“How could you have gotten into a cult? You’re so smart!”

“Well, I wouldn’t be fooled like that; I’m too stubborn and strong-willed.”

“I’m much too independent to ever get tricked into something like that.”

“Well, if they were stupid enough to believe in something like that, then they had it coming.”

There are a lot of misguided beliefs about what makes a person susceptible to undue influence; all too often, people think it’s a matter of intelligence or strength of will, protesting that it could never happen to them. Some people even persist in believing that only people not raised with a “correct” religious instruction could be lured into a situation involving spiritual abuse.

Many people don’t realize that a high-pressure group doesn’t need to have a religious philosophy wrapped up in it to qualify as a destructive cult, and so incorrectly consider atheists and skeptics as automatically immune. Some people are even so insensitive as to suggest – wrongly – that a person “chooses” to be in a cult.

None of this is even remotely true: although people of all intelligence levels can be found in cults, the average cult member is above usual intelligence, with at least two years of higher education (and often an advanced degree). In fact, the more intelligent a person is, the more easily their intelligence can be used to rationalize illogical or even destructive beliefs.

People of all economic and social levels fall prey to cults, although the easiest target for recruiters is someone who has just gone through a major change – first-year university students, the recently bereaved, and those moving to new geographical locations are particularly vulnerable. We are most vulnerable at times of transition, during adolescence and as senior citizens.

The average cult recruiter seeks someone who is not only intelligent, but also competent and compassionate, with a thirst to make the world better. As far as “choosing” to join or stay in a cult, choice is not a factor when under the grip of undue influence – someone else is making all the decisions. But above all, cult members are certainly not stupid, gullible, or poorly educated.

So what does make us susceptible to undue influence?

First and foremost, a recruiter relies on the sense of invulnerability. Confidence tricksters know that the more sure you are that you cannot be fooled, the easier it is to fool you. A huckster can easily persuade an invulnerable person that a chunk of cut glass is really a diamond. So, the less gullible you think you are, the easier it is to pull that wool over your eyes.

Another point of vulnerability, as mentioned above, is a recent shift in lifestyle. Many people become drawn into groups simply because they’d lost a romantic relationship or a job, or found themselves in a new place and were lonely. Emotional and social dislocation – and the loss of support systems, such as a deceased spouse or a now-distant family, can mean a lot of difference in how you will react to a new experience. In Opening Minds, Jon Atack calls this ‘dislocation’.

To be human is to be vulnerable; we have the normal primate needs for affection, socialization, and a peer group. We are, biologically, troupe creatures, and deep down we know that separation from the group can mean death. Even now, when this is not necessarily true, we are still deeply drawn to follow the crowd – no matter how stubborn or independent of mind we think we are.

Also, besides being geared to go along with the crowd naturally, we receive too little information on the workings of abusive people and groups. Our culture makes plenty of judgements on those who are drawn into cults, but spends precious little thought on how they actually got there. The average person has not been taught the basic tools of critical thinking, nor how to recognise the signs and techniques of mental and emotional coercion.

Finally, our educational system, be it East or West, is heavily weighted to produce obedience and loyalty, but disturbingly light on such qualities as independent thinking and the intelligent disobedience that keeps society flexible and able to adapt to the evolving needs of its citizens.

People do not join cults: they are recruited into them. Few people would join a group if they were told that they would be subjected to sleep deprivation, inadequate health care, poor nutrition and isolation from family and society. Cult members are deceived and taken through a series of steps that undermine critical reasoning and arouse fervor. By understanding the methods of undue influence, we will greatly reduce the power of cults in our society.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about being susceptible to influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!