Psychological Abuse: Theoretical and Measurement Issues

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006

Psychological Abuse: Theoretical and Measurement Issues

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Editor, Cultic Studies Review


The cultic studies field has struggled with the inherent definitional ambiguities of its area of interest, namely, the use of manipulative forms of social influence observed most conspicuously, though not exclusively, in certain extremist groups.  Terms such as “cult” and “brainwashing” have traditionally been associated with the phenomena that interest students of cultic studies.  This paper examines empirical research and a theoretical model which suggest that the term “psychological abuse” might have greater utility as a research focus than traditional terms.  The paper reviews: (1) a student that demonstrated a preference among former cult members for terms reflecting the perceived abusiveness of their experience; (2) a theoretical conceptualization that proposed the acronym MAID (Mind, Autonomy, Identity, Dignity) to distinguish psychological abuse (which attack MAID) from its opposite, respect (which upholds MAID); (3) the development and application of the Group psychological Abuse Scale.  Future direction in this field are also discussed.

The term “cultic studies” did not exist 25 years ago.  My colleagues and I proposed the term in the early 1980s to distinguish our work from established fields.  These fields included: the study of religious conversion, the psychology of religion, the sociology of religion, the sociology of new religious movements, religious studies, the psychology of social influence, particularly compliance, and the study of thought reform, or “brainwashing.”  Our work was related to all of these fields, but differed in that we were studying high-control groups that were not necessarily religious so as to help families and former group members who believed they had been adversely affected by involvement in such groups.  Our field of interest, then, lay at the intersection of a variety of disciplines and did not fit neatly into any of them.

The journal of the International Cultic Studies Association, Cultic Studies Review (CSR), describes this field of interest:

Cultic Studies Review seeks to advance the understanding of cultic processes and their relation to society, including broad social and cultural implications as well as effects on individuals and families.  The term “cultic processes” refers to manipulative forms of social influence observed most conspicuously, though not exclusively, in certain extremist groups, and is directly related to the research traditions of thought reform and the psychology of social influence.

Cultic Studies Review’s interest areas include a family of related yet distinct phenomena (see “The Definitional Ambiguity of `Cult’ and About ICSA” at _about.htm), as well as practical responses to concerns people have about these phenomena. Thus, Cultic Studies Review provides information on cults, psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups, new religious movements, charisma, alternative and mainstream religions, group dynamics, exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals, helping professionals, clergy, journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these topics.

“Cultic studies,” then, often examines how social influence processes can cause certain interpersonal situations, particularly group situations, to be perceived as abusive.  The field of cultic studies has a practical and applied bent, for the ultimate goal of research in this area is to help people harmed by cultic dynamics.  Although most cultic situations involve new religious movements, many do not.  That is why we could not place our topic of concern under the established studies of religion.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the people whom we tried to help were mainly families (ergo, the original name of the International Cultic Studies Association was American Family Foundation).  Families tended to use terms such as “cult” to describe the groups with which loved ones were involved and “brainwashed” to describe the observed effects on their children. These terms were not precise and were made even more ambiguous by the spate of sensationalized media reports that followed the Jonestown suicides/murders of 1978.  To a large extent, the public came to think that cults were crazy groups composed of crazy people from disturbed families.  We tried to dispel these misconceptions – with some success – but could never quite overcome public stereotypes.  The term “cult” took root in the public consciousness, and eventually we came to accept it as a tainted necessity.  That is why we have emphasized the adjective ‘cultic,” rather than the noun “cult.”  “Cultic” implies “similar, related to, suggestive of,” not “is.”  “Cultic’ is descriptive, whereas “cult” on its face is classificatory, even if inadequate as a term of classification.  We often considered using other terms to describe our work, but we ran into the dilemma that the more precise the term (e.g., systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence; unethical social influence), the less the people we wanted to help would relate to it.

Our terminological difficulties worsened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the majority of people seeking our help were former group members, not families of group-involved persons.  Most of these former members had left on their own (about 10% were ejected from their groups) without an intervention engineered by their families.  Within our network, these ex-members were called “walk-aways” or “cast-aways.” They often shared public stereotypes of “cults” and did not readily classify their groups as cults, even though they often felt battered and betrayed by their group experience.  In order to better understand the population of ex-group members, we embarked on a program of research and theorizing, aspects of which I will discuss in this paper.  Specifically, I will discuss empirical research related to the terminological problems we encountered, a theoretical model related to this empirical research, and the development, application, and future potential of a measure aimed at the population of former and current members of controversial groups.

