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Clinical Case Studies of Cult Members

Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 2, pages 121-147

Clinical Case Studies of Cult Members

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

University of Pennsylvania

This document will assist investigators interested in applying qualitative methods--especially clinical case studies--to the study of members and former members of cultic and other destructive groups. After consideration of relevant background information, strengths and weaknesses of the case study method, and selected previous applications in the related literature, the author puts forth a number of suggestions based on his experience as a psychologist with case study research. He presents an outline of possible topics pertaining to precult, cult, and postcult experiences of the cult participant. The author's remarks are supplemented by a consideration of case studies of children in destructive groups.

Qualitative Research: Psychological Methods

Although such eminent psychologists as Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, William James, John Flanagan, and Gordon Allport have published important studies applying qualitative methods to psychology, during its century as a distinct discipline, psychology has stressed two other research paradigms: the experimental method based on classical physics, and the quantitative method based on geometry, calculus, and "number crunching" (Cronbach, 1975). Often the typical freshly-minted doctor leaves graduate school with the attitude that case studies and other "merely descriptive" methods of inquiry are not truly scientific.

In the past two decades, however, several psychologists have developed supplementary and alternative methods of inquiry. In particular, I have been impressed by the following:

  • Yin (1989), an experimental psychologist, who stresses care and rigor
  • Gergen and Gergen (1984), who argue that social psychology and history have much in common
  • Miles and Huberman (1984), who recommend a variety of qualitative applications to research on educational problems
  • Campbell and associates (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, & Sechrist, 1966), who emphasize the value of unobtrusive measures
  • Kazdin (1981), who along with several other cognitive/behavioral professional psychologists, pioneered in developing singlecase designs to assess treatment outcomes and psychotherapy process (see also Hill, 1990, for a review)

Qualitative Research: Multidisciplinary Methods

Psychologists may also benefit from strategies of inquiry developed by specialists in other disciplines. These might include the following:

  • Investigative journalists stress multiple sources
  • Historians and biographers emphasize original documents and primary sources
  • Political scientists, public opinion specialists, and sociologists, as well as psychiatrists and social workers, have developed and honed the research interview
  • Anthropologists deftly apply ethnographic approaches to behaviors in other cultures
  • Various specialists in education, organizational behavior, and so on, using video and audio recordings of interpersonal processes (e.g., focus groups) have defined innovative categorizations
  • Educators and biographers have systematically analyzed diaries, journals, letters, and logs
  • Biologists, as exemplified by Linnaeus and Darwin, have constructed classification systems of the natural world based on careful observations
  • Physicians have a long tradition of reporting unusual medical cases
  • Writers specialize in telling stories--happenings with antecedents and endings
  • Philosophers apply reflective thinking, logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, and theory development

Recently, Denzin and Lincoln (1994) assembled into a handbook a potpourri of specialists--sociologists, anthropologists, educationists, and social psychologists--who view qualitative research from the perspective of feminism, Marxism, and deconstructionism. I recommend especially the chapters by Fine, Huberman and Miles, Punch, and Stake. In her lucid feminist voice, Fine (1994) calls attention to the parallel between the researched as "other" and the position of oppressed minorities. Punch (1994) identifies difficult ethical and political issues. Huberman and Miles (1994) are imaginative in addressing data management and methods of analysis. Stake (1994) discusses the major conceptual responsibilities of the qualitative case researcher.

I believe that many specialists can adapt qualitative case methods for the intense study of members and former members of cultic and other destructive groups. Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding these concepts calls for qualitative studies, which can be very useful, especially in a coordinated program of multiple studies, in clarifying terms and theoretical concepts. This paper provides suggestions for how to apply qualitative methods to cultic studies.

Before proceeding, I would like to note that principles of reliability (interobserver congruence), validity (proof, verification, confirmation), and replicability are fundamental to all defensible qualitative methods of inquiry. In my opinion, complete objectivity is difficult, if not impossible; yet, fairness, balance, and openminded skepticism are still desirable and attainable. I maintain that also there may be a place for subjectivity, passion, emotion, imagination, belief, and creativity, if authors openly acknowledge and label them. Thus, investigators who belong to AFF or the Cult Awareness Network should be open about their perspectives (e.g., by stating, "My study is presented in the service of exposing cult abuses"). Just as in the experimental sciences, when reporting a qualitative study, there is no room for fabrication, concealed sponsorship, or hidden distortion in the interests of a particular cause.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Qualitative methods are appropriate to questions of how, why, what happened, and who did what; they are less valuable in determining what caused what, how A is related to B, how many and how much, and in identifying generalizations and universal laws. They are especially valuable in describing the unusual, exceptional, unique, that is, particular events or persons. See Yin (1989) and Gilgun (1994) for excellent and thorough treatments of the case history as research method (see Table 1).

