Cults, Psychological Manipulation, & Society

Paper Presented at AFF Annual Conference, University of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus May 14, 1999

Published in Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 2001, 1-12

Cults, Psychological Manipulation, and Society: International Perspectives - An Overview

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Executive Director, AFF


This paper provides an overview of salient issues covered in AFF’s 1999 annual conference. Definitional issues are examined. The proposition that is central to critical perspectives of cultic groups is: Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups. Four concerns about cults are discussed: psychological, ethical, social, and theological. Assessments of particular groups with regard to these areas of concern should be discerning.

This conference's title, "Cults, Psychological Manipulation, and Society: International Perspectives," is significant because cults and related groups have aroused significant concern around the world. I am aware of organizations concerned about cults in the following countries: U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Greece, Russia, Malta, Israel, Japan, and Australia. There are probably some of which I am not aware. The concern tends to focus on, though not be limited to, issues related to psychological manipulation and its impact on society. Concerns generate much confusion and disputation, in large part because people define the term "cult" in different ways

Analysis of Definitional Issues

According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) the term, "cult," originally referred to "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings...a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies...devotion or homage to a particular person or thing." More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations: "3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious...4 : A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator...5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work...b. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)

Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish "cult" from "church," "sect," and "denomination." Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches. When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations. Zablocki defines a cult as "an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment." According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded. The power these corrupt - or corrupted - leaders come to wield can also result in social harm, such as law-breaking and the undermining of democratic values.

Definitions proposed at various times by associates of AFF tend to presume the manifestation of what is potential in Zablocki's definition (by definition low control groups are not cultic). These definitions tend to emphasize elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious.

Because such definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, some students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although there are similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult. Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.

Definitions advanced by AFF associates imply that the term "cult" refers to a continuum, in which a large gray area separates "cult" from "noncult," or add qualifiers to the term "cult," such as "destructive." These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or near the gray area of the continuum. This debate can become more acute when the group in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater or less "cultishness," or is skilled at public relations.

Because they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by AFF associates are implicitly interactionist. Like all psychologically based models, they presume that different people will respond differently to the same group environment, much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment. Cults are not all alike. Nor are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same group.

Because of the definitional confusion surrounding the term "cult," students of the field should carefully examine the cult phenomenon in detail and avoid making hasty categorization decisions about specific groups.

Since this paper has a broad focus, I will presume the Zablocki definition of "cult" in what follows: "an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment."

Concerns About Cults and Related Groups Operate on Four Levels

Psychological Concerns

Although cultic groups vary a great deal, a huge body of clinical evidence and a growing body of empirical research indicate that some groups harm some people sometimes, and that some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups. This proposition is at the heart of the debate about "cults." A number of the programs at this conference explore ways in which cultic groups may adversely affect individuals, families, and society at large.

This proposition is amenable to systematic, empirical research that ought eventually to be able to resolve current disputes about specific groups or the general population of "cultic groups." Among the subjects that have been or could be studied empirically are:

What psychological dynamics characterize groups at high risk of harming members and families?

How can cultic environments be assessed empirically, in particular with regard to the dimensions of control and harm?

What is the nature and magnitude of harm that current and former members may experience?

How prevalent is high manipulation within cults?

How prevalent is harm within particular groups and across groups?

How prevalent are groups at high risk of harm?

How many individuals have been involved in such groups?

How many involved persons have been harmed?

How effective are psychological and other attempts at remedy?

Some individuals on both sides of the controversy tend to ignore the empirical foundation of the cult issue and affirm nonfalsifiable assumptions.

Some, for example, seem to presume that all groups labeled cults must be all bad and incapable of change. Messages on the Internet, for example have asserted that this conference's program, "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON," is a sign of naivete on AFF's part, or even a sign that "AFF has been taken over by cults." The underlying assumption of these criticisms seems to be that a group such as ISKCON is incapable of positive change; therefore, AFF must be wrong-headed or complicitous.

Some observers on the other side of the controversy seem to presume that all groups labeled cults are persecuted and benign. They sometimes call negative reports of ex-members "atrocity tales" (Bromley, Shupe, & Ventimiglia, 1979), a term that appears a priori to dismiss all criticism of cultic groups as fabrications or face-saving sour grapes.

