Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults


Heaven's Gate, a secretive group of celibate "monks" awaiting pickup by a UFO, captured intense public attention in 1997 when its members committed collective suicide. As a way of understanding such perplexing events, many have seen those who join cults as needy, lost souls, unable to think for themselves. This book, a compelling look at the cult phenomenon written for a wide audience, dispels such simple formulations by explaining how normal, intelligent people can give up years of their lives--and sometimes their very lives--to groups and beliefs that appear bizarre and irrational. Looking closely at Heaven's Gate and at the Democratic Workers Party, a radical political group of the 1970s and 1980s, Janja Lalich gives us a rare insider's look at these two cults and advances a new theoretical framework that will reshape our understanding of those who join such groups.

Lalich's fascinating discussion includes her in-depth interviews with cult devotees as well as reflections gained from her ownexperience,as a high-ranking member of the Democratic Workers Party. Incorporating classical sociological concepts such as "charisma" and "commitment" with more recent work on the social psychology of influence and control, she develops a new approach for understanding how charismatic cult leaders are able to dominate their devotees. She shows how members are led into a state of "bounded choice," in which they make seemingly irrational decisions within a context that makes perfect sense to them and is, in fact, consistent with their highest aspirations.

In addition to illuminating the cult phenomenon in the United States and around the world, this important book also addresses our pressingneed to know more about the mentality of those true believers who take extreme or violent measures in the name of a cause.


In the midst of writing this book, the unthinkable happened. On the same morning, within minutes, nineteen terrorists hijacked four American commercial airplanes. Two were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, one was flown into the Pentagon, and the fourth, likely heading for the White House, crashed in a Pennsylvania Weld thanks to heroic passengers. So while I was writing about the boundless devotion and daily sacrifices of members of two homegrown charismatic cults, true believers of another type suddenly caught my attention.

Suicide bombers and other terrorists are ultra extreme; and in many ways their actions are light-years away from what goes on in “ordinary” cults. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton refers to such extremists as people who are “destroying the world to save it. ” The events of September 11, 2001, and what we have learned since about the perpetrators, while extreme, are nonetheless directly related to issues discussed in this book. In many respects, cult members' expectation of attaining personal freedom (e.g., some type of salvation) through participation in a society of like-minded believers is not far removed from the aspirations of countless terrorist groups around the world today. As Eric Hoffer wrote in his classic analysis of the true believer, “However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing. ”

In this book I discuss individuals who made intense and total commitments to a cause or a leader. Like other true believers, eventually their identities and life goals were constructed only in the closed context of . . .

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