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What can we learn about radicalisation from the life histories of cult members?



This briefing was one of six delivered as part of a special event 'What have we learned about radicalisation?' organised by Professor Kim Knott and Dr Matthew Francis as part of a RCUK Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research (PACCS) fellowship. The full list of briefings, available as text and audio-podcasts are available here. The event brought together leading researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to discuss the latest research on radicalisation.

Working at Inform, I have heard many accounts of conversions, and what one might call ‘cult careers’, from which I have learnt that one cannot generalise about processes like ‘radicalisation’. There is no singular conversion process; instead, each has their own personal mix of pushes and pulls that leads them through their own conversion. Having said this, there can be similar narratives, often along the lines of ‘I was lost but now I am found’. Similarly, after conversion, there is not one singular experience, or path. And, there is no singular ‘exit strategy’. One may hear post-hoc narratives that sound similar, where simplistic ‘grand theories’ are applied (such as mind control or brainwashing), but it is important to understand these as after-the-fact narratives that help individuals make sense of what happened. They do not explain the personal mix of pushes, pulls, decisions and coercions, social structure and dynamic, that together make up the elements of what happened at the time.

Each life history is unique, but of course social scientists look for trends and patterns, and studies of new religious movements have offered important lessons that can be applied to radicalisation. Beliefs can provide a frame that shapes a world-view, and can be powerful motivators. Furthermore, beliefs can be or become unequivocal and non-negotiable – but this does not mean that they cannot be changed or adapted over time.

There have always been religious groups (and individuals) on the fringes of society, considered radical or even extreme, with teachings that are newly invented, re-invented, or renewal movements within old traditions that are seeking a ‘purer’ or ‘truer’ path. What radical and extreme means to us changes over time, and in some ways it says more about society itself than about the behaviour and beliefs of the groups in question. Furthermore, the groups themselves often change over time, and then of course new ‘radical’ groups appear. There is a long history of religious and social renewal, of sectarian schisms in protest against ‘the way things are done now’.

Such oppositional attitudes often come with social structures and dynamics that can be conducive to the engendering of certain attitudes and behaviours. Sectarian breakaway groups and new religious movements tend to be small in size, demographically atypical compared to the rest of the population, consist of first-generation membership (converts), have a charismatic leader, a new belief system, strong distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and suffer from external hostility.[1] Such a social structure is likely to encourage feelings of familiarity and comfort among those who have chosen to join, who feel they have found their ‘brethren’ who share similar values and beliefs, and who are motivated by a radical and unequivocal ‘Truth’, taught by a leader who is revered. They develop closeness as underdogs who are misunderstood by a society that has gone wrong. Being converts, there is strong enthusiasm and commitment to the Truth, little desire to accommodate to those who don’t understand, and respect for a leader who doesn’t mince his or her words and refuses to be bound by traditions considered to be irrelevant. The antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can, in some cases, create a cycle of deviance amplification that can spin out of control.

Such social dynamics are likely to influence personal attitudes and behaviour. Strong social boundaries will pressure converts to leave behind the old and embrace their new family. Breaking off old ties means there are few challenges to the newly adopted beliefs and attitudes, and inside the group there are likely to be few checks and balances. The ‘group think’ is likely to be focused on a black/white narrative explaining the them/us antagonism, with conspiracist beliefs relevant to the issues. Personal narratives are likely to be reductionist and binary, focusing on previous feelings of alienation - ‘I was not understood’, ‘I never felt I fitted in’ – and current feelings of having ‘come home’.

Any conversion account will mention a combination of pushes and pulls, motivators in the conversion process. Pushes may consist of feelings of social isolation, having been misunderstood, dissatisfaction with aspects of world politics, the economy, or frustration over lack of action. Pulls may include idealistic goals, utopian possibilities (world peace), personal salvation, belonging, community, love, being able to make a change.

Professor Eileen Barker has written about the journey of Amy (a pseudonym), a white, middle class woman who joined a Hindu movement, and came to do things she would have never considered before joining the movement – she took part in the hijacking of a plane, and went to prison. A combination of pushes and pulls had made joining the group an attractive option. Then, in the group, there had been a combination of meaningful inter-personal relations, a particular social dynamic, and, over time, a gradual accumulation of processes, that contributed to Amy reaching a stage where taking part in the hijacking made sense to her. In Barker’s analysis:[2]

‘…the movement (in the persons of the trainer and the team leader) was taking advantage, consciously or unconsciously, of something ‘inside’ Amy’… we should not close our eyes to the possibility that there was just a bit of her that was positively collaborating’ (2009: 56).

