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Cults Psychological Abuse and Thought Reform

Cults, Psychological Abuse, and Thought Reform

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) the term "cult" has historically referred to "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings ... a particular form or system of religious worship; esp in reference to its external  rites and ceremonies ... devotion or homage to a particular person or thing, now esp. as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers." The term has more recently been applied to "devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, etc., especially when regarded as a fad: as, the cult of nudism" (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American, Language, 1960).

Sociologically the term "cult" has usually referred to innovative religious groups, with "sect" referring to groups that split off from mainstream religions (Robbins, 1988). In 1969, for example, Robbin published an article entitled, "Eastern Mysticism and the Resocialization of Drug Users: The Meher Baba Cult" (Robbins, 1969). During the 1970s, however, and especially after the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, a steady stream of critical journalistic reports resulted in the term's taking on a decidedly negative connotation of exploitation and extreme manipulation of followers. As a consequence some scholars have come to prefer the term "new religious movement (NRM)," which does not have the negative connotation of "cult." (Ironically, the Meher Baba group does not exhibit the negative features associated with the pejorative definition of "cult.")

During this period, the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961), or coercive persuasion (Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 1961), popularly called "brainwashing" or "mind control," was used to try to explain the behavior of many controversial groups that were being called "cults." Disputes arose between so-called "pro-cultists," who favored the term, "new religious movement," and "anti-cultists," who favored the term, "cult." The debate between these parties was often depicted as revolving around the question of whether or not thought reform, "brainwashing," exists, or whether it necessarily entails physical coercion. Proponents of thought reform models, however, have long held that their models apply to extreme examples of the sociopsychological influences seen in everyday life. Lifton, for example, extensively studied Chinese civilians who had not been exposed to physical coercion.

And both he and Schein warned society about the dangers posed by sociopsychological influences within our own culture. Indeed, the American Psychological Association (APA), recognizing that even responsible, well-meaning psychologists should avoid the use of certain forms of influence, imposes ethical constraints on psychological researchers (APA, 1992).

A 1991 resolution passed by the American Psychological Association's Division 36 (Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues - now called Psychology of Religion) illuminates the true nature of these academic disputes: "there is no consensus that sufficient psychological research exists to scientifically equate undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as `coercive persuasion,' `mind control,' or `brainwashing') with techniques of influence as typically practiced by one or more religious groups. Further, the Executive Committee invites those with research on this topic to submit proposals to present their work at Divisional programs." (PIRI Executive Committee Adopts Position on Non-Physical Persuasion, 1991, p. 3).

This statement recognizes the existence of coercive persuasion, while noting that research does not yet tell us the degree to which coercive persuasion characterizes religious groups typically categorized under the terms "cult" or "new religious movement." Langone (1988, 1993) has advocated that a distinction be made between these two terms, reserving the former term for groups that are highly manipulative and exploitative and the latter for benign groups, such as the Meher Baba group. Many scholars, however, continue to write as though the two terms refer to the same category of group, thereby needlessly adding fuel to the spurious debate between so-called "pro-cultists" and "anti-cultists."

A Proposed Conceptual Integration

Galanter's (1989) term, "charismatic group," has some advantages over "cult" or "new religious movement" in that it can encompass the benign and the destructive. Furthermore, the term may be applied to some nonreligious groups, such as political movements, human development organizations, and small subgroups of mainstream groups. A charismatic group is characterized by a shared belief system, a sustained high level of social cohesiveness, powerful behavioral `norms, and a leader to whom members inpute charismatic or divine power.. Unfortunately; this term is not widely used.

The concept of psychological abuse, particularly that observed in groups, presents possibilities IF for further theoretical differentiation. Psychological abuse refers to practices that, simply stated, treat a person as an object to be manipulated and used, rather than as a subject whose mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity are to be honored (Langone, 1992). Obviously, for a group to be called psychologically abusive, abusive practices must reach a designated threshold of frequency and/or intensity. This threshold could be selected after sufficient research using the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers et al., 1994) and other measures.

Group psychological abuse may be distinguished from thought reform, or  "mind control," in that the latter may be viewed as a specialized instance of the former. Figure one presents Venn diagrams that illustrate the relationship between "thought reform," "group psychological abuse," "cult," "new religious movement," and "charismatic group."

The center circle represents group environments characterized by thought reform, or coercive persuasion. The following conditions are present in groups practicing thought reform:

  • Obtaining substantial control over an individual's time and thought content, typically by gaining control over major elements of the person's social and physical environment.
  • Systematically creating a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  • Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in such a way as to inhibit observable behavior that reflects the values and routines of life organization the individual displayed prior to contact with the group.
  • Maintaining a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure in the organization.
  • Maintaining a non-informed state existing in the subject. (Singer & Ofshe, 1990, pp. 189-190)

Psychologically abusive groups may have some or all of these features to varying degrees. Psychologically abusive groups may also be characterized by less potent or less systematic forms of influence that abuse people by treating them as objects. Psychologically abusive groups may be, but are not necessarily, charismatic, and may be, but are not necessarily, religious.

Encompassing the circle representing group psychological abuse is a circle labeled group-related harm. This circle refers to broader types of harm that would not necessarily be psychologically abusive, religious, or related to a charismatic group. For example, a relatively benign, non-manipulative new age group might advocate an unorthodox diet that could be medically harmful to some or all of the group's members.

Partly overlapping these three circles is a circle representing "charismatic groups" (Galanter, 1989). This circle includes groups commonly referred to as new religious movements, as well as groups - religious and nonreligious - commonly called cults, including those using thought reform. The circle also includes groups characterized by psychological abuse and other non-abusive types of harm, as well as benign groups.

Much needless disputation arises when the distinctions implied by these Venn diagrams are ignored or when the only distinction made is between benign and thought reform groups. As the Division 36 resolution suggests, the debate ought to be focused not on whether or not thought reform exists, but the degree to which it - and lesser forms of psychological abuse - characterize the broader category of charismatic groups. In other words, what ought to be the relative sizes of the Venn diagrams? Some who work with people harmed by psychologically abusive groups may be inclined to overestimate the number of psychologically abusive groups and the intensity or prevalence of abuse in such groups. Others, whose experience is primarily with benign groups, such as Meher Baba, or who don't work with those who have been harmed, may be inclined to underestimate the prevalence of psychological abuse. This is an empirical disagreement that ought to be settled through empirical research, such as that called for by the Division 36 resolution.


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PIRI Executive Committee adopts position on non-physical persuasion. (1991). Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues Newsletter, 16(1), 3.

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