Antisocial Personality Disorder in Cult Leaders

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006, Pages 390-410

Antisocial Personality Disorder in Cult Leaders and Induction of Dependent Personality Disorder in Cult Members

John Burke, Kaiser Permanente

This article considers evidence for the presence of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) in some cult leaders. Additionally, the influence of antisocial cult leaders on cult members is hypothesized to be associated with the emergence of dependent personality disorder (DPD) in some cult members.

A number of studies have reported ex-cult members’ eye-witness accounts of antisocial acts and behaviors by cult leaders (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992; Tobias & Lalich, 1994; West & Martin, 1999; and Kent, 2004). Each of these studies report first-hand evidence of antisocial acts and behaviors by cult leaders toward cult members. These published accounts, as well as previously unpublished author material, are used within this article as background for an explanatory and predictive model of the personality organization of cult leaders who display antisocial behaviors.

Additionally, diagnostic criteria for ASPD as listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition, (1994) are used to aid in the characterization of the personality organization of the antisocial cult leader. Within both the California and Colorado criminal justice systems, ASPD historically has been diagnosed based on a confirmed history of antisocial acts and behaviors. The author has participated as a clinical team member in the diagnosis of the personality disorders including ASPD for juvenile offenders in the California Santa Cruz County Juvenile Probation Department and for juvenile and adult offenders in the Colorado Department of Corrections.

A number of peer-reviewed studies, including studies by Martin, Langone, Dole, and Wiltrout, (1992); Tobias & Lalich, (1994); West & Martin, (1996); and Kent, (2004) present findings based on clinical interviews with ex-cult members, which report various antisocial acts and behaviors by some cult leaders. These accounts detail examples of mistreatment, psychological intimidation, and physical and sexual abuse of cult members by cult leaders. These accounts offer supporting evidence for the hypothesis that some cult leaders may meet DSM-IV criteria for ASPD.

It has been suggested that cult leaders might be better classified as meeting criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) rather than ASPD. This is an useful hypothesis, which will be discussed only briefly in this paper but which will be more fully researched by this author in a paper to be published in 2007. The current position of many personality researchers in the field is that if DSM-IV-TR criteria are used in making a prospective personality disorder diagnosis, this diagnosis is properly given when criteria are fully met for a given personality disorder. Therefore, if a cult leader has a clear pattern of antisocial acts as defined by the DSM-IV-TR, the leader can be appropriately diagnosed as meeting criteria for ASPD. If this pattern of behaviors additionally meets criteria for an additional diagnosis of NPD, then that second diagnosis can also be made.

For further analysis, the interested reader is referred to Len Oakes’ Prophetic Charisma, the Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (1997) for a full discussion of the relationship of emerging narcissism to the development of a narcissistic personality organization in a given cult leader. Although Oates’ hypothesis is both interesting and attractive, the present author, because of extensive experience working with criminal populations, will not limit the investigation of the emerging personality of cult leaders to an investigation of the emergence of narcissism and NPD. Rather, the possibility will also be considered that some cult leaders also meet minimum criteria for the DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of ASPD. Many authors who have written about personality disorders have commented about diagnostic problems that arise with overlapping criteria—for example, ASPD and NPD have areas of intersection. In the field of personality study, however, if a given individual meets criteria for two personality disorders, the appropriate diagnosis is one that includes both disorders. As partial support of the author’s position regarding the hypothesis that some cult leaders might meet criteria for ASPD, Oates himself reports that 3 of the 20 cult leaders that he investigated were currently in jail for a variety of serious criminal offenses (Oakes, 1997, p. 8). As a cautionary comment, however, it is worth noting that difficulties can arise in identifying more subtly presenting antisocials, as Millon has commented on in the following:

Perhaps ‘purer’ antisocials are quickly discerned, whereas those with more complicated or ‘devious’ styles become apparent only after extensive evaluations. It would be this latter group that would show a blend of high scores on scales 5 (Narcissistic) and 6A (Antisocial), (Millon, T., Davis, R., Millon, C., 1997, pp. 81–82).

