The Psychology of Cults

Instructor: David White
Cults are a fascinating but often misunderstood subject. Through this lesson, you will explore some of the characteristics of cult behavior and gain insight into the psychology that motivates a person to join and participate in a cult.

What Is a Cult?

When authorities arrived to the small settlement of Jonestown in the jungle of French Guiana on November 18th, 1978, they were horrified to find more than 900 of the residents had committed mass suicide by ingesting poison. How was it, they wondered, that this supposedly utopian society of young people had ended in what was at the time the greatest loss of American lives in a single act? The mass suicide of the People's Temple at Jonestown shocked the world and shined a light on the complex and often confusing psychology of cults.

In very simple terms, a cult is a relatively small group of people with an unhealthy devotion to a single person, thing, or cause. Jonestown, for example, was the home of the People's Temple, a group completely devoted to their religious leader Jim Jones. Although cults have been studied extensively, there is little consensus around a universal definition. This is because cults are essentially built around extreme, unusual, or fringe religious beliefs, but the degree of commitment and devotion varies from group to group. Instead, cult behavior is typically considered on a spectrum of religious belief; groups like the People's Temple are on one end and the more formal established religions on the other.

Many people perceive cults to be dangerous groups.

Given the ambiguity around criteria for cults and the complexity of their psychology, this lesson will focus on some of the more common aspects of cult behavior and thinking.

Why Join a Cult?

Generally, a person joins a cult for the same reason that one participates in Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion; they're seeking an accepting community that validates their beliefs. When Jim Jones was recruiting members for the People's Temple in California, his sermons focused on love, acceptance, and social responsibility. It was only after years of drug abuse, paranoia, and unchecked power that Jones transformed the People's Temple into a cult.

More often than not, these groups and their leaders make very attractive promises of power, salvation, and other things that might make a person interested in joining. Moreover, cult leaders are often very charismatic, meaning others find them charming, engaging, and persuasive. This combination of attractive promises and charismatic leaders is intentionally designed to activate powerful emotions and entice potential recruits looking for something to which they can belong.

Who Joins Cults

As previously noted, what is and isn't a cult is hard to define. Like any other group, cults can be religious, social, political, and so on, which means their members can be quite diverse. For example, the People's Temple was made up of a diverse collection of races, ethnicities, and ages. What are most attractive to a person who joins a cult aren't necessarily the demographics of the members, but what they're offering.

In general, people who join cults have a need that is going unmet in their community. For instance, a person who has just relocated to a new city might feel very lonely without the support of friends and family. The friendship and community that cults offer could be very enticing to individuals feeling isolated and alone in a new place.

One of the most common types of people that join a cult is the disenfranchised. These are people who feel as though they're being denied something, others don't understand them, or they're powerless. These are all very strong emotions that might make a person angry and want to lash out at others. In that case, cults offering power and the opportunity for revenge could be a very attractive group to someone who feels disenfranchised. Terrorist groups, for example, often recruit these types of people in order to exploit their anger and desire for violent action.


The presence of a charismatic leader capable of inspiring devotion is perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of a cult, but there are several other tactics those leaders use to win the devotion of their followers. For example, thought-reform programs are used to break down a person's individual identity and beliefs, replacing them with a collective identity and the group's beliefs. This might include calling into question or criticizing the person's current belief system and convincing them why those beliefs are wrong.

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