Updated: Aug 30
"People would rather be right than happy." - Alfred Adler
The first time I asked this question, I was in a classroom with a Doctor of I-O psychology. His reply is burned in my memory:
"You're assuming people are rational."
Now - that's a bitter take. Especially for someone who is a member of a highly sectarian group.
He's not wrong... but he's not entirely right, either.
The reality is a lot more complicated. If someone is in a coercive group - whether it's a fundamentalist church or a high-profile cult, they get something from that group.
People get something from the group, even if the negatives outweigh the positives.
This article discusses some of the reasons why people stay in cults - despite the warning signs, mistreatment, or cognitive dissonance. Over the years, former cult members have come together, shared their stories, and noticed similarities in why they stayed.
While we don't believe this list is totally comprehensive, it is our attempt to share the experiences of former cult members who have moved on from their cultic groups.
If you're interested in the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
Reason #1: Specialness and Exclusivity
There are almost 8 billion people living on the planet (as of the time of writing).
Ever year, sophisticated instruments peer deeper and deeper into space to discover wonders beyond imagination.
We don't even know that much about our oceans - and climate change is a lingering dread in the minds of many.
All of this - and more - can instill a level of fear, loneliness, despair, and a host of other emotions. It's hard to feel special when you just feel small, right?
Groups know this too.
A cultic group with the ability to give adherents a "place" is attractive to many. It's how they recruit, it's how they retain, and it's how they linger in the mind of former cult members.
Instilling a feeling of specialness is just one way (of many) that cults and cult leaders can create a strong center of gravity in their group.
In religious cults, promises of enlightenment, eternal life, divine magic, and life advancement through a specific religion or belief system can be powerful magnets to people who want something, anything, to make it all make sense.
Similarly, some online cults have formed by claiming access to secrets, esoteric knowledge, or through shared affirmations of fringe ideas.
It's worth mentioning that it isn't just people with low self-esteem that join cults - groups often succeed in finding exceptional people and convince them to join.
These people may be intelligent, wealthy, and well-connected, but the emphasis is the same. The group is able to magnify the strengths of these people and help them succeed in a way that's meaningful to their personal development.
This "prison of specialness" creates a powerful cognitive dissonance for someone who is thinking about leaving their group. They may be able to objectively see that their group is harmful, but their belief that they are somehow special because of their involvement is difficult to shake.
Reason #2: The Charisma of Cult Leaders
Cult leaders are often a reason why people stay in destructive cults, and to outsiders this can be an unsettling phenomenon.
The personality and manipulation of a cult leader are crucial pieces of the coercive control puzzle. While they aren't the only reason people stay, it's hard to talk about cults without addressing cult leaders.
Charisma isn't inherently bad, but when used for destructive purposes it can convince someone to act against their best interest. Some of the ways that many cult leaders use charisma include weaponizing some of these elements:
Personal Magnetism - Cult leaders may project an air of confidence, authority, and personal magnetism. They exude a sense of power and control, which can be attractive to those who are searching for a strong leader to follow.
Visionary Appeal - Cult leaders often present themselves as messianic or innovative figures. In some cases, they claim divine insights, revelations from higher powers, or spiritual enlightenment. When successful, the narrative they create can create a strong pull on their cult members.
Emotional Manipulation - Cult leaders can exploit the emotional vulnerabilities of individuals by providing them with a sense of belonging, acceptance, value, understanding, and purpose. This can make followers more susceptible to influence and control.
Cult of Personality - Cult leaders sometimes possess a magnetic and charming personality that allows them to captivate others. They may exhibit traits such as confidence, eloquence, charm, and an aura of authority, even going so far as to cultivate a cult of personality around themselves. This essentially reinforces their position as the central figure of the cult.
However cult leaders wield their charisma, the core element that keeps cult members inside the group is manipulation and targeted communication. This can be expressed as love bombing, flattery, persuasion, blackmail, or outright manipulation.
The pressure that these elements create are part of what influences cult members to give their loyalty and compliance - even when it's against their best interest. Understandably, this can be devastating to the cult members and result in physical, emotional, or psychological harm.
Reason #3: Sobriety / Health
For some, continued participation in their group boils down to a desire to live soberly or because they see health benefits from their involvement.