Note: For this second group of persons diagnosed with ASPD, the Narcissistic scale, the Antisocial scale, and the Aggressiveness scale are all elevated beyond BR=75 (scores equal to or greater than BR=75 are considered to be clinically significant when using the MCMI-III Personality Inventory). (Also note that in analyzing a large adult male sample population (J. Burke, Unpublished Paper, August, 2, 2006), persons diagnosed with ASPD and a concurrent NPD diagnosis represent approximately 25% of all ASPD diagnoses.)

Several of Millon’s ideas are worth considering; first, that individuals with an ASPD diagnosis theoretically can be split into two groups: a group A, which is a very pure group whose members are relatively easy to identify, and a Group B, whose members possess more complicated or devious personality styles and therefore require much more extensive evaluation before they can be conclusively identified. Interestingly, in Millon’s standardization study, group B, the complicated and devious group, possess not only clinically elevated Antisocial and Aggressive scales, but also a clinically elevated Narcissistic scale. Millon’s description of this second complicated and devious group who are not easily evaluated can perhaps be compared to some cult leaders who mistreat cult members but do not have evident criminal histories and so are correspondingly difficult to identify. Presumably, it would be difficult for cult members to identify these group B-type antisocial cult leaders.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is thought to comprise a related cluster of personality traits. Among these personality traits, two of the more prominent are dominance (exerting influence or control over others) and aggressivity (verbal and physical aggressive acts exhibited toward others). Blackburn (1998, p. 53) identifies the trait of aggressivity as co-occurring with high impulsivity, and he explains that “...a single act of aggression is not necessarily indicative of an aggressive disposition . . . Dispositions or traits are, then, probabilistic tendencies describing average behavior over time and setting.” In Blackburn’s model, a single, isolated act of aggression does not define the aggressive disposition; rather, a repeated pattern of aggressive acts defines the aggressive disposition. Blackburn adds that aggressivity is expressed through either verbal or physical violence and represents an attempt to use “coercive power” to control social interactions (1998, p. 53b).

A partial explanation of why antisocial personalities exhibit dominating and aggressive behaviors can be gained from Millon’s Dimensional Model of Personality Disorders. This model includes a dimensional model for each of the personality disorders (Millon, T. & Davis, R., 1996, p. 444). In the Dimensional Model of Personality Disorders, Millon hypothesizes that persons with ASPD can be characterized as possessing a dimension of “‘Modification’ [of] rather than ‘Accommodation’ [to] the world.” According to Millon and Davis, (1996, p. 429), these people are “active-independents who seek to shape the social world of others.” Each might be an individual who “actively intrudes upon and violates the rights of others, as well as transgresses established social codes through deceitful or illegal behaviors” (Millon. T. & Davis, R., 1996, p. 446).

Also, according to Millon, the ASPD personality exhibits a “Self-focused” dimension. Instead of being “Other-focused,” these individuals tend to consume resources for their personal benefit instead of meeting others’ needs. They exploit and manipulate others in the pursuit of their personal wants and needs. Finally, Millon states that persons with ASPD have a “pleasure-seeking” dimension that seeks to avoid pain. Millon says that “many antisocials possess a ‘lust for life,’ a passion with which they are willing to pursue excitement and hedonistic pleasures” (Millon, T. & Davis, R., 1996, p. 448). The presence of a pleasure-seeking dimension in persons with ASPD might help explain some cult leaders’ sexual excesses. For example, a male cult leader might strictly forbid members to engage in sexual relationships because the ostensible ideals of the cult incorporate an ascetic program; but the leader may then engage in sexual relations with available female cult members, whether married or single, child or adult. And when questioned regarding such sexual practices, the leader then might engage in an elaborate and sophistical rationale to justify his behavior.

The Antisocial in Society

When the term “antisocial” is applied to behavior, the term signifies manipulative, self-focused behaviors in contrast to “prosocial,” outward, community-building behaviors. Antisocial behaviors clearly transgress society’s standards of morality, fairness, and justice. The issue is not that the person with ASPD avoids people, but rather that he or she evaluates the world of others with approximately the same self-serving point of view of the piranha that evaluates a river full of swimming tourists. That is to say, the individual with ASPD and the piranha both seek the society of others to “take care of needs.” Thus, when the outside observer observes the acts and behaviors of someone with ASPD, the perspectives and actions of the individual appear to be based upon a set of principles that are diametrically opposed to the interests of society.

