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The Psychology of Cult: How Nazis, ISIS and Terrorist Groups Gain Power
By Tina Calabrese, LCSW-R
Executive Director

Imagine a very good friend talking to you about how excited they are about a new organization they are involved in. He is very excited and appears happier then you've seen him in a long time. He wants you to come and see what its like and join along. You don't want to disappoint him and you've been feeling lonely anyway. In fact your girlfriend just recently broke up with you and you've been looking for something to do.

Now add the fact that you are in your twenties, a time of great pressure, stress and performance anxiety. You've been isolating lately, drinking too much and haven't been able to settle in with a job or career. You need something and someone to believe in and give you answers. You especially need someone to DO IT FOR YOU. That is, give you a life rather then you go through the agony of creating one.

You get hooked. Once in you all dress the same, have your own special language, symbols and begin to admire a very seductive, passionate and smart leader. You feel accepted, wanted, encouraged, defended and you now feel a sense of purpose you have never felt before. You become aligned with what the group thinks and believes. This is called "group think" in psychological terms. Once when a group member had a different opinion from the leader he yelled at the member and cast her away. You learned not to have a different idea or opinion. You take part in group prayers and songs and philosophies. You learn NOT TO THINK. You learn NOT TO QUESTION. You abandon critical thinking and creative urges. You repress sexuality, ideas, anger and everything that makes you uniquely 23.

This is the experience of cultism and its happened for centuries because the human mind is susceptible to this experience at certain ages and times in life. The horror of this phenomena is that you can literally lose your mind in a cult. Someone who is not a killer can become one. A cult member may not see their leader as a sociopath.

What you can do:

  • Confront the person you know who is in the cult. Despite the fact that they may get angry or even reject you confront, confront and confront and try your best to get them to spend time away from the cult.
  • Educate them about the psychology of cults and plan an intervention with family members and friends who see what you see
  • Remind them of who they use to be
  • Report any illegal activities you see or hear that is going on
  • Take care of yourself and get support

The degree to which a group and/or organization is rigid and controlling about their ideas and philosophies as well as the morality of its leader makes it more of a cult. For example an extremist group may demand a member severe ties with family and friends. This creates a dependency on them. They will also demand the member obey their rules, work hard and long for them often exhausting the new member especially. The group makes it psychologically unbearable to leave and offers the idea of immortality and hope.

People that are especially vulnerable to joining a cult are those who have had a major life change, those who feel disillusioned, lonely, socially anxious and those who have difficulties having relationships.

Remember we are social animals we need each other. Dr. John G. Clark Jr. a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical school has treated past cult members. He found that many are from middle to upper class families, more male then female and have an average age of nineteen and a half. Some personality traits he found them to have include intelligence, perfectionist, they often fail at relationships, and blame others. Remember no certain profile or type indicates whether or not someone will join a cult. I believe it may be more connected to a moment in someone's life where there is an opening for a cult to take hold.

The cult offers someone the seduction of getting a reward or a prize for being with them and obeying them. It offers, many times, a simple answer or understanding to hard questions or abstract life situations. For example if a family is putting pressure on a young adult to join the family business the cult has the definite answer and solution of a "NO" and a different plan already set, defined and done. This person no longer has to make that life decision.

Quite often cult recruiters go to bus stations, facebook, twitter, campuses and social media groups to find people who may be lost or in crisis.

Once in the cult a psychological crisis is manufactured using repetitive actions, sleep deprivation and group ecstatic activities.

Research has shown that there are changes to the brain when someone is in a cult. By keeping cult members fatigued, deprived of protein, sexuality, humor and sleep along with having them do repeated and monotonous often rhythmical behaviors they induce psychophysiological changes in the brain.

Dr. Clark coined the term "cult-conversion syndrome. "

"The unending personalized attention given to recruits ( new cult members) during the conversion process (initial joining) experience works to overload the prospect's information-processing capacity. This has another important function: the induction of trance like states. Cult leaders then exploit the recruit's suggestibility."

You know yourself when your mind feels weary or overloaded you are not at your strongest. Cult leaders know how to manipulate the mind and as Dr. Clark says this can cause actually changes to the brain. To help get someone back there is a process of deprogramming. This treatment needs to include family and friends to help the person begin to slowly see reality and let go of beliefs they adopted that ultimately do not serve them and/or others. By having family and friends tell them how they were missed and how they are loved, unconditionally, this can help them reverse the affects of the cult leader and take back control of their lives.

For anyone who has known or worked with someone who was in a cult this process of coming back is not easy. This is why I ask you if you notice someone you care about going in that direction please try to stop them before it gets to bad. ■

Collins, Glenn, "The Psychology of the Cult Experience"
New York Times


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