Cult recruitment sounds foreign. You would be forgiven if you assumed it happens to gullible or vulnerable people. The most well-known cults target people facing severe problems like poverty, losing loved ones, or being kicked out of a job or school. However, this isn’t always the case. Cults target anyone they can.
Cult recruiters use proven techniques to get as many people as possible. For profit-driven cults, they can use the promise of a better future to keep milking vulnerable people out of their hard-earned money. There are signs that you can look out for to ensure that anyone trying to get you to join anything isn’t pushing you into a cult.
Methods of cult recruitment
1. Choosing the right target
Studies show that stressed, emotionally vulnerable people who have no family connections and face financial problems are more susceptible. New college students fall into this category. Anyone who faced abuse or trauma as a child and has since been isolated is also vulnerable. Cults are less likely to target people who are mentally ill. This is because they’re more likely to target people who can keep a job.
2. Love bombing
Once you’ve been identified as a potential recruit, the cult will send someone to make you feel special and unique. Studies on college cult recruiters found that they will fake mutual interests to make it seem like they can be your new best friend. They can hang around counselling centres or other places where emotionally vulnerable people seek help.
Like abusers, cult members also seek to isolate recruits from other people such as co-workers, schoolmates, friends, or family. This occurs in a retreat or camping where you’re not allowed contact with the outside world. You don’t get access to TV, the internet, your phone, books, newspapers, or any source of information. During this period, the only reality presented is what the cult believes.
Cult members keep you off-balance by presenting themselves as a safe space. They simultaneously scare you enough to rely only on them for basic functioning. This is when they perform brainwashing. When subjected to the cult’s ideology, studies show that people who try to deny the widely held belief, other members can resist conforming. However, when the power of the cult is strong, anyone who tries to question matters is pressured into accepting what the cult believes.
The cult denies potential escape routes and convinces you that membership is the only way forward. Eventually, a victim can be completely brainwashed and commit atrocities on behalf of the cult.
When part of the cult, control is maintained by the leaders through mandatory therapy, being kept in line or criticised when you defy orders, or being given sexual partners as an incentive. In addition, you’re forced to leave behind your job, family, or school and share tenements with other members who help perpetuate the cult’s beliefs.
Usually, the leader is a charismatic authoritarian who can convince multiple to remain in the cult’s way of life. They also take all the disposable wealth of the members and keep them beholden to them. At this point, extraction can be difficult. Some cults can be violent and try to harm or kill members who try to escape.
How to avoid cult recruitment
The best way to avoid cult recruitment is to remain diligent. Cults don’t like questions or providing any insight. When someone trying to recruit you for anything targets you, ask questions. Find out their name, age, organisation, intents, and how much it would cost. Vague answers can signify a cult or a con. They can also lash out to gaslight you into thinking that asking for answers is offensive. But hold your ground and keep asking. Eventually, they give up.
Avoid joining any organisation immediately. When they give you pamphlets or reading material, research the organisation as much as possible. Look for public community forums like social media where you’re more likely to see honest thoughts about the organisation. You can verify information about the user by looking at their post history.
People who post the same thing repeatedly are likely influencers for the organisation. A new account posting only positive things about the cult is also a false lead. As you research, avoid any coercion. If the recruiter tries to sell you on urgency, you’ll miss a great opportunity, refuse to accept any offers, or attempt to rush your membership.
Leave as soon as possible if you’re convinced to attend a meeting. Fake an emergency if you have to. If they visit you in your house, make a scene, call for help, or do anything to make them leave and not return.
Gloria Mari is a culture writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes on art, film, literature, health, and the environment. She has previously written for Kenya Buzz, People Daily, The Elephant, and Kalahari Review.