14 Characteristics of cult leaders - PsychMechanics (2023)

The word ‘cult’ comes from the Latin cultus, meaning care; cultivation; culture; worship. A cult has a culture of its own. Cults have a cult leader, usually a male, and cult followers.

A cult leader and his followers are bound together by shared beliefs, practices, and rituals that are considered deviant by the mainstream belief systems of a society.

We see the leader-follower dynamic everywhere in society, from political systems to business organizations. What separates a cult from other groups with leaders and followers?


Cult leaders, unlike other leaders, eventually incur some kind of harm to their followers. This harm may or may not be intentional.

A cult leader may genuinely believe what he believes and draw followers in with his convincing power. Other cult leaders aren’t so delusional. They’re manipulative and know full well they’re conning their followers.

Who joins a cult and why?

Before we look at the characteristics of cult leaders, it’s essential to understand the characteristics of cult followers. What drives them to join a cult?

Joining a cult can satisfy many human needs.

First, joining a cult and believing what the cult believes satisfies the basic human need of wanting to make sense of the world. There are many unanswered existential questions that many belief systems do not provide a satisfactory answer to.

So, a cult that attempts to answer those questions tends to draw people in.

Second, joining a cult satisfies the basic human need to belong to a community. People who see themselves as misfits in their current social environments are more likely to join deviant groups that better reflect who they are.

So, a cult whose beliefs and values resonate with someone will likely give them a sense of belonging, community, and acceptance.

Third, people going through a transition in life or an identity crisis are vulnerable and more likely to join a cult. The cult provides a stable identity they can latch on to and resolve their crisis.

14 Characteristics of cult leaders - PsychMechanics (1)

Lastly, people find it much easier to be a follower than to think for themselves or become a leader.

Who forms a cult and why?

As I said, there isn’t much difference between cult leaders and conventional leaders. The only difference lies in the harm that cults tend to cause. So, cult leaders have the same leadership qualities that other leaders have that make them successful.

To understand the psychology of a cult leader, you have to think of them as someone trying to boost their status in society by projecting dominance. Status and dominance often go hand in hand. This is true for both animal and human communities.

Males have a lot to gain by raising their status. Doing so helps them gain better access to resources and potential mates. This explains why almost all cult leaders are men.

Now, there are two ways for men to gain status. The slow and long path of hard work and success or the quick path of projecting dominance.

Why does projecting dominance work?

Projecting dominance and confidence has a magnetic effect. It makes people believe you’re high status. People want to follow those who have confidence and firmly believe what they believe.

People believe that by following a dominant alpha male, they’ll be able to raise their own status somehow. They’ll be able to better their lives and be better off than rival human groups.

The result?

Usually, the cult leader, not the cult followers, ends up in a better place. As soon as he gets a decent following, the real motives of the cult leader come to the fore- status, power, riches, and sexual access to females.

A cult leader can project dominance in several ways. Some cult leaders project intellectual dominance. Their beliefs and ideas are intelligent and revolutionary. Others project dominance by charisma and the mere conviction they have in their beliefs.

Cultish behavior can also be seen on social media, where some influencers display dominance and arrogance. They frequently share controversial views to gain a cult-like following.

14 Characteristics of cult leaders - PsychMechanics (2)

The slow road to high status is more likely to last than the quick road. The faster the cult leaders rise, the faster they may fall. Cults can’t grow too big, or they threaten the fabric of society. Even if what constitutes the fabric of society were cults once.

Characteristics of cult leaders

Below is an exhaustive list of the common characteristics of cult leaders:

1. They’re narcissistic

Cult leaders believe they’re special and are on a special mission to lead humanity to the light. They have fantasies of unlimited success and power. They’re constantly seeking the admiration of others and enjoy being the center of attention.

2. They’re charismatic

Charisma is the ability to draw people to you by your charms and personality. Cult leaders tend to be highly charismatic. They’re masters at expressing their feelings and making their followers relate to them. Their social skills are above par, and they tend to have a good sense of humor.

3. They’re dominant

As discussed earlier, projecting dominance is key to becoming a cult leader. Nobody wants to follow a submissive leader unsure of himself. A big part of dominance is putting down other dominant figures of society so you can look better than them.

This is why politicians, who share a lot of traits with cult leaders, demonize, belittle, and defame their competitors.

4. They demand obedience

Projecting dominance helps cult leaders create a power imbalance between them and their followers. They’re high status, and their followers are of low status. If the followers obey and do as they’re told, they can raise their status too. They can be in a better place too.

In this way, cult leaders prey upon the low self-esteem of their followers.

5. They claim to have supernatural powers

Cult leaders do this to highlight the power imbalance.

