Assessment of Psychological Abuse

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 2011, 61-76

Assessment of Psychological Abuse in Manipulative Groups

Carmen Almendros, Manuel Gámez-Guadix, Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira, José Antonio Carrobles

This work reviews the studies that have investigated psychological abuse in group settings, particularly highlighting their evaluation and discussing their main findings. It has been asserted, in the different settings where it was studied, that psychological abuse is an elusive concept, difficult to operationalize (e.g., Almendros, Gámez-Guadix, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira, & Porrúa, 2009). If this is the case in the family (e.g., psychological abuse against a partner, children, or the elderly), and in school or work settings, it is even more so in the case of psychologically manipulative groups, a field markedly less investigated than the others. Although much has been written about these latter groups, their practices, and the psychological consequences of belonging to them, very few studies approach the issue of the psychological violence of which some of their members are victims, and much less frequently are such studies based on empirical findings (Almendros, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira & Gámez-Guadix, 2009). In this study, the researchers draw specific conclusions, identify some research gaps, and suggest guidelines for future studies that would be interesting to examine in more in depth.

Keywords: psychological abuse, psychologically manipulative groups, cults, new religious movements


The study of the practices of psychologically manipulative groups (PMGs), sects, or new religious movements and how they operate arises particularly strongly from the occurrence of dramatic events, such as “mass suicides,” performed by members of these groups, which have caused perplexity in public opinion and prompted the search for explanations. This was the case, most particularly highlighted for its mass media coverage, of the programmed death of the several hundred followers of Jim Jones in Guyana in the decade of the 1970s. More recently, despite its comparatively limited expansion, we can relate a similar case that occurred with its victims, citizens in Kanungu, Uganda, where about 530 people belonging to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died when the church in which they were praying was set on fire. About that many more people were found in the next days in several common graves located in the surrounding areas and in the homes of the group leaders. The group’s leaders, who had split from the Catholic Church, claimed to have seen apparitions and had predicted that the world would end on December 31, 1999, a date that was postponed to March 17, 2000, when the initial prediction was not fulfilled. A debate was then generated about whether these events should be explained as a ritual suicide or as a massive killing. From a study of the case, Erdely (2001) supports the former, assuring that the events occurring in Kanungu were a religious ceremony intended to take those present to a different dimension of existence. The author draws our attention to the factor of secrecy present in the group and the surrounding community, which allowed for the systematic disappearance, apparently unnoticed, of hundreds of dissidents and their relatives before that fateful day of March 17, actions that at least some of the followers should have noticed and must have participated in. Erdely concludes that this collaboration was achieved by the simple use of words, and he warns us not to underestimate the power of ideologies and the religious speech that can transform individuals into “human torches” or “suicidal combatants.”

Because these groups are usually more interested in preserving and expanding their domains, these examples of the extreme influence exerted over people are poor examples of the social problems involved. However, at the time they occurred, they enabled the phenomenon to be viewed as a matter of public interest, rather than merely a private issue of parents disagreeing with the life vocation of their children.

The phenomenon is not free of controversy because it is difficult to establish “an exact dividing line” (Tamarit, 1991) between the practices of some groups that do deserve attention for infringing on the individual freedoms and inalienable rights inherent to humans, and that could even result in legal consequences, and other groups’ practices that can be reviled only for their infrequency and their minority nature where they occur—actions that a community acting within a legal framework, and that respects and even promotes religious and ideological diversity would find unacceptable. Accordingly, we will refer here to the so-called (particularly in Spain—e.g., Almendros, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira, & Jansà, 2004; Atención e Investigación sobre Socioadicciones, 2005) PMGs, understanding that the social risk that could result from them is based, not on their ideology or beliefs, but rather on their psychologically manipulative methods and other abusive practices, and on the various criminal acts they may invite. These manipulative and exploitative influence methods, which subordinate the health and well-being of group members to the benefit of the leader or upper echelons, actually define and distinguish these groups.

Terminological Delimitation, Definition, and Prevalence

As noted, in decades of study of the PMG phenomenon, unresolved debates have been generated, from differing to even contrary positions, which range from the object of the study to how to label or name it. In this regard, reference has been made to the “polyhedral reality of sects” (Guerra, 1999).

With regard to its name, virtually all studies that deal with the term, when trying to delimit the word sect, preferred in Europe (Langone, 1994), or cult, used in English contexts, refer to its “conceptual ambiguity” (Langone, n.d.) or “terminological confusion” (Salinas, 2001); to its use as a “carpet” or “social weapon” (Richardson, 1978, 1993); to the “diversity of denotative meanings and connotations of the term” (Alonso, n.d.); and, in conclusion, the inaccuracy and lack of consensus in the use of this terminology. The term sect acquires a negative social connotation in its popular use (Pfeiffer, 1992; Zimbardo & Hartley, 1985); so it has a significant labeling and stigmatization potential (Beckford, 1978; Prat, 1997; Richardson, 1993), which requires us to exert responsibility in its use. Sect is, however, the most commonly used term, both for its popular acceptance and for its use by the mass media (Alonso, n.d.; Richardson & van Driel, 1997) to try to inform about this complex, heterogeneous reality.

