According to anthropologist Phillips Stevens, the definition of “cult” changed in the 1970s, after Charles Manson’s commune committed a multitude of murders. The definition developed negative, satanic connotations as the perceived danger of cults started to spread throughout the United States. Stevens defines today’s cult as “…a group of people who had been brainwashed by a megalomaniacal deluded person who imposed severe restrictions on his followers.”
Although there is not a singular ‘type’ of person who joins a cult, typically cult members are young and vulnerable. There are also some predisposed circumstances that may attract certain people to cults. These circumstances include a desire to belong, a lack of self-confidence, a longing for spiritual meaning, a dissatisfaction with the ‘norm,” and a need for definite answers. It is estimated that there are currently 3,000-5,000 cult groups worldwide, and, recently, 6 to 10 million people have been involved in a cult.
Merriam-Webster defines the term ‘cult’ as:
- “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious
- great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
- a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
- formal religious
- a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator.”
- “Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.”
America’s most notorious cults fit most, if not all, of these characteristics. For example, The People’s Temple—lead by Reverend Jim Jones—was a cult group who moved to ‘Jonestown’ in order to create a socialist utopia. After a series of unfortunate events, involving the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, Jones led 918 follows to mass suicide in fear of punishment for the murder of the congressman. The cult members, including children, willingly drank cyanide-spiked Kool-Aid while Jones shot himself in the head. Another example is the infamous Manson Family cult who, in 1969, went on a killing spree under the watchful eye of Charles Manson.
When it comes to cults, the question that most people ask is why? Why would anyone join a cult? There are two general explanations, in the fields of psychology and sociology, to explain cult mentality. The first is the “brainwashing model,” which occurs when cult members strip new converts of their identities, make them dependent on the cult, and program them to believe solely in the cult. The second is called “social drift” in which new members slowly and gradually convert to the cult mentality through social relationships. That being said, a combination of these two reasonings best describes how cult mentality occurs.
Cult conversion techniques are similar throughout many cult groups, and revolve around psychological manipulation. Cult leaders consciously manipulate their cult members through social influence that produces many behavioral changes. Those who left cults try and integrate into society, but it is not easy. Due to the psychological manipulation and destruction, former cult members are often depressed, guilty, scared, and paranoid. They often have slow speech, memory impairment, and rigidity in their body posture and facial expressions. While there is an increased awareness of cults in the mental-health medical realm, many professionals associate “cult mentality” and “psychopathology” when, in reality, cult mentality is more of a psychological and sociological issue and should be treated as such.
(For an inside look into cults, listen to the “Heaven’s Gate” podcast or the “Cults” podcast. Free on the ‘Podcast’ app).
 Long, T. E., & Hadden, J. K. (1983). Religious conversion and the concept of socialization: Integrating the brainwashing and drift models. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1-14.