Cult Psychology

Last modified: 2015-02-17 13:44:32 UTC

© 2009~2018 Charles L. Chandler



The list of cults that have gone off the deep end continues to grow. Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Shoko Asahara... Yet the general understanding of this phenomenon is lacking.


That's right — understanding. It's easy to dismiss abnormal psychology as just plain weird, and thus put it out of our minds. But understanding gives us better control. Things beyond our comprehension will always simply happen to us, and we are defenseless against them. But if we know how something works, we can anticipate it, and hopefully keep things from getting out of hand. So this phenomenon needs to be brought into the light of day.

Not all "cults" are the same, and the word itself is actually a bit difficult to define. But there is a distinctive pattern, and that pattern is the topic of this paper.

The opinions herein are the author's, and while the author agrees with much of the literature on this topic, this paper makes no attempt to represent the mainstream thinking on cult psychology. In fact, there is little consensus on what makes a cult behave as it does, and this leaves society without a working concept of how to deal with cults. It is that void that this paper attempts to fill.


Fanatical cults always center around a leader, and an understanding of the leader is key to understanding the entire phenomenon.

The leader is simply an extremely manipulative person who gets an ego trip from seeing what he can get people to do for him. There are, of course, many manipulative people in society. "Manipulation" itself is a hard word to define, and surely there are times when it is actually a good thing. But when motivated by ego, it's usually bad. Ego trips are fundamentally destructive in nature — they have to consume in order to be satisfied. Intellectual and spiritual motivations might drive us to build each other up, but ego is a matter of sense of importance, and destruction is cheaper importance than caring and building. If someone is having a hard time getting enough sense of importance out of life, destroying things might be the only way that he can balance his emotional budget.

Another important point about ego-driven manipulation is that it leads to unnatural acts. Getting people to do things that they would have done anyway is not an ego trip. But getting people to do things that are against their natures is an ego trip. So we can expect the manipulative person to ask us to go against our common sense, the way we were raised, the influences of family and friends, and even against our natural instincts for safety and security. It is the amount that we can be deflected from our original course that gives the manipulative person a sense of importance. Unfortunately, most of the forces that influence us in our lives are healthy, and a fundamental change in course — the more radical the better — when driven by somebody's ego needs — is probably going to be unhealthy.


One of the defining characteristics of a cult leader is that he figures out that it is easier to manipulate people using a gimmick. A normal egomaniac wants to get people to do things for him, and the more obviously the whole thing is about him, the bigger he feels. This explicit selfishness limits the scope of his influence to that small number of people around him who have their own selfish motives for wanting to make him happy. But a cult leader knows that if he can convince people that it's not about him, but rather, that there is a greater good to be achieved, they will be willing to do things for him in the pursuit of the greater good. To the manipulative person capable of maintaining this layer of abstraction, this is a Really Good Thing.

The gimmick can be anything, but somehow, it needs to be capable of dictating behavior, or it wouldn't serve as a conduit for manipulation. Typically the gimmick is a religion, with a moral code tailored to suit the selfish desires of the leader.


Cult leaders begin as part of a larger society, and their targets are members of that society. But the cult leader becomes frustrated with the fact that he can talk people into doing things for him, but as soon as these people return to their daily lives, the effect wears off. Getting people to do things against their natures is hard when they are surrounded by family and friends who nudge them back towards more reasonable behavior. Eventually, the cult leader gets tired of spending hours working his targets into devotional frenzies, only to have to go through the same exercise a week later. If the moderating influence of family and friends can be removed, the leader can talk the targets into doing things against their natures, and they won't go back to normal anywhere near as fast. If the followers can be isolated from moderating influences, the leader can get more ego trip with less effort.

Isolation from society can be accomplished in degrees. At first, a small group of people might decide to rent a large house. Next, they might decide to purchase a tract of land and to build the facilities to accommodate a larger group of people. Isolation can be partial, wherein cult members live with each other, but still work in the community, or it can be total, wherein the members are completely cut off from society, and especially from the bonds of family and friends.


The next major threshold that needs to be crossed involves physical hardship. This can include sleep deprivation, chronic hunger, long hours of manual labor, etc. There are simple reasons why the cult may have to endure physical hardship. With limited interaction with the outside world, they'll have to get by on limited funds. But cult members should expect to be asked to endure more hardship than reality dictates, since this is one of the ways that the leader can gratify his ego. Getting people to endure extra hardship for the "greater good" makes him feel more important.

But physical hardship is not just an extension of the previous factors, where the degree has increased — it constitutes a new kind of factor. The human brain has natural mechanisms for dealing with pain, if a person believes that the pain will be temporary, or that it will serve some higher purpose. So instead of directing its attention at removing the source of the painful stimuli, the brain releases endorphins to stifle the pain, and then gets back to pursuing the greater good.

