This Type of Personality Is Much More Likely to Join a Cult
A conspiracy theory expert connects one key psychological phenomenon to fanatical belief…
Why do people join cults? And more importantly, why do they stay?
These elusive questions have haunted me for most of my life. My father spent his teenage years in a notorious “utopian” cult called Synanon (he was forced to join by his counterculture-minded father in the late 1960s), and having grown up hearing a string of beguiling tales from that time, the seed of my lifelong obsession with cults was planted early. For years, I’ve been obsessed with figuring out once for all why intelligent, skeptical people like my grandfather decide to give their lives over to fanatical fringe communities helmed by power-abusive leaders. The flimsy explanations of “brainwashing” that the most cult books and documentaries tend to give have not proven satisfying.
There is a complex web of answers to the question of cult influence (I cover some of them in my forthcoming book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism), but to start, it probably goes without saying that no one knowingly joins a “cult.” You sign up for an ideology or lifestyle that you genuinely believe, under the compelling persuasion of a charismatic leader, holds the answers to the world’s most urgent calamities. Once you’re in, the leader’s methods of manipulation trigger your visceral emotions and innate human reasoning flaws, like confirmation bias and sunk cost fallacy, to essentially do the work for them — to help you “brainwash” yourself, so to speak, into sticking around, despite overwhelming evidence that you should probably do everything in your power to defect.
I’ve spoken with a range of experts in cult psychology, sociology, and linguistics over the past two years, but one interview that made a special impression was with Elizabeth Kriesten, a scholar of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremism. Using her masters in terrorism studies from John Jay college and two decades of analyzing pseudoscience, Kriesten helps people who are neck-deep in cultish ideology to understand how they’ve been psychologically conditioned and coerced, without belittling their intelligence or dismissing their beliefs. She also offers tools to folks who want the ability to communicate effectively with loved ones involved in extreme groups like QAnon.
The intersection of New Age ideology, conspiracy theories, and social media has captured my interest in particular over the past year. I’ve been hunting for explanations for what psychologically drives people to believe with such zealotry — based on digital misinformation they’ve received from various “spiritual influencers” and internalized to an extreme — that we all possess the ability to heal ourselves, or make ourselves ill, with nothing but our own thoughts and “vibrations.”
Locus of Control
Kriesten offered an analysis I hadn’t yet heard, connecting humans’ proclivity for pseudoscientific New Age dogma to the psychological concept of “locus of control.” This refers to how we orient ourselves around outcomes: Do we believe the consequences of our actions are dependent on what we do (this is an internal locus of control), events outside of ourselves (that’s an external locus of control), or some combination? “Your locus of control determines if you think the world happens to you or you happen to the world,” Kriesten explains.
If you believe your life is entirely contingent on fate or God or astrology, that is an external locus of control. By contrast, if you believe that everything that happens to you is a result of your own choices and behaviors, that’s an internal locus of control. “When we talk about healthy people, we tend to correlate having a pretty strong locus of control with being successful, because you’re going to persevere in the face of adversity, and you’re going to take responsibility for the things in your life,” says Kriesten. “But when it’s pushed to an extreme in either direction, it becomes a problem.”
Here’s one example: Imagine a child growing up in an insufficient, unstable caregiving environment. They will very likely blame themselves for whatever goes wrong, things that are not at all their fault, whether it’s a parent’s drug addiction, inability to afford food, or anything else. This characterizes an intense internal locus of control. As Kriesten explains, young kids whose parents get divorced commonly blame themselves for the divorce, or if a primary caregiver falls gravely ill, they’ll blame themselves for the illness. The way that psychology understands this logic, clarifies Kristen, is that when you’re little and receiving all of your survival and relationship needs from your primary caregivers, they are the universe to you, they are constant and infallible, and for something wrong to happen, either that they caused or that transpired outside their control, would mean having to accept an earth-shattering truth about the fundamental chaos and flaws of human life. To blame yourself is a protective mechanism. “It’s a lot safer to believe that you were the one that was at fault,” says Kriesten, “because it keeps them stable and right.”
As we grow up, many of us shed this coping mechanism and accept that life on earth is just random and tragic sometimes; but, when adults continue to take responsibility for other people’s flaws and external misfortunes, that’s a problem. These folks harboring a too-potent internal locus of control may be more vulnerable to abusive relationships — either with a romantic partner or a pernicious spiritual leader — because they habitually blame others’ failings on themselves. “It’s persistent, resilient, deep, emotional learning,” Kriesten explains.
New Age psychology
The way these ideas connect to New Age cult leaders is because these sorts of gurus tend to preach that you and you alone create your own destiny; that you singularly hold the ability to manifest anything. On the surface, this seems like inspirational messaging, and it sounds especially appealing during times of complex cultural turbulence (like the COVID-19 era, for example), because the idea that we have agency, and that major tragedies are actually within our control, makes life seem more manageable.
But this pseudo-empowerment rhetoric can be deceptively toxic, because it automatically blames the victim for whatever happens in their life. “It gives people false hope that they can climb out of a hole, even if all of society is stacked against them by means of institutional racism or whatever it is. It’s telling them that it’s all on them,” says Kriesten.
Of course, positive self-talk can sway outcomes, but New Age rhetoric takes this notion to a dangerous extreme, opening the door for a malignant figure to enter, take off their coat, and stay a while. “Because then no matter what that malicious person does, whether it’s a cult leader or a toxic partner, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, why did I manifest this? I have to change my thoughts,’” elucidates Kriesten. You’re no longer going to put your effort into extricating yourself from the harmful situation, because you’re convinced that the pain you’re experiencing is internal — caused by “limiting beliefs” or a “lower vibration” — and no matter where you go, you’ll just be running away from yourself, and you’ll manifest it again.
When you come across a social media guru mass-disseminating this type of “manifest your own future” or “#selfhealer” rhetoric, that’s not a cue to follow and reshare — it’s a red flag. Because the goal of this messaging may very well not be to empower followers, but instead to convince them that their suffering is self-imposed, so that they’ll default to the guru to tell them how they can change their thoughts and manifest a better life.
Do you have more of an internal or external locus of control? Relatedly, do you find yourself attracted to New Age beliefs? Leave your thoughts in the comments below — I’d love to hear them.