From a linguistic perspective, Guerra (1999) expresses the etymology of sect, mentioning a double Latin origin: sequor-sequi, secutus/secuta, referring to the followers of the sect founder or leader; and seco-secare, sectus/secta, referring to the split of an existing, larger group, religion, or ideology. We see that none of the term’s primary meanings, “following or splitting of a previous doctrinal group,” show anything that can be the basis for social reproach. In general terms, the proposal for alternative names for sect—coercive sects, new cults, sects of young people, religious sects, pseudo-religious totalitarian groups, totalitarian sects, charismatic sects, extremist sects, authoritarian sects, destructive sects, and so on—has not been supported to justify the generalization of this term (Rodríguez-Carballeira, 1992).

In general, we think that the predominant trend in the past decade has been to prevent the use of extreme terms that were formerly used (e.g., destructive, poison, and the like), which recall negative emotions and increase intellectual polarization in academicians. In fact, some of these academicians chose alternative names.

We highlight the term new religious movement, particularly used by sociologists of religion, with the understanding that this term is neutral, does not a priori disqualify the associative option of a person based on its minority nature, and is based on the potential of sects to find a place in the prevailing dominant religious environment (Galanter, 1990). However, this name also has been the object of criticism for its inappropriate description of the reality it intends to describe in religious terms (Melton, 1997), and for its indiscriminate use in some groups with controversial practices (West, 1990). In this regard, Salinas (2001) talked about the “perplexity” invoked by the term new when one uses this term to refer to very old movements, or where doctrine is based on far-off beliefs. Additionally, this term ignores the fact that, since the beginning, the term sect was referring to a type of group that was far larger than a simple reference to religious movements.

From the standpoint of mental health (West, 1990), we found that the term psychologically manipulative group is more interesting for this study because it prevents part of the controversy the term sect or cult raises, and at the same time delimits the object of analysis, which deals with the manipulative and/or abusive practices of some groups, whether or not they are called sects.

We also found a large range of definitions for such practices, based on the theoretical perspective used by the issuer (e.g., theological, sociological, anthropological). From the viewpoint of mental health, probably the definition most commonly mentioned was adopted in the Congress of Wingspread, Wisconsin, in 1985, where experts on the matter agreed on the following definition:

A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control ... designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1985, pp. 119–120)

With regard to the data on the prevalence of this phenomenon, given the yet undetermined concrete specification of the study’s terminology, the difficulties are even greater, which is evidenced in the different figures different experts mention in newspapers or through the mass media. These groups are difficult to define, specify, and locate. In fact, because of the fluctuation and opacity of these groups, the quantitative estimations change. Therefore, the European statement about the “lack of reliable data existing in all members’ states,” data that “can be only considered as signs of the magnitude of the phenomenon...,” is still applicable (Project Report by the European Parliament on Sects in the European Union, December 11, 1997, p. 11). The practices within the same group can change based on the group’s geographical location, while the same group can simply change over time. Likewise, the same group can appear under different names to prevent public scrutiny of its main name, or to prevent the rejection that this name may cause in the general population if they have seen unfavorable news about the group. Difficulties increase with microgroups, which are more difficult to locate, given their limited number of followers and their scant infrastructure, although their study is important because they recently have been observed to proliferate to some extent (Jansà, 2004).

In Spain, in the studies the Commission of Study and Repercussions of Sects carried out in the Parliament in March 1989, the following figures were mentioned: Between 110,000 and150,000 Spaniards were members of “destructive sects.” This study reported that 0.5% of the Spanish population segment aged 14 years to 29 years belonged to some religious-sect association, and that 1.5% of these individuals stated they had been a member in the past (Canteras, Rodríguez, & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 1992). We must highlight that “at least 13% of young urban citizens aged 14 [years] to 29 years have to some degree a susceptibility to be captured by these destructive sects, which, theoretically, makes them more vulnerable to destructive-sectarian proselytism” (Canteras, 1991). These data, mentioned by the Commission of Study and Repercussions of Sects, provide the figure of 780,000 young people in sect environments.

A more recent study undertaken for the Attention and Research on Social Addictions (AIS) association on the situation of PMGs in Catalonia (AIS, 2005) estimated that there were at least 89 PMGs and at least 54,316 people linked as members or collaborators in them. The study asserted that 39,469 of these individuals would be involved with high-intensity PMGs. In conclusion, the estimated prevalence of followers of these groups in this region was 0.82% (Jansà, 2004).

Additionally, contrary to appearances, Melton (1997) concluded through a systematic study that Europe, country by country, has welcomed a higher number of new religious movements than the United States (per million population). According to this author, in countries such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and The Netherlands, the figures are very high, but they are noteworthy even in Italy and Spain. Melton (1997) concluded that about one third of religious organizations currently operating in Europe are nonconventional.

With regard to who joins these groups and why, the data are even less conclusive, with these questions being among the most controversial issues and objects of academic polarization (Almendros, Rodríguez-Carballeira, Carrobles, & Gámez-Guadix, 2010). Snow and Machalek (1984, mentioned by Wright & Ebaugh, 1993) concluded from their sociological study that conversion appeared to be the phenomenon most commonly investigated by experts on these groups. It has been generally stated that people joining these groups are usually young, with a medium or medium-high sociocultural and economic status (Hunter, 1998; Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001; Singer & Lalich, 1997), and are men or women with almost the same probability (Jansà, 1993).

