Thinking that people who join a cult are very gullible is a very understandable temptation. A temptation that everyone should steer clear of, however. My personal and professional life both lead me to say that this is a very risky conclusion, because it gives you a self-awarded automatic safety (I am not gullible, therefore it will never happen to me) that is far from advisable. You would be surprised to see how many well-educated, successful and smart people actually join a cult. People who run their own businesses, are well-read, have travelled all over the world. So why do they join a cult?

Firstly, people who join a cult will tell you they are absolutely NOT part of a cult. They will tell you it is a community, a group, a gathering of like-minded people. Because in most cases, cults start off as such. No-one has a sign on the door that says: “Welcome to my cult”. All cults stem from the idea “Join us and we’ll make you feel better”, whether it is personal issues, weight loss, business sales, etc. The person in charge of the group will be called the Director, the Manager, the Supervisor, all very common terms that are perfectly normal and non-threatening.

Well then, how does the shift from group to cult happen? First of all, in time the Director gradually, surreptitiously, slowly becomes an omnipotent guru that no-one can contradict. So for instance, if things started out with him saying that you should eat well at every meeting, showing you the different ways of doing it, one day he will check what you ate yesterday and shame you in front of everyone else if he finds out you have disobeyed the rules. What once was an advice becomes an order. It’s a very imperceptible shift if you have been in the group for some time.

So why do people accept this public shaming? Because we want to be consistent. We were taught that consistency is a great value and that it defines us. Therefore, the person in question will say “Well, he’s right in shaming me, after all I have come here to lose weight. Thank God he is so strict!”. That person will also think: “What kind of person am I if I leave when things start getting serious?” If you have been in a situation long enough, gradual change is very difficult to spot and you end up being actually afraid of your weekly meetings without even knowing why.

Secondly, it is always the most curious and sensitive people who end up in these cults. People who are looking for answers, people who do not settle for what is being told on TV or read in newspapers. People who want “more” and look for “more”. And this is not a bad thing. It just needs to be redirected. Sometimes they are troubled and lost individuals, who are in a very vulnerable place (just divorced, for instance), but other times they are perfectly integrated individuals who were simply looking for a different kind of answer.
In conclusion, it is a very delicate subject that should not be dismissed with a simplistic “they are just a bunch of weirdos”. The issue goes very deep and the large number of cults all around the world clearly shows that it is something worth discussing from different angles.