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2021: Year of the Cult

The cult leaders of the world will have a field day in the coming year. So many of the things they look for in new recruits are affecting more people than ever. Before I explain that, let me first address a few common misconceptions about cults and their members.

1. Cults are all religious. There’s a joke that "cult + time = religion" that just isn’t accurate. Yes, there are plenty of religious cults, but not all new religious groups can be defined as cults, and there are numerous cults with a political, philosophical, or even therapeutical basis. The definition of a cult is not set in stone, as it’s a fairly new area of study, but today most academics agree that in order to be defined as a cult, a group must be destructive or damaging.

2. Only unintelligent or mentally unstable people join cults. Research has shown that plenty of perfectly intelligent, mentally healthy people join cults, though recruiters do frequently target people seeking mental health treatment, as they are more likely to be emotionally vulnerable. One frightening thing about cults is that just about anyone can be susceptible to their influences if the circumstances are right. It’s not about your individual mind, it’s about where you are in life.

3. They’re easy to spot. In popular culture’s representations of cults, they’re usually long-haired hippies dressed alike and living in communes, but in real life they’re less obvious. Additionally, one defining feature of cults is that they never admit to being cults. People will swear up and down they haven’t joined a cult, but rather a new community or movement, which makes it more difficult to convince them to leave. When cults are first forming, plenty of them just seem like groups of idealistic people. According to Janja Lalich, who researches cults and wrote the script for this TED-Ed video, "more than two-thirds of cult members are recruited by a friend, family member, or co-worker", which will make those groups seem less suspicious upfront.

So what makes us more vulnerable to cults today? As I said earlier, it’s not about you as an individual, it’s about circumstances.

Major life upheavals are a significant contributing factor to your likelihood to join a cult. This can include a sudden change in your job or living situation. Right now, scores of people have lost their jobs or have seen their livelihoods endangered. People are being evicted because they can no longer afford rent, while others are being displaced due to wildfires. Even people who haven’t lost their jobs or their homes are feeling massive shifts in their lives as the nature of how they live has changed.

Another major life event that can make you more susceptible to cult influence is the loss of a close relationship. Sometimes this is in the form of a breakup, but it’s usually in the form of grief. Today, the pandemic’s death toll in the US stands at over 190,000, and this mass death is accompanied by an inability to grieve as we normally would. This means that for scores of people, a significant emotional need is going unmet.

In addition to life upheavals, being in a transitional period of life leaves you vulnerable to cult influence. College students are targeted by cult recruiters because they are in that type of confusing, liminal state. Right now, as the future is so uncertain, this transitional period is present in more lives than usual, meaning people will be desperately searching for easy answers to their existential malaise.

Cults also look to recruit people who are lonely or isolated. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was on the rise, and now social distancing and precautionary measures have left even more people isolated from their usual social support systems. For years, extremist groups (some of which are cults) have been taking advantage of lonely people on the internet who are searching for community. We’ve known for a while the danger in algorithms that sort us into ideological bubbles. Cult members aim to separate you from people who will question their ideas, and today the internet does half this task for them.

Another way cults trap people is by making them feel safe within the cult and unsafe in the outside world, and/or by creating an "us vs them" mentality. Again, the internet has served to do some of this work for them. Political polarization is even higher than in 2016, and this can be easily exploited.

In addition to all this, we are worn down. To get people to accept extreme ideas, cults will often physically or mentally exhaust their members. Yet again, this is a task already halfway completed for them.

Over the past few years, cults have been popping up more frequently in popular culture, such as in movies like Midsommar (2019) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and in seasonal plot lines of shows like American Horror Story, Riverdale, and The Umbrella Academy. Cults even had a moment in fashion as a worrisome trend. Consequently, instead of being more aware of cults and their influence, we are more used to seeing them presented as extreme, even comical, groups of people who we would never be so stupid as to join. Au contraire.

Still from Midsommar (2019) Photo: A24

What can you do if you suspect a friend may be particularly at risk?

1. Keep lines of communication as open as possible. This can prevent those feelings of isolation which make people so vulnerable. Social support systems are important.

2. Encourage healthy coping mechanisms that will help them fill emotional needs without reliance on outside sources. You should also encourage healthy self-expression, since extreme conformity is a common and dangerous aspect of cults.

3. If they bring up extreme views, try to talk with them about it without sounding judgmental or confrontational. Ask questions that get them to continue a dialogue with you and that will get them thinking critically about those views.

4. Don’t actually refer to any cultish organizations they’re interested in as "cults". This will lead to denial on their part and they may have already been told that outsiders would call their group a cult. Verbally attacking their "cult" may reinforce some of their brainwashing and create a barrier to communication.

Times of confusion and chaos are when people with unsavory motives can most easily swoop in and take charge. Watch out, my friends.

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