A look into why former cult members are especially susceptible to Multilevel Marketing and other schemes.
The cult-to-MLM pipeline is a topic that has fascinated me for a while now, but I have found it difficult to write about publicly because of the general lack of understanding or knowledge pertaining to some of the requisite concepts in society at large. I’ve had some incredible conversations with former MLM participants, ex-cult members, and cult experts over the past year that have been lightbulb moments for me, connections suddenly toppling one another like dominoes, but how to explain where I’m coming from in order to broach the subject with people unfamiliar with how cultic abuse and mind control work in all of these groups—that has been hard. But I’m here to give it a try.
So, if you’re already neck-deep in the Cultiverse like me, you can probably skip this section, but for everyone else, here’s some background on key concepts.
A cult is a social group defined by its religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. Often led by a single charismatic individual or a small group of leaders with a perceived or self-declared higher level of devotion or dedication to their beliefs or cause, cults can generally be distinguished from healthy or less harmful groups and communities by studying them through the lens of Dr. Stephen Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control.
Stephen Hassan is an American author, licensed mental health counselor specializing in destructive cults, and former member of one of the biggest cults in the world, the Unification Church (also referred to as the Moonies). Hassan has developed the BITE model (BITE stands for Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotion control), a tool for understanding and analyzing the various forms of manipulation and control that may be used in abusive or cult-like environments.
The main tenets of the BITE model are control over members’:
Behaviors: Abusive or cult-like groups may use various types of manipulation and control techniques to influence the behavior of their members. These techniques may include physical coercion, verbal abuse, isolation, sleep deprivation, or exploitation.
Information: Abusive or cult-like groups may also control the information that their members receive, either by censoring or limiting their access to outside sources of information or by providing them with distorted or misleading information.
Thoughts: Abusive or cult-like groups may try to control the thoughts and beliefs of their members by using techniques such as thought-stopping, thought-reform, hypnosis, or faith manipulation.
Emotions: Abusive or cult-like groups may try to control the emotions of their members by using techniques such as fear, guilt, or shame (faith manipulation frequently applies here, too).
The BITE model is intended to help individuals recognize and understand the various forms of manipulation and control that may be used by abusive or cult-like groups and to hopefully provide them with strategies for resisting and escaping these types of environments.
Cults can take a variety of forms, including religious, political, or commercial organizations. They may have a rigid hierarchy and strict rules and regulations and use various methods of control, such as manipulation, intimidation, or isolation, to maintain control over their members. Because the majority of markers of cultic abuse tend to revolve around a group’s control over its individual members, “high control groups” is another phrase frequently used by experts to describe cults.
This kind of controlling situation, especially when combined with patriarchal practices or the sincerely held belief that a cult’s leader(s) can do no wrong, can turn extremely dangerous at the drop of a dime.
Multilevel Marketing (MLM) is a business model in which individuals, known as salespeople, participants, representatives, and a slough of much sillier names, sell products or services on behalf of a company and are also responsible for recruiting and training new salespeople or members. These new salespeople or members then become part of the same network and are also responsible for selling products and recruiting additional members. The participants earn commissions on the sales that they make as well as on the sales made by the members that they recruit.
MLM companies use a pyramid-shaped structure to represent the relationships between different levels of salespeople or members. The top of the pyramid may represent the company or top leaders, depending on the organization, and the levels below represent the various participants and the members that they recruit.
These organizations are often (deceptively) presented as legitimate business or investment opportunities, and given that studies now show that more than 99% of MLM participants make no money or actually lose money, many representatives are made to rely on misleading marketing techniques to attract new members.
Critics of MLM, myself included, argue that it is inherently flawed and predatory, as the entire structure is predicated on the concept of an endless chain of recruits, in which individuals are prospected to join a network with the promise of receiving financial or other rewards for recruiting additional members into the network. While most MLMs do sell a product and pay representatives commissions on those sales, the primary objective is the recruitment or conversion of customers into salespeople.
Endless chain structures rely on the continuous recruitment of new members to generate any significant income, and they often result in financial loss for the majority of participants. Early members of the network may make significant profits, while later members are likely to lose money, as they continue to purchase products to meet their quotas but the network becomes saturated and it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit new members.
