Are Doomsday Preppers a Cult? A Lehigh Valley Professor Says Yes

The doomsday prepping phenomenon is just beginning to be studied, but so far this Penn State-Lehigh Valley professor says it has all the markings of a cult.

The end of the world is upon us ... again. 


They're joining Facebook groups, they're forming prepping communities. There are websites with prepping gear to help you ready for the end of the world. 

And of course, preppers have their own show, "Doomsday Preppers."

The show, on the National Geographic Channel, shows several groups of survivalists (also called "preppers") getting ready for their definition of the end of civilization. According to USA Today and Wikipedia, it's also the most watched show on the 15-year-old cable channel. 

And according to Dr. Peter Behrens, preppers are buying into a cult. 

Dr. Behrens, a Penn State-Lehigh Valley professor who specializes in the history of psychology, abnormal psychology and personality psychology, says that the most recent form of Doomsday preparations have all the earmarks of an active, recruiting cult. 

"From a psychological perspective [Doomsday prepping] is bizarre. Members spend so much time and energy readying for the end of the world. Prepping is just people trying to control what is beyond their control."

Dr. Behrens believes that clusters of preppers and the movement as a whole has all the markings of a cult. 

"I think this is just a modern iteration of the phenomenon of people believing that the end is coming in their lifetime. That idea is so selfish, so self-centered, so narcissistic. It's mind control."

Dr. Behrens pointed out several ways the Doomsday preppers bear the marks of a cult, including: 

  • The group forms a single identity, especially around a specific person or event
  • The group is unable to accept contrary information
  • The group has their own shorthand, or in some cases language
  • It's very difficult to walk away from the group and often times leaders of groups set out to return people who "stray" back to "the path"
  • They take on an "us versus them" mentality
  • They find meaning and "signs" in ordinary, everyday occurrences that speak only to their group and reinforce "they are on the right path"
  • All their problems can be linked to one simple explanation (the world will end because of ...)
  • The members are in a constant state of distress

Not all Doomsday cults are suicidal, said Dr. Behrens. "In 1954, a small Doomsday cult believed the world would end on Dec. 21 when the world would be swallowed up by flood. It didn't happen, they were able to rationalize the fact that they lived -- they saved the world."

When asked about the date similarity, Dr. Behrens pointed out that Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year, a point in the calendar year that would stand out to any group. "Doomsday prepping is cyclical."

Studying Doomsday preppers is just beginning, says Dr. Behrens. There's still a lot of research to be done into the psychology of Doomsday cults. "All this prepping, it gives people an identity, a group to belong to. But it definitely is emerging as the 'new kid on the block' as far as cults go." 

John Fox December 14, 2012 at 05:07 PM
Exactly, and as far as I am concerned "prepping" is completely harmless, so why does anyone care what these people do in their private lives? Our Federal Government actually encourages prepping, not to the extremes of the people on the TV show however. They say that everyone should have a dedicated 2 week supply of non-perishable food, water, medicine, and other necessities for any type of disaster, even something just as small as if the power goes out.
Eastward December 14, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Lower Mac Resident - The other aspect of prepping is keeping a strong community. There is strength and security in a resilient prepper community. Let me know if you'd be interested in establishing a network or something. This is where I am lacking. Just reply again to these comments and we'll figure out how to connect.
Dani December 30, 2012 at 02:25 AM
We prep individually, not as a "cult" and for different reasons. I have lived through a couple extreme hurricanes, which left us without electricity and drinkable water for a few weeks. It's about being prepared for your family and the needs at hand. Yes, some can be extreme and others, just making us ready for when the time comes. You want to call the the "old timers" who hunted/raised/canned their meat and lived off the land a "cult" too? We still have "old timers" in todays world.
UK Resident January 02, 2013 at 09:25 AM
None of you have addressed the all the points the Prof mentioned. That he was talking specifically about that act of prepping isn't important here, we can all agree that being ready for a kick in the teeth is fairly wise, but his observations on cultish behaviour should receive more appreciation. I'm a UK resident. As such, I belong to a community which is part of the greater society. If I'm not happy I talk to my local authority or my member of parliament who holds surgery sessions. What I don't do is arm myself to the teeth and mistrust outsiders from, say, a couple of miles away believing they'll rob me blind incase the lights go out. Preppers obviously don't think too much of the state they live in, and that says more about them psychologically. Agreed we don't get too many hurricanes or ice storms in UK, but we do get extremes of weather. Our society is robust enough to get over these, and this because of out collective attitudes. Just a thought, why do you lot need guns in society anyway??? It's utter madness - have gripe, waste a school load of kids, or your boss or that idiot gawping at you! I bring this up as its the reason I found this message board. I'm against assault rifles in public!
Hugh Gallagher January 02, 2013 at 10:02 AM
You went from "guns" to "assault rifles" in 2 sentences. Hopefully, you will never be in need of a gun to defend your family or yourself from legitimate danger. As far as preparedness is concerned, I have a "PA Emergency Prepareness Guide" in my desk. Hopefully, I will never need it. But I have it available. You can learn something from it, from the preppers or other sources. Or you can be a fool who already knows it all. You certainly know a lot about cliches.


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