Yin elaborates case study tactics for each of four “tests" of a research design. Expanding on the familiar concepts of validity and reliability, he describes methods to establish internal, construct, and external validities as well as reliability. Such tests are a valuable response to critics who maintain that a case study is a soft, "not really scientific" design.

Table 1. Relevant Situations for Different Research Strategies


Form of Research Question

Requires Control over Events?

Focuses on Contemporary Events


how, why




who, what*, where, how much, how many



Archival analysis (e.g., economic study)

who, what*, where, how many, how much




how, why



Case study

how, why



* "What" questions, when asked as part of an exploratory study, pertain to all five strategies.

Note: From Case Study Research: Design and Methods (p. 17), by R. K. Yin, copyright 8 1989 by Sage Publications, Inc. Adapted by permission of Sage Publications.

According to Isaac and Michael (1981, see Exhibit 1 at end of article), the case history is valuable in exploring a new area of knowledge and in supplementing quantitative studies. It can provide depth, or thick knowledge--that is, a great deal of detailed and complex information about a few participants. In contrast, experimental studies are limited to a few selected variables. Quantitative studies, applying modern technology, can manipulate dozens of variables and measure thousands of subjects speedily and efficiently; but often the information yielded can be superficial, or thin knowledge, about a large population.

Good case studies are expensive. They may require the substantial time of specialists and hours of transcription. Pattern analysis and interpretation of a one-hour interview may take a full work week. The intensive study of a single person can consume a year or more. Bias, subjectivity, and special pleading are hard to control. Some researchers,  journalists, for example (Malcolm, 1994), may exploit or harm informants. Making the facts public can be painful for informants and an invasion of their privacy. These are important considerations where cult victims are involved.

Although expensive, it is possible to establish external validities by aggregating a representative sample of single cases; otherwise, critics may justifiably point out that any one participant is not typical or was selected for biased reasons. Hence, with only a single case, it is inappropriate to generalize to others.

Although it is tempting to assign causation or to connect one variable with another on the basis of the single case, such reasoning is logically suspect. Note in historical studies the endless arguments among specialists about what "caused" what. For example, was Hitler's behavior toward the Jews the result of childhood trauma, cultural norms, his paranoid personality, or a Machiavellian, calculated strategy for political ends? Correlations, in the sense based on statistics, are equally hard to defend when they are inferred from one or two events or the reported experiences of one person. Unless there are a large number of con-current instances involving a population or a representative sample, the possibility of coincidence, accident, bias, or error cannot be ruled out in interpreting an association. For example, the fact, in isolation, that a police officer had white skin and that an arrested person had black skin may or may not have had anything to do with racism. On the other hand, a well-executed single case may suggest avenues for further study, identify subtleties that are lost in quantitative research, provide investigators with handson experience with the phenomena they are studying, and document the unusual and exceptional.

Qualitative Cult Research

Cult researchers provide examples of the potentials and risks of qualitative methods. Early anecdotal accounts by cult members and deprogrammers (Patrick & Dulack, 1976; see also Conway & Siegelman, 1978) probably contributed to a sensationalized picture of "brainwashing" and the influence of powerful destructive groups. On the other hand, sociologists such as Shupe and Bromley (1979) and S. Wright (1987) supplemented their quantitative studies with quotations and documented descriptive data that tended to contradict their own cultsupportive conclusions (Dole, 1991). DubrowEichel (1989, 1990) published his award-winning analysis of a single deprogramming; and a number of writers (e.g., DubrowEichel & DubrowEichel, 1988; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982, 1988) have described the rehabilitation of cult victims through the use of psychoeducation, psychotherapy, and exit counseling. Dole, in collaboration with DubrowEichel, has analyzed letters written by participants in Rev. Sun Myung Moon's International Conference for the Unity of the Sciences (Dole & DubrowEichel, 1981), as well as written responses to a survey on the New Age (Dole, 1993). Singer (1993) has described the use in court of written documents to establish undue influence, and Garvey (1993) has published a composite case study of a New Age cult.

Case studies are not limited to studies of persons. Examples of case reports that incorporate songs, observations, news stories, anecdotes, and legal summaries can be found regularly in this journal. See also recent books by Langone (1993), Singer and Lalich (1995), Tobias and Lalich (1994). They analyze various cult-related topics intensively but are limited in their representativeness and may be vulnerable to bias. (See Exhibit 1 for a summary of the characteristics of case studies.)

