Environments Psychologically Harmful?
Steven Jay Lynn, Ph.D.
This article is the first critical review of research that
addresses the question of whether cult membership is psychologically harmful.
The available evidence warrants three conclusions: (a) persons entering cults do
not necessarily exhibit psychopathology; (b) current cult members appear
psychologically well-adjusted generally, and demonstrate few conspicuous
symptoms of psychopathology. However, pathology may be masked by conformity
pressures and demand characteristics associated with the cultic environment; (c)
a small but growing body of research indicates that at least a substantial
minority of former cult members experience significant adjustment difficulties.
There also are indications that these difficulties cannot be ascribed to demand
characteristics. Although the review highlights definitional and methodological
issues and problems that temper conclusions that can be drawn from the
literature, no evidence indicates that cults improve adjustment after members
leave the cultic environment.
the gruesome photos of Jim Jones' Guyana compound after the 1979 suicide/murder
of 900 followers depicts a sign hung over the carnage in one of the buildings.
The sign presents George Santayana's famous quote: "Those who do not remember
the past are condemned to repeat it." Unfortunately, the past has repeated
itself at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco; in the Solar
Temple group in Canada, France and Switzerland; in the sarin gas attacks in
Japan; and in the more recent "Heaven's Gate" mass suicides.
have existed for as far back in time as people can remember, yet it is only in
recent years that they have received the attention they deserve. In the 1960s,
cults increased rapidly in number, and in the 1970s, parents became concerned
about the changes they observed in their children who joined cults (Langone,
1993a). By the late 1970s a few psychotherapists began to take note
of psychological problems in ex-cultists (Clark,
1979), and by the early 1980s, concerns about the deleterious effects
of cult involvements became more widespread among helping professionals. These
concerns were propagated by former cult members who "went public" and spoke in
moving terms about the tribulations and psychological problems they attributed
to their participation in cultic groups. These various influences have
engendered negative public perceptions about cults (see Anthony &
Robbins, 1992) as well as concern on the part of clinicians,
researchers, and theoreticians about the potentially dangerous influence of
destructive cults on individuals and society in general.
have not, however, been without defenders. Indeed, the cult literature is
dominated by rhetoric as well as personal, political, and scientific agendas.
Workers in the field have generally joined the ranks of one of two opposing
camps. One camp is composed of the so-called "cult sympathizers," who believe
that cults merely represent an alternative culture. The sympathizers (e.g., Alexander,
& Robbins, 1992; Coleman,
1994) often describe cults as new religious movements, and assert
that the First Amendment entitles cults to operate autonomously (e.g., Alexander,
& Robbins, 1992; Malony
1994) within the constraints of the law. This position has been
rationalized, in part, by observations that cults can have positive effects on
1980; Rabkin, Rabkin, & Deutsch, 1979).
other camp¯¯the cult critics (e.g., Martin,
& Ofshe, 1990; West
& Martin, 1994)¯¯maintains that some cults are psychologically
harmful. According to this perspective, some cults spawn negative reactions
ranging from depression, anxiety, dissociation, passivity, guilt, and psychotic
breaks, to fear of cult reprisals (Singer &
two camps have diametrically opposing views of the risks and dangers of cultic
involvement. In this article, we address a question that sharply divides these
two perspectives on cults: Is cult involvement associated with psychopathology
or problems in adjustment? Our review represents the first of its kind. It is
intended to elucidate a number of conceptual and methodological issues and to
spur research in psychological aspects of cultic studies. The electronic
database PsycInfo was used to locate pertinent books and articles. The
keyword search included the following terms: cult, cults, cultic, cultism,
therapy cults, new religious movements, brainwash, brainwashing, mind control,
and Jonestown. The names of authors who frequently publish articles in the field
were also included in the search.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary (Berube, Neely,
& DeVinne, 1983) a cult is "1) a system or community of religious
worship and ritual 2a) a devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a
person, principle, etc., especially when regarded as a fad [the cult of nudism]
b) the object of such attachment 3) a group of followers; sect". Although this
definition appears relatively neutral and largely devoid of negative
connotations, the public and scientific communities often describe cults in
of the reason why cults have been viewed in this dim light is that they have
been associated with brainwashing, thought reform, and other coercive
procedures. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, former cult members
1993) embraced the work of psychiatrists and psychologists (e.g., Robert J.
Lifton, Edgar Schein, Margaret Singer, and Louis Jolyon West) who interviewed
dissidents and former prisoners of war. Former cult members used this body of
work to understand and integrate their personal experiences in cultic groups
into their lives.
cult members (e.g., Hassan,
1993) resonated strongly with Lifton's work, and claimed that in their former
involvements with cults they encountered many of the thought-reform practices
and themes (e.g., total control of communication, polarization of world into
"good and bad") identified by Lifton
(1961/1989). These former members, in turn, adopted or modified
Lifton's characterization of cultic environments.
the 1980s, a number of definitions (see Singer &
Lalich, 1995) that apply specifically to cults, rather than to
thought reform more generally, have been articulated. One of the most frequently
quoted (Rosedale &
Langone, 1998) definitions of cult was developed at the American
Family Foundation/UCLA Conference on Cultism in 1985:
Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a
great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and
employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control ...
designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible
detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West &
Langone, 1985, pp. 119¯120)
(1993b) more recent definition, which follows, is even more specific
and defines a cult more in terms of its behavior and the consequent effects on
members than in terms of the nature or structure of the group itself: "... a
group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits great or excessive
devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought-reform
program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them
into the group's unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and
practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in
members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership's goals, and (e) causes
psychological harm to members, their families, and the community" (p. 5).
Unfortunately, the definitions reviewed are neither
operational in nature, nor the product of empirical research. Indeed, only two
studies in the literature (Chambers,
Langone, Dole, and Grice; 1994; Martin,
Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992) provide a precise and specific operational
definition of the term cult. To remedy lack of an objective, empirically derived
measure and definition of cultic environments, Chambers et
al. (1994) developed the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPAS), a
measure consistent with Langone's definition of psychologically abusive groups.
The authors administered the 112-item scale to 308 members of FOCUS, a national
network of former cult members who represented 101 groups that participants
deemed cultic. The items were then factor analyzed and a four-factor model was
derived of the varieties of psychological abuse: compliance, exploitation, mind
control, and anxious dependency.
on this model, the authors (Chambers et
al., 1994) amended Langone's
(1993b) earlier definition as follows: "Cults are groups that often
exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members
comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological
manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of
deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders" (p. 90).
Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPAS; Chambers et
al., 1994) represents an empirical approach to characterizing cultic
environments that could potentially demarcate the "gray zone" between new
nonmainstream, often unorthodox groups¯¯which, in popular terms,
might be referred to as cults¯¯and exploitive groups that are truly
psychologically abusive in nature. This development could serve to reduce, if
not remove, the stigma associated with harmless groups, while assisting
researchers in mapping the characteristics and correlates of more abusive cultic
Validity data pertinent to this scale are limited but
promising. Langone and his associates (Langone,
Malinoski, Aronoff, Zelikovsky, & Lynn, 1996; see also Malinoski,
Langone, & Lynn, 1999) found that former members of a group they identified
as psychologically abusive (e.g., Boston Church of Christ [BCC]) rated their
former group as more psychologically abusive than did graduates of a mainstream
campus ministry (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) and former Roman Catholics.