According to Hare (1993, p.2), a Canadian forensic psychologist who has extensively researched antisocial personalities, the antisocial population in North America (United States and Canada) contains a subgroup of approximately 3 out of 10 persons who have such extensive personality deficits and extreme behavior patterns that they are more accurately classified as being psychopathic personalities. According to Hare, psychopaths have severe and pronounced personality deficits. The presence of psychopathy causes the affected individual to have little or no empathic identification with others, and as a result, the psychopath seems to act without the restriction or constraint of conscience (Hare, 1993, p. 173).

Additionally, Hare states that psychopathy is not limited just to the criminal population but can affect any walk of life, so that professionals such as doctors and lawyers, as well as “blue-collar” workers, can be similarly afflicted. According to Hare, many psychopaths are never arraigned and convicted of crimes, but rather remain under-identified in society, even though they commit frequent illegal and unethical actions. Important to the present discussion is that Hare lists cult leaders along with many other occupations as possible havens for psychopaths. In Hare and Babiak’s book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (May 2006), extended illustrations indicate how psychopathic personalities might operate in the business world.

Using Hare’s hypothesis, cult leaders who exhibit psychopathic behaviors are able to be identified. For example, a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle tells about the surviving relatives of the nearly 1,000 people in the Jim Jones cult in Africa who were compelled by Jim Jones to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. These family-member survivors have been so affected by the loss of their loved ones that even years later they continue to meet and discuss their losses of family members and friends. Recently, a group of the survivors got together and wrote and produced a play to commemorate the loss of these Jonestown cult members (Nakoa, San Francisco Chronicle, Section E, April 14, 2005, pp. 1–2). Studies of individuals who exhibited psychopathic traits, such as the cult leader Jim Jones, reveal persons who apparently lack the ability to experience genuine empathy for others. Also, these individuals seem not to be able to use emotional feedback from others to alter their life course. However, what makes such psychopaths dangerous to society is that even though they apparently possesses a defective empathy, they are still able to intellectually analyze the emotional makeup of other people, and then turn that understanding to a criminal advantage.

For example, psychopaths may borrow and use up another person’s finances for their own immediate wants and needs without later returning the borrowed money; or, in a similar way, they may sexually take advantage of people, and then after they have sated their animal urges, sever the relationship with no thought of the other person. It has been found that during the course of a lifetime the psychopathic personality changes very little. However, at about age 40, the psychopath tends to become less active in terms of violent criminal activities, yet still continues to act in a very self-focused and destructive manner even into the later years of life (Hare, 1993, p. 97). Unfortunately, psychopaths and antisocials seek out and prey on the weak and the needy, and one place they may enter is into a cult, which is made up of vulnerable people.

Cult Leader Behaviors Within the Cult

When an antisocial or psychopath enters a cult, a power struggle may be initiated with existing leadership. The antisocial cult leader may cultivate a “cadre” of fellow travelers who will readily support the leader’s every action. The antisocial cult leader grooms people who will reflect his or her own core beliefs and desires. Such a leader might exhibit a superficial, glib manner that clashes with the more open and honest personality style of most “normals” in a cult. (In contrast to cult leaders, “normals” are usually more characterized by genuine, open communication and a desire for growing relational depth with others not based on merely ulterior motives). Normals who enter a cult may find to their dismay that they either must leave the cult (and it is estimated that about 10% of cult members do leave very soon after they join) or accept the leadership style of the cult leader.

After the cult leader consolidates his authority by means of manipulative tactics, anything may happen. One ex-cult member related that the requested surrender to the cult leader and the cult’s ideology and practices was accompanied by demands for ‘submission’ to the leader. Submission in a cult may be accompanied by loss of autonomy in areas of life previously under personal control, such as the ability to visit family and friends ‘outside’ the cult, the loss of personal freedom of movement, and the requirement of daily disciplines such as incessant chanting, fasting, or doing tedious religious ‘exercises’.

