Why Some People Hand Their Lives Over to Cults

June 14th, 2023

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article called “The Abdication Syndrome,” in which I tried to explain the power of some cult leaders, corrupt gurus, and political leaders over their followers. The followers abdicate responsibility for their own lives, give up their own will, and offer unconditional devotion to the leaders. They obey their commands unthinkingly, almost as if they have been hypnotized. No matter how badly the leaders behave, their followers always find some justification, in order to preserve an image of infallibility.

I argue that this “abdication syndrome” stems from the unconscious desire of some people to return to a state of early childhood, when their parents were infallible, omnipotent figures who controlled their lives and protected them from the world. They’re trying to rekindle that childhood state of unconditional devotion and irresponsibility.

There’s no need for them to think for themselves because the leader knows all the answers. There’s no need for them to worry about anything because the guru will provide everything they need. They don’t feel insecure or incomplete or confused anymore. They just bask in the love and protection of the guru, as they used to with their parents.

An Abdicated State of Consciousness

In my new book, DisConnected,1 I explore the abdication syndrome in more detail. I suggest that the syndrome is so powerful that it gives rise to a specific altered state of consciousness—or as we could call it, an abdicated state of consciousness.

Once I went to a talk by a well-known spiritual teacher. Arriving early, I wandered around the venue, perusing the books and other merchandise. I chatted with one of the teacher’s followers, who slightly unnerved me with his vacant stare and childlike admiration of his guru. “He’s the guy!” he told me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. “He’s everything I’ve been looking for. Everything’s been going so well in my life since I’ve been following him.”

I remembered that I had seen that vacant look before. A few years earlier, an acquaintance invited me and my girlfriend to attend a workshop of her spiritual group. I realized straight away that it wasn’t for me.

I was put off by the massive reverence they showed to their teacher (who wasn’t actually present). Every time they mentioned his name, a giant smile broke across their faces, like teenagers in love. I was also bemused by the poor quality of the teachings, which were mostly incoherent psychobabble, full of cliches and platitudes.

But what disturbed me most was the strange, absent look of most members of the group. They shared the same vacant stare.

Ancestral Psychic

Anyone whose friends or relatives have joined a cult will recognise this trance-like stare. As a former follower of the Unification Church noted of the group’s members, “They all had glassy eyes, like two eggs sunny-side up, open so wide that the pupils seemed to bulge out of their faces.”2

In fact, this “glassy-eyed” stare has been investigated by researchers. The sociologist Benjamin Zablocki described this “glazed, withdrawn look”—along with an eerie, frozen smile—as a classic sign of brainwashing, or “extreme cognitive submissiveness.”3 Another sociologist, Marc Galanter, believed that the “glassy stare” has an insulating effect, establishing the boundaries of the group and pushing outsiders away.4

From my point of view though, the glassy-eyed stare is a sure sign of the abdication syndrome. It’s the look of people who have given up responsibility for their lives and returned to a child-like state of devotion to a paternal figure.

This abdicated state of consciousness is similar to hypnosis. After all, the essential feature of hypnosis is that a person gives up their will, and allows the hypnotist to take over the “executive functions” of the mind, which manage our behaviour and control our decisions and emotions.

An Agreement

I’m a little reluctant to use the terms “brainwashed” or “brainwashing” in this context because they imply that cult members are innocent victims of malevolent leaders. This is too simplistic.

Cult leaders, corrupt gurus, and authoritarian political leaders may be “hyper-disconnected” personalities who crave power and admiration. As with hypnosis—when a subject allows the hypnotist to take over their will—the abdication syndrome is (at least initially) an agreement between the follower and the hyper-disconnected leader. The follower has a psychological need to worship someone, and the leader has a psychological need to be worshipped. It’s an agreement between a person who wants to take the role of child and a person who wants to take the role of parent.

The abdication syndrome never has a good outcome. Like all toxic relationships, the relationship between authoritarian leaders and their submissive followers is doomed from the start. After all, the relationship is based on pathology, on both sides: the hyper-disconnection of the leaders, and the insecurity and psychological immaturity of their followers.

It’s also a highly unstable relationship, due to the giant gulf between the leader and his submissive followers. Every pathocracy—in the form of a cult or a government—leads inevitably toward conflict, chaos, and self-destruction.

References:

1. Taylor, S. (2023). DisConnected: The Roots of Human Cruelty and How Connection Can Heal the World. Iff Books. https://www.stevenmtaylor.com/books/disconnected/

2. Clark, C. S. (1993). Cults in America. CQ Researcher3, 385-408. Available at http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1993050701

3. Zablocki, B. (1998). Exit cost analysis: A new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing. Nova Religio, 1(1), 216-249.

4. Galanter, M. (1999). Cults: Faith, healing and coercion. Oxford University Press.

Originally published at Psychology Today and reproduced with permission.

About the author:

Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest books in the US are The Calm Center and Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out Of The Darkness. His books have been published in 19 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.

As the author of Out Of The Darkness, one of Steve’s research interests is “awakening experiences” — moments when our normal awareness intensifies and we feel a sense of connection and meaning. What causes these experiences? Is it possible to control them? Steve’s work also examines the sources of psychological suffering — Why is it that human beings find it so difficult to be contented? His research also shows that many awakening experiences are triggered by intense psychological turmoil, such as depression and loss.

Connect with Steve at StevenMTaylor.com.


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