Furthermore, former members of the BCC scored significantly higher on measures
of psychological distress (e.g., global distress, depression, anxiety,
dissociation, and posttraumatic stress) than did members of the comparison
groups. Future development of the GPAS will aid in discriminating among groups
on the basis of relevant cult-related dimensions.
likelihood, a consensus operational definition of a cult may prove to be
elusive. Indeed, it may be most descriptive to think of groups as ranging on a
continuum from being extremely cultic to completely non-cultic in nature. As Rosedale and
Langone (1998) have recently observed, because the term cult
refers to a continuum, "in which a gray area separates `cult' from `noncult' ...
there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a
specific group ..." (p. 69). Because the destructive effects of group
involvement can also range on a continuum, it is important to consider the
distinctive and potentially harmful practices of particular groups rather than
merely labeling them as cults.
sure, cults are not all alike. Indeed, many different types of cults, including
religious, psychological, political, and commercial, have been identified (Butterfield,
1978). However, the majority of the literature on cults pertains to religious
groups, and this will be the focus of our review. We acknowledge that many
definitions of cults are possible, and restrict our purview to articles that use
the term cult to label the groups studied. Many of these groups are
widely regarded in the extant literature as "cultic" in nature.
Variability exists in the estimates of the number of people
involved with cultic groups, an inevitable consequence of differences in the way
cults have been defined and measured (Martin,
1993). Nevertheless, the best estimate is that between 2 and 5
million Americans have been involved in cults. This estimate derives from
surveys of new religious and parareligious movements in San Francisco and
Montreal (Bird &
Reimer, 1982), high school students in the San Francisco Bay area (Zimbardo &
Hartley, 1984), a survey conducted in 1993 by the ICR Survey Research
Group for the American Family Foundation (AFF), and a Pennsylvania Medical
Society survey of 1,396 primary care physicians, 2.2% of whom reported having
had a family member involved with a cultic group (Lottick,
(1993) has estimated that there may be anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000
cultic groups in America, with as many as 2 to 20 million members. This latter
statistic is far beyond the scope of previous estimates. Yet even the most
conservative estimates are of sufficient magnitude to make cults worthy of
Dynamics and Effects
In general, the available
literature can be divided into two major topics: (a) the dynamics of cults, and
(b) the effects of cults. The first topic encompasses mind control, why people
join and leave cults, and how leaders maintain control of groups. In contrast,
the second topic encompasses the nature, type, incidence, and severity of
deleterious effects that arise from cultic involvement. Investigators have
typically studied this second area, which will be discussed in this review in
terms of the presence or absence of symptomatology and problems in living
before, during, and after the cult experience.
Characteristics of Joiners
Are psychological problems
generally evident before cult members join the cult? Spero
(1982) described his clinical impressions of 65 cult members
treated at an outpatient clinic with psychodynamic therapy. He noted that his
clients were unhappy, egotistic, depressed, or anxious before joining their
groups. However, because noncult members were not studied, it cannot be
determined whether these characteristics were specific to joiners.
Salter (1976) interviewed 106 current members of nine groups who
provided information regarding their reasons for joining. Forty-three percent
reported feelings of loneliness, rejection, sadness, and a lack of belonging;
41% stated that they were drifting and felt that life was meaninglessness; 34%
cited a personal or family crisis or unpleasant situation; and 30% met someone
who was actively trying to gain converts or who became concerned with the
interviewee's happiness. A majority of the members reported "average" to "good"
relationships with their parents before joining their groups.
contrast to this relatively benign portrait of parental relationships, it has
been postulated that persons join cults in response to an unsatisfactory
childhood family environment (Ash,
& Miller, 1983; Nicholi,
& Kaslow, 1979; Stipes,
& Singer, 1980; Zerin,
1983). Sirkin and
Grellong (1988) found that family members of cult joiners tended to
be less emotionally expressive and more critical of their children than the
family members of noncult joiners. However, Maron
(1988) discovered that the only difference between families of cult
members and comparison families was that the family environment of current cult
members was characterized by a greater emphasis on independence. It should be
noted that both studies used only Jewish persons as their comparison groups, and
Sirkin and Grellong used only Jewish persons in the experimental group as well.
Hence, these findings may lack validity and generalizability apart from the
rather narrow population sampled.
Martin et al.
(1992) reviewed the literature concerning cult members who sought
psychological counseling before joining a cultic group. The percentages of those
reporting having sought psychological counseling ranged from 7 to 62% across
studies. In addition to the variability of findings across studies, without base
rate information regarding the percentage of nonjoiners' utilization of
psychological services, it is impossible to arrive at definitive conclusions
about precult adjustment based on help seeking. Finally, each of the reports
reviewed above is marred by the fact that the accounts of precult adjustment are
retrospective in nature. Prospective, controlled studies are obviously a
priority in this research domain.
Effects on Current
Impressions and Descriptions
number of clinicians have described the experiences of current cult members. For
(1984) studied more than 400 cult members in 15 different groups and
claimed that the cult experience was beneficial and even therapeutic, providing
adolescents with an opportunity to cope with separation from their parents. Robbins and
Anthony (1972) interviewed members of the Meher Baba cult as
participant-observers and reported that current members decreased their use of
illicit drugs relative to their consumption before entering the group; however,
standardized measures were not used, and other relevant psychological or
behavioral variables were not assessed.
(1982) account of cult members' experiences was far more negative. He
found that 74% of his 65 clients in psychodynamic psychotherapy displayed a
particular dissociative symptom called "floating" (i.e., an abrupt shift or
reversion in identity to a set of behaviors and emotions inculcated in the cult)
reportedly triggered by particular sensations (e.g., sights, sounds) that
reminded individuals of their participation in the cult (West &
further described cult members as having the following characteristics: (a)
highly "other-oriented" and dependent; (b) externalizing and projecting
negative, hateful self and other introjects; (c) a history of intensely
ambivalent or unsatisfactory early oral experiences; (d) narcissistic trends;
and (e) weakened critical judgment and reasoning faculties. Unfortunately, many
of these characteristics are vague and undefined in operational terms.
Additionally, Spero's report is based on a clinical population that is likely to
be more distressed than a nonclinical population of former cult members.
Unfortunately, Spero neither standardized his data collection nor his assessment
procedures. Hence, like Levine
(1984) and Anthony and Robbins's (1972) reports, Spero's observations
are essentially anecdotal in nature.
difficult to reconcile differences in perceptions of the adjustment of current
cult members among workers in the field. However, it is important to acknowledge
that an accurate evaluation of current members is difficult for many reasons.
These reasons include gaining and maintaining access to the cult; maintaining
objectivity while developing trusting relationships with the members of the
cult; coping with conversion attempts; dealing with the shock of being in an
environment with an entirely different set of rules about how one should think,
feel, and act; and obtaining sufficiently large random samples of members (Ayella,
1990). Furthermore, honest responses may be difficult to obtain from
cult members whose leaders either routinely violate confidentiality or induce
conformity pressures to present a good image.
Although clinical impressions are valuable, it is essential
to examine empirical studies with current cult members. Galanter,
Buckley, Deutsch, Rabkin, and Rabkin (1980) examined drug use in the
Divine Light Mission (DLM) (n = 119) and the
Unification Church (n = 237). Members were administered self-report
questionnaires concerning drug use for four different 2-month time periods: (a)
the time when they felt they had the most psychiatric symptoms or when they used
drugs most frequently before joining DLM; (b) immediately before exposure to
DLM; (c) immediately after initiation; and (d) in the previous 2 months prior to
the assessment. In the DLM group, there was a reported decrease in drug use
across all four time periods. An even steeper decrease in drug use over time was
noted in the Unification Church group.
results of this study are questionable for at least two reasons. First,
standardized measures were not utilized. Second, because the DLM discourages the
use of drugs and the Unification Church strictly prohibits drug use, current group members might
be prone to minimize or falsify their report of drug use.
Buckley (1978) assessed 119 members of the DLM for drug use and
psychiatric symptoms using a multiple-choice questionnaire developed by the
authors. Neither validity nor reliability data for the measures were reported.
