Date of Award

Fall 12-2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Forensic Mental Health Counseling



First Advisor or Mentor

Chitra Raghavan

Second Reader

Sarah DeMarco

Third Advisor

Eric Stewart


Prior research on susceptibility to cult recruitment has focused predominately on psychopathological risk factors, such as a prior personality disorder diagnosis and psychiatric and addictive disorders (Feldman & Johnson, 1995; Rousselet et al., 2017). While such studies contribute valuable information, they also inadvertently pathologize cult members. Furthermore, this focus has led to the overlooking of a more crucial question: what basic human desires does cult membership fulfill that cult leaders and recruiters exploit, to recruit and keep members in cults? To address this dearth, research team members interviewed 52 former cult members (N=52) from a variety of groups (e.g., Christian-based, mindfulness-based, etc.) for 1.5-3 hours using a semi-structured interview guide developed within the coercive control theoretical framework (Doychak & Raghavan, 2018). Qualitative analysis was conducted utilizing grounded theory methodology to identify proximal and distal reasons given for joining, maintaining membership within, and putting off leaving a cult, as well as prevalent themes of needs fulfilled by cult membership. Questions (and therefore analysis) included: (1) Short and long-term stressors prior to joining the group, (2) Reasons identified by participants as cementing their commitment to the cult and contributing to sustained membership, and (3) Emotional, practical, and spiritual factors that made it difficult to leave the cult. Nuanced analysis of responses indicated that a sense of community, spirituality, and purpose emerged as the needs most consistently fulfilled by cults. These findings suggest that cult leaders and recruiters are targeting individuals during stressful times in their lives, exploiting the human need for connection and purpose in order to trap individuals in the cultic lifecycle, eventually inducing dependence and instilling a deep fear of leaving. The similarity of this dynamic to other gender-based violence relationships is discussed.



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