In addition, well-documented accounts by cult members describe more extreme measures. Experiences of psychological intimidation, as well as incidents of sexual and physical abuse, are also reported by cult members. As a result of abusive treatment inflicted by cult leaders, ex-cult members may exhibit psychological symptoms such as dissociation, derealization, depersonalization, and depression. The psychological defense of dissociation is thought to exist in a rudimentary forma as an inborn personality survival mechanism in a dormant state in the unaffected individual and is triggered only by conditions of extreme trauma and stress. For example, Lewis and Yeager (1996, p. 704) explain that “dissociation can be conceptualized as an automatic, primitive, protective, psychological defense against extraordinary pain.”

Identification with the Aggressor

As part of a personal survival strategy cult, new members may end up “identifying with the aggressor” (a condition first noticed by the psychotherapist Anna Freud among World War II concentration-camp survivors). This identification with the aggressor causes the affected individual to “team up” with the cult leader in order to survive, and also to take on some of the aggressive personality characteristics of the cult leader.

According to Dutton (1998, p. 140), a severe trauma experience is sufficient to cause some normals to begin identifying with the aggressor. If a cult member begins identifying with the aggressor, that person has, in effect, become psychologically conditioned to function like a “personality extension” of the cult leader. Historically, it is known that antisocials such as the Nazi leader Goering during World War II influenced their subordinates to engage in antisocial behaviors toward weak and vulnerable war prisoners. When a cult member identifies with the aggression of the cult leader and becomes like a personal extension of the leader, the influence of the leader is greatly extended. New persons entering the cult may then be subjected to a concentrated, combined, malignant social influence that emanates from the teaming up of the antisocial followers with the cult leader. The resulting group social influence aids the cult leader in controlling and quickly breaking down the new cult members into social acquiescence and ultimately behavioral dependence.

Why Cult Leaders Act As They Do

When ASPD is observed, it has been found to be a stable personality organization that is ego-syntonic—that is, it does not cause internal conflict within the ego. This means that cult leaders who are antisocial do not feel distress or feel like they need to change their ways or voluntarily enter treatment. In actuality, antisocial cult leaders are thought to have a self-opinion somewhat like the following: “Nothing is wrong in my world; I am in control of my surroundings, and I like the way things are.” Samenow (Public Seminar, Colorado Springs, 2002), after spending thousands of hours interviewing antisocial personalities in prison, characterized the antisocial personality as constantly seeking to avoid a “zero state” of feeling low, powerless, and down. According to Samenow, persons with ASPD tend to actively avoid this emotional “zero state” by manipulating and controlling others to gain what they want and thus keep their mood up, even if the resulting actions involve severely violating the rights or persons of others.

Viewed from this perspective, it is reasonable to assume that cult leaders understand what they are doing when they encourage group members to use techniques such as “love bombing,” or concentrated, focused “attention” when it is time to recruit new members. After the new cult member attaches to the group, other emotional and psychological tactics may also be brought into play to complete the breaking down of any remaining resistance to the will of the leader. (Note: When this process of breaking down the will of the cult member is in process, it may be explained to the new cult member as being necessary, with an explanations such as “it is necessary to purge any remaining worldly influence or compromise with the world that is still left from your previous contact with the world.” One way the new cult member is “softened up” is not to be allowed any further contact with family, friends, or mental-health professionals or religious leaders.)

The power and control of the cult leader within the group and over the new member’s personal life is further extended by “drying up” emotional “safe havens” within the cult for the new member. This can be accomplished by means of loyalty checks. The new member thus finds the group tone militates against resisting cult demands, whether reasonable or unreasonable. To enforce the cult leader’s wishes, the new member maintains a constant stance of internal discipline.

Historically, accounts of emotional and psychological manipulation by cult-like individuals(s) have been reported as early as the First Century A.D. For example, the Christian writer Paul writes in a public letter to the church in the city of Corinth warns about so-called religious leaders who “strike in the face,” “oppress and exploit,” and “take persons to themselves” (Delling, 1965, p. 5). In contrast to this kind of treatment, the apostle Paul states to the Corinthian church members, “Nevertheless, we have not used this power” (I Cor. 9:12b, 1975, The Greek New Testament).