Members were asked to answer items pertinent to the same four time periods
mentioned above (Galanter et
al., 1980). A decrease in drug use and psychiatric symptoms across
time periods was noted.
al. (1979) administered a 216-item questionnaire to 237 current
Unification Church members and to 305 nonmembers who constituted the
comparison group. Current members reported less emotional well-being than the
nonmembers on a general well-being measure. Current members reported a decline
in neurotic distress over the course of their membership, with most (91%)
reporting lower neurotic distress scores for the time period immediately after
they joined the group, compared with the time period immediately before joining
the group. The authors concluded that the church provided sustained relief from
neurotic distress. Unfortunately, the research report does not describe the
nonmember sample, thereby precluding meaningful conclusions about any
(1980) conducted a study of 104 persons who attended
Unification Church workshops. Results indicated that workshop attendees who
become members of the Unification Church were those who quickly formed stronger ties inside the
group than they had outside the group, adopted the group's creed, and adopted
the belief that the group's creed contributed to their sense of purpose. In
addition, although self-reported emotional well-being increased over time in
members, it was still not as high as in nonmembers.
next three studies reviewed evaluated personality and psychopathology of members
in particular groups. Weiss and
Comrey (1987) assessed personality characteristics of 226 active Hare
Krishna members and 727 nonmembers, as measured by the Comrey Personality Scales
Although the Hare Krishna members were assessed as more compulsive and
distrustful than the nonmembers, the mean trust score for the members was within
the normal range (Weiss &
Comrey, 1987). The Hare Krishna's high compulsivity scores mirror the
high degree of structure in their religious rituals and lifestyle. According to
Comrey (1987), members' lack of trust may reflect their feelings that
society is very critical of their group, or it may reflect a distrust in society
that prompted members to seek out an alternative culture in the first place.
(1990) studied 232 Rajneeshpuram commune members and found that they
engaged in more self-examination, as indexed by the Private Self Consciousness
Scheier, & Buss, 1975), than the normative population on which
the scale was standardized. Additionally, the Rajneeshees scored lower on the
Public Self-Consciousness Scale (i.e., they tend to not perceive themselves as
social objects) and on the Social Anxiety Scale (i.e., they tend to feel less
discomfort around others) than the normative group. Also, the Rajneeshees scored
higher on a self-esteem scale than a normative control group. These results are
not surprising in light of the fact that one of the tenets of the Rajneesh group
is that members should actively strive for self-exploration, self-acceptance,
and personal growth, and assume responsibility for their personal well-being,
rather than depend on others for validation.
(1990) claimed that these differences constitute evidence that
participants in this group have strong opinions and are not easily persuaded,
which contradicts the notion that people who join cults are gullible and easily
manipulated. Although the findings do imply that devotees currently have strong
opinions and would be difficult to persuade, the data are not based on
behavioral measures of persuasability, and do not pertain to or control for
persuasability before joining the group. Moreover, membership in the group may
have had a crystallizing and hardening effect on opinion formation. Indeed,
inducing unquestioning alliance to the group's ideology is a hallmark of cultic
Latkin, Littman, and Hagan (1990) administered the California
Psychological Inventory (CPI; Gough,
1987) to a sample of 67 Rajneeshpuram. The scores of these devotees
on the CPI scales implied that Rajneeshees are socially poised, flexible,
independent, and reject the notions of conforming to certain societal standards.
The interpretation of these findings is, however, obscured by the fact that the
demand characteristics of the social milieu might have affected the results
secured. That is, devotees' desire to present their group in a favorable light
might account for their positive self-presentations and reports of their ability
to resist persuasion attempts.
next three studies focused on members from a variety of groups. Ungerleider
& Wellisch (1979) compared 33 current and 17 former cult members
from a variety of unspecified groups using a variety of measures, including
structured interviews developed by the authors, a mental status exam, a short
form of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS; Wechsler,
1958), the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI; Hathaway &
McKinley, 1951), and the Interpersonal Check List (ICL; La Forge
& Suczek, 1955). Current members had either been deprogrammed and later
decided to return to their groups or they feared being captured and
deprogrammed. In order to provide incentives for participation, the researchers
promised to provide the results of the assessment to a court if necessary,
although they could not guarantee the outcome.
current members scored significantly higher on the MMPI Lie scale than the
former members. The Lie scale measures social desirability and an elevated score
indicates that the individual is "faking good" or attempting to minimize
pathology. Unfortunately, the actual scale scores were not reported, making if
difficult to interpret the clinical scale scores, some of which may have been
invalidated. The only other difference reported was that the current members had
elevations on two clinical scales and the former members had elevations on two
different clinical scales. In the first part of the results section, it states
that current members had elevations on scales 6 (Paranoia) and 8
(Schizophrenia), and the former members had elevations on scales 3 (Hysteria)
and 4 (Psychopathic Deviate). However, in subsequent sections of the paper it
states the reverse (i.e., current members had elevations on 3 and 4 and former
members had elevations on 6 and 8). These ambiguities in data reporting preclude
drawing any conclusions from this research.
Salter (1976) interviewed 106 members of nine nonmainstream religious
groups: Hare Krishna, Divine Light, Process, Foundation, 3HO, Jesus People,
Unification Church, Children of God, and Scientology. When queried about
their reasons for remaining in the group, 80% cited intrapsychic or
interpersonal rationales, and 20% discussed spiritual, transcendental, or
mystical reasons. Unfortunately, no examples were provided of members'
rationales for remaining in the group.
members were randomly selected and received more in-depth interviews. The
authors reported that although a large number of these members exhibited
psychiatric symptoms, most did not meet the criteria for psychiatric diagnoses.
However, Levine and
Salter (1976) did not state how many members exhibited symptoms nor
what the specific symptoms were. These results imply that although current
members appear to report greater emotional well-being after joining the group,
more in-depth interviews may elicit reports of underlying pathology. However,
future research should use valid structured interviews with well-established
reliabilities and psychometric properties.
(1984) assessed 51 cult devotees prior to treatment and after 6
months of psychotherapy. Pre-post increases were reported for the Verbal and
Performance sections of the WAIS (Wechsler,
1958). Also, pre- and posttreatment scores on the Bender Gestalt Test
differed, with the posttreatment scores indicating more perceptual openness
(i.e., they tend to process as opposed to block out visual input). Based on
results from the Rorschach (Exner,
1942) and Embedded Figures Test (Witkin,
(1984) concluded that cult members who have not received treatment
may experience difficulties in performing certain perceptual and cognitive
tasks, and notes that this lack of ability has been associated with
characteristics such as "passivity, identity confusion, other-orientedness,
unclear sense of separate self ... " (p. 750) that have been used to describe
cult devotees. Unfortunately, Spero failed to clarify the meaning of vague terms
such as other-orientedness and did not include a test-retest group of
conclusion, the majority of the studies reviewed appear to indicate that current
cult members are psychologically well-adjusted. However, it should be noted that
many of the studies are deficient in important respects. For examples, several
of these studies (Galanter,
& Buckley, 1978; Galanter
et al., 1979; 1980; Levine
& Salter, 1976) do not utilize well-standardized measures with established
psychometric properties. When well-normed, standardized measures are used (Galanter,
et al., 1990; Ungerleider
& Wellisch, 1979; Weiss
& Comrey, 1987), it allows for the comparison of cult members with relevant
clinical and normative populations. Other problems evident in the studies
reviewed include the fact that sample sizes do not always allow for sufficient
statistical power (Galanter,
& Wellisch, 1979), and few of the studies include important control or
comparison groups (Galanter,
& Buckley, 1978; Latkin,
& Salter, 1976; Sunberg
et al., 1990).
