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Why Do People Join Cults?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4672 words Published: 18th May 2020

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People join cults for many reasons. It could be to feel less alone or to be surrounded with a group of people who make them feel loved and appreciated. I will be analyzing three theories behind why people join cults.  These Theories are Behaviourism , Humanistic and  positive. Each theory has a different view on the way we think when it comes to our behavior. I will be using theorists such as Pavlov, Watson, Maslow and Seligman to help me find out the reasoning behind why people decide to join cults.

Behaviourism Theory


Behaviourism is the study of how our behaviour relates to our mind. This Theory is based on the idea that all our behaviour is acquired through conditioning. This is how we are trained to respond to things in  a certain way through repeated interactions and exposure. Conditioning is based on two central components which are operant and classical conditioning. Operant conditioning is based on the shaping of our future acts based on past rewards or punishment(e.g a child’s room is messy and you tell them they need to clean it).Positive punishment refers to the addition of negative consequences to our behavior, while negative punishment refers to the removal of consequences in response to behaviour(e.g the child gets no pocket money for cleaning its room). There is also Negative and positive reinforcements. A positive reinforcement is presenting a motivating item to the person after the desired behavior is displayed which helps by making the behaviour more likely to happen in the future. A negative reinforcement is when a certain item is removed after a particular behaviour is displayed. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative stimuli. Tabula Rasa is associated with behaviorism Theory as it is the blank-slate or white-paper thesis, a name for the radically empiricist view of the mind and knowledge which inspired so-called associationism in psychology. Data responses are added to our slate through conditioning. This is the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate.

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Classical conditioning was discovered by a russian man in the early twentieth century named Ivan Pavlov. While studying the role of saliva in dogs’ digestive processes, he stumbled upon a phenomenon he labeled “psychic reflexes.” While an accidental discovery, he had the foresight to see the importance of it. He used his dogs to discover the theories of developing an association between a neutral stimulus and the naturally occurring stimulus even without the naturally occurring stimulus being presented. He inserted a test tube into each dog’s cheek to measure the amount of saliva each dog had when fed. He predicted that the dogs would salivate in response to the food that was placed in front of them, but instead the dogs would salivate when they heard the footsteps of his assent who was bringing them the food. Pavlov realised that the dogs would remember any object or event associated with food and thats what would trigger the same response. After this experiment Pavlov realised he had discovered something big and ever since he dedicated his career to studying this type of learning.

John B. Watson is an American psychologist who created the school of behaviorist methodology within psychology and he published his views on this psychological theory in 1913.He was born in travelers rest , canada in 1878. Watson believed that language was a manipulative habit, he believed that all language and behavior is conditioned in this case imitation. He theorized that over time people learned to associate certain sounds or spoken words with certain objects, situations, or shapes on paper (words). Watson was most known for his study on emotions. He was most interested in studying the way emotions could be learnt. He thought that emotions were only physical responses to external stimuli. He believed that love and fear were things people were all yet to be learnt at birth. John B Watson conducted an experiment along side a graduate student called Rosalie Rayner ,named The “Little Albert”. Watson was interested in taking Pavlov’s research on the conditioning in dogs experiment further by showing that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people. They used a young boy that they named “Albert B”. Around the age of 9 months they exposed the boy to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey , masks and burning newspapers to observe the boys reaction. The boy showed no fear to any of these objects. They then tried again, Albert was exposed to the rat , watson made a loud noise by sitting a metal pipe with a hammer. The boy began to cry after being exposed to the loud noise. After repeatedly pairing the white rat wit the loud noise, the boy began to cry when seeing the rat.Watson and Rayner wrote:

“The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.” This experiment procents an example of how classical conditioning can be used to condition an emotional response. The neutral stimuli was the white rat.Which initially produces no specific response other than focusing attention. In classical conditioning, when used together with an unconditioned stimulus, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus.

B.F (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner was an influential american psychologist. He developed the theory of operant conditioning which means the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, by its consequences, reinforcements or punishments. This makes it either more or less likely the behavior will reoccur. Skinner is famous for his research in the field of learning and behaviour.  He proposed his theory on operant conditioning by conducting various experiments involving animals. He used a box that is known as the “Skinner Box” for his experiments on rats. He placed a hungry rat inside the box, at first the rat was inactive inside the box but shortly began to adapt to the environment inside the box. The rat soon discovered a lever which released  food if pressed on. After the rat filled its hunger it began to explore the box again and eventually pressed the lever again for food. This continued many times before eventually as soon as the hungry rat was placed inside the box again, it went straight to the leaver. Then the conditioning was deemed complete. This experiment shows the effect of positive reinforcement as the rat was rewarded with food when it pressed the lever which filled its hunger which is a positive reward. Skinners second experiment explained negative reinforcement. The rat was placed in a similar manner to the first experiment, but instead of keeping the rat hungry he subjected the chamber to un unpleasant electrical current. Obviously the rat felt discomfort in the box but the accidently pushed down a lever that turned of the electrical current. After a few times the rat went straight to the lever when placed into the box. The electrical current reacted as a negative reinforcement. The pressing of the lever was an operant response and to stop the current flow was its reward. In conclusion both of the experiments skinner did explained the working of operant conditioning.The important part in any operant conditioning learning is to recognize the operant behavior and the consequence resulted in that particular environment.

