What Is a Cult?

Cults attract people with promises of rewarding them.

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What Is a Cult?

A cult is most often referred to as an organized group or solitary person whose purpose is to dominate other cult members through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies.

Some individuals who join cults remain lifelong members. Others break free and share how it felt to be “brainwashed by a charismatic leader.” But there are also some individuals who leave a cult and report that their experience was positive.

Studying cults proves difficult for a few different reasons. It’s nearly impossible to study active cult members due to their unwillingness to let others into their closed societies. Quite often, they are suspicious of outsiders.

Consequently, cults are usually examined from the perspective of former members. But sometimes, individuals are reluctant to talk about their experiences as cult members.

How to Recognize a Cult

Sometimes individuals disagree about whether a group, such as a certain religious group, is actually a cult. Even researchers sometimes can’t agree on what constitutes a cult.

One thing most people can agree on is that cults have a leader. And the leader (or group of people who serve as leaders) are responsible for the rules that guide the members.

According to the Cult Education Institute, there are specific warning signs to look out for when considering whether a group might be a cult:

  • Absolute authoritarianism without accountability
  • No tolerance for criticism or questions
  • No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget
  • Unreasonable fears about the outside world that often involve evil conspiracies and persecutions
  • Former followers are always wrong for leaving and there is never a legitimate reason for anyone else to leave
  • Former members often report being abused
  • There are records, books, articles or programs that document the abuses of the leader or group
  • Followers feel they are never able to be “good enough”
  • The leader is considered right at all times
  • The leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or giving validation

Why People Become Cult Members

To those on the outside, it can be quite confusing as to why anyone would join a cult. But researchers have found that there are several reasons why individuals may join.

They Don't Know They're Joining a Cult

Most individuals don’t recognize the group they’re joining is considered a cult. Individuals who are attracted to groups that are considered cults may have certain vulnerabilities that make them more likely to join, such as anxiety or substance abuse problems.

They Have Unresolved Insecurities

Another study found that many cult members experience attachment insecurity prior to joining a cult. Their insecurities may drive them toward a group that promises acceptance.

Once they join a group, they’re usually distanced from outside influences. After individuals are separated from the outside world, leaving the group becomes difficult. They often grow dependent on being in the group and develop suspicions of anyone outside the group.

This is why some individuals suspect that cult members are “brainwashed.” And there is some science behind this idea as they’re often told they’re being persecuted by people outside the group.

People Join Cults Because of Sociological Factors

The other major theory about why individuals remain in cults is mostly sociological.

Cult leaders often promise to reward members in some way. They may tell them they’re going to move up the ranks within the cult or they may convince them that something really good is going to happen to their special group.

Some people believe those involved are more like “victims” rather than “members” since they are often subjected to psychological manipulation tactics that lure them into making unhealthy decisions—including suicide in some cases.

Getting out of a cult can be quite difficult. Some members don't have contact with the outside world, so it can be nearly impossible to get help. Others don't have financial resources to find a new place to go.

Famous Examples in History

Throughout history, there have been many cults that have made the news—quite often for their tragic endings. Here are a few examples:

Heaven’s Gate

Heaven's Gate was a group that started in the 1970s. They were known as a "UFO religious" cult. It was a tightly knit group that required members to give up almost all of their possessions.

In March of 1997, they put on matching dark clothes, ingested barbiturates, and placed plastic bags over their heads and killed themselves. This was one of the largest mass suicides in United States’ history.

Charles Manson

In the 1960s, Charles Manson assembled a group of young people and referred to them as his family. Manson expressed his ideas about an imminent race war and he told his followers he wanted them to go on a killing spree.

One night in 1969, several followers murdered five people, including actress Sharon Tate. Manson was later convicted of first-degree murder.

David Koresh

Famous cult leader David Koresh thought he could have conversations with God and he convinced his followers the world was ending. He and more than 100 people moved to a compound outside of Waco, Texas.

The FBI tried to arrest Koresh in 1993 because of law violations—such as advocating for underage girls to get married to adult men. It led to a 51-day standoff. Ultimately, 75 people from the group died and Koresh was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

Jim Jones

Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis in 1955. He moved his followers to Eureka, California out of fear that a nuclear attack might strike Indiana. He later moved his followers to Guyana, which became known as Jonestown.

A government official went to investigate the group in 1978 after they grew concerned that some members may be abused.

The group shot and killed the official and then, Jones instructed his followers to drink Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. Over 900 people died, including Jones—who was found with a bullet wound to the head.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you grew up in a cult or you recently got out of one, you may want to talk to a mental health professional about the complex feelings you may have. Whether you were exposed to traumatic events or you are confused about your identity, there are many reasons why talking to someone might help you.

If you think a friend or family member may be involved with a cult, that can be really scary too. You may want to reach out for professional help to get some guidance on what you can do or how you can cope with your emotions.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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