With regard to why, in general, the predominant position has been to explain cult involvement through the interaction of environmental, individual, and group practice factors (e.g., Ash, 1985; Langone, 1994). Lofland & Stark (1965) explained adhesion to a religious movement to be the result of a combination of susceptibility and situational conditions. The internal factors mentioned in the literature in general are age, previous psychopathology or maladjustment, dysfunctional family system, and spiritual searching. However, there is generally not enough empirical basis to support these factors as responsible, and the limited existing evidence is somewhat contrary to that conclusion (Almendros et al., 2010). The external factors mentioned in the literature include group persuasive practices to attract members and keep them in the group. Almendros et al. (2010) studied the responses of 101 Spanish individuals (45.5% women), self-identified as former members of several PMGs, to a questionnaire asking about the factors that, in the participants’ opinion, influenced their joining the group. Of that number, 57.4% responded to the instruments in the presence of one of the researchers, and 42.6% returned their responses by ordinary mail. The participants rated the deceit and persuasive behavior of the group to obtain the commitment of its members as the most important element for their own involvement.

Relevance of Psychological Abuse in Manipulative Group Settings

The study of the violence exerted in PMGs has been much less than in other areas, both in terms of the volume of literature in this field and the even higher inconsistency in its conceptual delimitation. Therefore, several concepts have been proposed in efforts to try to define the events that occur in these groups: brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, coercive persuasion, nonethical social influence, psychological manipulation, and psychological abuse (PA) (Langone, 1992). The latter has been shown to be useful, in the opinion of former PMG members, to characterize their own experiences. Similarly, we consider that this term is appropriate insofar as it enables the study of group abuse practices, allowing for a better description and empirical study.

Most characterizations reported to date about these groups usually do not leave margin for grading the practices, explaining only the extremes. Possibly because it is the extremes that have been disclosed in the mass media, Langone and Chambers (1991) found very low support for the terms commonly used in this field by former members of cults who evaluated up to 20 different terms. The authors argued that this result could be caused by the pejorative burden associated with the terms cult and brainwashing to the fact that sometimes former members need time to reflect upon their experience, and because the terms may not describe, or may set aside, groups in which manipulation is less extreme. In any case, we consider that it is important to evaluate not only the extremes these groups can reach, but also the practices that, although more indirect and subtle, can generate the same or even greater damage in terms of frequency.

In the study by Langone and Chambers (1991), a total of 108 former members from among 57 different groups completed a mail survey. They were asked to rate 20 terms according to their perception about how former members leaving the groups on their own and who were not familiar with literature criticizing cults would rate them. The authors found that former members rated almost in last place the terms cult or brainwashing and did not support the terms coercive persuasion or mind control. Based on their experiences, the participants found more relevant those terms related to trauma and abuse, the first positions being for psychological trauma and psychological abuse.

Subsequently, Langone (1992) developed a theoretical model about psychological abuse in group settings based on what he considered to be the opposite: respect. Therefore, through the acronym MAID, the author proposed four areas or issues of the person that must be respected: Mind, or the natural inclination to searching for the truth when choosing; Autonomy, or ability to make choices without external pressures; Identity, or sense of individuality, belonging to a larger community and culture, and inner integration; and Dignity, or the need for feeling valuable in the eyes of others and oneself. Psychological abuse would occur when an individual or the group tried to influence the other for 1) controlling the information for the purpose of manipulating thought and judgment; 2) manipulating or forcing choices; 3) fragmenting or modifying the personal identity of the individual; and/or 4) systematically or intentionally diminishing the feelings of value of the person. Therefore, Langone (1992) defined the concept of psychological abuse as referring to practices that treat the person as an object to be manipulated and used, instead of as a subject whose mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity must be respected.

Starting from this theoretical proposal, amongst others, Chambers, Langone, Dole, and Grice (1994) developed the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA), from which several studies have shown that former members of PMGs describe their experience in terms of the psychological abuse they perceived in their former group environments (see Langone, 2005).

More recently, Rodríguez-Carballeira, Almendros, Escartín, Porrúa, Martín-Peña, Javaloy, and Carrobles (2005) undertook to outline more accurately the concept of psychological abuse and study its manifestation, both in the intimate context of partner relationships, in the also-intimate context of PMGs, and in the workplace (mobbing). From a psychosocial viewpoint, and using a comprehensive analysis of the literature in the three settings and the measurement scales developed on psychological abuse, they proposed three new categorizations of psychological abuse strategies—one for each mentioned context, which allowed for a comparative analysis of the three phenomena. They subdivided each of these categorizations into six types of psychological-abuse strategies or categories. The first three covered the main components of the context or situation: (1) isolation, (2) control of information, and (3) other controls of daily life. The other three covered the main components of personal nature: (4) emotional, (5) cognitive, and (6) behavioral. The comparison evidenced a significant parallelism between the strategies used in the three environments, particularly among those used for submitting a subject to the group’s control and those used for submitting the other partner member.

Evaluation of Psychological Abuse in Group Environments

The evaluation of psychological abuse in group settings from empirically developed measures is relatively recent. If the ability to reliably measure is a key indicator of a developing field’s health and maturity (Hill, 2005), there seems to be a long way to run yet in this field. Very few instruments have been developed that include items to describe abusive behaviors in PMGs. In comparing this to other fields of study such as partner violence, where the study of psychological abuse is still relatively recent, we found a wider number and variety of instruments in this area (Almendros, Gámez-Guadix et al., 2009), so that the renewed research efforts and new proposals enhance the academic debate and a progression in the conceptual definition of psychological abuse in this context.

We reviewed the instruments designed to measure violence in the context of PMGs. Table 1 shows the scales, by chronological order, including some PA factor, together with the subscales forming it; the number of items; their psychometric properties; and a short description thereof. All these instruments have been validated with samples of former members of various PMGs.

The first scale empirically derived to measure psychological abuse in group settings (Gasde & Block, 1998) was the above-mentioned GPA (Chambers et al., 1994). Its development resulted from the idea that some groups use deceitful recruiting techniques and systematically use psychological manipulation techniques for their members to remain in the group. The GPA includes four subscales: Compliance, about the degree to which an individual must agree to the group rules; Exploitation, about the degree to which the group uses the person in detriment of his/her own wellbeing; Anxious dependency, referring to the degree to which the person depends on the group; and Mind control, referring to the degree to which the group and its leaders use deceitful, manipulative strategies to keep their members.

GPA has been the most commonly used measure for the empirical study of the phenomenon. It has been used in the United Kingdom (Kendall, 2006; in press) and adapted for use with the Spanish population (Almendros et al., 2004; Almendros, 2006). It also has been translated into Japanese, Swedish, and German under the direction of Kimiaki Nishida, Hakan Jarva, and Friedrich Griess, respectively. In addition, the GPA is likely to be the only scale in this setting that has been used in studies performed by authors other than the developers of the measure.

With regard to the GPA’s Spanish validation (GPA-S), Almendros et al. (2004) found a factorial structure for this version comprising three subscales: Compliance, Mind Control, and Exploitation. The authors understood that the Compliance subscale included items of the original Compliance and Dependency subscales, the latter of which disappears from the Spanish version. Therefore, the Compliance subscale would express both submission and obedience to the authority figure (leader[s] or group) as an extreme dependence on the leader(s) and the group.

Additionally, Almendros (2006) recently proposed a modified version of the GPA, which removes the negative wording of item 1 of the instrument: “The group does not tell members how to conduct their sex lives,” and modifies the response options, omitting the label of the central category. This is the version currently being used with US, Japanese, and Spanish participants (Group Psychological Abuse Scale-Modified—GPA-M) (Almendros, Carrobles, & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2009). Using the responses of 138 English-speaking participants, self-identified as former members of abusive groups, Almendros (2011) reported support for the original four-factor solution of the GPA (Chambers et al., 1994) for the English version of the GPA-M, which yielded better-fitting statistical values through Confirmatory Factor Analyses when compared to a one-factor solution.

Also to be noted is the development of the Individual Cult Experience Index (ICE) (Winocur, Whitney, Sorensen, Vaughn, & Foy, 1997). The starting point for the authors of the ICE was to observe the relationship between belonging to a cult and the distress following withdrawal. Structured in four sections, the first investigates the behaviors derived from elements of doctrine and group practices. The second section asks about behaviors or actions shown by group leaders or members under the prescription of leaders. The third section refers to actions and experiences of the participant

Table 1. Instruments for Measuring Violence in Psychological Manipulation Groups

Name of the Instrument and Primary Reference

Dimensions (No. of Items)

Psychometric Evidences


1. Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA; Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994).

Compliance (7)

Anxious dependency (7)

Mind control (7)

Exploitation (7)

Validity: Content; Construct (EFA: P.C.; Varimax)

Reliability: I.C.: α= 0.81/0.72/0.70/0.75

Its development was based on a Delphi study (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985), the theoretical study of psychological abuse by Langone (1992), and a clinical literature review. The GPA scale is derived from a factorial analysis of the responses to 112 descriptive items of 308 former members of PMGs. It is a self-administered, easy, and fast-to-apply instrument, easily understandable by the subjects. Each item is coded in a Likert-type scale of five points, from 1-Not at all characteristic to 5-Very characteristic. The scores above the midpoint—21 for each subscale and 84 for the global scale—are considered positive, which indicates that the subject perceives the group as abusive.

2. Individual Cult Experience Index (ICE; Winocur, Whitney, Sorensen, Vaughn, & Foy, 1997).

Group experiences associated with distress (47)

Validity: Content; Criterion; Construct (C-D)

Reliability: I.C.: 0.89

Developed to evaluate group experiences that may have harmful effects on the psychological adjustment of group members. It was applied to 76 former members of PMGs, who had been given counseling, and to two comparative groups (14 former members not searching for counseling, and 13 subjects with distress). The ICE index comprises 47 items, scored dychotomically (yes/no). The ICE had a correct global classification percentage of 84%. A correlation of 0.45 (p<.001) was found between the ICE index and the current distress evaluated by the Los Angeles Symptom Checklist (LASC).

3. Across Groups Psychological Abuse and Control Scale (AGPAC) (Wolfson, 2002).

Emotional abuse (8)

Isolation/ Control of activity (8)

Verbal abuse (6)

Validity: Content; Construct (EFA: P.A; Varimax)

Reliability: I.C.: = 0.86/0.80/0.83

In her doctoral dissertation, Wolfson (2002) reviewed and modified the Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory (PMWI) (Tolman, 1989) for its application to former members of PMGs and women victims of partner abuse for the purpose of distinguishing between the two groups. The alpha values provided refer to a combined sample of both groups.