Suggestions are presented here on how the case study method may be applied by a mental health professional (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker) to a person who has had an experience with a destructive group. In addition to drawing on published research, I have applied the benefits of my experience in directing more than two dozen dissertation candidates who utilized case history methods. Researchers who try out the suggestions and topic areas that follow should feel free to modify them to fit their purposes, circumstances, and preferences.

Suggestions for Preparing a Clinical Case Study

It is advisable to seek out legal consultation and approval of institutional review boards on legal and ethical issues concerning, for example, permission to collect and release information or to record interviews with either video or audio equipment. State laws and organizational regulations concerning the privacy of informants vary greatly.

Before Starting

1.        For your own benefit, inventory your theoretical orientation (psychoanalytic, eclectic, behavioral, etc.), your major basic assumptions about human nature, and your attitudes toward cults in general and the particular groups from which participants will be drawn. (Prospective researchers who fear that their emotional reactions to cult-related issues may seriously interfere with their objectivity--e.g., "Rev. B. seduced my daughter. I'll show him."--should seek consultation before interviewing current or former cult members.)

2.        Specify your major research purposes and intended audiences.

3.        Define key terms and major variables.

4.        Note your reasons for selecting a participant (e.g., random, convenient, typical, or unusual).

5.        Prepare a consent form for the participant to sign (see Exhibit 2 for a sample you might want to adapt). Also prepare to explain the project's purpose, its projected uses, assurances of privacy and confidentiality, and other pertinent matters.

6.        Arrange the interview setting in advance. Inspect it for privacy, comfort, and protection from interruptions. (A living room filled with family members, for example, would be inappropriate.)

7.        Write a brief, concise proposal.

Doing the Case Study

1.        If possible, make the participant more of a partner in the research than a subject. Give him some control and power. (e.g., "Later I hope you'll read and comment on my report," or AI welcome your ideas about this project").

2.        Cover topics in a flexible, relaxed fashion, rather than posing a rigid sequence of packaged questions. Use clinical skills to develop rapport. Encourage open-ended rather than yes/no responses through gentle probes and nondirective leads in your own words (e.g., "Uh huh," “Can you tell me more?," "What happened then?," "How about ..."). For intensive, indepth studies, schedule two or three interviews several weeks apart, encouraging the participant to think through responses in advance. The time span will also aid documentation collection (e.g., “Would you be willing to let me photocopy the letters you wrote home while you were in the group?"). Merton's  (Merton, Fiske, & Kendall, 1956) focused interview is a fine research tool.

3.        Before or after the interview, ask the participant to complete a standardized  personal characteristics form (gender, age, education, vocation, etc.) and to write down material if that's comfortable. For instance, to save interview time, a participant might be willing to put in writing her recollection of a typical day in the group. Exhibit 3 (at the end of this article) provides an example that interviewers may adapt to fit their own research needs. Other demographic questionnaires available from AFF may be requested and adapted.

4.        In establishing rapport with the participant, be ethical and professional (see the ethical code of the American Psychological Association [APA], 1993), and be sensitive to affect as well as to fact. Empathize but avoid sympathizing or therapizing. If need be, refer the participant to others for exit counseling, rehabilitation, or counseling. Share with the participant circumstances that might influence the interview (e.g., "I work for the AFF which does ..."), and maintain a fairminded and nonjudgmental attitude. (If you have difficulty being objective because you believe that cults are uniformly evil, seek consultation.) Avoid leading or biased questions. Most mental health professionals have excellent skills in relationship building, diagnosis, and observation and have developed their own personal styles which they should use comfortably; however, to reduce risk of dual relationships (i.e., therapist and researcher), consider having another experienced researcher periodically review audiotapes of the interviews. If the interviewer-researcher is also an exit counselor, cult-awareness activist, paid employee of a cult-awareness group, or expert witness, it may be advisable to include such information in any publication (e.g., "Dr. A.B.C. is the director of the XYZ Cult Research Institute."). It goes without saying that academic cult apologists have an equal ethical obligation to specify relevant memberships or sponsorships in their publications.

5.        With the participant's permission, record the interview. For speed and accuracy, have it transcribed by a professional typist; then, encourage the participant to review and edit it (e.g., "If there's anything you've said that you'd like to change or omit or correct ...").

