How Cults Work

Cult Recruitment

­You may have an idea of a "cult recruit" as an obviously troubled young person, maybe "mentally ill," easily exploited by unethical cultists. But studies show that people who join cults have only a slightly higher incidence of psychiatric disorders than the general population.

Cult members come from all walks of life, all age groups and all personality types. However, one common thread among most cult recruits is heightened stress: Research indicates that a majority of people who end up joining a cult were recruited during a particularly stressful period. This could be the stress associated with adolescence, leaving home for the first time, a bad breakup, losing a job or the death of a loved one. People undergoing significant stress can be more susceptible when a person or group claims to have the answer to all of their problems. Michael Langone, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in cults, also identifies some psychological traits that can make a person more likely to be successfully recruited, including:


  • dependency - an intense desire to belong, stemming from a lack of self-confidence
  • unassertiveness - a reluctance to say no or question authority
  • gullibility - a tendency to believe what someone says without really thinking about it
  • low tolerance for uncertainty - a need to have any question answered immediately in black-and-white terms
  • disillusionment with the status quo - a feeling of marginalization within one's own culture and a desire to see that culture change
  • naive idealism - a blind belief that everyone is good
  • desire for spiritual meaning - a need to believe that life has a "higher purpose"

Cult recruiters hang out in places where you might find people in a period of extreme stress or possessing the above personality traits -- which is anywhere. Some particularly fruitful recruiting locations might include college campuses, religious gatherings, self-help and support groups, seminars related to spirituality or social change and the unemployment office. In a 1990 article in the San Francisco Examiner, an unnamed ex-cult member commented on how easy it is to get sucked in: "People don't realize how susceptible we all are. Those smiling faces lead you to buy it when you're naive and accepting." She was recruited on the UC San Diego campus when she was 19. Her parents arranged for her to be "deprogrammed" eight years later (more on deprogramming in the "Getting Out" section).

The main methods of cult recruitment revolve around deception and manipulation. Potential recruits are not told the true nature or intentions of the group. Instead, recruiters portray it as something mainstream, low-pressure and benign. They may tell people at a church gathering that their group meets once a week to brainstorm ways to raise money for a new homeless shelter. They might invite a high school student to a talk about how public service can enhance a college application. Recruiters identity the specific needs or desires of their targets and play to them. They learn to pick up on a person's fears and vulnerabilities and portray the cult accordingly. For instance, if a young woman just went through a bad breakup, and she's feeling depressed and alone, a cult member might tell her that his group helps people to overcome interpersonal problems and rebuild their confidence for a fresh start. If a man just lost his wife in a car accident, and he can't bear that he didn't get to say goodbye to her, a recruiter might claim that his group helps people reach peace in the wake of sudden death.

It might seem strange that someone would accept these types of invitations, but there are a couple of factors that make it seem more palatable. First, the recruiter might be someone these people know. He could be in that young woman's college dorm or that man's survivors' support group. And someone who is sad, lonely or desperate might be more inclined to trust someone who claims to know the path back to happiness. Also, cults typically isolate recruits so they can't get a "reality check." They may hold meetings or services at times that would normally be spent with family and friends; they may hold "retreats" that submerge the recruit in the group's message for days at a time; and they may ask recruits not to discuss the group with others until they know more about it, so they don't mislead people or give them only part of the story. This kind of isolation narrows a person's feedback structure drastically for a period of time, to the point that the only people they're really communicating with are the members of the cult they're being invited to join. Their doubts about the group, therefore, are never reinforced, and they end up turning into self-doubt, instead. Looking around them at all of the smiling, friendly people who have obviously found peace and happiness by following this path, it appears that it must be the right way.

Once a person attends one meeting or service or lecture, he's invited to another, and another and another. He's welcomed into the cult family and invited to commit himself to the group. From day one, it's a process of manipulation and deception. And for those who stay on, the recruiting process culminates in the submission of their own personalities to the "will of the group." In the next section, we'll see what cult indoctrination entails.