Additionally, the problems discussed previously (Ayella,
1990) must be considered. Since obtaining and maintaining access to
groups is difficult, it may be that researchers who are able to accomplish this
are more sympathetic to the cultic milieu. Also, members who volunteer or are
volunteered by leaders to be participants in a study may be relatively more
also possible that members may not report honestly on the questionnaires or
tests that are administered to them, and members may be influenced by relatively
subtle situational demands and response biases. For example, members may
actively minimize pathology because of pride in their group or distrust of the
researcher who is an outsider. Another possibility is that members minimize
pathology because of fear of repercussions. For example, one doctrine of the
Word of Life group states that "You get what you say" which means that reality
can be changed by what a person says. So, if a person says that s/he is feeling
sick, s/he will feel much sicker. Hence, symptoms such as depression would not
be allowed to be verbalized. Also, it is believed that feelings of anxiety or a
lack of a will to live are the product of attacks by the Devil or demons. These
attacks prove that the individuals who receive them are working for God.
Therefore, such feelings are not considered to be symptoms that something is
& Swartling, 1992). Transparent, unstandardized tests or tests
without validity indices and subtle items may therefore provide a misleading,
unduly optimistic clinical profile of current cult members.
Effects on Former
considering arguments about presence or absence of psychopathology in former
cult members, it is important to consider the various ways in which a person can
leave a cultic group. First, a person can simply walk away from the group
without any outside help or intervention. The second possibility is exit
counseling, which is "a voluntary, intensive, time-limited, contractual
educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information with
members of exploitatively, manipulative groups, commonly called cults" (Clark,
Giambalvo, Giambalvo, Garvey, & Langone, 1993, p. 155). Finally,
the person may go through a deprogramming process. In this case, the cult member
may arrive at home for a visit or may be kidnapped from the group, and a
"deprogrammer" will spend long hours giving lectures to the devotee about
his/her group. The main difference between these last two methods of leaving is
that in deprogramming the devotee is not free to leave, whereas in exit
counseling s/he has the option to leave at any time. Deprogramming is not nearly
as common as it once was. Martin et al.
(1992) report that of a sample of 110 former members, 23% walked
away, 44% received exit counseling, 25% were deprogrammed, and 8% did not
specify how they left their group.
Impressions of Former Members
Perhaps the most common symptom reported by clinicians
treating former cult members is dissociation (Clark,
1978, 1979; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West,
& Martin, 1994; West
& Singer, 1980; Wright,
1991). Dissociation often takes the form of the floating phenomenon referred to
& Goldberg, 1982; Halperin,
1978, 1979; West
& Martin, 1994; West
& Singer, 1980). Cognitive deficiencies, such as simplistic black/white
thinking and difficulties in making decisions have often been reported (Goldberg
& Goldberg, 1982; Levine,
1980; Singer, 1978,
& Ofshe, 1990), along with depression (Levine,
1978, 1979; West
& Singer, 1980; Wright,
1991) and anxiety (Cushman;
& Ofshe, 1990). Psychotic symptoms have been less frequently noted (Glass,
Kirsch, & Parris, 1977; MacHovec,
& Ofshe, 1990). It is important to bear in mind that these symptoms are
based on clinician's impressions and not on empirical research using
standardized psychometric instruments and diagnostic interviews. Also, it should
be noted that former members studied had all sought treatment from the reporting
cult members' symptoms have been described in terms of a variety of different
syndromes and disorders. The first such attempt to describe former cult members'
reactions in terms of a coherent symptom picture was made by Delgado
(1977), who identified the cult indoctrinee syndrome as consisting of
the following six symptoms or signs: (1) sudden, drastic, potentially
catastrophic alteration of the individual's value system; (2) reduction of
cognitive flexibility and adaptability such that cult members answer questions
mechanically; (3) narrowing and blunting of affect; (4) regression of behavior
to child-like levels, marked by dependency on the cult leader; (5) physical
changes, including weight loss and deterioration in physical appearance; (6)
possible pathological symptoms, including dissociation, delusional thinking, and
various other thought disorders.
Siegelman (1978) formulated the term information disease,
which refers to "bizarre disturbances of awareness, perception, memory, and
other basic information-processing capacities" (p. 88) that are sometimes
associated with cultic involvements. It is worth noting that the syndromes
reviewed so far are based on clinicians' impressions and lack established
construct and discriminative validity and a clear association with cultic
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has also been used to
diagnose many former cult members (Singer
& Ofshe, 1990; West,
1993), although its current applicability to this population is limited by the
fact that many former members who meet the criteria for PTSD under the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition,
revised (DSM-III-R; American
Psychiatric Association, 1987) criteria cannot meet it using the
current criteria (DSM-IV; American
Psychiatric Association, 1994). That is, DSM-IV requires that
"... the person has experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or
events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat
to the physical integrity of self or others ..." (p. 427). Nevertheless, former
cult members may suffer from threats of existential injury from group leaders,
such as being told (and believing) they are going to hell because they left the
group or "abandoned the cause."
Dissociative Disorder, Not Otherwise
Specified has also been utilized
frequently as a diagnostic category to classify former cult members (Ash,
& Ofshe, 1990; Sirkin,
& Singer, 1980). Herman
(1992) has suggested categorizing disorders of posttraumatic stress
along a continuum from a single acute episode to prolonged repeated trauma. She
coined the term Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified to
cover those traumatic events, such as psychological abuse, which are not
subsumed under the current PTSD diagnosis.
unlikely that one or even a few specific diagnoses will successfully capture the
diversity of pathology experienced by distressed former members. In fact, if the
child abuse literature (Kendall-Tackett,
Williams & Finkelhor, 1993; Malinosky-Rummel
& Hansen, 1993) is any guide, trauma, including physical and sexual abuse,
is associated with an extremely broad range of symptomatology.
of Former Members
Empirical studies of former members are neither numerous
nor without flaws. However, the studies consistently point to the conclusion
that psychopathology is a risk factor associated with cultic involvement.
Siegelman (1982) surveyed 400 former cult members. Among others, the
following seven symptoms were reported: floating/altered states (52%),
nightmares (40%), inability to break mental rhythms of chanting (35%), amnesia
(21%), suicidal/self-destructive tendencies (21%), hallucinations/delusions
(14%), and violent outbursts (14%).
Siegelman, Carmichael, and Coggins (1986) discussed results of a
subsample of 353 of the former members in more details. They found significant
yet very small correlations between reported emotional (e.g., depression,
r = .21), cognitive (e.g., disorientation, r = .15), and physical
symptoms (e.g., sexual dysfunction, r = .12) and the amount of time spent
in ritual activities. Another finding was that compared to persons who were not
deprogrammed, persons who were deprogrammed (73% of the sample) experienced less
depression, loneliness, disorientation, insomnia, sexual dysfunctions, guilt,
anger at group leaders, and fear that current members of the group would harm
them. Those who were deprogrammed also needed less rehabilitation time.
Bromley (1987) conducted a survey of 154 people who left cults by
walking away (n = 89), voluntary exit counseling (n = 29), or
involuntary exit counseling (deprogramming) (n = 36). The researchers
assessed their sample for the same seven symptoms assessed by Conway and
Siegelman (1982). Compared with Conway and
Siegelman (1982), Lewis and
Bromley (1987) found that lower percentages of people reported the
following symptoms: floating/altered states (28.6%), nightmares (25.3%),
inability to break mental rhythms of chanting (25.3%), amnesia (26%),
suicidal/self-destructive tendencies (18.8%), hallucinations/delusions (15.6%),
and violent outbursts (20.8%).
Bromley (1987) noted that symptoms were generally unrelated to length
of membership in the cult, and that those persons who received no exit
counseling, voluntary counseling, or deprogramming (27, 76, and 89%,
respectively), reported one or more of the seven symptoms assessed. These
findings contradict data reported by Conway et al.
those cult members who were deprogrammed, 30% reported all of the symptoms cited
above, and more than 50% reported more than three symptoms (Lewis &
Bromley, 1987). Those former members who did not undergo exit
counseling or deprogramming were less likely to report symptoms than those who
had voluntary exit counseling, whereas those who had voluntary exit counseling
were less likely to report symptoms than those who were deprogrammed. One
problem with this study is that Pearson correlations were calculated between
method of exit variable and presence of symptoms. However, in this case, a
Pearson correlation is an inappropriate statistic because the method of exit
variable consisted of three categorical levels (no counseling, exit-counseling,
and deprogramming; Bruning &
Langone (unpublished report, 1992, from the questionnaire
that gave rise to the GPA – Chambers et al., 1994) surveyed 308 former cultists
from 101 different groups. The following symptoms were reported by more than 50%
of the participants: anxiety/fear/worry (83%), anger toward the group leader
(76%), low self-confidence (72%), flashbacks (71%), depression (67%), difficulty
concentrating (67%), despair/hopelessness/helplessness (61%), guilt (56%),
floating (55%), and a feeling of living in an unreal world (51%). Also, 70% of
former cultists reported receiving psychotherapy after leaving their groups.
