Cults are a thorny topic, because exactly what constitutes a cult is highly contentious and subjective. The commonalities they share can sometimes put a fine line between cult and religion. Some cult members may insist they’re involved of their own free will and are living happy lives, further complicating a consensus. Bear these facts in mind as we delve into the psychology of cults and their members. 

Cults Defined 

Let’s start with a definition of “cult” from the APA Dictionary of Psychology as a baseline: 

“n. 1. a religious or quasi-religious group characterized by unusual or atypical beliefs, seclusion from the outside world, and an authoritarian structure. Cults tend to be highly cohesive, well organized, secretive, and hostile to nonmembers.” 

Most cults share some common traits:  

  • They’re usually led by a charismatic individual whom the members worship without question. 
  • Cult members often live together in their own dedicated community. 

The Psychology of Cults: How They Lure People In and Take Control 

Cults recruit new members anywhere you might expect to meet new people: social media, discussion groups, community clubs, events, and the like. These are typically nonthreatening, public situations that would not cause anyone to be suspicious. Cult recruiters get to know as much as they can about people and identify individuals who may be receptive to meeting a group of the recruiter’s friends at dinner or another social event. Though the chosen targets are generally unaware, these seemingly innocent gestures are the first steps to being drawn into a cult.  

Targeting Vulnerable Prey 

Receptive people are those who are looking to escape something—such as an unhappy life situation—and to belong, be accepted, and find meaning. Cults prey upon the vulnerable among us, such as teenage runaways, drug addicts, abuse survivors, those who have lost someone close to them through death or a breakup, those suffering from insecurity or mental health issues, or anyone who feels disconnected from society. 

Drawing in Recruits 

Once the potential recruit is in the presence of cult members, typically still oblivious to the group’s agenda, they are showered with love and validation. This tactic, referred to as “love bombing,” makes the recruit believe they’ve found what they’re looking for and more likely to return for group activities in the future. This is critical in the early stages of cult indoctrination since the recruit is not yet under their influence and needs to feel secure. 

Taking Control  

As they indoctrinate new members, many cults separate them from their families, friends, and jobs, slowly remaking their identities to suit the group. They may force recruits to surrender their money, belongings, and bodies to the cult’s leader and other members. Sometimes they compel new members to marry people they just met. They may use punishment, deprivation, and other tactics to wear them down. These efforts, which sometimes include threats, make new members dependent on and afraid to leave the group. Fully indoctrinated members often engage in behavior they never would’ve considered in their former lives. 

Notorious Cult Cases 

Here are just a few groups that have drawn significant attention to the dangers of cults: 

The Manson Family 

Charles Manson directed his “family” of runaways and other troubled individuals to start a race war by murdering several people in Los Angeles. There were eight victims in all—including pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate—but the group claimed to have murdered and disposed of the bodies of many more. 

The Sullivanians 

Perhaps less known than some other cults, yet one that operated virtually in the open in Manhattan’s upscale Upper West Side, this group began as a psychoanalytical institute in the 1950s but evolved into a coercive sex cult that lasted for decades and counted famous artists among its membership. 

The Peoples Temple 

Reverend Jim Jones ran the Peoples Temple in several California locations before moving the congregation to Guyana and establishing the “Jonestown” commune. The temple’s methods came under increasing scrutiny, and upon an unwelcome visit from a U.S. Congressman, Jones ordered his congregation to drink Flavor Aid (often misattributed to Kool-Aid) laced with valium and cyanide. Many victims were children, and many adults were forced at gunpoint. More than 900 people died that day. 

Heaven’s Gate 

Marshall Applewhite, leader of Heaven’s Gate, was convinced that an extraterrestrial spacecraft was hiding behind the recently discovered Hale-Bopp comet and that members of his group would be taken to a higher level of existence by that spacecraft following their deaths. As the comet passed close to Earth, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate drank vodka mixed with phenobarbital, placed plastic bags over their heads, and died. 


Outwardly a self-help organization, Nxivm was secretly a sex cult assaulting women, branding the initials of founder Keith Raniere on them, and blackmailing them. The organization operated partly on a pyramid scheme structure, with “masters” recruiting “slaves” who would eventually recruit more “slaves” as subordinates. The case also drew attention for the involvement of “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, who recruited women for Raniere. 

Good News 

Hundreds of members of the Kenya-based Good News international church willingly starved to death at the direction of their leader, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who himself abstained from the slow suicide. Mackenzie claimed to have determined the date on which the world would end, and purportedly wanted his followers to go to heaven in advance of the apocalypse.  

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