Cults have always fascinated me. It is only natural as several relatives of mine have been members of organizations which most people, myself included, would consider cults. Of course these relatives don't believe their groups are cults, no cult member ever does.
The other day I had occasion to think about cults and it struck me that cults are really just magic shows on a grander stage, and with far more and lingering audience participation. Everyone who joins a cult joins to see "magic" worked in their lives. They can no longer wait for or no longer trust the more traditional routes to their better selves. And so they seek out or end up at the doorstep of any of thousands of cults, religious or corporate, ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And if they give the group their money, their time, their compliance, and often a bit of voluntary servitude, they just might become the people they imagined was lying beneath all the accumulated baggage from their many pre-enlightened lost years on this good earth.
But the magical analogy goes further, I think. Because a magician's show is built as a collection of tricks. And the tricks themselves are clever combinations of many discrete techniques chained together (e.g., the "force", the "dual reality"). These individual elements form the well used language of magicians. Each element might come in many variations, but at their core are the same trick. Most magicians go to great lengths to make their shows feel new, fresh, exciting, draw in new paying audiences, but the reality is, there is little new in magic. The presentation has been improved, the patter upgraded, but the fundamental building blocks and end result of the tricks remain the same. And so, too, with the cult leaders, the gurus, and their groups. For hundreds of years (at least) the new guru has relied mostly on repackaging the old guru's teachings and presenting them in language and formats more palatable to each more enlightened generation. The Eastern-heavy new age movements of the 1970s become the more sophisticated Western, corporate awareness training. But what's different about them really?
Cult leaders manipulate experiences, emotional states, and outcomes using a clever combination of discrete (primarily psychological) elements. For example, they might use "breaking", wherein members or staff within the group are encouraged/led to confront and challenge another participant in the group. It is a simple trick. When you have multiple people ganging up on someone using strong and challenging words/ideas, in a context in which the individual cannot easily escape, because leaving would be socially unacceptable, painful, awkward, etc. then you can create in that individual considerable doubt, desperation, and compliance, almost regardless of the content of the challenges. We humans are social creatures, built to respond to significant doubts leveled at us with significant doubts bubbling within us.
Imagine if this happened in your life, perhaps you are at the wedding of your brother and four close family members come up to you saying they need to talk, they all tell you that they love you and that they are worried about you, that they believe your job is not good for you. You actually like your job. You politely try to explaining that to them, but they begin ad hominem attacks saying that you are just defending your job because you are too cowardly to face the real truth that your career is going nowhere. You try to end the conversation and move away but they follow you and insist that you are leaving the conversation because you know what they are saying is really true. They say you are being disrespectful to move away because they are doing this out of love. You stop. You feel trapped and listen to them some more. After some period of time the episode ends, either because you have capitulated enough or because they feel the important seeds of doubt have been planted. If you had even the slightest doubts about your life, your job, your career, their confrontation surely magnified them. Our brains are not meant for such circumstances. These people seem to care about you, seem to have your best interests at heart, why would they lie to you? It seems inconceivable. They are saying everything so strongly, surely there must be some merit to what they are saying, usually when people speak so strongly it is because they have some basis for it. You do want to move ahead in your career, maybe you are not moving as fast as some friends of yours, maybe you have seen others get a promotion you thought you deserved. In a matter of minutes or hours you go from happy with your job, with the normal level of dissatisfaction and hopes for more successful tomorrows that practically everyone feels, to thinking that perhaps you should quit your job, change careers, something. Everyone has insecurities, doubts, weaknesses and cults know a host of methods by which they can magnify them to motivate you to some end, their end (which they insist is really in your best interest).
Another technique they use is "love bombing", creating situations and environments in which people experience a heightened sense of connection with those around them to the point that they feel a heightened sense of love from those around them. Who wouldn't respond positively to feeling more love from those around them? Participation in the group activities creates a feeling of love, an experience that can't be easily be gotten on demand outside the group. So you are trained to keep going to meetings. There are many, many tricks that cults and groups use to gather and control their members. Some do it for power, some do it for money, all do it for allegedly noble reasons.
The feeling of awe the magician and the cult leader can generate is muted once you know some of their tricks, and see them being worked into their acts. The magic is still fascinating, but no longer short-circuits your rationality. In the cult setting, when you see most of a room of a hundred people reduced to broken, sobbing masses expressing their inner most limiting beliefs you do not ascribe this to the power of the truths being revealed by the leader, you ascribe it to the power of the psychological trick being used to manipulate the group. You know that almost any cult leader could create the same response in any similarly ready group of people with "truths" that almost any rational person would reject. The technique matters, not the guru, and certainly not the underlying truth. But everyone in a cult always thinks on some level that they are smarter than that. Just ask the participants in the Milgram experiment, they believed they were immune to authority.
The question I would ask of any cult or group is, what percentage of your members 10 years after first being introduced to the group believe the experience was positive and worth the time and money they invested in it? I would suspect that for almost all groups which use cult-ish methods the percentage of people indicating they were satisfied with the experience 10 years on is less than 10%. I believe this anecdotally based on the people I have met who have been in cults, the experiences I've read about, and my belief that those entering these groups did not do so with sober minds, most of them were duped on some level, had their wills bent into participation. They did not make free, sober, rational decisions to participate. And this low satisfaction score (if it exists) would prove to me that the groups are fraudulent. The groups will blame the former members and say they chose to give up too soon, that they weren't the right sort of people, that they didn't keep learning what the group had to offer, that others have benefited so the people who didn't are solely responsible for their lack of benefit. But, to me it's a hollow kind of defense. People routinely make succeed and make millions selling bogus diet pills. They achieve success because most people won't ask for a refund (most people will be as fat or fatter but will be too embarrassed or afraid of confrontation to complain), b) they always recommend combining exercise with the pills (and exercise does positively correlate to weight loss), c) the placebo effect will guarantee some percentage of users will find some new will to modify their behavior because of powers they ascribe to the pill. Just because 10% of the people buying a fat loss pill are satisfied doesn't mean the product contains any ingredients which actually work.
There is always a new cult, a new group selling a new method to solve a very human problem, an existential dissatisfaction, a sense that life can and should be more than it is. It surprises me that cult-entering people can't see the pattern. Can't see the endless stream of cults formed and reformed, regurgitating the same (but now repackaged) esoteric "truths". But, alas they will not... Cults will never run out of followers.
It reminds me of a line from the Sherlock Holmes story A Case of Identity by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it Holmes decides not to reveal to his client that her missing lover was actually her step-father trying to wound her into life long maidenhood so he could have her money. Holmes explains to Watson his decision to keep quiet about it, "If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, "'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.'" (I try to ignore the contextual misogyny, and see it as a truth which applies to deluded men and women alike.)
And I may be wrong of course... but I do feel I at least have the carcasses of many abandoned cults and many disaffected followers adding weight to my side of the argument.