Psychology of a Cult

Jim Jones, Charlie Manson, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite all were able to convince their followers to kill others and/or themselves. How were these men able to control full grown adults who had fully functioning minds? It wasn’t as hard as you might think.

First look at the definition of a cult: a cult is a structured group in which most of its members have unquestioned loyalty to their leader. By this definition the military has cult like characteristics, so does the Catholic Church. Even organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) demonstrate some cult like characteristics. So why, when we think of a cult don’t we think of these organizations? A solider will follow his/her superior’s orders without a second thought and a good Catholic follows whatever the Pope decides.

The key difference is the psychology of the organization. A non-cult organization may have cult like characteristics; however its main focus is outward, the well being of its members and even non-members; a cult’s main focus is itself. In addition, cults use deception to entice members to join and coercive influences to keep them in line.

Government officials estimate that there are currently over 3,000 destructive cults in the US today with approximately four million members. These cults can be broken down into four basic categories:

• Religious organizations like The People’s Temple
• Psychological organizations offering enlightenment such as Heavens Gate or Scientology.
• Commercial pyramid and multi-level marketing groups like Amway or Mary Kay (These are typically the least destructive)
• Political organizations that are organized around dogma like Al Qaeda

Why so many? According to psychologist and cult expert, Margaret Thaler Singer, cults thrive in times of political and social unrest. Times like now and in the 1960’s.

Many people don’t understand how cult members can carry out such extreme acts of violence or socially abnormal behavior. They wonder if the members are psychological ill. The answer to that question would be yes and no.

Cult leaders seek out members who are not psychologically ill, but people who are in crisis. Recruiters single out people who have key situational elements. Examples of these elements would be a young adult experiencing extreme loneliness, a man suffering from adjustment disorder stemming from his divorce, or new college graduates who are at a crossroads in his/her life and unsure what direction to turn. Recruiters are trained to listen and appear sympathetic and to offer assurances that their group can help ease the individual’s plight.

Once inducted recruits may suffer psychological disorders such as dissociative identity disorder, adjustment disorder and major depression. These disorders, coupled with influential tactics that are used by cult leaders, can make members pliable to leaders’ demands.

Studies show that cult leaders use about thirty influence tactics. Some of these tactics are used to attract members and another set is used to keep members under control. Influence tactics used to keep members under control are designed to target their psychological defenses. Some of these tactics are used by the military.

One of these tactics is called “The Hot Seat Technique.” An example of this technique would be a member called out by the leader in front of the entire group. This member is forced to confess their transgressions in public. The leader then berates the member for their transgressions and once they have been humiliated the leader then offers a loving commendation for the member’s honesty and gives the member encouragement that they can keep believing in the leader’s message.

The purpose of this technique is to lower self esteem. By keeping self esteem low, it has been proven that people are more persuadable than when they have high to moderate self-esteem.

So, by keeping members minds pliable and working off the psychological studies which show that in times of crisis people will react uniformly rather than individually the leaders will be able to, with some certainty, ensure that the members will follow orders without question. It’s the same principle that the military uses to ensure that a solider will follow orders without question.

And how do you know if someone may be under a cult’s influence? There are nine tell tale symptoms to be watchful for:

• Personality Change
• Dramatic shift in beliefs
• Diet changes
• Refusal to attend family functions such as weddings, graduations, ECT.
• Inability to make decisions without input of the groups leader
• Sudden and excessive use of ideology
• Simplistic reasoning
• Using complex vocabulary
• Attempted recruitment of you

If someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms help is available. There are community resources available to help the psychological recovery of former cult members. You may also want to contact your local division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for further information on suspected cult activity.

And remember that the next time you rush to judgment about the actions of a cult’s members, keep in mind that everyone can be susceptible given the right set of circumstances.

•, Rhodes, Kelton Phd.

• Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology,