The psychology behind cults | Discover the magazine


After moving into his daughter’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, Lawrence V. Ray spent the next decade isolating, brainwashing, and controlling the lives of his daughter’s friends and classmates. Accused of starting a cult at a suburban New York school earlier this year, Ray was guilty on 15 federal counts, including extortion, sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy and forced labor. He will be sentenced in September.

Dubbed the “Sarah Lawrence cult trial, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the case centered on Ray subjecting his victims to manipulation and many types of abuse. His tactics included sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and alienating victims from their families. Prosecutors also pointed to how Ray exploited victims’ mental health vulnerabilities.

Even after a story ofThe Stolen Children of Sarah Lawrencewas published in New York magazine in 2019, an article that led to an investigation and possible lawsuit, reports suggested that some of his followers remained devoted to Ray. This scenario offers insight into the complicated and powerful hold cults can have on the human psyche.

Cult Psychology

Experts who study cults suggest that the human need for comfort drives people to seek out others or things to assuage their fears and anxieties. Research suggests that these and other elements have led to hundreds of thousands becoming involved in thousands of cults operating around the world.

“[They] giving meaning, purpose and belonging,” says Josh Hart, a psychology professor at Union College who studies personality and social psychology, worldviews and belief systems. “They offer a clear and confident vision [and] assert the superiority of the group.

As for the leaders themselves, they generally present themselves as infallible, confident and grandiose. Their charisma draws people in, says Hart. And followers who seek peace, belonging and security could gain a sense of these things as well as confidence by participating in the group.

The content or ideology at the heart of a cult may be religious or vary beyond it. In a TED-Ed video on cults, Janja Lalich, a cult studies expert and emeritus professor of sociology at California State University, Chico, says some cults are political, others are therapy-based, and some focus on self-improvement.

Generally, she sees a few key defining elements of a cult. “A cult is a group or movement with a shared commitment to a generally extreme ideology that is usually embodied by a charismatic leader,” Lalich says in his TED-Ed video.

Three well-known American sects

You may recognize the names of the following three well-known American sects, or their leaders, in recent history.

The Temple of the Peoples was founded by Jim Jones in Indiana in 1955. The group began as what appeared to be a progressive organization that championed civil rights. Jones wanted to create an egalitarian utopian community. In the mid-1970s, Jones moved the cult to Guyana. By 1978, the population of “Jonestown” had grown to nearly 1,000 people. That year, Jones ordered his followers to drink a drink containing cyanide. 909 dead, including children.

Someone named David Koresh, who believed he was the Messiah, founded The Branch Davidians (1955 – 1993). Koresh believed that all women, including girls, were his “spiritual wives”. Collectively, the group believed the apocalypse was imminent and, fearing his arrival, locked themselves in a sprawling compound in Waco, Texas. In 1993, on a tip that Koresh was stockpiling weapons, the Department of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco raided the compound. A confrontation between the FBI and the Branch Davidians ended 51 days later and left over 80 people dead.

Children of God – Family International began in 1968 and still exists today. The sect operates in 80 countries. Actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were born into the sect, but escaped and spoke out against it.

Recruitment and retention

The process of indoctrination can be the key to a cult’s success and leave a strong impression on its victims. While every cult may be different, experts say the methods of attracting members and keeping them there resemble a similar playbook of psychological principles.

One element is cognitive dissonance. The theory introduced in the late 1950s suggests that when people are faced with facts that contradict their beliefs, values ​​and ideas, they experience psychological discomfort, probably followed by the need to resolve this contradiction and reduce their discomfort. In a sectarian context, cognitive dissonance “often keeps you trapped because every compromise makes it more painful to admit you’ve been cheated,” Lalich explains in his TED-Ed video. “It uses both formal and informal systems of influence and control to keep members obedient with little tolerance for internal disagreement or external scrutiny.”

This obedience factor is another key element. This plays on a human’s natural inclination to follow orders and do what others around them are doing. In sectarian contexts, critical thinking is often frowned upon, while absolute faith is rewarded. Guilt, shame and fear are also constantly used to slowly strip away an individual’s identity.

Free thought, free will and freedom of expression are limited in an environment where total obedience to rulers is required. Experts say that cult leaders, in turn, have narcissistic and authoritarian tendencies and are motivated by money, sex, or power (perhaps all three).

While many religions started out as cults, Lalich explains that some became part of the fabric of wider society as they grew. Additionally, while religions may offer guidelines and support for members to live a better life, a cult separates its members from others and seeks direct control over financial assets and living conditions.

Recruitment can take months and look like a pyramid scheme. This means that the expansion of a cult relies on existing members to recruit new members. This may involve extending friendship and connection to someone who is new to an area, alone, suffering personal or professional loss, or searching for meaning in life.

While some of the most famous cults have collapsed in mass suicide events, such as the deaths of 919 members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, because cults are protected by religious freedom laws, it may be difficult to legally prosecute cults and their leaders. However, when laws are broken, the government can step in – as in the case of the Sarah Lawrence Cult Trial


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