I thought a lot of cult followers were actually bright?
Some are dumb some aren't, what I was trying to say is that it's a range that encompasses a lot of reasons.
I mean, I get that we like charismatic leaders and such, and we are all capable of consistent dumbness, but following such a creep out into the boonies, and subjecting your KIDS to them?
I think it creeps up little by little while using lots of censorship, control and manipulation along the way to eliminate dissent and foster a sterile environment of approved thought with heavy peer pressure.
The reasons they may join may be completely separate from the reasons they tolerate such a thing in other words. For example, my dad joined a cult because he was in the middle of a counter-culture movement. He was a bare-footed surfer hippy and they appealed to his desire to be part of something and to "drop out" of popular culture. These kinds of desires I see expressed by normal people all the time, who just sometimes want to "drop off the grid" and to whom a notion like "stop the world, I want to get off" might deeply resonate.
And these cults aren't pure evil, they often have certain values that they offer their members that they can't get elsewhere. For example, as pernicious as the cult I grew up in was, they are legitimately much nicer people than the outside (to those inside) world. They share everything and they are just much much nicer than average. Things like physical confrontations were practically unheard of compared to the rough and tumble real world and a member could fly across the world to a commune of people they had never met and would legitimately feel at home. Not "feel at home" in the meaning of they felt treated with hospitality but legitimately feel at home. They called themselves a "family" because they acted like one.
So it should be clear that this kind of emotional support has legitimate human allure but it's wholly separate from what makes them able to tolerate the excesses of their cults. And here are some thoughts on that. First of all, these groups tend to heavily engage in censorship, they shun people who do not drink the cool aid and avoid "doubters" and "temptations". They demonize their apostates (e.g. in the cult I grew up in they were called "backsliders") and use peer pressure to make people conform ("you aren't being revolutionary enough"). So in the cult I am referencing , for example, those who expressed doubt were punished or ostracized (ultimately excommunicated, which is why I was kicked out for example). Sometimes a doubter was submitted to public ridicule (and I mean public as in writing a book about them and publishing it) and groupthink is just very heavily fostered.
Want a great example? In this particular cult's early days they had a rule that you had to go "two by two", as in never be alone. Several justifications were given for this centered around safety and protection but one of the stated
reasons for this was to avoid situations of individual "weakness" and "doubt". Or put differently not a moment to think for yourself and incessant peer pressure.
And the cult wasn't doing their freaky **** like prostitution, child abuse and all back then. In fact they had strict rules against sex initially. That kind of stuff tends to gradually build up as the leader's control over the followers does. So in the cult I grew up in there were multiple inflection points where the cult dramatically changed, and at some of those points they really did lose members and "purge" the dissent.
And at some point, it's legitimately hard to leave. My dad joined right out of high school in the 60's, he has no trade and hasn't ever had a real job. I don't think he could actually survive outside the cult very well right now. That goes a long way towards keeping people in. I wasn't allowed to go to school, I wasn't allowed to read books or watch unscreened movies. This was an attempt to prevent me from hearing contrary points of view and developing independence from the cult.
The tl;dr (too long; didn't read) version is:
People are attracted to cults for a variety of reasons, mostly centered around a sense of belonging and emotional support. But these people usually put up with craziness because of how cults operate which is to create perfect microcosms of peer pressure.
Some are attracted for the perks but don't swallow the crazy, others slowly warm up to the crazy and drink the cool aid.
Is there any good research on what makes the difference between ordinary human looniness and doing that?
Not that I know of. The body of research about cults is something I find very underwhelming and too dominated by a few self-proclaimed cult experts and "deprogrammers" that the media keeps going to for quotes.
And quite frankly, I think very little separates them other than circumstance, I think situational factors far overwhelm any dispositional ones. My uncle was a barefoot hippy who was tempted just like my dad was. He didn't join, though he was tempted, and their paths took very different routes and I don't think it had too much to do with how different they both inherently are so much as situational happenstance.