Who Joins Cults?

People do not join cults – they are recruited. Cult members are not stupid or weak-willed – large majority are highly intelligent, open-minded, adaptable, and often very idealistic.

Cult leaders seek to recruit people who are intelligent, good-looking, well-groomed, and highly professional. They go out of their way to recruit on campuses. The higher the quality of their followers, the greater the validation for the leader, their mission, and the group. In short – their members make the leaders look good and legit. (3)

Dr. Janja Lalich, renowned cult researcher, states that there are no specific personality traits that bring people to cultic groups but certain situational vulnerabilities. If there was one common trait it would be idealism – people who are willing to do something to self-actualize or to make the world a better place. Cults promise unconditional love, spiritual protection, social connection, increased personal power and control over their lives, and destiny.

A cult may fulfill this need for companionship and make the young member feel stable and comforted during the transition. Another argument to be made is that young adults are attempting to find their own identity as an adult and separate from the identity they may have taken as an adolescent or teen. (3)

Many may have had disappointments in their family situations; many may be seeking positive ways of feeling more connected, more in control of their lives, more purposeful. But in the end, this still means people who join cults are very much like many other people who don’t join.” (2)

The reality, however, is that anyone, at any age in a moment of confusion, personal crisis, or simply a life transition may become attracted to or drawn in by a cult’s appeal.” (1)

Conversion to cults is not truly a matter of choice. Vulnerabilities do not merely ‘lead’ individuals to a particular group. The group manipulates these vulnerabilities and deceives prospects in order to persuade them to join and, ultimately, renounce their old lives.” (1)

New recruits are not provided with all information about the group, the teachers/gurus, their activities, and what they will experience in the group. Instead, they are given only brief information, sales pitches, and success stories while the rest of the information is withheld.

There is no free will without informed consent. Steve Hassan PhD, a mental health and cult expert, talks about informed consent and when one’s ability to choose is taken away.

Informed consent is a process of a person udnerstanding what is going to happen and its positive and negative consequences, and being in a position where they not only have information but where they have psychological capacity to evaluate that information. However, when they [cult leaders] put phobia of leaving in their follwers’ minds (i.e., what will happen if they leave), they imprision peope’s ability to choose. (source)

To say that “this could never happen to me, I could never end up in a cult no matter what their recruiters say” is not realistic. There are many cultic groups in the US offering various promises. Virtually anyone can find themselves attracted to one such group at some point in their lives. Some join religious groups, others New Age, political cults, cultic business models, cultic wellness and yoga centers, etc. The types of cultic groups can be numerous, but the power structure, control, and manipulative techniques are frequently the same.

Some groups do not provide informed consent, which leaves individuals vulnerable to deception, manipulation, or coercion, depending on their unique situation. For example, telling someone, “Just trust yourself and your experience. You know what feels right and what feels wrong,” sounds reasonable but it is not sufficient and deception-proof. Feelings are easily manipulated, especially when they prey upon our most cherished dreams. We all need and deserve informed consent, transparency, and education about healthy vs. unhealthy groups!

Mantika, June 2023


1 Original article was published on ICSA, excerpted from Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias

2 Daniel Shaw LCSW, The Relational System of the Traumatized Narcissist

3 Cult Members, Who Are They? by Kayla Teixeira