cult recovery 101

exit counseling

Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion

Langone, Michael D., Ph.D., and Martin, Paul, Ph.D., “Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion,” Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993 (Reprinted with permission.)
In the late 1960s and early 1970s increasing numbers of parents began to observe and report striking and frightening changes in their young-adult children.  Formerly serious, high-achieving, well-adjusted students would suddenly drop out of school, shun their families and friends, and devote themselves completely to unusual groups that parents and others quickly identified as cults.  In many cases, parents also worried about their children’s physical well-being because of the groups’ dietary, health, work, or sexual practices.  Although evangelical parents obtained some information focused on doctrinal and historical issues from organizations such as theChristian Research Institute, parents who did not identify with evangelicalism had nowhere to turn and usually worried alone for long periods of time.  Gradually, they began to find and help each other.
Occasionally, these individuals would find a mental health professional or clergyman who sincerely listened to their concerns.  Parents would usually voice such observations as: “That’s not my kid;” “He talks like a robot, as though he were programmed;” “She was fine, but now she seems like a different person.”  Soon, these parents and professionals realized that they were observing a process akin to what was popularly known as brainwashing.  But they didn’t know what to do.  Their children wouldn’t listen, or their responses to all questions and complaints seemed programmed.  They sometimes succeeded in persuading their children to leave the groups, and the term “deprogramming” was used to describe the process of countering the cults’ “programming.”  Partly because of these successes, the cults’ antagonism toward parents hardened.  Parents found they could no longer gain access to their children.
Seeing no other options, some parents—with the help of former cult members—began to take their adult children off the street, bring them to secure places, and detain them there until they had listened to a detailed critique of the cultic group.  Frequently, these encounters lasted three days or more. But the process usually worked.  Hundreds of cult members renounced their cults.  In time, the term “deprogramming” came to be associated with this initially coercive process, even though originally “deprogramming” did not imply coercion.  Soon, a network of deprogrammers developed, with some even earning their living as deprogrammers.  Although most parents were ethically and emotionally conflicted over the deprogramming process, it seemed at the time to be their only option in a desperate situation. Hundreds of these parents felt as though deprogramming had brought their children back to life.  The ex-members felt that they had been liberated from a psychological prison.
Because deprogramming had come to be associated with coercion and confinement and because it so often worked (about two-thirds of the time), it caused quite a controversy.  Cults railed against it, in large part because it was effective in persuading their members to leave.  But even some cult critics denounced it on legal and ethical grounds.  Others additionally felt that a more sophisticated understanding of cults opened up alternatives to deprogramming.  These persons—some of whom were helping professionals or clergy—believed that parents tended to let their emotions dominate their actions.  They began to help parents with their distress and help them communicate more effectively, so that they would be able to persuade their children to speak with someone knowledgeable about cults.  The term “voluntary deprogramming” came to be associated with this process.  It soon became clear, however, the adjective “voluntary” did not remove the negative connotation “deprogramming” had acquired.  Gradually, the term “exit counseling” replaced “voluntary deprogramming.”   (Some exit counselors prefer the term “cult education consultant,” but that term has not yet caught on.)  Today, there are many exit counselings and few deprogrammings.
Exit counseling refers to a voluntary, intensive, time-limited, contractual educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information with cultists.  Because some persons who perform deprogrammings like to call themselves “exit counselors,” the two terms are sometimes confused.  A recent [Christian ResearchJournal article on “exit counseling” angered many exit counselors in large part because it failed to stress the distinctions between exit counseling and deprogramming.
These distinctions, however, are important.  Deprogramming entails coercion and confinement.  In exit counseling the cultist is free to leave at any time.  Deprogramming typically costs $10,000 or more mainly because of the expense of a security team.  Exit counseling typically costs $2,000 to $4,000, including expenses, for a three-to-five day intervention, although cases requiring extensive research of little-known groups can cost much more.  Deprogramming, especially when it fails, entails considerable legal and psychological risk (e.g., a permanent alienation of the cultist from his or her family).  The psychological and legal risks in exit counseling are much smaller.  Although deprogrammers prepare families for the process, exit counselors tend to work more closely with families and expect them to contribute more to the process; that is, exit counseling requires that families establish a reasonable and respectful level of communication with their loved one before the exit counseling proper can begin.  Because they rely on coercion, which is generally viewed as unethical, deprogrammers’ critiques of the unethical practices of cults will tend to have less credibility with cultists than the critiques of exit counselors.  Neither the authors, the organizations for which they work, nor the publisher of this journal endorse involuntary deprogramming.