“I’m special. I have access to supernatural powers. You’re not special. So, you don’t.”

Cult leaders may claim they have magical powers like talking to aliens, healing, or telepathy.

6. They’re arrogant and boastful

Again, to remind their followers that they’re above them and to reinforce their high status.

7. They’re sociopaths/psychopaths

Lack of empathy is the hallmark of sociopathy/psychopathy. Sociopathic/Psychopathic tendencies make it easier for cult leaders to harm their followers without remorse.

8. They’re delusional

Some cult leaders may suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy. These mental health conditions can induce psychosis or hallucinations. So, when they say they can talk to aliens, they may genuinely believe they do.

What’s interesting about this is that they can pull other people into their psychosis. As a result, the followers, driven by the conviction of their beliefs, may also see things that aren’t there. This condition is called shared psychotic disorder.

9. They’re persuasive

Cult leaders are excellent marketers. They have to be, or they won’t be able to gain followers and raise their status. They know what makes people tick. They know how to cater to the basic needs of their followers.

10. They’re authoritative and controlling

Cult leaders tend to control every little aspect of their followers’ lives. What to wear, what to eat, what to say, what not to say, and so on. This is done to keep the followers in line and reinforce their low status and low power.

Some cult leaders also use fear and blackmail to control and retain followers.

Jim Jones, a cult leader responsible for 900 deaths, forced his followers to sign fake confession documents of criminal acts to blackmail them and deter them from leaving.

11. They’re exploitative

The goal of all that authoritativeness and control is exploitation. Cult leaders make their followers submissive and weak to exploit them easily. Intelligent cult leaders exploit their followers in such a way that the followers don’t see it as exploitation.

For instance, a cult leader may demand sexual access to female followers, making a ridiculous claim such as “This will purify our souls” or “It will bring us to a higher plane of existence”.

12. They’re underdogs

Who is desperate to boost their status in society?

Of course, low-status people. High-status people don’t need to raise their status any further.

This is why cult leaders are often underdogs. They’re rejects who failed at multiple attempts to raise their status and are now resorting to desperate and unethical measures.

Who can relate to an underdog?

Of course, other underdogs. Other low-status people.

This is a big reason why cult leaders attract so many followers.

Essentially, cult leaders and followers band together to ‘overthrow the system’, rewarding rival human groups. They want to overthrow other high-status people so they can be high status.

For this to happen, the cult leader must be an underdog so his followers can relate to him, but he must project dominance at the same time. An unusual mixture of being low status but projecting high status.

13. They’re intolerant of criticism

Cult leaders can become enraged when they’re criticized. To them, criticism is a threat to their high status. That’s why they resort to extreme measures to prevent any criticism. Those who criticize are severely punished, humiliated, or even eliminated.

14. They’re visionaries

Cult leaders infuse their followers with inspiration and hope for a better future (high status). They’re visionaries who want to take their followers to a better place where they can be blissful and better off than non-followers.

All groups have cultish tendencies

A group can quickly become cult-like when there’s excessive admiration and adoration for the group leader. Being part of a group and following a group leader in hopes of reaching the promised land of high status and bliss is a deep-rooted desire of human nature.

It stems from ancestral times when humans lived in patriarchal groups and fought rival, genetically dissimilar human groups for land and other resources.

But this primal tendency has caused, and continues to cause, many problems for humanity.

In a free society, people should be free to join any group they want, provided they cause no harm to themselves or others. If you agree with me, you’re welcome to join my cult. Sorry, I meant group.

Hanan Parvez( Author )

Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.


What are the characteristics of a cult leader? ›

A cult leader definition can refer to a very charismatic leader who provides their followers with acceptance, security, and acceptance. Cult leaders must be dynamic, charismatic, and convincing because their goal is to brainwash their members and acquire monetary or power-related advantages.

What is the psychological profile of a cult leader? ›

Cult leaders have psychosis or narcissistic personalities that drive them to preach a message and convince others to follow, according to therapist Rachel Bernstein. Bernstein treats former cult members, like those who were in NXIVM and Scientology.

What are the characteristics of a cult member? ›

Common characteristics that emerge between members of various cults include: a higher level of education, a weaker spiritual background, higher financial success, younger age, and fewer time constraints.

What is the psychology of cult followers? ›

Cult Psychology. Experts who study cults suggest the human need for comfort prompts people to seek out others or things to soothe their fears and anxieties. Research suggests that those element and others have led hundreds of thousands of people to commit to thousands of cults operating around the world.

What is the most common personality type of cult leaders? ›

Cult leaders have psychosis or narcissistic personalities that drive them to preach a message and convince others to follow, according to therapist Rachel Bernstein. Bernstein treats former cult members, like those who were in NXIVM and Scientology. She has also met a number of cult leaders.