Control over the person can also be gained by forced public confession of “wrongdoing” or “wrong thinking,” which also represents an egregious invasion of privacy. Additionally, required affirmations of loyalty to the cult leader and the professed “doctrine” of the cult, as well as verbal and/or physical “disciplining” (which actually may be verbal and physical abuse), may be practiced. However, at the point that physical or sexual abuse occurs, some cult members leave. Additionally, Martin et al. (1992) found that ex-cult members whom they treated had developed clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, dependent personality disorder, depressiveness, and clinical levels of anxiety as measured by the MCMI-I personality assessment.

Ideologies and Cult Leaders

Contemporary religious and philosophical ideologies should not be considered as somehow providing support for or legitimizing the antisocial, illegal behaviors of cult leaders. Instead, it is the active, antisocial personalities of these cult leaders that particularize the culture of the cult. By way of contrast, the many independent Christian house churches in the United States do not usually lead to the formation of cults. Rather, cults more likely derive their particular individualistic character under the active leadership of a religious antisocial such as David “Moses” Berg of the Children of God (observed by the author in the late 1970s in Huntington Beach, California).

The aggressivity of the cult leader David Berg was observed to the author during Berg’s public meetings and serves as a personally observed case study. These meetings could be better characterized as occasions by an angry Berg for an unwarranted and vociferous condemnation of the gathered audiences. Upon hearing Berg’s loud and strident voice coming from inside a Huntington Beach storefront, curious passersby who entered the ongoing “worship service” were verbally accosted by Berg as he depicted a terrifying and personal wrathful God toward sinful man, delivered with an almost out-of-control hysterical fervor. The zealous nature of the presentation resulted in a powerful emotional experience for the audience.

The individual responses of those acquiescing children and adolescents who on-the-spot “made their peace with God” after hearing Berg’s angry depiction of God’s wrath, doom, and punishment are perhaps best explained as being like the actions of persons who receive communion from an unholy, abusive priest: The sacrament is not tainted by the venality of the priest. Unfortunately, some of those trusting young people who subsequently joined Berg’s Children of God movement to be saved by the prophet Berg ended up being sexually molested by Mr. Berg according to ex-member reports that were widely published in the national news media.

Thus, in contrast to noncultic ethical religious leaders, antisocial cult leaders can be distinguished by their mistreatment and abuse of their followers. Instead of acting with responsibility toward persons who genuinely seek to personally commit themselves to a cause, antisocial cult leaders engage in manipulation, domination, and exploitation for their own ends. These antisocial leaders seem to have a seemingly inexhaustible flow of an evil and self-serving impulse to control, abuse, dominate, and take advantage of unsuspecting cult followers.

Analysis of Cult Leader Behaviors Compared to Current DSM-IV-TR Criteria for ASPD

The DSM-IV Antisocial Personality Disorder criteria are listed below in italic type, with appended comments in standard font (DSM-IV, pp. 650–651):

A. There is a pervasive disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

Retrospective adolescent data about cult leaders’ childhood histories is currently not available.

(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.

Except for extremely violent cult leaders such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or, for example, the three cult leaders reported by Oakes in Prophetic Charisma to be incarcerated, most cult leaders have not been reported for activities “that are grounds for arrest,” with the majority of cult leaders not being formally accused or convicted of serious crimes. Therefore, without specific evidence to the contrary, most cult leaders do not meet this criterion.

(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning for personal profit or pleasure This criterion has been reported applicable by ex-cult members to some cult leaders. This criterion therefore appears to be characteristic of some cult leaders.

(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.

Insufficient data is available at this time to determine whether or not this criterion is met.

(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.

As reported by some ex-cult members, some members have experienced physical assaults by cult leaders, as well as aggressiveness or irritability or both.

(5) reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.

Insufficient data is available regarding this criterion.

(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.

Cult leaders have been implicated in lack of financial integrity, which includes failure to honor financial obligations, including both fraud and misuse of monies ostensibly collected for cult “ministry needs.”

(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

The leader’s lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another has been reported by ex-cult members.

B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

Adult cult leaders meet this criterion.

C. There is evidence of Conduct Disorder (see p. 90) with onset before age 15 years.

Data is not currently available regarding the childhood background of most cult leaders.

D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a Manic Episode.

Most cult leaders are not described in retrospective accounts as suffering from either schizophrenia or from manic episodes. (Note: Joseph Smith is alleged to possibly have suffered from bipolar disorder during later years, according to some literature.)

