May 25, 2011

The downside of being Jewish -- too prone to joining bizarre cults?

The term "Jew-bilation" is used by the Ashkenazim to refer to the warm, tingly feeling they get when they discover that some eminent individual turns out to be Jewish. The website JINFO.ORG keeps a list of accomplished Jewish people in a variety of artistic and scientific fields. Aside from these culture-makers, the disproportionate share of CEOs at top corporations is another source of ethnic pride. In general, it looks like Jews make up 20-30% of these groups, despite making up only 2-3% of the overall population. They're over-represented, then, by about 10 times.

If their way of life, influenced by both genes and culture, has produced such astonishing results, then what's the downside of it all? Otherwise most other groups should have evolved that way. The main trait responsible for their success in culture and business is their higher average IQ, which is about 1 standard deviation above the European average. So the extra costs that are the counter-weight to their greater success could reflect being too smart.

I have a different idea, perhaps not an original one since I haven't read a lot of the relevant literature. Others have talked about it informally, but I ran across some studies that back it up. That is that Jews seem to be unusually prone to bizarre cults, and that can't be too good for you, all else equal. I'm not talking about the zealots, the original Christians, etc., but the ones that are truly mind-bogglingly weird -- Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, Objectivism, and so on. But hey, big deal, investing in some wacko intellectual theory will be mostly harmless -- to the academics, anyway, although perhaps not for the rest of society if it gets implemented on a wide scale.

I'm talking more about the weirdo cults that began in the late '60s and peaked during the '70s and early '80s. Unlike Marxist English professors, they were giving up a lot just to belong to a group of misfits -- separation from families, donating labor and earnings to the group, and so on. And unlike the earlier zealots, they weren't following an established religious group that had already earned a reputation for trustworthiness. Most of those cults ended in scandal after enough of the members woke up to the fact that the leaders were a bunch of predatory, exploitative false Messiahs. The ones still left have nothing of their former shape, so I consider that as an end too.

Unlike their numbers in other institutions that we view favorably, their numbers in cults is not a well known story. If it was ever widespread during the heyday of cults, it has vanished down the memory hole as an embarrassment. Non-Jews are not going to come across references either because they've lost interest in cults, having re-branded them New Religious Movements as though the Manson family, Jonestown, and the Children of God were all just budding Christianities.

Here are three quotes that mention estimates of Jewish membership in cults (links added for reference).

From Kaslow & Sussman (1982), Cults and the Family, Volume 4 (p.101):

Spero (1977), for example, cites an estimated twelve percent of American membership in the Unification Church (UC, or "Moonies") to be Jewish, a vastly disproportionate overrepresentation.

From Jenkins (2000), Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (p.195):

Though estimates vary widely, Rudin and Rudin [1980] suggest that "perhaps 20 percent of Hare Krishnas are Jewish. Jews constitute as much as 30 percent of Divine Light Mission membership, and there are many Jews in Scientology."

And from Saiba (1986), Christian And Jewish Responses To ISKCON: Dialogue Or Diatribe?:

Headlines in Jewish community bulletins and newspapers further highlight Jewish vulnerability to the cults, [2] which are allegedly recruiting Jews in disproportionate numbers. [3]

Here are the two footnotes:

[2] Headlines like 'Jews' Vulnerability to the Lure of the Cults', in the Long Island Jewish World (Dec. 6, 1981); 'The Hare Krishna Alerts Israel to Missionary Danger', in the Jewish Press, Brooklyn, N.Y. (April 5, 1979); and 'Cults: A Growing Threat to Jewish Continuity and Survival in America', in Hakol, Allentown, PA (May, 1977), are but a random sample of the disquietude which has been spreading throughout the Jewish community.

[3] In general, Jewish sources believe that between 15-25% of all cult members are Jewish and that 15% of Hare Krishna members were brought up as Jews (cf. Adahan, 1981:37; Appell, 1978:20). Neff (1979:23) states that up to 45% of any given cult could be of Jewish background. Gittelson and Reed (1981:212) disagree and hold that Jews are not proportionately represented in the cults. The estimates vary, and there are no completely reliable statistics. At times Jews appear more concerned with the number of Jewish converts to Messianic Judaism (cf. Rudin, 1978:353-5).

Although the average Jewish person may not have joined such an out-there cult, their over-representation by about 10 times suggests that their distribution for susceptibility to crazy and blind crowd-following is shifted toward the more wacko end of the spectrum, compared to the European distribution. They seem more likely to lack an instinct for performing basic reality checks, especially toward charismatic leaders of zero-track-record cult movements. That can't be good -- and it isn't. So this would seem to be the main cost of the Ashkenazi way of life that has kept it from growing too common.