What mental illness do cult leaders have? ›

Many cult leaders also share antisocial characteristics and tendencies that make up the diagnostic definition of antisocial personality disorder (Goldberg, n.d). Some of these characteristics include a predisposition for dominance and aggression.

What are the psychological impacts of cultic Behaviours? ›

To conclude, cultic behaviors and rituals can have devastating effects on the brain and people's lives. Often taking advantage of vulnerable people in search of comfort and identity, they disable critical thinking processes and freeze emotional processing to both gain and maintain control over their members.

What is the cult of personality in psychology? ›

exaggerated devotion to a charismatic political, religious, or other leader, often fomented by authoritarian figures or regimes as a means of maintaining their power.

What defines a cult psychology? ›

a religious or quasi-religious group characterized by unusual or atypical beliefs, seclusion from the outside world, and an authoritarian structure. Cults tend to be highly cohesive, well organized, secretive, and hostile to nonmembers.

What is a cult of personality example? ›

A cult of personality uses various techniques, including mass media, propaganda, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create a heroic image of a leader, often inviting worshipful behavior through uncritical flattery and praise.

What are the elements of the cult indoctrination? ›

Cult Indoctrination
  • Cults mislead new recruits/members as to the true expectations and activities of the group.
  • Cults may hide any signs of illegal, immoral or hyper-controlling practices until the recruit has fully immersed himself in the group.

What are the characteristics of a cult in workplace? ›

Work place cults often refer to themselves as 'family', mainly because family members are expected to show unwavering loyalty to their leaders, going above and beyond all normal realms of an employer and employee relationship. Boundaries are almost non existent, in every sense.

Are narcissists like cult leaders? ›

Individuals high in narcissism, like cult leaders, often inflate their own sense of importance and behave in ways that are destructive to others. Similarities between narcissists and cult leaders include a tendency to lie and turn others against each other for their own ends, along with little tolerance for dissent.

What is the psychology behind cult fandoms? ›

Both cults and fandom can be a group within which to feel a sense of belongingness, rework identity and find comfort. However, while cults tend to isolate members to control them, fans may find more healthy forms of comfort and belongingness in their fandoms.

What is cult trauma? ›

The slow process of indoctrination and social submission perpetrated by both narcissistic leaders and the cultic group dynamic is highly traumatizing to members and their children. Those drawn to cultic groups in adulthood are at risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What are the 3 types of cult? ›

Troeltsch's aim was to distinguish between three main types of religious behaviour: churchly, sectarian, and mystical.

How do you spot a cult? ›

How to Recognize a Cult
  1. Absolute authoritarianism without accountability.
  2. Zero tolerance for criticism or questions.
  3. Lack of meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget.
  4. Unreasonable fears about the outside world that often involve evil conspiracies and persecutions.
May 19, 2022

What personality type are most leaders? ›

ESTJ – The Decisive Leader

ESTJs are known as objective, efficient, and fair leaders. As Extraverted Thinking (Te) types, they get a thrill from making tough decisions and organizing a team to get a job done quickly.

Do cult leaders use Gaslighting? ›

As a form of brainwashing, gaslighting is most commonly used by dictators and cult leaders. However, this manipulating strategy also occurs in personal and all other types of social relationships, and it is often used by narcissists and abusers.

What is extreme cult of personality? ›

A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states and dominant-party states. A cult of personality often accompanies the leader of a totalitarian or authoritarian countries.

What mental illness do dictators have? ›

Dictatorial leaders such as these represent the extreme potential of the human capacity for evil, and yet, despite their apparent omnipotence within their individual spheres of power, these individuals also tended to suffer from excessive anxiety – mostly regarding paranoid fears of citizen uprising and/or ...

What is psychotic level of personality organization? ›

The psychotic level: At the opposite end of the personality organization dimension are severely disorganized personalities. People with this level of personality organization have: 1) severely compromised reality testing, 2) an inconsistent sense of self and others, and 3) utilize immature defenses.

What is psychotic theory of personality? ›

The psychotic part of the personality is seen as a multidimensional mental realm that is fully comprehensible only through intuition and tolerance of approximations, transience, and the notion of infinity.

What key is cult of personality in? ›

Cult of Personality is written in the key of C.

What is an example of cult practices? ›

Outward religious practice

Rituals would include (but not necessarily be limited to) prayer, sacrifice, votive offerings, competitions, processions and construction of monuments. Some degree of recurrence in place and repetition over time of ritual action is necessary for a cult to be enacted, to be practiced.

What is an example of a cult following? ›

Brands with a cult following have achieved a unique connection with customers, and are able to create a consumer culture that people want to be a part of. Examples of contemporary cult brands include the Mini Cooper, Goop, Vespa, Zappos, and OnePlus, among several others.

What are the 4 pillars of cult of domesticity? ›

In the four passages in this lesson, at least two of the four principles of the Cult of Domesticity — piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity — are illustrated, either positively or negatively.

What are the three types of brainwashing? ›

The three phases of brainwashing are dependency, dissonance, and attitude change.

What are the 4 virtues of cult of domesticity? ›

"True women", according to this idea, were supposed to possess four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The idea revolved around the woman being the center of the family; she was considered "the light of the home".

What are the 5 consequences of cultism? ›

  • Expulsion.
  • Murder.
  • Moral decadence.
  • corrupts societal values.
  • violence.
  • spiritual problems.
  • breakdown of law and order.
  • criminal tendencies.

How much do cult leaders make? ›

How much does a Religious/Spiritual Leader make in the United States? The average Religious/Spiritual Leader salary in the United States is $104,470 as of March 28, 2023, but the range typically falls between $85,869 and $118,409.

What is a charismatic cult leader? ›

The charismatic leader creates or reshapes myths, rituals and symbols by which to strengthen the unity of the group and its pusuit of common goals. Moreover s/he can rely on the charismatic aristocracy to organize the masses around a true personality cult of the leader.

Who does the narcissist fear the most? ›

Although narcissists act superior, entitled and boastful, underneath their larger-than-life facade lies their greatest fear: That they are ordinary. For narcissists, attention is like oxygen. Narcissists believe only special people get attention.

Who is prey for a narcissist? ›

Narcissists often look for victims who struggle with insecurity and low self-esteem. People who think less of themselves and struggle with the “I am not enough” mindset tend to attract toxic partners. People with self-esteem issues tend to think of themselves as imperfect or unlovable.

What are people that narcissists are scared of? ›

To a narcissist, being ordinary is the opposite of special. Deep down, people with narcissism are frightened, fragile people. Aging, defeat, illness or rejection can shake them to their foundation.

Why are some people super fans? ›

Superfans are thrilled by an experience and they respond in an oversized way. The scientists at Immersion wondered if superfans just appeared randomly during an experience or if they shared commonalities. We traced a propensity to superfandom to two personality traits: agreeableness and empathy.

How does a cult start? ›

Cults are started by charismatic individuals who are skilled at getting people to listen to them. They may have unusual ideas about reality, or they may even invent an ideology to promote.

What are the symptoms of post cult trauma? ›

Key symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares), avoidance (staying away from places, things, and thoughts that are reminders), arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood disturbances. These symptoms are also true for many experiencing religious trauma.

What alignment is a cult leader? ›

Cult Leader
Aliases:Recruiter Cult Recruiter
Role type:Alignment-Changing Communicative
Apr 15, 2021

What are cult members hostile to? ›

cult members are hostile to people or environments they consider as their perceived enemy. they usually consider those who are against their activities as enemies. It commonly occurs in war and hostile social disagreements. They view the opposing side as being different, hostile, and generally bad.

What defines a cult follower? ›

A cult following refers to a group of fans who are highly dedicated to some person, idea, object, movement, or work, often an artist, in particular a performing artist, or an artwork in some medium. The lattermost is often called a cult classic.

What is one characteristic of a cult quizlet? ›

- individual members are exploited in order to serve the twisted beliefs of the leader. - often times, individuals are sleep deprived and over worked so they become less able to think for themselves. - Cults use guilt to sway members. - Any member who opposes the cult is often threatened.

How do cult leaders influence their followers? ›

Cult leaders often use manipulation, charisma and a whole range of abusive tactics to draw their followers. Experts who study cults suggest the human need for comfort prompts people to seek out others or things to soothe their fears and anxieties.

What is druid alignment? ›

Druids were clerics who adhered to a special code of conduct, maintaining a Neutral alignment; in exchange they gained some special powers and additional spells.

What are the 4 aspects of cult of domesticity? ›

This ideal of womanhood had essentially four parts--four characteristics any good and proper young woman should cultivate: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Annamae Dooley

Last Updated: 07/08/2023

Views: 6355

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (45 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Annamae Dooley

Birthday: 2001-07-26

Address: 9687 Tambra Meadow, Bradleyhaven, TN 53219

Phone: +9316045904039

Job: Future Coordinator

Hobby: Archery, Couponing, Poi, Kite flying, Knitting, Rappelling, Baseball

Introduction: My name is Annamae Dooley, I am a witty, quaint, lovely, clever, rich, sparkling, powerful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.