Adolescent Attraction to Cults

By Hunter, Eagan | Adolescence, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Attraction to Cults


Hunter, Eagan, Adolescence


Adolescence is the transitional period between the dependence of childhood and the assumption of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. It is a time when young people attempt to understand who they are, what they can do, and why they are here. Their freedom to make decisions greatly increases, but, at the same time, certain adult privileges remain inaccessible. Their lives seem to be filled with possibilities, restrictions, and uncertainties.

New and unfamiliar situations quickly generate unrest and crisis, arising during an important period of identity development. To establish a coherent identity, adolescents draw from models and ideals found within their environment. They may seek out reliable standards to achieve a sense of security, only to find confusing, paradoxical social rules. They therefore may have difficulty distinguishing between heroes and anti-heroes, and may end up seeing themselves only in negative terms, producing a severe identity crisis. Having sought independence, they find that they fear standing alone.

Thus, it is not surprising that adolescents, having encountered conflict, confusion, and frustration, often feel disoriented and anxious. Fearing rejection by a society that they do not understand, they may retreat into isolation, or demonstrate inappropriate emotional outbursts, aggression, and rebellion, and embrace radical causes. All of these are youthful cries of pain, cries for help and understanding.

Traditionally, young people have been critical of, and impatient with, the established values and behavior patterns of society. They desire change, and experience frustration when it does not occur. Their idealism leads them to believe that those in power, as well as established institutions, have failed to meet the legitimate needs of various groups. To them, social problems and their solutions stand out in stark clarity.

In addition, during adolescence higher-order thinking skills become engaged; it is a time of intellectual curiosity, of seeking truth. Youths are intellectually and spiritually open to new ideas. Unfortunately, they have not achieved the balance of experience and maturity that would enable them to sort truth from illusion and reality from fantasy in all situations. They have not gained sufficient sophistication to evaluate - critically and methodically - complex philosophies.

Many youth movements play upon this naive idealism and intellectual curiosity. The young person may be challenged to answer the clarion call to join a group that professes to offer a vision of a perfect society, one in which all injustices are rectified. After all, how could any self-respecting person, caring for the world and its people, not be willing to give this "new way" a try?

Group membership can lead to either positive or negative outcomes. For example, the Peace Corps and various forms of community service and mentor programs are excellent ways for youth to achieve self-actualization. On the other hand, gangs and cults suppress individuality and foster estrangement from society.

The personality profile of an adolescent susceptible to cult overtures might include identity confusion or crisis; alienation from family; weak cultural, religious, and community ties; and feelings of powerlessness in a seemingly out-of-control world. Studies have indicated that a surprising number of cult members come from democratic and egalitarian homes and upper socioeconomic levels, rather than overpermissive, overindulgent, dysfunctional, and poor families. In fact, Andron (1983) reports that many cults focus on the recruitment of gifted and creative adolescents. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to delineate a precise portrait of potential adolescent cult members.

In a review of the literature, Wright and Piper (1986) reported that alienation from family relationships precedes cult membership. Youths are compensating for unfulfilled needs (e. …

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