What Makes a Group a Cult

Cult survivors and writers Karla McLaren and Janja Lalich PhD (author of Take Back Your Life) outline the following four components that, in their opinion, create a cultic group: charismatic authority, transcendent belief system, and systems of control and influence. Another cult expert and researcher Steve Hassan Ph.D. added the components of authoritarian leadership, hierarchical power structure, and deception.

These terms are expanded in ML Cult page. To access more information (articles, books, videos, podcasts) related to cults, please see our Cult Resources. To see what Morningland was like for us, please see Our Stories.


A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception to recruit new members and does not tell them what the group is, what the group actually believes, and what will be expected of them if they become members. It also uses undue influence to keep people dependent, obedient, and loyal (Hassan PhD)

At the lowest level, members are part-timers who are only partially committed to the group and … less likely to be manipulated or abused to any significant extent because achieving strong influence over a person really requires that they be exposed to a mind control environment on a more full-time basis. Mind control [aka deep influence] only works on a foundation of personal friendship and trust, and it takes time and effort. … intensive mind control is generally only applied to selected individuals who are perceived to be not only receptive but who also have something that the group leadership wants. Sometimes this is money or sex, or it may be some practical or business skill which is desired by the group leadership in order to expand the group or to raise money. (Ex-Cult Resource Center)


Charismatic leaders are typically good speakers, persuasive, and skilled in conveying emotions which helps create a powerful emotional bond with those who resonate with their message. They can have immense power over others but that influence is not inherently unhealthy. For example, JFK, Marin Luther King, Nelson Mandela are some well-known charismatic figures whose actions produced a lot of good. The problems with charisma can occur when their influence over others is not kept in check, and the power imbalance tilts to an extreme.

Charismatic authority is the powerful emotional bond between a leader and his or her followers. It makes the leader seem deeply legitimate and visionary, and it grants authority to his or her actions. Anything he or she does is portrayed as vital to the vision and survival of the group. The ends always justify the means because the charismatic authority figure isn’t merely right; he or she is anointed, chosen, or blessed” (McLaren)

An emotional bond forms between leaders and followers, and as long as the followers are happy with their chosen, charismatic leader, all is well, and they are willing follow. But that bond can be broken if the leader fails greatly (Riggio, PhD)


Transcendence refers to a desire or goal to go beyond certain limits. For example, one may wish to improve themselves, become more virtuous, and be closer to God. Cultic leaders often portray themselves as closer to the perfection of God and serve as role models for their followers. Cultic leaders use their ideology (typically a collection of bits and pieces from other spiritual or religious traditions) and promise personal and group transcendence and salvation. To attain this state, the followers must follow the leader’s example and obey their guidelines, even if it goes against their core values, without questioning or doubt (major red flag).

Healthy groups with a transcendent belief system encourage critical thinking, debate, and individuality. Unhealthy cultic groups use their transcendent belief system as a form of control, and they don’t allow any questioning of their perfect beliefs. In cultic groups, these belief systems act as an ingenious form of control. When the belief system is strong enough, external forms of control may not be necessary; each member’s idealism and dedication may kick into overdrive so that they will apply increasingly stricter controls on their own behavior” (McLaren).

The ends always justify the means” – when the leader and the belief system are seen as true and perfect, the leader’s unethical actions will be justified in the name of the good of the group and ignored.


Control does not have to involve force. Control can be emotional, using fears of leaving the group (failing spiritually, failing the Plan, God) and fears of the world, which is seen as a dark, dangerous place. Control can be informational when the leaders do not disclose information related to the group’s key beliefs, and mental when the leaders instill us vs. them mentality, encourage the followers to change their identity to match the group’s, etc. These control mechanisms are then internalized by the followers, who use self-control to match the leader’s expectations and demonstrate perfect obedience and loyalty. Not complying would result in losing the leader’s privileges, connection, or even the entire group.

Successful groups create systems and rules that help them organize themselves, build a sense of group identity, and distinguish themselves from other groups. In healthy groups, these systems of control tend to be flexible, and they often provide a stable and reliable structure for group members.

High-demand groups and cults, on the other hand, create harsh and unbending systems of control that are carried out by rigid authority figures who enclose members inside a tightly constricted universe. These strict systems consist of the rules, regulations, and procedures (including discipline and punishment) that guide the group and control each member’s behavior and thinking. The desired outcome is compliance and, better yet, total obedience” (McLaren).


Lalich, PhD, states that in cults, one has to give up their individuality for the group’s identity. “I” becomes ‘we’ and one’s needs are only valid if they support the group’s needs. One’s thoughts, feelings, experiences are only right and valid if they are aligned with the group’s norms and expectations.

In healthy groups, these systems of influence support individuality and freedom while helping group members feel as if they belong. In contrast – abusive and high-demand groups are rigid and perfectionist, and place the needs of the group leader (and/or the transcendent belief system) above all other things. These unhealthy groups use constant peer pressure to enforce intense and self-erasing commitment until unquestioning obedience to the group’s beliefs, rules, and expectations becomes a daily or even hourly task.

One of the strange side effects of this process is that converts may begin to believe that they have free will, and that they have intentionally chosen to de-self and obey. They become true believers and lose any real awareness of the influence methods that reshaped and resocialized them – and they come to believe that they willingly accepted this personal transformation to be one of the chosen few” (McLaren).

The idea of free will is very interesting. It can feel like we always used it simply because we chose our decisions. They were not forced upon us. However, the available options were confined to the group’s ideology or the leader’s influence. With no awareness of the subtle changes in our perception, we gave up parts of our morality for the morality of the leader. Some among us did things we would normally never do simply because the leader asked us to. Obedience to the leader’s instructions was essential to preserving loyalty and the leader’s trust. Going against one’s moral code to please the leader can result in moral injury.

Mantika, July 2023