Cult research – part 1

By PD Martin

Welcome to the second blog in my research series (and to my first Thursday blog!). In case you missed it, I recently joined the Murderati gang and started off on Sundays for a few posts before moving to my new permanent spot of Thursday. And at the moment, every second post of mine will be looking at some of the weird and wonderful research crime writers do in the name of good books! And yes, coincidentally that’s back-to-back research posts from Murderati…I put it down to the collective unconscious. Hope you’re lapping up the research stuff. 

Today, I want to focus on some of the fascinating research I’ve conducted into cults (mostly for my fifth novel, Kiss of Death, although I’m also currently ghost writing a non-fiction book called Death in a Cult). In fact, I’ve got so much to say on this subject that I’ve broken the post into two parts! This first post will be a bit of an introduction and look at some of the psychology behind cult members. Then, next post I’ll focus on gurus. And I guess in some ways, this is the stuff that I would have loved to incorporate into Kiss of Death, but of course I could only use much smaller parts of it to avoid the dreaded research dump Allison brought up yesterday. I still think it’s a fascinating subject!

The word cult immediately rings alarm bells for most people – we think of Charles Manson and his murderous followers, of Jim Jones and the estimated nine hundred and seventeen members who died with him at Jonestown, of David Koresh and Waco and of the Tokyo subway poisoning by Aum. In fact the word “cult” has got so many negative connotations that cults themselves want to disown the term. And who wouldn’t when it paints a modern-day group with the same brush as Charles Manson, Jonestown and Waco?

So what is a cult? The Random House dictionary has several definitions – from the more neutral ‘a particular system of religious worship’ to the negative ‘a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader’.

By these definitions, cults have been around for thousands of years. For example, some hunter-gatherer tribes had a cult-like belief system and structure with the shaman as guru; the Assyrians around 880BC have been described as a tree-worshiping cult; and let’s not forget the recently revived Knights Templar and Opus Dei, which can easily be described as cults.

In the past few decades our understanding and tolerance of cults has increased, largely due to the many studies in this area. Scholars such as sociologists and psychologists have studied cults, cult members and their leaders. These scholars generally use the more politically correct term of new religious movements or NRMs for short.

It should also be noted that the bad wrap cults have is largely due to destructive cults. And while it’s these cults we tend to hear about in the media, there are thousands and thousands of other cults that simply go about their business.

NRM members

People outside cults/NRMs often wonder what sort of person is attracted to a cult. In fact, many people believe that cult members are somehow mentally unstable, depressive or simply weak. Psychologists have studied members, cults and their leaders (gurus) looking for patterns and commonalities. And some of the recent studies have revealed some distinctive personality traits in members and ex-members of NRMs. For example, a 2008 Belgium study looked at ex-members of NRMs and compared them to the general population and to current members of NRMs on certain self-reported personality traits. The study, conducted by Coralie Buxant and Vassilis Saroglou, identified four main areas of vulnerability: insecure attachment to parental figures during childhood; limited social relationships; negative life events; and a higher need for order. The negative life events were traumas such as the death of a loved one, marriage break up, major life-threatening illness, bankruptcy, etc.

Other research has found that people who join new religious movements often share characteristics such as: a sense of not belonging during childhood and adulthood; identity confusion or crisis; alienation from family; feelings of powerlessness; a recent psychological stressor; low self-esteem; and social anxiety. Notice the cross-overs from the list above.

Are cults dangerous?

History has shown us that cults certainly can be dangerous – but many cults are harmless.

Deciding whether a cult is dangerous – and how to deal with it – generally falls into the hands of law enforcement. In a 2000 article for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, experts identify risk factors, neutral factors and positive or protective factors within NRMs.

Risk factors include:


  • a history of violent episodes or clashes;
  • the leader’s past or present state of mind and condition (e.g. violence, drug or alcohol abuse, etc.);
  • an abrupt reversal of direction (positive or negative);
  • recent attempts to obtain the knowledge to carry out a violent act;
  • recent purchases of weapons or other arms; 
  • training in the use of weapons;
  • instances of violence within the NRM;
  • setting an exact date for the imminent transformation of life on earth;
  • moving the date of that transformation; 
  • phrasing prophesies or predictions in a detailed and specific manner (otherwise they tend to be vaguer so the leader can’t be proved wrong);
  • envisioning an active role for the NRM in the coming transformation; and
  • having the knowledge, means and ability to carry out a plan.


And while some of these risk factors are obvious — it’s common sense that any group stockpiling weapons (or purchasing a tank like the one above!) is potentially dangerous — other factors are not as readily identified by the general public. However, it makes sense that if a guru is very specific, for example claiming the world will come to an end on a certain date, that they may plan a mass suicide of their followers before or on that date in ‘preparation’ for the coming Armageddon. 

The FBI article is also quick to point out that just because an NRM has one or more of these risk factors, it doesn’t mean the group’s about to implode (suicide) or explode (committing violence against the public or law enforcement).