Ethical concerns obviously are much greater with regard to deprogramming than exit counseling.  Deprogramming advocates maintain that its coercive aspect is a regrettable but necessary step in freeing people from evil groups.  They point out that the law has long recognized that competing rights and needs can sometimes produce situations wherein an undesirable action might be necessary to prevent something worse.  This has often been called the “necessity” or “choice of evils” defense.  An example would be running a red light in order to get a bleeding person to a hospital.  Running the red light is a legal violation, but in such an emergency it would likely be deemed to have mitigating circumstances.  Obviously, with regard to deprogramming the central question is whether the evil to be countered is terrible enough to mitigate the culpability of the coercion.
Determining the ethical defensibility of a particular deprogramming is not always simple.  Generally speaking the most sensible cases will involve minor children, especially when the cult prevents parents from seeing or communicating with their child.  With regard to adults in cults, a reasonable likelihood of imminent danger to the life of the cultist is probably a critical factor in ethically defending a deprogramming.  Imminent danger, however, may not always be a sufficient justification of deprogramming because other interventions may be reasonable to pursue (e.g., obtaining a court order to remove the endangered person from the group).
Whether a particular judge or jury will accept the necessity defense for a deprogramming is a matter that is independent of, though related to, the ethical defensibility of the deprogramming.  A parent, for example, may believe that his or her child is in imminent danger, that an exit counseling is not possible, and that there is not sufficient time to obtain a court order. The parent’s opinion may be sufficiently reasonable, based on the facts of the case, to be ethically defensible.  However, a judge might reject the necessity defense because he or she believes that there had indeed been time to obtain a court order, or that it was reasonable to first attempt an exit counseling.  The judgment of the legal system determines the acceptability of a necessity defense, regardless of the ethical defensibility of a particular deprogramming, although the more ethically defensible a deprogramming is the more acceptable is the necessity defense likely to be.
Historically speaking, when deprogrammings have resulted in lawsuits or criminal charges, judges and juries have in many cases decided in favor of parents and deprogrammers.  In other cases courts have exonerated the parents but held the deprogrammers liable.  Occasionally, both parents and deprogrammers have been held liable.  Although there have been attempts to pass laws that would essentially sanction deprogrammings in advance, these attempts have failed repeatedly, in large part because many believe that such laws would create more serious problems than they would solve. Thus, the ethics and legality of deprogramming have been and continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In order to evaluate the ethical and legal implications of intervening on behalf of a loved one, we suggest that families consider the following questions:
1.      Is the family’s decision based primarily on the welfare of the cultist, rather than entirely on their own psychological needs?
2.      Do they have adequate information to conclude that their loved one is indeed imperiled by a cultic group and that an intervention is warranted? Have they consulted with experts, including legal experts, if warranted? Before they implore their loved one to make an informed decision about cult affiliation, they ought to make sure they have made an informed decision about intervention.
3.      Have parents contemplating an ethically defensible deprogramming carefully considered whether there are any less restrictive options with a reasonably good chance of eliminating the imminent danger?  The greater the danger and the lower the probability of success of less restrictive alternatives, the more ethically defensible will be the deprogramming.
4.      In the case of deprogramming, is the family’s decision sufficiently well informed that they would be emotionally and intellectually able to defend it in court if need be?  Families should remember that they may have to demonstrate that the deprogramming was necessary, not merely that the cult is harmful.  Because not all jurisdictions and judges will accept the necessity defense, parents and/or deprogrammers may be charged with a crime regardless of the apparent “necessity” of the deprogramming.
5.      Have they carefully checked on the competence and integrity of those who may conduct the intervention?  Although many helpers are ethical and competent, we have heard reports indicating that some have exploited vulnerable families and/or may not be as competent as they claim, at least with regard to certain cases.  If families fail to investigate a prospective helper, they may be led to participate in an unethical and possibly illegal and ineffective intervention.
6.      Ethical helpers will not rush families to a decision (whether for deprogramming or exit counseling) merely because it meets the financial or emotional needs of the helper.  Most deprogrammers and exit counselors work hard to help cult members make informed decisions about their group affiliations.  Some, unfortunately, do not pay as much attention to their ethical obligation to make sure that the families with whom they work have made truly informed decisions.  If they did, there would, in our opinion, be even fewer deprogrammings than currently occur.
Dr. Langone is executive director of the American Family Foundation [publisher of The Cult Observer].  Dr. Martin is director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center [and Chairman of the American Family Foundation’s Victim Assistance Committee].