 I believe that people who join cults are influenced into the idea of a cult. Cult leaders brainwash their followers into doing and believing what they say. Operant conditioning is how cult leaders treat their members, they use negative and positive reinforcements on them. If a cult member were to do something bad within the community against beliefs the cult member would publicly shame them in front of the whole cult to insure the behavior will not happen again. And if they did something good within the community they would be rewarded with positive treatment in hope they will continue the behavior. This makes people want to stay in the cult because they are either being praised by many people in the community or if they have been publicly shamed they want to work to improve their behaviour and have a good reputation within the cult. This way the cult leader has grown power over their followers.  Another example of this the the “skinner box” experiment but instead of a rat it is a person.A person in influenced by either themselves or others to join a cult. When they are in a cult they must not leave and must adapt to the environment they are placed in. Like the rats they eventually realise that when they do the right thing for the cult or cult leader they are get a positive reward.The operant response to being negatively rewarded would to lose their privileges of maybe comfort, rewards of respect within the community.

Humanistic Theory

Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. This looks at human behavior not only at the observer but also through the eyes of the person. This approach of psychology emphasizes individuals drive to self actualization through the process of releasing a person’s own capabilities, free will  and creativity with in them. Humanistic psychologists believe that all human beings have a unique perspective on the world and so must find answers within themselves. In addition, humanists believe that all people have potential for goodness. This theory also looks at how each person is unique in different ways and that we should be looking at people as individuals . The humanistic Theory focuses on  conscious as opposed to the unconscious unlike other theories. It believes As humans we always try to improve because what we want to reach  for is self actualization. The very first theorist of this theory was Abraham Maslow who formed the Hierarchy of needs. He believed that all of our needs are built upon each other in a pyramid form.Which means humans must first fulfil our physiological needs that form at the bottom of the pyramid. So then when our Physiological needs are met are needs for safety must be fulfilled then love, and self esteem. Then lastly self actualization can be met. Maslow believed that only 1% of people ever actually reach selfactulization, most people seek to achieve it but may not ever get their.

Mason durie is an New Zealand physiatrist , he is also a professor of maori studies and research academic at Massey university. He is well known for his contributions to maori health which includes Whare tapa wha / hauora. This is the maori philology  towards health and wellness he developed in 1982. It can be applied to any health issue, whether it involves physical or psychological well-being.

There are Four concepts to Whare tapa wha which includes Te Taha Hinengaro (psychological health),

Te Taha Wairua (spiritual health),Te Taha Tinana (physical health), and Te Taha Whanau (family health).  Spiritual Health is one of the most important factors to the Whare tapa wha because with a lack of spiritual awareness it is believed that a person can be conceriened in lacking in welling and more proin to ill health.Wairua may also explore relationships with the environment, between people, or with heritage. The breakdown of this relationship could be seen in terms of ill health or lack of personal identity. When confronted with a problem Maori do not seek to analyse its separate components or parts but ask in what larger context it resides, incorporating ancestors or future generations to discussions. This may mean the discussion goes off on a tangent but the flow will return to the question. Taha Hinengaro which is our mental and emotional well being involving our thoughts, feelings and behaviour which is vital to to health in Te Ao Maori. Maori can be more inspiring with unspoken signals for example eye movement, blad expressions and in some cases regard words such as superfluous, even demanding. Healthy thinking for a Maori person is about relationships. The individual whose first thought is about putting themselves, their personal ambitions and their needs first, without recognising the impact that it may have on others is considered unhealthy. Communication through emotions is very important rather then using only words and is valued so much because if maori show what they are feeling rather than just talking it is considered more beneficial to health. Taha Tinana(physical health) is a well known factor in life as it is important for mental and physical health. For Morai the body is considered as tapu which means special. Things such as food and utensils are kept away from the human body. In most maori households things such as tea towels are not placed in a washing machine but are hand washed but not in sinks or baths because they are not where personal items should be washed. Personal space is also a boundary for maori people for example stepping over someone is considered rude and disrespectful for that persons mana(personal authority/power). There are different ways which respect is show to one another. For example maori people tend to have minimal eye contact and respects each others space in formal situations and body language.Taha Whanau is the last aspect to the Whare Tapa wha which is family. Family is a person’s prime support in life as they provide love and care. For maori whanau  is about extended relationships rather than the western nuclear family concept. Families contribute to a person’s wellbeing and most importantly a person’s identity.The Whare tapa wha works with the humanistic Theory because they both relate to the same ideas of the importance of wellbeing and finding a way to self actualization.