Reported eyewitness narratives by ex-cult members seem to suggest that some cult Leaders meet DSM-IV ASPD criterion (2), “deceitfulness...,” criterion (6), “...failure to ... honor financial obligations...,” and criterion (7), “lack of remorse...,” which provide evidence for a diagnosis of ASPD. A minimum of three criteria of ASPD must be present before a full ASPD diagnosis can be considered. The only criterion not present (because of lack of evidence pro or con) is “...evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before 15 years.”

The following additional DSM-IV comment (1994, p. 649) is apropos: “Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder and (underline by author) Narcissistic Personality Disorder share a tendency to be tough-minded, glib, superficial, exploitative, and unempathic.” This very interesting comment highlights my earlier statement that, in some cases, an initial diagnosis of ASPD should also have a diagnosis of NPD added to fully describe the personality structure of the cult leader. However, a cautionary note must also be added: “Only when antisocial personality traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persistent and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute Antisocial Personality Disorder” (DSM-IV, p. 649).

Most cult leaders do not appear to be particularly troubled by the results of their lifestyles and actions on the lives of others. However, even though cult leaders give an appearance of little or no concern about the results of their actions, some, such as Charles Manson, still end up being incarcerated or are publicly exposed by the press, as in the case of Mr. Berg of the Children of God.

The author has participated in the diagnosis of ASPD in forensic settings where the diagnosis was given based on a review of an individual’s extended history of criminal and antisocial acts. The author’s diagnostic practice in a forensic settings has lead to the consideration of evidence leading to a prospective diagnosis of ASPD for some cult leaders, especially when the history of the cult leader is based on verified accounts of antisocial and criminal behaviors reported and confirmed by ex-cult members.

In summary, it is proposed that the egregious, unethical, and sometimes illegal and criminal behaviors of cult leaders are best classified among the common criminal behaviors normally observed in criminal offenders who also carry a DSM-IV diagnosis of ASPD. And, additionally, that the privileges and honors normally extended to persons who hold positions of authority within religious groups should not be extended to those cult leaders who exploit, dominate, or abuse their followers.

A second issue to be considered is the effect of the antisocial cult leader on the trusting cult member.

Emergence of Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) in Cult Members

As introduction, the effect of traumatic experiences within cults on the subsequent development of symptoms of dependent personality disorder (DPD) among cult members might possibly be compared to a similar elevated onset of DPD observed among psychiatric inpatients (diagnosed with DPD at five times the rate of psychiatric outpatients).

The apathy, helplessness, withdrawal and disorientation that research has shown to be so widespread among [hospital] residents has been linked to the nature of institutional regimes … as residents grow more inured to residential life, so they become more dependent on the routine imposed on their life. (Booth, 1986, p. 418, as cited by Bornstein, 1993, p. 129)

Thus, in a similar manner, it may be possible that social environmental effects tend to contribute to the emergence of DPD in susceptible individuals.

Ex-cult members who have just exited a cult environment have been observed to exhibit a higher-than-normal incidence of dependent behaviors, anxiety, and depressiveness. Several possible contributing factors in the development of dependency, anxiety, and depressiveness in cult members can be identified. But first, as background, several possible paths for the development of dependency are described below.

Dependency is explained by cognitive theorists as a cognitive style “ which an individual perceives him- or herself as powerless, helpless, and unable to influence the outcome of events” (Bornstein, 1993, p. 8). The inception of dependency is described by Bornstein as occurring during infancy and early childhood. Possible influences for the development of dependency are (1) overly authoritarian parents—who block development of autonomy by taking away the child’s decision-making power, and thereby prevent the child from developing independent, autonomous behaviors (Bornstein, 1993, p. 41); or (2) overly permissive, child-gratifying parents, who encourage dependence by overindulgence of every whim and desire. If childhood dependency continues into adolescence and adulthood, “[D]ependent behaviors may be directed toward any number of people who represent, in the eyes of the dependent person, potential nurturers, protectors, or caretakers” (Bornstein 1993, p.13).