4. Group Psychological Abuse Scale-Spanish version (GPA-S; Almendros, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira, & Jansà, 2004).

Compliance (9)

Mind control (9)

Exploitation (9)

Validity: Content; Construct (EFA: P.C.; Oblique)

Reliability: I.C.: α= 0.86/0.74/0.76

Cut-off points: GPA: >80; Subscales: >27/>31/>12

Adaptation of the GPA scale for its use with Spanish population. The authors evaluated the factorial structure and internal consistency of the Spanish version in a group of 61 former members of PMGs. Subsequent studies (Almendros, 2006) in 101 subjects revealed appropriate test-retest reliability values and adequate discriminant capacity of the instrument, establishing cut-off points by the ROC Curve procedure.

Notes: EFA: Exploratory factor analysis; P.C.: principal components; P.A.: principal axis; C-D: convergent-discriminant; I.C.: internal consistency; the data on reliability or cut-off points, when there is more than one dimension, are given by the order in which they are shown in the Dimensions column.

directed by the group. The fourth section asks the subject whether he/she has heard of experiences of serious abuse to other group members. The ICE comprises issues related to a) the control of group members (isolation and social alienation; and control of information, sensory overload, and suppression of critical thinking); b) physical control (sleep, food, or exercise deprivation; long periods of inactivity or hyperactivity; exploitation of personal resources); c) emotional manipulation (inducing guilt; fear and uncertainty; reinforcement and random or unpredictable punishment); and d) experiences of abuse (verbal abuse; physical or sexual abuse; perception of threat to physical integrity or own life). Therefore, the authors wrote the items considering the literature on psychological manipulation and abuse. They considered preexisting instruments, such as the GPA and the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2) (Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996). Then the instruments were evaluated by 10 professionals and researchers, each of whom had at least 10 years of professional experience in issues related to PMGs. The instruments were subsequently administered to 16 psychology graduates to assess the comprehensibility of the instructions, how the graduates understood the items, and the difficulty in answering the questions. As reported by the authors, the ICE index showed a relationship between the degree of cult involvement and the current distress in former members, as well as making a differentiation between people previously involved in cults and those not involved.

Particularly relevant is the doctoral dissertation research work of Wolfson (2002). Wolfson developed the Across Groups Psychological Abuse and Control Scale (AGPAC). For this, she conducted a pilot study on a reviewed, modified version of the Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory (PMWI) (Tolman, 1989). She chose the PMWI because she considered it feasible to make a simple adaptation of the items, originally designed for women victims of partner violence, so they were applicable to former members of PMGs. Therefore, she selected and modified 27 of the PMWI items to make them compatible for application in both groups. The items were assigned a response range from 0 (Never) to 4 (Very often). A panel composed of seven academicians evaluated the content validity and their degree of consistency with the theory. They also evaluated the instructions, response choices, and degree of understandability of the items. This process yielded the pilot AGPAC instrument comprising 22 items. Wolfson applied the instrument in a pilot study to 146 participants: 75 victims of domestic violence visiting one of several shelter homes or a counseling centre for victims of domestic abuse, and 48 former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses attending a convention for former members of the group. With regard to the empirical application of the scale, 191 valid participants took part: 98 former members of several cultic groups, and 93 victims of domestic violence. A factor analysis of the items revealed three subscales: Emotional Abuse referred to behaviors such as withholding affection, being treated as an inferior, and making the victim feel responsible for all problems; Isolation/Control of Activity, such as being discouraged from seeing family, discouraged from working out of the home, and assuming that orders must be obeyed; Verbal Abuse, including insults, criticisms to physical appearance, and being insulted in front of others. Wolfson (2002) reported the capability of the AGPAC to discriminate between both groups: women victims of partner violence and former cult members.

It is also important to mention the questionnaire developed by Bohm and Alison (2001), designed for the purpose of distinguishing between destructive sect groups and benign groups. Sixty variables comprised the questionnaire, and it was used in two modalities of data collection: 1) 33 former members of various groups answered the questionnaire, and 2) the researchers answered the same questions from a content analysis of the documentary material for the groups. The authors used this second method given the infeasibility of contacting former members of some sects, particularly destructive ones. They handled the information resulting from both methods as equivalent. To answer the questionnaire, subjects were contacted through “anti-cult” networks, whose representatives distributed electronic versions of the questionnaire by webmail to an indefinite number of former members of the groups. The subjects completed the questionnaires and returned them by email. With regard to the content analyses, the authors analyzed information they obtained by the Internet, popular texts, press articles, and journal articles. They provided little information about the procedure they followed in this case, although they mentioned that, when coding a given item, the information should be supported by at least two different document sources, excluding data that required interpretation by the researcher or that were contradictory. They analyzed a total of 25 groups using both methods, of which 15 were based on the answers of former members and 10 on the content analysis. Using Smallest Space Analysis, the authors established nine behaviors directly or indirectly related to a destructive behavior region, which they would use to distinguish between destructive sects and benign sects: mass suicide; mass murder; physically prevent members from leaving the group; approval of violence; drills; be prepared for the day of the final judgment; building defensive structures; gathering weapons; and proclaiming the leader as the incarnation of a significant religious or historic figure. No data are provided on the psychometric characteristics of the instrument, so it has not been included in Table 1.