This article first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of the Christian Research Journal, 

P.O. Box 500San Juan CapistranoCalifornia 92693


From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation

Presentation by Carol Giambalvo, Thought Reform Consultant
Panel of Discussants: Joseph Kelly, Thought Reform Consultant; Patrick Ryan, Thought Reform Consultant; Hana Whitfield, Thought Reform Consultant

AFF Conference,
Chicago, IL
November 1998


Early on, according to what some “old-timers” have told us, groups such as the Children of God allowed parental access — even visits to the group — until a number of parents were successful at convincing their adult children to leave the group. Then the Groups began severely restricting parental access. 

In the mid-1970s parents began reporting their adult children’s involvement in new religious (and some non-religious) groups that many call cults. They reported rapid personality changes and concerns that their loved ones were dropping out of school, shunning previous friends and family and devoting themselves full time to working for these strange new groups to which they pledged their total allegiance. Many parents concluded that their children had been brainwashed. 

Parents were doing what they could to rescue their children from what were perceived as dangerous situations. Through trial and error, the controversial process of deprogramming developed. In the 1970s it became the preferred means of rescuing a cult member, as to many it was perceived as the only way a cult member could leave a cult. As we witness today, this is a misperception as thousands of cult members walk away from cults annually. In fact, in very unofficial polls taken at conferences and AFF recovery workshops, the majority of people attending are walkaways. But at the time, families based their decisions on the prevailing information. And a good part of that decision was based on the fact that in some groups, members were zealously protected from parents, often having their names changed and moved from location to location. 

We must add here that not all deprogrammings were “rescue and hold” situations. There were some where the group member was free to leave at any time and there were some where ex-members sought voluntary deprogramming. 

But for our purpose today, and in our thinking, we will use the term deprogramming to mean an involuntary situation, exit counseling to mean a voluntary situation, and thought reform consultation to mean an entirely different approach and we will seek to explain the differences and the history. 

Media coverage — even to some extent today — hyped the drastic deprogramming approach and further spread the concept that it was parents’ best, if not only, option. 

Deprogramming was controversial because it involved forcing a group member to listen to people relate information not available in the cults. Some state legislatures  passed conservatorship legislation to legalize the process, one of which was vetoed by the governor. Later the opposition to deprogramming and the recognition of the effectiveness of less restrictive alternatives grew. 

In deprogramming, group members were sometimes abducted from the street; although more commonly they were simply prevented from leaving their homes or a vacation cabin or motel. Deprogramming often succeeded in extricating the family member from the cult; nevertheless it failed more often than many realized and sometimes lawsuits were filed against parents and deprogrammers. In a few cases arrests and prosecution resulted. 