In between these extremes of "see no evil" and "see nothing but evil" is a broad range of opinions. If these opinions are ever to rise to the level of knowledge, disputing parties must engage in sincere and substantive dialogue that recognizes the need to phrase the issues as questions that are amenable to scientific research. Then such research must be conducted, as a coordinated program of studies, not a hodgepodge of unrelated studies pursued by isolated researchers.

The workshop on Sunday, "Toward a Common Research Agenda," will attempt to contribute to the process of dialogue. Fortunately, some useful research has been or is being conducted. Some of this research will be discussed Saturday morning.

Those in the helping professions, however, realize that one cannot wait for research when people need help. One must do the best one can with the knowledge and understanding at one's disposal. A number of sessions in this conference offer advice based on the presenters' current understanding of the issues, e.g., the sessions on support groups and psychological needs, and the workshops for families, ex-members, and those interested in education about the cult issue.

Ethical Concerns

The first reaction of many cult critics is, "that's wrong." Often, the specific behavior or practice being criticized results in psychological or other forms of harm to people. Sometimes, however, the effects are not necessarily harmful; yet, the criticism, "that's wrong," remains. Lying about one's group affiliation while trying to recruit people on a college campus, for example, may not "harm" the persons approached, but those persons may feel offended that somebody would lie to them in the name of religion, social betterment, or self-improvement; they feel "it's wrong."

Although thought reform is usually associated with the psychological dimension of the cult phenomenon, the cult critics who discuss thought reform often implicitly place it in an ethical context. I have heard from a colleague, for example, that some scholars in the organizational psychology literature advocate the use of "coercive persuasion" techniques in order to improve organizational performance (I'm not personally familiar with this literature). He and I, and probably most of our colleagues in this field, blanch at this notion. We tend to believe that thought reform, or coercive persuasion, should not be used on people, regardless of the presumed nobility or usefulness of the goals. Ethically, people should not be treated in this way.

A special issue of AFF's Cultic Studies Journal (Volume 2, Number 2) reported on the development of an ethical code for the Christian evangelist, a code developed by a team of evangelicals led by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. A modified version of this code was adopted by Boston University (and possibly other schools) to guide its religious personnel. I wish that more religion professionals would look at this code and related work in order to begin to delineate ethical boundaries for religious influence situations. What is needed is an ethics casebook, similar to the casebooks developed by professional associations in the mental health field.

Dr. Benjamin Zablocki has proposed a bill of inalienable rights for intentional communities. He proposes voluntary guidelines on matters such as the right to leave, to maintain contact with the outside world, the right to an education, to adequate health access, and the right to impartial investigation of complaints.

It is important not to confuse ethical objections related to cultic groups with other kinds of objections. One doesn't HAVE to demonstrate harm to justify an ethical criticism of a behavior or practice. Nor does one HAVE to demonstrate thought reform. Many practices and behaviors that are not part of a thought reform program can be criticized on ethical grounds. Similarly, one doesn't HAVE to whitewash ethical transgressions simply because some cult critics unfairly characterize a group as using thought reform. Again, the two extremes of "see no evil" and "see nothing but evil" miss the long continuum separating these two poles.

The session on ISKCON will address ethical issues, for the reform group within ISKCON appears to recognize that some of the organization's behaviors and practices need to be subjected to ethical accountability. The people I have talked with have shown much interest in the ethical code developed by InterVarsity and in Dr. Zablocki's bill of rights. Recently, the abuse of children in ISKCON, which certainly has profound ethical as well as psychological and medical implications, has been an issue of great concern. Consider the following quotes:

As a stigmatized and politically marginal group, householders were left powerless to assert their parental authority over the lives of their children. Children were abused in part because they were not valued by leaders, and even, very often, by their own parents who accepted theological and other justifications offered by the leadership for remaining uninvolved in the lives of their children. (Rochford & Heinlein, pp. 43-44)

Over the years any number of estimates have been offered ranging from 20% of all students who attended an ashram-gurukula suffering some form of abuse, to as many as 75% of the boys enrolled at the Vrindavan, India, gurukula having been sexually molested during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Rochford & Heinlein, p.47)

"I remember dark closets filled with flying dates (large 3 inch flying cockroaches) and such, while beatings and `no prasadam' for dinner became everyday affairs" (Rochford & Heinlein, p. 47).

