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Highly organized groups led by a dynamic leader who exercises strong control.

A cult is a structured group, most of whose members demonstrate unquestioned loyalty to a dynamic leader. The cult leader governs most, if not all, aspects of the lives of his or her followers, often insisting that they break all ties with the world outside of the cult. Such groups are usually thought of in terms of religion, although other types of cults can and do exist.

The proliferation of religious cults in the United States is considered by many experts as symptomatic of the general social discordance that has plagued postwar Western society. Cults offer the allure of an ordered world that is easily understood. Clear rules of behavior are enforced and nagging questions about meaning and purpose are dispelled by the leader, who defines members' lives in service to the cult's interest. It is probably most useful to examine the phenomenon of cults without dwelling on the sensationalistic practices of the flamboyant, the infamous, and the suicidal. When a psychologist examines a cult and its dynamics, what is actually observed is the mental condition of the member; in other words, what is it about the individual that allows them to willingly relinquish themselves to such rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking and living?

To understand this process, consider that many social organizations other than what we traditionally think of as cults require strict adherence to a set of beliefs and, in turn, provide a sense of meaning and purpose to their followers. Behavior that is not normally considered as being cult-like can be seen as having some of the main characteristics of cults. The rigid social contract of the military, for instance, is considered by many psychologists as being cult-like. Other social organizations that have had a profound impact on the lives of its followers include self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where selflessness and devotion to the group are highly valued and rewarded. Certain types of political groups and terrorist organizations are still other examples of "cults" that defy the common definition of the term. Dr. Arthur Deikman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, is one of many psychologists who has observed cultic behavior in many areas of society other than in extremist religious groups. In the introduction to his 1990 book, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Deikman asserted that "behavior similar to that which takes place in extreme cults takes place in all of us," and suggested that "the longing for parents persists into adulthood and results in cult behavior that pervades normal society."

Because cultic behavior underlies more than extremist religious sects, many psychologists refer to these groups as charismatic groups. Marc Galanter, professor of psychiatry at New York University, defines the characteristics of charismatic groups in his study Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion (1989). According to Galanter, charismatic group members "1) have a shared belief system; 2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness; 3) are strongly influenced by the group's behavioral norms, and4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership." Other psychologists have devised additional theories to explain the drawing power of charismatic groups, and some conclude that people who devote themselves to such groups have not yet achieved the developmental stage of individuation. Still other experts, drawing on the field of sociobiology, suggest that the need to be part of a group has biological, evolutionary roots traceable to that period in human history when to be banned from the dominant hunter-gatherer group meant almost certain death.

Whatever the origins of the psychological need to be a part of a defined group, the fact is most people do not fall under the sway of charismatic groups. Typically, such groups find recruits among young people. Usually, such a young person is approached by friendly, outgoing recruiters for the cult who express a deep interest in the person's life and offer empathy and understanding for the difficulties they may be experiencing. These difficulties may be in relation to a failed romance, an unhappy family life, or an existential crisis of the sort usually associated with late adolescence in which a young person has no idea how they fit in the world. The recruiters are often trained to provide a "friendly ear" to troubled young people, to validate their experiences as being common, and, finally, to suggest that other people (such as themselves) have found solace in their groups.

During the process of initiation, recruits may experience severe psychological disorders as they at once begin and resist immersion into an entirely new system. Abandoning old allegiances and belief systems can bring about intense guilt before the recruit completely immerses him or herself into the charismatic group. Some psychologists believe that such mental illnesses as dissociative identity disorders, pathologic adjustment reactions, major depressive disorders, and others may be attributed to the agonizing process of joining a charismatic group. Once immersed in the cult, members will often cut all ties with their past lives, ending contact with their families and friends as they join a new social order that seems to give them meaning and purpose. This kind of behavior is obviously less true of charismatic groups such as the military and some types of self-help groups, but these symptoms can nonetheless appear in less extreme forms.

Interviews with former cult members have revealed that in extremist religious cults, there are often tremendous obstacles to leaving. These obstacles can come in the form of peer pressure, where loyal cult members will intervene in the case of a member who has doubts about the cult and longs for his or her old life, or the obstacles may be physical ones for those whose cult lives communally in an isolated area. Often, family members of persons in religious cults hire what are called "deprogrammers" to kidnap their loved ones and take them to some neutral place where they can be reasoned with sensibly without the interference of other cult members espousing the group's prevailing ideology.

Most psychologists would probably acknowledge that there exists a deep human need to belong to a group. Often, this need leads people to form what might be viewed as unhealthy allegiances to a person or group who, ultimately, does not truly have the person's interest at heart.

Followers of American-born cult leader Jim Jones left the U.S. to set up the Jonestown commune in the Guyana jungle in South America. After a U.S. Congressman and three journalists investigating the cult were killed, Jones persuaded 911 members of his People's Temple flock to kill themselves with cyanide-laced potions in a mass suicide on Nov. 18, 1978. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, a group that originally split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church during the Depression, led 82 people to their death, when he refused to be served with a search and arrest warrant at the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Koresh's followers believed he was the Messiah, despite reports of child abuse and other questionable behaviors. After an initial gunfight that killed four agents and six Davidians, a 51-day stand-off occurred between federal agents and the Davidians holed up in the compound. When agents launched a tear gas attack on April 19, 1993, to end the siege, a fire burned the compound and killed 82 Davidians, probably in a deliberate mass suicide.

Bodies of 39 similarly dressed men and women were found in San Diego on March 26, 1997, after a mass suicide led by Marshall Applewhite, cult leader of Heaven's Gate. The deaths were triggered by the cult's belief that a flying saucer traveled behind comet Hale-Bopp to take them home, an evolutionary existence above the human level. Articles have appeared about the use of the Internet to recruit Heaven's Gate followers.

Further Reading

Ankerberg, John and Weldon, John. Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 1999.

Deikman, Arthur J. The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Deutsch, A. "Tenacity of Attachment to a Cult Leader: A Psychiatric Perspective." American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (1980): 1569-73.

Dolan, Sean. Everything you need to know about cults. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2000.

Hall, J.R. "The Apocalypse at Jonestown." In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, edited by T. Robbins and D. Anthony. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography