Why Brilliant People Join Cults
“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” ― Aristotle
If you are educated and have above average IQ, you are statistically more likely to join a cult.
Before you start standing in front of microwaves and consume hours and hours of Netflix brain rot in an attempt to dim down your smart brain from tricking you into joining a cult, let me say this: you may already be part of a “cult” and be completely fine with it. For the purpose of this post, I am not going to talk about the traditional way we view cults (eg. religious cults), but rather, the types of behavioral patterns that get organizations and individuals alike into trouble.
“Cult thinking” means that you are stuck in a false reality; this is more common than we would like to admit. Often, the reason why we get stuck on an idea is because it’s a good one—or in the least, quite captivating.
This “cult thinking”, if left unchecked, leads to the traditional cults we think of, as well as other mono-thinking groups or clubs who have recognizable names like Apple, Walmart, and the Detroit Lions. A “mostly harmless” example is every year when Detroit Lions fans think their team is absolutely going to win the Super Bowl, though the rest of us know their chances are slim.
Colloquial language from cults has entered our business cultural lexicon. Listen to people you work with or, if you are a consultant, listen to how each organization you work with talks about themselves:
(overheard at a large tech organization in Seattle) You’re a new hire? You drink the Kool-Aid yet? You will. You’ll come over to the dark side.
A friend who is dedicated to a brand: (overhead at a bar in Seattle) What a waste! You bought the watch?! Or did you get it when you paid your Apple membership dues?
Some business owners are embracing the “business cult” identity. Peter Thiel’s first rule for start-ups in his book Zero to One (excerpted here by Wired) is:
“Rule 1: The Best Startups Work a Lot Like Cults
In the most intense kind of organization, members abandon the outside world and hang out only with other members. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside. But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously.”
So, what is cult thinking? Is it just really good branding? A way to grow a company? Or a time bomb if left unchecked?
“Cult Thinking” Causes an Echo-Chamber Effect
How do good ideas get out of control? The Echo-Chamber Effect is a new term that is slowly making traction in the world of journalism and sociology. Alan Martin of Wired explains this phenomenon: “if you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you're feeling out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”
Here’s a real-life example: If you go on YouTube and watch conspiracy videos, the comments below the video provide an echo-chamber conversation where only the people who participate all believe the same thing, which is: this has to be real (those who try to offer reason or practical advice often find their words of reality falling on deaf ears because they are overridden by all the members in the echo-chamber). Since there is not a strong enough authority to intervene with this collective of conspiracy theorists, the comments section often gets out of hand and spirals into an even denser fantastic conspiracy. If you think the world is flat, and everyone in a comment section or forum also believes that's true (even if there are only a handful of people), your skewed view of reality will be echoed and confirmed.
Let’s apply this concept to business: if there are too many people in the room echoing back what we want to hear, then the products, concept, or framework will be limited. If there is heavy reliance from inside the company and the customers and partners are not being taken into consideration, then the company will deliver a product your team or your company will like, but the public either won’t want it or will not be ready for it.
What We Can Learn from “Cult-Thinking”
A company with a strong culture, or as some label a “company cult”, will have an overwhelming community of acceptance (this makes sense: cult is the root word for culture). It validates the consumers’ existences by giving them a place to go everyday. In Ruth Whippman’s Huffington Post article, How Corporate America Is Turning Into a Cult and Why It's Harming the American Employee, she gives us an inside look at how corporate culture is affecting the individual:
Over at "Walmart People," Lois Givens, Personnel Manager at store number 992 assures us: "If you live your whole entire life according to the Walmart culture and three basic beliefs, life becomes a lot easier." Shana Bailey, Director of Store Operations emotes: "To this day, I continue to grow and learn, and the Walmart family is always there for me every step of the way," while Patricia Graham of the Distribution Centers adds: " Walmart is my Life (capitalization her own). When I think about it, it's amazing how many aspects of my life are touched and made better by Walmart."
Where this goes south is, as Whippman argues, when employees get too comfortable. If someone is willing to work for low pay and long hours because they feel connected to the culture, an employer could take advantage of them:
Despite all this talk of "empowerment" American workers have now lost any real bargaining power they once had with their employers to change these conditions. … It would seem that the more Corporate America demands cult-like devotion from its employees the worse it is able to treat them, and the less likely they are to complain.
This kind of thinking also stunts growth. If ideas and feedback coming from outside organizations are automatically tainted and not taken seriously, the company has effectively created an echo chamber. And that's what Whippman arguing: in a company culture as large as Walmart, people get brainwashed. (See also: To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton)
Freedom of Expression
As I have mentioned in other posts, creativity is one of the biggest assets an employee can bring to their organization. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Pixar have been popular subjects of news stories for their creative and playful environments. Freedom of expression is a necessary part of every organization, and this fosters an environment where there is a healthy flow of ideas.
The downside is that if one of these ideas is left unchecked, it could start to spiral and the team will only be concerned about the progress of the idea—and then reality becomes the idea, or vice-versa.
This is exactly what we are seeing with the cult of Apple. They were at the top with great ideas and innovation, but they got caught up in their single-product approach and are now falling behind.
Group cohesion, supporting colleagues, and raising employee morale are all part of running a successful company—but this too needs to be kept in check with a healthy dose of skepticism.
How to Avoid Cult Thinking
- Beware of echo chambers: have a diverse group you are checking in with. Sometimes, the best way to get feedback is to bounce an idea off of someone who is part of a different team. Getting the perspective of someone who is not in your field may be the sobering eyes you need to bring your idea from abstract to concrete.
- Make sure your idea is open to criticism: if you hear yourself saying, “Nobody understands my idea; it’s brilliant; they can’t see it because they are not as smart as me!” then take a step back from yourself. Ask friends, coworkers, or your mentor exactly where they get tripped up by your ideas. Open yourself (and the idea) up to others instead of closing yourself off.
- Beware of single leadership: this applies to both individuals and ideas. A good organization monitors power dynamics in leadership and a good team doesn’t let one idea dominate their time or define them. A good organization needs to have many heads and many irons in the fire.
- Beware of confirmation bias: you can prove anything with a confirmation bias. Just because something happened once does not mean it is industry standard. Feel out the industry, keep tabs on your competition, and share your observations with a trusted friend.
Checks and Balances
- As a company: make sure you are engaging with your audience and listening to what they have to say. A company that is always adapting to the changing environment will be less likely to get caught up in the company culture and will be more open to the culture of the industry (and beyond).
- Individually: make sure you are bouncing your ideas off of colleagues, mentors, friends, and family members. Very bright people often spend a lot of time in their head, spinning ideas around and around. This is the type of person who, by accident, convinces themselves of something against their best judgment by merely thinking about it for too long. The people in your social circle can see things you can't—just as you see things about them they can't see. Listen to them; together, you will keep your sanity, dignity, and freedom from cult doom.
If the road to hell is paved with the best intentions, the road to cults are is paved with creative ideas thought up by brilliant people. Both are examples of genius gone unchecked. There are benefits to cult-like thinking, but to reap those benefits, we need to have checks and balances to return us to clarity of mind. Remember: when you are sitting at the bottom of a well, don’t confuse the echo of your voice with the voice of reason. One voice of reason in my life is Jason Michalek, a graduate student at George Washington University. When we were talking about this idea he left me with these words, and this is where I will leave you: “Well intentions are only good when questioned.”
 “with few exceptions studies have found that recruits to NRMs are on average markedly better educated than the general public” (87). Dawson, Lorne L. Comprehending Cults: the Sociology of New Religious Movements. Toronto: Oxford UP Canada, 1998. Print. Citation from paper at California State University, Eastbay. Article here.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt