Why did people drink the Kool-Aid?
Cults like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate were of interest to those who love true crime. People who are interested in psychology may be poised to ask, “what were the psychological reasons behind the followers of Charles Manson, Marshall Applewhite, Bonnie Nettles, and Aum Shinrikyo?”
Members of the Manson family were driven to murder innocent people. The followers of Heaven’s Gate ate poisoned applesauce in a ritual to transport themselves to the comet that lead to a new dimension. More than 900 members of People Temple drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the largest loss of American life before 9/11.
Were these people sane and healthy before joining a cult? Or did they have underlying conditions that lead to their demise?
Isolation and Ostracization
Everyone feels lonely sometimes. In cases of severe isolation and ostracization, humans are vulnerable. Charismatic, narcissistic characters tend to prey on the vulnerable to do their bidding.
Youth, here defined as the ages from 12-19, is full of transitive periods. During these times of change are when young people feel the loneliest. Other factors can exacerbate this, such as belonging to a marginalized group, bullying, relationship issues, and a lack of a support system. Extremists are especially lonely; they are ostracized from the mainstream.
Humans have this “need factor.” As social creatures, we crave belonging and our identity is commonly rooted in a place in a group. Cults can provide a sense of belonging and an identity of preciousness.
In a fast-paced world, a lot is going on at once. When there is crisis and there is no obvious cause to it other than chaos, people seek patterns to restore a sense of order. Those who feel an overwhelming dread need to be comforted by information that appeals to their beliefs.
Hence, cults give these needy, lonely people belonging and explanations.
Isolated “out-groups” need as much structure and social heuristics and “in-groups.”
Need of Familial Structure
A lot of people who join cults came from a dysfunctional or broken family. A complicated relationship with parents creates a need for a stable structure of parenthood (or brotherhood/sisterhood).
Trusted members who can provide salvation, purification, and a sense of “fixing” the individual.
Cults are usually organized in a hierarchical structure. They have positions of the father, mother, sister, and brother. There is a clear distinction of superiority and inferiority. Cult members tend to have an inferior complex. They are charmed and taken care of by father, mother, older sister, and older brother because they provide what is missing in their life.
Black and White Thinking
Another common characteristic of cult members is a dichotomous mindset with no room for moderation or middle ground. This is often called “black and white thinking.” Cults validate absolutist dogmas and doctrines.
People have an innate need for a spiritual doctrine as an identity, whether as part of the mainstream or something more subversive. Everyone needs a philosophy; it is the mind’s way of explaining the general patterns of the world.
Believers of underground philosophies that are not well received by most people tend to be ostracized from society. Followers of mainstream religions can ostracize their children if their primary expression of belief is prohibition.
While people are young, the youth tend to spend a significant amount of time questioning life and its meaning. There is a moral soul-searching during this transformative era in life. Many are prone to existential questions.
If a young person encounters an existential crisis because of this soul-searching, a cult can provide explanations. Their potential member has an innate need to separate “us” from “them.”
Humans have a need for “enemies” and “allies” which encourages antagonistic behavior caused by black and white thinking. The modern era does not have an outlet for this need to distinguish “otherness,” especially in the United States, where a large monoculture lacks a clear “clan identity.”
Unusual Beliefs and Fears
A vulnerable target are people with schizotypal personality disorder. Schizotypal thinking is being uncomfortable with familiarity and were prone to believing conspiracy theories. This is different from schizophrenia, which is characterized by delusions and hallucinations. Schizotypal people may be able to tell reality from delusion.
People with schizotypal thinking have disordered thinking that display “magical thoughts” such as alleged sight of the future (clairvoyance). They interpret things differently than others, usually taking personal offense from neutral/harmless things. Also, they can appear to have flat emotions, yet they can simultaneously seem to be excessively anxious.
With the rise of fake news and misinformation, it is always best to be wary of things that seem to good to be true. Even if you do not feel compelled to join a dangerous group, people who are ostracized by society may find comfort in the occult. Cults were mainly a fear of the last century, but extremist fanatics of ideologies are timeless.
How do you come in? Why is this blog post on a wellness and performance site? Well, while these traits taken to the extreme can lead to cult membership, it can be useful to be aware of these negative traits, though mild in iteration.
Stress and constant pressure can lead people to think of impractical solutions to their lifestyle. People join food cults, which encourage people to partake in unhealthy eating habits. Food cults are a solution for people who feel insecure and ostracized. Members are convinced that they should eat less or in a certain way that is not in the best interest for their body. They do this to feel “pure” or “salvaged.” Convincing misinformation can stray people from the right direction when their intention was self-improvement.
Other types of misinformation, posing as scientific innovation, convince vulnerable people to partake in quick-fix self-help pursuits. In a high-stakes environment, people may be pressured to always perform their best, even if it takes a toll on them: financially, emotionally, or physically. As a solution, predatory companies sell alternative medicine backed by pseudo-science or miracle pills that can solve every conceivable issue in the human body. In actuality, the journey to self-improvement takes a lot of mindful effort.
Mindfulness is important to getting in touch with oneself and achieve greater awareness of the positive. Various exercises can train the mind and body to perform at its best. Take a look into other blog posts to guide a pathway to physical and mental health.
1. Glassman, T. (2018, December 7). 6 of the most infamous cults in history. Insider. https://www.insider.com/most-infamous-cults-in-history-2018-8
Schizotypal Personality Disorder. (2019, February 7). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/schizotypal-personality-disorder#:%7E:text=Schizotypal%20personality%20disorder%20is%20an,and%20may%20exhibit%20eccentric%20behavior.
2. Cargill, K. (2016). Food Cults. Macmillan Publishers. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=UIZwDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=cult+behavior+psychology&ots=cJHaiJPtp6&sig=NRHSqC8OD51DyEaBQUaqHoX1q5Y#v=onepage&q=cult%20behavior%20psychology&f=false
3. Qualities & Characteristics of a Cult | Cult Research. (2018, June 22). Cult Research & Information Center. http://cultresearch.org/help/characteristics-associated-with-cults/
4. Schizotypal personality disorder - Symptoms and causes. (2019, October 8). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizotypal-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353919
5. Yakovleva, M. G. (2018). Developmental Characteristics of Adolescents That Increase Risk of Joining Anti-Social Cults. Russian Education & Society, 60(3), 269–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/10609393.2018.1451678