The actual process of a deprogramming, as we see it, differs a great deal from voluntary exit counseling. Some of the ideas about cults and brainwashing prevalent at the time contributed to that process. It was believed that the hold of the brainwashing over the cognitive processes of a cult member needed to be broken — or “snapped” as some termed it — by means that would shock or frighten the cultist into thinking again. For that reason in some cases cult leader’s pictures were burned or there were highly confrontational interactions between deprogrammers and cultist. What was often sought was an emotionalresponse to the information, the shock, the fear, and the confrontation. There are horror stories — promoted most vehemently by the cults themselves — about restraint, beatings, and even rape. And we have to admit that we have met former members who have related to us their deprogramming experience — several of handcuffs, weapons wielded and sexual abuse. But thankfully, these are in the minority — and in our minds, never justified. Nevertheless, deprogramming helped to free many individuals held captive to destructive cults at a time when other alternatives did not seem viable. 

Exit Counseling 

Gradually, not only did the understanding of the process of thought reform grow, but the voluntary approach of exit counseling proved to be effective — and less risky psychologically as well as legally. A few individuals committed themselves to doing exit counseling and refused to do “involuntaries.” 

Even within the exit counseling field, further branching off has occurred. Some tend to be technique-oriented and/or advance a particular religious perspective. Others are information oriented. They introduce themselves as individuals with important information. Although they may have a preference regarding how the group member chooses to respond to that information, they take pains to avoid manipulating the group member. 

One model for the process is described in the book Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention. The primary difference in exit counseling is its voluntary nature but there are other differences as well. Much more emphasis is placed on assessment, using a pre-intervention interview and information form that enables the exit counselor to determine the concerns specific to the family and the group member and to weed out interventions wanted by families for an agenda not appropriate to the undertaking of a serious intervention in an individual’s life; for example, Johnny is about to marry someone in the group of a different race or culture or Johnny isn’t attending xyz church any longer. These examples, by the way, are few and far between. For the majority of the time we see responsible families seeking help for legitimate concerns. We need, however, to be careful that we are not placing those concerns there or exaggerating them. There are some situations where an intervention is not possible under the present conditions, for example the family has no access to the group member. Some families are referred to knowledgeable mental health professionals for some work prior to planning an intervention. Emphasis is placed on family communications with the group member and education about the specific group, what it teaches, what thought reform is and how it works, and the recovery process. 

The process itself differs from deprogramming, in our opinion, because it is a much more respectful approach, it is non-confrontational, the exit counselors have to prove their credibility, there is much moreinteraction with the information and it seeks a primary cognitiverather than a primary emotional response. Very seldom is a visible“snapping” moment seen — but a gradual increase in interest, interaction, and feedback with the information — often accompanied with an increase of interest in and interaction with the family. 

Let me also say here that exit counselors realize that an intervention is only the first step. If the person decides to leave the group there is a long road to recovery, that can take leaps and bounds if the individual is afforded the opportunity to attend Wellspring, but they need much more emotional, psychological and cognitive support and if there is no system set up for that support, it may be unethical to do an intervention. 

Thought Reform Consultation 

In the 1980s many attempts were made by individuals doing interventions to get together to find ways to improve our profession and ourselves. But a difficulty arose in the definition of exit counseling and deprogramming. Some helping organizations at the time contributed to that confusion by maintaining a position that there were voluntary and involuntary exit counseling and voluntary and involuntary deprogramming. As a result, without the ability to establish a clear-cut definition, at those meetings people who called themselves exit counselors but were doing involuntary deprogramming could not be excluded and our work to establish ethical guidelines and a more professional approach spun its wheels, so to speak. A group of individuals who had committed themselves to voluntary interventions only began to meet regularly to share ideas and information and to develop Ethical Standards. We formed an organization of Thought Reform Consultants and eventually published our Ethical Standards. 