Main Findings

As discussed, several recent findings have evidenced that former members of various PMGs reportedly have suffered psychological abuse in their former group settings. Most of the empirical findings were obtained from the answers, mainly to the GPA scale (Chambers et al., 1994), of samples of people identifying themselves as former members of abusive groups (e.g., Almendros et al., 2004), without the authors establishing the groups that could be considered as PMGs.

If the instruments used are intended to help evaluate the degree of abuse exerted in a given group, the stability of the measure must be an essential requirement. Overall, the few data provided about the stability of one of the existing instruments, the GPA, suggest a very low fluctuation, showing consistency of scores over long time periods, as well as scarce variability according to various degrees of reflection over the group experience among two administrations of the GPA. Therefore, Almendros, Carrobles et al. (2009) found appropriate test-retest reliability values for the Spanish version of the GPA in a subsample of 50 Spanish former members of various PMGs who completed the GPA-S scale twice, at highly variable time intervals (1.25 months–32.32 months) from one individual to another, the mean time being 15.52 months (SD= 7.26). No differences were found between the scores of the subjects grouped into four time periods between the two evaluations. The amount of reflection reported by the subjects during this time period did not appear to affect the stability of the scores; so that of the five groups based on degree of reflection (from “Not at all” to “Very Much”), only the group reporting to have thought “very much” had a significantly increased mean score in the second vs. the first application (GPA1: M= 108.67; SD= 17.44; GPA2: M= 114.50; SD= 11.29; Wilcoxon’s test: z= -2.17; p= .03) (Almendros, 2006). Similarly, the original version of the scale has shown low variability after psychological intervention with a US sample (Martin, Almendros, Burks, & Carrobles, 2004). In this regard, we must highlight that the GPA is not designed to measure attitudes about abuse or violence and does not analyze the consequences of abuse; it focuses instead on the potential existence or not of specific acts or practices. Scores should be expected to hold up well over time, even with intervention. We only observed that subjects who thought a lot about their experience had significantly increased mean scores in the GPA scale. This result could be viewed as consistent mainly with the statements of health professionals working with former members of PMGs, about those leaving these groups, who may not be immediately fully aware of what happened while they belonged to the groups, or that the terms used in the scale may be premature for some recent former members (Langone & Chambers, 1991). It is likely that periods of reflection serve to make explicit to former members the intentions of some practices used by the group, which in most cases were subtle, thus leading the subjects to accept as their own choices some of the impositions, sacrifices, and so on.

The studies reporting on the matter found no differences by sex or sociodemographic characteristics for the GPA (Almendros, 2006). It must be stressed that the GPA does not disclose the personal experience of the subject in the group; it just reports the simple observation of the occurrence of certain abuses, regardless of whether or not the participant suffered them.

Taking into account that the development of and results from most of the instruments on psychological abuse in any context were based on the responses of victims of these abuses, the finding that there is no evidence to relate the information provided by the victims with negative attitudes resulting from their status as former members of these groups is important (Almendros, Carrobles et al., 2009; Langone, 1996). The GPA scale has shown consistently its ability to distinguish between different samples of former members: those who identify themselves as former members of PMGs and of non-PMGs (Almendros, Carrobles et al., 2009; Langone, 1996; Mascareñas, 2002). Likewise, the statement that the perceptions of former members of PMGs who have been counseled—upon leaving the group or at any time after it—by expert professionals or associations educating/alerting about cults would be negatively biased (Lewis, 1986; Solomon, 1981) has not been supported, either. Almendros, Carrobles et al. (2009) reported the lack of differences between Spanish former members who had been counseled (on leaving the group or at any other time) and those not counseled, on their perception of psychological abuse exerted by the group on its members, and on the psychological distress shown by them. Neither the information provided, nor the responses to the GPA, were related to indicators of social desirability, debasement, or lack of sincerity, as evaluated through the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-II (MCMI-II) (Millon, 1983) in the same Spanish sample (Almendros, 2006; Almendros et al., 2010).

As mentioned, the GPA scale has been translated and used in several countries. In general, very similar response patterns and very few differences have been found between the GPA scores of former members of PMGs from various cultural environments—i.e., US and Spanish (Almendros et al., 2004; Almendros, 2006); US and Mexican (Mascareñas, 2002); US, Spanish, and Japanese (Almendros, Carrobles & Gámez-Guadix, 2009; Almendros, Carrobles & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2009).

With regard to the psychological distress resulting from the experience (for a review, see Aronoff, Lynn, & Malinoski, 2000) as related to the GPA, inconsistent research findings have been reported on the possible relationship between the perceived psychological abuse in the group and other psychological distress measures. Therefore, some studies have reported significant positive correlations (e.g., Martin et al., 2004) and others have not (e.g., Gasde & Block, 1998). It must be noted, as stated earlier, that the GPA measures the abuse by the group and not the personal experience of abuse suffered by the subject (Winocur et al., 1997). In this regard, a positive relationship has been found between psychological distress and other measures discussed: the ICE (Winocur et al.) and AGPAC (Wolfson, 2002). It is important to consider that other variables might be affecting the results (e.g., time since leaving the group; different coping strategies; social support; life events), without these variables being sufficiently studied.

