Friday, December 25, 2015

How a MLM cult is like ISIS, and how to defeat both of them

A recent episode of NPR's Hidden Brain that talked about terrorism, and how does the psychology of radicalization work, got me thinking, as the cult psychology of ISIS shares many similarities with cult psychology of a MLM cult, and this new angle to take on how a cult gains control over its members provides some very interesting insights into how it works, and some idea on how to combat it.

How is ISIS like a MLM Cult?

ISIS is like a MLM cult in that they entice members into self-destructive behavior by convincing them they are doing it for the greater good.

According to Scott Atran, an advisor to UN and the White House as anthropologist, explained that most ISIS fighters genuinely believe they are fighting for a "great cause", i.e. establishing a Caliphate, and generally it is the people in their 20's that were enticed by promises of glory, adventure, and purpose. They also believe that world is a disasterpeaceful change is not possible, self-sacrifice is honorable, ends justifies the means, and utopia is possible. ISIS recruit by leveraging idealism in naive young people already ostracized from society.

Now think about how MLM cults leverage a very similar mindset... MLM cult believers genuinely believe they are building a better world by spreading the "great product and great opportunity" among the masses. Many MLM cult believers do believe they cannot succeed in a regular job market. Indeed, that is a mantra often repeated in MLM cults, like "J.O.B. = just over broke" and so on, and MLM promises glory (recognition for accomplishments), adventure (travel all over, often exotic places) and purpose (spread the gospel of prosperity). There's also belief that traditional job CANNOT allow one to be financially secure, and utopia (financial freedom) is possible. In many ways, MLM cult preys on idealism of people who can't get a regular job (often through no fault of their own) and ostracized from society.

So to summarize:

  • Both ISIS and MLM cult tell followers to believe in a great cause
  • Both ISIS and MLM cult promise followers glory, adventure, and purpose
  • Both ISIS and MLM cult tell followers world is a disaster
  • Both ISIS and MLM cult tell followers existing ways do not work
  • Both ISIS and MLM cult tell followers utopia is achievable
  • Both ISIS and MLM cult leverage idealism in people  

It's scary how similar they sound, if you break it all down and get to the core message.

How is ISIS NOT like a MLM Cult?

In a way, ISIS is being far more honest... They tell their fighters that by being martyrs for the new Caliphate they will be rewarded in the afterlife. If they get any benefits, like getting a child bride who's foolish enough to come join ISIS, that's extra. As for any girls who want to marry a great fighter? Nobody told them they will not be treated like property, and once they were raped and gotten pregnant they will never be allowed to leave. ISIS generally don't lie, they simply... neglect to mention. ISIS tell people they are fighting to establish the great Caliphate. In reality, it's killing unbelievers, killing anyone "on the other side".

A MLM cult behaves in a very similar way... neglect to mention key aspects of the scheme. A MLM cult expects the members to keep buying stuff, shame them when they can't afford them any more (self-destructive behavior), and cast them aside (as they have no further value). In a MLM cult, the only value of the members is to 1) recruit more members, and 2) keep buying stuff. Once you exhausted your closest associates (can't recruit), and exhausted your financial means (can't buy), you are worthless.

But the key difference is ISIS at least appeals to a greater ideal. MLM cult simply appeals to... greed. Furthermore, ISIS lets the recruits know they are expected to die (and even dead, they will attain some sort of reward in the afterlife). MLM cults, however, don't tell the recruits about sacrifice at all. Some may say "but selling is hard work" and so on, but the reality is the early joiners have all the advantage... and later joiners have almost no chance of making it. That's why there's "the churn"... people constantly switching opportunities, hoping to join in early "this time".

So how do you defeat such? 

Labeling the other side as "evil" does not work in general. No matter which side we are on, we see the other side as evil. Even something as simple as US Republicans vs. Democrats, the members view their own party as correct and the opposing body as being wrong, even when the two sides are often similar in ideology. It's known as illusion of asymmetric insight.

Atran does not think that teaching moderation would work against extremism, even though other experts suggest that moderation should be taught as a part of education to allow the youth to understand how to work through the system in order to create change rather than attempting to destroy the system.

Atran agree that education, i.e. reach the potential recruits early, is the key to to "drain the swamp" and dry up recruits for ISIS. Atran thinks that there needs to be better "power networks" of elders or respected people and recruiters out to identify potential recruits, get to them first, and teach them moderation and purpose before ISIS can get to them, i.e. do a better job than ISIS.

A different expert, Merari, said that defeating ISIS militarily will cause ISIS to lose its lustre to the potential recruits.

Can such be applied to defeat the MLM cults? Perhaps.

1) We need better disclosure

Credit card issuers are required to put up a CLEAR and UNDERSTANDABLE table of the interest rates and grace periods. So why doesn't the business opportunities like MLM have a similar disclosure? Because DSA kept lobbying Congress to prevent laws requiring such disclosure from getting passed. According to DSA, printing a one-page summary of average earning disclosure, criminal background of founders/leaders, and references, and so on constitutes an "intolerable burden".

Which is patently absurd, of course. Franchisors, involving fees up to several million dollars, are often accompanied by disclosures that runs into hundreds of pages. And Franchisees who can afford to pay millions also have money to hire lawyers. It's the "common people" who buy into these MLM companies at a few hundred dollars that really needs mandatory disclosure.

Even what is required now, an annual income disclosure statement per company, are basically marketing documents that had its data massaged, mangled, and distorted through exponential scale graphs, weasel verbiage, caveats within fine print, "projections" based on partial data, and so on as to be virtually meaningless. A standard disclosure box similar to the credit card style box is needed.

2) We need more education on common sense and logic

There seems to be almost no class about simple logic nowadays, so people don't seem to recognize propaganda used against them. Critical thinking should be taught in elementary school, as a part of the common curriculum such as English, so students can learn how to decipher lies, half-truths, neglect to mention, weak arguments, and fallacies early on. Once they got this, they will be less susceptible to MLM cults (or any cult) propaganda.


  1. You loser ...obviously couldn't make it in any MLM's - most likely your attitude and shallow thinking.
    Like a common job it takes time and effort to be successful in any MLM - time to learn but not pay for schooling, effort in learning PR, product, skills but earning while learning, but then its probably easier to complain (if the MLM your looking at isnt transparent, have a clear disclosure, find another one, its a $380 BILLION industry) and be negative like you have professionally mastered.
    Top job - Top income earner in your field!!!!

    1. The fact you think "MLM Cult" applies to "any MLM" suggests deeper reading comprehension problems.

      That you lead from that into random accusation of "motive" suggests deep seated paranoia.

      The problem is indeed attitude and shallow thinking, but it's yours, not mine. Remember, when you point a finger at me, three fingers point at yourself.

      As for your number, not sure where you got 380, since WFDSA itself has the latest figures (2013-2014) at global revenue of only 182.8 billion.

      So basically, can't tell where you pull that number out of.

      If you want to be positive, don't use numbers based on your imagination.