What Is a Cult?

10 Warning Signs Often Associated with Cults

Cults attract people with promises of rewarding them.

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What Is a Cult?

A cult is an organized group whose purpose is to dominate cult members through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies. Cults are usually headed by a powerful leader who isolates members from the rest of society.

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 is 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.

Most people can agree that cults have a leader. And the leader (or group of people who serve as leaders) is 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. Cults are characterized by:

  1. Absolute authoritarianism without accountability
  2. Zero tolerance for criticism or questions
  3. Lack of meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget
  4. Unreasonable fears about the outside world that often involve evil conspiracies and persecutions
  5. A belief that former followers are always wrong for leaving and there is never a legitimate reason for anyone else to leave
  6. Abuse of members
  7. Records, books, articles, or programs documenting the abuses of the leader or group
  8. Followers feeling they are never able to be “good enough”
  9. A belief that the leader is right at all times
  10. A belief that the leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or giving validation

Cults are dangerous because they typically rely on deceptive and authoritarian practices to make members dependent on and obedient to the group. Cults often cut members off from other forms of social and financial support and pose both physical and psychological risks to members of the group.

Why People Join Cults

To those on the outside, it can be difficult to understand why anyone would join a cult. 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 people 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 people suspect that cult members are “brainwashed.” And there is some science behind this idea, as members are often told they’re being persecuted by people outside the group.

They Are Manipulated Into Joining

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 of Cults

Why people become cult leaders is also not well understood. Some experts suggest that most cult leaders tend to be psychopaths. They are often charismatic and use psychological tactics to gain power, social control, and allegiance from their followers. 

There have been many cults that have made the news—quite often for their tragic endings.

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.

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, to an area which became known as Jonestown.

An official went to investigate the group in 1978 after the government grew concerned that some members were being abused.

The group shot and killed the official. Jones then 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.

Heaven’s Gate

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

In March of 1997, 39 members 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.

David Koresh

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 violations of the law—such as advocating for underage girls to marry adult men. This led to a 51-day standoff. Ultimately, 75 people from the group died. Like Jim Jones, Koresh was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head.

A Word From Verywell

If 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. Reach out for professional help to get some guidance on what you can do or how you can cope with your emotions.

6 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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  2. Cult Education Institute. Warning signs.

  3. Coates DD. Counselling former members of charismatic groups: considering pre-involvement variables, reasons for joining the group and corresponding valuesMent Health Relig Cult. 2011;14(3):191-207. doi:10.1080/13674670903443404

  4. Matthews CH, Salazar CF. Second-generation adult former cult group members’ recovery experiences: Implications for counseling. Int J Adv Counselling. 2014;36(2):188-203. doi:10.1007/s10447-013-9201-0

  5. American Psychological Association. Cults of hatred.

  6. Atchison AJ, Heide KM. Charles Manson and the Family: The application of sociological theories to multiple murder. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2011;55(5):771-798. doi:10.1177/0306624X10371794

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.