Finally, one of the above-mentioned studies compared the responses of two groups of victims to the AGPAC (Wolfson, 2002): women victims of partner violence and former members of PMGs. The results showed significantly higher scores in the women’s group for the Verbal Abuse and Emotional Abuse subscales. The scores in the Isolation/Control subscale were higher for former members of PMGs, although not significantly for the latter. Considering that the AGPAC scale was derived from an instrument widely used in the partner violence setting, these data should be interpreted with caution. Therefore, despite the modifications made to the instrument, it still might be better prepared to account for the experiences of the group of women in such a setting than that of former members of PMGs, who were less able to identify themselves with statements such as “My physical appearance was criticized”; or possibly this abuse occurred less commonly within group relationships.


The evidence shows that the study of psychological abuse in group settings is a field of unquestionable relevance, although it is yet incipient in terms of its empirical approach and conceptual delimitation. The fact that there appears to be a high number of people who assuredly have suffered psychological violence, much more commonly than other forms of violence (physical or sexual), is an indicator of the importance of studying this problem and the issues related to victims (characteristics, types of violence suffered, resulting psychological harm, etc.) to give the problem the appropriate human, scientific, and social attention it deserves.

This work has reviewed the studies available to date on psychological abuse in group settings. We understand violence in PMGs to be one that is exerted in intimate settings, where violence is performed by people affectionately linked or important to the subject. In this field of study, reference has been made not only to groups but also to some one-on-one relationships in which the elements of manipulation studied for cults would coincide (e.g., pseudotherapeutic contexts, partner relationships). In fact, as shown, this kind of violence in PMGs shares more items with intimate-partner violence than with that exerted in the workplace (Rodríguez-Carballeira et al., 2005) or at school, understanding that the purpose of violence in the latter fields is mainly that of excluding the other from the social environment. Future studies should provide further evidence about these similarities and differences.

With regard to the assessment of these issues, the limitations are shared with other areas of the study of psychological abuse. Mention of the lack of appropriate measuring instruments to assess psychological abuse (Murphy & Hoover, 1999; So-kum Tang, 1998) is common, as is the limitation that almost all existing instruments are self-reports and are based on the information provided by victims about the abuse that, unlike other types of abuse (e.g., physical), do not provide immediate physical evidence. There are much fewer validated assessment instruments to measure psychological abuse in group settings than in other settings. In addition, as compared to instruments on psychological abuse in the intimate-partner violence context (for a review, see Almendros, Gámez-Guadix et al., 2009), the data provided about the psychometric properties of the instruments existing in the PMG area appear to be less comprehensive.

The only exception to these limitations is the GPA, a scale that is to date the only research effort providing repeated evidence of reliability, validity, and usefulness (e.g., Adams, 1998; Chambers, Langone, & Malinoski, 1996; Gasde & Block, 1998; Langone, 1996; Malinoski, Langone, & Lynn, 1999). As we mentioned above, the GPA investigates specific acts or events and does not intend to measure the attitudes of participants in cases of abusive practices, nor the causes or consequences of this abuse. Although the GPA could originally be considered of interest to help establish a borderline between destructive and benign groups (Chambers, Langone, & Malinoski, 1996), we do not recommend using it for this purpose, considering that the experience of each subject in the same group and the effects of belonging to it can be of a different nature (Barker, 1989), which makes generalizing from a few to the total unfeasible. Groups can focus their attention on some members more than on others. Groups in different locations can change in terms of practices, group processes, and the behaviors of the authority figures. Granted, the results obtained using the GPA are a snapshot view of a complex phenomenon in which it is difficult to generically analyze these groups (Zablocki & Robbins, 2001). However, the GPA scale enables evaluation of the characteristics of the experience for subjects who perceive that the group environment in which they were involved in the past was abusive, and identifying how their experiences differ from other nonabusive group experiences; it also allows researchers to discriminate between different abuse levels. The scale has been solely used with former members of groups, whether manipulative or not, despite its potential for use with followers of cultic groups specifically. In addition to its use in these groups for research purposes, Chambers, Langone, and Malinoski (1996) suggested that the GPA could be useful in clinical settings, as its use is in fact applied at the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center for the purpose of evaluating the degree of psychological abuse in the groups to which people receiving therapeutic support there have belonged. The same authors consider that it would be useful to use the GPA with relatives asking for professional counseling related to the involvement of a family member or friend in a cult. They could thus achieve a first approach to the possible psychological abuse caused in the group to which the relative belongs, and thus help clarify the request for help, focusing attention on more objective indicators of abuse.