These results imply that former members experience emotional distress after
their group experiences.
next set of studies utilized interviews and/or measures of questionable
appropriateness for studying the psychopathology and adjustment of former group
members. Once again, overall results indicate that some participants experience
psychological problems after leaving a cult.
Swartling (1992) evaluated 43 former members of the Word of Life
group in Sweden with semistructured interviews developed by the
researchers. Of these former members, 85% reported a deterioration in contact
with family and friends after joining the group. When asked about symptoms that
were present after leaving, but not before joining, 93% of the participants
reported that they felt anxiety and guilt, 91% had difficulty handling emotions,
88% felt empty, 86% reported nightmares or other sleeping disorders, 75% had
difficulty concentrating, 63% experienced psychosomatic symptoms and suicidal
thoughts, and 60% felt a loss of identity. Also, 63% of the participants
consulted a psychiatrist, as compared to 16% prior to joining a group, and 26%
(postmembership), compared to 2% (prior to joining), received care in a
psychiatric clinic or mental hospital. Hence, compared with their pregroup
adjustment, former members report a deterioration in their mental status after
their group experience.
(1991) administered semistructured interviews he developed to 45
voluntary defectors from the Unification Church, Hare Krishnas, and Children of God/Family of God groups.
Numbers of participants studied in each of the groups was not specified. Some
difficulties in adjustment during the first year after leaving were reported by
40% of the total sample; however, 89% of the former members reported that they
had restabilized and reintegrated in society within 2 years of exiting the cult,
primarily through their reliance on social support networks. Although former
members may have some difficulty adjusting to society immediately after their
cult experience, relatively few appear to experience long-term negative
sequelae. Once again, use of semistructured interviews, allowing for
considerable interviewer latitude, implies that these results may be biased by
experimenter effects and must be interpreted with caution.
(1983) examined 66 former members of the
Unification Church who had left an average of 3.8 years earlier. In terms of
mental health, the former members scored significantly higher than samples of
active members (n = 237) and workshop recruits (n = 9) on the
General Well Being Scale (discussed in Galanter et
al., 1979). Although there were no significant differences between
the former members and a nonmember control group (n = 551), it is
noteworthy that 36% of the participants reported that "serious emotional
problems" had emerged after leaving the group, 24% "sought out professional help
for emotional problems," and 3% had been hospitalized for these problems.
Additionally, former members scored lower on the Religiosity Scale, the Creed
Scale, and the Social Cohesion subscale regarding affiliation toward current
members. These results imply that, although former members do not exhibit
greater psychopathology than nonmembers, ex-cultists do report emotional
problems. However, the fact that former members, particularly those who were
deprogrammed, may have negative feelings toward their group, may bias reporting
in a negative direction.
final set of studies shows significant improvements in methodology in comparison
with those previously discussed, insofar as they use well-standardized and
validated measures, and hence, will be described in somewhat greater detail than
the studies previously reviewed. Martin et al.
(1992) assessed psychopathology in 124 former cult members. Of these
members, 13 were members of FOCUS, a support organization for ex-cultists, and
111 were clients at the Wellspring Retreat and
Center. Wellspring is a rehabilitative center for former devotees
that offers outpatient psychotherapy and workshops. Persons attend on a
voluntary basis and usually stay for 10 to 14 days. This facility is designed
for individuals who have already left their groups and, therefore, provides
neither exit counseling nor deprogramming.
and his colleagues (1992) administered the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory
1983), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck, Ward,
Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961), Hopkins Symptom Checklist
Lipman, Rickels, Uhlenhuth, & Covi, 1974), and the Staff Burnout
Scale (SBS-HP; Maslach &
Jackson, 1979) to the Wellspring population. These measures were
administered directly after the intake evaluation, which consisted of two
semistructured interviews. The first interview secured demographic information,
including information on participants' group membership, and the second
interview assessed current and past symptomatology, physical health, and mental
status. The MCMI (Millon,
1983) was administered to the FOCUS members. There were no
significant differences between the FOCUS members and the Wellspring
participants on the MCMI.
the sample from FOCUS was so small, and there were no differences between FOCUS
members and the Wellspring participants, the remaining results pertain solely to
the Wellspring population. A score of 75 on any MCMI scale is regarded as
clinically significant. The following MCMI scales had the highest means: Anxiety
(76), Dysthymia (72), and Dependent (Submissive) (72). Additionally, 106 of the
111 participants' (95%) scores achieved clinical significance on at least one
MCMI scale. Of those who also completed the HSCL (n = 42), the mean was
102, where scores of 100 or greater are indicative of the need for psychiatric
care. The mean score on the SBS-HP (n = 46) was 72 where scores greater
than 70 indicates burnout and acute stress. Finally, the mean score on the BDI
was 14 (n = 98) where scores of 10 or more are considered to be outside
the normal range, and scores of 17 or more suggest a depressive disorder.
months after treatment, the 111 Wellspring participants were mailed an MCMI to
complete, and a 59.5% return rate was achieved. No significant differences in
the pretreatment MCMI scores were found between those who did and did not
complete the measure at posttreatment, although differences were found between
the pretreatment and posttreatment MCMI scores. Scores on the Histrionic,
Narcissistic, and Antisocial Scales increased, and scores on the Schizoid,
Avoidant, Dependent, Negativistic Aggression, Schizotypal, Borderline, Anxiety,
Somatoform, Hypomania, Dysthymia, Alcohol Abuse, Psychotic Thinking, and
Psychotic Depression scales decreased. In the pretreatment sample (n =
66), 58.2, 52.2, and 47.8% had scores greater than 75 on the Dependent
(Submissive), Anxiety, and Dysthymia subscales of the MCMI, respectively.
However, at posttreatment, 28.4, 26.9, and 25.4% of participants had scores
greater than 75 on the Dependent (Submissive), Anxiety, and Dysthymia subscales
of the MCMI, respectively.
Overall, these results show that former cult members
exhibit a variety of symptoms of psychopathology after they leave the cult and
initiate treatment at Wellspring. Nonetheless, these former cult members report
clinically significant improvements in their functioning 6 months after
Aronoff, Zelikovsky, Malinoski, and Lynn (1996) conducted a follow-up
to the earlier Wellspring study. The researchers assessed a new group of former
cult members at intake. The Wellspring participants attained the highest means
on the Dependent (Submissive) (71.54), Self-Defeating (73.65), and Avoidant
(74.97) subscales of the MCMI. Additionally, 96 of the 110 members (87%) had at
least one scale reach clinical significance (75). The mean HSCL score was
112.78, where scores of 100 or greater are indicative of the need for
psychiatric care and the mean score on the BDI was 19.77, where scores of 17 or
more suggest a depressive disorder. These results indicate that former members
experienced a variety of psychiatric symptoms after leaving their groups.
important to note that this conclusion is not based on a single measure. This
fact is important given that use of the MCMI in identifying psychopathology in a
nonclinical group can be questioned insofar as the scale construction strategy
involved a mixed psychiatric comparison group. Also, standard scores bases on
optimal cutting scores make the MCMI a questionable choice in this case.
though former members report high levels of psychopathology, it is important to
question why this apparent change occurs from the time of being in the cult to
the time after leaving the group. There are several possible explanations: (a)
Only after leaving the cultic environment do former members have the opportunity
to realize and react fully to the stress that they have undergone (Conway
& Siegelman, 1982; Conway
et al., 1986; Galanter,
et al. (1994); Martin
et al., 1992; Swartling
& Swartling, 1992). (b) Persons who leave a group to which they had
completely committed will inevitably experience difficulties in coping with the
loss and readjustment (Galanter,
& Wynne, 1990). (c) Individuals who join cults tend to come from poor family
& Miller, 1983; Nicholi,
& Kaslow, 1979; Stipes,
& Singer, 1980; Zerin,
1983). Their cult becomes a surrogate family and when they leave the cult and
return to the poor family environment, they experience distress. (d) Current
cult members may minimize their pathology (Ayella,
& Swartling, 1992). (e) Former cult members do not truly experience
psychopathology, but merely fake psychopathology. Because current and former
members are often studied with self-report measures without subtle items and
validity indices, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not they respond
last explanation has been alluded to in the literature in three different ways.
