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Masters: TCT570 -Cults & Charismatic Leaders (January 2023)

Cults: Identifying Cult Characteristics

Rachael Riggs

National American University

Henley-Putnam School of Strategic Security

TCT570 - Cults and Charismatic Leaders

Dr. Chad Bushman

October 16, 2022

Cults: Identifying Cult Characteristics

Media attention on cults has caused confusion and misunderstanding about what a cult is. Understanding the difference between Cults, Sects, Churches, and denominations is essential when identifying a New Religious Movement (NRM). Many organized religions began as a cult. The definition of a cult is

as follows:

A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. .a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister—a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

Dangerous Cults are what most people think of when they hear the word cult; these types of cults are most concerning to federal law enforcement organizations tasked with countering extremist organizations. The following discusses how to identify a cult and the characteristics that make up a cult.

Characteristics of a Cult and How to Identify a Cult

Comprehending Cults by Lorne L. Dawson (Dawson, 2006) describes that Michael Langone defines a cult as a group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits tremendous or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members, (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership's goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and community.' (Dawson, 2006)

Andy Naselli discusses the sociological characteristics of a cult as having:

  • Authoritarian Leadership
  • Exclusivism
  • Isolationism
  • Opposition to Independent Thinking
  • Fear of being Disfellowshipped
  • Threats of Satanic Attack or another horrible outcome should they choose to leave the group. (Naselli, 2011)

Finally, www.study.com states the characteristics of a cult as follows: a charismatic leader, ideological purity, conformity and control, mind-altering practices, Isolation, love bombing, us-vs-them mentality, apocalyptic thinking, time and energy. (Blakely, 2021)

Identifying Characteristics of a Cult Leader

Specific characteristics that separate them from other leaders can identify dangerous cult leaders. These characteristics include:

  • He has a grandiose idea of himself and his abilities
  • Sense of entitlement
  • He has an exaggerated sense of power, believing he can bend the rules and break laws.
  • Devalues others as inferior, incapable, or not worthy
  • Grandiosity and need for control
  • Believes that those that question him are the enemy
  • Narcissistic personality
  • Believes he possesses the answers or solutions to the world's problems

(Ph.D. Savage, 2022)

Joe Navarro provides 50 traits of dangerous cult leaders in an article from Psychology Today (M.A. Navarro, 2012). He also discusses these types of personalities in his book “Dangerous Personalities.” (Navarro, 2013) Navarro's extensive knowledge of these personalities as an FBI Profiler helps one genuinely understand a dangerous person or leader and provides a more in-depth understanding of this type of person. A deeper understanding of the traits that distinguish a dangerous leader from others will significantly help to realize a cult and if a dangerous cult is developing.

Identification of Dangerous Cults

It is essential to understand that New Religious Movements are not new to history, and many of the churches and religions we know of today began as cults. Cults are simply new religious movements that are still small and hold different or what the majority would consider strange beliefs. (Dawson, 2006) Not all cults are dangerous, but it is necessary to understand how to identify the ones that are or could potentially become dangerous to their members or society as a whole.

In addition to distinguishing dangerous cults and their leader, it is essential to understand what type of person is attracted to this group. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand why a person could fall victim to the associations of a cult. Identifying such individuals will enable a better understanding of cults, why they form, and how and why they could progressively grow. Mastering this knowledge and understanding the details behind cults, cult leaders, and those that follow will help federal agents counter these dangerous extremist organizations.


NRMs are nothing new. A deeper understanding of these movements and why they transpire will benefit those tasked with countering extremist organizations. Dangerous cults tend to manipulate and control their members, with a charismatic leader determined to manipulate members using a grandiose self-perception and narcissistic personality, with his ultimate goal being control. Identifying these cults is crucial for the protection of society.


Blakely, S. (2021, June 21). Cult Characteristics Types Behavior. Retrieved from www.study.com: https://study.com/learn/lesson/cult-characteristics-types-behavior.html

Dawson, L. L. (2006). Comprehending Cults. New York: Oxford University Press.

M.A. Navarro, J. (2012, August 25). Dangerous Cult Leaders. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/201208/dangerous-cult-leaders

Naselli, A. (2011, February 28). Six Sociological Characteristics of Cults. Retrieved 2022, from Andy Naselli: https://andynaselli.com/sociological-characteristics-of-cults

Navarro, J. (2013). Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People. Rodale.

Ph.D. Savage, E. (2022). Trumpism / Cultism / Populism Revisited. News Release Wire. Retrieved from https://advance-lexis-com.nauproxy01.national.edu/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=402c8542-cb0a-4af5-b73c-70cf8a178d5d&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A66B7-WP81-JCM9-H3SV-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=264078&pdteaserkey=sr0&p

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