Why cults work

People in cults seem to do irrational things that seem objectively to be against their best interest. The most extreme example of this was the Jonestown deaths in 1978 where 918 people died after drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Not the most cheerful start to a blog … but I’ve been wondering why. Why do we literally and metaphorically drink the Kool-Aid?

I reckon it’s because we are tribal animals. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in tribes. In evolutionary terms the period of recent history where we haven’t been in tribes is just a blip, a nanosecond. If you didn’t fit into your tribe, if you got kicked out for some reason, that essentially meant death. It was pretty important to fit in.

And evolution has hardwired that into our design. Social norms and the desire to fit in are much stronger than we generally acknowledge.

When your mum said “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”, the honest answer would have been “probably I would.”

You can use this to your advantage too. If you want to get fit, surround yourself with people where that is the social norm. If you want to write a book, start hanging around with authors. Go to book launches. Make writing a book something that you’ll do to fit in.

And if you are a thought leader leading a tribe, be very conscious of the social and cultural norms you are creating. These may end up being the most powerful part of what you create and more impactful than the stuff you teach.