There has been much contention over what defines a cult. It is believed that since the beginning of structured religions in society, there have been deviant religious groups (Davies, 2018). It seems there is some form of continuum that could be used to explain what is and is not a harmful new religious movement. Despite the ambiguity in what groups are acceptable and unacceptable by societies standards, cults have been said to have some recognizable and unique characteristics (Furnham, 2014). These include, but are not limited to: powerful devotion to the leader(s) of the group, the use of specific and deliberate techniques of selection, recruitment, persuasion and integration by the cult to broaden its influence, requirement of dependency among cult members on others in the group and its leader(s), exploitation and reprogramming of the perspective of cult members and causing and/or threatening harm to cult members or those they care for. Cults are dangerous to society for these reasons. As cults often prey on the unmet psychological needs of the potential members by offering friendship, identity, respect, and security along with some level of simplicity to their life, there are many who fall into the trap of cult indoctrination. One purpose of this essay is to provide insight into how we can improve the deprogramming of former cult members, meaning systematically reeducate them of conventional values, and in turn decrease cult prevalence in society.
This research question addressed in this paper is: To what extent do situational factors influence an individual’s susceptibility to cult indoctrination? Meaning, what is the role of the environment a person finds themselves in on whether, should an individual be provided with the opportunity to join a cultic group, they would chose to do so. As some cult members do not have a choice in their membership, should they be born into a cult or have joined at a very young age, they will be excluded from this essay.
Dispositional factors, which are internal to the individual, such as propensity to conformity (Bader et al, 1996), ego-weaknesses and emotional vulnerability may also have a role (Curtis, 1982), along with mental health issues, addictive tendencies and prevalence of cults in the environment (Rousselet et al, 2017). However, these dispositional factors may be overridden by situational factors like experiences in childhood (Murken et al, 2007), unmanageable situational or socioeconomic conditions (Curtis, 1982), and techniques of conversion used by cultic groups (Ungerleider and Wellisch, 1979). Whilst there is an issue of bidirectional ambiguity between dispositional and situational factors that influence an individual’s susceptibility to cult indoctrination, as this essay will explore, situational factors play a more significant role.
Analysis of Evidence
SF (CHILDHOOD EFFECTS)
(1) ABSENT FATHERS
Whilst it has always been assumed that family members joining cultic groups has had a destructive impact on families, research suggest that perhaps there is a case of misattribution of cause. Perhaps an individuals’ childhood experiences with their parents may have some impact over their likelihood of joining a cult. A longitudinal study on early family antecedents of conversions to new religious movements in the USA (Ullman, 1982-89) found that a much higher proportion of participants who had converted to cultic groups had reported an extremely unhappy childhood and a greater number of traumatic events prior to becoming a cult member. 15% of the 40 converts who participated reported having a normal and happy childhood, compared to 73% of the control group. Nearly 80% of the converts reported having an absent, passive, unavailable or rejecting father, compared to 23% of the control group. It was thus assumed by the researcher, that an absent father may be a situational factor that would increase a persons’ likelihood to join cultic groups. This intuitively makes sense, as many cultic groups involve a “protecting and loving male authority figure” (Janet L. Jacobs) which would appeal to people who grew up with an absent father. However, perhaps the possibility that dispositional factors of the cult member caused their father to abandon them was not addressed. For example, if an individual exhibited difficult personality traits as a child, their father may have found this stressful to the point of abandonment, and would have otherwise remained a part of the family unit. The validity of this study may additionally be compromised by the fact that the sample size was small, studying only 40 converts from only a few cultic groups, therefore the findings may only be applicable to members of those groups.
These findings were supported cross-culturally by a large research project conducted in Germany (Kuner, 1983), which discovered that many cult members tended to come from incomplete families, and furthermore, that they would attempt to find fulfillment for their specific psychological needs through the esoteric religious group they chose to join. The assumption made by the researcher may overlook, however, the fact that generally cults attempt to convince new members to perceive the world and those outside of the group as villainous, therefore it may be the manipulation that occurred during their involvement with the cult that has made them retrospectively view their childhood extremely negatively. Further research into the topic (Berger and Hexel, 1981), using in-depth interviews into thirty-six young members of the Unification Church, Divine Light Mission, Anada Marga, and Scientology in Germany suggested that differences in childhood experiences exist among members of the different cults. In some groups, members tended to come from stable families, whilst in others they had experiences many ruptures to the family unit. This suggests that perhaps it is not only a lower level of content with one’s childhood that increases their likelihood to join a cult, but that cults tend to attract members of similar background and emotional satisfaction.