This has many implications. First, because of this mechanism, the leader's ego gets another boost. With a sufficient dose of gimmick, the cult members can endure unbelievable hardships, and to the leader, this is a Good Thing.

Second, this mechanism, in this context, transforms the mentality of the members. The brain's natural pain killers normally serve the purpose of allowing the individual to get past the rough spots in life, reducing the number of limiting decisions that have to be made. For example, this mechanism gave prehistoric hunters the ability to overcome fatigue and injury in order to complete the hunt. But when the "greater good" is a manipulation, this mechanism facilitates an extended disconnect from reality, and sadly, the members embrace this disconnect. They feel liberated and empowered. Things that they simply could never have endured previously become easy and painless for them now. This increases their confidence in their own abilities, and constitutes "proof" that their belief system is correct. In essence, they start thinking of themselves as super-human. When this factor is taken to the extreme, they believe that they are invincible. They will proudly march across a battlefield, directly into a hail of gunfire, not fearing death, but actually smirking at the triviality of the whole thing. This is pure exhilaration to them, as they prove that they have truly achieved complete mind over matter. They actually do not feel any pain, as their subconscious minds have learned that the signals from the body should be ignored "for the greater good" and to release endorphins to suppress those signals. They smirk at those who fear pain, the way a 10th grader smirks at the spelling errors of a 5th grader. Pain is something that the cult members have learned to overcome.

This is perhaps the aspect of cults that is the least understood by those who have not studied them (or been in one), and this directly impacts the effectiveness of attempts to negotiate with cult members.

For example, when federal authorities were seeking a resolution to the stand-off with the Branch Davidians, they used military tactics. Electricity and water were cut off, and armored personnel carriers made laps around the compound, in an attempt to intimidate the cult members. While these techniques weaken the resolve of the typical thrill-seeking volunteer soldier, they have the inverse effect on cult members. For those who have achieved mind over matter, these tactics offer an opportunity to experience the exhilaration of not feeling fear in the face of things that would break a lesser person. This reinforces their beliefs. They literally "get high" from the experience, and the well-being that they feel confirms their conviction that they have found truth on Earth.


The next threshold that needs to be crossed is paranoia. The reasons for its emergence, and the effects that it will have, are complex.

The leader having gained control over the minds of the members, and the members having gained control over their bodies, all of them think that they have risen above society, and achieved a higher level of being. This gives them a heady feeling of superiority. So why would superior beings be paranoid?

The ego trip that is driving this whole thing is thriving on getting people to act against their natures. Getting a tired person to go to sleep, or a hungry person to eat, is not an ego trip. But getting a tired and hungry person to work through the night, to prove that a true follower can easily accomplish twice as much as the normal person, gives the leader a rush, especially if the work itself merely serves his own selfish ends.

Invariably, getting people to act against their natures involves getting people to go against common social mores. These include things like stealing (or more commonly, committing fraud), and violating laws concerning sexual practices. They would be more likely to get away with such behavior, if it were not for the fact that they are not doing such things for any simple intrinsic merit, but rather, for the ego trip of seeing that they can get away with things that others cannot, because they have no fear, and because they have no morals with regards to interactions with society.

In the backs of their minds, the cult members know that they are doing things that society considers to be unacceptable. From the perspective of the leader, it's OK if you can get away with it, and from the perspective of the members, it's OK if it serves a greater good, and besides, society's laws do not apply to superior beings. Nevertheless, all of them know that there is strength in numbers, which they do not have compared to society, and this puts them at a disadvantage. As virtually all societies reserve the right to the search the premises of anyone suspected of committing a crime, the cult members know that they are vulnerable. Thinking that they are superior to society, they (foolishly) think that society is jealous of them, and would sooner destroy them than tolerate the humiliation of the presence of superior beings in their midst. In reality, society looks down on them, and would sooner leave them alone if the cult would simply interact less with society. It is, in fact, the cult's insistence on continuing to interact with society, minus the obligatory respect for society's laws, that invariably brings the cult directly into conflict with society. Regardless, the cult is vulnerable, and it knows it.

Enjoying the distinction of being above society, but knowing full well that society has the upper hand, and knowing instinctively that they would not be able to maintain their sense of superiority if forced back into the midst of society, the cult then comes to fear society as a threat.

There is also a physiological reason for the paranoia. The release of endorphins is not a steady-state affair, and the psychological disposition of cult members is not even-keeled. Overwhelming ecstasy is matched by deep depression, and punctuated with episodes of anger, frustration, fear, selfishness, and lack of focus. The wild mood swings that result from episodic infusions of pain killers into the bloodstream increase the psychological insecurity of the members, which the leader utilizes to strengthen the bond to the cult. It also opens the door to fringe mind states, such as paranoia.

