with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 041: Cults and Social Needs (with Alice Mottola)

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May 13, 2021

What is a cult? What do people seem to mean when they use the word "cult"? Do cults always have a charismatic and/or narcissistic leader? Are cults always harmful? Are people ever really "tricked" into being in a cult? What needs are met by cults that aren't met by standard social structures? What sorts of interactions induce intimacy and/or solidarity among people?

Alice Mottola is a perpetual student with experience in writing software, directing plays, conducting social psychology research, and planning unduly elaborate parties. Her passion for creating spaces that facilitate connection is not unrelated to her long-standing interest in groups that are broadly termed "cults." She is currently pursuing a dual Master's in theology and social work at Boston University. You can email her at

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode Spencer speaks with Alice Mottola about the public perception of cults, how charisma and emotionality affect group experience, and the solidarity of cult members and their contribution to the essence of the collective.

SPENCER: Welcome, Alice. It's good to have you here.

ALICE: Thanks, Spencer. I'm glad to be here.

SPENCER: My first question for you is, what is a cult?

ALICE: Or maybe more precisely, the question that I want to play with is: what do people seem to mean when they use the word 'cult'? What are some things that you've heard get called cults?

SPENCER: Well, there's the obvious examples of things like the apocalyptic cults that think the end of the world is coming and they feel like they have to hide in a bunker, or your suicide cults where people seem to think that the only way for salvation is to kill themselves. Those kinds of ideas seem like the most clear-cut examples.

ALICE: Sure. Those are a couple of archetypes but I also hear the word used to refer to some more 'edge case-y' things. For example, sometimes people call the rationality community a cult, right?

SPENCER: Sure. Yeah, I've heard people say that. [laughs]

ALICE: I certainly don't agree with that appellation. But why do you think people say that? What are the attributes they're picking up on?

SPENCER: My guess is there are maybe five to ten attributes that we associate with cults. The most extreme examples of cults might have all of these traits. And then, when something has three or four of the traits, then people start to think of it as 'cult-y,' and they don't necessarily clearly differentiate between something that has all the traits and something that has a few of them. Some of the traits that I think about — and I'm sure you could add to the picture — are: one, a shared set of strongly held beliefs that are different from the mainstream society around them, and the rationality community would obviously have that. Another one would be a charismatic leader that people look up to for wisdom and guidance, which seems like it often cuts across many different cults. A third one might be unusual behavior, whether it's dressing differently or living differently, or different social norms or things like that, that differentiate them from external society. What do you think of the things I mentioned? And what would you add to that list?

ALICE: Those things are all very spot on. I will say, sometimes when people hear that I'm very interested in cults and know a lot about them, they will ask me like, "Oh, I had an encounter with this group," or "I am encountering this group and do you think it's a cult?" And usually, when they ask me that, what they mean is, "Is this group harmful? Should I be worried about them?" Or if it was a past encounter, it's, "Should I be reinterpreting my experience through a lens of coercive control?" I think in a context like that, what people are distinguishing the most about cults is some kind of harm, something to be afraid of. And I also think that when people try to explicate cults, they're usually coming from an implicit model that these are harmful things and they brainwash people — that's a big one, too — and that they need to be explained in order to reduce the potential for harm. And that's kind of the water that people tend to be swimming in when they talk about these movements. Would you agree with that?

SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. And generally, when people say something's a cult, even if they mean it in a more colloquial sense, they're generally criticizing it or saying it's delusional or harmful in some way.

ALICE: It's certainly a pejorative term.

SPENCER: But if we think about this trait-based view of cults, what are some of the other traits that you associate with cults?

ALICE: I think you listed most of the major ones that people are talking about, and I added the dimension of harm. One social theorist said that the word 'cults' means something like "a religion I don't like." Sometimes it tells you more about the speaker than about the group that's being talked about. But I actually think that trying to come up with a definition of cult, considering the ways that it's used in the public sphere today, is potentially not all that helpful. You mentioned the charismatic leader as a core feature of a cult. I think that maybe that's the defining feature we could start with. I guess I just want to say upfront, for the purposes of this conversation, I think it might be a good idea to try to just decouple the notion of harm and psychopathology and set that aside for a minute and start with charisma — what is charisma? — and refer to the groups as charismatic movements for now. Everybody struggles, theorists, people who engage with these concepts in an intellectual way, tend to struggle with what to name [quote/unquote] "these groups." For now, let's just call them charismatic movements.

SPENCER: Great! So how do you think about what charisma is?

ALICE: Well, again, maybe we should think about how the term is used colloquially for a minute because I'm curious. What does it mean to you? When people use it, what do they seem to be referring to?

SPENCER: It seems to me, they're referring often to someone who has an unusual kind of persuasive ability. And that tends to create a really positive impression, not necessarily in everyone, but in some people. One thing I have noticed is there are people who are highly likable, like almost everyone who meets them comes away with at least a somewhat positive impression, often a very positive impression. But then there's a different kind of person that actually a bunch of people who meet them strongly dislike them, but then other people who meet them become infatuated, so they're extremely polarizing. And it seems to me that if we think about cults, it's actually the second type of charismatic that's more common. It's the polarizing charismatic person who some people are like, "Ew, how do you like that person?" But then other people are like, "Wow! They're the most amazing person I've ever met."

ALICE: You really nailed it there. I think that charisma in the sense that we're talking about, is polarizing. It's not likeability. It's something that elicits very strong emotions.

SPENCER: If you're gonna get a bunch of people to follow you, intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn't matter if everyone likes you. You just need a small percentage of people you meet to follow you to the ends of the earth. That's much more important for that purpose.

ALICE: Absolutely. One social theorist said that the charismatic figure catalyzes latent solidarities, which I think is the best three-word definition of it. There are latent values that people have and things that they believe in, things that they feel aren't satisfied in their lives right now, but they can't necessarily articulate them and they can't turn them into concrete, visible goals. And the charismatic figure is capable of doing that, capable of not just articulating those solidarities, but then turning them into a program of beliefs and practices and missions.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's a good point. I think about case studies of cults that I've learned a lot about. It often feels like the cult leader will meet a follower at just the right moment when that follower is really interested in a particular topic. They're searching for meaning or some work they can do. And then they meet this leader who catalyzes them and gives them a mission and that plugs into the direction that they seemed already prepared to go in some sense.