(2) LARGE FAMILIES
Kuner (1983) also discovered that all subjects of his study tended to come from families with a disproportionally larger number of children compared to the West German population. It could be therefore assumed that those who grow up with an increased dependency upon those around them, would become attracted to the similarity of dependency within cultic groups. However, these findings were contradicted by Berger and Hexel’s study, which found that the same amount of cult members (31%) had only one sibling compared to those who had three or more (34%). Thus, this supports the notion that it is more likely that certain cults attract people with specific backgrounds. More so, perhaps cults attract similar types of people in order to increase conformity through increased anonymity between group members.
DF (EMOTIONAL VULNERABILITY)
Although evidence suggests individuals are predisposed to cult indoctrination due to situational factors such as how they were raised, characteristics such as ego weakness and emotional vulnerability have also shown to make a person more likely to become a cult member. Curtis (1982?) found that when a person exhibits these characteristics, their vulnerability to cults seems to be expanded as their emotions of fear, anger and guilt make them more vulnerable to the structure and promises made by cults. As cults are said to offer “simple rules and a simple lifestyle” with “formulaic interaction patterns” (Psychology Today), it is understandable that those who are emotionally weak would wish to be provided with simple answers on how to behave.
DF (MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES)
Other dispositional factors that have shown to influence one’s susceptibility to cult indoctrination are mental health issues and addictive tendencies. A study was conducted by Rousselet et al (2017) on former cult members recruited from associations for cult victims from 172 cultic groups in France. Using semi-structured interviews, it was found that in the year prior to joining a cult, nearly half of the participants experienced an anxiety disorder, which tended to increase progressively during and after being involved with the cult. In addition, there was a high prevalence of addictive disorders during the year preceding commitment to the group. The researchers explain the connection between addictive tendencies and cult behaviour by suggesting that repercussions and motivations for cult membership meet Goodman’s (1990) and the American Psychiatric Associations (2013) addictive disorders criteria in that they both impair several areas of the victims life, including their social abilities, and leave the victim without the ability to change despite the risk and/or damage. Additionally, addictive disorders are known to serve as a coping mechanism for psychological stress. As the results showed that many individuals experienced some feeling of psychological relief upon joining a cultic group, it could be assumed that those with mental health issues, addictive disorders in particular, may be drawn to cults as they too temporarily relieve psychological suffering and would lessen the need for substance abuse. Moreover, perhaps due to the ability of addictive substances to lessen one’s capacity for critical thinking and decision making, that it would render a person more susceptible to persuasion, thus to cult indoctrination. Whilst this study is mostly retrospective in nature, it also involved evaluating medical documents stating the mental health of cult members at various times, and thus may be considered reasonably valid. It was also conducted very recently thus increasing temporal validity, and reveals similar results as to the motivations behind why people join cults as were reported in a similar study conducted more than 40 years ago by Levine and Salter (1976). However, it may have been assumed by the researchers that these factors were solely dispositional, rather than examining the possibility that these mental issues were caused by situational factors. Additionally, as the participants were gathered from associations who assist former cult members, the results may be biased as participants are only those who are seeking help, and who may have had the notion that their cultic group was manipulative and cruel reinforced into their mind by the association.
SF (PREVALENCE IN SOCIETY)
A significant situational factor that may increase the vulnerability of individuals to become indoctrinated into cultic groups is prevalence of such groups in ones’ social environment. The researchers (Rousselet et al) found that almost one third of all cult members were exposed to cultic groups prior to joining through their immediate environment. Out of this third, many had family members who were already involved in the group. This could be explained through Bandura’s theory of social learning (1977) which discusses that “behaviour is learned from the environment by the process of social learning”. This suggests that situational factors play a larger role, as it may be the case that in poor environments, mental health issues and addictive disorders are rampant and thus the presence of cultic groups is increased, all adding to the likelihood an individual in those circumstances would chose to turn to a cultic group. However, there may be a question as to whether the researchers have exaggerated the impact the prevalence of cultic groups in the environment has as only one third of all former cult members reported cults existing in their social circle, which is not, in truth, a very large fraction of participants.