As adults, dependent persons tend to be more strongly influenced by authority figures than their peers (Bornstein, 1993, p. 59), and they also tend to acquiesce to group opinion more readily than nondependents (Bornstein, 1993, p. 58). In a very interesting experiment that measured “...whether dependent individuals would be more sensitive than non-dependent individuals to warm versus cold treatment by a confederate” (Masling et al., 1982, as cited by Bornstein, 1993, p. 66), the electrodermal skin responses of dependents indicated that they responded more positively to “cold” than to “warm” treatment by a confederate. And, by extension, “cold” treatment of cult members by a cult leader could be expected to be tolerated with little resistance by a dependent cult member.

Simpson and Gangestad (1991, as cited by Bornstein, p. 69) found that dependent individuals perceive their relationship partners as being “. . . highly committed to the relationship and even tend to have a self-serving bias (i.e., distortion) . . . perceiving greater commitment in the partner than actually exists.” Extending this finding to cult members might mean that dependent cult members tend to perceive the cult leader as being more committed to them than the leader actually is. And so perhaps when the new cult member entering the cult is surrounded by an artificially created “pink cloud” created by the cult leader through the techniques of “love bombing” and “focused attention,” relatively rapid submission to the cult occurs.

Additionally, within group settings, Yalom states that groups exhibit an almost irrational desire to find an authority figure, a parent, a rescuer—what Freud in 1955 (as cited by Yalom, 1995, p. 296) referred to as the group’s “...need to be governed by unrestricted force ... its extreme passion for authority ... its thirst for obedience.” Quite possibly, within the cult, the cult leader, when he observes the behavior of novice cult members, intuitively comes to understand that the group has a need for a strong leader, and then exploits this need for his own illicit purposes.

Another possible influence on the emergence of DPD comes from evidence of a genetic contribution; this evidence comes from studies of identical twins who scored more similarly on scales of submissiveness and dominance than did dissimilar twins (Gunderson & Philipps, 1995, p. 1451). However, even though there is some influence from genetic sources, most researchers still believe that under most circumstances, the strongest influence toward development of dependency comes from the family environment, other environmental influences (such as the social influence of the cult itself), or both.

At this point, an important question should be considered: Do persons enter a cult with a pre-existing dependent-personality organization? In a community sample of individuals (Gunderson & Philipps, 1995, p.1450), 15% were found to have a dependent personality, with an estimated ratio of three females to one male. So it is statistically possible that some of the entering novice cult members might have a pre-existing dependent-personality organization or susceptibility to emergence of a dependent personality. However, this finding does not fully explain the existence of the triad of dependency, anxiety, and depressiveness clinically observed in ex-cult members.

An additional question is this: What effect might existing dependency needs have on the subsequent acquisition of DPD by cult members? A possible answer requires an understanding of the dependency needs of entering cult members. Hypothetically, persons who are psychologically vulnerable and have fluctuating moods, according to Dolan-Sewell, Krueger, and Shea (2001, p. 88), and who also experience fluctuating moods,

[may have] ...a heightened sensitivity to environmental events (e.g. separation and disappointment)... Individuals with pathological levels of anxiety/inhibition are quick to interpret environmental events, as well as their own behaviors and thoughts, as potentially harmful to themselves or someone else.

Apparently, some individuals might be easily influenced by exposure to the manipulative social environment of a cult and therefore may lose some of their ability to make independent decisions. They may become overly anxious and dependent, which may, by a group social-influence effect, lead them to adopt a survival-based personality style that keeps them from exiting an abusive cult environment or resisting wrongful acts while they are inside a cult.

In partial explanation of why some ex-cult members were found to develop a cluster of DPD, anxiety, and depression, it has been found that anxious and fearful personality-disorder patients (cluster C patients), which include the DPD patients, might also have co-occurring depression and anxiety on a much more frequent basis than cluster A or cluster B personality-disorder patients (Dolan-Sewell, Krueger, and Shea, p. 97, 2001). These authors imply that when DPD develops, anxiety and depression often are comorbid.

Interestingly, the previously cited Martin et al. study reported that "...a majority [of ex-cultists] appear to have been within a psychologically normal range before they joined the group” (1992, p. 3). If this is true, why would many ex-cult members exhibit the triad of dependency, anxiety, and depressiveness? It is hypothesized that the traumatic stress experienced within a cult directly contributes to the emergence of dependency, anxiety, and depressiveness.

According to Dolan-Sewell et al., (2001; as cited by Millon and Davis, 1996; and Gunderson & Philipps, 1995), anxiety and dysthymia are oftentimes comorbid with DPD. Donald-Sewell et al. explain that this comorbidity is because all three conditions are related to affective dysregulation. However, if psychological treatment given after members exit a cult experience can quickly ameliorate the anxiety and dysthymia exhibited by these exiting cult members, this result is partial evidence in favor of the position that environmental factors are important influences in the development of these psychological conditions. Therefore, Martin, Langone, Dole and Wiltrout’s (1992) report of the rapid and simultaneous decline of MCMI-I base rate scores for DPD, Anxiety, and Dysthymia in ex-cult members following relatively brief psychotherapeutic treatment represents a significant finding.

This finding about decline in MCMI-I base rate scores of DPD after brief treatment (two weeks or less) provides a basis for posing a question about the possibility of a behaviorally conditioned “state,” rather than a permanent trait of DPD, emerging after one’s exposure to traumatic events in the cult. The induction of a temporary “state” of DPD by exposure to traumatic events within the cult environment is supported by the findings reported by Martin et al. (1992). If a) dependent traits were not elevated in most participants before their entrance into the cult, b) the traits later appeared when members were measured after they exited the cult, and then c) the traits declined following relatively brief psychotherapeutic treatment, this sequence of events would lend support to the hypothesis that the existence of clinical levels of DPD, anxiety, and dysthymia in ex-cult members represents a temporary induced personality “state” rather than an enduring personality “trait” in these individuals.

Some writers suggest that individuals who already have a dependent personality style are more vulnerable to the experience of incidents of traumatic stress, which then leads to the development of acute stress disorder and, later, PTSD. It has been reported that some cult members experience traumatic levels of stress during active cult membership; this stress exposure would then tend to exacerbate any latent stress vulnerabilities. And so it can be hypothesized that immersion in the dysfunctional and manipulative culture of the cult may lead to development of traits of a temporary dependent personality disorder as well as the onset of acute stress disorder with concomitant dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, and depression.

Ostensibly, persons who join cults are seeking to find nurturing and caring leaders. However, the novice cult member who seeks out care and support in the context of seeking spiritual growth should not experience manipulation, social-behavioral conditioning, and physical and sexual abuse by an antisocial cult leader. Many strong leaders of different types—whether military, political, or civilian—who serve as coaches, teachers, or even personal trainers, maintain high levels of responsibility to protect, encourage, strengthen, and build up their followers. In contrast to these prosocial and responsible behaviors, cult leaders caught up in self-serving and highly manipulative antisocial behaviors induce a variety of noxious psychological states and disorders in their followers and give credence to the words spoken by Jesus almost two millennia ago, “You shall know them by their fruits.”


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About the Author

John Burke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who completed a post-doctoral residency at the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, Health Management Organization of San Jose, California. He works as a psychologist at The New Life Treatment Center, a Christian-based licensed treatment facility in San Jose, California. He also serves as the United Presbyterian Pastor of the Bonny Doon Presbyterian Church of Santa Cruz, CA. He recently received his doctorate in clinical psychology with a dissertation entitled “Borderline Personality Disorder in Adult Males in Correctional Settings.” His clinical psychology Internship was in the Colorado Department of Corrections from 2002-2003. Previously, he has worked for the County of Santa Cruz Juvenile Probation Department as a Substance Abuse Counselor; he also served as a Board Member and Board Chair for many years on behalf of the New Life Community Services, Inc., a 33-bed, not-for-profit, social model, inpatient alcohol and chemical dependency treatment facility in Santa Cruz, CA. Dr. Burke previously taught at Bethany University in Scotts Valley, California as an Assistant Professor of Addiction Studies from 1993-2002. He is also the published author of Internet Databases with Cold Fusion 3, a book describing use of personal databases on the Internet published by McGraw-Hill and is a contributing author to Running the Perfect Web Server, 2nd. Ed., (MacMillan Publishing). He presently lives with his wife Barbara, and their three children, Peter, Sean, and Michella in Santa Cruz, California.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006, Pages 390-410.