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I think the humanistic theory explains a cult membership because it offers the ideas and needs to succeed to self actualization by the Hierarchy which is most humans goal. But to get their it is essential to have the boundaries set which is what cults could offer a person.For Physiological Needs cults could provide food , a warm safe place to live when maybe the people do not have these needs. The second level of the hierarchy concerns our safety. Cults can provide financial security as well as protect from the outside world, and from people who might not necessarily share the same views needs. Cults normally take care of money issues such as bills and security and the living environment. love and belonging is the third level of the Hierarchy, cults obviously involve a large amount of followers which gives people the chance to grow strong bonds with others and feel less alone . A Lot of people that maybe feel like they do not fit in with others and decide to  join a cult to be surrounded with people that have the same beliefs or mindset. The fourth level of hierarchy is Esteem.  Cults can support the self-esteem of their members by  having a feeling of comfort and respect from the other members of the cult. Most people in cults believe that it is where they are meant to be and what was planned for them which could fulfill the idea of self actualisation in their life by the happiness and achievement they have found. An example of this Theory being used in a cult is the Jonestown massacre. Jim Jones manipulated Hundreds of people by offering them a safe place to live, Love and comfort, Food and essential needs and hope that Jim Jones would change the world to be a better place for everyone. Many innocent people were even brainwashed by Jim Jones to kill themselves. He made people believe that their life achievement was to die for god

Positive Theory


Positive phycology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living. It aims to gain a deeper understanding about positive emotions, positive traits and positive institutions. The goal of positive psychology is used to make normal life more fulfilling. It is designed to ask the question “what is right with you?” rather then using “what is wrong with you”?.Positive psychology is influenced by humanistic psychology and is intended to complement not replace traditional psychology. It looks more at analyzing mental health and happiness rather than looking at why things go wrong even though that is still an important factor is traditional psychology. This Theory focuses on three main areas of positive experiences which are the past(well being and satisfaction) the present (happiness and flow) and the future( hope and optimism). Martin Seligman is an american psychologist and author of self help books. He is also the founder of Positive psychology. Seligman created the famous model known as Seligman’s PERMA which includes Five core elements of psychological well being and happiness. He believes that these elements can help people reach a life full of meaning and fulfilment. PERM stands for P (positive emotions) , E (engagement), R ( Relationships) and M (Meaning) A (Accomplishments). Positive emotions are more than just smiling, it is the ability to be optimistic on the past, present and future from a positive perspective. In every person’s life there are highs and lows but having a positive view on life can help with relationships, work and inspire a person to be creative and take chances. Focusing on the lows in life increases a person’s chance of developing depression, which is why focusing on the high and positive aspects in life can really benefit to a person’s mental health. Engagement is important in our lives to be able to find activities that need our full engagement. Engagement in the activities in our lives is important for us to learn, grow and nurture our personal happiness. Every person needs something in their life to absorb them into the present moment by creating a flow into blissful immersion into the task or activity. Relationships and social connections are one of a person’s most important priorities. Humans are social animals that thrive on connection, love, intimacy and a strong physical and emotional attractions with other people. Having a strong relationship with loved ones are so important especially is hard times in life as support is needed. Having meaning in life is important to living a life full of happiness and fulfillment. Rather than searching for pleasure and material wealth, there is actual meaning to a person’s life.  To understand the greater impact of people’s work and why they choose to pursuit that work will help someone enjoy that tasks more and become more satisfied and happier. The last aspect to PERMA is accomplishments. Setting goals and having ambition in life can help achieve things that give a feeling of accomplishment. A person should make realistic goals that they can achieve and just by putting effort into these goals can give a person sense of satisfaction. It is important for a person to push themselves to thrive and flourish.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American psychologist. He was born in Hungary in september 1934.He is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. When he was a child he was strongly affected by the second world war like many others in that time period. He was stripped from his friends and family when he was placed in an italian prison. When he was in prison he began his first idea or working with flow and optimal experience. His studies and findings are still so popular to this day he is known as one of the founders of positive Psychology. He is most known for his psychological concept of flow. Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is challenging to them which often results in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. Flow is also one of the eight mental states that can happen during the learning process. In addition to flow these mental states include anxiety, apathy, arousal, boredom, control, relaxation, and worry; they result when a learner experiences a combination of skill and challenge levels of a task in non-optimal combinations. It is known as being in “the zone”. Their are also many characteristics of flow. These are clear goals and immediate feedback, a high level of concentration on a limited area,The balance between skills and challenge, the feeling of control, effortlessness, an altered perception of time and  the melting together of action and consequences.

