Many of you will know someone who has suddenly fallen head over heels in love with someone. Some will know people who have done likewise – but for a strange religion or group that you’ve never heard of. What do you say to them? How can you help? And how do you express your concern or surprise at their change of appearance or lifestyle and their utter devotion to someone or something that, to you, seems really crazy?
It’s a question we’ve thought about a lot. We have spent decades talking to current and former members of all kinds of cults, from religious-based groups like the Branch Davidians to political groups on the far right and far left and even psychotherapy cults like the Center For Feeling Therapy. We wanted to understand the attraction of these organisations – and why they’re so hard to leave.
The first thing to realise is that people in cults are not crazy but are the same intelligent, creative and interesting individuals they were before. As with falling in love they are just crazy about the group, its amazing leader and its great potential to change the world and them with it. So the ideals of the group are probably quite attractive superficially – ending war and poverty, say, or promoting the healthy development of brain and body. After all, you don’t see many adverts saying “join this damaging cult that will destroy your life”.
Jim Jones persuaded his followers to move to Guyana and commit suicide … not what they initially signed up for. Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA
Your friend or loved one has probably fallen hook line and sinker for the positive message of the group and their whole identity is now focused on this message. The key thing to remember is that criticising the group, however strange or damaging it seems to you, is the same as criticising your friend or family member themselves. They love the group really deeply – for all intents and purposes, they are the group.
Think back to when you fell in love for the first time and got those disapproving looks or critical comments from your parents or friends. Remember how angry that made you feel? And how determined you were to love the person all the more.
The most important piece of advice is to not criticise, condemn or judge, even if you have serious concerns. Instead, focus on why this person identifies with the group so much, and what they believe they are getting from it. And try to reinforce the message: “It’s great that you’re developing yourself and your skills so positively and that the group is making you so happy.”
It may feel cheesy, but the point of this approach is to draw on the psychological technique of motivational interviewing, so that these positive statements, similar to those the person has made themselves, will eventually lead them to question whether they are really true – we call this the “strategic and personal oriented dialogue” approach. This means you have to keep talking. Keep the dialogue going and help your loved one measure the group against their own hopes and standards. In time, the scales will start to fall from their eyes, and you can be ready for that moment.
How it starts. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-SA
In truth, damaging cults are often run by charlatans. They offer world peace and the promised land while actually sucking people in, taking over their minds and unduly influencing them to give up their time, money, families and careers without any tangible results. Nirvana is always just around the corner, and cults coerce their members to work ever harder to get to the impossible.
Often members are made to feel unworthy and are humiliated. They can never measure up to the ideals and perfection of the leader, and bit by bit their hopes for what the group offers start to crumble. Remind them, supportively, that it’s great they’re moving forward with their life so positively in the group, and the penny will suddenly drop – “I’m actually not having a good time at all … what on earth am I doing?” Crucially, they will have come to this painful realisation themselves – with your help, but without you forcing it on them.
When what seems like the most loving group of individuals with the best ideas ever turns out to be a really big mistake, it is very hard and sometimes humiliating for cult members to admit to the outside world that they were wrong.
This is where you come in again: be there as the unconditionally loving and caring friend or family member that you really are. Where the cult judges and condemns its members, you will be there as the person who says:
Sure, it is a crazy destructive group, but I understand why you got involved. We all fall for con artists and swindlers once in a while – you still have a lot to offer and I can help you move on with your life.
After the cult, the world can seem a bleak and less exciting place. But, with the help of family and friends, the former member can build a new and more authentic life and purpose. Hang in there and you’ll be what they really do need at the end of the rainbow.
About the authors:
Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall PhD is a social psychologist. His doctoral research, in the W.H.O. Centre for Organisational Health and Development at the University of Nottingham, was on the cognitive processes involved in social category salience.
His research specialisms include social influence, identity and organisational healthiness. He is the author of the Totalistic Identity Theory and co-developer of the measurement tool the Extent of Group Identity Scale (with Paul Martin and Ron Burks). Professor Dubrow-Marshall has presented and co-presented numerous papers at professional conferences on undue influence and totalistic identity. He is a member of the Executive Advisory Board of the International Cultic Studies Association, is a Member of General Assembly of European Federation of Centres for Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS).
–present Professor of Social Psychology and Visiting Fellow, Criminal Justice Hub, University of Salford
Linda is a clinical and counseling psychologist (HCPC Registered) and a BACP Accredited Counsellor/Psychotherapist. Linda is a lecturer in Applied Psychology (Therapies), and teaches at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Previously, she designed and managed the new Counselling and Wellbeing Service at the University of Salford, and taught for the MSc in Counselling (Professional Training). She is an integrative psychotherapist, and incorporate hypnotherapy and EMDR into my practice. Linda has extensive clinical and counseling experience in a variety of settings, including universities, prisons, addiction agencies, psychiatric hospitals, veteran agencies, and private practice. She obtained my PhD in Counselling Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and did her PhD dissertation on “Marital relationships of children of Holocaust survivors”. Linda is currently studying for the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice.
Linda teaches in the MSc Applied Psychology (Therapies) programme, including Introduction to Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy and Physical Health, Addictions, and Psychological Therapies for Common Mental Health Disorders. She also teaches undergraduate psychology modules, including The Psychology of Mental Health, Developmental Psychology, Introduction to Research Methods, and Further Research Methods. She supervises both undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations.
Linda’s current research interests include: Psychology of undue influence and coercive persuasion (e.g. cults and extremist groups), group dynamics and family systems, ethical psychotherapy, psychotherapy outcome, practitioner self-care, CBT and physical health, and single session psychotherapy. She gave a presentation on single session psychotherapy for the psychology seminar series. She is a peer reviewer for the Counselling and Psychotherapy Research Journal, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and Routledge, and a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Cultic Studies.
(Theconversation.com, December 2, 2016)