ALICE: Yes, absolutely. So there are two complementary conceptions of charisma that have laid the groundwork for studies of these groups. They both come from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first one is from Max Weber. What Max Weber was most interested in was the basis of authority. Where does authority actually come from? And what he proposed was that all authority that we have — legal authority, traditional authority, all of it — ultimately goes back to charismatic authority, which doesn't really come from anything except for the personal qualities of the charismatic figure. But those personal qualities aren't something inherent; they are construed by the followers as some kind of extraordinary connection to the divine.

SPENCER: To just understand that a little bit, I think today, some people would say, "Oh, I believe in what science tells me. I don't believe in any particular scientist, but I believe in the process of science and scientific consensus," or something like that. So I'm just curious how that idea would fit into the framework you're describing.

ALICE: That's a good question. Let me think about it for a minute.

SPENCER: It is possible that people are wrong about their own views and where their ideas come from. Maybe they think that they're following science as a whole, but they're really just following that particular charismatic scientist that they heard say something.

ALICE: Right. I think it's something like, "Why has this person chosen to believe science in the first place?" There's some kind of cultural matrix that they're living in that has elevated science's value. It's less important that all authority comes from charismatic authority than the description of what charismatic authority is. We know that there are these types of authority like legal authority and traditional authority, and those kinds of authority come from some kind of cultural matrix that's in a large configuration, and it is just the way it is. Charismatic authority is different because it has the ability to upend existing structures. It's opposed to whatever existing structures are there because the authority of the charismatic comes purely from his or her own qualities; although in practice, most charismatic figures are male.

SPENCER: So that gives them an unusual level of influence that allows them to upend social norms or cause sudden deviations of behavior and unexpected things like that?

ALICE: Yes. And Weber saw charismatic authority as kind of the only hope for really revolutionizing the way that people live.

SPENCER: Because without that, we're just stuck in the matrix of social norms, the matrix of culture, everything locked in the way it is?

ALICE: Without something like charismatic authority, we don't have any authority to appeal to, except whatever is already there. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Durkheim and he wasn't really so interested in individuals. What he was interested in was society as a superorganism that has an intelligence that transcends any one individual. And he had a lot of faith in the way that collective experiences could bring people outside of themselves into a world where there's vividness and aliveness that isn't just about me and you but about us, and us working together, and being together, and being something more than just a single person.

SPENCER: To just be like an isolated community where all the people bond with each other, and they develop their own norms and start from the ground up. Is it that kind of idea?

ALICE: Well, Durkheim was looking at indigenous tribes, mostly in Australia. So these were the ethnographies that he was looking at to construct this theory. But it's really, really important to understand that he believed that this was the basis of all society. So you and I live in a world. We don't necessarily have a lot of experiences like this. But the reason that we can have this world at all, Durkheim believed, was because some people sometimes, or some people in the past, came together and had these communal experiences. This is the very basis of the goodwill on which all of our society turns.

SPENCER: It's like the seed of culture comes from these little tight-knit groups?

ALICE: Right. Well, he was looking at the ethnographies of societies. The presumption was that he was looking at ancient forms of ritual to see how social cohesion might have formed in the first place. And the big Durkheim term is 'collective effervescence'. That's what he named the feeling that we get when a bunch of people gather together in a sufficient density, and there's this kind of automatic embodied change in our way of being. We've all experienced this. I'm sure you've experienced it at some point. You go to Burning Man, right?


ALICE: Then you've probably experienced something like collective effervescence at Burning Man or at a concert.

SPENCER: I feel like the things that tend to produce it are group dance, drum circles, singing, or when people are doing repetitious actions all synchronized.

ALICE: Yeah, absolutely. Rhythm is a really important part of creating this collective effervescence feeling. And there's been a lot of science done on that in recent years which is very interesting.

SPENCER: Although I have to say, I think I'm less susceptible to it than most people [laughs] because I get glimmers of it, but I think other people get it really intensely.

ALICE: That's probably true. And if I may provide something of a theory about why that is the case, I think it's because you're not a very emotional person, exactly.

SPENCER: So you think it relates to emotionality?

ALICE: Yeah, absolutely. This is all about creating a strong, amplified emotional effect. And I think that the amplified emotional effect comes from coordinated bodies plus coordinated minds equals emotional amplification. So when this feeling of collective effervescence takes hold, people feel more empowered. They feel more similar to the people around them instead of more different. With all of this comes a sense that there's something intelligent in the air that isn't just us. That feeling can't just live in the void. It has to be projected onto some kind of reified object or animal or person. A silly example is, we're all dancing around the fire and then a kangaroo jumps out, and now, we're the kangaroo tribe. That's just a very reductive example. A modern example might be Trump rallies.

SPENCER: What do you observe from Trump rallies that create this feeling?

ALICE: There was a great article in The New York Times during the 2016 campaign where the reporter went to some Trump rallies and interviewed the people. He asks things like, "What do you like about this experience?" And some of their answers are very inchoate. They're like, "It's the feeling."

SPENCER: I've heard people observe that Trump rallies tend to have a very different vibe emotionally than (let's say) Biden rallies. The Trump rallies have a feeling of excitement, enthusiasm, and energy; whereas Biden rallies have a feeling of like, "Okay, things are bad and we have to fix them." It's a much more negative feeling in the crowd. I haven't been to either; I don't have personal experience, but I do believe that that's possible.

ALICE: Maybe the distinction you're pointing at isn't so much that one is positive and one is negative but one is intense and the other one is sober.


ALICE: Maybe it's not so important what the valence of the emotions are, but their intensity is what matters. I could see that a Biden rally might feel very polite and rational.

SPENCER: I think that many people have these peak experiences of being in groups, and feeling fused with the groups. It seems like it's something that's built into our DNA that we've been doing these kinds of things for hundreds of thousands of years. Is that how you view it?

ALICE: Yeah. I think it's more than built into our DNA. It may actually be a key development in human evolution. It may be that experiences like this are the reasons that we were able to form groups that were larger than just the family, and coordinate those groups.

SPENCER: Is that because you think it binds groups together into a collective that's bigger than one person or just the family unit, and now we're a tribe — in a negative scenario, a mob, or in a positive scenario, a collective — all working towards the same goal.

ALICE: Yeah. Things like this would have been important for coordinating groups of early humans beyond just the family.