First, it has been stated that former members often exhibit angry or hostile
et al., 1986; Langone et al.
1978, 1979; Spero,
1982), which are directed, in particular, at the group leaders (Langone et
al., 1994). This suggests that certain members may be motivated to
fake or exaggerate pathology on self-report measures in order to incriminate
their leader or seek revenge on their groups.
Second, it has been postulated (Bromley,
Shupe, & Ventimiglia, 1983; Coleman,
& Bromley, 1987; Schwartz,
& Wellisch, 1979) that former cult members who engage in exit counseling,
deprogramming, or have any other contact with organizations designed to support
former cult members will exhibit more difficulties and psychopathology. This
suggests that these individuals or organizations imbue former members with
demands to report higher levels of psychopathology.
it has been asserted in the literature that the public holds a negative view of
& Robbins, 1992; Barker,
& Bromley, 1987; Robbins
& Anthony, 1980; Saliba,
Bromley, & Oliver, 1984). Although cult members may be shielded from these
negative views while in the cult, after leaving they may encounter these
perceptions and respond to societal demand characteristics by construing their
experience as so negative that it resulted in a psychopathological condition.
order to begin to address the issue of demand characteristics in the reports of
former cult members, Aronoff and
Lynn (1996) recently conducted a study of Wellspring participants in
treatment (n = 45) who were compared with a group of college students
(n = 58) who were asked to simulate or role-play a former cult member in
treatment on a variety of psychological tests. To remedy lack of controls
imposed in the earlier research with the Wellspring population, a group of
college students (n = 56) who completed the measures with no instructions
to simulate was included in the design.
Results indicated that simulators reported higher levels of
symptomatology than the former cult members on six of the eight MCMI-II (Millon,
1987) factors (i.e., alienation, acting out/self-indulgence, neurotic
distress, addictive disorders, psychotic symptoms, and internal and emotional
conflict/interpersonal ambivalence), a measure of psychological
symptoms/distress (HSCL), depression (BDI), and dissociation (DES). In addition,
former cult members in treatment obtained higher scores than the college
students on three of the MCMI-II factors (alienation, neurotic distress, and low
self esteem/submissiveness) as well as depression.
Overall, these results are not consonant with the
hypothesis that former cult members' reports of psychopathology are simply
exaggerated or faked in conformance with demand characteristics. This is
evidenced by the former treatment-seeking cult members' "moderate" levels of
psychopathology as indexed by a variety of measures, as well as by the fact that
simulators exhibited more extreme scores than did the former cult members.
Finally, the former members reported higher levels of distress than the college
students in a number of specific areas. Future research should include
comparison groups of individuals in treatment with no history of cultic
conclusion, studies of former cult members indicate that a significant
proportion of cult members experience adjustment or psychological difficulties
after leaving a cult. However, the percentages of persons experiencing
symptomatology in these studies vary greatly and ranges from 27 to 95%. At first
glance, even the lower end of that range appears to be quite high. However, two
things need to be considered in evaluating these findings. First, the base rates
of psychopathology in the general population are appreciable. For instance, the
lifetime prevalence rate of major depression is 17% in the general population
(National Comorbidity Study; Kessler et
al., 1994). The absence of control group of noncult members in the
majority of studies reviewed above makes it difficult to interpret the available
evidence pertinent to former cult members.
Second, even psychotherapy, which is specifically designed
to improve mental health, has been shown to have negative effects for some
Although these findings do not imply that the evidence for negative effects
should be discounted, they do imply caution in interpreting the results of the
studies of former cult members.
addition to the problems inherent in not using well-standardized measures,
another difficulty inherent in research with former cult members is that some of
the researchers were members of cults themselves and may have been more
sympathetic to those who reported negative experiences. Potential experimenter
biases and their effects could be systematically explored in future interview
research that examines whether a history of interviewer cultic involvement
biases research outcomes.
the key questions facing researchers is to what extent are individuals who are
studied after leaving a cult representative of cult members? This issue is
important in that random or representative sampling is almost never achieved. In
the studies reviewed, it was often unspecified whether members were receiving
treatment. However, due to the fact that it is very difficult to gather data on
this population, it is highly probable that a large majority of studies of
former cult members involved members who were receiving treatment. Because cult
members in treatment may not be a representative sample of former cult members,
and because individuals in treatment may experience greater pathology than
individuals who do not seek treatment, the levels of pathology demonstrated in
these studies may be exaggerated. Future investigations of former members would
benefit from aggressive recruiting of former cult members who have no history of
psychological treatment. It would be of interest to compare the psychological
profile of such former participants with the profile of former members who (a)
are currently receiving psychological services and (b) have a history of
treatment seeking but are not currently in treatment.
Another reason why research on former cult members might be
biased is that participants who return time-demanding questionnaires may be
particularly likely to voice negative comments about the group they left.
Relatedly, as noted in our earlier discussion, tendencies to exaggerate or
minimize pathology, which may be present in varying degrees and consciously
articulated or not in former members, present additional sources of potential
bias. These qualifications aside, research does indicate that former cult
members' psychological adjustment is compromised following their cultic
research on current or former cult members should incorporate samples from
noncultic comparison groups in order to more clearly define the psychological
correlates of cult involvement. Examples of comparison groups may include people
who left convents, seminaries, the Marines, fraternities, sororities, communes,
mainstream religions, political organization, the Peace Corps, and so forth. By
evaluating former members on instruments like the GPAS, it is possible to
compare groups on diverse dimensions of "cultic" and noncultic activity.
Furthermore, researchers should use reliable, standardized
instruments with norms (preferably with validity indices) to ensure better
interpretability of data. Standardized structured clinical interviews (such as
the Structured Clinical Interview for Diagnosis; Williams et
al., 1992) would provide more accurate diagnoses than
pencil-and-paper tests. Finally, researchers should secure samples of members
from particular groups, rather than heterogeneous samples of members from many
Available evidence indicates that although a greater number
of cult members report a previous history of psychopathology than the normal
population, a majority of persons entering a cult do not report any previous
et al., 1992; Spero,
1982). Unfortunately, these findings are not definitive, in that studies of
precult adjustment are marred by the lack of comparison groups (Martin
et al., 1992; Spero,
1982) and the reliance on retrospective reporting of pre-cult adjustment.
