Typically, they are introduced by a friend or coworker who encourages them to read a book that "changed their life," attend a free seminar, accompany them to church or group function, or introduce them to a friend who will explain network marketing to them.
Naturally, all of these activities can be quite innocent as well. Balancing an open mind with analytical thinking can help distinguish legitimate groups from deceptive. "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Is everyone who takes a course a cult member?
First, in the end only an individual can judge whether they personally experienced an abusive, cultic relationship. One person's nightmare may correspond to another's "uplifting experience."
For instance, it's claimed that 4 million people learned Transcendental Meditation. The vast majority of these people got their mantra, meditated for a few months, and have legitimately pleasant memories of their contact with the TM movement.
Most cults, however, are structured in layers like an onion. Out of the 4 million TMers, perhaps as many as 1 million went on to take "advanced courses" where they may have gotten a whiff of the cultic in unusual beliefs and demanding rules. Of those a few hundred thousand went on to become TM teachers or work "on staff." At this level, most if not all survived a cultic relationship. A few thousand worked with the TM movement's management, with even greater pressures. And literally a few dozen worked closely with the Maharishi himself -- and who knows what they went through.
This is one reason talking about cults is so difficult. One person's pleasant, incense-drenched fantasy is another's suicide cult in the making.
Why do they join?
For the usual human motivations: greater peace, greater wealth, more enjoyment, better sex, and so forth.
The initial contact with most cultic organizations can seem quite reasonable. If someone offered you a keener memory for a $25 course, wouldn't you at least consider it?
Don't just college-age "seekers" join cults?
During the 70s this may have been largely true.
But today people at any major transformation point are at greater risk of joining a cult: in college, first struggling with the work place, middle age, and some experts feel the fastest growing segment of all is the elderly.
How could they believe such stupid stuff?
There's an ancient story about making turtle soup.
It seems an aspiring cook couldn't seem to make the soup. Every time he put the animal in boiling water, the animal felt the heat and leapt out.
An experienced chef watched with amusement for some time. Eventually he could no longer contain his wit.
"Let me show you how to trick Mr. Turtle," he said slyly.
Exasperated the young cook stood aside and let him have his way. The chef proceeded to fill a pot with cold water, place the turtle inside, replace the lid, and began to warm the pot gently with a low flame.
"Now Mr. Turtle will just fall asleep as he begins to feel warm," he snickered. "And you and I can share an exquisitely rich broth at his expense!"
No one sets out to castrate themselves, commit suicide, or even blow their life savings. Only a very slow, painful process of mind control carried out by sociopaths for their own ends can do the trick.
Isn't joining a cult a choice?
Some of the initial steps of joining a cult may, indeed, appear to be individual choices.
But the deck is stacked. In nearly every case, the cult or the recruiter is withholding important information from you. Information, that had you but known, would have sent you screaming in the other direction.
In U.S. law, the tactics that cults use are known as undue influence. The best-known example is the nurse who influences an elderly patient to make her a beneficiary of their will. Something similar is alleged to take place in a cult.
In 1988's Molko & Leal v. Holy Spirit Association
, the California Supreme Court upheld the theory of "mind control" in the deceptive recruiting practices of the Unification Church, saying:
We use the terms "coercive persuasion," "mind control," and
"brainwashing" interchangeably to refer to the intense indoctrination procedures discussed . . . .
We conclude, therefore, that although liability for deceptive
recruitment practices imposes a marginal burden on the Church's free
exercise of religion, the burden is justified by the compelling state interest in protecting individuals and families from the substantial threat to public safety, peace and order posed by the fraudulent induction of unconsenting individuals into an atmosphere of coercive persuasion.
No one's holding a gun to their head. Why don't they just leave?
Most people who have never experienced a cult simply shake their head.
"You'd never catch me falling for something so stupid."
It is hard to understand how people who are usually above average in intelligence and creativity could stay in a cult once they see the fraud for themselves.
Most people have experienced at least one really bad romantic relationship in their life. You were attracted to a person, but between the emotional ups and downs and the constantly changing ground rules, you simply had no idea whether you were coming or going.
Or perhaps you've had a boss who said one thing and did another. Talked behind your back, but smiled to your face. Gave you assignments he or she knew you couldn't complete. Maybe even went so far as to look through your desk, your computer files, or monitor your phone calls.
Most of us have some feeling for just how crazy-making such emotional intensity and manipulation can be.
Now imagine that 24-hours a day for week after week after month after year.
Welcome to the mindset of a cult.
The first thing to go is analytical thinking, even the ability to tell right from wrong. In time even going outside the group for a family visit can seem too stressful to contemplate.
The process is very similar to what battered spouses experience. Or political prisoners. Or terrorist abductees.