SPENCER: I haven't witnessed mobs too many times in my life, but one time I did. It was at a critical mass biking event where they bike around the city and just go wherever the bikers want to go. I happened to be there out of curiosity. At some point, they bumped into the police and the police were trying to get them to go a certain direction (I guess) to interfere less with traffic or something like this. The police had temporarily stopped all the bikers and the bikers were pissed off about this. You just get the sense that somehow there's a superorganism you're witnessing. At some moment, I'm not just witnessing a bunch of people; I'm witnessing this organism of people who are all acting together and reacting to each other. It's like a flock of birds. If you see a bird flying, "Okay, that's just a bird." And then it joins another bird, you're like, "Okay, there are two birds". At some point, it is now a flock and the whole flock seems to have dynamism of its own. It's all working coordination.

ALICE: Yeah, definitely. That's definitely true. And I think there's a well-founded fear or apprehensiveness about phenomena like that among people today. But in another sense, if those kinds of emotions are well directed, they can be extremely healing.

SPENCER: What does that look like when they're healing?

ALICE: I've read some interesting ethnographic accounts of 1990s rave culture which is fascinating. These accounts talk about things like how the flashing lights, the repetitive drumming, and the density of people are similar to shamanistic healing ceremonies. In indigenous tribes all over the world, there's this figure of the shaman who is essentially a charismatic figure because they have an unusual connection to the divine. What shamans do is, they heal. People who are sick are brought to the shaman and there's a ceremony. In most cases many people are there, not just the family of the sick person. And the shaman basically crafts this metaphorical experience and engages with the spirits that are possessing the sick person. Obviously, they're not always healed, but often they are. How does that work? If that's true, then how could it possibly work? It doesn't really fit with the way that we tend to see things with a purely materialistic worldview, but it does seem to work. It's basically a placebo effect, right?

SPENCER: Yeah. I imagine there's a lot of different rituals of different sorts and there certainly are medicinal herbs that actually help with different disorders that have been discovered by tribal peoples around the world. In some cases, they are just giving people essentially plant medicine that actually is medicine. And in other cases, maybe we have placebo effects. Some people believe that maybe there are spirits and they're actually being healed. I don't personally believe that. But it's hard to generalize about what exactly is happening. In still other cases, maybe there are even more psychologically healing effects, like people might be afflicted with psychological challenges.

ALICE: Yeah. Many of the sicknesses here are clearly psychological. I shouldn't say that. I don't want to get into too much territory here because I know more about the kind of archetype and not so much about specific tribes. But there are all kinds of afflictions that we're talking about and some of them are potentially more susceptible to this kind of healing than others are. But there's clearly some kind of reaction happening in the body and the mind when you go through an experience like this. There's probably a release of oxytocin which is probably the neural mechanism involved in collective effervescence. We know that group dancing causes the release of oxytocin and that in itself may be a healing experience.


SPENCER: One thing I find really fascinating, Alice, is the tradition that you've created around Halloween every year related to Jonestown. Do you want to tell us about that?

ALICE: I do want to say it's not specifically around Halloween. It's just that the anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre is November 18th, so it's sometime around there. I listen to a recording called The Jonestown Death Tape every year. The Jonestown Death Tape is an audio recording of the last (perhaps) couple of hours at Jonestown and it has tape edits in it. It may cover about two hours of time but it's only about 45 minutes long. I listen to the Jonestown Death Tape every year and I've been doing this since I was a teenager. Back then, it was just because I was a teenager with morbid interests and it was sort of a memento mori. But in recent years, it's become something really different because I look at the Jonestown incident in a completely different light.

SPENCER: You want to just briefly describe the Jonestown incident? What was the group involved in? And I want to know more about how you changed your perspective on it.

ALICE: When people think about Jonestown, they think about how it ended. I want to start by talking a little bit about what the Peoples Temple was. That's the name of the church or the group that ended up at Jonestown. The Peoples Temple was a very powerful and active social welfare organization that was way ahead of its time in terms of racial integration. Jim Jones almost single-handedly racially integrated the city of Indianapolis in the 1950s. He put a lot of very powerful effort toward getting, for example, restaurants to allow Black people to go into them. They later moved to San Francisco and they were a really powerful political force there. They did a lot of good, provided a lot of free food to people, things like that. But nobody really remembers that aspect of the Peoples Temple because what they remember is that its members ended up emigrating to Guyana and lived there for a little over a year and ended up committing mass suicide. This didn't happen out of thin air, though. It was a really highly-charged situation.

SPENCER: The first time I ever heard about the tape I didn't even know existed was when you invited me to come listen to it. It's so disturbing and striking. It's literally people debating whether they shall commit suicide together. One of the moments that struck me the most was when Jim Jones was talking about why they should commit suicide. Then, one of his followers stands up and challenges him and makes an argument why they shouldn't.

ALICE: It's really incredible. When I was 15, my friends emailed me the link to it. No, I should say, 'When my friend attached the audio to an instant message,' because that's what technology was back then.

SPENCER: Much more realistic.

ALICE: [laughs] I was a teenager with morbid interests and I thought it was going to be something gruesome, weird, and scary. But it wasn't that at all. It was this very civil and sober discussion of what life means and who should be making the choice about living or dying, and why. It's really more like a three-act play. People often get a little bit offended when I suggest doing a group listen of the tape. Sometimes I will do it in the context of a larger party situation. Sometimes people get a little bit offended by that and I think the reason is because they think that it's going to be something gruesome, but it's not really. It's people talking. And it's remarkable how civil they are considering the circumstances.

SPENCER: One thing that I learned from you about the whole situation is how there had been preemption to it, sort of dry-runs, if you will.

ALICE: Jim Jones was becoming progressively paranoid. There was a lot of control of information going in and out of Jonestown. A lot of mail was censored. Jim Jones also did this very 1984-style thing where he had loudspeakers all over the compound. He would speak through them, sometimes all day, about the news and the situation back in America and his interpretation of world events, so a lot of information control. And there were a few occasions — actually, the first time he did this was with his elite council back in San Francisco several years before the Jonestown Massacre happened — where he gave out some kind of beverage — I'm not sure what it was — to just the members of his inner council which was called the planning commission. After they all had some to drink, he said that it was poison and they only had a few minutes to live. He watched their responses. He watched who freaked out and who didn't. And then he told them, "It's not true, we're fine. That was just a test." This was an idea that was germinating in his mind for a while. And then at Jonestown, there were a couple of instances where he called everyone together and said that there was an enemy. I think it was the Guyanese defense force that he said was coming after them. Now I actually can't even remember. There was one incident where they had to walk for awhile, and there were others where It became clear to them that a mass suicide was a possibility. There would be a time when it was real. I think he might have done something similar to a rehearsal with everyone where they all drink something and they may have not known whether it was poisoned or not. This had already happened. It was already in their minds as something that was possible and even likely.