“[With] MLMs, the potential for the growth of the organization offers extraordinary income potential, but the same mathematical principle ensures that most will fail. In other words, the success of a few is based upon the failure of many.”
– Robert Fitzpatrick, False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes
In essence, an endless chain as a feasible, let alone ethical, business model is a myth.
Whether by Misconception or Intentional Deception, Network Marketing Looks Like the Perfect Business Opportunity for LDS and Ex-Mormon Women
So, the other day I was reading comments on a video from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Growing Up In Polygamy (seriously, go check them out), and one viewer asked the creators if they’d consider making a video on “how LDS women typically join MLMs (which I also think are frequently cults) and how that is so so so huge amongst Mormon moms.”
Melissa, one of the two creators for the channel, replied that it was a great idea for a video, and said, “I think the main reason so many LDS women join MLMs is because they can still earn income while staying at home with their children, which we were always taught is the most important and primary duty of a woman.”
I love the simplicity of this answer, because it perfectly encapsulates the pipedream being sold to these women. I don’t think that’s the real reason they join (more on that in a minute), but I do think most of them believe that is the reason. I also think many of the selling points for MLM that make it appealing to LDS women are the same reasons people who’ve been conditioned by high demand/high control groups (cults) are especially susceptible to these pitches.
Also recently, I was reading this riveting memoire by Rebecca Musser, former member of the Fundamentalist church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and 19th wife of the FLDS’s late Prophet (leader) Rulon Jeffs—you may know her from Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix—and this passage from late in the book (well after the author’s escape from the cult she was raised in) hit me like a brick wall:
I felt like I had nowhere to go.
The next few months, I was virtually homeless, sometimes sleeping in my car, but mostly relying on the support of a few friends and family. The kids were often with me, sometimes having to spend nights in the car, too. I wasn’t proud of it, but I was determined to create a better life for them.
My good friend […] took us in for weeks while I looked for viable income. Still, I had to be honest—who would hire me? […] I was going to have to do something flexible, yet profitable, but I didn’t know how.
Patrice introduced me to a multilevel marketing skincare company. Initially wary, I tried the products, and realized that, perhaps, this was a way to care for my stressed body while providing income simultaneously.
A powerful benefit was that the company initiated motivational training calls each Saturday from some of the best in the industry that we, as distributors, could access.
– Rebecca Musser, The Witness Wore Red
Being the person I am, my first thought was, ““Why on Earth would someone leave one cult to join another?” But that very quickly turned into, “OMG, of course a multilevel marketing company would look like a great opportunity to someone so vulnerable and still mourning the loss of a tight-knit community with a spiritual doctrine rooted in hard work and self-sufficiency. That is essentially what MLMs sell themselves as.”
Also, being the person I am, I couldn’t just be satisfied with that explanation and move on. I had to overanalyze it, so I could share it with you.
There are two main themes I feel it’s important to understand when looking at the phenomenon of the cult-to-MLM pipeline: Cult-Hopping and Coercive Control in MLM.
Cult-hopping, also known as “cult-jumping,” is the practice of moving from one controlling group to another. It can be motivated by a variety of factors, such as a desire for personal growth, a search for meaning or belonging, or a sense of embitterment for one’s current group.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the vast majority of people who leave cults do so because they’ve become disillusioned in some way with the group or group leader on a personal level—not necessarily because they’ve lost their belief in the doctrine of the cult.
[Think of] how most people would feel after they visit a bad dentist: sure, the experience of being poked and prodded by a poorly trained practitioner might make us slightly more wary of dentistry in general, but it certainly won’t stop anyone from hopping on Yelp and trying to find another, better dentist.
-Steve KD Eichel, PhD, Rolling Stone
With that in mind, there are a variety of reasons why people who have left cults may be at risk of joining new cults. Some of the potential reasons include:
Lack of support: People who have left cults may feel isolated and may not have a strong support network to help them adjust to life outside the cult. This can make them vulnerable to being recruited by another group that offers a sense of belonging and support.
Unresolved trauma: Many people who have left cults have experienced trauma or abuse while they were in the cult, and they may not have received proper treatment for this trauma. As a result, they may be seeking a new group or community in an attempt to find healing or to cope with their experiences.
