Michael D. Langone, Ph.D
In 1984 the Cult Awareness Network compiled a list of more than 2,000 groups about which they had received inquiries (Hulet, 1984). Currently ICSA has more than 4,000 groups listed in its electronic files, which are populated mainly as a result of inquiries or news reports. I would not hazard an estimate of what percentage of these groups would be at risk of harming members. The quality and quantity of data on individual groups is simply too low to justify generalizations.
Most cultic groups appear to be small, having no more than a few hundred members. Some, however, have tens of thousands of members and formidable financial power.
Several surveys shed some light on the number of people who may have been involved in what they perceived to be cultic groups.
Zimbardo and Hartley (1985), who surveyed a random sample of 1,000 San Francisco Bay area high school students, found that 3% reported being members of cultic groups and that 54% had had at least one contact with a cult recruiter.
Bloomgarden and Langone (1984) reported that 3% and 1.5% of high school students in two suburbs of Boston said they were cult members.
Sociologists Bird and Reimer (1982), in surveys of the adult populations of San Francisco and Montreal, found that approximately 20% of adults had participated in new religious or para-religious movements (including groups such as Kung Fu), although more than 70% of the involvements were transient. Other data in this study suggest that approximately two to five percent of the subjects had participated in groups that are frequently thought to be cultic.
A weekly omnibus survey conducted by ICR Survey Research Group for ICSA/AFF in 1993 found that about 1% of respondents said that they had been involved in a cult or what others might consider a cult.
Lottick’s (1993) survey of more than 1000 physicians (who are accustomed to making differential diagnoses) found that 2.2% reported that they or a family member had been involved in a cultic group, with "cult” clearly defined as a noxious group. It seems reasonable, therefore, to estimate that at least two million Americans have been involved with cultic groups.
Lottick's (2008) survey of 695 psychologists found that 13.1% reported personal experience - either their own or a family member - with cults. Thirty-three percent of the respondents reported that they had treated people who were or had been members of cultic groups.
One study in Spain found that among 1,517 Spanish participants aged 14 to 29, 25.9% expressed approval of cults, while 0.5% reported being cult members (Canteras, Rodriguez, & Rodriguez-Carballeira, 1992).
In the research study that led to the development of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) subjects' average age of joining was 24.8 and their average time in their groups was 6.70 years (308 subjects from 101 groups; 60% left on their own without outside, formal assistance; 13% had been deprogrammed; 17% exit counseled; 9% ejected by their groups). Assuming a lifetime incidence of 2,500,000 people having belonged to cultic groups, a "lifetime" period of 30 years, and an average length of stay of six years, I roughly estimate that approximately 500,000 people belong to cultic groups at any one time and approximately 85,000 go in and out of cultic groups each year.
However, as West (1990, p. 137) says, "cults are able to operate successfully because at any given time most of their members are either not yet aware that they are being exploited, or cannot express such an awareness because of uncertainty, shame, or fear." Therefore, in any survey, however random, the actual number of cultists is likely to be much greater than the number of persons who identify themselves as members of cultic groups or even of groups that other people might deem cultic. Because the group members do not identify themselves as such, they are not likely to be identified as cult-affected by psychotherapists or other helpers unless the helpers inquire into the possibility that there might be a cult involvement.
Since about 2006, when ICSA held its first workshop for SGAs (Second Generation Adults - people born or raised in cultic groups), increasing numbers for SGAs have entered the ICSA network. A survey of 182 attendees (about 80% of the total) of the ICSA 2018 annual conference found that 106 (58%) were former group members, and that 43 of these were SGAs, 24% of the total conference attendance (Interesting Statistics from the 2018 ICSA Annual Conference in Philadelphia, 2018). Hence, the question of prevalence is further complicated by the fact that an unknown, but not insignificant, number of people have been born and raised in cultic groups.
It is also interesting to note that the number and variety of groups about which people have made inquiries to organizations like ICSA has increased over the years.
In 1978, Conway et al. conducted a survey of 426 former cult members from the emerging cult awareness movement. These 426 persons came from 40 different groups (10.65 subjects per group on average); 76% came from one of five groups; and 44% came from the Unification Church. Seventy percent of the former members had been deprogrammed; their average age at joining was 21 years, and they spent an average of 2.7 years in their respective groups (Conway, Siegalman, Carmichael, & Coggins, 1986).
In 1991, Langone conducted a survey from the same network of people. Three hundred eight subjects came from 101 different groups (3.05 subjects per group on average); 33% came from the top 5 groups, with 16% coming from the largest group. The average age at joining was 24.8 years, and subjects spent an average of 6.7 years in their respective groups (Langone, 1991).
Between August 2014 and May 2020, 1,393 people completed an online survey designed by ICSA. 955 of these persons named a group in which they had been a former member. In total, 540 groups were named, an average of 1.77 subjects per group). Subjects had been in their groups an average of 11.2 years (Interesting Statistics From the ICSA 2018 Annual Conference in Philadelphia, 2018).
Thus, former members entering the ICSA network today come from a much larger variety of groups (an average of 1.77 subjects per group, compared to an average of 10.65 subjects per group in 1978), and they now stay in their groups more than four times as long (11.2 years, compared to 2.7 years in 1978).
Bird, F., & Reimer, B. (1982). Participation rates in new religions and para-religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21,1-14.
Bloomgarden, A., & Langone, M. D. (1984). Preventive education on cultism for high school students: A comparison of different programs' effects on potential vulnerability to cults. Cultic Studies Journal, 1, 167-177.
Canteras, A., Rodríguez, P., & Rodríguez-Carballeira, A. (1992). Jóvenes y sectas: Un análisis del fenómeno religioso-sectario en España. Madrid: Centro de Publicaciones. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales.
Chambers, W. V., Langone, M. D., Dole, A. A., & Grice, J. W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.
Conway, F., Siegelman, J. H., Carmichael, C. W., & Coggins, J. (1986). Information disease: Effects of covert induction and deprogramming. Update: A Journal of New Religious Movements, 10(2), 45–57.
Hulet, V. (1984). Organizations in our Society. Hutchinson, KS: Virginia Hulet.
ICR Survey Research Group. (1993, Aug. 4-8). Cult screening test. Media, PA: AUS Consultants.
Interesting Statistics From the 2018 ICSA Annual Conference in Philadelphia. (2018, 22 October). ICSA E-Newsletter.
Langone, M. D. (1991). Questionnaire study: Preliminary report. Available online at www.icsahome.com/articles/questionnaire-study-preliminary-report-langone
Lottick, E. (2008). Psychologist Survey Regarding Cults. (2008). Cultic Studies Review, 7.1, (1-19)
Lottick, E. (Feb. 1993). Survey reveals physicians’ experiences with cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26-28.
West, L. J. (1990). Persuasive techniques in contemporary cults: A public health approach. Cultic Studies Journal, 7, 126-149. (Reprinted from, Galanter, M., Ed., Cults and new religious movements. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, pp. 165-192.)
Zimbardo, P. G., & Hartley, C. F. (1985). Cults go to high school: A theoretical and empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment process. Cultic Studies Journal, 2, 91-148.