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Misconceptions About Cults: The Weight of Social Control

By Jernice Kelley
Web Content Contributor

Social behavior shapes many of our everyday activities. Communication affects how we think of others and ourselves. Relationships shape our values, morals and persuade us on a fundamental level.

Religion is one of those social aspects that greatly affect how we live. Throughout history, we have experienced several new religious movements that have garnered large communities with social influence. 

A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious, ethical, or spiritual group with practices of relatively modern origins. They are founded by someone who is charismatic and an authoritarian leader. Some of these communities have been deemed as “cults.”

Cults have undeniably been associated with mind control and brainwashing. We also assume that all cults deal with religion, which is not always the case. People join cults for a variety of reasons, including some who are even born into them. 

TED-Ed video on why people join cults.

People do not truly “join” cults. Members of these groups do not know or believe that they are a part of a cult. There are certain levels of social control attributed to this thought process that are used in cults. Cults target people who are vulnerable or feel displaced within their social environment and are seeking out a place to fit in.

Tedx Talks on what cults tell us about ourselves.

Most of us have heard the story of cultist Jim Jones and the massacre that took place at Jonestown, where nearly 1,000 followers took their own lives. Some of us have even heard of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians or the Children of God.

Each of these cults sought to be the beacon of evangelism for its followers and provide an alternative interpretation of the bible. They essentially promoted the illusion of comfort to manipulate followers.

But what happens to the people who leave a cult?

Cult life can be damaging and leave lasting effects for its members and ex-members. This damage usually manifests itself psychologically and emotionally. Ex-members must not only deal with the trauma of their experiences in the cult, but find ways to rebuild a life without the social connections fostered there.

Jubilee’s video featuring ex-members who discuss their opinions on cult-related topics.

Cult leaders have used manipulative emotional tactics on unassuming individuals to convince them of their ideologies and buy into whatever they are promoting. This type of prolonged mental manipulation can change how a person would interact outside of that type of community.

According to CBS News, President of the International Cultic Studies Association, Steve Eichel, stated that there are nearly 10,000 cults currently operating in the United States, and those are only the cases that we know of. In reality, there are simply too many cults to keep count. 

What cults are and how many there are, who joins them, how they join them and why they can not leave easily is misunderstood by the general public.

Cults are easier to identify when the damage has already been done and the viewer is an outsider with foresight, so it is important to be aware of one’s own vulnerability and of red flags in persuasive tactics, especially in group settings where peer acceptance can cloud one’s judgement.

Eichel also provides tips on how to identify cult groups and how to evade them.

Featured Image retrieved from Canva.

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