As stated, we also think that the experience gained in this field may be of value in other areas of the study of psychological abuse. As a result of our work, we were able to demonstrate the difficulties characteristic of the psychological assessment process with victims of psychological violence in intimate-partner and group settings. Given the nature of psychological abuse, it is not always easy to recognize the abusive acts of the aggressor as such. In virtually all cases, the assessment instruments ask about the occurrence or not of obvious acts of abuse, a question that requires that the victim is fully aware of the events to adequately respond. The frequent wording of the items as express and intentional acts (e.g., “I was forced to…”) can lead individuals severely but subtly abused to answer that these acts were not carried out by the aggressor(s). In this regard, it is not surprising that the victim verbalizes a number of facts that have occurred during the abusive relationship and yet answers negatively to the same items when included in the GPA contents. Therefore, the individual may have reached the point of almost complete isolation from his/her social environment as a result of the subtle pressure exerted by the aggressor, but still may perceive that the problem lies in him/her or his/her environment. As a result of the process of influence and gradual subtle abuse and, therefore, the difficulty for the victim to detect the abuse, the victim may perceive him/herself as the agent responsible for his/her changes, dependency, and reduced personal resources. Along these lines, we consider it essential to study the different forms in which psychological abuse can be exerted, with the possibility for its subtle forms to lead to results similar to those of the obvious forms, or even to a greater control of the victim by the abuser. All of this can lead to a relative “adaptation” of the victim to the abusive situation; and it can explain the changes we find in the victim’s perceptions of the abuses and his/her own partner/group, and the paradoxical behaviors of presumed loyalty we find in some victims.

We think it is urgent that as we approach these issues, we consider the current question, of why the victim persists in the situation of ill-treatment, as a factor that appears to be surprising not only for investigators but also for daily observers of violence. Consequently, some researchers (e.g., Snell, Rosenwald, & Robey, 1964) have followed theoretical lines, as well as attributions from observers about victims (Follingstad, Runge, & Ace, 2001; Summers & Feldman, 1984) that tend to make victims responsible or guilty for their situation. We also found studies aimed at establishing unique characteristics in the personality of abused women or former members of PMGs, or a “type” of personality that tolerates abuses with varied, contradictory results (see Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998), which instead might be related to the processes of influence and to the effects of abuse in victims rather than to their previous personality traits. Regardless, blaming the victim for maintaining the relationship, in addition to evidencing a poor understanding of these issues, contributes to an inadequate protection of the young population for preventing potential future abuses. This perspective poses a double danger, resulting in a lack of concern for these issues by educational institutions, and particularly for increasing the perception of invulnerability in young people who do not know the process whereby somebody becomes the victim of partner- or group-based violence, and consequently anticipate that they would not tolerate a type of abuse such as that described in the mass media.

We consider that the concept of psychological abuse covers, amongst others, manipulation practices that can be exerted discontinuously or continuously, systematically or not, intentionally or not. This intentionality is something usually taken for granted in any definition of cult or cultic relation. However, several authors have dissociated themselves from this “conspiracy” perspective that considers that the groups in question “have manipulative intentions since the beginning, as their managers or leaders use their organization as a method to obtain non-declared objectives” (AIS, 2005). In contrast, the process perspective, which is more pragmatic, presumes that these groups

are not created as such on purpose, but they are the result of a self-deception process (i.e., the individual who manipulates is the first to believe in the goodness of the manipulation) that, due to a multiplicative effect—that we might call a “snowball effect’—in performing poor practices in managing the association link, results in the formation of a social organization with its own symbolic, auto-referential universe, that generates in part of its members a dependence syndrome—i.e., an unhealthy attachment to the group. (AIS, 2005)

Without fully sharing this differentiation, we do think it is more useful to assume a perspective focusing on the process, observing the degeneration that can take place in the interactions in a given group deriving from abusive practices exerted by those who hold the power. Although in some cases the intentionality of cult leaders in the fulfillment of strategies to achieve submission of the other may seem evident, this need not always be the case. In fact, as an object of study, we assume that any human group can degenerate to poor ethical and abusive practices and, conversely, an abusive group may rectify these practices. Therefore, we have found more useful a definition that considers the results of the control and submission of an individual. We agree with Marshall (1994; cited by Follingstad & DeHart, 2000), who, with reference to the psychological abuse caused by the male partner over women, conceptualizes abuse as the daily communication and interaction with the partner that damages the psychological, emotional, and behavioral competence of the victim, without considering whether the purpose was intentional or had an affective interest, and whether or not the victim was aware of the effects. We think a greater development of the field of study is necessary before one assumes the intention and effective awareness of any approach or strategy in the exercise of power in PMGs.

Therefore, in these times and scenarios, we as social scientists are particularly responsible for undertaking the analysis and description of these phenomena, providing explanations, and thus returning to the society what we have learned with its support (Cialdini, 1997).

The conclusion could not be otherwise, that further research is required in this field. There seems to be difficulty with disclosing the few empirical data on the matter. The same research can sometimes yield a disproportionate number of publications, without the magnitude of the task apparently justifying it (e.g., Wright, 1983; 1984; 1987). Conversely, others’ significant research efforts, which conclude with submission of their doctoral dissertations, do not include the potentially valuable publication of their results in accessible scientific journals (e.g., Danley, 2004; Sorensen, 1996; Vaughn, 1996; Whitney, 2002; Wolfson, 2002). Scientific communications often have been limited to the territory of an informal data exchange. Advance and development in this field of study thus becomes more difficult because other interested researchers are unaware of the results of research questions that have already been considered.


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This is a modified version of an article, “Abuso psicológico en grupos manipuladores,” published in 2011 by Fundación para el Avance de la Psicología Clínica Conductual, ISSN: 1132-9483 Revista Psicología Conductual/Behavioral Psychology, 2011, 19(1), 157–182. Translated and modified with permission.

About the Primary Author

Correspondence: Carmen Almendros, Facultad de Psicología. Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Ciudad Universitaria de Cantoblanco, 28049 Madrid. (

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 2, 2011