Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Cults and motivation

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Cults and motivation:
What motivates people to join cults?

Overview[edit | edit source]

A cult can be defined as a group or movement that identifies itself as belonging to a recognised religion, however rejects or violates one or more of the fundamental teachings of that religion (Lawson, 2009). Furthermore, it can also be defined as a cohesive group in which the leader heavily influences the behaviours of their followers (Tourish & Pinnington, 2002). Whilst all cultic groups differ in certain aspects, there are various characteristics that tend to generally define the majority. These consist of, the novel or deviant views held by members, their unquestioning faith and commitment to the group leader, the use of mind altering practices such as meditation and brainwashing and the us-versus-them (society) mentality that most members adapt when entering a cult (Lalich & Langone, 2008). Whilst these characteristics lend some assistance to recognising a cultic group, further exploration is necessary to correctly differentiate between cults and other societies or organisations. Margaret Thaler Singer (1995) and her assistants suggest that through examining the origin of the cult leader, the power structure between leader and followers and finally the use of a coordinates program of persuasion, such as brainwashing, a clear understanding of whether the group can be defined as a cult or not will be achieved.

According to cult members[edit | edit source]

Whilst the general stigma towards cults is seen as controversial and destructive, insiders and group members share very different views. Cult members view their “communities” not for their negative prejudice, but for what they seemingly have to offer. Friendship, connections, identity and an opportunity for contribution, cooperation and loyalty are certain characteristics that cult members believe can be achieved by joining such groups (Furnham, 2014). Cult members do not believe they are joining a cultic group but rather that they are working for a cause, joining a political movement or new religion. Furthermore, they view these groups as noble and inspirational, initially ignorant to the dangerous attributes that can be present within the group (Golf, 2014). The attractiveness of the often simplistic lifestyle that offers fulfillment to group members, overshadows their ability to identify the ‘red flags’ present in cultic groups and communities.

Types of cults[edit | edit source]

There are various types of cults across the globe, based around content such as politics, self-improvement, health fads, science fiction, out-of-space phenomena, meditation, martial arts, environmental lifestyles and arguably the most common theme, religion (Thaler Singer & Lalich, 1995). Recently, there is also a prominent disposition of terror-related cults, often branching from mainstream religions.

Table 1. Most popular cult types and their beliefs.

Marked by belief in a God or some higher being Characterised by belief in spiritual enlightenment Believe in overthrowing the 'enemy' and/or changing society Strive for personal transformational and improvement
Heaven's Gate, Jonestown: The People's Temple, Scientology, Vissarion Alamo Christian Foundation, Bubba Free John and the Dawn Horse Communion, Emissaries of Divine Light The Manson Family, People's Mujahedin of Iran, Hitler: Nazism The Center for Feeling Therapy, The Sullivanians, Silva Mind Control

What motivates people to join cults?[edit | edit source]

To provide a better understanding into why people join cults, exploration into psychological theories of motivation is necessary. Motivation can be described as particular needs or desires that direct or energise certain behaviours (Gerrig, Zimbardo, Campbell, Cummins & Wilkes, 2008). In understanding the exact needs and desires that direct individuals to join cultic groups, we can essentially establish why certain people are more susceptible to joining cults than others.

Theories[edit | edit source]

Cult members identify as being a part of a group that provides friendship, connections, identity and loyalty, all of which are facets of a well established group or community. However, why is it that people are motivated to seek out these characteristics?

Several theories suggest that self-esteem plays a large role in motivating behaviours, particularly in regard to group affiliation. Mark Leary (1999) and his colleagues suggest that self-esteem is viewed as an internalised representation of societal rejection or acceptance, as interpersonal relationships and social acceptance have high value and thus can be used as a gauge for avoiding social devaluation and rejection. Leary (1999) gathered these findings to create the ‘sociometer theory’, explaining it as a function that monitors the interactions between people and sends signals to the individual allowing them to stay in check with how socially acceptable their behaviour is. Leary (1999) suggests that that sociometer theory proposes that interpersonal relationships and social acceptance have a profound influence on a person’s overall opinion of themselves. This is extremely relevant to in-group interaction, as we as humans have a profound desire for interpersonal relationships and naturally, our self-esteem is boosted by the positive relationships we attain. Furthermore, those in groups have a higher chance of survival and reproducing than those who remain alone, which also reinforces our desire to attain connections with others (Anthony, Holmes & Wood, 2007).

Figure 1. Image caption goes here.

Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs also suggests that people are motivated by certain needs. Once one need is fulfilled, the individual will seek to attain the next. Maslow portrays these needs as hierarchical levels on a pyramid (see Figure 1). With the initial needs being categorised as basic physiological needs, followed by safety, social, self-esteem and ending with the ultimate goal of self-actualisation. Cultic groups such as Jonestown and Vissarion’s Church of the Last Testament offer individuals the ability to fulfill all of these needs by joining their community. As these cultic groups, and many similar to them, have established communities independent from mainstream society, they create their own supply of food, shelter and other physiological needs. Thus, allowing members to then pursue the needs following this, of safety, social, self-esteem and self actualisation, all of which are offered, usually under a false premise, by various cultic groups[grammar?].

Leary’s sociometer theory findings (1999), in accordance with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) lends insight about why people join cultic groups, placing emphasis on interpersonal relationships and how they are essentially a human need that the majority of us naturally seek out. Relationships are just one appealing feature often advertised by cultic groups. Members are often recruited with belief that they will achieve fulfilling relationships and a sense of belonging, which will essentially feed their self-esteem and allow them to achieve the human need of self-esteem and self-worth.

Whilst the motivations behind joining cults is now evident, the process involved in achieving membership to the group is not solely dependent on these motivations. False premise and brainwashing by group leaders and other influential members is also used to ‘speed up’ the behaviours driven by the motivations of potential members.

Traits of cult leaders[edit | edit source]

Personality theories of leadership suggest that the traits associated with effective leadership are intelligence, sociability, self-confidence, determination and integrity (Bligh, 2009). All qualities that can be applied to cult leaders, bar of course, integrity. The difference between a dependable and honest group leader, and that of cult leader is integrity. Cult leaders often use deceit, mind control, and intimidation to control their group members, using the groups’ efforts and resources for their own prosperity and power. In addition to this, cult leaders rely on the following techniques to recruit and govern their members.

Table 2.
Add Table Caption Here

Deceit Lying to group members, infidelity and concealing or misrepresenting messages
Emphasise Exclusivism Leaders will reinforce that NO other organisation or religion can offer what they do, unlike other Religious groups where members are free to go to various Churches within their belief
Fear and Intimidation Leaders will impose fear in their members often using threats or blackmail
Mind Control A combination of techniques such as meditation, psychological debilitation and drugs to control and limit individual thoughts
Character Assassination An attempt to destroy the credibility and reputation of a person
Information Control Control of incoming information from mainstream society
Time Control An attempt to keep members busy so that they have no time to come to realisations

Another trait that the majority of cult leaders share is narcissism[factual?]. Narcissists are often characterised by their amplified sense of self-importance, their requirement of excessive admiration, their lack of empathy, their exploitative nature towards others and their preoccupation with fantasies of ultimate success (López De Victoria, 2008). These physiognomies are prevalent among cult leaders such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, etc.

Furthermore, various cult leaders shared the fact that in varying forms, they had troubled childhoods. Jim Jones was a social outcast whom as a young child was obsessed with religion and death, often having funerals for animals and in one instance stabbing a cat to death (Jones, 2014). Charles Manson, born to un-married 16 year old was rejected by his parents as a child and as a result begun a life of crime at a young age (Manson, 2014). Similar to Manson, David Koresh too was born to an un-married 15-year-old girl and grew up as a social outcast, claiming that older boys raped him when he was eight years old (Koresh, 2014).

Perhaps the similarities that have established between various cult leaders can provide us with an understanding of the types of people that are susceptible to becoming narcissistic, power-driven leaders.

22-Point scale of evil[edit | edit source]

Forensic psychologist Michael Stone of Columbia University stars in a show[explain?] called 'Most Evil', in which mass murderers, psychopaths and cult leaders are ranked on a 22-point scale of evil, ranging from 1: Those who have killed in self-defense, and who do not show traces of psychopathy to 22: Psychopathic torture-murderers, where torture is the primary motive.

Click here to view the episode dedicated to cult leaders: WATCH: Most Evil Cult Leaders (Joplin, 2008) 

Cults in history[edit | edit source]

Historical context[edit | edit source]

Whilst there are uprises of cultic groups of differing extremities every day, researcher Margaret Thaler Singer (1995) suggests that cults tend to flourish during times of both social and political instability. Examples of this are after the French Revolution, the fall of Rome, the breakup of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe and throughout the industrial revolution in England. Cults were also particularly prevalent in both Japan after World War II and America throughout the 1960s. As a result of the unrest caused by these events, people were left unsure, lost, and looking for answers and assurance. Cultic groups eagerly jumped at the opportunity to recruit members at their most vulnerable, offering them the safety and belonging they desired (Maslow, 2014).

The historical context of cultic groups is vast and continues to grow, not only because social and political unrest can occur anywhere in the world, but also due to the fact that the manipulative techniques used to recruit members can be applied anywhere. There are no boundaries in regard to establishing or creating cults, which is why they are so treacherous.

Infamous cults[edit | edit source]

Click here for a list of 118 cultic groups and new Religions

Click here to watch a full documentary on 'The dangerous devotion to cults' (Golf, 2014)

Escapees[edit | edit source]

A sense of belonging, close relationships, and increasing self-esteem are what motivate people to join cults, however what is it that motivates people to leave? Generally, it is when the member becomes aware of the manipulative techniques and corruption of the cult, and still attains the strength, independence and connections with their previous life to simply leave (Lalich et al. 2008)[grammar?]. Sadly, this is not always an option for members who wish to depart. Often, they will be pressured to stay, feeling too intimated to leave that they stay in fear for months or even years.

Catherine Share, also known as 'Gypsy' was a former member of Charles Manson's 'family'. Share was associated with Manson from the day she met him in 1967 until she disassociated herself with him in 1975 after her release from prison. In the time Share was affiliated with Manson she displayed various acts of commitment and loyalty to him, from taking acid and crawling on her hands and knees for miles to his court hearing, to planning a hijack on a Boeing 747 in attempt to have Manson and fellow family members released from prison. It is evident that Share was completely devoted to Manson, utterly brainwashed by his teachings, Share reports that she believed he was a 'prophet'[grammar?]. Since breaking away from the Manson family, Share has spoken out on cults, stating that Manson stole her soul and would often turn to violence if communication didn't work (Share, 2014).

Share was imprisoned just before her dissociation from the Manson family, could this mean that separation is one way to free cult members from even the most intense brain washing cults?[grammar?] Dennis Erlich, a former member of The Church of Scientology offers other strategies for escaping cults, suggesting that 'plugging someone back into reality' is a good option, that, along with the use of marijuana. Erlich exclaims that smoking marijuana gives him absolute certainty, whereas being a part of scientology only gave him the feeling of absolute certainty (O'Neil, 2013). He states it not only helped him but also a woman on the verge of suicide.

There are various reasons as to why and how people escape cults, most of which cannot be predicted. There is, however, support and assistance available for those who do manage to escape. Many of these people are victims, not only to physical abuse but extreme mental exploitation. If you know someone who is or has been affiliated with cults and wish to help, see this website for further information. Cult Avoidance Society

Quiz: Cult, commune or community?[edit | edit source]

Take this quiz to test your awareness on the difference between cults, communes and communities!

1 A cult is differentiated from other religious faiths because:

It has a smaller amount of members
Its way of life is different to that of mainstream society
It does not follow any teachings of a particular Religion
None of the above

2 Charles Manson's cult was often referred to as:

The Family
The Charlie Chaplains
The Community
The Clan

3 True of False: Cult leaders value the opinions of their members and are open to change?


4 According to this chapter, which is NOT a popular type of cult


If you scored above 3, great job. If not, further your knowledge in the See also section.

Cults and terrorism[edit | edit source]

Identifying religious cults as terrorist groups, and vice-versa can be challenging for an array of reasons. Mostly because the definitions of both are based around subjective characteristics[grammar?]. According to the Criminal Code Act (1995)[which?], however, terrorism can be defined as 'an act or threat, intended to advance a political, ideological or religious cause by coercing or intimidating an Australian or foreign government or the public. This action must cause serious harm to people or property, create a serious risk to the health and safety to the public, or seriously disrupt trade, critical infrastructure or electronic systems.' A cult however, is defined more by the relationship between the leader and group members, rather than the leader and mainstream society (Jefferies, 2014).

In today's society there are various examples of terrorist organisations that claim to be a part of a religious following, however they fail to upheld one or more of the fundemnetal[spelling?] values of the said Religion, which according to Lawson (2009) results in them being categorised as cult's[grammar?]. Examples of this are:

  1. Al-Qaeda Islamic Extremists
  2. Islamc State of Iraq (ISIS) Islamic Extremists
  3. House of Yahweh Christian/armageddon Extremists

Whilst Cult members are generally motivated by a desire for self-wroth[spelling?], esteem and actualisation (Maslow, 1943), terrorist organisations are motivated by extreme beliefs, often in attempt to weaken government security forces (Keeney & Winterfeldt, 2010). Combining the two together creates a dangerous fabrication, potentially resulting in horrific attacks such as September 11.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

A cult can be defined as a cohesive group or movement that identifies itself as belonging to a recognised religious organisation, however rejects certain fundamental teachings of that religion (Lawson, 2009). The groups[explain?] is generally heavily influenced by a narcissistic leader who uses deceitful techniques and manipulation to recruit members (Tourish & Pinnington, 2002). Most prominent in times of social disarray, individuals strive to find a sense of belonging, meaning and increased self-esteem, often deceptively offered by cultic groups (Thaler Singer et al., 1995). In attempting to achieve self-actualisation, cult members are often brainwashed in the process, through the use of techniques such as mind and time control, deceit, fear, and intimidation. Whilst some cult members become aware of the corruption within the cult and manage to escape, many don't, resulting in a life full of fear (Lalich, et al. 2008).

Cult is a well-known word, however the difference between cults and terror organisations needs to be established and understood to then allow individuals to differentiate between cults, terror groups and terrorist cults.

While individuals may be joining cultic groups every day, in understanding the motivations behind these behaviours, we can essentially lend assistance to those that feel caught in the trap, or those whom have escaped and require help.

References[edit | edit source]

Anthony, B., Holmes, G., & Wood, V. (2007) Social acceptance and self-esteem: Tuning the sociometer to interpersonal value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6) 1024-1039.

Bligh, M (2009). Personality Theories of Leadership. Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. SAGE. 1, 639-642

Criminal Code Act (1995) Commonwelath Consolidated Acts Volume 1 (No.12) 108

Furnham, A. (2014). Why Do People Join Cults? Psychology Today, 1(1), 1-3.

Gerrig, R. J., Zimbardo, P.G., Campbell, A.J., Cummins, S.R., & Wilkes, F. J. (2008). Psychology and life (Australian Edition). Sydney: Pearson Education

Golf, A. (2014). The Dangerous Devotion to Cults Full Documentary. Retrieved from:

Hogg, M.A., Hohman, Z.P., & Rivera, J.E. (2008). Why do people join groups? Three motivational accounts from social psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1269-1280.

Jackson II, R. (2010). Self-Esteem. In Encyclopedia of Identity (Vol. 1, p. 696). California: SAGE.

Jefferies, J (2014) Definitions of Both Hotly Contested. Terroism Research and Analysis Consortium. Retrieved from

Jones, J. (2014). The website. Retrieved from:

Joplin, J. (2008) Most Evil Cult Leaders 1-5. Retrieved from:

Keeney, G. L. and von Winterfeldt, D. (2010), Identifying and Structuring the Objectives of Terrorists. Risk Analysis, 30: 1803–1816. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01472.x

Koresh, D. (2014). The website. Retrieved 12:07, Oct 27, 2014, from

Lawson, C. (2009). Defining Deception:What Is A Cult, What Is The Occult, What Is New Age? Spiritual Research, 1(1), 1-3.

Lalich, J., & Langone, M. (2008). Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups. Retrieved from

López De Victoria, S. (2008). How to Spot a Narcissist. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2014, from

Manson, C (2014). The website. Retrieved, 2014, from

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96

O’Neil, C. (2013) I used to be a scientologist, now I help people out of cults by smoking weed. Vice. Retrieved from

Share, C. (2014). The website. Retrieved, 2014, from

Thaler Singer, M., & Lalich, J. (1995). Chapter Eight: Intruding into the Workplace. In Cults in Our Midst (pp. 246-285).

Tourish, D., & Pinnington, A. (2002). Transformational Leadership, Corporate Cultism and the Spirituality Paradigm: An Unholy Trinity in the Workplace? Human Relations, 55(2), 147-172.

External links[edit | edit source]