What would you do if someone told you the end was near? Apocalyptic cults have continually attempted to answer this question. Charles Manson became an infamous figure in American history after his loyal band of followers, deemed the Manson Family, carried out a series of gruesome murders in the summer of 1969. The gang massacred some of Hollywood’s most famous, including actress, Sharon Tate. Manson’s cult centered around the belief that he was the chosen Messiah that would lead his followers into surviving an impending nuclear attack and race war. However, they were also tasked with initiating this race war[i]. In 1978, the world was shocked to learn of the mass murder-suicide that took the lives of more than 900 individuals. Under the guidance of the charismatic Reverend Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple murdered a Congressman, journalists, and intentionally drank cyanide-laced juice. The extraordinary phenomenon of Doomsday cults repeatedly catches the public’s attention, as many wonder what could convince normal people to commit such gruesome acts.
Doomsday cults typically center around predictions of the apocalypse. What many of these groups also have in common is a leader who suggests his own messianic destiny. Several individuals have come forth throughout history holding these extraordinary beliefs and a select few garnering the enough attention to capture a crowd. Often, those who manage to attract a vast following do not actively recruit members or attempt to convince nonbelievers, rather they wait for the “chosen ones” to fall in line.[ii]Other times, leaders may utilize popular rhetoric, such as religion, spirituality or social justice, to attract their following.[iii]Another crucial component is a leader who possesses such charm and allure to captivate an audience and convince his followers to carry out their actions. Other hidden tools of recruiting include propaganda which aims at alienated or vulnerable individuals who may be highly susceptible to outside messages.[iv]Once trust is slowly gained, these followers become deeply entrenched in the message of their organization.
To many, the idea of an individual who can predict the end of the world seems completely outside the boundaries of logic and reasoning. Our society is based on the notion that without scientific evidence, novel claims cannot be held to be true. Hence, when apocalyptic cults lack concrete proof for their predictions of the end times, they are dubbed implausible. However, for the many people who come to join Doomsday cults, their leaders are exactly what they preach to be. Consider, for example, what may be considered the largest cult to persist in history: Christians. Christianity is the largest religious following in the world and has been for centuries. Millions of people read the Bible, attend mass and pray devotedly in honor of a Messiah who led others to salvation. In the minds of cult followers, their group is no less legitimate than Jesus and his disciples.
The cognitive contributions to Doomsday cult members maintaining their belief has been studied by many psychologists. One of the most popular studies was completed by Leon Festinger[v]. Through his observation of the Doomsday cult, The Seekers, he displayed that these groups are not just misinterpreting evidence, but changing the way they process information to configure to their beliefs. In a practice termed “cognitive dissonance,” Festinger noted the unpleasant state of tension when actions, thoughts, or beliefs are inconsistent. This discomfort then motivates individuals to either change their behavior or beliefs to return to a harmonious state. Festinger further identified certain conditions under which followers will not only maintain, but strengthen, their beliefs after they are disproven.
The notion behind Doomsday cults is not an outdated concept. The same recruiting and manipulation techniques have been related to those used by terrorist organizations today, such as ISIS. By utilizing the same religious rhetoric and appealing to susceptible populations, terrorist groups have convinced individuals to engage in violence and suicidal behavior. Social conditions also play a factor in the enhanced attraction of such manipulative groups. Typically, when individuals feel isolated from the community and long for something to believe in, they are more easily persuaded to join groups which instill a sense of belonging and a newfound purpose in life.[vi]
The irrational beliefs of Doomsday cults are perceived as rational in the mind of those who participate in them. Captivating leaders tout a messianic message to prophesize the end of the world and their grandiose role in its conclusion. Members are recruited from a pool that suits the mission of the leader by various techniques. By utilizing the examples already present in our society, such as religious organization, members are able to justify their involvement in a group endorsing ideas unverified by scientific evidence. Cognitive properties, such as cognitive dissonance, are also at work to increase the convictions of group members despite conflicting information. Further, apocalyptic cults may not be a passing trend, but are re-envisioned in terrorist organizations and other groups that prey on others to accomplish an evil mission. Despite our desire to believe that humans are rational and skeptical beings, history tells us there will always be somebody claiming to know when the end is nigh, and he is likely not alone.
[ii]Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1967). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. By Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. New York: Harper & Row.
[iii]Conroy, J. O. (2018, November 17). An apocalyptic cult, 900 dead: Remembering the Jonestown massacre, 40 years on. Retrieved February 8, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/17/an-apocalyptic-cult-900-dead-remembering-the-jonestown-massacre-40-years-on
[v]Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1967). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. By Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. New York: Harper & Row.