Sadly, fear is a stimulant just like pain, and it triggers the release of endorphins as well. ("Adrenalin junkies" are not addicted to adrenalin, but rather, to the endorphin release that accompanies the sense of danger.) If the cult members learn to suppress their fears, and re-double their commitment to the cult, a bad pattern emerges. The more powerful the fear, and the more effective the redirection of that fear into cult-centered beliefs, the more powerful the "high" that they feel, and the more invincible they think they are. The sense of well-being is twisted, but addictive nevertheless, and unfortunately, it "teaches" the cult members to enjoy the thought that their behaviors will bring them into conflict with society. A cult leader who somehow figures out how to control this phenomenon can lead a group of fanatics into mortal conflict against a far larger force, and get them to look forward to it.

Getting people to sacrifice their lives is the ultimate ego trip for a cult leader. At this point, his ego not only craves constant reinforcement, but has, in fact, become accustomed to exponentially-increasing satiation. "Normal" at this point, to the leader, means taking the thing to the next level on a regular basis. If unchecked, this combination of factors leads invariably to the destruction of the cult. And not because they accidentally chose the wrong path, but because they sought it out. In the hands of an egomaniac who has learned how to push people against their natures, and where the people themselves have come to experience ecstasy in the disconnect, the "against their natures" part leads ultimately to their deaths. So it's not that they have lost their way, but rather, that they have found a way to walk away from reality, and they like it.


If the cult survives all of the above, they have one more chance to seal their fate. Fixation on conflict with society implies an event, and an event implies a date. We naturally arrange our thoughts around upcoming events, and impending mortal conflict would constitute a significant upcoming event that would occupy people's minds. If the leader still has some sanity left, he might deflect curiosity concerning when this was all going to happen. But if the leader has reason to believe that the gig will not last forever, he might decide to take the thing to the next level, by fixing the date of their destruction. This enables the most extreme behavior possible. We can all endure more pain if we know that it is temporary. If the end is in sight, it's OK. With the date of their demise penciled in on the calendar, little matters, and less hurts. All thoughts are on the higher good, and the leader has no limits. If he can successfully channel the fear of death into devotion to his gimmick, he can take the members to the highest level attainable — knowing that they are going to die, and when, and loving that feeling. And of course, letting the date pass uneventfully would constitute backing down from the summit. Few cults have achieved this level and survived.


Cults are psychotic, but they are not inhuman. It is the best within us — the search for a higher purpose in life, and the desire to overcome our limitations — that makes suicidal cults possible. A rare coincidence of factors, in the hands of someone who must manipulate, and ultimately destroy, in order to be satisfied, is all that it takes to twist healthy people into suicidal psychotics.

It is simply the responsibility of people who understand these patterns to educate others. To the unsuspecting believer, the ecstasy of devotion "proves" that one has found truth. A better informed individual clearly recognizes that sleep deprivation, hunger, manual labor, and psychological abuse will trigger the release of endorphins, and when the leader implies that the "rush" is a sign of truth, the better informed individual recognizes that the leader is attempting to redirect a simple physiological response to the fact that he's being a pain in the ass. We could have just skipped the physical and mental abuse, and saved the endorphins for a truly higher purpose, like muffling the pain that we might feel after busting our knuckles up side his head.

At the same time, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Chances are, the "gimmick" is going to sound like something good. We cannot dismiss every message just because it sounds good. Unfortunately, those who have suffered under the delusions of a cult leader will forever be skeptical of all good things. Trust issues are painful ordeals, because of the initial violation of our trust, and all the more so because of the lingering mistrust that makes us refuse help. Then we hurt ourselves, and in ways that have nothing at all to do with the original issue.

But generalized mistrust is not the lesson to be passed on. Rather, it is a specific set of tricks that multiply the effectiveness of the cult leader, and these are all very distinctive. If we know them when we see them, and know to run like hell in the other direction, we can stay free of this menace. He may have a good message, and we may be feeling a personal need for a good message. But to the cult leader, goodness is a gimmick that he can use to get people to do bad things. And that's not good.

So mistrusting everybody, and refusing to bond, is not the answer. The lesson is to mistrust the one who attempts to break the bonds of family, friends, and society, for it is in isolation that we are the most vulnerable. If the message sounds like it can be applied directly to our daily lives, then it might be realistic, and it is not necessarily manipulative. It the message requires that we leave society, then it is definitely not realistic, and it is probably manipulative.



The End