Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lessons from cults

While I wouldn't dream of condoning cults, it has become increasingly clear to me that there are some valuable things we can learn from them.

To clarify, when I refer to 'cults' I'm using the term quite strictly in reference to small superstitious communities bound together by minority religious beliefs, as opposed to the more general application of the term which refers to small sub-cultures.

Cults are generally not good things. People who are suckered into joining are frequently badly mistreated, and coerced into doing all sorts of things they would not otherwise have done. This can mean being taken advantage of (be it financially or sexually), isolated from their loved ones or even mass suicide.

The thing about cults that I find remarkable is their ability to recruit, retain and motivate their members. As the leader of a volunteer organization, those are issues I've wrestled with.

So cults seem like as good a place as any to look for inspiration. How do they do it?
My research into the matter has yielded the following list:

  1. A charismatic and attractive leader. This seems to be common to all cults: a leader who is both physically attractive and personally engaging. He (it's usually a 'he') should be easy on the eyes so that his followers will gladly gaze at him endlessly, and should present himself in such a way that followers will gladly listen to what he says.

    As far as my own recruiting ability is concerned, I may already be at a disadvantage. Perhaps I should employ a body double.

  2. Restricted access to information. Followers need to be isolated from any competing influences or dissenting opinions. This can be achieved by physically isolating them from the outside world, indoctrinatinq them with the message that outside influences are not to be trusted or teaching them to fight off dissenters. Or even a combination of the three.

    For my purposes this is obviously no good. I'm trying to promote an ideology based on egalitarianism, free inquiry and global unity. Isolation and insulation would be counter-productive.

  3. Us vs Them. Creating a strong In-Group vs Out-Group mentality is a useful way of retaining members. Followers are made to feel as if they belong to a family, and that anyone outside that family is somehow out to get them. This triggers a very deep-seated instinctual desire to be part of a tribe, hence it's effectiveness.

    Various techniques are employed to create this effect ranging from paranoia-inducing indoctrination to what has been called 'love-bombing'.

    Love-bombing is, in my opinion, the technique that is most applicable to most social organizations. It can be performed easily and without moral complications.

    It boils down to an intense effort to make new arrivals feel welcome. A barrage of sincere and warm welcome messages is all it takes to make someone feel special, accepted and comfortable. It requires some follow-up effort to make sure the feeling doesn't go away, but that's not difficult.
And that, I think, is the most valuable lesson we can learn from cults: if you make an effort to make new members feel good about joining, they'll be more likely to stick around. Whether you're starting a sceptics' group, a small business, a Star Trek fan club or a barber-shop quartet, the same advice applies. Just bombard them with love, and they'll feel like they belong.

Plus it doesn't hurt if you look like Brad Pitt.


  1. Hmmm, I don't think that Love Bombing will work with a sceptics' society, there'd be too many thoughts of "what are the motive for this?" and "what do they want from me in return?"

    Anyway, I thought that I'd mention that a jargon is extremely important in fueling an us-versus-them mentality. This is most effective when you redefine existing words so that they have completely new meanings, that way, when one of "them" misunderstands what you are saying it is simply because he/she is not "in the loop". This realisation of the other's inability to understand is usually followed by a body-wrenching, pointedly-loud sigh (as in "where do I start clarifying this to you / educating you?")

    We (as non-cult members) certainly wouldn't know of abnormal meanings of the words ... oh, I don't know, let me make something-up like ... "clear", "ethics" and "auditing" and we certainly would not understand such invented words as ... oooh ... "knowingness" or "outnesses".

  2. Yeah, you have a good point there about love-bombing. Too many sceptics already know about the technique and would inherently distrust it.

    I also like what you say about having a jargon... we use that to good effect in the Trekkie fandom world. I wonder if the same could apply to the sceptical community to some extent?

    I mean, where else do you hear terms like "confirmation bias", "ideomotor effect" and "cognitive dissonance"? It might not be a redefining of familiar words as you described, but it certainly is a jargon that's more-or-less specific to sceptics.

    Subjectively speaking, when I hear someone using terms like that, I tend to trust them more because that person is one of "us" as opposed to one of "them". Probably a dangerous bias on my part.

    Good point!