respect to current members of cults, some studies have shown that current
members exhibit decreases in their drug use (Galanter
& Buckley, 1978; Galanter
et al., 1980) as well as decreased or lower levels of symptomatology as compared
to a normative group of nonmembers (Galanter
& Buckley, 1978; Galanter
et al., 1979). Other studies indicate that current members report increased
1990) and greater social poise (Sunberg et
al., 1990) associated with group membership. Finally, several studies
& Salter, 1976; Weiss
& Comrey, 1987) showed mixed results regarding pathology in current members,
and one study (Spero,
1984) documented perceptual and cognitive deficits in current cult
members. Most of these studies, however, find that current cult members appear
to be psychologically well-adjusted with few conspicuous symptoms of
psychopathology. These findings need to be interpreted with caution, given
conformity pressures on current cult members as well as the numerous
methodological shortcomings noted above, including the lack of standardized
measures, the failure to use comparison groups, and sampling and reporting
majority of studies (Conway
& Siegelman, 1982; Conway
et al., 1986; Galanter,
1983; Langone et al.
et al., 1992, 1996; Swartling
& Swartling, 1992) of former cult members indicate that members report
clinically significant psychological symptoms. However, a few studies (Lewis
& Bromley, 1987; Wright,
1991) report only minimal levels of pathology in former cultists, and only one
study (Aronoff &
Lynn, 1996) with adequate controls has been conducted that indicates
that former cult members report greater psychopathology than a matched
Definitional issues plague this research area, as we noted
at the outset. We believe it is incumbent on researchers to operationally define
properties of the groups they study and to carefully index the psychological
sequelae of group participation in order to further our understanding of the
relation between properties of purportedly cultic environments and the presence
or absence of psychological symptoms in current and former members. By a more
careful specification of the properties of groups that can harm individuals in
various ways, it may be possible to at some point to abandon the term
cult in favor of richer, empirically derived, and valid descriptive terms
for different types of groups. Avoiding the term cult, which is rife with
emotional and surplus connotations, would insure that it were not used in an
overinclusive manner, potentially branding certain groups with a negative,
The methodological problems we
have alluded to limit the conclusions we can make about the destructive
influence of cults on participants. However, despite limited evidence that
members appear relatively well-adjusted while they are members of the cult, we
were unable to locate any research that supports the contention that cultic
involvement promotes the adjustment of individuals after they leave the cult. In
fact, the majority of the studies reported that a significant proportion of
former cult members experienced clinically significant psychological symptoms
and/or adjustment problems after they left the cult. Exactly what such degraded
postcult adjustment can be attributed to remains to be determined. However,
acquiring such information is a priority insofar as it would clarify factors
associated with membership in cults and the transition to noncultic
environments, as well as provide service providers with valuable insights
germane to the treatment of former cult members.
Psychiatric Association, (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of
mental disorders (3rd ed., rev.). Washington,
Psychiatric Association, (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of
mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington,
J. W., (1985). Religious freedom at secular schools. Cultic Studies
Journal, 2, 318¯320.
D. and Robbins, T., (1992). Law, social science and the "brainwashing" exception
to the First Amendment. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 10, 5¯29.
J., & Lynn, S. J. (1996). Psychopathology, dissociation, and depression
in treatment-seeking cult members, college students, and simulators.
Unpublished master's thesis, Ohio
S. M., (1985). Cult induced psychopathology, Part I: Clinical picture. Cultic
Studies Journal, 2,
M., (1990). "They must be crazy": Some of the difficulties in researching
"cults." American Behavioral Scientist, 33, 562¯577.
E., (1995). The scientific study of religion? You must be joking! Journal for
the Scientific Study of Religion, 34, 287¯310.
A. T., Ward, C. H., Mendelson, M., Mock, J. and Erbaugh, J., (1961). An
inventory for measuring depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 4, 561¯571.
M. S., Neely, D. J., & DeVinne, P. B. (1983). The American Heritage
dictionary (2nd college ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
F. and Reimer, B., (1982). Participation rates in new religions and
para-religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,
D. G., Shupe A. D., Jr., and Ventimiglia, J. C., (1983). The role of anecdotal
atrocities in the social construction of evil. In: D. G. Bromley, and J. T.
Richardson, (Eds.), The brainwashing/deprogramming controversy: Sociological,
psychological, legal, and historical perspectives (pp. 139-160).
York: The Edwin Mellen
J. L. and Kintz, B. L., (1987). Computational handbook of statistics (3rd
ed ed.). Glenview,
IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
S. (1985). Amway, the cult of free enterprise.
Boston: South End.
W. V., Langone, M. D., Dole, A. A., & Grice, J. W. (1994). The Group
Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic
Studies Journal, 11, 88¯117.
D., Giambalvo, C., Giambalvo, N., Garvey, K., & Langone, M. D. (1993). Exit
counseling: A practical overview. In: M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from
cults (pp. 155-180).
York: W. W.
J. G., (1979). Cults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 242, 279¯281.
L., (1984). New religions and the myth of mind control. American Journal of
F., & Siegelman, J. (1978). Snapping:
America's epidemic of sudden personality change.
F., & Siegelman, J. (1982). Information disease: Have cults created a new
mental illness? Science Digest, 10, 86¯92.
F., Siegelman, J. H., Carmichael, C. W., & Coggins, J. (1986). Information
disease: Effects of covert induction and deprogramming. Update: A Journal of
New Religious Movements, 10, 45¯57.
A. L. (1970a). Comrey Personality Scales.
San Diego: Educational and Industrial Testing Service.
A. L. (1970b). Manual for the Comrey Personality Scales.
San Diego: Educational and Industrial Testing
S. (1983). Contraindications and dangers of psychotherapy. British Journal of
Psychiatry, 143, 436¯441.
P. (1984). The politics of vulnerability: Youth in religious cults.
Psychohistory Review, 12, 5¯17.
R., (1977). Religious totalism: Gentle and ungentle persuasion under the First
Review, 51, 1¯97.
L. R., Lipman, R. S., Rickels, K., Uhlenhuth, E. H., & Covi, L. (1974). The
Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL): A self-report symptom inventory.
Behavioral Science, 19, 1¯15.
A., & Miller, M. J. (1983). A clinical study of four
Unification Church members. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 767¯770.
J. (1978). The Rorschach: A comprehensive system, current research and
advanced interpretation (Vol. II). New York: John Wiley and
A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private
self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology, 43, 522¯527.
M. (1980). Psychological induction into the large-group: Findings from a modern
religious sect. American Journal of Psychiatry, 137,
M. (1983). Unification Church ("Moonie") dropouts: Psychological readjustment after
leaving a charismatic religious group. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 984¯989.
M., & Buckley, P. (1978). Evangelical religion and meditation:
Psychotherapeutic effects. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 166,
M., Buckley, P., Deutsch, A., Rabkin, R., & Rabkin, I. (1980).
Large group influence for decreased drug use: Findings from two contemporary
religious sects. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 7, 291¯304.
M., Rabkin, R., Rabkin, I., &
Deutsch, A. (1979). The "Moonies": A psychological study of conversion and
membership in a contemporary religious sect. American Journal of
Psychiatry, 136, 165¯170.
G. (1993). Cult conversion, deprogramming, and the triune brain. Cultic
Studies Journal, 10, 45¯52.
L. L., Kirsch, M. A., & Parris, F. N. (1977). Psychiatric disturbances
associated with Erhard Seminars Training, I: A report of cases. American
Journal of Psychiatry, 134,
L., & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists. Social
California psychological inventory.
D. A. (1990). Psychiatric perspectives on cult affiliation. Psychiatric
Annals, 20, 204¯213.
S. (1988). Combating cult mind control. Rochester,
VT: Park Street Press.
S. R., & McKinley, J. C. (1951). Manual for the
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Rev.). New York: The Psychological Corporation.
J. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated
trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5,
K. A., Williams, L. M., & Finkelhor, D. (1993). Psychological Bulletin,
R. C., McGonagle, K. A., Zhao, S., Nelson, C. B., Hughes, M., Eshleman, S.,
Wittchen, H., & Kendler, K. (1994). Lifetime and 12-month prevalence of
DSM-III-R psychiatric disorders in the
Archives of General Psychiatry, 51, 8¯18.
Forge, R., & Suczek, R. (1995). Interpersonal
Valley, CA: Rolfe La Forge.
