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Book Review - Leaving Cults--The Dynamics of Defection


This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 1, pages 87-90. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection. 

S. A. Wright. Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Monograph Series, Number 7, 1987.

"What is really demonstrated in these findings," according to author Stuart A. Wright, "is the almost complete absence of brainwashing accusations ..." by cultists and ex-cultists.

In this monograph, sociologist Wright compared 45 voluntary defectors with 45 members of the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, and Children of God. Wright collected responses to a structured questionnaire and interviewed each subject in depth for one to two hours. The two groups were rather similar with regard to such characteristics as age, gender, pre-cult religion, and so on. Wright first used the defectors' open-ended replies to illustrate precipitating "factors" -- insularity, dyad exclusivity, imminence of transformation, primary group affectivity, and leadership. For each factor he proposed a hypothesis. Consider "dyadic exclusivity" as an example of Wright's sociologese -- if two cultists fall in love, they tend to leave the group. He develops an overarching and complex theory of commitment to explain why some cultists stayed and others left their groups.

In introducing his study, Wright described himself as having "evangelical leanings"; he was disturbed by the growth of the "Therapeutic State" and critical of the medical model. In other words, he opposes government intervention in new religions (such as the U.S.S.R. has done by hospitalizing political dissidents) and he criticizes the concept of cult mind control as formulated by John Clark, Robert J. Lifton, and the anti-cult "zealots." Apparently he did not realize that today most mental health specialists who are knowledgeable about cults argue that cult commitment in itself is not pathological. Although he expressed these criticisms in both introductory and closing chapters, I found very little in the data (cultists' replies) to support them. Though well-expressed with suitable scholarly documentation, his attacks on the anti-cult movement seemed to be directed at straw men of his own construction. Of course, from the anti-anti-cult point of view his theories are conspicuously and conceptually correct.

Considered by the standards of rigorous social science, however, the study -- which was based on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Connecticut -- has very serious weaknesses. The samples were small, and he did not demonstrate that they were representative. To find voluntary defectors he advertised on college campuses and used a "snowball" strategy with those who replied. The three cults provided access to participants (is this like asking Saddam Hussein to help find a representative sample of Iraqis?). Participants' replies were quoted selectively -- that is, not all were clearly accounted for. Obviously, since the defectors had not experienced exit counseling or rehabilitation, and since neither defectors nor cultists had much exposure to CAN or AFF, they did not use terms like mind control or brainwashing. (To my knowledge there is very little evidence as to what proportion of voluntary defectors, for how long, and to what extent, if at all, remain unconsciously under the control of their former religion.

(How common is floating?) Although the interview is the standard method of inquiry for investigative reporters, it can be susceptible to bias.

(According to T. X. Barber in his book, Pitfalls in Human Research, when the investigator designs, collects, classifies, and interprets work without objective verification, she or he is committing serious "errors.") Wright neglected to inquire about recruitment experiences, nor did he report how long the defectors had been out of their cults. A less serious flaw: in comparing the two groups, most of Wright's tables, based on replies to the questionnaire, presented percentages horizontally but not vertically.

Because the monograph is tempting ammunition for those who deny "brainwashing," let me demonstrate how, by deliberate selective bias, I can make a case for mind control from the published statements of Wright's informants. First, I will define "brainwashing" here (which Wright did not do) as a process of manipulation, social influence, or control. Then I will admit that I have talked directly with many persons

who had been brainwashed, heard considerable direct testimony about snapping, and, as a result, am convinced that brainwashing exists. However, it is not a precise term. Listen to Wright's subjects:. . ."they tell you if you leave the movement you are spiritually dead" (p. 33). . ."they had the authority to tell you anything" (p. 34). . ."I didn't feel if you wanted to attain God consciousness it was necessary to do all the things they asked" (p. 41). . ."You know we were so convinced that the tribulation was going to start like it says in the book of Revelation" (p. 43). . ."How can he [Prabhupada] say this? He is supposed to be a pure devotee, perfect, holy, and sinless, and he is saying that lying and stealing is [sic] not wrong" (p. 49). . ."It was taught that if you left the church you would lose your salvation" (p. 69).

To sum up, the monograph is worth reading because the interview material is fascinating. However, readers should beware. Wright's commitment theory and his various propositions about defection are jargon-filled, sophisticated, and complex (based on an admittedly biased interpretation of the raw data); yet, in fact, if examined closely, the raw data can be construed as consistent with theories of social control, manipulation, and intense persuasion. Far from evidence about the absence of brainwashing, examples of mind control can be easily found in the words of the study participants. In fact, Wright says, ". . .world transforming movements exercise little selectivity in recruiting and tend to rely more on intensive socialization processes to secure commitment" (p. 12).

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

Psychology in Education Division

Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991