First Advisor

Dr. Lee Anna Knox

Date of Award

Spring 6-16-2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Psychology and University Honors






cult, conversion, coercion, control, religion, manipulation


Religious belief of some form has long been a regular part of many people’s lives, but when a person’s devotion to doctrine becomes so all-encompassing that they structure their entire life around it, they may be in a cult. While the dogma may vary across groups, a cult is characterized as having extremely devoted disciples who often follow a charismatic leader and espouse extreme beliefs or practices not widely accepted by society. Members of cults commit themselves wholly to their leaders. Proving their commitment by turning over financial assets, obeying commands without question, and even severing all social ties outside of the group. For a cult leader to hold such incredible power of command they intentionally seek vulnerable individuals to grow their flock. These converts then become recruiters themselves, increasing the size of the congregation and the leader’s power. This literature review analyzes scholarship spanning the past century on multiple cult organizations to identify the commonalities shared in practices used to recruit, indoctrinate, and maintain allegiance. Literature analysis shows that targets for indoctrination tend to display one or more risk factors characteristics such as youth, drug and alcohol abuse, or lack of support system. Tactics involving social isolation, deception, sexual acts, financial manipulation, and lifestyle control are most effective and are utilized by multiple organizations to induct members and subsequently retain authority over them. In essence, cults gradually chip away pieces of a person until they no longer have an individual identity beyond what is determined by the group.