SF (SOCIAL EXCLUSION)
Further research has supported the notion that a poor environment in which an individuals’ ability to thrive is hindered by social exclusion could increase ones susceptibility to religious radicalization. The NSW Parliamentary Research Service (2016) reported that studies show issues of marginalization, racism and social exclusion can act as a catalyst for radicalization. In one study using in-depth interviews, focus groups and questionnaires conducted by Victory University (2013) of 542 respondents from all over Australia, suggests that socio-cultural factors play a large role. The sample was comprised of government officials, leaders of radicalized and non-radicalized religious communities, and members of the general public. Along with racism and rejection of minority groups being identified as vulnerability factors, self-exclusion from these groups of the majority in order to maintain a coherent cultural identity may play a role. The study also discussed individual factors such as lack of belonging, need for approval, fractured self-esteem or self-worth etc. in heightening susceptibility to cult indoctrination. However, perhaps these variables cannot be isolated as “individual” as they may all be the result of situational circumstances as outlined above.
SF (TECHNIQUES OF RECRUITMENT AND CONVERSION)
One of the most significant situational factors that influence an individuals’ susceptibility is the techniques of recruitment and conversion employed by cultic groups to persuade potential members to dedicate and sacrifice themselves for the group. The weight that this situational factor carries in influencing a person to convert to a cultic group has been supported by psychological research from the time of the rise of media attention towards cults in the 60s and 70s with the mass suicide of the People’s Temple at Jonestown along with other tragedies up until today. Ungerleider and Wellisch (1979) in their preliminary research study into the reasons people decide to join and remain in cultic groups, used psychiatric testing and interviews to examine 50 current and former members of religious cults. They consistently found that cults offer some initial relief from abysmal emotions that are often exhibited in individuals vulnerable to manipulation from cultic groups, such as those who are mentally ill or socially excluded. This is supported by research by Rousselet et al (2017) who found that whilst prevalence of anxiety disorders was consistently high prior, during and post cult membership, mood disorders decreased in the membership period. As discussed by Furnham (2014), the offer to those who are alienated of “simple rules and a simple lifestyle and social support” from cultic groups “appears to offer all they need and want”. Ungerleider and Wellisch concluded that cults tend to seek out individuals whose ego-defences are in a weakened state because they recognise the ability to offer specific belief systems that would appeal to their need for emotional stability.
The researchers also discovered the trend that cultic groups tend to require members to isolate themselves from the world outside of the group. The method used to do so involves persuading new members that their previous lifestyle was toxic, and that their new immersion into the cultic group is protective, supportive and even divine. In employing cognitive restructuring practices, cults are able to manipulate members to relinquish their money, work, friends and family, in effect their identity to the cult, which in turn increases their level of dependency upon the group and has the effect of limiting the information members receive to only that which is provided to them by the group. Once this dependency is obtained, the researchers discuss that methods of coercion and intimidation are more easily accepted by cult members for they feel they owe their newly stabilised emotional state to the group, intransigently support the belief system of the cult, and additionally lack knowledge and understanding of their alternatives. Whilst Ungerleider and Wellisch’s research provides evidence for plausible explanations of the power of techniques used by cultic groups such as relief from emotional stress, mental manipulation, isolation, dependency, coercion and intimidation, it is limited by the fact the results are all obtained from members of cultic groups who conducted the researchers about the issue of deprogramming, therefore the results would have been biased towards individuals who were actively seeking information about the manipulation they had endured.