Here are just a few ways that coercive groups can instill new habits or "healthier" routines in a cult member:
Manipulation techniques that discourage previous habits and instill new ones.
Isolation from friends or associates that encouraged or enabled unhealthy lifestyles.
Replacement of addictive substances with feelings of awe, highly disciplined lifestyles, and other types of indoctrination.
"Pseudo-professional guidance" that steers the cult member away from unhealthy vices or practices and toward the group's ideologies.
Group-run support groups that encourage emotional vulnerability and provide regular accountability.
While these acts can help someone feel that their health is improving, we in no way endorse join a cult as a way to get sober, clean, or healthy. Even though being involved in the group may be "helping" a person stay clean and healthy, the potential risks and harm associated with cult involvement are still present.
All that said, it's worth knowing that this can be a powerful motivator for people to stay.
Reason #4: Spirituality, Buzz, or Doctrines
Religious cults often seek to create a strong sense of spirituality among their members.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking stronger spirituality, a dangerous religious group can use this desire to retain members and gain new members.
In some cases, the strategies can be manipulative and exploitative, and are often designed to deepen the members' dependence on the cult and its leader.
Some of the ways that cults create and maintain spiritual buzz includes:
Exclusive Doctrine - e.g., superior teachings, secret knowledge, hidden truths, direct revelations.
Ceremonies and Rituals - e.g., chanting, meditation, prayer, dramatic worship displays.
Signs and Symbols - e.g., logos, hand symbols, sigils, sacred geometry, exclusive use of their own lingo.
False Rhetoric - e.g., Us vs. Them, straw man arguments, red herrings, false dilemma, begging the question, charismatic speaking.
Spiritual Authority - e.g., cult leaders as the sole authority, leadership provided with "divine" wisdom, claiming special insights or powers from spirituality.
Heightened Emotions - e.g., intense group sessions, emotional catharsis, guilt and shame, tying emotional upheaval to spiritual growth.
Hyper-Disciplined Learning - e.g., forced scripture studies, memorization, intense exegetical exercises.
Encouraging an Alternative Lifestyle - e.g., sex cult participation, co-opting popular social psychology, teaching unscientific medical ideas.
All of these - and more - are ways that cults can entrap people in their messaging and keep them involved in the group. It's a combination of time spent learning, emotional bonds forming, and an exertion of control over cult victims.
It's important to note that the spirituality fostered by cults is often distorted and manipulative, designed to control and exploit their followers.
Genuine spirituality should promote personal growth, self-discovery, and a healthy connection to oneself and others, without the need for excessive dependency or submission to a single authority.
Reason #5: Relationships and Community
The relationships that form among cult members can be complex and distinctive.
For many, these relationships are strong - and may be complicated by the dynamics in the cult's structure, beliefs, and manipulative techniques. In a few cases, a person may even be a member of a family cult - or were born in their group.
Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, coercive relationships can be emotionally and psychologically damaging to individuals involved, often leading to a loss of personal autonomy, identity, and well-being. If this is the case, then the relationships themselves can act as strong tethers to the group.
Here are some common types of relationships found within cults:
Cult leaders holding positions of authority and power within the group exerting control over their followers, manipulating them through charisma, coercion, and psychological tactics.
Intimate and Familial Relationships
Personal relationships and emotions within the cult can be manipulated and exploited to maintain control and loyalty. If all your friends are inside the group, it becomes very difficult to leave.
Cults may also emphasize a sense of "spiritual family" where members are encouraged to view each other as brothers and sisters.
These relationships can create a strong bond among cult members, but are often distorted and based on the cult's ideals and the leader's control.
Peer Pressure and Conformity
Cults exert significant pressure on members to conform to the group's ideologies, practices, and behavioral expectations.
Nonconformity or dissent is often discouraged or punished.
Peer pressure plays a role in enforcing conformity, as members are encouraged to monitor and report on each other's adherence to the cult's doctrines. This creates a climate of surveillance and conformity within the group.
Cult leaders may exploit the vulnerabilities of their followers for their personal gain. This can manifest in various ways, such as financial exploitation, sexual manipulation, and psychological abuse.
Members may also be coerced into providing financial support, surrendering assets, or engaging in labor on behalf of the cult.