SPENCER: I think the Jonestown example is a good one, just to give us something concrete when we go into a more general discussion of talking about leaders of cults. How do you think about what sort of person Jim Jones was and how that relates to the leaders of these groups more generally?

ALICE: I'm a little bit hesitant to use Jones as a typical case example. Of all the groups like this that I'm interested in, I think Jones is perhaps the clearest example of someone whose personal psychopathology strongly imprinted the development of events.

SPENCER: How would you describe that pathology?

ALICE: I don't want to put labels on it exactly. There are certain words that I don't want to use just as a matter of principle because other people have used them a lot. My interest in this, generally, is in taking us out of the previous discourse about it. Jim Jones was a highly emotional figure and his services were really about bringing up these immense amounts of emotion in a way that was really subversive, too.

SPENCER: When I think about the cults that I've learned about — I spent quite a bit of time learning about many different cults (or at least groups that are called cults) because I just think it's very fascinating — one of the things that strikes me is that the leaders usually seem to me to be extremely narcissistic. There are different models like what it means to be narcissistic. But one of them — I believe it's a fellow named Durvasula who came up with it — is that there are four pillars of narcissism. One is grandiosity. Second one is a sense of entitlement where your needs matter more than other people's and you deserve things. The third one is a need to seek out admiration and validation. The last one is a lack of empathy or low empathy. It strikes me that those elements do seem to occur again and again with people who end up being in charge of cults. What do you think about that?

ALICE: In some ways, it's perhaps a reflection of our living in a time where charismatic involvement is so marginalized that perhaps only a narcissist would be brazen enough to actually go through with it. There are plenty of charismatic leaders that are not narcissistic but their groups don't end up with such spectacularly catastrophic ends, so we don't really hear about them.

SPENCER: It's interesting, the selection bias, right? We're much more likely to hear about a group if they all commit suicide or if something goes horribly wrong than if they just disappear into the woods and live out a peaceful existence for 50 years. Are we actually going to even know that they're there?

ALICE: Exactly. One other thing is, with regard to the lack of empathy, there's some evidence in both behavioral and neuroscientific research suggesting that an extended period of having absolute power actually reduces the ability to feel empathy. It may not be so much that charismatic leaders start off with these qualities but that they develop them over time. Don't get me wrong; there are certainly predispositions there. One example I think is really fascinating is Keith Raniere of NXIVM. I have a sense that Keith Raniere actually, in a very deliberate and cynical way, constructed his cult leader persona, often drawing from earlier leaders.

SPENCER: Tell us about NXIVM.

ALICE: NXIVM was a self-help human potential school business based in Albany. They were operating from 1999 until 2017. They came to an end because, well, it started with an article being released in the New York Times saying that women in the group were being branded and engaging in some kind of sex cult activities.

SPENCER: Branded, like with a branding iron? Is that what you mean?

ALICE: Yes, branding like with a branding iron, but actually it was with a cauterizing pen rather than a branding iron, which is much more painful because it's a longer process. And that was intentional. The leader of the group, Keith Raniere, and five or six of the other women who were high officials in the group were arrested by the federal government in 2018. All of the co-defendants ended up pleading guilty and didn't go to trial. But Keith Raniere did go to trial and was convicted on several counts including sex trafficking, wire fraud, racketeering, and a couple of other things. There's just a lot of things that I think people misunderstand wildly about NXIVM. I think it's a really interesting case example of a few things. First off, how these kinds of groups can become touch points for much larger spheres of debate or larger social issues. I think with NXIVM, there are maybe some questions about how we view unconventional relationship structures and BDSM practices — which feels like a very edgy thing to say, honestly — because there's certainly a narrative in here of sexual coercion. But there's also a narrative of some people in this group willingly doing something that was not within the mainstream and there being a lot of salacious interest in it.

SPENCER: You get these interesting associations where you might have a group that people say is a cult and it has some really horrible outcomes. It does some really horrible things and it also happens to practice XYZ practice, whether it's BDSM or polyamory or whatever. And then because people aren't used to hearing about those practices publicly, they link those two things. They'll say, "Ah, well, that must be linked to their horrible behavior," or something like that.

ALICE: Yeah, exactly. There's an unacceptability contagion. A lot of social condemnation is leveled at this group. In the case of NXIVM, there's a lot of social condemnation aimed at the practice of branding. Frankly, most of the things that Keith Raniere and his co-defendants were convicted on or pled guilty to, didn't actually have very much to do with the branding and the things that we hear about. There were a couple worse things that were going on but that's not where most of the public interest goes. The public interest goes to the stuff that makes for a good salacious story. The problematic thing about that is, what exactly are we condemning here? Do we know what we're condemning when we condemn a group like NXIVM? Because there are other ways in which they pose pretty legitimate challenges to the problems with modern life.

SPENCER: What do you mean by that?

ALICE: Well, loneliness, lack of meaning and purpose, identities becoming fragmented into a set of disconnected role performances, things like that. One thing to understand is that NXIVM was a group where most of the people who encountered it, took a class or two, and moved on. Many of those people may have gotten a lot of benefit out of the courses that they attended. Many people say that they did. For the people who decided to make a bigger commitment, they became part of an enduring community. They found a sense of belonging and purpose in that community. One of the problems of modern life that it solves is just the sheer problem of, "I go to work and I'm one person. Then I go home and I'm another person. Then I go on the internet and I'm another person." It's easy to lose contact with the sense of a stable, consistent self that feels coherent. But if you work with and live around people whom you know intimately, that's a whole different way of being. Not to say there aren't problems with it; there are certainly trade-offs. But I think that a lot of people long for something like that.

SPENCER: It's much closer to our roots as humans in earlier times of evolution, where we all lived in small tribes.

ALICE: It does sound like it's closer to that and I don't want to elevate that as some kind of inarguable ideal. But I do think that stable communities are difficult to build in our world and that a lot of people long for them. It's hard to really organize people in an enduring stable community without some kind of central vitalizing force.

SPENCER: What would that vitalizing force be?

ALICE: That, I think, is charisma, in a sense. That's how I see charisma. Rather than being an inherent quality of a person, it's the vitalizing force that draws people's attention into some shared mission.

