Author: Amanda Montell
APA Style Citation
Montell, A. (2021). Cultish: The language of fanaticism. Harpers Collins Publishers.
Buy This Book
When you think of cults, some names come to mind immediately, such as Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, Waco. Each of these cults were led by a charismatic and powerful leader who used persuasive language and controlling techniques to isolate and manage their followers. Amanda Montell explores the language used in these cult and cult-like environments that expand to pyramid schemes and athletic groups, such as SoulCycle. She argues that each of these groups have a particular language that those on the outside do not understand. This language can work to build a sense of community, but it can also lead to isolation as the individuals interact more and more only with those who share the same “language”. Sometimes language can be inspirational as in athletic teams that push their members to their physical limits. Or it can be more destructive when it is used to deflect questions and further ingratiate members by asking them to ramp up their commitment, as in Scientology. While Montell clarifies that language does not cause someone to believe something they do not want to believe, it does give them a way to support and express ideas they are already open to. Some aspects of cultish life have made it into the public vernacular. “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” which essentially means buying into what someone is saying is a reference to the more than three hundred Jonestown members (children included) who died after drinking a concoction of Kool-Aid mixed with cyanide as federal authorities were closing in on the group.
Montell has long had an interest in cults because her father had grown up in the cult Synanon. He was eventually able to extricate himself by sneaking off to attend high school. He had the added advantage of working in a science lab, which taught him to question the beliefs of those around him by applying the scientific method to what he was being asked to believe. Montell poses that the increase in athletic fads that border on cult-like behavior and expectations come from the human need to belong to a group and feel affiliated with others. People are less likely to be involved in organized religion than ever before and she suggests this may account for increased membership in other types of group activities that work together towards a common goal. Membership provides identity, purpose and belonging.
Surprisingly, the most typical person who joins a cult is a middle class, well-educated individual. Members are often gradually drawn in by a shared belief or common experience. This eventually leads to an “us” and “them” mentality in which members of the group must ban together against those from the “outside” who are trying to disband or break up the group. Leaders of cults often use psychological manipulation, which can lead to financial and sexual manipulation. In Synanon (the cult Montell’s father belonged to) there was a mandatory activity called “the Game”. This ritualistic weekly activity had people called out publicly for personal violations or missteps that could later be used against the person.
Once a person’s entire identity and resources are connected to the group, it is difficult for a person to leave even if they start to question some of the practices. There is often a sense of hero worship towards the cult leaders. Members dare not ask questions or raise concerns as this would identify them as disloyal and come with serious repercussions. Confirmation bias is a powerful force that often keeps those inside of cults from questioning the practice and language used, while those outside of the cult are shocked by the level of delusion demonstrated by members. Even if members do start to question the beliefs of the cult, they often fall prey to the sunken cost fallacy meaning they have given everything they have to the cult and so desperately want what they believe to be true they remain in the group.
Montell closes the book with many examples of cult-like behavior from the way in which pyramid schemes work to the latest workout fads that share a common language, ingratiate themselves to members, and make promises that their workout will transform people’s lives. Many of these programs are built on a hierarchy intended to keep people who are trying to work their way up or who have already gained some status and are looking to make it to the next level of the organization. Montell acknowledges the draw of the sense of community that may be part of joining any organization, but warns against language meant to manipulate or isolate. She also encourages readers to check what they think they know and if the group really represents the ideals and belief system of the individual. She believes that by understanding how cults work to draw people in, we can better fight against being manipulated against our will.
Other Related Resources
Preacher Boys Podcast interview with Amanda Montell
WGN News Interview with Amanda Montell
The Atlantic: We Choose Our Cults Everyday
Podcast and Blog about Cults
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Sunken cost fallacy