Those Ethical Standards were patterned after the Ethical Codes or Standards of the following organizations: 

  • American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Standards for the Private Practice of Clinical Social Work
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors
We worked diligently to combine those standards with some uniquely necessary to our profession. And we owe our gratitude to the following advisors for their professional support and encouragement: 

  • Margaret Singer, Ph. D.
  • Michael Langone, Ph. D.
  • Herbert Rosedale, Esq.
  • David Bardin, Esq. and Livia Bardin, M.S.W.
  • Bill Goldberg, M.S.W. & Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
  • Paul Martin, Ph. D.

Thought reform consultation involves much, much more family preparation. It is necessary for a 2-3 day, sometimes more, formal family preparation involving all members of the family team and all thought reform consultant team members. This formal preparation accomplishes the following: 

  • The family team experiences how they work together under pressure and how the thought reform consultants work together.
  • Enables the thought reform consulting team to observe how the family works together under pressure and who may or may not be appropriate for major roles in the intervention
  • Improves family communication with the group memberEnables the family to understand the culture of the group, its teachings and how thought reform techniques impact the group member
  • Prepares the family for how to communicate in the intervention and what practical arrangements should be made
  • Emphasizes the recovery process and their responsibility in it
  • Emphasizes the seriousness of an intervention and all its repercussions
  • Facilitates the family in making a fully informed decision about doing an intervention
  • Thought reform consultation involves even more assessment, as you see — and places much more responsibility on the family. 
  • They realize that a team is not just going to come in and perform some magical process and things will forever be okay. 
In both exit counseling and thought reform consulting, the purpose of the intervention is not to get someone out of a cult. While that may be a desired outcome, the purpose is to give the group member the information that enables them to make a fully informed choice.

Thought reform consultation involves much, much more family preparation. It is necessary for a 2-3 day, sometimes more, formal family preparation involving all members of the family team and all thought reform consultant team members. This formal preparation accomplishes the following: 

  • The family team experiences how they work together under pressure and how the thought reform consultants work together.
  • Enables the thought reform consulting team to observe how the family works together under pressure and who may or may not be appropriate for major roles in the intervention
  • Improves family communication with the group member
  • Enables the family to understand the culture of the group, its teachings and how thought reform techniques impact the group member
  • Prepares the family for how to communicate in the intervention and what practical arrangements should be made
  • Emphasizes the recovery process and their responsibility in it
  • Emphasizes the seriousness of an intervention and all its repercussions
  • Facilitates the family in making a fully informed decision about doing an intervention

Thought reform consultation involves even more assessment, as you see — and places much more responsibility on the family. They realize that a team is not just going to come in and perform some magical process and things will forever be okay. 

In both exit counseling and thought reform consulting, the purpose of the intervention is not to get someone out of a cult. While that may be a desired outcome, the purpose is to give the group member the information that enables them to make a fully informed choice.

Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants

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Religious Conflict Resolution: A Model for Families

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On Using the Term "Cult"

Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term “cult.” No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, founded as American Family Foundation in 1979), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone).  In order to help others who have asked questions about the term “cult,” we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.

Review of Definitions

According to the “Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary“(1971) the term, “cult,” originally referred to “worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings…a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies…devotion or homage to a particular person or thing.”  More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations:
3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious…
4 : A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator…
5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work…b. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)
Robbins’s (1988) review of recent sociological contributions to the study of cults identifies four definitional perspectives:
(1) cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;
(2) cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;
(3) cults as loosely structured protoreligions;
(4) Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes among “audience cults” (members seek to receive information, e.g., through a lecture or tape series) “client cults” (members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual guidance), and “cult movements” (organizations that demand a high level of commitment from members).   The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that cult membership increases as church membership decreases. 
Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish “cult” from “church,” “sect,” and “denomination.”  Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches.  When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations.   Zablocki defines a cult as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.”  According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.
Definitions proposed at various times by associates of ICSA tend to presume the manifestation of what is potential in Zablocki’s definition. These definitions tend to emphasize elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious.   One of the more commonly quoted definitions of “cult” was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread 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 (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), 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, 1986, pp. 119-120)
Because this and related definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult.  Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
Definitions advanced by ICSA associates imply that the term “cult” refers to a continuum, in which a large gray area separates “cult” from “noncult,” or add qualifiers to the term “cult,” such as “destructive.”  These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or near the gray area of the continuum.  This debate can become more acute when the group in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater or less “cultishness,” or is skilled at public relations.
Because they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by ICSA associates are implicitly interactionist.  Like all psychologically based models, they presume that different people will respond differently to the same group environment, much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment.  Cults are not all alike.   Nor are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same group.  Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads ICSA associates to contend that some groups harm some members sometimes, and that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups.        