6.        In closing the interview, repeat assurances to the participant that  privacy and control of personal information will be respected. To put the matter another way, the researcher may assure the participant that all data (e.g., test results, recorded statements) "belong" to him. In reviewing them afterward, the participant may wish to withdraw or revise them. On occasion an interview may open an emotional wound (e.g., trigger painful remembrances of the group experience). Provide in advance referrals to exit counselors or mental health professionals who are informed about cult-related issues. Protect participants from harmful aftereffects by assuring them of your attention (e.g., "Don't hesitate to call me if questions about our conversation today come to mind later on.").

7.        Finally, in all aspects of the clinical case study, be professional, yet relaxed, human, honest, and authentic. In short, be yourself. Remember, most likely interviewees with cult experiences have been abused by phonies and manipulators. In my opinion, a rigid, stereotyped format (which can be applied when appropriate through survey methodology) is unsuitable for the clinical interview. You are collecting and reporting a true story in your own best way; nevertheless, your methodology should be clear, valid, and replicable. Be a vehicle for participants to tell about their experiences as they experienced them. An important question to ask yourself: would a second interviewer be likely to obtain a similar story from the participant?

Analyzing the Data

1.        Before initiating a series of clinical case studies, conduct a pilot study. Test out your methods for interviewing, data collection, and data analysis with one or more participants similar to those you plan to study. A pilot study will help weed out errors and provides practice for the main event. If you plan to aggregate the data--that is, use two or more participants--data collection (including methods of interviewing and the topics covered) and data analyses should be consistent throughout.

2.        The coding of written materials is a research skill developed through training and practice. Refer to a research consultant if you have never done this step. Essential concepts are coder congruence (reliability), simplicity, appropriate theory (with controversy among specialists about the merits of an atheoretical vs. a theory-based system of classifying material), replicability, category independence, and validity. For example, if a participant cites an instance of abuse or criminal activity by the group, can the statements be verified? Although some investigators prefer to operate at a high level of abstraction (perhaps using psychological or psychiatric terms such as aggression, dependence, borderline), I prefer simple, concrete, low-level categories and ample use of participants' direct quotations.

3.        In building a clinical case study, be alert for supporting documents: letters, journals, diaries, videotapes, bank books, photographs, secret messages prepared by the leader for his followers. Participants may be willing to give you such materials or to permit photocopying.

4.        Most mental health professionals have excellent skills in report preparation. As in a clinical report prepared for a court, school, agency, or other institution, begin with the location, circumstances, dates, and your professional title. Include observations of the participant's behavior during the interview (see the suggested topic outline in the following section.) Don't hesitate to interpret, speculate, comment, and recommend, but make it clear when you are offering subjective or professional opinions. Use evidence such as observations and participant quotations to support your statements (e.g., "Mrs. X appeared extremely agitated as she told about life in the group. Her hands trembled as she began to cry, saying, 'The leader seduced me, saying it was God's will.'"). Unless obvious, the report should include the key questions that were asked. A direct style--first-person singular, active voice--is preferable to the artificially objective usages of many scientists and clinicians (e.g., "I asked Mr. Smith ..." is better than "The patient was asked ...").

Topical Outline for a Clinical Case Study

This outline is intended to serve as a guideline. Adapt, add, or omit the proposed topics to fit the circumstances.


Describe briefly the goals, methods, and limitations (e.g., the extent of possible bias in retrospective reports).


Identify interviewer and participant, date, location of interview, length of time, whether or not recorded, interruptions and distractions, and other special characteristics or circumstances (e.g., "Mr. Smith's mother came into the interview room at the end of the hour and participated actively").

Participant Characteristics[1]

Describe participant's physical appearance, gender, age, occupational title, education, ethnic background, religious preference, residence, marital status, parents' education, parents' occupations, parents' religious preferences, parents' marital status, ages and occupations of siblings, political preference, mental and physical health (see Exhibit 3).

Precult Experiences

Note those participant characteristics at the time of cult recruitment that differ from current status (e.g., age, occupation, religious preference, education, relationship with family). Obtain history of major events related to education, occupation, religion, substance abuse, social behavior, mental and physical health, marital status, and politics. What were the participant's major values, developmental tasks completed, strengths, stresses, and issues?

Characteristics of the Group[2]

Specify the name of the group, the leader, type of group, date participant was recruited, date left the group, and locations. Request descriptive information (e.g., brochures published by group), if available.


Describe the circumstances of joining. What was the cult member's emotional state at the time? Were recruiters honest or deceitful? Any evidence of love bombing? Other specific examples of persuasion? Describe conversion experience. Note any unusual happenings: magical events, visions, voices, transformations?