Terminological Study

Langone and Chambers (1991) explored the terminological difficulties of this field by asking a population of former group members to evaluate the degree to which former group members would relate to 20 different terms.  This study was motivated by the observation that former group members often did not respond favorably to the terms that appeared to be meaningful and useful to many families, i.e., “cult” and “brainwashing”:

Based on the reports of those who do contact cult educational organizations, it appears that many, and probably most, walk-aways and cast-aways not only do not relate to terms such as "cult," but indeed find them offensive.

Several factors appear to account for this phenomenon.  First, ex-cultists, like the public at large, tend to subscribe to the popular misconception that "cults" are deviant, "weird" groups for "weird" people. (The recent spate of media reports on Satanism has reinforced this misconception.)  Because their group, their friends in the group, and they themselves are not "weird," their group is not a cult.  Second, even when ex-members become aware of the ideas of those who see unethical manipulation as central to cult conversion, they do not automatically see their group in this light. For example, a former cult member, who now provides psychological services to ex-cult members, told the senior author that he had been out of his group for two years before he realized it was a cult, even though he had read material such as Lifton (1961). Reevaluating years of deception is not easy. Third, not all cults are highly manipulative or destructive.  Some groups are only mildly so and will not comfortably wear the label "cult." And lastly, the typical cult victim has been indoctrinated to believe that the group is always right and he or she, when dissenting, is always wrong.  Many, therefore, stumble out of their groups feeling guilty and inadequate. They try to  figure out what is wrong with themselves and frequently do not even consider the possibility that their problems may in large part have been caused by the group, rather than caused by their inability to live up to the group's standards. (p. 137)

The 20 terms were included in a mailing to 204 former group members, 108 of whom responded.  The 108 respondents came from 57 different groups.  The questionnaire said, “keeping in mind the full range of groups people leave, please rate how well walk-aways who are unfamiliar with ‘counter-cult’ literature would relate to the following terms.”   The questionnaire also asked subjects to rank the terms.

The 20 terms with their average ratings and rankings (lower numbers reflect preferences of the subjects) are listed in Table 1.

Inspection of Table 1 indicates that (1) subjects did not overwhelmingly endorse any one term, (2) ratings and rankings were similar, and (3) the traditional terms of “cult” and “brainwashing” were at or near the bottom of the ratings and rankings.

A principal components analysis was conducted in order to determine the structure of the ratings.  Five factors resulted: Mind Control, Social Manipulation, Group Intensity, Trauma, and Abuse.  The Duncan procedure delineated two groupings: (Abuse and Trauma) vs. (Mind Control, Social Manipulation, and Group Intensity).

On the whole subjects saw Trauma and Abuse as more acceptable than the other three factors.  Langone and Chambers say:

Thus, during the years in which parents constituted the largest category of help seekers, the second group of terms was most acceptable.  But now that walk-aways are seeking help in greater numbers, the first group of terms becomes attractive to more people.  In short, walk-aways may tend to relate to terms that describe what they actually experienced (i.e., trauma and abuse), while parents and “educated” ex-cultists (i.e., those who were exit counseled or deprogrammed) may tend to relate to terms that explain what the cultists experienced (i.e., mind control).  (p. 146)

Nevertheless, unanimity was clearly lacking.  Several subjects expressed their frustration in the comments section of the questionnaire.  One, for example, said:

I can’t figure out if you are assuming the walk-away knows he was in a cult.  It took months of therapy before I could even begin to look at the possibility I had been manipulated.  These terms are premature.  (Langone & Chambers, 1991, p. 145)

Langone and Chambers describe the frustration of workers in this field, a frustration that continues to this day:

The frustration expressed by several subjects is not foreign to those who help ex-cultists and their families.  Explaining the subtlety and complexity of the unethical social influence observed in cults is difficult enough when one has a person's attention and plenty of time, such as in an exit counseling. It is perhaps impossible to capture the essence of the phenomenon in one term. Nevertheless, those of us engaged in counseling, consultation, and education must attempt to communicate with our audiences, however imperfect that communication may be. In academia, where one's words may be printed in a specialized journal actually read by no more than several dozen colleagues, it is relatively easy to establish a consensus regarding terminology. When, however, one is attempting to communicate with thousands of people, for whom this subject is not a "specialty," the matter becomes a bit more slippery.

The results of this study testify to the difficulty of achieving consensus regarding terminology. The results also suggest that no term will suffice for all people and all situations. Some people will respond to "cult"; others will be highly offended. Some may respond to "psychological abuse"; others may rebel against any term containing "abuse." Some may respond to "spiritual trauma"; others may see their experience as neither spiritual nor traumatic. (pp. 145-146)

A Theoretical Model of Psychological Abuse

Langone (1992) proposed a model of psychological abuse derived in part from the study just described and his clinical experience in the cultic studies field.  Among the terms rated most favorably in Table 1, “psychological abuse” was preferred because (a) “trauma” has diagnostic implications and lumps together those who may exhibit Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with those who may be distressed but not traumatized; (b) “spiritual,” though very meaningful to some is vague and off-putting to a secular culture; (c) “psychological manipulation” covers a wide field (e.g., advertising) and doesn’t capture the harm dimension that is so central to the cultic experience; and (d) “trust abuse” puts too much emphasis on personal relationship in situations in which the social system may produce the sense of oppression members feel.

