No one picks up a self-help book or goes to a seminar thinking they will join a cult. But that's often how seekers become self-help junkies. That's how I ended up in a cult.
People experience the end of a relationship, a significant loss, a major setback, or a problem in their life that they can't solve, or they come to a crossroads. So they turn to a guru, an authority, or an outside source in search of meaning. At such times, if someone offers you the possibility of a better life, you are much more inclined to listen to them, even if they are full of shit.
I graduated college without ever having had a girlfriend. So I turned to what has become the standard source for answers in this day and age: the internet. In my freshman year of college, I discovered Seduction.com after reading an ad in Maxim Magazine.
1. Everyone is a Potential Cult member
If you go dig into the cult research, you would think that there would be some kind of personality type that would be attracted to cults. What the literature tends to show is that, basically everybody is potentially a cult member at some time in their life. And a lot of it has to do with where you are situationally. So, cults tend to attract people when they are in moments of disruption in their life. – Bob Gower
If you're desperate for a solution to a problem, you become more susceptible to the influence of a charismatic leader. If you're a male 20-something with raging hormones, it's almost impossible to resist the influence of someone you think might help you get laid.
A few years after graduating from college, I signed up for a weekend workshop with self-proclaimed seduction guru Ross Jeffries. Over the next seven years, I attended workshops, hired trainers, spent nearly $20,000, and read countless hours on online forums.
You'd think only a bunch of losers would sign up for a seminar on how to get better with women. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There were definitely awkward guys whose interactions with women came across more like a murder plot than a seduction. Many of them couldn't carry on a conversation without a script.
But there were also many who were smart and funny and had a lot to offer. Many of them earned degrees from prestigious universities, wrote best-selling books, and became successful startup founders.
In self-empowerment groups like Seduction Community, the first seminar is a gateway drug. So begins the process of indoctrination. You get a taste of what's possible, and you hear stories of other people who have what you want. And once you get a taste, you can't get enough. You think it's the next workshop, coach, or guru that will solve your problems.
According to former NVIXM member Sarah Edmondson, you can completely indoctrinate a person into a belief system in three days. And once you are indoctrinated, a cult stops improving your life and becomes your life. The cult leaders intentionally make sure you are unaware of this.
2. Loading The Language
One of the most effective ways to brainwash people and turn them into fervent believers is to create a secret language. In cult psychology, this is known as loading the language, which are "thought-ending clichés" that are "short, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases" that become insider vocabulary that the group uses frequently," says the author Rick Alan Ross.
Loading the Language doesn't just change the meaning of words. It can also denote the status of a cult member. The leaders of the seduction community were masters at loading the language.
- A group of women in a bar was "a set." It's kind of amazing that people didn't find that sociopathic and dehumanizing. But I suppose that was the point.
- Two acronyms indicated your status in the seduction community. People with the highest status were called PUA (Pickup Artists). People with the lowest status were called AFC's (Average Frustrated Chumps). AFC's took women on dates. Pick-up artists did not.
- Their goal was to climb the ladder from AFC to PUA. People posted LR (Lay Reports) on an online forum so other men could read about their latest conquest. Others asked them for advice.
Paradoxically, aspiring pickup artists spent as much time trying to impress other men in an effort to meet women as they did trying to meet women. As Neil Strauss wrote in The Game, "The point was women, the result was men."
3. Download The Leader's Philosophy
The more I learned about L. Ron Hubbard, the more I realized that he was the exact same personality type as Mystery and Ross Jeffries and Tyler Durden. They were wickedly smart megalomaniacs who knew how to synthesize great bodies of knowledge and experience into personality-driven brands, which they sold to people who didn't feel like they were getting what they needed out of life. They were obsessive students of the principles that guide human behavior. But the ethics of and motivation for their use of those principles made them controversial figures. -Neil Strauss the Game
According to Rick Alan Ross, one of the defining characteristics of a "destructive cult or authoritarian group most salient single feature: is this all-powerful leader who becomes an object of worship."
When cult leaders become an object of worship for their followers, their words become gospel and people put them on a pedestal. Every famous pickup artist had a method or a philosophy. But the underlying philosophy was the same for all of them:
The solution to all your problems with women is to sleep with as many as possible.
Many men joined the community because they only wanted one girlfriend. They didn't want to sleep with hundreds of women. But when someone claims they get laid like a rock star and you don't, it's easy to believe what they say. Eventually, their philosophy becomes yours, even if it doesn't lead anywhere.
4. From a Philosophy to a Way of Life
If you are in a cult, the members and leaders will say and do anything to convince you that you are not.
They will tell you that your family members and friends who are not in the cult are not striving for their personal growth. You make an effort to improve your life, they don't, and that makes them uncomfortable. And I have lost some friends because of my time in the community.
To reinforce this idea, cult leaders design environments that isolate you from the outside world and shut down your ability to think critically. The degree of isolation and control ranges from 13-hour days in seminar rooms, where cult leaders withhold food, reduce the temperature, and turn up loud music, to compounds that cut you off from contact with the outside world.
The Branch Davidians had a compound in Waco, Texas. The seduction community had a compound in the Hollywood Hills, which they called Project Hollywood. Between 2003 and 2005, pick-up artists infiltrated Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Project Hollywood was supposed to be a way to surround ourselves with healthy, helpful influences to better ourselves, our career, and our sex lives Instead, the house had turned into a vacuum for needy males and neurotic females. It sucked in anyone with mental problems and scared away anyone of quality. – Neil Strauss, The Game
Instead of becoming charming and charismatic seducers, most of them turned into robots, spouting the same lines to the same women. A woman could no longer walk down the Sunset Strip without a guy asking her if women found David Bowie hot.
And if ten guys asked her the same question in one night, she was more likely to tell them to fuck off than to sleep with them.
After my weekend at Project Hollywood, I finally realized that the seduction community was no longer improving my life. It was my life.
The Diminishing Returns of Self Improvement
"After a certain point, more effort doesn't produce better performance. It sabotages our performance. Economists call this the law of diminishing returns: beyond a certain point, each additional unit of input produces a diminishing rate of output," says Greg Mckeown in his book Effortless.
It turns out that this also applied to the dating lives of many people in the seduction community. Most of us stopped hanging out with our other friends. We judged the value of every hobby, activity, or experience by one criterion: would it help us meet women? Picking up women was the purpose of our existence, which paradoxically made us less attractive to them.
Eventually, we reached a point where the benefits diminished. The more effort we put into meeting women, the less we met.
True Confidence is being less invested in other people’s perceptions of you than in your perception of yourself.- Mark Manson, Models
The paradox of the seduction community was that it taught us to invest more in women than in ourselves. When people finally got out, they met their future wives, advanced in their careers, and achieved their goals.
Despite my criticisms of the community, it also did some good. I made some really good friends who are still in my life today, and I met my first two girlfriends. But being a part of the community hardly made me a better person.
And that's the most insidious thing about how I ended up in a cult and other people do too. The first taste of improvement leaves you wanting more. There is a dark underbelly to the self-improvement industry that we overlook and refuse to acknowledge.
The point of most personal development and self-help is to sell more personal development and self-help. and I think that a lot of people are lost on that. But there is sort of a seedy underbelly to the industry. And it, a lot of it happens, with these big events, these big conferences. – Peter Shallard
Want to Chat with Former Cult Members?
This week on Unmistakable Creative we are airing a series on the cult of personal development featuring former cult members. If you're interested, you can learn more by subscribing to the podcast on the Airr App, where I'll be hosting an after-show using a new service called Airrspaces. You'll be able to send me your questions via the app and hear my responses to them.