"Seattle was hell because I was only 6 years old, my mom lived in Hawaii and I had always been a very shy mommy's girl. The movement was in its earlier stages and the devotees were fanatical -- beyond fanatical. I mean, they would give us a bowl of hot milk at night, so I would, of course, pee in my bed. Then as punishment they would spank me very hard and make me wear the contaminated panties on my head. In general, at that time, because I was so young, I was so spaced out and confused. I would cry…for my mom, but that wasn't allowed, so I would say I was crying in devotional ecstasy" (Rochford & Heinlein, p. 47).

Is this quote from Cultic Studies Journal? No. Is it from the Cult Observer? No. Is it even from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion? No. It is from ISKCON Communications Journal, and the article from which the quotes come was written by E. Burke Rochford, Jr., with Jennifer Heinlein. Rochford is often identified with the "pro-cult" camp of sociologists.

When the lawyers get their teeth into this issue, ISKCON may pay a great price for the forthrightness demonstrated in its own journal. However, if genuine reform is to occur, then the price must be paid for past abuses and the ground laid for future accountability. The organization may pay a financial price. Many of the adult members whose children were abused are undoubtedly already paying a heavy price emotionally as they confront the terrible consequences of their loyalty and obedience to the movement.

We who are cult critics should not gloat and say, "I told you years ago that children were being abused in ISKCON." It would have been much better had we been wrong and innocent children not been abused. We should take no satisfaction from their suffering.

If we, as cult critics, can offer constructive advice and commentary to the reform element within ISKCON, we can do much more to help the children (and adults) within ISKCON than we could do standing on the sidelines shouting "I see nothing but evil!" Even if the reform movement is not fully confronting the organization's problems, its capacity to bring about constructive change is much greater than that of its critics. How many cults have changed their practices in a substantial way because of the criticisms of outsiders? Reform that grows from within an organization has a much greater chance of success than reform that outsiders try to impose.

This is not to say that criticism from outside isn't important. It may stimulate persons within the organization to reevaluate their group and press for change. However, except in rare cases where legal authorities exercise power, change will usually occur only when enough persons within the organization support it.

Social Concerns

I think it is important to distinguish social concerns that reflect offenses against fundamental societal values from those that reflect concerns against the idiosyncratic values of individuals. Society's valuing of social order demands accountability when a group commits the first offense. But society's valuing of individual freedom demands that critics strive for tolerance when confronted by a group that elicits idiosyncratic disapproval in them.

Examples of the latter category of concern include antagonism resulting from an observer's disapproval of:

unconventional dress or lifestyle choices

religious beliefs different from his/her own

groups with a foreign origin

groups with a particular racial or ethnic makeup

Examples of the former category include concerns resulting from a group's violation of commonly held ethical and/or legal standards, such as:

criminal laws, including those related to immigration, commerce, and finances

explicit or implicit standards of ethical influence (e.g., lying to people in order to persuade them to come to a group-sponsored event)

infiltration of government organizations


abuse of the legal system through spurious lawsuits

pursuit of political goals while operating under the rubric of a nonpolitical, charitable, or religious organization

deceptive fund-raising and sales practices

unlawful pressuring of employees to participate in cultic "educational" programs

misuse of charitable status in order to secure money for business and other noncharitable purposes

unfair competition through the use of underpaid labor or "recycled salaries"

medical, psychological, and educational neglect and/or abuse of children

Misuse of school or college facilities

In societies that cherish religious freedom, the balancing of religious freedom and law enforcement may sometimes be difficult to achieve or to gain consensus on. Two sessions in this conference will examine how the legal and governmental systems in the U.S. and Europe have responded to cult issues. The Saturday evening discussion program is also likely to address this question of balance.

Theological Concerns

If one accepts the notion that beliefs have consequences, then one is likely to conclude that theological analyses may shed light on the psychological, ethical, and social implications of the cult phenomenon.

During the Waco standoff, for example, some observers criticized the FBI for not addressing the thought reform dimension of Waco. Others criticized the FBI for not considering the theological beliefs of David Koresh. Herb Rosedale and I wrote an essay at the time in which we argued that both perspectives should have been considered (citation):

I believe that theological analyses can contribute to the understanding of cult-related phenomena. Professor Roger Olsen of Bethel Seminary was to have spoken on this issue at this conference, but his circumstances changed and he could not make the conference.

Theological issues may arise in our discussion of changes in ISKCON. How, for example, can reformers justify changes that, at least on the surface, appear to conflict with the belief system set down by the movement's founder? If they can make compelling justifications for these changes within ISKCON's theological belief system, the reformers are likely to run into less resistance on practices that have elicited considerable social concern.