The authors also stress that a dynamic or situation that we may think is strange or dangerous, isn’t necessarily so. The neutral factors identified are: members offer absolute and unquestioning adherence to their leader and the belief system; the group physically segregates itself from others; and members adopt unfamiliar customs or rituals (i.e. diet, dress, language, etc.). In fact, these three factors are often present in all NRMs.

The law-enforcement experts also talk about “protective” factors – factors that will make a cult less likely to be violent. These factors are: members taking practical steps to plan for the future; and the group adopting routines and administrative processes (e.g. transcribing teachings and disseminating information about their group to others).

So, that’s it for cults and me today. I hope you were glued to the page/computer just like I was when I was reading these research materials!

13 thoughts on “Cult research – part 1

  1. Reine

    Hi Phillipa, it is an interesting topic, isn't it? I took a course on cults in seminary. It was more about the psychology of cults rather than hard information about particular groups. I remember thinking that it would be an easy course, fun. Instead it was very difficult, and I found it to be emotionally draining as we got into the case studies of group victims. Nevertheless, it is a course that has stayed with me, as it revealed so much about the effects of circumstance on vulnerability.

  2. PD Martin

    Reine – That would be a great course – even though it was difficult. I love all the psychology stuff 🙂

    Also, forgot to ask in the main post…should I wait until my next research 'slot' (i.e. in four weeks' time) for part 2, which focuses on gurus, or will I go back-to-back on my research posts and deliver the guru one in a fortnight?! Vote now!

  3. Reine

    Hi Phillipa, I would much prefer it if you were to go back-to-back on this set of research posts. It would be more fresh that way – easier, I think, to draw on the previous posts.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa

    Cults are fascinating, aren't they? I invented a cult called Fourth Day (from the day God created light and dark) for a book of the same name and it was very interesting to play with the preconceptions people had about them.

  5. Catherine

    A year or so ago I attended a non-fiction workshop where a fairly well known figure here in SE QLD was working on a story of being raised in a cult.

    I am rampantly curious about most things. It was hard to not pummel him with questions.I managed a slim modicum of control. however I could still see such a sense of bewilderment in his eyes when he was talking about his childhood.

    I think we generally here in Australia, embody individualistic behaviour. I find it interesting to see what happens when people are drawn to form of extreme collectivism such as a cult.

    This is fascinating research PD.

  6. Richard Maguire

    "People outside cults/NRMs often wonder what sort of person is attracted to a cult."

    Surely all organised religions – which were once NRMs, anyway – are cults?

    "…members offer absolute and unquestioning adherence to their leader and the belief system."

    Does that not refer to all forms of religion, Christian or otherwise? Whether their guru is called pope, pastor, or rabbi, etc. Believing fervently, without any proof whatever, in some core belief is simply to believe in a myth.

    I look forward to your next post, and hope it will be a continuation of this theme.

  7. Jake Nantz

    I vote to go back-to-back. I love research (though it can get in the way of the writing if I go overboard, which I usually do), so I'm all for bringing it on in 2 weeks. Fascinating stuff!

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Every day I learn something new, PD. Every day. Today it begins with my morning read of your blog.
    This is fascinating stuff. The word "cult" always brings up negative connotations for me. But I thought it was interesting once when I was listening to the Howard Stern Show and a cult expert was on the phone with Howard, describing how Howard ran his organization like a cult. As the caller described it I couldn't help but agree. He's the cult leader and his employees both fear and adore him. I wonder if many work situations can be described as cult-like?

  9. Eika

    A while back, I did my own research on cults, just for kicks. It really is fascinating, the good ones and the bad ones. (and good cults could be seen as just small religions, in many cases.)

    That's something I love about writing. I can research the most inane things– and after I got through with cults, I did so much on brainwashing, in theory and in practice, that I've threatened it with friends as a joke– and it'll all come in useful at some point. Plus, it's fascinating.

  10. PD Martin

    Back-to-back posts it is!

    Zoe, that sounds like a cool premise! Good name for a cult and book 🙂

    Catherine – that sounds like a great story. And of course, the thing with children in cults is that it's not their choice, it's their parents' decision to join. The book I'm writing is a tragic story of two kids who were dragged to LA and raised in a cult for several years. One of them died at 16. The police ruled suicide, but there were questions.

    Jake – yes it's easy to go overboard when you're writing. Most of the research provides such great material.

    Thanks, Louise. Maybe we should start a research-aholics group.

    Richard – I guess the key is when a NEW religious movement becomes a more mainstream religion. Is it 50 years or 500 years? The research I did also focused more on the cults that had destructive leaders – I think that's a key differentiating factor.

    Stephen, very interesting take on cults! The workplace as a cult – very scary! Although maybe it would only apply to a few workplaces. And it does come down to the leader. If we go with your analogy and say Oprah's workplace is a cult, then from what I've heard, she'd certainly be the kind of amazing, empowering leader rather than someone who the employees feared.

    Eika – yes, I looked into the brainwashing stuff too. And I agree – the research IS fun!

    Thanks, JT. Gurus coming in a fortnight's time!

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