M. J., & Bergin, A. E. (1994). The effectiveness of psychotherapy. In: A. E.
Bergin & S. L. Garfield (Eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy and behavior
change (4th ed., pp. 143-189). New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Langone, M.D. (1992). Preliminary report: Questionnaire for
former members of charismatic groups. Unpublished manuscript, American Family
M. D. (1993a). Helping cult victims: Historical background. In: M. D. Langone.
(Ed.), Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual
abuse (pp. 22-51). New York: W. W. Norton.
M. D. (1993b). Introduction. In: M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults:
Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse (pp. 1-21).
York: W. W.
M. D., Malinoski, P. T., Aronoff, J. B., Zelikovsky, N. B., & Lynn, S. J.
(1996). Psychological distress in former cult members and a comparison
group. Unpublished manuscript,
C. A. (1990). Self-consciousness in members of a new religious movement: the
Rajneeshees. Journal of Social Psychology, 130, 557¯558.
S. V. (1980). The role of psychiatry in the phenomenon of cults. Adolescent
Psychiatry, 8, 123¯137 (Reprinted
from the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 24,
S. V. (1981). Cults and mental health: Clinical conclusions. Canadian Journal
of Psychiatry, 26, 534¯539.
S. V. (1984, August). Radical departures. Psychology Today, 21¯27.
S. V., & Salter, N. E. (1976). Youth and contemporary religious movements:
Psychosocial findings. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 21,
J. R., & Bromley, D. G. (1987). The cult withdrawal syndrome: A case of
misattribution of cause?.Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 26, 508¯522.
R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. Chapel Hill,
NC: University of North
E. A. (1993). Survey reveals physicians' experiences with cults.
Pennsylvania Medicine, 96,
F. J. (1991). Cults, personality and pathology. Psychotherapy in Private
Practice, 8(4), 77¯85.
Malinoski, P. T, Langone, M.D., & Lynn, S. J.
(1999). Psychological Distress in Former Members of
the International Churches of Christ and Noncultic Groups. Cultic Studies Journal, 16(1),
R., & Hansen, D. J. (1993). Long-term consequences of childhood physical
abuse. Psychological Bulletin, 114,
H. N. (1994). Freedom of speech and assembly. In L. Holzman (Chair),
Protecting constitutional rights: The social and scientific responsibility of
psychologists. Symposium conducted at the American Psychological
N. (1988). Family environment as a factor in vulnerability to cult involvement.
Cultic Studies Journal, 5,
P. R. (1993). Post-cult recovery: Assessment and rehabilitation. In: M. D.
Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and
spiritual abuse (pp. 203-231). New York: W. W. Norton.
P. R., Aronoff, J. B., Zelikovsky, N. Z., Malinoski, P. T., & Lynn, S. J.
(1996). Former cult members and college students: Psychological distress and
dissociation. Manuscript in preparation.
P. R., Langone, M. D., Dole, A. A., & Wiltrout, J. (1992). Post-cult
symptoms as measured by the MCMI before and after residential treatment.
Cultic Studies Journal, 9,
C., & Jackson, C. (1979). Maslach burnout inventory.
Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
T. (1983). The Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory manual (3rd ed ed.).
MN: National Computer Systems.
T. (1987). Manual for the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-II
(MCMI-II) (2nd ed ed.). Minneapolis,
MN: National Computer Systems.
A. M. (1974). A new dimension of youth culture. American Journal of
T., & Anthony, D. (1972). Getting straight with Meher Baba: A study of drug
rehabilitation, mysticism, and post-adolescent role conflict. Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 11,
T., & Anthony, D. (1980). The limits of "coercive persuasion" as an
explanation for conversion to authoritarian sects. Political Psychology,
H. (1942). Psychodiagnostics.
Switzerland: Hans Huber.
H. L., & Langone, M. (1998). On using the term cult. In American Family Foundation, Cults and
psychological abuse: A resource guide (pp.22-28).
Springs, FL: American Family Foundation. Also available at:
J. A. (1985). Psychiatry and the new cults: Part II. Academic Psychology
L. L. (1985). Leaving the cults. Update: A Journal of New Religious
L. L., & Kaslow, F. W. (1979). Religious cults, the individual and the
family. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 5,
A. D., Bromley, D. G., & Oliver, D. L. (1984). The anti-cult movement in
America: A bibliography and historical survey. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
M. (1978). Therapy with former cult members. National Association of Private
Psychiatric Hospitals Journal, 9,
M. T. (1979, January). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today,
M. T., & Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
M., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of
psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20,
M. I. (1990). Cult involvement: A systems approach to assessment and treatment.
M. I., & Grellong, B. A. (1988). Cult vs. non-cult Jewish families: Factors
influencing conversion. Cultic Studies Journal, 5,
M. I., & Wynne, L. C. (1990). Cult involvement as a relational disorder.
Psychiatric Annals, 20,
T. (1983). Programming and deprogramming the "Moonies": Social psychology
applied. In: D. G. Bromley & J. T. Richardson (Eds.), The
brainwashing/deprogramming controversy: Sociological, psychological, legal, and
historical perspectives (pp. 163-181). New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.
M. H. (1982). Individual psychodynamic intervention with religious cult
devotees. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 170,
M. H. (1984). Some pre- and post-treatment characteristics of cult devotees.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 58,
G. P. (1985). Principles of religious cult indoctrination. Journal of
Psychology and Christianity, 4(3),
N. D., Latkin, C. A., Littman, R. A., & Hagan, R. A. (1990). Personality in
a religious commune: CPIs in Rajneeshpuram. Journal of Personality
G., & Swartling, P. G. (1992). Psychiatric problems in ex-members of Word of
Life. Cultic Studies Journal, 9,
J. T., & Wellisch, D. K. (1979). Coercive persuasion (brainwashing),
religious cults, and deprogramming. American Journal of Psychiatry, 136,
D. (1958). The measurement and appraisal of adult intelligence (4th ed.).
Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
A. S., & Comrey, A. L. (1987). Personality characteristics of Hare Krishnas.
Journal of Personality Assessment, 51,
L. J. (1993). A psychiatric overview of cult-related phenomena. Journal of
the American Academy of Psychoanalysis,
L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1985). Cultism: A conference for scholars and
policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism,
September 9¯11. Weston,
MA: American Family Foundation.
L. J., & Martin, P. R. (1994). Pseudo-identity and the treatment of
personality change in victims of captivity and cults. In: S. J. Lynn & J. W.
Rhue (Eds.), Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical perspectives (pp.
L. J., & Singer, M. T. (1980). Cults, quacks and nonprofessional therapies.
In: H. I. Kaplan, A. M. Freedman, & B. J. Sadock (Eds.), A comprehensive
textbook of psychiatry (Vol. 3, pp. 3245-3258).
Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
J. B. W., Gibbon, M., First, M. B., Spitzer, R. L., Davies, M., Borus, J.,
Howes, M. J., Kane, J., Pope, H. G., Rounsaville, B., & Wittchen, H. (1992).
The structured clinical interview for DSM-III-R (SCID): Multisite test-retest
reliability. Archives of General Psychiatry, 49,
R. (1971). Embedded figures test. Palo Alto,
CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
S. A. (1991). Reconceptualizing cult coercion and withdrawal: A comparative
analysis of divorce and apostasy. Social Forces, 70,
M. F. (1983). The Pied Piper phenomenon and processing of victims: The
transactional analysis perspective re-examined. Transactional Analysis
P. G., & Hartley, M. A. (1984). Cults go to high school: A theoretical and
empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment process. Cultic
Studies Journal, 2,
This article is reprinted with
permission from Elsevier Science (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/clinpsychrev). It originally appeared in Clinical Psychology Review, 20
(1), 2000, pp. 91-111.
Minor editing changes have been made.
Correspondence should be
addressed to Jodi Aronoff McKibben, M.S. -