Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


12 Signs That Someone May Be Involved With a Cult

Love-bombing, hate-bonding, and the promise of a "new life."

Key points

  • Many people worry that the young are easily pulled into cults.
  • They recruit from the wider population through love-bombing and promising a new start.
  • New recruits experience euphoria as being part of a 'chosen' secretive group.
Still from Village of the Damned, 1960. Public Domain.
Source: Still from Village of the Damned, 1960. Public Domain.

It is not uncommon to hear of families lamenting the loss of a young person to a group they think might have become a cult. But what are cults today?

No longer simply religious extremist groups, cults can also be secular, identity-based, or political groups that aim or claim to do good. The Jim Jones Cult began as a movement that fused Marxism and Christianity and provided homes for homeless Black people in American inner cities. And yet, Jonestown in Guyana in 1978 resulted in a suicide pact of 909 people.

The Osho and Aum Shinrikyo cults both began as Eastern-religion alternatives to modern Western life. The Osho cult offered free love and then went on to commit the largest bioterrorist attack in American history in 1984. The Aum Shinrikyo cult committed the Japanese Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in which 13 people died and 5,800 were injured.

Did these well-meaning movements go wrong, or was the rot in the roots? There are startling connections between these very different cults, specific stages, common to the life cycle of cults.

The following checklist has been arrived at by analysing the work of cult specialists Janya Lalich, Steven Hassan, Alexandra Stein, and Robert J. Lifton. And through observing common patterns between the following cults: The People’s Temple-Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo, Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), The Manson Family, The Order of the Solar Temple, The Branch Davidians, and NXIVM.

The Common Stages in the Life Cycle of a Cult

  1. The Big Idea. A leader or leaders propose a new transcendent idea that promises a panacea solution for alienated and vulnerable people. This big idea promises to solve all problems; to end loneliness, isolation, and a sense of personal failure. It makes vague promises of meaning and salvation. There is usually a charismatic leader or a single text with its own coded language that spreads the big idea.
  2. Love-Bombing. Cult leaders and early devotees recruit from the wider population through love-bombing and promising a new start, a hope for a future of love, belonging, and salvation within a living community of people who all believe in the big idea. As a new recruit, you become one of the chosen to whom ‘the truth’ is revealed. You are loved and 'saved.'
  3. A New Life. New recruits are inducted into a secret language of signs and symbols. They're encouraged to identify as victims of the world outside and are promised a rebirth, a new body or identity within this life, or an afterlife. Recruits are taught to see the world as black or white, good or evil, us or them; and this creates tight group unity which is enforced by rote learning of the cult’s slogans. These beliefs are often illogical as a test of ‘true belief.’ New recruits experience euphoria as part of a 'chosen' secretive group.
  4. Growth. As new recruits move into greater commitment, the cult enters the ‘expansion phase’ and looks outwards. The new task is to recruit ever more people. Love-bombing and promising a new life are used on outsiders, and the young and needy are targeted. The cult expands rapidly with its promises of future rewards, be they spiritual, sexual, or political. Mantras and slogans replace all individual thought and offer collective 'one-ness.'
  5. Rites of Passage. Allegiance is sworn through acts such as renouncing your own family, past life, and past name. New members are separated from all past support systems and become dependent on the cult. New members are tested by having to transform their identity, body, language, and even sexual behaviours. They must ‘don the robes’ and declare to the world that ‘I am no longer who I was, I am now part of group X.’
  6. Isolation. The cult becomes too large to control and has to prevent influences from the outside world from weakening its power over members. The leaders ban acts of individual free will. The cult isolates its members from the world beyond, depicting the outside as corrupt, evil, and violent. This increases bonding as members see themselves as ‘threatened victims’. Language control and growing paranoia make questioning the cult impossible. Mantras and slogans silence doubts and dissent. Internal repression grows.
  7. Hate Bonding. The cult reaches its size limit and problems arise from failures in its ‘plan for all.’ But the cult cannot admit errors. It starts to feed on hatred of the outside world. It evolves rituals of hatred, building a deeper ‘unity of the persecuted.’ One stratum of society is usually the target of all hatred and they might be given a coded name. Members are encouraged to share their hatred in ritualised forms.
  8. Traitors. Afraid of the growing hate culture, some members question the leaders but they are thrown out or made to do penance. The contraction phase begins and leads to a clampdown on any freedoms within the cult. In the face of internal persecution, a senior member often leaves and becomes a ‘traitor.’ Gaslighting, peer pressure, and groupthink prevent others from leaving. A few are helped to leave the cult by family members or forced out by cult deprogrammers, but such acts only fuel the cult's conviction that it is under attack.
  9. Witch Hunts. Internal trials within the cult weed out all potential traitors. Doubters are shamed into falsely accusing others. The remaining members are forced into committing acts of personal supplication that might be sexual, or involve body-marking, self-mutilation, or a pledge to transgressive acts. A common test of belonging involves committing small crimes against the hated world beyond. Once a member commits an illegal act, the cult has evidence it can use to blackmail that member into compliance. This is abusive trauma bonding.
  10. Persecution Paranoia. As more people flee the cult, secrets are leaked to the outside world about the authoritarian rule of the leaders. External law forces investigate the cult. The cult’s paranoia grows. Increasingly paranoid the cult weaponises for a showdown against the world and sees violence as the necessary purifying force that will save itself from its scheming enemies. All who commit acts of violence are pardoned in advance by the leader or leaders. Many other cult members leave and this increases paranoid fear of impending confrontation with external enemies.
  11. Attack. Often a respected member of the cult is accused, tortured, or even killed and the ‘secret’ scapegoating becomes the new form of group cohesion. Cult members are forbidden to leave and terror is whipped up about an imminent attack from external enemies, imagined or real. Allegiance to the cult is now proven by 'striking back' against the outside world. After an attack, the collective fear of being destroyed by the external enemy takes over.
  12. Final Conflict. Fearing destruction, the cult either attempts one final attack against the world or barricades itself up and enters into a state of siege. In the latter case, cult suicide pacts are common. The cult either destroys itself or lashes out against its often fantasised enemies. Either way, the cult collapses with violation of laws or loss of life.

Once a person is inducted into the early stages of a cult it is very hard to help them get back out again, due to the emotional manipulations that cults employ and the vulnerabilities they exploit. No cult actually believes it is a cult, so early identification of cult behaviours in any religious movement, self-help group, identity group, or political movement, is essential in helping recruits escape from their grasp.

Facebook image: Circlephoto/Shutterstock


Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'brainwashing' in China by Robert Jay Lifton

Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over by Janja Lalich

Combating Cult Mind Control: The Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults by Steven Hassan

Opening Our Minds: Avoiding abusive relationships and authoritarian groups by Jon Atack

More from Ewan Morrison
More from Psychology Today