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Characteristics of Cults and Cultic Groups

A model introductory talk developed by ICSA's NYC Educational Outreach Committee. For permission to reprint, contact – 239-514-3081 (

Characteristics of Cults and Cultic Groups

In most cases, leaders and followers in cultic groups believe fervently in the righteousness of their endeavors, and they strive to project this image to the public. Many of these kinds of groups attract intelligent, articulate, attractive people, including celebrities, and the group uses these followers as living advertisements for the group’s purported legitimacy.

The group claims to pursue lofty goals (e.g., salvation, bringing enlightenment to the world for the sake of peace, or solutions to specific world problems and injustices), sometimes through violent means. But a close look at the group’s accomplishments will invariably show that these publicly proclaimed goals are not reached, or that they mask less noble goals, such as amassing monetary wealth, gaining power and control over the followers, and feeding the leader’s need for adulation. Followers support and promote the leader’s self-aggrandizement in part because they perceive themselves as gaining prestige in the group for their righteous devotion and service to the leader.

The defining characteristic of leaders of cultic groups is their need for adoration and for the continual buttressing of their delusional sense of omnipotence and infallibility. The leaders use all the means at their disposal—intimidation, seduction, systems of reward and punishment—to enforce the followers’ dependence on them. These leaders present themselves as fully realized or otherwise highly spiritual beings who have attained all that they need, or who have transcended need. Followers are typically persuaded to believe that their spiritual and material needs can only be met through total compliance with the leader’s demands, whether the demands be for work, money, sex, or recruitment of more followers.

Cultic groups often learn to create a certain kind of appearance to the wider public, which differs from the more private group behavior and identity. Some groups, for example, train members how to talk to visitors in order to promote a positive image. In other groups, abuse may occur in certain areas (e.g., group schools) but the abuse is effectively hidden from view, even from the group’s members. It is very difficult for outsiders, and even for many followers, to imagine the cruelty, abuse, and exploitation that may occur within the inner circles of a cultic group because, typically, the outer circles that are visible to the public are made to appear as attractive as possible.

Cults vary considerably, but to boil them down to their essence, we can describe the most common characteristics of cult life as extreme demands on the followers’ time and a kind of bipolar, mood-swing environment: ecstatic celebrations, rallies, and so on that alternate with grueling, torturous sessions of confession, public shaming, and punishment.