Techniques of compliance are also likely to be among methods of conversion used by cultic groups. A study by Migram (1963) involved having an authority figure request participants to administer electric shocks to another human being. The shocks were not real, but this was unknown to the participant. The results showed that 65% of participants administered electric shocks to the point that they would kill the other individual, if they were implored to do so by the authority figure. Milgram concluded that ordinary people are more likely than not to comply to legitimate authority, even if they are unsure of the morality of the request. Therefore, it could be assumed that the role of the leader of the cult is a paramount technique of conversion employed by cults to increase inductees’ susceptibility to indoctrination. Furthermore, the foot-in-the-door technique of compliance, as explained by Fraser and Freedman (1966) assumes that agreeing to a small request increases the likelihood that that person will agree to a similar, larger request. Whilst these conclusions are not specifically linked to cults, they provide insight into the mechanisms by which cult members are willing to subject themselves to various forms of abuse by their religious group without questioning the ethics of the cult. Multiple reports from victims of the People’s Temple cultic group coincide with these theories. Osherow (2017) collated various reports from former members that dictate “there was an unwritten by perfectly understood law in the church that was very important: No one is to criticise father” and over time the church “gradually increased the discipline and dedication … required from the members”. However, these findings are limited in that they are only applicable to the conditions in the People’s Temple, however it would not be incorrect to assume that other cults use similar techniques.
The technique of increasing conformity among members used by cultic groups may explain why cults seek out people with similar backgrounds. An extension of the Asch paradigm was created by Abrams et al (1990). The Asch paradigm refers to the psychological principle that social pressure from a majority group can influence an individual to conform, it is based on studies conducted by Solomon Asch in which participants were to complete a visual test after hearing the confederates deliberately give wrong answers, to determine whether anonymity of the majority group would increase conformity. Abrams, using 50 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory psychology course, conducted a similar experiment but examining whether the presence of an individual’s in-group would influence their likelihood to conform. It was found that conformity was maximized when the participant identified the confederates as their in-group, studying the same course. This indicates that social categorization can play a key role in ones decision to conform, as we expect that those with similar traits as ourselves should think similarly to us. In this study, a clear cause and effect were able to be established. However, it was limited by the fact all participants were psychology students, and therefore may have known of the classic Asch (1951) study. As cults rely on unanimity of ideas to decrease likelihood of defectors by making members feel no one will support them in their rebellion, increase conformity by selection of similar personality types, may be an important technique used by cults to recruit and convert. This has been supported by previous research (Berger and Hexel, 1981), which highlighted that similarities in childhood experiences exist among members of the same cults.
These experimental explanations of the power techniques of conversion and recruitment by cults can have over individuals is supported by recent research by Rousselet et al (2017), which found that through their extensive interviews, “the most frequently cited factors [that had influenced members to stay in the cultic group] were those that were linked to the group”, specifically “an inability to question the creeds of the group, regressive and reassuring feelings resulting from being part of the group … relationships with other members or with the cult leader … dependence on the group” among other situational factors linked to techniques employed by the cultic group.
The research shown above suggests the situational and dispositional factors which influence an individuals’ susceptibility to cult indoctrination are intertwined in many ways. Whilst evidence suggests that there are certain characteristics that a person may possess which render them innately more susceptible to cult indoctrination, it could be argued that this is as a result of situational factors such as how they were reared as a child, their social environment and place within it, prevalence of cults in their society and the techniques employed by cults to influence a persons’ likelihood to convert. Due to the ethical requirements for psychological research on humans, in that researchers are unable to manipulate variables with potentially severe consequences in a persons’ life to determine cause and effect, all findings are correlation in nature. Therefore, any of the results shown in psychological studies into this topic could be limited by some level of speculation. For example, whilst Ullman (1982) may have concluded that an unhappy childhood increases one’s risk of becoming indoctrinated into a cult, there is no way to isolate this variable and thus it could be the result of the individual having a difficult personality. Similarly, whilst issues of mental health and addiction have been flagged as dispositional factors with the ability to influence likelihood of indoctrination, they may have occurred due to situational stressors on the individual. This being said, the dispositional factors suggested in this research paper, those being mental health issues and emotional vulnerability, could potentially be as a result of situational factors, whilst many of the situational factors, such as techniques of recruitment and conversion, could increase susceptibility to cult indoctrination of any member of society.