A Romantic Relationship
In some cases, people join cults and stay in them for a romantic relationship. This kind of relationship can play out in numerous ways.
For instance, a non-member may begin dating a new member, decide to join, and then stay in the group for the duration of the relationship.
It's also possible that two people in a relationship might join the cult together and hold each other in. Unfortunately, this is a powerful attachment for many cult members.
A helpful way of understanding how relationships are formed and used inside of high-control groups is the Power-Threat-Meaning framework.
However you approach a cult-centered relationships, try to recognize that these relationships are often affected by by manipulation, coercion, and exploitation.
Reason #6: Fears and Phobias
Fears and phobias can be powerful tools that cults use to manipulate and control their members, often playing a significant role in keeping individuals trapped within the group.
Here are just a few of the fears and phobias that can contribute to a person's continued involvement in a cult:
Fear of rejection or excommunication
Fear of isolation
Fear of spiritual or eternal consequences
Fear of the unknown
Fear of missing out
Exploitation of pre-existing phobias or trauma (e.g., pharmacophobia, xenophobia, technophobia)
Overcoming fears and phobias within a cult context can be challenging.
It often requires individuals to regain a sense of autonomy, critical thinking, and access to external support systems.
Professional help from therapists, counselors, or support groups for former cult members can be crucial in assisting individuals to break free from the grip of fear and regain control over their lives.
Reason #7: Mind Control and Manipulation
Mind control techniques play a central role in keeping individuals trapped within a cult.
Cults employ various manipulative tactics to control the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of their members. If successful, these tactics make it very difficult for a member to leave their group.
Here are some key aspects of how mind control operates within a cult:
Cults control the information and narratives accessible to their members.
Access to external sources of information are labelled as unreliable, biased, or harmful.
By controlling the information flow, cult leaders can shape the worldview of their followers, preventing them from critically evaluating alternative perspectives or questioning the teachings of the cult.
Thought Reform and Indoctrination
Cults engage in systematic thought reform or indoctrination processes to reshape the beliefs, attitudes, and values of their members.
Through repetitive teachings, lectures, group sessions, and other forms of intense indoctrination, cult leaders instill their own ideologies and dogmas as absolute truth.
Critical thinking and independent judgment are discouraged, while acceptance and obedience to the cult's doctrines are emphasized.
Manipulation of Emotions and Identity
Cults manipulate the emotions and identity of their members to gain control.
They use love bombing, foster internal experiences, and encourage adherents to be vulnerable with how they feel to other group members.
Over time, this emotional manipulation intensifies, with cult leaders using guilt, fear, shame, or the promise of acceptance and belonging to maintain control over members' emotions and actions.
Isolation and Control of Social Networks
Cults isolate their members from family, friends, and external influences that may challenge the cult's beliefs or control.
This isolation limits opportunities for critical thinking, alternative perspectives, and support from non-cult sources.
By controlling the social networks of their followers, cult leaders can reinforce dependence on the group and prevent members from seeking help or support from outside sources.
Control of Behavior and Autonomy
Cults exert significant control over the behavior and autonomy of their members. They establish strict rules, codes of conduct, and rituals that regulate every aspect of members' lives.
Noncompliance or deviation from these rules may result in punishment, public shaming, or rejection.
This control over behavior, coupled with the erosion of personal autonomy, makes it difficult for individuals to break free from the cult's influence.
Manipulation of Fear and Guilt
Cult leaders exploit fears, insecurities, and guilt to maintain control over their followers. They may instill fear of punishment, divine retribution, or harm from external threats.
Cult leaders also manipulate guilt by attributing any doubts, criticisms, or desire for independence as personal failings or lack of faith.
This manipulation keeps members emotionally and psychologically bound to the group, often overriding their rational judgment.
Overcoming mind control is a challenging process.
Un-brainwashing is often a life-long journey, and starting is often difficult.
It requires individuals to regain autonomy, critical thinking skills, and access to external support systems.
Understandably - those who lack access to external support or who aren't provided with opportunities to think critically can find it very difficult to leave a cult. This is a powerful area where family members can support a loved one - simply by being a safe place to go away from the group.
Reason #8: Internal Experiences
Internal experiences are subjective experiences within a person's mind and body. They're not always observable by others, but they act as powerful motivators and attractors toward a group.