Difficulty adjusting to the outside world: Leaving a cult can be a major disruption to a person’s life, and they may struggle to adapt to the norms and expectations of the outside world. This can make them more susceptible to being recruited by another group that offers a sense of structure and purpose.
Persistence of cult beliefs: Some people who have left cults may still hold onto certain beliefs or ideas that they were taught while they were in the cult. These beliefs can make them more susceptible to being recruited by a group that espouses similar beliefs.
It’s important to note that, of course, not everyone who has left a cult will join a new cult. Many people are able to successfully rebuild their lives and find healthy and fulfilling ways to connect with others. However, it is also imperative that individuals who have left cults be aware of the potential risks and to seek support and guidance as needed in order to protect themselves from being recruited into another cult.
Coercive Control in MLM
Coercive control refers to the use of manipulation, intimidation, and other forms of non-physical abuse to dominate and control another person. In the context of Multilevel Marketing companies, coercive control may be used to influence the behavior and decisions of their representatives and prospects, either by the company or by other members (usually higher-up in the pyramid structure). I want you, reader, to view this through the lens of Dr. Hassan’s BITE model from earlier, because this kind of coercive group and thought control co-aligns with the authoritarian control referenced in his work.
Some specific ways in which coercive control are frequently used in MLM companies include:
Manipulating emotions: MLM companies may use techniques such as fear, guilt, or shame to manipulate the emotions of their representatives and to persuade them to take certain actions, such as using deceptive tactics to recruit more members, or purchasing additional product they do not need in order to hit certain goals and promotions in the company’s compensation plan.
Isolating individuals: MLM companies may try to isolate their salespeople or members from their friends and family, either physically or through the use of propaganda or other forms of manipulation, in order to exert greater control over them.
Discrediting outside sources of information: MLM companies may try to discredit or downplay any outside sources of information that could potentially undermine their sales pitch or business model. This is absolutely key when you’re trying to convince others to invest in an “opportunity” with a higher loss rate than gambling.
Unless you’re one of the first people to join a multilevel marketing company (and thus placed high up in the organization essentially by default), shady marketing practices are part and parcel of the gig.
I have been trying to figure out what, exactly, it is about former cult members being drawn into multilevel marketing that strikes me as particularly sinister, and I think it’s the revictimization for me. I have learned that two key pieces of narcissistic abuse are the exploitation of a victim’s deepest insecurities and the abasement of the qualities or skills a victim holds most dear or takes the most pride in.
I mentioned before that I have relationships with people who’ve left high control environments or groups, and I think it’s safe to say that some of the things these survivors value the most after getting out of their abusive situation are:
Their personal freedom, a drive never to be a perpetrator, && informed consent.
And whether the person who approaches them with this “opportunity” has nefarious intentions or (more likely) is being manipulated themselves, getting recruited into a multilevel marketing company is a damn good way to end up in another situation that directly, but covertly, violates and degrades those values.
I would really love to see more discourse on this topic, and as I was writing this, I realized that there are even more specific nuances to this that I would like to dive into further but probably warrant their own posts. If this interests you too, please take a second to leave a comment on this post, and let’s chat!
I agree, I especially dislike the targeting of vulnerable people who’ve left a cult and are trying to rebuild their lives, and it’s the re-victimization. Most MLMers are themselves brainwashed, but I think some of the more successful ones know exactly what they’re doing and are just sociopaths who see someone struggling and think “I bet I can profit from preying on that person and making their struggles even harder.” Ex cult victims must be like blood in the water for the sharks.
yeah, I have witnessed some truly unhinged *intentionally* predatory top leaders in MLM, but the VAST majority are being deceived themselves and believe what they tell others.
Thank you for writing this! I’m exmormon and this summarizes so many of my thoughts! After I left Mormonism, I felt myself getting quickly drawn into any community. I missed the support.
A personal note I’d add to your writing: As you noted, cults strip individuals of their boundaries, critical thinking, and solid relationship building skills. After leaving mormonism it was like I had to exercise a new muscle in ways that felt strange and awkward. It was in these exhausting exercises that I felt myself most susceptible to cult hopping.
I’ve accepted I will always be a recovering Mormon.
Oh, that is really insightful. Thank you for sharing!!!
Well written and food for thought!