Langone (1992) attempted to elaborate the concept of psychological abuse by contrasting it with its opposite, “respect.”  He proposed that respect implies the honoring of four key aspects of the person, forming an acronym, “MAID”:  (1) Mind, the natural inclination to seek truth in order to make sound choices; (2) Autonomy, the capacity to make choices with minimal pressure  from without; (3) Identity, “a sense of individuality, of belonging to a wider community and culture, and of internal integration” (p. 211); and (4) Dignity, “the need to feel worthwhile in the eyes of others as well as themselves” (p. 211).  

Psychological abuse, the opposite of respect, results when a person or group tries to influence others so as to:

This notion of psychological abuse has treatment implications:

This view of psychological abuse has important implications for treatment.  Because the process of abuse is done to victims, however much their vulnerabilities may single them out as especially at risk, victims must come to understand the psychological techniques that enabled the victimizer(s) to abuse the victims' mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity.  In addition to protecting victims against future manipulations, such an understanding also enables victims to demystify victimizers and knock them off the phony thrones from which they played God.  Leveling the playing field, so to speak, enhances victims' capacity to restore their dignity.

Victims also need to realize that what was done to them was wrong.  The ethical dimension of psychological abuse must be placed in bold relief and its victims must be allowed -- encouraged even -- to express appropriate moral outrage.  The outrage will not magically eliminate the abuse and its effects.  Nor will it necessarily bring the victimizer to justice.  But it will enable victims to assert their inherent worth and their sense of right and wrong by condemning the evil done to them.  Moral outrage fortifies good against formidable evil.  Even implicitly denying victims' need to express moral outrage shifts blame from victimizers to victims.  Perhaps that is why so many victims are disturbed by "detached" therapists, or "objective" scientific researchers.  They interpret the detachment or "objectivity" as implicit blaming of themselves. (Langone, 1992, p. 213)

The Group Psychological Abuse Scale

Building on the work described above, Chambers, Langone, Dole, and Grice (1994) articulated a measurement need:  “We need a quantitative measure of abuse that can be applied to any group by anyone with experience of the group.  Development of such a scale is the purpose of this study” (p. 90). The scale these researchers developed, named the “Group Psychological Abuse Scale” or GPA, was based on a survey of 308 former members of 101 different groups, which subjects viewed as cultic or abusive.  A pool of 112 items was subjected to principal components analysis with varimax rotation.  Four factors emerged, which were labeled: (1) Compliance, (2) Exploitation, (3) Mind Control, (4) Anxious Dependency.  The scale contains 28 of the 112 items in the original pool.  A summary GPA index consisting of the sum of the orthogonal subscales was also derived.  Regarding reliabilities Chambers et al. (1994) say:

Alpha coefficients are included for each subscale.  Alpha for the GPA summary scale was .81.  Alphas for the subscales were .81 for Compliance; .75 for Exploitation; .70 for Mind Control; and .72 for Anxious Dependency.  These reliabilities are sufficient for research purposes. (p. 96)

Almendros, Carrobles, Rodriguez-Carballeira, & Jansa (2003) adapted the GPA to a Spanish population.  Their statistical analysis revealed three factors; “Anxious Dependency” did not emerge as a factor in their study.  Rod Dubrow-Marshall (personal communication) reanalyzed the original data using somewhat different statistical procedures.  He concluded that the subscale structure was not as firmly established as the summary index.  Indeed, much of the research conducted to date with the scale has focused on the summary index, so the practical utility of the subscales is not yet established.

The GPA uses a 5-poinit scale in which “3” is a midpoint (“can’t say/not sure”) between “1” (“not at all characteristic”) and “5” (“very characteristic”).  If one uses a response of “3” to all 28 items one comes up with a functional midpoint score of 84, separating abuse (>84) from nonabuse (<84).  The GPA has been used to assess perceived abuse in several published studies (Adams, 1998; Almendros et al., 2003; Gasde & Block, 1998; Malinoski, Langone, & Lynn, 1999).  An as yet unpublished study in Mexico (Mascarenas, 2002) partly replicated Langone (1996).  The GPA has also been used for about 10 years at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a residential treatment facility in Ohio. The data from Wellspring have been analyzed, but reports have not as yet been published.