Using the Term: Considerations

The concept “cult,” as with other concepts (e.g., “right wing,” “left wing”), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one’s disposal.    The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype.   It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.
Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific “test” incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a “cult.”   Although ICSA’s Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) is a useful and promising tool for assessing groups scientifically, this self-report measure needs further psychometric development and should be supplemented by observational measures yet to be devised.   Cult research is in a stage similar to that of depression research when the first objective measures of depression as a mental and emotional state were being developed.   The lack of objective measures didn’t nullify the utility of definitions of depression then in use, but the development of such measures enhanced definitional understanding and classification reliability.   In the years ahead, we hope to see similar progress in cultic studies.  
Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term “cult,” ICSA does not produce an official list of “cults,” even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of “cults.”   Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups.   A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label “cult” implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type “cult,” when in fact it has only some of those attributes.   Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned.   Thus, when inquirers ask us, “Is such and such a cult?”   we tend to say, “Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you.”   Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.
We try to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to a label. In essence, we say:   “These are practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people.   To what, if any extent, are these practices found in the group in question?   And how might you or your loved one be affected by these practices?”   One of us (Langone) tries to focus a family’s concerns by saying: “Assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a `cult.’  What if anything about his or her behavior would trouble you?”   After the troubling behaviors are identified, then the family can try to determine how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment.  A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the analysis.
Thus, we advocate a nuanced, evidence-based approach to definition and classification.   We do not ignore or disparage evidence indicating that some groups may closely approach the theoretical type, “cult.”   Nor do we deny the necessity to make expert judgments about whether or not a particular set of group processes harmed a specific person or persons, a judgment that mental health clinicians and other professionals sometimes have to make in therapeutic or forensic contexts.   We do, however, advocate that these kinds of judgments should rest on careful analyses of structure and behavior within a specific context, rather than a superficial classification decision.
Such analyses sometimes result in the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not necessarily cults.   A new age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or psychologically harmful practices.  A church may harm some believers because its pastor is domineering and abusive.   A psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn’t adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of intentions, induce false memories in clients.   These are all examples of individual harm related to interpersonal influence.  They are all examples of situations that might understandably arouse the concern of the harmed person’s family and of ICSA.    But these situations are not necessarily “cult” situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the concept “cult.”   On the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults, further investigation of such cases may reveal the presence of cultic dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should always be subject to reevaluation.
Even though the term “cult” has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it.   Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction.   And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education.   If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously. 


Chambers, W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J.   (1994).   The Group Psychological Abuse Scale:   A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.

Lifton, R. J.   (1961).   Thought reform and the psychology of totalism.   New York: Norton.

Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, tenth edition.   (1994).   Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T.  (1986).   Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self   and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.

Robbins, T.   (1988).   Cults, converts, and charisma.   London: Sage.

Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R.  (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties.   Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1985).   The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation.   Berkeley: University of California (cited in Robbins, 1988).

The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1980).   Oxford:   Oxford University Press.

West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986).   Cultism:   A conference for scholars and policy makers.  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.