Experiences While in the Group

Ask participant to recall a typical day: proportion of time spent  in fund-raising, recruiting, education, administration, religious services, and so on. Describe any gifts the person made to the group and any other financial events or transaction (e.g., "When my aunt died and left me her farm, I deeded it over to the leader because God told me to."). Describe evidence related to the mental and physical health of participant (e.g., visits to physicians or other specialists and reason); relationships with leaders (including sexual activity, if any); criminal or unethical acts, such as activities involving drugs, weapons, fraud, violence by leaders or members (obtain documentation, if possible); methods of influence used in the group; major group beliefs with respect to religion, politics, personal behavior (sex, marriage); participant's relationships  with parents and other family members; incidents of abuse, exploitation, deception (documentation, witnesses); other distinguishing beliefs and attitudes. Inquire about group's use of guilt and shame, and activities or thoughts these would revolve around. Inquire about times when participant was angry, depressed, scared, suicidal, exhilarated, joyful, or loving; note peak and bleak experiences. Also inquire about positive experiences in the group and benefits received from the experience.

Postcult Experiences

What were the circumstances of the person's departure from the group? Include reactions of the group and other significant influences, including exit counseling, rehabilitation,  psychotherapy, hospitalizations, and education. Describe any  floating episodes; feelings of guilt; relationships to family, group, significant others; current values, religion, politics, personal goals; educational and vocational progress; present-day evaluation of experience, including recommendations to other former members; financial situation; mental and physical health. Inquire into ways in which the group experience contributed positively to postcult adjustment (e.g., "I have given up drugs," or "I learned how to organize my time.").


Like the investigative reporter or the social worker (Gilgun, 1994), the case study preparer uses relevant available sources of information about the person with permission. The researcher may use such informants as parents and relatives, friends, school personnel, clergy, and even group members and leaders. Often written records--newspaper stories, diaries, letters, and court, school, and hospital records--can help document the case.

Professional psychologists are qualified to administer and interpret standardized tests, rating scales, inventories, and questionnaires to measure many aspects of the participant's current personality. If consultation is advisable in selecting instruments, it is essential that the psychologist understand the specific research objectives and be familiar with the nature of the cult experience. For instance, temporary dissociation should not be confused with psychosis (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992). Recognize the participant's readiness for assessment. The Wellspring battery (Martin et al., 1992), which has been administered to more than 200 cult victims before and after rehabilitation, is a valuable model. It includes measures of personal adjustment (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory ), acute posttraumatic stress (Staff Burnout Scale), depression (Beck Depression Inventory), and psychiatric symptomatology (Hopkins Symptom Checklist), plus a clinical interview.

A Note to Researchers

Interviewers and researchers who have not previously conducted qualitative research on cultic groups should realize that some people may have difficulty in managing attitudes that might overly influence their methods of inquiry. After a preparatory trial experience (which can be role-played), consider an individual or a group consultation with an experienced specialist to obtain an objective evaluation of your attitudes.

Whether or not to use standardized tests and measurements, which to apply, and when to give them are puzzling issues for some researchers. In such instances, consultation is recommended. As a general rule, use a standardized psychological test, a personal characteristics form, or an attitude survey in the following instances:

  • The desired datum is concrete, the range of responses limited (Likert scale in an attitude survey), and categories are mutually exclusive (marital status) or quantifiable (years in group)
  • Precise comparisons are easily available and meaningful (e.g., on personal adjustment measures such as the MCMI with percentiles for normal young adults, for ex-cult members, and for disturbed populations)
  • The measure's theoretical orientation is consistent with that of the investigator (e.g., MyersBriggs conforms to Jungian typology)

By themselves, detailed questionnaires are awkward and insufficient measures of temporal sequences, personal histories, and the full flavor of conversion, for instance, with its predisposing factors and consequences during rehabilitation and recovery. A wellexecuted case study, on the other hand, can account for such complexities and the particular circumstances and experiences of the cult victim.

Case Studies of Children in Destructive Groups

These comments are intended to supplement the suggestions for using the clinical case study with victims of cultic and other destructive groups.  Ideally those who study children in destructive groups should have first-hand familiarity with such children and with representative destructive groups. The reader is cautioned, therefore, that I have never met anyone who was below the age of 18 when in a destructive group. Furthermore, even though for many years I was chair of an educational psychology department that included many child psychologists, I do not claim to be an authority young children. My professional, scientific, and personal experience has been primarily with adolescents, young adults, cult victims, and cults. I hope that others with more direct experience with children will elaborate on these preliminary considerations. (Note that the foregoing "disclosure" illustrates a major point in my conception of an effective case study--that is, share with your readers your relevant limitations and biases.)