There are some significant limitations in the research discussed in this paper. The nature of many of the research studies was in the form of interviews. Therefore, the findings may be affected by demand characteristics, meaning the participants provide the researchers with the answers they believe they wish to hear. Should participants have assumed data was being collected on the cruelty of cults, they may have focused more on factors directly linked with the cult, or specifically on negative elements. Additionally, the findings may be affected by problems associated with self-reported data. As in many of the studies participants were recalling from memory their time spent in cultic groups, their answers may be affected by memory distortions, which are known to occur depending on questions that are asked about the event (Loftus, 1995), or the peak-end rule as experiences in cults are often very intense and involve severe emotional strains.
Due to the ambiguous definition of a cult, it is understandable to assume that some of the research was conducted on members of religious deviant groups which do not meet the criterion for a cult as outlined in this paper, thus there is a question of the reliability and validity of the findings in answering the research question. All research discussed were conducted mainly in Western, individualistic societies, and thus may have some degree of cultural bias. Collectivist cultures have been found to have higher degrees of conformity, and lower reports of mental health issues among other differences, both of which are factors at play in susceptibility to cult indoctrination and therefore different results may be obtained cross-culturally. Lastly, it is well known that the term cult is pejorative, and therefore the sole fact that the participants in many of the research studies belonged to or had belonged to a cultic group at one stage, may have biased the researcher to note the role of the cult as more influential and damaging than they had recounted it. This bias could have occurred both in early research, when initial fear of cults began, and today due to the rampant fear of terrorism from radicalized religious groups such as ISIS. However, for example in the Rousselet et al (2017) study, more than one researcher analyzed the data collected which would have increased inter-rater reliability of the findings and minimized biases. Another bias within the studies BIAS AS PEOPLE WERE SEEKING HELP
Many of the findings of studies conducted decades ago are supported by more recent research, thus providing temporal validity to the arguments of this paper.
All the research has provided evidence that both dispositional and situational factors can increase an individuals’ susceptibility to cult indoctrination. It is important to note however, that the research is unable to determine if an individual will become indoctrinated into a cult if they exhibit the vulnerability factors and have the correct set of circumstances. Rather, the research provides evidence for determinants of predisposition.
This knowledge of factors that increase susceptibility in this issue can be utilized by cultic groups and has been for many years. The formulation of research to determine the underlying issues that support cult prevalence in society assists to give the power back to those who are attempting to improve the lives of potential and real victims of cults. We should ensure as a society that everyone, but especially those who are vulnerable to this form of manipulation, are educated on the factors that are at play and that may have significance to them, so we can lessen cult behaviour.
An implication of the research may be that those with mental health issues are the members of society who have the most need for protection from cult indoctrination. Situational factors discussed are negative experiences in childhood, social exclusion, and a dangerous environment due to prevalence of cults and the techniques of conversion and recruitment they employ. The dispositional factors include emotional vulnerability. As all of these situations and dispositions often lead to mental health issues, it may be assumed that not only are mental health issues a dispositional factor that can be influenced by situational factors, but an attribute that would cause an especially high level of susceptibility to cult indoctrination. Therefore, mentally ill people may require the most attention when taking measures to safeguard individuals from cults.
Situational factors have shown to have a higher degree of impact on an individual’s susceptibility to cult indoctrination compared with dispositional factors. This was explored by the research, however may also be explained by the fact that many people have mental health issues and emotional vulnerabilities, yet do not join cults. Without the environment that permits an individual to be recruited and indoctrinated, these dispositional factors have no impact.
It is dangerous to overestimate the role of dispositional factors, which is a tendency of human beings as explained by the Fundamental Attribution Error, as if we see cult members as “strange, disturbed, sheep-like idiots” (Psychology Today) we distance ourselves from their situation and will thus only ever have a limited understanding. To assist those affected by the manipulative nature of cults, we must conduct further research to identify all the various factors that come into play, in order to improve preventative measures.
A further research question that has emerged as a result of this research paper, is how can we intervene after vulnerable people have been identified? Perhaps the most significant form of intervention would be to educate those who are vulnerable about the dangers and temptations of cultic groups. However, perhaps if we were able to identify deviant religious groups as future cults before they pose a threat to society, we would be able to eliminate them altogether. Further investigation into this topic will provide more information on how to do this.