Blog Post #3

Fingerprinting the Language of Cults Using Adverbs and Intensifiers

Josh StephensonMS Student in Computational

According to the Netflix documentary Escaping Twin Flames, “there are over ten thousand cults currently operating in the US.” That is a lot!

It’s easy to make fundamental assumptions about the people who fall prey to cult leaders, but I think we are all more susceptible to it than we want to believe. There are several studies in social psychology about the reasons why people become victims of cults. There isn’t much research, however, that attempts to characterize the linguistic characteristics of cult leaders. In this blog post, I'll explore the language of a cult leader and compare it to the language of other two well-known leaders.

According to Ioan-Benjamin Pop adjuncts and disjuncts – namely adverbs and adverb phrases – 'have a function of establishing credibility, addressing objections, building rapport, and creating emotional connections with the audience'. That is, it is likely that adverbs play a prominent role in the language of famous leaders. Suryaningsih and Hardjanto, in turn, studied the use of intensifier adverbs. More specifically, they examined the use of intensifier in social media posts. Their results showed that words like really, very, extremely, etc. aid speakers in scaling the meaning of their speech upwards or downwards. Based on this previous research, in this blog post, I will explore the way that cult leaders use different parts of speech, particularly adverbs and intensifiers to appeal to their followers.

The Data

Interviews with 3 speakers were selected for this study. The goal was to compre the language of a known cult leader to the language of other leaders. First, a known cult leader was selected, Keith Raniere. Second, I chose a TV personality who is very unlikely to be called a cult leader, Jon Steward. Third, I chose a life coach who some might say is 'culty' and others wouldn’t, Tony Robbins. The goal of selecting these three speakers is to create a continuum of “cultiness”, so that we can characterize the speech of cult leaders.

For Keith Raniere and Tony Robbins, the data collected was auto-generated transcripts of interviews from YouTube. For Jon Stewart, a curated transcript from a CNN interview was used. All transcripts were between 10 and 15 thousand words.

The Research

The first step was to tally the frequency of the word classes of content words using NLTK and Python (shown below).

As we can see in the figure above, there appears to be an inverse relationship between noun usage and “cultiness”. That is, Raniere uses the fewer nouns, while Stewart uses the most nouns. Based on previous research, I chose to further explore the use of adverbs.

The image above shows that both Robbins and Raniere use more adverbs than Stewart (non-cult leader). In fact, it seems that both of them use adverbs almost to the same extent. So, what does this say about Robbins’ “cultiness”? 

In order to answer this question, I examined different types of adverbs (intensifiers, downtowners and others). To identify downtowners and intensifiers, I compiled a list of 68 intensifiers and 24 downtowners. Next, I used this list to tally the frequencies of adverb types used by each speaker.

As we can see in the figure above, Raniere uses the most adverbs. Nevertheless, none of the speakers is using a relevant number of downtowners. Based on these results, there seems to be a clear positive relationship between the use of intensifiers and “cultiness”. If we examine specific intensifiers, we can see that 'very' accounts for the difference in Raniere’s speech.

As the figure below shows, if we removed the word “very” from the study, Robbins would have the greatest use of intensifiers among the three speakers.

The results of this study indicate that there is a relationship between the use of adverbs and ‘cultiness’. However, more data is needed to draw further conclusions in terms of the linguistic characteristics of ‘cultiness’. Future studies should add transcripts from other cult and non-cult leaders in order to make any generalizations about the use of intensifiers in cult speech. In addition, they should look at the use of other parts-of-speech by cult leaders.


Pop, I. B. (2023). Adjuncts, style and attitude disjuncts: A study on their usage in persuasion techniques. Identities in the spotlight. 79.

Suryaningsih, Y & Hardjanto, T. (2021). Types of English intensifiers on social media. Language circle: Journal of Language and Literature. 15. 201-208.

Mazurek, D. (2023, March 2). List of 100+ common adverbs by types and with examples.