Why do smart people believe stupid things? An ex-cultist explains.

“Emma’s Thoughts” – Photo by Scott Wylie

Tonight, I went to a meeting for both ex-cult members and family or friends of cult members. One of the men there, who’d never been in a cult, admitted to being downright confused as to how we could have been deceived so easily. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “How do people in cults end up believing such irrational things? And why is it that you can’t seem to dismantle their beliefs with logic?”

This is how I explained it to him:

When I first started hanging out with Arachne (my one-on-one cult leader), I was very sick with bulimia. One night, while we were just sitting on the floor talking, she said, “Give me your hands.” No explanation, no warning, nothing. But I gave her my hands anyhow.

Looooooong story short, as she held my hands, I felt like she’d opened an energetic channel between us; I started hallucinating vividly, seeing strange creatures and other galaxies and whatnot. It was intense, and beautiful, and unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
Somewhere during this experience, I had an epiphany about my eating disorder so profound that, from that night onward, I could not bring myself to engage in eating disordered behaviors anymore. Basically, the experience cured me of bulimia.

So here we had a person who could cause me to hallucinate by holding my hands and cure me of my eating disorder in a matter of moments. My conclusion? She must be God. Only a god could have supernatural healing powers like that.

And that was a logical explanation to me, at the time, given that the only reference point I had was the Pentecostalism I’d been raised with.

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After I left both Pentecostalism and Arachne’s cult behind me, I had no choice but to re-evaluate the beliefs I’d avoided challenging until now. I educated myself. I read about DMT, a hallucinatory drug that causes spiritual experiences like the one I’d had. I read about manipulative tactics, such as the power of suggestion. I read rational theories as to how hypnosis works on people. I read about how abusive people prey on the vulnerable (I was underweight and malnourished, after all) because we’re easier to influence.

Now, 5 years after that spiritual experience, I have a different logical explanation of what Arachne did. And this is it: She was just a very, very skilled manipulator.
No, she didn’t have magical powers. And no, she wasn’t a god. Not even close.

In short, people develop beliefs, based on not only what information they have been exposed to, but also what information they have not been exposed to.

So instead of thinking of cultists as illogical, think of them as logical relative to their current base of knowledge.

Or, as Isaac Asimov once said, “Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense…. but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.”


 

RECOMMENDED READING:

The Relativity of Wrong – Isaac Asimov

Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn’t. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That’s why the theory lasted so long….

Born to be Conned – Maria Konnikovadec

There’s an adage you hear most any time you mention con artists: You can’t cheat an honest man. It’s a comforting defense against vulnerability, but is it actually true?

No, as it turns out; honesty has precious little to do with it. Equally blameless is greed, at least in the traditional sense. What matters instead is greed of a different sort: a deep need to believe in a version of the world where everything really is for the best….

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5 thoughts on “Why do smart people believe stupid things? An ex-cultist explains.

  1. Very interesting. I can totally relate. ‘Spiritual/mystical’ experiences are very common within cultic relationships. I suspect there are a variety of reasons for this. One thing is certain, in my opinion, all cult leaders are manipulative. You are able to articulate your experiences profoundly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “So instead of thinking of cultists as illogical, think of them as logical relative to their current base of knowledge.”

    I have been thinking and talking a lot about this topic – the thing that keeps striking me is that it’s not even about more knowledge, necessarily. It’s about contexts and having the right lens for the right occasion – which can be SO easily distorted by a manipulative person in close interrelationship…(have you seen the 1940s-ish movie Gaslight from which the word “gaslighting” was coined?)

    I always think of this quote as super illustrative and for me it applies to my cult experience (I don’t know if it does for others across the board – esp as I was born-into so there may be some particular differences I wouldn’t want to be blurring over)–

    “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the land and we had the bibles. They said ‘let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the bibles and they had the land.”

    I write about this because it seems so often, the urge after such severe coercive control and manipulation – I think a super human urge – is to say “I’ll know better next time” or to be driven towards knowing “more” to not get “caught”…and at least for me, I’ve learned first hand it’s not about more knowledge, I was never dumb or mislead in the first place, I was entrapped. It could happen to anyone.

    The terrifying truth, in my opinion, of course, is that someone can be taken advantage of on the basis of their VIRTUEs. And not a naive, dumb “virtue.” It is not lack of knowledge that leads the people in this quote to “close their eyes”…in a different situation, that could have been a shared moment, a first interaction, there is no life rule that says “never trust anyone ever first…” in fact much of my healing from cult experience has been to challenge that impulse…while at the same time, challenging that impulse DOES in fact put me right back at risk and vulnerable to people who would be manipulators and do not operate by the same general modes of intention that I do….

    In the exchange I was having with someone recently around N-families (which can be very similar to cults) – my dialogue-buddy was surmising that “thinkers” are inherently more at risk because they are more willing to question themselves…and I was contemplating that being a “thinker” itself can be a developed psychological feature of having been raised by inadequate parenting…(Winnicott talks about how in the absence of good-enough mothering, a developing infant basically develops thinking in the place of substantive mothering….)

    Ok wow I babbled on…thought I had something more concise to say, WHOOPS.

    Anyway thanks so much for your blog and sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting Eri what you said about thinking and inadequate parenting. Do you have a specific Winnicott source for this? I would love to follow up.

      Like

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