SPENCER: What you're saying reminds me of this: sometimes when people talk about cults, they make it seem like someone goes, interacts with the cult, the cult tricks them and captures their mind or something like that. It seems to me that that's not a very accurate description of what happens. It seems like, much more commonly, the cult initially provides them with some benefits that they immediately witness. An example of this is, feeling suddenly like they're part of a community that they've been lacking, or feeling that people really like them and think they're worthwhile, or feeling there's something meaningful that they can do for their work, like instead of just going and doing a job just to pay the bills, "I can actually help this group. They seem to have a meaningful and important mission." Or maybe, giving them the sense that there's some better way that they can be. There's some higher level they can aspire to than their current level of understanding or of enlightenment.

ALICE: All of those things are very accurate and very salient. How tragic is it that we look at that entire complex phenomenon and that pursuit of transcendent values, and when we try to explain it, we reduce it to, "Oh, this person is looking for a substitute caretaker figure to attach to." There's so much more to it than that.

SPENCER: Right, absolutely. Having learned about maybe 25 of them at this point, I certainly understand why people are extremely negative on cults because cults, in many cases, cause tremendous damage to people. And there's some selection bias there, obviously, like we talked about, with the ones that are most devastatingly bad, you're more likely to hear about. But there are so many cases of people being abused, a few of sexual molestation and molestation of children, of people's lives being absolutely destroyed, of their money being stolen by the cult leader, etc. So it's easy to really condemn them. On the other hand, there are just basic human needs that they're tapping into, that it would be wonderful if we provided them in much more effective ways that didn't involve all these negative outcomes.

ALICE: I think this is the most important category of things we can learn from cults: What are the needs that we're not meeting as a culture?

SPENCER: An example is love bombing which some people use as a recruiting strategy. They basically shower people that are new to the group with positive affection and love, making that person feel incredibly special. Insofar as that actually really works to get people involved in these groups, it suggests a real lack of feeling loved that already exists in people's lives.

ALICE: Yes, absolutely. That's definitely true. I think the fact that so many people have taken to calling love bombing a recruiting strategy, in itself, speaks to the tragedy of how little we feel loved. Because now we look at things like that and see them as some kind of cynical attempt to trick someone. Isn't that, in itself, a kind of self-brainwashing, that we believe the only reason people would (quote, unquote) 'love bomb' someone is as a trick?

SPENCER: It's really interesting to think about. You can have one group that actually views people with really positive regard. And when a new person comes in, they're genuinely really excited, enthusiastic about that person, and looking for the best in them, and wanting to know them.

ALICE: And they're also enthusiastic about what they are doing as a group. They're excited for new people to get involved in it.

SPENCER: My feeling is that, a lot of cults, early in the days of those cults, often have really positive benefits for the members. In many cases, there seems to be this time when it tips over — I'm curious if you agree with this — where eventually it starts extracting resources from the members. But early on, it's a group of enthusiastic people that is excited to be doing something together. They're excited about each other and are excited about the community they're building. It's only later that extraction of value starts to occur where more and more value gets extracted for the benefit of the leader rather than the benefit of members.

ALICE: Yes, that's true. It does tend to be a function of how intense the world-transforming mission of the group becomes.

SPENCER: Could you elaborate on that?

ALICE: Yeah. NXIVM is an interesting example. They are a group that was basically — at least in the message that they were conveying to the public — aligned with modern values like achievement, earning, success, gathering and collecting resources, and becoming empowered in an individualistic way. Then this inner group — this secret inner group which is the group that was carrying out the branding and the one that we tend to hear about in the news — they were called DOS, and DOS wasn't really so aligned with dominant cultural values. DOS was about extreme self-sacrifice, voluntary suffering, things like that. Along with that, there was this core DOS philosophy that was like, "We're going to transform the world. We're going to amass all of this power." And we as women — because it was a women-only group except for Keith Raniere at the top — was a much stronger and more intense world-transforming mission. And it was also the point where it became more (I guess) extractive, as you said. This is actually a common pattern in groups like NXIVM. Scientology's another example of this form where the outer group is what one theorist called "world-affirming," in that it's aligned with dominant cultural values and it's individualistic. And then it creates this inner core that is world-rejecting. It's not like the leader just creates that inner core because they want to extract more value from people. That's part of it; that's certainly part of it when it comes to L. Ron Hubbard's motives. Also people join that inner core because they want to be more involved with this group. They want to do more in it and self-sacrifice. It's not a sacrifice to them when they join. It's "I'm doing something that's higher than all that stuff out there." And I think that's actually a really valid intuition. There's some need for self-transcendence that's lacking in the broader culture and that can only be achieved through self-sacrifice. It's certainly easy for a leader to prey on that impulse and take it too far but that doesn't mean that the self-sacrifice itself is a problem or is psychopathological.

SPENCER: I'm gonna butcher his name, but Kaj Sotala had an interesting perspective on cult leaders. Generally, the mainstream narrative is that the cult leader is manipulating the followers. But there's this interesting other perspective which is that the followers want to turn that person into idealization. They want the person to tell them what to do, to be their leader, be charismatic, and so on. There's this give and take in both directions where maybe the cult leader wants to be worshiped and wants power. But also maybe the followers want the cult leader to act a certain way for them to have someone who they can look up to, who can make decisions for them, make them feel like there's certainty in the world, and make them feel like there's a greater mission that they can be on that's above themselves. I'm curious to hear your reaction to that.

ALICE: It goes back to, for one, Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence being the intelligence of the social community projected onto an individual. The leader is only the leader insofar as they seem to symbolize the commonalities of the group. There's always a dialectic between the leader and the followers as a whole. The mainstream popular narrative about cults always does focus on the leaders but there's so much more to it than that. There's the whole essence of the group and the solidarity that they're seeking and creating among themselves. Another thing people miss a lot of the time is that it's not just the leader who has charisma; it's also other people who are high up in the group, and they get that charisma... To some degree it's transferred from the leader and you could think about it that way. But in another sense, they are perceived as, and perhaps are, extremely competent and empowered. There are many other people in these groups besides the leader who seem to embody the group's values and they're also holding the group together.

SPENCER: The group itself has a form of charisma. Once they're all bought into this mission, they deeply believe they're this tight-knit community, the whole group is highly charismatic to a certain type of person, because it's like, "Wow! Look at all of them working in unison towards a meaningful mission that they all deeply believe in, and they seem to know what they're doing," etc. That has a really strong tractive force as well, to some people.

