What is a cult?

A  cult is a group or movement that, to a significant degree:

  1. exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing,
  2. uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices),
  3. systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members,
  4. exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and
  5. causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.

This definition does not refer to beliefs because a group’s belief system, although sometimes related to and supportive of the features that make the group a cult, is not necessarily nor directly related to its status as a cult. Thus, cults may be religious (with seemingly orthodox or bizarre beliefs), psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial.

The characteristics of a cult tend to produce conflict between the group and society.  In order to manage this conflict, cultic groups tend to become isolated, psychologically if not physically, governed by hidden agendas, and totalistic, that is, they will dictate, sometimes with excruciating specificity, how members should think, feel, and act.

As defined here, cults differ from “new religions,”  “new political movements,” “innovative psychotherapies,” and other “new” groups in that cults make extensive use of unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the leader’s goals.  Of course, some groups that cause concern do not meet all of the definitional criteria, while others become more or less cultic over time.

Cults differ from merely authoritarian groups, such as boot camp or certain monastic orders, in that the latter are explicit about their goals, are contractual rather than seductive, and usually are accountable to authorities outside the group.


Langone, M.D. (Ed). (1993). Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse.  New York: W. Norton & Company.