#MentalNote · Education · Politics

The Psychology of Cults

Like most of you, I watched the assault on the Capitol Building with disgust and sadness. For starters, the Capitol Building, when I lived in DC, was right down the street from my apartment. I could feel the enormity of the building every time that I passed it. You see, the Capitol Building is way more than just a building where the US Legislators pass laws. It’s a symbol of one of the three pillars of our government. It’s a standing testament to an enduring idea crafted by our forefathers and passed on from generation to generation.

While we all can agree on some of the main drivers that led to what we saw last week, there’s an underlying belief system / mental state that allowed people to be driven to insurrection. I’m going all the way back to my undergrad for this analysis… One of the toughest but most satisfying classes I’ve ever taken – Advanced Political Theory.

During the class, we studied less about politics and more about psychology, geography, sociology, and history. My professor loved using the analogy of cooking. “Most of your education has been focused on the meal, but if you want to become a chef that makes these meals, you have to respect the ingredients and techniques that put the food on the table.” he’d say. It felt like a defense against the dark arts class… for the Harry Potter fans out there.

We spent a lot of time talking about the psychology of the electorate and what drives people into a tribe-like mentality. We also spent time discussing how tribes can sometimes resemble cults. I had to dig to find my notes but my professor mentioned five truths we should be aware of when structuring in and out-groups and how they can easily turn into cults. For our use, we should be aware of these five truths if we are going to repair The United States and come out better on the other side of this.

* I’m in no way excusing what extreme Trump supporters are doing. I’m just highlighting five truths we should think about if we want to break people free of cults. Also, this isn’t just a US problem. “Radicalization” can happen within religion, politics, socially, etc. These truths tend to hold in all areas.

  1. Life is inherently comfortable and human being’s existence (specifically in the west) is focused on chasing comfort. Cults/Tribes provide comfort in an uncertain world. The world has changed so quickly in such a short time due to globalization, liberalization, and economic shifts. People are being left behind in this changing world and that can be leveraged to drive discomfort. Think about the rhetoric that has been used and what a lot of supporters mention. “Trump hears us.” “We feel forgotten but we now feel seen” Being listened to and remembered creates a level of comfort that can be manipulated if it’s not coming with the best intentions.
  2. Democrats vs Republicans created an in and out-group which that leads to us vs them framing. For some reason, our political affiliation has become one of the most salient parts of our identity, specifically for those who find themselves on the MAGA side of the spectrum. My hypothesis is social media has stripped away location, skin color, economic background and its become the great equalizer for the delivery of ideas. This isn’t to say that these attributes aren’t there, based on social saliency theory, specific attributes just rise to the top. As a result, it’s easier for people to create their own reality because they are talking with people that view their life through the same lens which also reinforces the idea of being heard and a sense of comfort.
  3. Cults tend to deal in absolutes. They provide an absolute way of looking at the world which helps create a more stable foundation. Think about it this way, the world is super complicated with many moving pieces. Some would say it’s even more complicated with the rapid change we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Cults tend to abstract complexity and provide simple explanations of why things are the way they are. This is normally easier to digest and manage for the person who wants to sort through an ever-changing reality. Now abstracting complexities is not all that bad but the process tends to make irrational jumps in logic and truth to create a more simple reality. This is why conspiracy theories and “fake news” is so essential to an absolute perspective. Conspiracy theories provide the framework for abstracted complexities and the fake news defense serves as a moat for any facts that may refute the conspiracy theories and the larger abstracted truth.
  4. Cult leaders are black belts in mind control. Let’s be frank. Trump is a master seller. He used this skill to catapult himself into the real estate industry and several of his other ventures. He leveraged his master skill to get the right people to vote for him back in 2016 and then brought out even more people in 2020. By reinforcing everything we’ve mentioned above, he’s used tactics like brainwashing (reinforcing lies by constantly saying them) and driving paranoia throughout his ranks. Trump did a great job of convincing people that the other (Everyone against him) and/or the government is out to get them, but his rallies and his group can provide safety. Once someone concludes that the “other” and country cannot keep them safe, they begin to worship and put all of their faith in the person who provides comfort and protection.
  5. Cults tend to focus on total control and less on optionality. If you’re controlling a person’s reality, allegiances, perspectives, and mobility, you might be leading a cult. Seems like control was an under-current for MAGA and a lot of Trump rhetoric. As a result, a subgroup of people answered the call to storm the Capitol Building in DC and other legislative buildings throughout the United States.

Once again, this isn’t to excuse. To use my professor’s analogy, we need to understand the key ingredients that led to the food we’re forced to serve. Even in this explanation, I’m sure you can see some areas where the private sector and the US government can drive reform to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

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