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Cognitive Account Of Cults: Socio-Religious Belief Formation

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Belief is the attitude or acceptance that something exists. The can be formed in two ways. First one is experience. It means that a person starts believing something after going through it. Such beliefs are very strong. Second is accepting what others tell to be true. Humans form many core beliefs in their childhood, which is a result of accepting what their parents or society tells them. While researching how people form beliefs, Shermer (2011), deduced that there are two major reasons for it. One is that brain readily perceives patterns even when the phenomena are random. The other is that brain readily associates intentional action as a cause of natural events. He also says that humans form beliefs and then they look for the supporting evidence. Once brain constructs a belief, it justifies it with explanations. Further, he says what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around; this is called “belief dependent realism.”

Socio religious beliefs are a combination of social and religious factors. Social factors which influence beliefs of a person are age, family history, ethnicity, education, social customs, economic status and most importantly, religion. Religion is found in all known societies. Different religions have different set of beliefs. It is central part of human experience. It shapes their reactions to the environment they live in. According to Crossman (2019), religion is studied as a belief system as well as a social institution. As a belief system, it shapes people’s thinking and how they perceive the world. As a social institution, it provides people with the beliefs and practices that help them in answering questions about the purpose of existence. People are socialized under religion’s organizational structure.

The cult is defined as a social group with unusual religious, philosophical or spiritual beliefs or it has a common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. Cath (1982) defined cult as a group of participants who have been joined by a common ideology catered by a charismatic leader.

Following are characteristics of cults.

  1. They have an authoritarian ruler who is mostly self-appointed and becomes an object of worship. They are charismatic and loved by their followers. Often, they are considered more than human.
  2. The identity of their community becomes their priority. Its needs are wants become their primary concern and they start depending on each other.
  3. The authority figure encourages aggressive campaigns and efforts of conversion. The members are captured by the fear of heaven and hell.
  4. Before entering the group, new followers complete several practices. This secures their place in the group.
  5. The religious movements which are labeled cults are mostly new and they do not have the established title of religious practices. They either update old theology or adapt it to their teachings. ( Davis, 1996)

There are different types of cults. Campbell (1978) discusses concept of defining cults as non-traditional religious groups that believe in a divine element within the individual. He gives three ideal types of cults:

  • a mystically-oriented illumination type,
  • an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought solely for its effects,
  • a service-oriented type that is focused on aiding others.

Stark and Bainbridge (1975) distinguish three types of cults, and classified them on the basis of the levels of organizational and client involvement

  1. Audience cults, they hardly have any organization because participants/consumers lack major involvement.
  2. Client cults, in this the people who provide service show an extent of organization as opposed to their consumers. Client cults link into commitment social networks through which people exchange goods and services. The relationship between clients and the leaders of client cults resembles that of patients and therapists.
  3. Cult movements, which seek to provide services that meet all of their adherents’ spiritual needs, although they differ significantly in the degree to which they use mobilize adherents’ time and commitment.

After studying the current and former cult members, researchers and clinicians have developed a new understanding of the psychology of the cult experience. The researchers have found that all cults are not necessarily psychologically damaging to their members. Proper treatments have been found for the ones who have been harmed. They further found the techniques cults use to keep the loyalty of old members and attract new members. According to Clark (1982), “Many cult groups have developed basically similar and quite compelling conversion techniques for exploiting the vulnerabilities of potential converts.” In some respects, he said, “the destructive effects of cult conversions amount to a new disease in an era of psychological manipulation.”

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To explain why people are drawn to cults, Pedersen (2016) argues that human need for comfort in fear and uncertainty leads people to seek platforms or groups that soothe their anxieties. Cult leaders, however, fulfill this need by making fake promises that are impossible to keep and are not found elsewhere in the society. Some examples of such promises are “constant peace of mind, financial security, perfect health, and eternal life.”

Not only do cult leaders exploit human desire for emotional comfort, they also do not have good intentions regarding their followers’’ mental health. Banschick (2016) says that cult leaders use techniques that cut off followers from the outside world. This increases member’s already existing emotional insecurities and makes them dependent on their cult for emotional support. They are often asked to cut ties with the friends or family members that are not the part of the group. This can cause physical and psychological isolation which results in anxiety and depression. The anxiety and depression can become so overwhelming and make followers feel trapped. ”Consciously and manipulatively,” Singer (1982), ”cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes.”