Research on children--and in the present instance, using case methods--differs in several ways from research on adults. Because young people grow and change rapidly, often it is necessary to use different methods and instruments for different age levels. Infants differ from adolescents, for example, in their capacities to communicate. Well- designed studies of the same individual over time (longitudinal design) can track changes and development, but such studies are at risk because of the difficulty in adapting methods to developmental stages, and because of attrition of subjects, investigators, and funding sources. Turning to the child's environment--immediate contacts such as peers, parents, and  teachers; external influences such as TV evangelists or computer games; and various socioeconomic and cultural factors--we need to take into account that the social and physical world may vary substantially over time. This means that family membership in a destructive group may not necessarily have constant and uniform effects, that such effects are extremely difficult to tease out, that the child may change in responding to uncontrolled incidents, and that those born into destructive groups may experience diminishing loyalty to the group over time. A few examples: one parent may leave the group and attempt to remove the child; in the history of small religious communities, attrition of young members has often been a problem; a child may or may not have an accurate recollection of sexual abuse.

Special Skills

Knowledge of child development, child psychopathology, and child assessment is very helpful for the researcher who wishes to prepare a clinical study of a child. Special skills in child interviewing and in projectives and doll play are valuable when the child has yet to develop good communication abilities. Because young children are suggestible and often unable to separate fact from fantasy, they may be especially susceptible to investigator bias (e.g., "How many times did Mr. Cult Leader ...").


The fewer communication abilities and the more immature the child, the more an investigator has to depend on sources other than selfreport. Parents, teachers, police, and selected peers can provide information, but it should be evaluated for accuracy. Facts (such as having three witnesses independently report the same incident) are more reliable than opinions. Also helpful are school, medical, and court records before, during, or after the cult experience (especially reports by physicians, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and psychologists, including psychometric scores, medical records, legal actions, etc.).

Information about the childrearing environment may be gathered directly from group publications or spokesmen (e.g., "The children chant for an hour before breakfast"), from former members, from community observers (including local reporters, clergy, teachers, police, and Better Business Bureaus). Publications from AFF and the Cult Awareness Network are good sources. AFF's newsletter The Cult Observer, for instance, summarizes media accounts related to cults worldwide. Whatever the sources might be, typically the information obtained will require synthesis and interpretation.

Special Methods

Depending on the chronological and mental age of the child and the particular research question, possible methods of inquiry include child and parent behavior rating scales, doll play, drawaperson, guesswho (sociometry), and projective techniques. Standardized tests of intelligence, ability, achievement, reading level, personality, emotional state (e.g., anxiety, depression, traumatic stress), abnormal behavior, moral development, and so on are especially valuable tools when they are psychometrically sound and have good norms. (To select specific instruments, consult a clinical child psychologist, school psychologist, or a panel of specialists.) Consider video and audio recording, as well as personal computer applications. Logs, diaries, and journals kept by observers (e.g., parents, teachers) can be useful. Eventually physical, psychiatric, and psychological examinations will need to be integrated.

A longitudinal rather than a oneshot approach is especially desirable in studying children: periodically repeat the same or calibrated instruments. Documented change in mental or physical health or social adaptation for a single child in a destructive environment may not justify a conclusion that the group was responsible. However, it lays the groundwork to check out such a hypothesis with more subjects and a more elegant design.

In general, methods to study environments are adapted to the particular setting (e.g., residence halls, factory, school, family) and to the research question. Possible strategies for assessing a child in a destructive group environment include ratings by selected informed observers; analyses of logs, diaries, journals, letters, and other personal documents written by literate children, parents, or group members; analyses of group leaders' own selfdescriptions; and ethnography. As noted previously, coding systems should meet standards of reliability, validity, and replicability, and should be consistent with an explicit theory or deliberate nontheory of child development. Researchers should start with a review of the substantial and often creative literatures about methods not only in child development (see especially the classic by Rothney [1968]), but also in psychiatry, social work, sociology, education, school psychology, social psychology, and anthropology. Researchers should also consult specialists while developing the research proposal. Dozens of standardized rating scales (Moos, 1985) of child-rearing practices, teacher behaviors, institutional settings, and family environments may be applicable in whole or in part.

