Why Do People Join Cults?
Updated: May 24
Joining a cult isn't really high on the to-do list for most people.
So why do people join cults?
Lots of reasons actually - and a lot of them are pretty universal experiences too.
Read below to see at least 10 reasons why people join cults. Feel free to share with us if you experienced any of them (or others we didn't list!).
A Quick Disclaimer
Saying that someone "joins" a cult can be a controversial statement because of the tools used to recruit that person.
Rosanne Henry, MA, LPC gives some great context on why this is:
"People don’t join cults. They get involved in groups they are led to believe represent these high ideals (Idealism, Friendship, Love, Freedom, Community, Mission, Sincerity, Salvation, Enlightenment, Spiritual high).”
Former member Maureen Griffo gives a little more color to this as well:
"Like anyone else faced with a decision, someone “decides” to join a cult based on the information available to him or her. Unfortunately, cults are notorious for not letting a potential recruit know about the full package. What I thought I was joining and what I actually joined were vastly different from each other."
Keep this idea in mind as you read - People who "join" cults are often victims of coercion.
The language we use to describe "joining" is not judgmental or meant to degrade. It is a descriptor of a complex process that results in an individual identifying with a group.
Reason #1: Community
We all want friends to turn to, and cult members are no different.
Think of it this way - you may join a community of people with shared interests.
The sense of belonging that grows from that group generates trust.
That trust can be used to help you accept ideas or actions that you otherwise wouldn't agree with.
Before you know it, the group of friends (whom you may even consider family) begin to operate in cult-like ways. Do you leave your community, or try to make things work?
Reason #2: Absolute Answers to Hard Questions
Why do we exist? What happens after we die? Is there a heaven or hell? Where's Waldo?
Asking unanswerable questions is part of life, whether we ask them as children or adults.
Depending on things like your individual psychology, family dynamics, or education, the degree to which you seek answers varies from person to person.
When an individual is searching for meaning or working through their identity, cults and charismatic leaders can prey on vulnerable targets.
Wherever you come down on these questions, it's worth being wary of any individual who brings certain, concrete answers for you to follow.
Reason #3: Love & Sex
Love is one of the most powerful experiences a human can experience.
The human body has natural urges that can lead an old or young person into situations that cult leaders take advantage of. Sex cults are notorious examples of affirming biological urges and using them to promote involvement in a group.
You may also have heard of love bombing - the practice of showering someone with with praise and adoration to help them feel they belong. This kind of tactic is powerful and preys on how we bond with other people.
Another quote from Maureen Griffo (linked above) illustrates how love can be leveraged as a recruitment tactic:
"Despite their initial allure, cults do not offer unconditional love. When I saw people on the outside acting differently toward me than my own supposed all-loving peers, it affected me. I may not have left right away, but I could not shake that there was someone who would be willing to be my friend and care about me with no strings attached."
Reason #4: Manipulation
There's something enthralling about a magician who's good at their craft, right? Whether they're dazzling with sleight of hand or cutting their assistant in half on stage, the show is always mesmerizing.
Of course after the fact you can walk away knowing it was a trick - that you were manipulated for your own amusement. Yes, we can consent into being tricked for entertainment purposes.
Non-consent looks like this:
A cult leader has no reservations about using the same tools as a magician or con artist to recruit followers to their cause.
They provide the answers that you so desperately want to hear. Just like how the magician delivers a rabbit from a hat.
To make matters worse, they often prey on life events like death of a loved one, fear of eternal punishment, questioning one's faith, and so on.
Reason #5: Self Improvement
It's a good thing to seek improvement, but this urge can lead you into the path of a charismatic leader if you're not aware.
Many people yearn to be successful and set lofty life goals, only to realize that they are standing in their own way. It's natural to turn to a friend, confidant, or mentor in these instances - and may even be the best path forward.
Unfortunately for many, there are people who curate themselves as having accomplished some typically embodied and desirable level of success. They then use this sense of success to convince you to join their group and be like them.
Reason #6: Financial Gain
Some groups recruit based on the natural desire to be financially independent.
You may be familiar with the concept of a multi-level marketing company, but that's just one way financial gain can be used to control and manipulate.
Some of these groups prey on greed or desire for more - while others focus on base levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The idea of living life without constant anxiety over basic needs is sometimes all the pull one needs to join a coercive group.
Whatever the ultimate reason, once a person's finances and security become wrapped into a group, it becomes very difficult to leave. Financial manipulation can keep a group member paralyzed for their entire lifetime - even generationally.
Reason #7: Ideology
People who reject mainstream religions and see society through their own lens are still vulnerable to the tactics of cult recruitment.
Often this involves a leader willing to vocalize and celebrate a usually extreme ideology - thus providing a sense of community to members who find themselves rejected by others.
By acknowledging and embracing a fringe identity, members are allowed to self-select and form a stronger group.
Fringe ideologies aren't the only way this happens either. Any idea that's contagious enough can be used to manipulate or control - so remember to check your sources!
Reason #8: Religion & Spirituality
Religious or spiritual belief is a common aspect of cults that people hone in on, but it's far from being the only reason people join. Unfortunately, religion is often used as a gateway for cult leaders to find new recruits, control them, and harm them.
Many spiritual practices prioritize aspects in our list: self improvement, financial wellbeing, a sense of belonging, a virtue-driven life, and an optimistic outlook on a sometimes overwhelming world.
That's exactly why cults operate in the spiritual space. There's more than one "lever" to change that can keep people coming back.
So what is a factor that can make a religion or church feel safe?
If you're looking for a litmus test to assess how safe a church or religion is, we offer this idea from Rev. Dr. Neil Damgaard:
"Safe-haven churches allow people to leave them. Although it is hard to say good-bye to a treasured church family, it ought never to be hurtful to do so. Safe churches bless people as they leave and keep the door open should people decide to return later. What is unsafe is when people have experienced a disillusionment or disaffection for some reason with the church and are punished, belittled, or worse for trying to leave the organization. Safe churches work to make departing as painless as possible."
Safe groups do exist!
Reason #9: The Cult Hop
Nope, this is not a TikTok dance for young people.
"Cult Hopping" is a phenomenon that describes when a former member trades one coercive setting for another.
Many people who leave cults aren't aware enough of the psychology of these groups to understand why they find themselves joining a cult after having just left one.
This phenomenon can be problematic for a number of reasons, so check back for a deep dive on it soon!
Reason #10: Being Born
Baby, I was born this way.
Some members don't ever get recruited - or have a choice - they're born into a group and live their formative years without a path to separate.
Many former cult members - called S/MGAs - share this experience and spend a good deal of their lives healing from the experience. Many leave behind families, friends, and their idea of themself to leave their cult.
All of these reasons (and probably more) are what they are.
The real kicker here is that no matter the reason you join a cult, it's never too late to leave. If you're a current member, leaving a cult is possible!
If you're a former member, don't be down on yourself - smart, capable, and driven people join these groups and leave them.
Wherever you are, we hope this helps.