The UK’s leading cult buster once told me that far from being credulous dupes, most victims of cults are empathetic and intelligent. Their intelligence prompts them to ask the big questions that cults claim to be able to answer. Who am I? Why am I here? How do I live a good life? And empathy makes them vulnerable because they simply can’t understand how someone might exploit others with no regard for their wellbeing.

Aftershock, the third and final book in the Pendulum trilogy, looks at belief. Drawing on extensive research inspired by a personal experience, when I extracted a 12-year-old boy and his mother from a cult, Aftershock examines how easy it is for someone with the right skills to manipulate people. I’ve interviewed victims of cults, psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers and many others who specialise in the field. I’ve met with people who lead cults as well as figures within the alternative spiritual community. I’ve had readings from psychics, fortune tellers, and learned the basics of cold reading from experts in the field.

It isn’t difficult to cold read: humans are programmed to look for patterns and fill in gaps. Empathetic people are also eager to please those who say they are trying to help them. A psychic reader tells you someone whose name begins with J is trying to contact you from beyond, and you naturally start thinking about people you know: Jack, Janet, Jamal. The psychic goes on to say, ‘J tells me you’re worried about something, something you’re not really comfortable talking about.’

Everyone has some worry they don’t like talking about, and it’s this general hook that allows the psychic to draw us into a conversation about specifics during which we give away most of the information needed for magical revelations.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from my research is that humans are a dangerously credulous species. We seek order in chaos, spotting patterns and latching onto theories that offer simple solutions to bewildering situations. This doesn’t just make us vulnerable to psychics and cults; it also means we can be easily manipulated by propaganda that fits with our experiences.

Confirmation bias leads us to seek out information that validates our political, social or economic worldview, rarely challenging the integrity of the data or the motivation of the source if it backs our pre-established understanding. Instead we accept it blindly, like an acolyte in a cult.

Another tactic employed by cults is the diminishing of ‘the other’. Once you’ve identified ‘the other’ you are under no obligation to engage with or understand them, because in some way they are less than you. A quick look at social media demonstrates that politics is degenerating into cultish division, with people across political divides dehumanising their opponents, demeaning them as evil or stupid. It’s dangerous and divisive behaviour and bodes ill for future political discourse.

Aftershock is a fast-paced, entertaining read about conspiracy, murder and mayhem, but if people take anything deeper away from it, I hope it’s the idea that we should question everything, particularly the things we feel most comfortable with, and we must always be vigilant about how we treat those on the other side of any political, social or economic divide. They are not ‘the other’. They are us with a different opinion.

And by the way, J says you should stop worrying. Everything will be fine.


Aftershock is published by Headline

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