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Bull Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 1995;23(2):239-48.

Cult membership as a source of self-cohesion: forensic implications.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Louisville School of Medicine, KY 40292, USA.


The study of cults and the types of individuals drawn to them has long been of interest to psychiatrists. Although many studies have been done on personality types and psychopathology in cult members, no consensus has emerged. Studies of psychopathology in cult members have viewed these individuals as having either no significant impairment, displaying elements of character pathology, or being severely impaired. The result is that no clear theoretical framework has been developed to explain cult membership. Psychoanalytic self psychology, as developed by Heinz Kohut, can provide such a framework. The cult may be understood as serving a number of functions for its members, all of which are designed to restore self-cohesion. Such a formulation implies a degree of self, or narcissistic, pathology in many cult members. This article reviews the literature on cults, offers a self psychology formulation to explain the function that cult membership serves for narcissistically vulnerable personalities, and describes forensic applications of these principles.

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