Zablocki, B. (1997).   Paper presented to a conference, “Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues,” May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Definitional Ambiguity of “Cult” and ICSA’s Mission

(This essay is a follow-up to “On Using the Term Cult.”)
A central component of ICSA’s mission is to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups.  Different people, however, attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term “cult” (On Using the Term Cult).  Those who have sought information from ICSA have – properly or improperly –used “cult” to refer to a wide variety of phenomena, including, but not limited to:
  • Groups – religious, political, psychological, commercial – in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit.
  • Fanatical religious and political groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control.
  • Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence.
  • Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching the “cult” label.
  • Any unorthodox religious group – benign or destructive.
  • Covert hypnotic inductions.
  • Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox.
  • Groups (religious, New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing,”) that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics.
  • Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude – correctly or incorrectly – that the group is destructive to the involved family member.
  • Organizations that employ high-pressure sales and/or recruitment tactics.
  • Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders.
  • Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government.
  • Familial or dyadic relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s), e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome.
The majority of those persons who attach the “cult” label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or organization they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term “cult” as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like. Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. Lists of diverse phenomena could also be drawn up for terms such as “child abuse,” “neurotic,” “right wing,” “left wing,” “learning disabled,” “sexy,” “ugly,” “beautiful,” etc. We don’t banish these fuzzy terms from our vocabularies because, contrary to the cynic’s claim, most people most of the time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and understood by others. 
Nevertheless, fuzzy terms leave much to be desired.  Hence, scientists often make up new terms, i.e., jargon, to avoid the imprecision of “natural” language.  Even within the scientific disciplines that propagate jargon, however, disputes may simmer for years about how to define properly a term in common use.  About twenty years ago, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned the term “cult” in favor of “new religious movement”; yet they still debate the meaning and merits of “new religious movement.” Thus, even within scientific disciplines terminology is rarely as precise as scientists wish. 
We have, then, three choices with regards to fuzzy terms:
  1. We can pretend that a particular term, e.g., “cult,” is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting misapplication of the concept to which the term refers.
  2. We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical sense.
  3. We can strive for a practical level of precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity in our terminology. 
ICSA has chosen the latter course (On Using the Term Cult).  We acknowledge the term’s ambiguity, but we also recognize that, for better or for worse, “cult” is the term that our inquirers, particularly on Internet searches, are most predisposed to use. Although we try to focus the meaning of the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with “cult,” however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be. 
Generally speaking (though certainly not always), the phenomena to which they attach the term “cult” constitute a “conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is inappropriate to give all of them the same “name,” e.g., “cult.” Yet they do have a family resemblance resting on the inquirer’s perception that the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics:
  1. It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
  2. It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical.
  3. It harms some persons involved with or affected by the group. 
Although some individuals may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept “cult,” frequently other terms may be more appropriate descriptors. That is why our mission sidebar lists “psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups…exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals” as areas for which we provide information.  And that is why central components of our mission (see About ICSA) are “to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups…to help individuals and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups and to protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation and abuse.” 
On the other hand, not everybody who contacts us is troubled.  Some are merely curious.  Others are looking for information on a group that is not harmful. Others seek information on helping techniques.  And still others want to teach young people how to recognize and resist the lure of spurious philosophies and manipulative groups.  That is why our mission sidebar also says that we provide information on “new religious movements, alternative and mainstream religions, group dynamics…and practical suggestions for…helping professionals, clergy, journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these topics.”
Given the wide range of phenomena that we study and the wide range of individuals and organizations we try to assist, we emphasize that our having information on or researching a particular group does NOT imply that it is a “cult” or even that it is harmful.  We do NOT maintain a list of “cults” or “bad groups,” and we have no intention of compiling such a list.  We do, however, provide information on and conceptual tools for analyzing diverse groups that inquirers may – correctly or incorrectly – associate with cults and other groups within its conceptual family.
As you explore this Web site, we hope that you will keep in mind the issues discussed in this essay.  We also hope that in your own endeavors you apply the term “cult” judiciously and with an acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations.