Common Myths and Misconceptions About Cults and Cultic Groups

A model introductory talk developed by ICSA's NYC Educational Outreach Committee. For permission to reprint, contact – 239-514-3081 (

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Cults and Cutlic Groups

Myth/Misconception: People join cults.


  • What at first seems wonderful turns out to be very different (i.e., a “cult”). This scenario may be compared to what happens when one enters a relationship in which a partner who initially seemed to have very attractive qualities later demonstrates a dark side. We wouldn’t say that a woman sought out a chronic philanderer or that a man was searching for a gold digger. Similarly, people don’t join a cult.

  • Confirmation bias—seeking justification for one’s choices—can make it difficult to accept that what appeared to be wonderful is something very different.

Myth/Misconception: Only people with psychological problems “join” cults.


  • Everyone has vulnerabilities.

  • Epidemiological studies indicate that about one fifth of the population may have some disorder or other, whereas the far-from-definitive studies of former members suggest that about one third of those former members have some disorder or other.[1]

Myth/Misconeption: You know a cult when you see one.


  • Cultic groups may be sharply bounded or loosely bounded.

  • Cultic groups may or may not display atypical behavior (distinctive dress, always smiling, etc.).

  • Groups may hold a cultic belief system while not dressing differently or displaying odd behavior.

  • Groups or movements may have differing levels of cultic characteristics.

Myth/Misconception: Cult leaders know they deceive.


  • Some leaders believe they are endowed with special wisdom or faith.

  • Some leaders—religious leaders, political leaders, teachers—are in professions that are conducive to inflating egos.

  • Some leaders are pathological.

  • Some leaders are out to deceive.

  • Some leaders share more than one of the above characteristics or evolve through them.

Myth/Misconception: Anyone who really wants to leave, can.


  • Just as victims of domestic violence may be unable to exercise independent judgment, the same may be true of victims of psychological abuse.

  • Trauma affects how our minds work at a pre-/subconscious level.

Myth/Misconception: No one can leave without help.


  • Evidence suggests that the large majority of cult members leave their groups without outside help.

  • Unless former members volunteer the information that they left, they cannot be counted. Shame, fear, or pain may prevent disclosure.

Myth/Misconception: All cults have secret ceremonies/rituals/practices.


  • Most groups that can be defined as cultic cohere through a belief system, which may be highly sophisticated.

  • However, the belief system that underlies a cultic group—such as a self-improvement program, a therapeutic program, or a religious belief system that is based on one of the generally accepted religions—may appear rational.

  • Not all cultic groups/movements meditate, pray, and so on.

  • Rituals are not what define groups as cultic.

Myth/Misconception: Only stupid people or (smart but) crazy people “join” cults.


  • Evidence suggests that most members are normal psychologically and show the same range of education and intelligence as the general population.

  • Some members are idealistic, seeking to improve the world.

  • Some members are in life transitions, which can cause uncertainty (entering college, leaving a relationship, becoming estranged from parents, losing a job or financial security).

  • Some members are born to parents in a movement.

Myth/Misconception: Once you leave a cultic movement, you can/should just move on with your life—don’t look back.


  • Most helping professionals agree that understanding one’s experience helps reduce the impact of the trauma.

  • Some people cannot reflect on their experience—trauma disables.

  • Currently there is much discussion by helping professionals of the neurobiological impact of trauma.

  • There is no “one size fits all” rule about the benefit or harm of trying to understand, or when an effort to uderstand is best.

  • Former members may go through stages similar to the stages of grief: denial, resentment, fear, interest, reflection/acceptance. The stages do not necessarily move in a fixed, linear order, and they are not universal.

Myth/Misconception: I would never join a cult!


  • Everybody may become vulnerable to cultic recruitment at some time in their lives.

  • Different people may become vulnerable to different kinds of cultic recruitment, and chance encounters may determine whether or not they become involved in a cultic group during a time of vulnerability.

People who become involved in cultic groups are not so different from us, and the groups they become involved in don’t necessarily advertise their cultic dimension in ways we can recognize.

[1] Martin, P. R., Langone, M.D., Dole, A.A., & Wiltrout, J. (1992). Post-Cult Symptoms As Measured by the MCMI. Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 219–250. See also Freedman, D. X. (1986). Psychiatric Epidemiology Counts. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 931–933.