Those who offer theological analyses should be careful to recognize that modern democratic societies place a protective wall around belief -- and for good reason. One can believe bad things without acting badly. The tragedy in Littleton, Colorado demonstrates this point. As commentators try to "explain" why the young men went on a killing spree, they point to a host of possible causes: they revered Adolph Hitler; they hated "jocks"; they were racist; etc. But thousands of people who do not murder others share these beliefs. If we locked people up for their beliefs, our prisons would burst.

Nevertheless, critical analysis of potentially destructive belief systems may lessen the probability that some people will act upon those beliefs, in part by decreasing the probability that some may be persuaded to adopt them in the first place. That is why AFF has worked with certain individuals and organizations who focus on theological analyses of cultic groups. To the extent they can help people think more discerningly, they can lessen the probability that people will get caught up in destructive systems.

Of course, some think that all religions are hogwash, that the Heaven's Gate philosophy is no more irrational than that of Christianity or Judaism. I believe these people are wrong. Although all religions rest on assumptions about a transcendental reality that can't be accessed scientifically, conceptual structures built on these assumptions can vary greatly with regard to internal logical coherence and the degree to which they respond constructively to human needs that are common across cultures.

Some theological critics might argue that cultic conceptual structures will undermine attempts at reform because they lack logical coherence and don't adequately meet human needs. Sometimes, the theology of a particular group may be so inconsistent and contrary to human needs that adaptation to society will be impossible. As a psychologist, however, I have come to have great faith in the human capacity to creatively rationalize contradictory beliefs and behaviors, so I am more optimistic about reform for many groups, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, reality always wins. So I advise against dismissing out of hand theological critiques of groups' conceptual structures.

Important Not to Mix Up Concerns

People sometimes act as though a valid criticism in one of the four major areas of concern -- psychological, ethical, legal, and theological -- necessarily implies that potential concerns in the other three areas must also be valid. If, for example, a group has an unorthodox belief system (e.g., it follows an Indian guru), the group may be "presumed" to be psychologically harmful, unethical, and legally suspect. Drawing such conclusions, however, is an unwarranted conceptual leap, the kind of false inference that encourages unthinking polarization, rather than thoughtful dialogue. Although it may be the case that the socially deviant group violates the law, behaves unethically, and harms people, it is not necessarily, nor even probably the case. Evidence, not presumption, should rule.


In closing, let me reiterate the proposition that I believe is central to the cult issue: Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.

The so-called pro-cult-anti-cult debate really revolves around different judgment calls people make with regard to how many groups are at risk for harm, how much harm they contribute to, what causes the harm, and what should be done about it. We must make judgment calls about such questions because we lack sufficient empirical data to resolve the disputes.

If we are to avoid replacing the closed-mindedness of high control groups with another form of closed-mindedness in which we treat our opinions as facts, people on both sides of the cult dispute must acknowledge the following:

Despite the commendable scientific research that has been conducted, much, maybe most, of what we think we know is opinion (however informed and reasonable it may be), not scientific fact.

If we are to increase our scientific understanding of this phenomenon, we must put substantial resources into studying it scientifically in a coordinated way, not the usual academic route of each researcher working independently, chasing whatever question happens to grab his or her fancy.

We must be willing to change our opinions as scientific knowledge increases.

As we struggle to increase our scientific knowledge, we must try to help hurting people and forewarn those as yet unaffected, especially youth, as best we can. But we should do this with a humility that permits us to continue to learn, even as we teach and counsel.


Bromley, D. G., Shupe, A. D., & Ventimiglia, J. C. (1979). Atrocity tales, the Unification Church and the social construction of evil. Journal of Communication, 29, 42-53.

The compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary. (1980). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.

Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.

Rosedale, H. R., & Langone, M. D. (October, 1993). How Many Jonestowns will it Take? Cult Observer, 10(4), 3, 11.

Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.

West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.

Zablocki, B. (1995). My Turn—Proposing a "Bill of inalienable rights" for intentional communities. Communities, No. 88, 8, 10-11.

Zablocki, B. (1997). Paper presented to a conference, "Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues," May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is AFF’s Executive Director. He is the editor of Cultic Studies Journal and Recovery From Cults. He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults. In 1995, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. This paper was presented at the AFF Annual Conference Paper University of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus, May 14, 1999