What Is a Cult of Personality?

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What Is a Cult of Personality?

A cult of personality, sometimes referred to as a personality cult, is defined as “exaggerated devotion to a charismatic political, religious, or other leader.”

Authoritarian figures, such as Benito Mussolini of Italy and Vladimir Putin of Russia, are often associated with cults of personality, as are totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, Germany under Adolf Hitler, and North Korea under Kim Jong-Un.

Leaders of cults of personality often use imagery and the manipulation of mass media to form an exalted, even superhuman, version of their persona in the minds of their followers. Their followers accept the leader's persona and authority, which leads to their devotion to the leader and their mission to bring about an imagined future.

History of Cults of Personality

The term “cult of personality” was popularized after Nikita Khrushchev used it in a 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced the ongoing cult of personality surrounding Joseph Stalin, who had died three years prior.

However, the term was first used in modern European languages much earlier, in the first half of the 1800s. Khrushchev wasn't even the first person to use the term in the Soviet Union. Stalin's successor Georgi Malenkov first used it in 1953 to describe Stalin and his followers, just as Khrushchev did three years later.

Yet, while the term may only be around 200 years old, there are examples of cults of personality that date all the way back to ancient times. One includes Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his dynasty, which started deifying dead and eventually living emperors.

Cults of personality have become easier to create and sustain in modern times as mass media has become increasingly sophisticated and accessible, enabling the leaders of cults of personality to more easily spread and control their messages.

Some scholars trace the first modern cult of personality to 1851 when Napoleon III seized power in France and eventually declared himself Emperor. However, many trace it to 1924 when Stalin decided to embalm Vladimir Lenin's corpse and display it publicly, a move that started a posthumous personality cult dedicated to the Soviet leader.

The Charismatic Leader

Sociologist Max Weber introduced the concept of charismatic authority, which most personality cult researchers agree is essential to understanding this kind of leadership. According to Weber, charisma is a “certain quality of an individual personality [under] which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least especially exceptional powers or qualities.”

Meanwhile, charismatic authority depends on individual followers’ devotion to and trust in an individual leader. In this context, followers’ perception of the leader is crucial to maintaining their legitimacy, so the media is used to create and promote a larger-than-life image of the leader.

Another feature of charismatic authority is that it’s frequently critical of existing institutions and seeks to bring about some form of change, which could constitute anything from a previous idealized time to revolutionary reform.

This mission to disrupt the established order is key to the success of a charismatic leader as the more followers buy into the belief that there’s a crisis in society that current institutions can’t fix, the more likely they are to place their hopes in a charismatic leader. The same basic principles apply to the figure around which a cult of personality forms.

How Cults of Personality Gain and Keep Followers

The real or imagined qualities of the charismatic leader that are established through mass media may start to establish a cult of personality, but it’s ultimately the response of potential followers that makes a personality cult possible.

While the overarching mission led by a charismatic leader—such as bringing about a new utopia—is often so lofty that it’s unrealistic, follower support is typically built on the inclusion of more realistic, practical goals—such as better wages or less competition for jobs—that will help followers imagine an improved future.

In a cult of personality, the leader solidifies and legitimizes his authority through media manipulation and propaganda that causes followers to believe the leader is the only one who can achieve the stated mission. However, followers’ ongoing belief and devotion to a personality cult isn’t sustained by its leader and mission alone. It’s also membership in the group and loyalty to the other group members that maintain their loyalty.

An individual’s dedication to the other members of a personality cult can be key to both their continuing membership and the group-specific beliefs they buy into and actions they’re willing to perform. This can be explained by:

In-Groups and the Need to Belong

To resonate, a charismatic leader must speak in the language of their followers to ensure the followers understand and accept the leader's mission. If the leader is successful in this endeavor, it can strengthen their followers' devotion and belief in them, but it will also enhance the feeling that the personality cult members are part of an in-group.

This in-group then develops its own visual references, beliefs, and rituals that strengthen devotion to the leader and the personality cult as a whole. Performing such rituals or state beliefs aligned with the personality cult can become a litmus test for belonging.

Members of a cult of personality satisfy their need to belong, although this also increases the need to maintain their status within the group by conforming to its norms. This can drive members to increasingly radical behaviors and beliefs, especially when the leader stirs prejudice against out-groups (particularly out-groups that followers have little or no possibility of ever belonging to, such as groups based on national origin, race, gender, or class).

Identity Fusion and the Devoted Actor

Ultimately, when devotion to the leader and their mission evolves into devotion to the personality cult as a whole, followers may experience identity fusion, in which one’s social identity and individual self-concept are fused. This can lead followers to feel a family-like bond with other group members, encouraging them to engage in extreme behavior, even fighting and dying, on behalf of the group.

According to the theoretical framework of the “devoted actor,” these actions have nothing to do with anticipated risks or rewards but are the result of followers’ unconditional commitment to the group’s morals, values, and ideology.

In cults of personality, this can mean loyalty to the group, and obedience to the leader becomes more important than more established values. As a result, identity fusion with a personality cult can result in ties to the group that are even stronger than those to their own family.

So while those on the outside may see how the leader is manipulating and exploiting their followers and question why group members continue to fall prey to this, their followers will become increasingly dedicated to the cult of personality.

Breaking Free of Cults of Personality

Because cults of personality are so successful at fulfilling social needs, it can be challenging to break free on one's own. Moreover, if one lives in a country where a personality cult was created to strengthen the political hold of an authoritarian leader, they may have no ability to do so.

For people who have fallen prey to cults of personality operating in democracies, it will likely take concerned friends and family to start the process of opening a loved one's eyes to their participation.

However, friends and family won’t be able to get through to a loved one who is a member of personality cults by calling them names or bluntly telling them they're being manipulated. Instead, the key is displaying empathy and asking questions without condescension or judgment.

No matter how devoted an individual may seem to a cult of personality, there will be some cracks in their loyalty, even if they are initially difficult to discern. A friend or family member can detect these cracks by opening up a friendly dialogue and then very gently point them out.

This process requires patience and tolerance, but ultimately, it can help the individual recognize and break free of the personality cult's influence on their lives. One way or another, though, it has to be the individual’s choice to break free, and friends and family must accept that the process won’t work unless their loved one comes to their own realization that they no longer wish to be part of the cult of personality.

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