Special Topics

1.        Concomitants of growing up in a destructive group environment: cognitive, conative, social, emotional, physical health, mental health, progress in developmental tasks, education (e.g., evidence of learning disability), selfesteem, values, concerns, ethics, religious beliefs, specific attitudes, sexual maturity, depression, guilt, anxiety, passivity, suicidal ideation, acting out, aggression, and on and on. (The list of possibilities is large.)

2.        Characteristics of the group with respect to children: child-rearing behaviors and philosophies; discipline and control; diet; sleeping conditions; medical care; provision for play; taboos, sin, superstitions; specific attitudes encouraged; educational practices, curriculum; amount of empowerment; treatment of girls, boys; interactions with leaders, parents, teachers, outsiders, peers, siblings; assigned work or chores; and clothing.

3.        Biography of the son or daughter of a group leader (see, for example, Wright [1993] on the children of Jim Jones).

4.        Developmental history of a child whose mother or father leaves the group, divorces spouse, and sues for custody; or of a child whose family members (e.g., grandparents or siblings) attempt to remove the child from the group.

Special Ethical and Legal Considerations

Because children are minors and because often they are vulnerable when participating in research, a number of considerations arise in addition to the usual ethical and legal constraints on research involving adults. The specifics in obtaining permission of the parent or guardian for a child to participate in a research study may vary somewhat by state and community. Diplomacy and assertiveness may be necessary to obtain access to children or to collect information about them from the group, institution, school, or court. Researchers should be prepared for unusual roadblocks in dealing with funding agencies, university committees on the use of human subjects, school boards, or ethics committees of professional organizations. Consultation with legal and ethical specialists is advised during proposal development.

Safeguards for the welfare of the child are essential. Could the proposed research procedures be in any way intrusive, anxiety arousing, or invasions of privacy? Make arrangements to prevent possible aftereffects, and be prepared to offer referrals to exit counselors or mental health specialists, if need be. For example, if during a projective test the child “floats" or if during an interview the child is reminded of terrible beatings while in the group, I recommend referral to a clinical psychologist or pediatric psychiatrist who is qualified to work with cult victims.  Advance consultation with legal and ethical specialists is recommended in order to plan how to respond should violations of the law be uncovered. (In many states, for example, suspected child abuse must be reported promptly to specified authorities and any promises of confidentiality must be broken.)

Exhibit 1

Case and Field Study Research[3]


To study intensively the background, current status, and environmental interactions of a given social unitCan individual, group, institution, or community.


1.        Piaget's studies of cognitive growth in children.

2.        An indepth study of a pupil with a learning disability by a school psychologist or a student on probation by a social worker.

3.        An intensive study of the "inner city" culture and living conditions in a large metropolitan environment.

4.        An anthropologist's exhaustive field study of cultural life on a remote Indian reservation in the Southwest.


1.        Case studies are indepth investigations of a given social unit resulting in a complete, wellorganized picture of that unit. Depending on the purpose, the scope of the study may encompass an entire life cycle or only a selected segment; it may concentrate on specific factors or take in the totality of elements and events.

2.        Compared to a survey study, which tends to examine a small number of variables across a large sample of units, the case study tends to examine a small number of units across a large number of variables and conditions.


1.        Case studies are particularly useful as background information for planning major investigations in the social sciences. Because they are intensive, they bring to light the important variables, processes, and interactions that deserve more extensive attention. They pioneer new ground and often are the source of fruitful hypotheses for further study.

2.        Case study data provide useful anecdotes or examples to illustrate more generalized statistical findings.


1.        Because of their narrow focus on a few units, case studies are limited in their representativeness. They do not allow valid generalizations to the population from which their units came until the appropriate followup research is accomplished, focusing on specific hypotheses and using proper sampling methods.

2.        Case studies are particularly vulnerable to subjective biases. The case itself may be selected because of its dramatic rather than typical attributes, or because it neatly fits the researchers' preconceptions. Because of selective judgments, certain data might be ruled in or out, or a high or low value might be assigned to their significance, or they might be placed in one context rather than another. To the extent that this occurs, subjective interpretation is influencing the outcome.


1.        State the objectives. What is the unit of study and what characteristics, relationships, processes will direct the investigation?

2.        Design the approach. How will the units be selected? What sources of data are available? Which data-collection methods will be used?

3.        Collect the data.

4.        Organize the information to form a coherent, wellintegrated reconstruction of the unit of study.

5.        Report the results and discuss their significance.

Exhibit 2

Sample Consent Form

Podunk University

Department of Psychology

Somewhere, USA

Consent to Be a Research Participant

I understand that the purpose of this research is to analyze some of my experiences as a member of the Church of the Sacred Cow in order to make sense of them and to help other former members.