It’s a deadly cycle that can lead to very tragic results, for example, the well-documented 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when over 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide carried out under the supervision of cult leader Jim Jones. Then there were the Heaven’s Gate in 1997, when 39 individuals, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite, willingly overdosed on phenobarbital and vodka in the hope of being transported to an alleged alien spaceship flying behind the (real) Hale-Bopp comet.

Cath (1982) says, according to researchers, all cults are not destructive. Many people who join and stay in cults do so for the quest of religious connection. Whether a cult id destructive or not dependent on the mortality of the cult leader and the type of the leader’s dream. . ”Most of the malign cults are frightening to people when their tenets are revealed, as with the People’s Temple after Jonestown,” he said. They expect that they can make their life better. He also said that they form a we-they philosophy, which is that we know the truth and you do not. In destructive cults, all current and prior connectedness is denied. He said that the routine of the manipulated cult conversions may not seem radical to outsiders, since no one is beaten or physically harmed. ”But hundreds of ex-cult members and their families have been attested to the enticement practices of these groups,” he said. “Under the force of the conversion experience, people disappeared from their families and changed, sometimes after only a few days.”

Clark (1982) said that a typical conversion is manipulated and it targets a vulnerable person – a student leaving home, or at exam time, or someone who has lost a friend or lover – who is enticed by some reward: companionship, peace of mind, a place to stay or an implied sexual offering. ”Cult recruiters frequently visit bus stations, airports, campuses, libraries, rallies, anywhere that unattached persons are likely to go,” he said. Then the attention of the recruit is narrowed in controlled social situations. They are invited to attend special functions or classes.

These are some ways how the new members are attracted by the cult leaders. ”There is a great need for psychiatric humility here,” Lifton (1982). ”I think it might be stressed that the whole cult phenomenon is a social, psychological, spiritual and economic problem, and the answer may not be psychiatric at all.” The researchers said that some people who joined cults had just chosen the lesser of two evils – especially teen-agers who had escaped destructive family situations by joining cults.

Cults raise very serious psychological problems, and there is a place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating the cult members. Freud (1927) text “The Future of an Illusion,” says that the religion was just a mental trick constructed to comfort believers and help them overcome insecurities – even though their acceptance of dogma was irrational. While Freud focused on mainstream faiths, he highlighted the emotional comfort central, which is analogous to the role that this element plays in cults. He gave solutions such as replace religion (or, in today’s case, cults) with rational guidelines for living that solve problems directly. If one feels anxious about themselves, they should eat healthy food and exercise daily. If one is stressed about their relationship, they should talk their partner directly in a clear and honest manner and reach solutions.

However, it is not easy to simply “use reason over emotion.” The fact that cults still continue to exist – and that people continue to play the lottery even after knowing that the chances of winning are very low, or insist on getting unproven cancer treatments like urine therapy – is a proof that emotional motivators are very strong. However, one should not surrender their emotions, which can enhance human experiences in various ways. But it is very important to be careful and understand the importance of reaching decisions using logic, specifically when emotion driven choices can lead to negative results.


  1. Manza, L. (2016, April). How cults exploit one of our most basic psychological urges. Retrieved from
  2. Lifton, R. J. (1990) Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat. New York: Cult Formation. Retrieved from
  3. Grayling, A. C. (2011, June). How we form beliefs. Retrieved from
  4. Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Retrieved from
  5. Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Retrieved from
  6. Collins, G. (1982, March) The psychology of the cult experience. Retrieved from

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Cognitive Account Of Cults: Socio-Religious Belief Formation. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
“Cognitive Account Of Cults: Socio-Religious Belief Formation.” Edubirdie, 18 Feb. 2022,
Cognitive Account Of Cults: Socio-Religious Belief Formation. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 May 2023].
Cognitive Account Of Cults: Socio-Religious Belief Formation [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 18 [cited 2023 May 24]. Available from:
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