Social Psychology Religious Cults Cult Psychology

Religious cults like the Branch Davidians or the followers of Jim Jones are no different than any other cult except they believe that their group is uniquely favored by God or the Divine and all others are deceived. The word “cult” can be used in any number of ways to denote groups that we disapprove of or that seem outside the norm. Cults are socially isolated groups that assume to possess special features such as secret knowledge, familial bonding, an explanation about life and a charismatic leader is the nucleus of the group. 

Cult Dynamics 

The anecdotal cause for joining cults is brainwashing. Brainwashing means someone has lost the ability to think rationally about an association. The dynamics at work within religious and non-religious cults are more detailed the brainwashing.

Create a social reality

Exclusive membership

Social isolation

Information control

Ingroup bias


Cognitive dissonance

Create commitment

Create an enemy 

1. Create a Social Reality

The essential component of every cult is the ability to create a unique social reality. The social reality includes a view of life or worldview. The worldview combines a body of truths with explanations about how life really works. Those who disagree with the worldview of the group are incorrect and lesser persons. 

2. Exclusive Membership

Cults rely upon a perception of exclusive membership. Exclusive membership means that group membership is a privilege. Exclusivity reinforces the value of the group and creates a reason to be committed to the group. 

3. Social Isolation

Cults depend upon social isolation to reinforce their worldview with supporters. Social isolation may or may not include withdrawing from society to live on compounds. Cults may exert such control over their members that even if they reside in normal communities the worldview prevents them from assimilating into the predominant culture. 

4. Information Control

Cults want to control information within the group. Control in some cases might be a blackout of access to information that might not be favorable to the group or contrary to the group’s worldview. In other cases, information control could be simply discrediting information sources that are contrary to the worldview of the group. The cult leaders will play a significant role in controlling information. 

5. Ingroup Bias

Ingroup bias means that groups employ symbols, language, and rituals that reinforce the worldview beliefs promoted by the group. The purpose of ingroup bias is to create a sense of meaningful identity and association. 

6. Evangelize

Cults typically evangelize. Not only do cults benefit by adding to their numbers, but also the growth of the cult reinforces the validity of the group. Rehearsing the beliefs of the group reinforces the worldview for the evangelists. 

7. Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance involves acting in a way that is contrary to one’s thoughts or beliefs. Cults work on conforming members to the worldview of the group by interjecting cognitive dissonance into the lives of recruits so that they come to see that are being dishonest with themselves in their current lives. The solution is to embrace honesty by seeing the validity of the cult’s worldview and conforming to it. 

8. Create Commitment

Part of creating the social reality of the cult is gaining the commitment of group members. Exclusive membership coupled with the issues related to ingroup bias tends to foster member commitment. The ability to maintain member commitment will depend upon the effectiveness of information control, continued faith in the leader and the group, and group experiences remaining positive for the member.

9. Create an Enemy

Out-group focus is important to cults. Cults need an external villain to justify the group remaining together. Otherwise, departure from the group will make one vulnerable to the enemy.