Along the arrival of a new generation, there was an increase of cultic movements and activities within them (Walsh, 2001). Common characteristics of harmful and destructive cults include a charismatic leader, an excluded group that opposes mainstream and traditional ideas, isolation from non-cult members, and ritual abuse (MacHovec, 1992). Cults make unqualified claims about their leader’s skill, disposition, or knowledge and membership of a cult depends on an individual’s full willingness to obey the leader so they must provide complete loyalty (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). Cults greatly influence their members social experience and psychological development. Cult participation affects an individual’s relationship with their family, friends and society, their physical and mental well-being, and their behaviour. This paper focuses on the Peoples Temple cult, led by Jim Jones, as the main evidence of how cults affect its members.
Firstly, cult involvement impacts an individual’s relationship with their family, friends, and society. Family dynamics and cult involvement show a correlation where members of a dysfunctional family have higher cult involvement rates. Poor family dynamics include parents setting unrealistic standards for the children, families with more judgment than emotion, and a poor parent-child attachment (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). In Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment, it showed children with avoidant or resistant attachment can lead to negative emotional development and other issues as they grow (Haskings-Winner, Collishaw, Kritzer, & Warecki, 2011), which can explain the reason for some individual’s cult involvement. Cults provide a feeling of acceptance and purpose in life which can replace a member’s original family support system (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, psychological and self-fulfillment needs become important after their basic needs are met. This means that once an individual’s basic needs are fulfilled, they’ll seek for belongingness, love, confidence, respect, and purpose which may be the reason for some individuals to join a cult. During the cult affiliation process, “critical thinking is compromised and individuals are encouraged to view their families of origin and the non-cult world as bad or evil, whereas the cult beliefs and activities are all seen as good” (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). This mindset affects the member’s relationships as it leads them to have issues with their family and peers outside of the cult (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). When cult members dissociate themselves with the non-cult world and only interact within the cult, they create a new primary group that consists exclusively of cult members. Symbolic interactionism explains how these individuals become a reflection of the cult they participate in due to a change in relationships.
Not only do cults affect the members’ personal relationships, but also their relationship with the rest of society. A cult member’s relationship with society is disturbed because “cults provide isolation from the world and self, induction of a dissociative state, and indoctrination techniques that criticize the non-cult world and reinforce the exclusive closed system” (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). This can be shown in Peoples Temple when followers left America and moved to the secluded area Jonestown, Guyana without an explanation to their family or friends (Nelson Jr., 2006). Cults manage the member’s human communication using a technique called milieu control. They control communication to and from the outside world of the cult and they carry this out by censoring TV programs, books, and other forms of media (Walsh, 2001). Since the communication in a cult is under constant supervision, it undoubtedly has an effect on the members’ relationship with their family, friends, and society.
Secondly, cults notably impact the physical and mental health of the cult members. Leaving cult members displayed physical characteristics of poor diet, lack of medical attention, low energy levels, hormonal changes, poor posture, slow speech, and delayed responses (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). Regarding Peoples Temple, some members worked full time at the temple which meant up to twenty hours a day and the church meetings were held way after midnight. The members were often overworked and sleep deprived so they couldn’t think for themselves and their physical health was disregarded (Nelson Jr., 2006). Similarly to Viktor Frankl’s theory, the suffering cult members may have persevered and stayed in the cult because they believed their purpose or meaning of their existence lied within the cult.
Additionally, punishment and abuse are present in cults, which directly affect the physical conditions of the cult members. As punishment in Jonestown, Jones ordered troublemaking Temple members, such as “those who questioned his authority,” into an underground, suffocating coffin-sized box (Taylor, 1998). Then in public meetings, people were physically abused by being spanked, beaten, slapped, and knocked out at the front of the gathering (Nelson Jr., 2006). Along with the physical effects on the victims, exposing this type of aggressive behaviour to the other members may alter their behaviour to be more violent in the future, as seen in Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment. Children also face physical and sexual abuse in cults which can lead to a number of dissociative disorders (MacHovec, 1992). Jones’ specific punishment for children involved them being suspended upside-down and dunked into a well if they showed homesickness, stole food, or even did normal childish acts (Taylor, 1998). This abnormal socialization for children can be detrimental to their development and ability to be a normal member of society.