Whether this downside stems directly from their higher average IQ -- the cost of being too smart for your own good -- or whether it's an independent feature of their group is not clear. East Asians are also smarter on average than Europeans, and while they did go in for Maoism, and while they do believe more in magic, they don't seem to show up disproportionately in crazy cults. If anything, their distribution seems to be farther away from the fanatical/zealous end than even the European distribution.

We could also check this by looking at Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, who don't have higher average IQs compared to Europeans. If they are no more likely than Europeans to dive head-first without looking into the whirlpool of brand-new cults, that would mean the Ashkenazi tendency toward cultism could in fact be related to their greater brainpower. If these other Jewish groups are just as zealous as the Ashkenazim, then it cannot reflect the cost of being too smart, but rather some other enduring feature of the environments that Jews have found themselves in, and to which greater zealotry would adapt them.


  1. IIRC, the only trait of the Big 5 that was correlated with higher IQ was "Openness to Experience", so I think both higher IQ and cult-joining are linked to higher openness to experience?

    What say you?

  2. I remember seeing that too. I'm skeptical that it's a big factor in explaining between-group differences, though. East Asians are smart, and large parts of Africa and the non-white Americas not very smart, yet cult activity is stronger among the latter, not the former.

    Or that correlation may only hold in Western groups...

    Or Openness to Experience isn't the mediating variable. Joining a cult is really more about having an easier time suspending disbelief, blanking out your self-consciousness (which you need to do a reality check), and going into a trance-like or possessed state of mind.

    Openness doesn't seem to distinguish that from a more rational, principled, self-aware eclecticism of values, experiences, etc.

  3. "Joining a cult is really more about having an easier time suspending disbelief, blanking out your self-consciousness (which you need to do a reality check)"

    But perhaps what prevent regular people of joining cults is not "reality checks", "self-consciousness", "disbelief", etc., but simply "tradition"? If there is the case, makes sense that low traditionalist groups could be more prone to join weird cults.

  4. Jews are overrepresented in Buddhism, too.

  5. "truly mind-bogglingly weird -- Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, Objectivism"

    Look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. A radical philosophy has a small chance of becoming the standard dogma and rewarding the founders and their progeny handsomely.

    Marx totally broke with the established idealist tradition and in his time he was widely scorned and hated. Eventually though, followers of Marx's ideology gained political control over nearly half of the world and substantial influence over the intellectual community.

    Freud is unfortunately appreciated. He is actually one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century - on par with Heidegger, Derrida, or Godel.

  6. In much of Christendom, during much of Christendom's history, it was mandatory for lower class people to believe the official religion, and mandatory for rulers to appear to believe the official religion in public, but the middle class could believe anything they liked. So for Jews to hang on to their religion, had to be middle class. If a Jew dropped out of the middle class, he shortly thereafter ceased being Jewish.

    So Jews in most of Christendom were selected for middle class traits.

    Judaism mandates cleanliness, thus Jews had higher reproductive success than Christians.

    Since believing all this nonsense because it was holy lead to higher reproductive success, they were also selected for credulity towards claimed religious authority.

    These two selection pressures were independent, from which I predict that Jews descended from those who remained under Muslim rule should be as credulous and cultish as Ashkenazi Jews, but not particularly intelligent.

  7. True story. A Jewish professor purposely gave me lower grades in college, when she found that I was German.

    Jews tend to seek out their kinds due to collectivist in-group biases. Not to mention people join cults/clubs for social connections and resource access.

  8. Re: Buddhism, there are widespread accounts of around 30% of new Buddhists being Jews. But this report says that those surveys were done in the '70s.

    Pew surveys from 2009 put it at 6% -- still over-represented by a factor of 2, but down from the heyday of "dig the far-out Asian religions, man."

    I don't worry too much about Buddhists. They are established and have a proven track-record of not being complete weirdos. They're not the ones you'd call on to rally for a broad common cause, since they seem really individualistic / inward-looking (at least in America), but overall they seem fine.

  9. They're not sexy. Jewish men are simply manly men, Bibi being an exception.

  10. I would say Jewish success is not just a function of higher intelligence but a much higher level of drive and ambition and self-assertiveness, too. Numerically, there are simply more high IQ gentiles in America than Jews, so there should be no room for Jews to dominate so greatly if their domination were solely because of IQ. Jews are simply more driven, assertive, and dominant than non-Jews.

    You make a logical mistake, too, when you say all groups would have evolved the way Jews did if it had no downside. Not all groups were subject to the same selective pressures - Jews faced an environment not faced by others, where they evolved traits good for that environment.

    Furthermore, from an adaptive standpoint, why is joining cults a downside? That isnt clear to me at all.


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