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Clinical Update on Cults

Clinical Update on Cults

Historically, cult refers to a system of worship and more specifically to an innovative religious system, as opposed to a sect, which is a breakaway group from an established religion. During the past 30 years, however, cult has taken on a pejorative connotation arising from disasters such as Jonestown and Waco, and hundreds of media reports of individuals and families devastated by involvement in cults.

Although some scholars of religion now favor the term new religious movement over cult, many mental health professionals, perhaps because they are more likely to see the casualties of new groups, feel comfortable using the term cult (Langone; Singer and Lalich; Tobias and Lalich). They see cults as highly manipulative groups that exploit and otherwise abuse their members. Although most groups accused of being cults are religious, some claim to be psychological (Singer and colleagues; Temerlin and Temerlin) or political (Lalich).

A factor-analytic study of 308 former members of 101 groups resulted in the development of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers and others). This scale identified four factors associated with cultic environments: compliance, exploitation, mind control and anxious dependency. The following definition emerged from this study:

"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."

According to this perspective (and that of this author) cults can be distinguished from new religious and other new groups in that the latter are not characterized by high levels of exploitation, compliance, mind control and anxious dependency. Of course, a spectrum of groups exists along each of these dimensions. As the Group Psychological Abuse Scale is given to large numbers of people from a variety of groups (mainstream and nonmainstream), group profiles and empirically based classification systems will probably emerge and thereby reduce the definitional ambiguity that currently surrounds the word cult.


In 1984 the Cult Awareness Network (a grassroots organization founded by parents of cult members) compiled a list of more than 2,000 groups about which it had received inquiries (Virginia Hulet, unpublished manuscript, 1984). Based on the frequency with which this and other organizations receive inquiries about groups not on this original list, I believe it is reasonable to estimate that at least 3,000 to 5,000 potentially cultic groups exist.

A survey of primary care physicians in Pennsylvania (Lottick) found that 2.2 percent reported they or a member of their family had been involved in a cult (clearly defined as a noxious, not merely unorthodox, group), that 21 percent had personal, professional, or both personal and professional experience with cults, and 64 percent felt they had inadequate information (which was later supplied through a tear-out booklet for patients and physicians, published by the Pennsylvania Medical Society [1995]). Other surveys (Bird and Reimer; ICR Survey Research Group, unpublished, 1993; Zimbardo and Hartley) also indicate that at least 1 percent of the population has had a cult involvement.

Who Joins Cults?

No particular psychopathology profile is associated with cult involvement, in part because cults, like many effective sales organizations, adjust their pitch to the personality and needs of their prospects. Although cult members appear to have a somewhat higher rate of psychological distress than nonmembers, the majority seems to lie within the normal range. Nevertheless, clinical experience strongly suggests that certain situational or developmental features (singly or in combination) appear to make people more receptive to cult sales pitches, including:

  • a high level of stress or dissatisfaction
  • lack of self-confidence
  • unassertiveness
  • gullibility
  • esire to belong to a group
  • low tolerance for ambiguity
  • naive idealism
  • cultural disillusionment
  • frustrated spiritual searching
  • susceptibility to trance-like states

Why Do People Join?

The definitional ambiguity surrounding the term cult has fueled much controversy regarding why people join cults and other unorthodox groups. Three apparently conflicting models attempt to account for conversion to unorthodox groups. The deliberative model, favored by most sociologists and religious scholars, says that people join because of what they think about the group. The psychodynamic model, favored by many mental health professionals with little direct experience with cultists, says that people join because of what the group does for them-namely, fulfill unconscious psychological needs. The thought reform model, favored by many mental health professionals who have worked with large numbers of cultists, says that people join because of what the group does to them- that is, because of a systematic program of psychological manipulation that exploits, rather than fulfills, needs.

In professional talks, I have proposed an integrative model. This model treats deliberation as a dependent variable and manipulativeness and psychological neediness as independent variables. Neediness, rather than psychopathology, is preferred because, as noted, the factors that render some people susceptible to cult pitches are developmental or situational in nature. Breaking manipulation and neediness into "low" and "high" results in a four-cell table.

When manipulation and neediness are low, rational deliberation is high, and the deliberative model is most applicable. Unpressured conversions by relatively mature and stable individuals would be examples of this type of conversion.

When manipulation is low but neediness is high, deliberation is distorted by emotional needs (i.e., an overdriven striving that reflects unconscious conflict), and the psychodynamic model is most applicable. A sexually conflicted young man's joining a nonmanipulative celibate religious group could be an example of such emotionalized deliberation.

When neediness is low but manipulation is high, deliberation is distorted by environmental pressures, and the thought reform model is most applicable. Because converts' attention, as well as their behavior, is manipulated by the environment, I refer to their deliberation as dissociated: the environment manipulates recruits' "searchlight of awareness" (West) causing them to uncritically accept pivotal presuppositions (e.g., "I must destroy the mind to find God"; "Guru is God incarnate"; "Only with Guru's help can I overcome my worldly attachments"), which will lead to certain corollaries through a process of rational deliberation ("Guru must want to sleep with me to help me overcome my attachments to sexuality").


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