In this bestselling take on human nature, language scholar Amanda Montell serves up a thought-provoking reinterpretation of the power of cults. If you get up at 5 a.m. to work out with your favorite trainer, for example, or stay late to please your visionary boss, you might belong to a cult, just not an extreme one. Montell acknowledges the wide gap between moving to Jonestown and sweating at the gym, but, she argues that the messaging and appeal of cult-like groups can cross all lines.
The word “cult” appears in many contexts.
At one extreme, “cult” describes a group whose followers will die for their cause. At the other, a consumer brand or a musical group might be said to have a cult following. Cults can be malevolent – such as the Branch Davidian sect or the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) yoga cult – or they can be benign, such as exercise companies like CrossFit or SoulCycle. Certain massive organizations – like Amazon, with its strong leader, distinct jargon and harsh work conditions – show cultish tendencies.
One crucial distinction among cults is whether danger faces those who try to leave. For example, members of Jim Jones’ infamous community in Guyana threatened or killed defectors. Followers of 3HO learn that leaving the group will doom them to reincarnation as cockroaches – a threat that sounds outlandish to outsiders, but logical to its followers due to the intricate ideology the cult has hammered into their thinking.
By contrast, although bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish have cult followings, a fan who decides to stop buying music and attending concerts faces no life-...