Amy had told Barker: ‘At that time I’d have followed anyone who gave me attention – made me feel important’ (Ibid.: 54).  Attention is a powerful pull that frequently comes up in conversion accounts, often referred to as ‘love bombing’, a flood of positive attention – often simultaneous with the undermining of family, old friends, other religious collectivities, and other aspects of the previous life. Others have referred to this process as ‘validating them’, ‘giving them a purpose in life’, ‘feeling loved’ and ‘appreciated’. As one woman said about joining a high-demand new religious group, it had been easy to join ‘because you’re spoon-fed a lot of sugar’:[3]

And then I changed everything, my diet, left the parents, left my boyfriend.  Disappeared from my parents, I think they didn’t know where I was for 2 years; didn’t have a number for me.… I gave up my college and everything (Annie, 2008).

The peer group is an important part of this process, it often consists of a core of followers who have been in the group the longest and who are trusted by the leader. In Annie’s case, the group worked as a team in recruitment, and the leader gave individuals instructions on what to tell to new recruits, so they would feel understood. The peer group (often stratified in levels) will involve mutual policing, and reinforcement of beliefs and behaviour. Leaving can be difficult, and those who do leave may find their friends turned to enemies. I am aware of a few cases, including Annie’s group, where the animosity and sense of betrayal was so great that former members were attacked, beaten up, their home set on fire. Once someone has been part of such behaviour, they know the ‘exit costs’ involved in leaving.

Exit costs accumulate over time. Annie, quoted above, had joined a close-knit group that had re-written many of the mainstream moral codes, and she had eventually joined the core group’s culture – this consisted of sex work to liberate the ego and reach salvation, while earning money for a decadent lifestyle. It also consisted of denigrating and demonising outsiders. She was aware the guru often lied and cheated, and initially believed the ends might justify the means, but this changed over time. She knew that leaving would put her in danger of physical attack, and she feared that she had burned the bridges with her family and former friends. Also, she feared they would judge her for who she had become.

In the cases referred to above, there was a point when the people left. Although much could be rationalised, some aspects no longer made sense, and the cladding fell away. People can continue with a degree of cognitive dissonance if the exit costs are steep, and many do for a while. But being in a demanding group can be hard work, and requires on-going effort – completing tasks to show devotion and loyalty, achieving certain ‘wins’ or levels, abstention. Even high control groups lose members.

‘Deprogramming’ doesn’t work – you can’t just go in, kidnap someone, and force them to change their minds. Ridiculing new converts and telling them that they are wrong will only push them away. You can, however, try to engage with them and ask them about their new beliefs, the new lifestyle, try to understand what the attraction is – and as you create a relationship of communication and trust, you can question or even challenge some of the new beliefs. Also, engaging them and keeping the communication paths open will challenge the isolation and them/us boundaries of the new convert, and give them another option should they ever seek one. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some who leave have very little to go back to, and may need structural support as well.


[1] Barker, E. "Plus ça change... " Twenty Years On: Changes in New Religious Movements, Special edition of Social Compass 42/2, Eileen Barker and Jean-François Mayer (eds), 1995: 165-180. BACK UP TO TEXT

[2] (2009) In god's name: practising unconditional love to the death In: Al-Rasheed, Madawi and Shterin, Marat , (eds.) Dying for Faith: Religiously Motivated Violence in the Contemporary World. Library of Modern Religion. I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London, UK, 49-58. BACK UP TO TEXT

[3] Interview Annie (Pseudonym), 2008, Inform files. BACK UP TO TEXT

Dr Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist is the deputy director of Inform, a non-profit information centre specializing in minority religious movements, spiritualities, and fringe political movements, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London, UK. As part of her work, she has encountered and researched a range of topics and issues dealing with minority and/or new religions. Her publications include contributions on topics such as beliefs in spirit possession and witchcraft, socialisation of children in sectarian new and minority religions, and the methodological challenges of researching and providing information on ‘cults and extremism’.

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