The Role of Intensive Interaction in Cult Affiliation

Cult conversion is a planned and well orchestrated manipulative process that is externally invoked by those who facilitate the “affiliation” (Stark-Bainbridge, 1987) as established members of a cult. But the bulk of cult affiliation comes from voluntary efforts by the individual who is going through certain required processes in resolving religious issues.

Cult issues are considered as issues of religious deviance. Either the individual has followed a deviant path in resolving the tensions that begin with some form of religious and spiritual dissatisfaction, or the cult uses deviant methods and practices in enforcing beliefs and in recruiting and processing the individual into a completely affiliated member.

Peter Lofland and Rodney Stark (1965) and Rodney Stark (1966) were sociologists who developed models of cult recruitment and described the following conditions that must be met for a person to be susceptible to cult interaction.

A person must have predispositions toward becoming invested in activity that meets the definition of “cult” membership. These predispositions include:

A failure to gain personal acceptance of how one is that strongly conflicts with how one desires to be.

A choice of religion as the way to resolve the conflict. Psychology and other ways of resolving the conflict are not acceptable alternatives.

Identifying oneself as a seeker of religious understanding, or of religion itself. Again, existing and known religions are not satisfactory.

An understanding that it is critical to resolve the conflict at this particular stage in life, to not wait to see if the conflict resolves in other ways, or over time.

Most former cult members recall being introduced to the cult by a close friend or loved one who is already in the cult. So a personal bond with the cult, through the involvement of another is already established. At the same time, friends or loved ones who discourage the involvement are not perceived to be as close in their relationship as the person who is encouraging the cult membership.

As a result, some form of intensive interaction has already occurred between the prospective member and the recruiting individual.But intensive interaction is more commonly used to refer to attention that is provided only to completely invested members.

Intensive interaction is described as a process that separates a person who is affiliated with a cult from others who are merely expressing the desire to become affiliated with the cult. The terms “verbal convert” and “total convert” are used to differentiate individuals, based on the strength of their affiliation.2

When a person shows promise as a “Total Convert” and demonstrates ability to be helpful to the cult, that individual receives even more intensive interaction through isolation and other methods, depending on the way that the cult conducts it’s affairs.

In some cults, intensive interaction combines with tactics of isolation from all other influences, coercion, manipulation, and imperatives to view the religious beliefs and teachings of the cult as the only acceptable source of all truth. The degree of isolation, manipulation, cunning, and aggression used to enforce obedience, including completing assigned tasks and recruiting others, varies from cult to cult.

It is a common caveat that most knowledge about cults and cult behavior is anecdotal. Much of the research is based on Psycho historical investigation, based on interviews with former cult members, and subject to limitations based on the perspectives and knowledge gained by the individuals while they were actively involved.


1. Robert Stark and William S. Bainbridge, “A Theory Of Religion”, chap 7, 1987

2. Jeff Jacobsen, “A Short Review Of Academic Research Into Cults”, 1993