard for him to grasp that what seemed so innocent at first could be a bit dark.

"I think he didn't want to believe what was happening," she said. "But I also think he didn't see the severity of it because it was a very slow and gradual process. So, it was like one thing would lead to another thing, which would lead to another thing. I think he was sort of in denial about it, but he also truly believed what they were saying because it didn't start out absolutely terrible. It just started out as a normal type of club."

The transition from being a member of secular society to forfeiting everything to a cult is very gradual and smooth, according to Fontanesi.

"It's very easy to transition when you're not really paying attention to it," she said. "You meet a recruiter. They're like 'come by, see what it's like.' They put on all their happy faces. You're like 'you know I could hang out here, see what's going on,' and then slowly you're being caught up and manipulated into being a little puppet for a cult leader."


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