A cult is typically a small, non-mainstream group that revolves around one charismatic leader.

A destructive or ‘totalist’ cult exploits vulnerabilities in their followers to bring about thought reform with unethical psychology techniques.

Totalist cults may include:

  • A charismatic leader that the members can follow
  • Deception during the recruitment stage of the true intentions of the group.
  • Thought reform methods used on members
  • Isolation in physical and psychological forms
  • A demand for absolute devotion and loyalty
  • Strict control over members

Cult members have not devoted to their leaders’ ideas but the leader themselves. That is why a charismatic leader is crucial to running a totalist cult. This leader is usually considered some form of god, messiah, prophet, or possessing some other holy status.

What makes for a good cult member?

  • Dependency –

An intense desire and need to ‘belong’ or find their place in the world. This usually stems from low self-esteem issues.

  • Unassertiveness –

A reluctance to say no when asked to do something.

  • Gullibility –

Needs to be able to believe someone without questioning their logic

  • Low Tolerance for Uncertainty –

This person likes things to be told to them in black and white. This is good, this is bad. This is allowed, this is not.

  • Naïve Idealism –

A blind belief that everyone is good and has good intentions and motives.

  • A Desire for spiritual meaning –

Wishing for a higher purpose in life.

Four main ways to bring about ‘Thought Reform’

  • Deception –

Most cults will mislead new members, showing them only the positive sides to joining and ignoring any negative parts of cult life or illegal activity that takes part within the cult.

  • Isolation –

Isolation for periods of time can cause deep introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality. The longer they are isolated, the more fearful of outsiders they become.

  • Induced Dependency –

Cults demand absolute unquestionable devotion to the cause. Any and all aspects of a members life before the cult that reflect any individuality are slowly phased out; Ultimately, feelings of worthlessness and evil become associated with freedom and critical thinking.

  • Dread –

Finally, control by fear. Cult members are usually fearful of the leader and try hard to stay in their leaders’ good books.

Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:

  • He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.
  • Demands blind unquestioned obedience.
  • Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.
  • Has a sense of entitlement – expecting to be treated specially at all times.
  • Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.
  • Is arrogant and haughty in his behaviour or attitude.
  • Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.
  • Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult. Sex is a requirement with adults and subadults as part of a ritual or rite.
  • Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others.
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.
  • Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.
  • Has ignored the needs of others, including biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.
  • Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.
  • Needs to be the centre of attention and does things to distract others to ensure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.
  • Has insisted on always having the best of anything (house, car, jewellery, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.
  • Doesn’t seem to listen well to the needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.
  • Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.
    Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.
  • When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.
  • Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”
  • Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”
  • Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.
  • Believes himself to be omnipotent.
  • Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.
  • Is superficially charming.
  • Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.
  • Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.
  • Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.
  • Treats others with contempt and arrogance.
  • Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.
  • The word “I” dominates his conversations. He is oblivious to how often he references himself.
  • Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly – when he does he acts out with rage.
  • Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.
  • Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.
  • Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.
  • Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.
  • Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.
  • Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.
  • Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.
  • Works the least but demands the most.
  • Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”
  • Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.
  • Uses enforcers or sycophants to ensure compliance from members or believers.
    Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.
  • Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.
  • Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact, sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”
  • Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.
  • Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

From <

Type Christian new religious. Utopian social change church movement. Eclectic Pentecostal with Christian socialist and communist elements. Theosophical. New Thought.
Polity Semi-congregationalist
Locations United States (Indiana, California), Guyana
Founder Jim Jones
Congregations 7 in California
Members Between 3,000 and 5,000
Ministers James Warren ‘Jim’ Jones


Congregationalist: Protestant churches with reformed traditions

Christian New Religious: Religious, ethical or spiritual group or community with fairly modern practices.

Utopian Socialism: A label used to define the first currents of modern socialism.

Pentecostal: A renewal movement of Protestant Christianity that places emphasis on personal experiences with God.

Christian Socialist: Religious socialism based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Communism: Philosophical, social, political and economic ideology and a movement aiming for a communal society

Theosophical: AKA Bohemian theosophy refers to mystical or occultist philosophy in which one focuses on the attainment of direct, unmediated knowledge of the nature, origin and purpose of the universe.

Inspired by the idea of a just society that could overcome the evils of racism and poverty.

Although Jones was white, he attracted mostly African Americans to the group with his vision of an integrated congregation. In 1960 the Peoples Temple affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and four years later Jones was ordained. In 1965 he warned of a nuclear holocaust and led the movement to Ukiah, Calif.

Branch congregations opened in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the agricultural settlement Jonestown was founded in 1974.

Jones’s “apostolic socialism” was influenced by the Marxist “liberation theology” popular among Latin American clergy at the time. He mixed social concerns with faith healing and an enthusiastic worship style drawn from the black church. He also invited members to live communally in an effort to realize his utopian ideal.

A year later, Concerned Relatives, a group of former members, persuaded Leo J. Ryan, a U.S. congressman from California, to visit Jonestown. The visit apparently went well. However, for reasons still not completely understood, Ryan and those accompanying him were murdered when they reached the airport to return to the United States. Shortly thereafter, most of the residents joined together in a mass rite of murder-suicide in which they were either shot or took poison.

Following the tragedy at Jonestown, the Peoples Temple was identified as a “cult,” and Jones was depicted by the media as the epitome of an evil cult leader. Although numerous scholarly and popular studies of Jonestown have been written, the effort to understand the group and the tragedy continues. Congress has yet to release the files from its investigation of Ryan’s death.

Although some descriptions of the Peoples Temple emphasize Jones’s autocratic control over Temple operation, in reality the Temple possessed a complex leadership structure with decision-making power unevenly dispersed among its members. Within that structure, Temple members were unwittingly and gradually subjected to sophisticated mind control and behaviour modification techniques borrowed from post-revolutionary China and North Korea.

In the 1970s, the Temple established a more formal hierarchy for its socialistic model. At the top were the Temple’s Staff, a select group of eight to ten unquestionably obedient college-educated women that undertook the Temple’s most sensitive missions.