I understand that if at any time I wish to terminate the interview, I simply need tell the interviewer.

I understand that the information provided by me is confidential. Please check one or more of the following statements:

____ I prefer that my real name not be used in published reports.

____ I prefer that my real name be used in published reports.        

____ I would like to read and edit my reports before publication.

I understand that this interview is being tape recorded and that the tape will be in the custody of the research team. Please check one:

____ I prefer that the tape not be played by other than the research team.

____ I prefer that the tape be played before interested persons.

I understand that I may be interviewed ___ times, that each interview will last about an hour, that the purpose is to gather information for research, not to provide counseling. If I have any questions or problems about or as a result of this interview, I can call one of the research team.

Signature____________________________                        Date_____________

Thank you very much for your collaboration in this project.

A.B.C. Dee, Ph.D., Chief Investigator

Exhibit 3

Former Cult Member's Personal Information Form

We would like to have some information about you on record. In order to save time, we would appreciate your completing this personal information form. Your answers are, of course, confidential, and will be used for research purposes only. Please complete every item; if for any reason you prefer not to reply to a question, please write ANA."

 1.        Date   _______________

 2.        Name ________________

 3.        Mailing address __________________________________

 4.        Home telephone _________________

 5.        Gender _________________

 6.        Age ___________________

 7.        Name of group ___________________________________

 8.        Month and year entered the group _________________

 9.        Month and year left the group ____________________

10.        Which of the following most influenced your decision to leave the group? Check one:

10.l  _____        It was primarily my own decision.

10.2 _____         I was strongly influenced by an exit counseling.

10.3 _____        I was strongly influenced by another group member.

10.4 _____        I was strongly influenced by someone other than above (such as family member, member of the clergy, friend).

10.5 _____        None of the above. Please explain: _____________

11.        Which of the following best describes your religious preference at this time? Check one:

11.1 _____        Catholic

11.2 _____        Protestant

11.3 _____        Jewish

11.4 _____        Other        Please write in: _______________

11.5 _____        No religious preference at this time

12.        Which best describes your ancestral origins? Check one:

12.l _____        European

12.2 _____        Asian

12.3 _____        African

12.4 _____        Central American

12.5 _____        South American

12.6 _____        Native American

12.7 _____        Mixed (two or more of the above)

12.8 _____        Other        Please explain: _____________

13.        Which best describes your employment status at this time?

13.l _____        Fully employed (30 or more hours per week)

13.2 _____        Part-time employment (1 to 29 hours per week)

13.3 _____        Not employed, and seeking work

13.4 _____        Not employed, and not seeking work at the moment

13.5 _____        Full-time homemaker

14.        Please write in the title of your current or last paid job _______

15.        How many years of education have you completed? _______

16.        Which best describes your educational status at this time?

16.l _____        Full-time student

16.2 _____         Part-time student

16.3 _____        Not in school at this time

17.        Please write in your educational major or specialization (at this time or when you were last in school or college) ____________

You are welcome to write comments or suggestions below about this personal information form or about any question, or to discuss them with me.

Thank you very much for your cooperation.

A.B.C. Dee, Ph.D.                                                                                        Professor of Psychology

University of Podunk

Comment for Researchers

Depending on your research purposes, you may wish to add items such as parents' education, occupations, religious preferences, and income; informant's physical and mental health; informant's support group participation, if any; accomplishments or prizes or awards received; or characteristics of the group, such as size, location, and financing.

Whatever the content, a Personal Information Form should include a date of preparation, an explanation of confidentiality and research uses, and a brief statement of purpose. It should conclude with an opportunity for the informant to comment and to explain. The investigator's name, title, and professional affiliation should be clear.


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Reactions, suggestions, and additions to this document are welcome. Submit comments to Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., R. R. #1, Box 118A, Trenton, ME 046051976; or E-mail


Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is Professor Emeritus, Division of Psychology in Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.

        Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1995, Page

[1] If possible, have the participant fill out a standardized personal data form before or after the interview in order to collect personal characteristics.

[2] Use standardized forms (e.g., Group Psychological Abuse Scale [GPA]) to collect characteristics of the group. For a copy of the GPA and detailed information on its psychometric properties, see Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994.

[3]3 From the Handbook in Research and Evaluation (pp. 48B49), by S. Isaac & W. B. Michael, 1981, San Diego, CA: EdITS. Reprinted with permission.

[4]4 An asterisk following an entry denotes a book that is highly recommended by the author.