Why People Are Drawn to Cults – An Expert Interview on the Psychology of Brainwashing

“Nobody seeks out to join a cult. They join a political action committee or a meditation group or a Christian prayer group. It’s a very gradual process.”

Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine

Union Street, in San Francisco, is a famous shopping destination in the Bay Area lined with upscale salons, coffeehouses, and home decor shops. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon, whether you’re a tourist or a resident.

A local woman that happened to be suffering from depression was experiencing an emotional episode while meandering down this street one day when she was approached by a seemingly caring elderly woman.

“She said, ‘I can see you’re in great pain and I can really help you,’ so they went into a coffee shop and talked for a few hours. The woman said she was a psychic healer,” Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, San Francisco-based clinical psychologist said.

These scams occur in daylight hours, in which the perpetrator will, literally, walk right into someone’s home to steal jewelry or cash—or in this case, walk right up to someone on the street and swindle them out of their money by using emotional manipulation.

“She said she could heal her of her sadness and depression, but it ultimately cost her everything she had,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “She owned a nice little shop, she was comfortable financially, and had an apartment in a nice area of San Francisco.”

The woman was eventually unable to pay the rent on her store, so her business closed down, she lost her apartment, and her fiancé canceled their engagement—all because the “psychic healer” had completely sucked her dry, financially.

Afterward, the woman contacted Dr. O’Reilly to inquire about receiving treatment. We talked to Dr. O’Reilly to get a sense of what victims of undue-influence go through, as well as to define the connection between scams, abusive relationships, and cults, which are all linked together in the world of psychology.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, Professor, Clinical Psychologist & Cult Expert

Dr. Patrick O’Reilly is a clinical psychologist and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. He has served as an expert witness on cults, gangs, undue influence, and false confessions. He wrote his master thesis on cults and even joined a cult to obtain data for his doctoral dissertation.

He was also the post-doctoral intern of Dr. Margaret Singer, a prominent figure in the study of undue influence in social and religious contexts. In 2001, he and Dr. Singer were hired to perform a psychological evaluation on an ex-member of the Charles Manson Family, Leslie Van Houten.

Dr. O’Reilly also co-authored Undue Influence: Cons, Scam and Mind Control, published in 2014, which delves into internet scams, Ponzi schemes, real estate rip-offs, cults, and fortune-telling cons.

The Connection Between Cults, Scams and Abusive Relationships

Undue influence occurs when one person takes advantage of a position of power over another. It can come in many shapes and sizes. Whether you’re dealing with a cult, a gypsy scam, or even an abusive relationship, many of the tactics used by the perpetrators are the same. Margaret Singer even described abusive relationships as “a cult of two.”

In her book Cults in Our Midst, Singer also defines the six features of mind control that cult leaders, scam artists, and abusers use to suck victims in and keep them under control:

  • The first is to keep the person unaware of what is going on and how he or she is being changed.
  • The second is to control the person’s environment and their time.
  • The third is to create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  • The fourth is to create a system of rewards and punishments to diminish the person’s former social identity.
  • The fifth is to manipulate that system to solidify the group’s ideology.
  • And finally, the sixth is to create a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that doesn’t permit feedback.

The woman in the previous example was a victim of a scam, but when it comes to the tactics that the elderly woman used to manipulate her, experts say there are major similarities between scams and cults.

What is a Cult? The Definition & Evolution of an Elusive Concept

For many of us, cults are a fable of the 1970s, when infamous groups that claimed to be based on peace, love, and equality, such as the Peoples Temple and the Manson Family, thrived and saw their downfalls. But in the 21st century, we have hardly left cults behind.

While it is difficult to track, Margaret Singer estimated that there were between 2,000 and 5,000 cults in the U.S. in the early 1990s. As of 2018, there were up to 10,000 cults in existence in the U.S., according to psychologist Steve Eichel, an international cult expert and the president of the International Cultic Studies Association.

Today, there are all kinds of cults and scams looking for new members to join. But if anything has changed about these groups since the 20th century, it’s their packaging.

“If Manson was around now, he wouldn’t be a hippie troubadour; he would be doing something else,” Dr. O’Reilly said.

Now, they have had a makeover suitable for our new era, shifting from leeching off of the free love movement of the 1970s to the self-help movement of the 2000s.

Self-help may seem like a noble pursuit, and on the whole, it is a legitimate genre, but con artists have also entered the space to make a profit off of people’s desire for fulfillment and happiness, gaining massive amounts of followers that idolize them.

Jared Leto is one example. The award-winning actor recently started a cult in which he charges his followers thousands of dollars to join him on his private island, do yoga, meditate, and gaze at the stars. If you want to be a part of just one of these experiences, you should be prepared to pay from $1,000 to $7,000.

Outside of traditional cults, there are also a growing number of multi-level marketing schemes, or MLMs, which have taken cues from pyramid scheme giants like Mary Kay and Tupperware into the health and wellness space on social media. Hundreds of companies are recruiting consultants on apps like Instagram to sell their followers vitamins, blenders, water purifiers, essential oils, and other wellness products. However, success rates of new employees are abysmal and usually end in financial ruin for those on the bottom of the pyramid.

One of the most famous recent examples is NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um)—an MLM formed in the 1990s that sold self-improvement classes and workshops. Now, its founder, Keith Raniere, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for charges of sex-trafficking, conspiracy for sex trafficking, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. There has been so much fascination that both HBO and Starz have released a documentary series about the two-decade evolution of the MLM-turned-cult called “The Vow.”