When people find themselves in a negative situation they like to believe that they would do whatever is necessary to change the situation. Research on what we know as Learned Helplessness has shown that when a person has no control over what happens, they tend to accept that they have lost control and give up trying to change what has happened. When people feel trapped they tend to simply accept the feeling.  Learned helplessness is apart of positive psychology along with another theory of Martin E.P Seligman called the The pleasant life, The Good life and The meaningful life. The idea of these 3 theories is that they all lead to a happy life. Seligman believes that they connected to the idea of having  satisfaction in a person’s life. The Pleasant life is about having as many pleasures as possible in life and growing the skills to amplify them. The good life is about recreating work, love friendship and to spend more time on your values giving someone more flow in life. The meaningful life is about using strengths in the service of something that is bigger than you are.

The PERMA theory explains cult behaviour well as each concept of PERMA is offered to cult members. Positive emotion in a cult can be offered by cult leaders as they help people’s desires in doing good things in their life and telling cult members what they want to hear. It effects cult members emotions as they positively satisfy a person’s needs by surrounding you with good people and surroundings. Cults offer the next aspect of Engagement through making close bounds with people through gaining trust with people and recruiting them to also join the cult. This would earn respect from your fellow cult members and from the cult leader creating a popular name for a person inside the cult. Relationships are an important part in PERMA and is one of the main reasons people join cults which is the people. Cults are very connected and close they are also very warm and welcoming to new members which makes it easier to fit into. Cults offer their members support and acceptance but they can also force relationships on you according to their beliefs such as arranged marriages. An example of this would be the cult gloriavale based in auckland. They believe that god chooses who you may marry and the few leaders of the cult choose them based on what they believe god wants for you. If people in Gloriavale do not accept this way and find their own Husband/wife they will be exterminated from the cult. Purpose is the last concept to the PERMA theory. Cults offer this by making you work inside the community which could make people feel accomplished by helping out the cult and possibly get rewarded for it. I also believe that Learned Helplessness contributes to why people join cults because sometimes people who have just gone through a negative time in their life are searching for something to fulfill their life again and they might hear about a cult. They may believe that joining the cult will help them move on from the situation and give them a purpose again. The cult leader would target this person as they are depressed and vulnerable to being easily brainwashed.

Each of the Theories are different. Behaviourism looks at more of the way we react to things while humanistic and positive is more about the way we think emotionally.  Positive psychology was influenced by the Humanistic theory as they both have similar concerns. Humanistic Psychology looks at primarily the person’s potential for growth, instead of focusing on psychopathology. Positive psychology is a branch that seeks to understand, through scientific research, the processes that underlie the strengths and positive emotions of humans. The humanistic Theory rejects the idea of assumption of determinism and believes that humans are agents of free will which is a behaviourism  theory. The more that positive psychology has developed the more that it has been made clear that the idea we should be concerned with what makes for a good life was an idea also at the core of humanistic psychology in the 1950’s and 1960’s.I believe that the main theory behind why people decide to join cults is the Humanistic Theory. This is because i feel that the Hierarchy of needs is a good base for the reason why people would want to join a cult. A cult can offer Each level of the pyramid by offering a place to live for free, food, people to be surrounded with and most importantly self actualization. Most people join cults looking for self development and  spiritual growth within themselves and most people want to belong to a group of people who care about them. I believe The Humanistic theory explains this the best because the main reason behind the hierarchy pyramid is to reach self actualization and that is what most people are looking for when joining a cult. They want to work on improving themselves or to seek spiritual enlightenment.

Works Cited

  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Humanistic Psychology.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/science/humanistic-psychology.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Humanistic Psychology.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/science/humanistic-psychology.
  • Cherry, Kendra. “Why Behaviorism Is One of Psychology’s Most Fascinating Branches.” Verywell Mind, www.verywellmind.com/behavioral-psychology-4157183.
  • Lim, Alane. “Behaviorism: The Psychological Theory of Stimulus-Response.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 31 Oct. 2018, www.thoughtco.com/behaviorism-in-psychology-4171770.
  • “Māori Health Models – Te Whare Tapa Whā.” Ministry of Health NZ, www.health.govt.nz/our-work/populations/maori-health/maori-health-models/maori-health-models-te-whare-tapa-wha.
  • Seligman, Martin. “The New Era of Positive Psychology.” TED, www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread.


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