Likewise, their mental health is affected since “former cult members display ego deficits of impaired intellectual functioning, temporary states of altered consciousness, and impaired memory” (Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997). Peoples Temple had mental punishments where the person would be humiliated and shamed in front of the whole assembly. Jones claimed they needed these punishments to become stronger and more trustworthy in the group (Kilduff & Tracy, 1977). Cults often negatively impact the physical and mental well-being of its members.
Lastly, cult involvement changes one’s behaviour and mentality. Cult members are manipulated and exploited to create specific behaviours which include how they should think, act, and feel (Walsh, 2001) in accordance with the cults’ own values, norms, and roles. In addition to imposing sanctions, behaviour manipulation is achievable by keeping members in altered states of consciousness so they have a “reduced capacity for rational thought, through over extension and exhaustion” (Walsh, 2001). Also, “through rituals and practices, cults blatantly shape and influence the behaviour of their followers” (Haskings-Winner, Collishaw, Kritzer, & Warecki, 2011). Jones manipulated his followers to sell their homes and give the money to the church so in exchange, the church promised to take care of them (Nelson Jr., 2006). It became expected for members to give part of their earnings, if not all, to the church (Kilduff & Tracy, 1977). This displays altering behaviour in cult members when social pressure pushes them to conform to meet the expectations of the cult.
Taking part in cultic practices “ensures that the individual is resocialized to fit the expectations of the group” (Haskings-Winner, Collishaw, Kritzer, & Warecki, 2011). As a result, a new world is established and “a new identity is forged for the individual” (Haskings-Winner, Collishaw, Kritzer, & Warecki, 2011). Members of the Peoples Temple were expected to be completely loyal to Jones and they were actually so obedient to their leader to the extent that they would die if Jones told them to. Consequently, on November 18, 1978, Jones convinced over nine hundred members in Jonestown to drink poison to die in peace, or as he called it a “revolutionary suicide” (Nelson Jr., 2006). This shows how serious and significant the influence cult leaders have on the members of the cult.
To conclude, cults have an influence on a member’s relationships, their physical and mental health, and their behaviour and way of thinking. Affiliating with a cult influences many social and psychological factors of an individual which basically involves every part of their life. Currently, it has been almost forty years since the mass suicide in Jonestown and the most significant difference since then is the use of technology. The rise of technology is able to inform people of the consequences of joining cults, but on the other hand, the internet has given cults another method of recruiting people. I believe many cults use social media today as their main resource to recruit people and will continue to do so because the amount of people they can communicate online with is innumerable. My prediction for the next fifty years is that North America will have an increase of different types of cults, however they won’t be as considerable as Peoples Temple.
Haskings-Winner, J., Collishaw, R., Kritzer, S., & Warecki, P. (2011). Social Science: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
Kilduff, M., & Tracy, P. (1977, August 1). Inside Peoples Temple. New West, pp. 30-38. Retrieved from http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/newWestart.pdf
MacHovec, F. (1992). Cults: Forensic and Therapeutic Aspects. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 10(1), 31-37. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=11&sid=5d614076-645e-4b32-9a46-4fbfd7274d07%40sessionmgr4008
Nelson Jr., S. (Director). (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple [Motion Picture]. United States: Firelight Media. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydHRESPjBxg&t=5s
Robinson, B., Frye, E. M., & Bradley, L. J. (1997). Cult Affiliation and Disaffiliation: Implications for Counseling. Counseling And Values, 41(2), 166-173. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=07a5b484-3f42-4fea-8bf1-0e6b02486e2d%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=EJ571533&db=eric
Taylor, M. (1998, November 2). 20 Years Later, Jonestown Survivor Confronts Horrors. San Fransico Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/20-Years-Later-Jonestown-Survivor-Confronts-2981847.php#photo-2266951
Walsh, Y. (2001). Deconstructing ‘brainwashing’ within cults as an aid to counselling psychologists. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 14(2), 119-128. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=0083e105-0375-4faf-b691-817ad6bd8f19%40sessionmgr4009&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=5253860&db=aqh