ALICE: Yeah, exactly. Then from the other side of it, when it's revealed that the group was, in fact, extremely problematic in various ways, it's easy to say, "Oh, how silly that they believed all this stuff." Actually, it's not necessarily that the beliefs are inextricably linked with the extreme influence. In a lot of cases, the beliefs that unify these groups are subversive in some sense, or they're unusual or bizarre. We can take that and say, "Okay, so these bizarre or subversive beliefs are a sign of danger." That locks us even more into our own brainwashing as members of modern western culture.

SPENCER: Are you saying that basically because we view groups with fringe ideas as being dangerous and that makes us less likely to be willing to question our own conventional norms and values?

ALICE: Yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: I want to give my overall mental model of how cults work and get you to react to that. How does that sound?

ALICE: Sure.

SPENCER: I'm just gonna walk through my current best understanding. I'm sure I'll change my mind about some of this. Basically, my current best understanding is that the most typical cult begins with a person who's probably quite high in narcissism, who is charismatic. People meet them and some people have a really positive reaction to them. Others may have a really negative reaction. They have a (usually) polarizing effect on people. That person often generally begins to believe that they have some special knowledge or ability, whether it's as a teacher or a preacher, or with some spiritual insight, or just maybe in self-help or whatever. They end up getting a small following. Maybe it's just one person; maybe it's their wife, or maybe it's their friend. But eventually, they'll get a very small following around them of people who think that they have special insight and who believe in them as a leader. You've gotten from the phase zero cult which is just that one person, where you really can't call it a cult at all. Now, you have phase one where they have one person that believes them or two people that believe them. And then I think usually from there, they start working together with those people that already believe in them to start building a community. So that's a really different phenomenon because now you have, not just one person who claims they have special knowledge, but you also have some people around them who are reinforcing that idea, saying, "Oh, yeah. That person's amazing. They have all this special knowledge. They've changed my life."

ALICE: Up to the point that you've described, I think you're basically right. I also want to point out that I think labeling a group like this, up to the point that you've described, a cult, is hugely problematic.

SPENCER: Yeah, I agree. I think it's not a cult to that point. It's just the thing that could become a cult.

ALICE: Insofar as the word 'cult' is capturing some notion of harm, yes.

SPENCER: Okay, so now we have this little group that believes in this leader, and they're reinforcing the leader's belief in themselves. We start with someone who is above average — probably significantly above average — in narcissism, who believes they have special beliefs. And now they're constantly being reinforced that they have special knowledge, that they're supposed to lead the group, and that everyone wants them to behave that way, which I suspect has an intensifying effect on their personality. One thing that I've observed learning about a bunch of different cults, it often seems like the leader becomes more grandiose over time. They might start thinking that they've figured out some important insight about the Bible and they may end up thinking that they're actually the reincarnation of Jesus or something like that. And I suspect that this has to do with a give and take with their followers. What do you think about that?

ALICE: Yes, exactly. That's certainly true. People can get to that point on their own without any reinforcement but that's less common. [laughs] It doesn't create the same kinds of manifestations.

SPENCER: I would say, at this point, what we're talking about is a tight-knit little community with a leader that they really believe in. I imagine, at that stage, there's just a lot of excitement, enthusiasm, and positive feelings that the members have because, from their point of view, they have this really tight-knit community all working together as a group to achieve some meaningful goal. I think that a really important element is that most of these groups are really about something that is intended to be meaningful. It's about spiritual insight or helping the world, or in many cases, saving the world or stopping some evil force. So you can imagine joining one of these groups, feeling suddenly like you're part of a family essentially, that's on a very important and meaningful mission, and also feeling special, like you have some insight that the people outside the group don't have.

ALICE: Yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: Okay. Then, that goes to the next phase which is phase two, where it starts to grow. Some groups stay really, really small, might only be eight people, tops. But many of them will grow bigger and there, I think it changes dramatically because now, it's less about having a direct one-to-one relationship with the leader. A lot of people, who may be brought in by someone who knows the leader, start joining. Maybe they see the leader give lectures but they may not have such a one-on-one personal connection to the leader. So now, it's more the group acting as a charismatic force rather than just the direct leader convincing people to join.

ALICE: Yes, that's right. This is a problem that any of these groups eventually — if they get to the point where they're big enough — have to solve, which Weber called the routinization of charisma. How do we take this charismatic force that is essentially emotional and unique and turn it into something that can become procedures that can be passed down over time?


SPENCER: Okay, so then this brings up an interesting issue with these groups, which is: How do they support themselves? How do they continue to exist and not just starve to death? Because, generally speaking, they're on some kind of save-the-world mission or spiritual mission and not a make-money mission. I've seen this go different ways in different groups. Sometimes they're offering part of their work as a kind of service. So they're teaching meditation classes or self-improvement classes. Scientology offers lots of self-improvement classes that act as a potential source of income, although actually, I don't think most of their income comes that way. It's potentially a source of income but also a recruitment mechanism. Then another way that they'll do it is to basically have the people in the group start a business, (let's say) start a restaurant or something like that and then everyone works in it. That's the way they make ends meet. Another really common thing that comes up is they start basically tithing. They basically ask the members to start funding the group. Those members that don't have any money might be working in the group-run restaurant but those members who already have money, maybe they start paying money to the group to fund it.

ALICE: Yeah. Those are all (accurately) ways that these groups try to support themselves.

SPENCER: The reason I bring that up is just because this is where you start to see a very concrete extractive element. The group needs to survive. Everyone wants the group to survive. How do you do that? You have to either extract labor from the group members or you have to extract money from the group members, basically. [laughs] This is a really common thing that you'll see in a lot of these groups. As you extrapolate that further and further over time, you end up in situations where either people are giving all their money over to the group, or they're giving all of their time over to the group, where they're working 80 hours a week to make money for the whole collective and getting paid essentially nothing.

ALICE: Yeah, that is true. I think it speaks to why most of the instantiations of charisma that we see in modern culture end up being harmful and extractive, as you said. But it's not a feature of charisma itself. It's an outgrowth of charisma and charismatic movements having to survive in a highly rationalized, economically driven world.

SPENCER: There might be some groups like this that learn to farm and they start a farm and subsist on their own farming or something like that. You could see that working as an equilibrium.

ALICE: There are a few groups of that form, yeah.

SPENCER: I have heard about some but it doesn't seem to be the most typical case.

ALICE: I wouldn't necessarily say it's not the most typical case, but they are the groups you don't hear about.

