The what and why of cults central to inaugural Eckerd College Winter Term course

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The students bring up concepts such as validation, a sense of belonging and what actually defines a cult.

And then someone mentions Mary Kay Inc., a $3 billion multilevel marketing company known for its cosmetics. “Well,” says one student, “in some ways it fits.”

Why do people join cults? How do cult leaders attract members? Are some people more susceptible to cult influence than others? What exactly makes a group a cult? All of these questions are at the center of The Psychology of Cults, an inaugural Eckerd College Winter Term course taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephanie Mallinas, Ph.D. The College offered more than 60 Winter Term courses this year, nearly half of them abroad, from Jan. 3–27.

“When I teach Social Psychology, we talk about social influence and group processes,” Mallinas explains. “Last spring the students did a little activity applying these concepts to cults. They really enjoyed it. I knew I needed to come up with a Winter Term course that was a little nontraditional, and I thought there would be a lot to talk about in a class on cults.”

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  1. Though some definitions of cults seem to be overly broad, there is a consensus on the defining three core elements of a destructive cult, which are; (1) an absolute totalitarian leader who becomes an object of worship and (2) who uses coercive persuasion to gain undue influence over his or her followers and (3) then exploits, abuses and hurts them.

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