What Counselors Should Know About Cultic Dynamics
ICSA Today, 10(2), 2019, 6-7
What Counselors Should Know About Cultic Dynamics
Michael D. Langone
Although the term cult has no universally accepted definition, it is often associated with groups that are unusually manipulative, often deceptive, and highly demanding. Some people prefer the term high-demand group over cult. Others focus on the abuse—psychological and/or spiritual—that is often associated with cultic groups. Still others, including the author of this information sheet, emphasize the dynamics associated with cultic groups—that is, the processes that change individuals in ways that often disturb family and friends. The core of their concern usually is that a once-autonomous person now appears to be subservient to a leader.
Leaders of cultic groups want their followers to do the leaders’ bidding. Successful leaders, then, are skilled in compliance strategies. They also know how to change their followers’ identities such that the followers will advance the leaders’ agendas even when they are not physically present. Thus, at the end of George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, a former rebel, proclaims, “I love Big Brother.” Whereas authoritarian groups are satisfied with compliance, cultic groups also want conversion. Obedience is not enough. Members must also believe in and be loyal to their leader and group. The totalistic nature of this cultic dynamic has profound clinical implications.
Research suggests that about one percent of the population has been involved in a cultic group. Lottick’s survey (2008) of 695 Pennsylvania psychologists has findings that are particularly relevant to mental health professionals: Of respondents, 13.1% reported personal experience—either their own or that of 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.
Assessment and Treatment Considerations
Among other findings, the Pew Landscape study (2014) found that 53% of individuals said that religion was “very important” to their lives. Yet few counselors routinely ask about religious background and experience in their assessment of new clients. Though not all cultic groups are explicitly religious, most are. And even though most religious involvements are beneficial, some aren’t.
Counselors may, then, ask clients a question such as “Have any religious or other kinds of groups had a significant impact on your life?” If they have, it’s useful both to inquire into whether that impact was positive or negative and to avoid the easily misunderstood and potentially provocative term cult, even if what the client describes sounds cultic.
Current cult members typically view their involvement as beneficial. It’s important to respect their perspective. Persuading somebody to leave a cult is a subtle and complex process that requires specialized skill and raises serious ethical questions. Moreover, the client may have come for help with a specific problem that has little to do with the group involvement. Nevertheless, counselors may consider inquiring about relationships with family. If family members seem concerned about the client’s group involvement, the counselor may ask if the client would like help in dealing with family issues. Some who specialize in helping families concerned about a cult-involved loved one emphasize mediation or conflict resolution, rather than exit. Frequently, especially with less extreme groups, improving the relationship between a member and family is the only appropriate and feasible intervention. Mental health professionals, even without deep knowledge of cultic dynamics, may be helpful in family counseling that aims at reducing conflict, rather than persuading one member of the family to give up a group involvement that the member perceives as beneficial.
Some former cult members often require education before they fully understand the harmful effects of their group involvement. In a full-fledged cultic environment, when a member doubts the leader or group, the member must be wrong. In other words, “You’re not qualified to say no until you say yes.” Thus, former members will often be full of self-doubt and confusion. They may have left their group not because they concluded it was bad, but because, compared to the pain of staying, the pain of leaving constituted relief. Such persons may be out of the group physically, but not psychologically. If the counselor encounters such a client, it probably would be wise to consult with an expert in cultic dynamics, who may help with the educational component that the person needs.
Other former members of cultic groups recognize that they were abused and exploited, even if they are not comfortable with the cult label. Again, it’s important for the professional to avoid that term unless the client uses it. Usually, terms that are closer to what the person experienced enhance communication (e.g., spiritual abuse, psychological abuse, trauma, betrayal). The assessment of such clients should explore their relationship to the group and to their family. It also should gauge the clients’ level of functioning and symptomatology. Sometimes anxiety or depression may be so severe that psychiatric consultation is called for, and occasionally hospitalization may be warranted. Consider referral to a cult and/or psychiatric expert.
Individuals who were born or raised in cultic groups share many of the experiences of those who join such groups. However, because their personalities were formed in a high demand, catch-22, and totalistic environment, the psychological needs of these individuals may be much greater than those of first-generation former members. When the born-or-raised leave their groups, they may feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Unlike first-generation former members who return to family and friends, the born-or-raised typically leave family and friends behind.
Last, families may come to a counselor for help regarding a loved one involved in a group they may view as cultic. Bardin (2000) is an excellent resource for families. Families will often ask, “Is such and such a cult?” A helpful response is often, “Suppose I told you it wasn’t a cult. Would you stop worrying?” That response is designed to take the person’s focus away from a label and toward a detailed description of specific behavioral changes that cause concern. The counselor’s assessment in such cases should explore these troubling changes and the possibility that they may be related to what goes on in the group. If there is no connection, then the family’s cult concern may be misplaced. If there is a connection, then consultation with cult experts may be advisable.
Bardin, L. (2000). Coping with cult involvement: A handbook for families and friends. Bonita Springs, FL: American Family Foundation (ICSA).
Goldberg, L., Goldberg, W., Henry, R., & Langone, M. (Eds.). (2017). Cult recovery: A clinician’s guide to working with former members and families. Bonita Springs, FL: ICSA.
Langone, M. D. (Ed.). (1993). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Lottick, E. (2008). Psychologist survey regarding cults. Cultic Studies Review, 7(1), 1–19. Available online at https://www.icsahome.com/articles/psychologists-survey-lottick
Pew Landscape Study. (2014). Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/importance-of-religion-in-ones-life/
Rosedale, H. R., & Langone, M. D. (2015). On using the term cult. ICSA Today, 6(3), 4–6.
International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Web Resources:
About the Author
Michael D. Langone, PhD, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He was the founding editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ); the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review; and editor of Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (an alternate of the Behavioral Science Book Service). He is coauthor of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone, ICSA Today’s Editor-in-Chief, has been the chief designer and coordinator of ICSA’s international conferences. In 1995, he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. He has authored numerous articles in professional journals and books and has spoken widely to dozens of lay and professional groups, various university audiences, and numerous radio and television stations. In 2017, he was coeditor of ICSA’s book Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families.