The internal experiences curated by a group focus on curating a person's feelings and sensations to generate a suggestible state - similar to hypnosis. If successful, the cult member may experience out-of-body experiences, fear, rage, or even intense pleasure.
These experiences can be fleeting - but are also often the source of deeply emotional products like poetry, music, and works of art.
Internal Experiences are created by manipulating two elements known as the set and setting.
Set is the frame of reference - beliefs, rules, and the structure of how cult members live their life. It includes mindset, practices, and the teachings provided by the group that help someone "interpret" an internal experience.
Setting is the physical environment - the scene, backdrop, social surroundings, and modeled behavior (singing, prayer, exercises, laying on of hands, etc.).
An example of how this might be used in through Kundalini Yoga and Chakras. There is no significant scientific evidence that supports the use of these practices - but some of its practitioners attribute energy to different parts of the body in this discipline, then claim to heal with said energy.
The chakras are - in all cases - an attempt to provide someone with a framework. This represents the set.
The setting - perhaps a dark, moody yoga studio with curated music, smells, or chants, entices anyone engaging into a sense of safety and brings out internal experiences. In Kundalini, this might be called an "awakening".
Kundalini awakenings have been described as:
Energy moving through or entrapped in the body
Shaking, and more.
Adopting the Chakra framework for interpreting the experiences curated by Kundalini yoga gives someone a way to generate and "understand" their experience. It becomes a cyclical model that seems self-evident and directly tied to a person's self improvement.
A person's internal experiences can play a significant role in keeping them trapped within a cult.
Fostering and curating internal experiences helps a group redefine reality for their members, and provides a powerful tool to cult leaders aiming to retain members.
It's an insidious way that groups create:
A sense of belonging
Removal of cognitive dissonance
Heightened spiritual experiences
Altered states of consciousness
Personal growth and improvement
Cults often exploit and manipulate these internal experiences to maintain control over their members.
Overcoming the hold of these experiences often requires individuals to critically examine their beliefs, seek support from trusted sources outside the cult, and gradually rebuild their sense of self and purpose in a healthier and more independent manner.
Reason #9: Wealth and Finances
Participating in a destructive group can be tied to a person's wealth or financial well-being.
A common version of this involves the recruitment and indoctrination of poor people. Joining a cult is easier when you're hungry and have no resources. Leaving a group is hard when you don't know if there are resources - or avenues for success - outside of the group.
In this type of situation, it's unfortunately understandable that someone would stay in their cult.
Another example of how this can occur in business cult type groups - like a multi level marketing company, pyramid scheme, or toxic workplace.
Cults often employ various tactics to retain members and exert control over their finances. Here are some common strategies used by cults in this regard:
Financial Exploitation - this can include pressure to donate large sums, guilting and shaming for failing to contribute financially, over-emphasis on donations as a form of loyalty or spirituality, and more.
Mandatory Tithing or Offerings - this is usually an established practice that requires members to give a certain amount of their income to the group on a regular basis. Failure to give regularly can be met with guilt, ostracism, or some form of punishment.
Economic Control - if a member allows the cult to have control over their resources or assets, it can be difficult for that person to leave. In some instances, members are forced or encouraged to work for the cult itself or a business owned by the cult. This creates an economic dependence on the group and makes it difficult to leave.
Indebtedness - in some cases, cults encourage their members to incur debt to help support the group's activities. As members become burdened with the debt, they feel compelled to remain in the cult for fear of financial ruin.
Financial Control and Monitoring - Cults may closely monitor and control the financial activities of their members. They may discourage members from having personal bank accounts, credit cards, or financial independence - even going so far as requiring members to sign over pre-existing assets or accounts.
These practices can have severe financial consequences for individuals involved and can contribute to their continued involvement in the group due to fear, guilt, and dependency.
People Leave Cults
So - do people stay in cults because they're irrational?
I don't think so.
The underlying reasons that people stay in cults are complicated. No broad brushstroke will ever truly answer why a member decides to say.
All that said - we believe that most people leave cults.
Out hope is that this resource can help someone contextualize their experience and assist them on their cult recovery journey. Former members are out there, and you are not alone!
If you're interested in learning more, check out these articles: