Cults and Cognition: Programming the True Believer

Public Domain Vectors

Source: Public Domain Vectors

In 1971, a messianic figure, Jim Jones, persuaded a great number of his followers to commit suicide, which the victims termed a “revolutionary act.” Revolution against whom or what was not specified. 

In 1993, Branch Davidians followed another messianic leader, David Koresh, into a compound at Waco, Texas, with misplaced faith and automatic weapons. Many of the faithful were killed in an epic standoff with law enforcement. 

And in 1997, a former music professor named Applewhite persuaded 38 people to commit suicide with him, with plastic bags and purple cloths over their heads and Nike sneakers on their feet, in an effort to reach a UFO hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp. This UFO was to take them, via what they termed Heaven’s Gate, to an unspecified interplanetary reward. 

“Nike” is Greek for “victory.” Dying with your head in a plastic bag doesn’t seem especially victorious. 

Now, if you survived even high school physics, you know that a UFO can’t hide behind a comet; basic orbital dynamics make the whole idea impossible. It just won’t work.

Yet a large number of modern adults put Victory Nikes on their feet and purple blankets over their faces and killed themselves, in shifts, for God’s sake, to become a post-mortem away team. (That really was the term they used—they were actually wearing Star Trek-inspired Away Team patches on their unisex black uniforms). 

And of course, they didn’t go anywhere. They just died.

Star Trek is fiction. So was the UFO behind Comet Hale-Bop, and so was all the amazing nonsense that Applewhite, and Jones, and Koresh, and many others have used to persuade people to die for them. Most adults know that fiction is not reality. Yet many adults have died for the sake of carefully-fabricated fictions. 

The obvious question: