If you are wondering
who joins cults and why, the short, but creepy answer is that pretty much anyone can get sucked into them. "That is the insidiousness of mind-manipulation," Lisa Kohn, a cult survivor and author of the upcoming memoir To the Moon and Back, tells Bustle. "Nearly anyone can be manipulated by the promise of a better tomorrow or the answers to their questions or a sense of their inherent rightness (or sinfulness)." But there do seem to be a few personality traits that can make someone more likely to join a cult, that these organizations (for lack of a better word) often play into.
Depending on someone's personality and what they're seeking in life, they may be a bit more susceptible to what a cult promises. "Cults prey on vulnerability ... to facilitate their cause," psychologist Dr. Michele Barton, director of
Psychology Life Well, tells Bustle. "Cults seek out the disenfranchised and outcasts. People most in need of support are lured in by the prospect of belonging somewhere or to something meaningful."
And that's why cults can seem so great, at first, as well as why it can be difficult for people to
realize they're even joining one. As Kohn says, "Every right-minded person would most likely say, 'I am not susceptible to a cult.' And every person I know and knew who was in a cult would tell you that they were not in a cult." But again, this is all part of the brain-washing. "Once you’re in, you know it’s right, and therefore it’s not a cult," Kohn says.
While it's certainly possible for a person to leave a cult, it can be tough for them see it for what it is. So recognizing which personality traits cults are looking for can be the best course of action, in order to avoid getting sucked in in the first place. Here are a a few personality types cults tend to look for, when they're out recruiting new members.
Those Who Want To Feel Validated
Everyone is approval-seeking, to some degree. We all want our friends to like us, we want to feel accepted at work, and so on. It's perfectly natural, so just because
someone has a desire to belong, doesn't mean they're going to a join a cult.
But when a person is in
dire need of approval — possibly due to longstanding feelings of neglect — the attention and acceptance a cult provides can feel like a welcome balm.
"If someone has a lot of unmet approval needs ... a cult may seem like this welcoming group that makes them feel good about themselves," psychologist and executive coach
Dr. Perpetua Neo tells Bustle. Which is why cult members tend to play into this trait when they're out seeking new members.
"A cult ... may welcome you with open arms initially," Dr. Neo says. "When you feel validated, safe, and important, this ups your sense of membership and wedded-ness to the group."
Those Who Are Seeking An Identity
Folks who are desperately searching for approval may be more likely to join a cult, as a way of feeling like they belong. And the same is true for people who are out searching for their identity.
"When you feel your identity isn't stable, or you're not really sure of who you are, then a cult makes it simple," Dr. Neo says. "They help you to decide. If you've felt like a drifter through life or don't feel like your relationships are deep enough — in other words, you can be surrounded by people and feel terrifyingly lonely — a cult may provide that sense of family which you may have never experienced."
Of course, that's not to say that people who are looking for new friends, or
those who feel lonely, are going to get swept up in a cult. But it's true that many cults prey on this desire.
"That is how they survive and grow," Kohn says. "And yes, cults look for people whom they believe are susceptible. Many years ago, when I spent a summer proselytizing, we were told to look for loners, for students, for people who seemed to be searching or questioning… because we had the answers."
Those Who Are Followers, Not Leaders
Cults are often centered around a strong leader, who is typically dynamic and warm and inspiring — all traits that can be incredibly attractive to someone whose personality lends itself to following others, instead of being a leader themselves.
As Dr. Neo says, "Cult leaders can ... be captivating and dynamic — they suck you in, you admire them, and you think, 'This is someone I want to be associated with!'"
While that can be appealing to anybody, the words of a cult leader can fall heavily on the ears of people who are looking for someone to follow or emulate. If they like to be told what to do, the predictable daily schedule of cult life can also be incredibly appealing.
Those Who Are Seeking Meaning
We all want to figure out the "meaning of life," find our purpose, and learn more about ourselves. But people who are desperate seekers of truth may be more likely to get caught up in a group that offers quick answers to their questions, or promises a future that seems more meaningful and bright.
"Cults, with simplistic explanations coupled with a charismatic leader who has perfected the
modus operandi to manipulate you, play on this," Dr. Neo says. "If what they offer aligns with your desire for meaning, then you become likelier to join them."
Those Who Have Schizotypal Thinking
Schizotypal thinkers walk along the edge of schizophrenia, without actually
having the delusions or disconnection from society that's associated with the disorder, Dr. Neo says. They do, however, have odd beliefs and behaviors that might fall into the realm of conspiracy-type or alien-type or supernatural-type beliefs. "And most cults propagate [these] strange ideas, doctrines, and beliefs, which may align with someone higher in schizotypy," she says.
Those Who Are Highly Suggestible
Cults work by brainwashing their members. So really, anyone can get sucked in or fall victim to their mind games. But this may be even more likely for someone who tends to be highly suggestible or gullible, as well as anyone who wants to find meaning in life so desperately they're willing to give
anything a go.
"Cults can simply subsume everything to a supernatural otherworldly reason. Like, if something goes right, it's because of [Superpower/Cult Leader]. If something goes wrong, it's [Superpower/Cult Leader] testing your faith to see how resolute you are, or it's a way of 'opening another door,'" Dr. Neo says. It takes a certain open-mindedness to think this way, which may cross into gullibility.
But this way of thinking is also why it becomes difficult for a cult member to leave the group, once they've gone down the proverbial rabbit hole. "You gamble — with every step you take and every iota of faith you invest in this cult, you're simply hoping for the desired outcome to land at your next investment," Dr. Neo says. "And often, you feel you've invested so much, it's hard to leave the table, because that guarantees you've lost everything."
Those Who Constantly Blame Others
Going off that, "people who take no personal responsibility for their actions, [who would] rather defer to a higher power to account for their own behavior," may also be more likely to join a cult, says Dr. Barton. "Blamers are prime-time, high-season game for cult mentality. Blamers make perfect cult members, [as they're] great at following others and have no moral issues with doing so, regardless of consequences."
Those Who Are Always Angry
While someone who's in search of the truth may be more likely to join a religious cult,
someone who is always angry may be more likely to join an extremist-type group.
"If someone is angry or discontented, they are potentially more susceptible to cults or other extremist groups, because the extremist group/cult will provide them with a sense of belonging, a sense of 'us versus them,' a sense of blaming the 'other' and again, being more 'right' or 'true,'" Kohn says. "Humans are, by nature, social animals with a strong need to belong, and when someone doesn’t have that sense in their life, they can (and do) find it in cults and extremist groups."
That's not to say that anyone who feels angry will up and join a cult. But if a cult comes along and plays into that anger in just the right way, they may be more likely to get sucked in.
Those Who Have Very Low Self-Worth
Cults prey on folks who feel like outsiders, so it's easy to see why low self-worth may make someone more likely to get swept up in a group that tricks them, and tries to make them feel like they belong.
As Kohn says, "If someone has a low sense of self-worth, they can ... be susceptible to a cult, because the cult can either confirm their low sense of self-worth and offer them a path to 'salvation,' or the cult can falsely raise their sense of self-worth by making them part of a chosen group." Again, it's a ploy to get new people to join. And it often works.
Keep in mind, though, that just because someone has one (or many) of these traits, it does
not mean they'll want to join a cult or that they'll get sucked into some kind of group. It is, however, important to know how cults operate and the types of mind games they might play, so that they'll seem like less of a cure-all. We all want to belong and we all want to have our "group." But despite what cults say, there are far better ways to go about this.