And there are many more examples that have managed to slide under the radar. This is all to say that cults are not a figment of the past. Whatever region of the country you live in, there is likely a cult—be it a religious cult or a self-help cult or a destructive MLM—wreaking havoc in your backyard.

What Attracts People to Cults?

So, what attracts people to cults? For decades, there have been studies about the mental issues that cult followers have. Most are people who are going through a time of mental crisis. The friendly veneer of a cult offers them a sense of relief or fulfillment.

“Nobody seeks out to join a cult. They join a political action committee or a meditation group or a Christian prayer group,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “It’s a very gradual process.”

One 2017 study from Psychiatry Research was conducted on subjects that have been free from the cult life for more than 40 years, but the core principles it laid out haven’t really changed since then.

The biggest factors that encouraged subjects to join a cultic group were identified to be spirituality, personal development, life dissatisfaction, and social vulnerability.

“Loneliness and insecurity are the two big factors,” Dr. O’Reilly added. “Somebody might have grown up in a tough household or had a rough family life. They’re scared and lonely and somebody comes along and says, ‘Come and hang out with us for a while.’”

The study also named anxiety disorders as a major influence; nearly half of the sample displayed an anxiety disorder during the year preceding their commitment to a cult. About a third displayed symptoms of depression. Three-fourths were women and more than half had at least 12 years of education.

Leslie Van Houten, one of the “Manson girls” who was convicted of murder back in the early 1970s, ticks many of the boxes of the classic profile for a cult member. She grew up in a middle class, church-going family. Her parents divorced when she was 14. At age of 17, she became pregnant and was forced to undergo a late-term abortion, which would have caused psychological issues for the young Van Houten.

Her age also made her more vulnerable to manipulation. “Leslie Van Houten had just turned 19—she was just a kid,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “Our brains aren’t even formed until our mid-20s. Manson’s believers were traumatized kids; the vast majority were between 13 and 19 and were totally indoctrinated by Manson.”

As a result, Van Houten was a perfect target to be sucked into the appeal of Charles Manson’s cult, which touted a culture of free-love and life outside of society.

Coming Out of a Cult or Abusive Relationship

When somebody leaves a cult or an abusive relationship, they will likely have low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder (or symptoms of PTSD), and depression.

“Somebody—usually a woman, but it can be a man—that is coming out of an abusive relationship, their self-esteem is usually shot. They often will say that they feel like an idiot because they think, ‘Why did I put up with this for so long?’”

Victims have to consider questions like where they are going to live, who gets custody of the children, and what they are going to do for work, which can be incredibly daunting after years of being dependent on another person and isolated from friends and family.

“If someone is in an abusive relationship or group for 10 or 15 years, those are lost years and you don’t get them back,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “And a lot of them feel really horrible about it. For people who have been really badly scammed, that could be out of his or her life savings.”

When Dr. O’Reilly met the woman from San Francisco who had her bank account drained by a psychic healer, her life was in the same state of disarray that a person might be coming out of an abusive relationship. She was financially and emotionally drained.

At the time, she was receiving counseling through the district attorney’s office of the city. “She said she had a bit of a mediocre therapist who basically told her, ‘You just have to snap out of it and get over it,’ which is terrible advice,” Dr. O’Reilly added.

When it comes to treating victims of abusive relationships or cultic groups, it’s important to validate patients, to tell them it’s not their fault, and to instill in them a sense of understanding about the nature of abusers and con artists.

“I met with her and I explained how it happens—that it’s not really your fault because these people are very good at what they do,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “They’re consummate professionals and they’re predators.”

Treatment for Victims of Undue Influence or Cults

Just as the attributes of cults, abusive relationships, and life-altering scams overlap, so do the therapies that are used to treat the victims. They include group therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and cognitive processing therapy (CPT). If you feel inspired to help people that have been affected by some form of mind control, you can focus in these areas.

“Undue influence takes in cults, but it takes in a whole lot of other things as well,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “So if someone is interested in studying the subject of cults, they could also focus on women or men who have been severely traumatized by an abusive partner because they are really the same tactics being used and the same treatments.”

You’ve likely already heard of CBT, which focuses on the patient’s circumstances and emotions at present, as opposed to past events, in order to improve mood disturbances and behavior problems. This form of psychotherapy, which can be done in a group or individually, helps patients to see the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

CPT (cognitive processing therapy) is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is useful for treating PTSD, which can also be done in an individual or group setting.

“For someone that has had minimal contact with their family and they leave a group, they don’t have anybody or any support system. The isolation is very scary,” Dr. O’Reilly said. “For somebody like that, group therapy can be very helpful because they find out they’re not the lone ranger.”

In CPT, therapists work to help patients explore the ways that the trauma may have altered their thoughts and beliefs and seek to change them into healthy belief systems. Mental health providers can receive training and certification specifically for CPT through institutions, such as university clinics, which provide training seminars and workshops in this specific area.

If you’re thinking about specializing in undue influence, Dr. O’Reilly says, “There absolutely is a demand for it.”

“They might not get a cult case every day but they will get cases of someone whose self-esteem has been devastated by an abusive relationship, an elderly scam, or all sorts of different scams,” he continued. “Elderly people getting ripped off by children or caregivers or their relatives is very common—they are devastated and need to talk to someone who knows how to begin the healing process. There’s always going to be a demand for that.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou


Nina Chamlou is a freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about healthcare, psychology, economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chains, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her personal website at NinaChamlou.com.