Overall several hundred former group members have completed the GPA in the U.S., Mexico, and Spain.  Former group members appear regularly to score approximately 100 – 110, one to two standard deviations above the midpoint of 84. Two studies (Langone, 1996; Mascarenas, 2002) used former Catholics as a comparison group to former members of the International Churches of Christ (ICC).  Langone (1996) used a second comparison group, graduates of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a mainstream evangelical campus ministry.  Mascarenas’s results comparing former ICC and former Catholics in Mexico were nearly identical to Langone’s (1996).

Langone (1996) used two comparison groups to test the hypothesis that former members of cultic groups give negative reports simply because they are “former,” much as divorcees give negative reports of their ex-spouses.  He reasoned that if this hypothesis were true, then former Catholics should rate the Catholic Church as former ICC members would rate their group.  He further reasoned that a population of former InterVarsity members, who are “former” simply because they have graduated college, should rate their group lower than the ex-Catholics or ex-ICC.  His findings are summarized in Table 2.

IV subjects scored significantly lower than Roman Catholics and ICC.  Roman Catholics, however, also scored significantly lower than ICC subjects.  Moreover, former Roman Catholics scored nearly 1.5 standard deviations below the abuse cut-off score of 84, indicating that on the whole former Roman Catholics did not rate the Catholic Church as abusive.  Former ICC members, however, on average rated the ICC nearly two standard deviations above the abuse cut-off score.

Future Research Needs

The research conducted with the GPA is but the first phase in what ought to be a long-range program of research.  The research conducted thus far indicates that former members of cultic groups who were surveyed clearly perceive their groups as abusive.  The populations used, however, are not representative of the general population of cult members, nor even of the population of former cult members.  It is necessary to sample more widely than has been done up to now.

It would also be useful to develop supplemental measures based on observation, rather than self-report.  Perhaps the methodologies employed by behavioral researchers studying children (e.g., time-sampling) might be adapted to the study of cultic groups.  We need psychologically oriented methods of conducting participant observation, which is usually conducted according to sociological frameworks.  Such research might permit investigators to compare the perceived abuse of GPA reports to third-party observations.  However, the challenges of an observational methodology for studying cultic groups are enormous.  The tendency for some groups to have agendas kept hidden through systematic impression management makes it extremely difficult for observers to witness the abuse reported by former members.

An alternative and perhaps less daunting methodology might be to develop structured interview protocols that would enable investigators to assess psychological abuse by asking former and current group members very specific, behavioral questions concerning life in the group.

Most research conducted to date has also looked at psychological distress and personality, using a number of standardized instruments.  As we collect more GPA data from a wider range of subjects and if we are able to develop other measures based on structured interviews or observation, we might someday be able to explore the interactions among perceived abuse, actual events, distress, and personality.

And lastly, psychological abuse in situations other than those associated with cultic groups – e.g., domestic violence, interrogations, juvenile gangs, prostitution, work-place abuse, torture – need to be studied, measured, and integrated into a comprehensive model of psychological abuse.


Adams, Donna. (1998). Brief report: Perceived psychological abuse and the Cincinnati Church of Christ.  Cultic Studies Journal, 15(1), 87-88.

Almendros, C., Carrobles, J., Rodriguez-Carballeira, A., & Jansa, J. (2003).  Psychometric Properties of the Spanish Version of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale.  Cultic Studies Review, 2(3).

Chambers, W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J. (1994).  The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A Measure of the Varieties of Cultic Abuse.  Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.

Gasde, Irene, & Block, Richard A. (1998).  Cult experience: Psychological abuse, distress, personality characteristics,  and changes in personal relationships reported by former members of Church Universal and Triumphant.  Cultic Studies Journal, 15(2), 192-221.

Langone, Michael. (1992). Psychological abuse.  Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 206-218.

Langone, Michael, & Chambers, W. (1991).  Outreach to ex-cult members: The question of terminology.  Cultic Studies Journal, 8(2), 134-150.

Langone, Michael.  (1996). An investigation of a reputedly psychologically abusive group that targets college students: A report for Boston University's Danielsen Institute.

Malinoski, Peter, Langone, Michael, & Lynn, Steven Jay.  (1999). Psychological distress in former members of the International Churches of Christ.  Cultic Studies Review, 16(1), 33-51.

Mascarenas, Cesar.  (2002).   Application of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale translated to  Spanish in former members of two religious groups in Mexico.  Presentation to the conference, “Understanding Cults and NRMs,” Orlando, Florida, June 14-15, 2002.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 9th European Congress of Psychology in Granada, Spain on July 6, 2005 in a symposium entitled, “Psychological Abuse in Manipulative Groups: Theory, Research, and Comparisons with Other Fields of Study,” organized by Jose Antonio Carrobles, Ph.D.