UNITED STATES – The security video of three London teenagers leaving their family to become jihadi brides in February 2015 was one of many cases of young western girls joining ISIS in recent years.
Dr David Bromley from Virginia Commonwealth University noted that women are statistically more likely to attend a religious gathering and vulnerable to joining religious cults. In fact, research suggests that 70% of global cult members are women.
Several reasons have been suggested as to why women are more susceptible to join cults.
According to Jemima Thackray, one reason is because of the “history of oppression.” This could lead to women’s subconscious preference to be led by an authoritative figure. A cult leader fits the mould of an authoritative figure who tends to be pathologically narcissistic and devalue cult members. Veteran FBI Joe Navarro found these personality traits to be true for all infamous cult leaders.
Most members are willing to overlook these undesirable traits as they have already been indoctrinated into the cult’s belief system. Part of the indoctrination into cults includes severing ties with family and friends, making it even harder for these women to dissociate themselves from the cult’s influence.
Another reason is the pronounced self-esteem gender gap. A 10-year longitudinal survey of 985,000 participants worldwide found that women tend to have lower self-esteem compared to men. The self-esteem gender gap is more prominent in Western countries than Asian countries.
Individuals with low self-esteem are especially susceptible to the “love bombing” recruitment techniques that cult members use. The technique refers to excessive affection and attention shown to members of the group. In a religious cult, members are also promised of affection by a higher power.
Women also tend to base their self-esteem on the quality and quantity of relationships, compared to men. Hence, female cult members are further lured into cults when they are mistreated in their daily relationships.
While the “love bombing” technique appeals to the low self-esteem of prospective members, the opposite happens. Members who question the cult’s doctrine experience humiliation and isolation. Those with low self-esteem continue to submit blindly in order not to lose their newfound intimate relationships with the other members and leaders.
This might explain Patricia Krenwinkel’s reason for murdering several individuals for Charles Manson’s cult known as “the Family”. Krenwinkel simply “wanted to feel like someone was going to care for me.”
Although there are compelling reasons to believe that women are more vulnerable to joining cults, some psychologists such as Dr. Adrian Furnham suggest that focusing on the female demographic of cult membership will only perpetuate the appeal of cults by fixating on the female in-group.
Dr. Furnham pointed out that cult members of all genders and ages carry out notorious cult activities, such as the Heaven’s Gate suicide. Support for potential cult members and members leaving cults should focus on addressing their fundamental psychological needs.
For example, there have been cases where the Church failed to protect women who are sexually abused by spiritual leaders. This could potentially drive women away from any traditional religious groups and encourage them to join a cult.
Cults are well-trained to offer answers that these women that traditional religious leaders fail to provide. Addressing the failures of traditional religions might be key in protecting members against cult recruitment.