SPENCER: Fair enough. The last piece of my mental model of this is how this goes horribly off the rails. You can already see it begin to happen because the group is extracting time and money from the group members and that could go badly over time. I think where things really go off the rails from my perspective is, as people continue reinforcing this already narcissistic leader, and the leader starts becoming more and more grandiose, and more and more overconfident, more and more, the group leader starts believing their big wild ideas. You can start getting in situations where the group leader's decision-making ends up having really horrible effects on the members of the group. I think you see this in some cases where the group will get itself into really big trouble legally. Or the group will suddenly move to another country in a really bad situation where it's just really poorly thought out, and everyone's now in a dire situation. Or the group just runs out of money because it's poorly managed.

ALICE: Well, there's increasing tension between the group and the host culture and that tension needs to be resolved somehow.

SPENCER: That's a really excellent point. Generally speaking, it's one thing if three people living next door are kind of kooky. It's another thing if people are all living in this group house and they're coming and going all the time. And they seem to have really strange beliefs and maybe they're doing things there that are not approved of by society. And people are starting to call the police and complain about them.

ALICE: And they're probably engaging with the community more because they have to support themselves somehow.

SPENCER: Absolutely. Maybe they're trying to recruit people from the community or trying to get people to buy stuff.

ALICE: It increases their surface area of exposure.

SPENCER: Exactly. The increase in tension seems to often lead to bad situations. But then the other element of this that I just want to bring up is that it seems like the narcissism of the cult leader can start to expand in a way where they just start, on a personal level, extracting more and more from the members. You just see, to a shocking degree, these cases of the leader either having sex with a large number of the females in the group, sometimes underage females, or taking the wives of other group members. It's almost like there's an unbounded demand they're placing on the group members and they're extracting more and more from everyone else to satisfy their own desires. I'm curious if you think that's accurate.

ALICE: Yeah. They are able to justify that because they have a unique relationship to the divine. David Koresh is a really good example here. I think he's interesting. Are you familiar with the Branch Davidians and the incident at Waco, Texas?

SPENCER: A little bit. You want to talk about how it relates?

ALICE: Yeah. They were an offshoot of an offshoot of a Christian denomination who took up in a compound outside Waco, Texas. The leader there was a man named David Koresh who got into the habit of choosing (quote, unquote) 'spiritual wives' from the community which meant that it became these women's duty to provide a child to what he called the House of David.This meant being chosen for the sacred duty of having a child with God's representative on earth. Sometimes the women, who were sometimes underage, would not want to do this. They'd have anxiety about it because they truly believed that they were being asked to do this by God. That, of course, is a really huge and powerful incentive if you truly believe that. Now, do the leaders themselves believe that? I think it varies. I think sometimes they really do believe it with their whole hearts. And I think, at other times, they're being cynical.

SPENCER: I have this belief about people with really high levels of narcissism. They tend to differentiate less between things like, "I had the thought that the following thing was true," and the thing actually being true in the world. So for most people, it's very fair to say "Well, okay. But does this person really buy what they're saying? They're claiming this big grandiose thing but do they really believe it?" There's something about high levels of narcissism where there's less differentiation between, "I'm thinking this right now," and "This thing is factually correct." I think that you see this with a lot of people that end up being labeled as cult leaders where they'll make claims. Well, do they really believe that thing? On some level, it seems like they don't and yet they'll take actions as though the thing is true, that wouldn't make sense to do unless you believed it. They'll maybe get themselves into a really bad pickle because they seem to buy their own thing that they just made up.

ALICE: Yeah.

SPENCER: I don't know if you ever actually do that in particular. Whereas, usually it would make sense to say, "Well, is this person just bullshitting everyone or not?" I feel like it actually starts blurring in their own minds where it's not even clear to them. Do they really believe they're God? At this moment, when they're saying it, maybe they do.

ALICE: Yeah. If you had a lot of experiential feedback supporting the hypothesis that your voice has the power to move people to action, I think you could imagine getting into the same kind of situation.

SPENCER: I think it's quite a bit like what some psychics will do where the psychic genuinely believes that they have psychic powers and they'll do readings. They genuinely believe that those readings are helpful to people. But at times, they will also take liberties as well. Maybe they'll read something off of a person's body, like maybe the person has a certain handbag that's really fancy and they'll infer that the person is wealthy from that. They'll use that information and on some level, they know, "Okay, I didn't get that information psychically." And they'll kind of weave it in. So in other words, there's this blending of like, "Oh, yeah. I really have this power but maybe it's not working that well today so I'm gonna incorporate other things." It seems like, with these leaders, they'll on one hand believe they're God and, on the other hand, just trick people in a very knowing way and they might alternate between the two.

ALICE: I think part of this positive feedback cycle also might be, they do something cynical and 'trickster-y' and it works. Then they explain that by saying, "Well, God is on my side. The universe is on my side." That's one form of it. It's like, "Well, I thought I was tricking people. But in fact, the universe is on my side." The other validating belief is, "Well, I tricked people or did something cynical but the mission is more important." And that's something that the followers often take up. In the case of Jim Jones, for example, his inner followers knew about his tremendous sexual appetites and the fact that he was sometimes sleeping with the wives of members of the Peoples Temple and things like that. They colluded to hide it from the rest of the community because it was more important to keep his image pristine and to keep the mission of the movement going. That's another thing that's important. It's not just about the leaders but also about the mission of the movement.

SPENCER: That's well said. I'll just give a couple of almost silly examples of cult leaders being very cynically manipulative. One of them was a female cult leader, which is really rare. As you've mentioned, they're almost all male. But there was a female cult leader. When people were brought in and were beginning to believe and getting to join the community, she would give them a beverage that was basically laced with extremely high doses of psychedelics. Then a few minutes later, she would use a fog machine that would blow fog under the door of the room. The whole room would start filling with fog. Then she would come in wearing a big gown and basically tell the people that she's God, essentially. [laughs] You can imagine, you're just tripping ten times more than you've ever tripped in your life and then this person who you're already beginning to believe in, is appearing before you. That's probably actually pretty effective. There's no way that that cult leader didn't realize what she was doing, that she was being manipulative. At the same time, I would very readily believe that she also thought she did really have a special relationship to the divine and a special role in society, and all these other things. I think that it's not as simple as, "Oh, this person is just a lying cheat." It's much more complicated than that. Often, these leaders do use trickery at some points to get what they want. That also ties in with the narcissism of believing that they deserve these things. It seems like they almost get to the point where they just believe that they deserve everything they want, no matter how much it harms someone else to get it.

