When I was in my doctorate program, I learned about cult behavior. I also studied behaviorists such as Bandura, Skinner, Pavlov, Thorndike, and etc. Bandura and Thorndike are my two favorites not only because they were involved in the future of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), but because I firmly believe that our behaviors are learned and begin in childhood. Everything that we learn, as I always say on social media and to parents, begins on the playground in elementary school. I grew up in psychology learning about play behaviors such as rough and tumble, solitary, and imaginative play. If you observe children on the playground, you can discover why negative behaviors in children occur including bullying, as well as the type of children who follow bullies. The followers of bullies and children who played solitary were most interesting to me in graduate school.
My mother constantly reminded me, "Have your own mind Lisa," "Be a leader and not a follower Lisa," and most importantly, "If your friend jumps off of a bridge, are you going to follow them?" I would always answer, "no" and she would reply, "Exactly." I did not realizing then how significant the latter would mean in my life as I grew into an adult. My mother was adamant about prayer, creating your own path, using your own mind, having your own wealth, and making good choices. I mimic the same principals with my own children.
As a parent, I was never perfect and neither was my own mother. However, she wanted me to understand my worth. In return, I wanted to firmly instill in my children that they sure loved themselves, understood their worth as I do. Of importance to me is that my children will NOT compromise their integrity, especially for another person, and that person should not ask them to either.
My mother gave me the foundation to study behaviorism; unknowingly, as she was shaping my behaviors. Once I became a mother and studied psychology with a new baby in graduate school, I would often mentally regress back to the lessons that I learned from my mother and on the playground as a child. While some children gained more skills with how to bully others, and the followers seemed weak and ignorant, I also observed how manipulation led to power. You see, even then there were certain characteristics of children who conformed to bullying behaviors and almost worshipped them.
Once I was taught the psychology behind conformity in graduate (doctorate level) school, I put the pieces together. What is happening in politics with regard to behavioral norms including cult-like behaviors is not new, nor is it a mystery. Group polarization seems to be central theme in American politics right now meaning, less independent thinking and more attitude change due to the influence of the group. Making the best choice for a group is not as important than following a specific leader despite that leader's actions. Yet, here we are in American politics and we should be embarrassed about our current political state.
"I am embarrassed."
A consistent question that I see on social media that I am paraphrasing is, "Why do some people's behaviors in politics seem cult-like?" My response is that many of these individuals are opportunists, compromise their integrity, and that it is all theater. However, that does not address the question. Some of the behaviors shown in the news do remind me of behaviors that I studied surrounding joining cults. Cults meaning, the impression of worshiping a person and/or following a person despite their actions, (e.g., I see the wrongdoing, but I am going to follow that person regardless of their actions because it benefits me). Cults, also known as new religious movements or high-demand groups, are typically characterized by their charismatic leaders, rigid belief systems, and high levels of control over their members. Remember the phrase, "Don't drink the koolaid?
First, let's explore the reasons why your political observations may seem similar to cult-like behaviors. People join cults for a variety of reasons which can be deeply personal and complex. Some common factors associated with joining cults are written below, and I underlined those behaviors that may specifically address your political cult-like behavior questions:
The Psychology Behind Cult Behavior
Now do you understand why some individuals are vulnerable to cults? See the "behavioral" component? Let's add psychology to it and how it applies to cult behavior. The psychology behind cults is a complex and multifaceted topic that involves various psychological factors that contribute to the formation and functioning of cults. I typically start discussing individuals who join cults with the exploitation of needs. Cults often target individuals who are going through personal crises, searching for meaning, or seeking answers to life's questions. They offer solutions and a sense of belonging, and cults exploit these vulnerabilities to attract new members. They prey on social influence to manipulate and control their members, including peer pressure, groupthink, and the desire to conform to the group's norms and beliefs. Other psychological behaviors used to attract others into cults include the following:
How To Stop Cult-Like Behaviors
Stopping cult-like behaviors is complex and needs to address psychological, social, and emotional factors. Many of you are concerned about this topic in politics and it can be a sore spot in discussions during events as well. Consider the following steps if you want these behaviors or discussions even in politics to improve:
The process of addressing cult behavior requires empathy, understanding, and careful communication. If you believe the person's safety is at risk, do not hesitate to involve relevant authorities or professionals. Ultimately, the individual has the right to make their own decisions. Even if you disagree with their choices, respecting their autonomy is important for maintaining a healthy relationship. Leaving a cult or a political belief can be a long and difficult process. Be patient and understanding, as the individual may need time to recognize the problems and make their own decisions. Individuals who join cults are not necessarily weak or gullible. Many cult members are intelligent, capable individuals who have been gradually drawn into these groups due to a combination of factors. Understanding these factors can help prevent individuals from falling victim to manipulative tactics and encourage early intervention when someone is showing signs of involvement in a potentially harmful group.