ALICE: Well, I think you and I can perhaps understand the leader's view, in this case, a little bit because both you and I throw events where we try to induce particular states in people, right?

SPENCER: Yeah. Hopefully, for a good cause. [laughs]

ALICE: Hopefully for a good cause, but I think both you and I apply some kind of deliberate conscious thought to, "Okay, how do I create the space? How do I make a container? How do I do this in a way that's going to elicit the emotional reaction that I want people to be having?" That can certainly be employed to purely narcissistic ends but it's something that any good event planner also engages in.

SPENCER: Yeah, so what you're referring to with regard to me, I'll just mention for a moment. It's this group I run called Ergo. Basically, the purpose of Ergo is to create new social experiences. We have a rule that we're never allowed to repeat the same event format twice. Once we've done an event format, that's it, we're never going to do it again, even if it went great. Each event, we try to design a new set of social rules or new structure to try to produce either insight or a positive experience for people that they wouldn't normally have. Just to give a few examples of things we've done, we did one event where it was actually socializing but you weren't allowed to speak at all. It was very interesting because at first, people tried to replicate bad versions of speech like air writing or miming which people are not very good at by default. They're doing bad versions of just talking. Then they started figuring out things that they could do without speaking that were actually fun and interesting. People started inventing improv games and, as they did that, other people started noticing them and copying them. Then they started mimetically spreading throughout the group. That is just an example where, by removing being able to speak, we create a new set of social rules which creates some kind of new norms or some kind of new behaviors, and hopefully, gives people insight. Another example, we did an event where we assigned you a social status when you arrived and it would be written as a number from one to ten on your lapel. And then you had to socialize with that social status so everyone could see. So if you were a nine and I was a one, I would have to act like you were the most important person I'd ever met and you would have to act like I'm incredibly beneath you and of extremely lowly status. Then throughout the night, you get to switch, you get to experiment with different social status roles. Those are just a couple of examples of the kinds of things we play with.

ALICE: Those are both really interesting examples. Just to dive in a little bit to the theory of what I think is going on with these plans you've talked about, it sounds like what you're trying to do is take away people's given scripts, the scripts that they fall back to as a general habit. Then you basically turn them from dead players into live players, people who are really situated in the here and now, and who are forced to find new opportunities in it.

SPENCER: When you add a new rule or take away a typical rule, people are forced to reorient and think about, "How do I want to behave in this situation?" It's fascinating. You can bring a bunch of interesting people who might like each other into a room together and they won't necessarily have a great time. They might have a pretty good time but they're just gonna automatically fall onto all the normal things, like they'll start having small talk with each other, or they'll get into groups that are too large where you can barely get a word in edgewise. There's all these social dynamics that will occur that aren't necessarily anyone's optimal and yet, the standard rules of social interaction push in these directions.

ALICE: You introduce an unexpected element and suddenly we're not in that space. We're in liminal.

SPENCER: Exactly. Hopefully, it will give you a novel experience. But also, hopefully, it'll teach you something about, "Hey, what is the effect of this rule that we usually use? What is that doing to us? Do we want that? Is that desirable? Do we maybe want to play outside of those boundaries a little more?"

ALICE: It's really interesting to me that you're framing this so much in terms of insight or learning something from it. I think that's part of how I see it. But I think on a deeper level, what I see as the really key thing that I'm trying to produce when I do events like this — which are fairly similar to what you described — is intimacy, a new level of intimacy.

SPENCER: What are some of the things you do to try to facilitate that?

ALICE: One thing I always tried to do at events that I organized before the pandemic times was, I would learn the names of people who were coming that I didn't know. When they arrived, I would go up to them and greet them by name. And if I could, I would say something that I knew about them because I think having that kind of one-on-one interaction with the host right away, having them know your name and something about you already, first off, it feels welcoming. On another level, it induces surprise. Surprise, I think, brings people into the liminal because it's like, "I'm not quite sure what kind of space this is. It's not what I was expecting." I think it brings people a little more into the moment. Another thing that I really like to do with events is, early in the event — it might be a weekend, it might be an evening — I like to have a time when everybody who's present is gathered together in the same space and focusing on the same thing. That might be a meeting where we go over some of the rules or activities for the night or it might be something like a little circling session. It could be anything but the point is that, sometime near the beginning of the evening, we've had the experience of all having joint attention and being in everybody's co-presence.

SPENCER: Is that to create a sense of community?

ALICE: Yeah, it creates a sense of community even if it's a very brief community.

SPENCER: From your experience, how do we bring groups together in a way that makes them closer to each other?

ALICE: I think there are really two kinds of bringing people closer together. There's solidarity and then there's intimacy. Intimacy is necessary for throwing a really, really good party. At least with my theory of parties, which is that they should bring people together in a deep and intimate way that's deeper than the level in which we usually engage. Then there's solidarity which is more like the charismatic movements we've been talking about. Solidarity means we're all going after the same thing. I might not necessarily be really deeply engaged with who you are as a person, but we're going for the same goal and that's enough; I feel like we're close. And intimacy is really necessary for throwing an amazing party but it's actually not necessarily great for long-term solidarity. I learned this the hard way over the summer. I got a few people together and formed a temporary, intentional community for the summer. I didn't look at it this way at the time because I didn't have this mental model. What I ultimately wanted from the summer was solidarity but the only thing I knew how to build was intimacy. So we ended up becoming rather intimate as a group. There was a lot of conflict involved in that as people confronted things about themselves that were difficult. We were never really able to organize around a project which was what I most wanted out of the summer. I think there's this interesting polarity there. These two things can work together but they can also compete.

SPENCER: It's really interesting to me because I feel like what I'm going for, at my events, is neither of those things, neither intimacy nor solidarity. Like what you've said before, it's more like insight or feeling like you learn something new about yourself or about human nature while also hopefully having a good time as well.

ALICE: It is interesting to me that you frame it that way because I think you're going for intimacy. [laughs] I think my experience of such things would be an increased sense of intimacy. And yes, with that, comes some kind of learning. I would think of it as almost like self-disclosure, which is something that produces intimacy. When you disclose something to someone — something that's personal and vulnerable — you also usually have just learned it in that moment or you've learned something about your relationship to it in that moment. Maybe that kind of concept can link your understanding of these events in mind, that we're learning more about ourselves and the world and that produces a sense of intimacy.

SPENCER: Alice, this was really fun. Thank you so much for coming on.

ALICE: Thank you, Spencer.





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