Family Environment as a Factor in Vulnerability

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 5, Number 1, 1988, Pages 23-43

Family Environment as a Factor in Vulnerability to Cult Involvement

Neil Maron, Ph. D. Joel Braverman High School

Brooklyn, New York


The purpose of this investigation was to determine whether a relationship exists between parental perceptions of the family environment of cult members and vulnerability to cult involvement. Thirty-five families, recruited at a convention of the Citizens Freedom Foundation, a non-profit support group for parents whose offspring are/were in cults, were compared with 35 families recruited from community centers and churches in the New York Metropolitan Area. Data were collected retrospectively on self-report measures: the Moos Family Environment Scale and a Family Questionnaire. Univariate tests and discriminant analysis found that the families differed only in one of the ten subscales (Independence) of the Family Environment Scale, with the cult group having higher mean scale scores than the comparison group. In general, the results were consistent with Singer's (1979), Swope's (1980), Clark's (1981), and Carr's (198 1) findings that the familial factor is not important in cult involvement and that members are typically recruited within twelve months of experiencing one of eight stressful events.


The study reported here investigates the role of the family as a predisposing factor in cult involvement. Data based on parental perceptions were collected in retrospective self-report questionnaires from a sample of families in which one offspring was/is a cult member and a comparison sample of families without such offspring.

Various theorists and researchers have focused on three categories of supposed vulnerability factors: personal factors, recruitment psychodynamic factors, and familial factors. (See Ash, 1985 for a detailed review of this subject.) Family factors have had negligible attention in the literature, and this study attempts to partly fill that void.

It is hypothesized that not all youngsters are equally vulnerable to cull involvement and that familial factors play an important role in vulnerability - specifically, enmeshment, family psychopathology, moral-religious emphasis, achievement orientation, and intellectual-cultural orientation.

There are many different theories regarding the background of cultists prior to membership. Schwartz and Kaslow (1979) and Zerin (1982) emphasize the role of the family as a predisposing factor to involvement. In their studies, Schwam and Kaslow (1979) and Vickers (1977) reported patterns of overly enmeshed families, families in which taking responsibility for each other is the hallmark Young people in such families are uncomfortable entering an adult world that values autonomy. Hence, according to Schwartz and Kaslow, for the cult member the group often represents a solution to the conflicts aroused b) society's demands for autonomy.

However, Clark (1979), Clark, Langone, Schecter, and Daly (1981), Singer (1982), and Swope (1980), basing their studies on extensive interviews with cult families, find that most cult members come from normal family environment and have merely been manipulated by a "Madison Avenue" type technique during a vulnerable period in their lives. One such instance occurs when a person goes to college away from home and confronts the need to manage time and make new relationships. Another point may be just before or after college graduation while moving from the structured student life into the world of work. The loss of important relationships, such as breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, o the death of a close relative, are noted, as are other stressful periods of transition. These periods occur in the lives of most young people, but some of them are in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak, and are pulled into the cult.

* This article stems from the author's doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology for Yeshiva University.

In sum, relatively little professional literature has focused on the psychologies determinants of cult conversion, and what is available sheds little light on the role of the family in susceptibility to involvement

Part of the problem with which this study attempts to cope is that in measuring family life, no unidimensional model suffices to accurately measure family functioning. Recent efforts have focused on identifying unifying dimensions (family interactions and developing standardized multidimensional assessment instruments. The Family Environment Scale (FES), which is used in this study, is a self-report instrument that focuses on the interpersonal relationships among family members, the directions of personal growth emphasized in the family, and the family's organization and system-maintenance characteristics.

The FES approach was initially developed by Moos (1974), who adopted a perspective which assumes that "environments have unique personalities just as people do." The logic of the family environment approach is that the environmental climate of the family exerts a directional influence on the behavior of all its members.

The focus of the present study is on the family environments of 35 families in which one member has/had a cult involvement. These families are compared with a group of 35 families, randomly selected from membership lists of suburban community centers and churches, with offspring between the ages of 18 and 30 who have not entered a cult.

The aims of the study are: a) to assess the family environments, as retrospectively perceived by the parents, prior to their offspring's cult membership, and, b) to see if and how this environment differs from that perceived by parents of a matched control sample. It is assumed that such differences should provide useful insights about vulnerability or non- vulnerability to cult involvement.


The sample for the experimental group was drawn from a population of 300 parents who attended a convention of the Citizens Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C., in October 1982. (The Citizens Freedom Foundation, now called the Cult Awareness Network, is an organization developed by parents to provide information and support for other parents with children in cults.)

Within this population 145 packets were distributed to the parents at the welcoming desk during registration. The sample of 35 intact families studied, who represented 25% of the packet recipients, were those who followed all of the instructions and returned all of the materials and were therefore usable respondents for the research.

The average age of the cult offspring of the sample families was 26.6 at the time of the study and 21.5 at the time of joining the cult. The average number of siblings was 3.5. In 21 families the cult member was male and in 14 the cult member was female. Seventeen families were Protestant. 11 were Catholic, and 7 were Jewish. All were Caucasian with an average income between $25,000 and $30,000.

The following cults are represented in this study: the Unification Church, Children of God, Church of Scientology, Divine Light Mission, Hare Krishna, and the Way International.

To constitute a comparison sample, Caucasian families with offspring between the ages of 18 and 30 were randomly selected from the membership lists of two Jewish Community Centers, a Catholic Church, a Lutheran Church, a Congregational Church, and a Unitarian Church. All of these organizations are located in the New York Metropolitan Area. Research packets containing the information instruments and a self-addressed stamped envelope were mailed to all of these families. Each packet also included one of six different letters. In order to ensure that the parents would choose children of different ordinal positions and focus on one specific child, one child was pre-selected. The letters asked the parents to either focus on the eldest, a middle, or the youngest child. Thirty-five families, representing 25% of those to whom the packets were mailed, followed all of the instructions and returned all of the instruments and were therefore usable respondents for the research.

The comparison sample thus consisted of 35 intact middle income ($25,000 - $30,000) Caucasian families, one of whose children was between the ages of 18 and 30. The average age of the offspring focused on was 26.2 at the time of testing, the average number of siblings was 3.1. In 20 families a mate member was focused on and in 15 families a female was focused on. Ten Catholic families, 16 Jewish, and 9 Protestant families comprised this sample.


Family Environment Scale Form R

The FES, a scale developed by Moos and his associates, was chosen because the FES is a multi-dimensional measure of family life. In addition, it was reported by Dreyer (1971) to be "biased towards a middle-class, Anglo-Saxon nuclear family with two parents." These types of families comprise the research sample The FES presents family members with 90 true/false statements dealing with 11 substantive dimensions of the family social environment. A family score is achieved by averaging the parents' scores in each subscale.

The scale was adapted specifically for the present study. The parents were instructed to respond to the questions retrospectively rather than in the present in view of the underlying assumption of normal distribution and the likely distortions resulting from using the FES retrospectively, it seemed advisable t( use raw scores in this study. The FES had been used retrospectively by Penk Robinowitz, Kidd, and Nisle (1979), and Pringle (1976). However, they relied on standard scores.

The enmeshed family is assumed to have a high level of cohesiveness and a low level of individual decision-making, which are represented in a high score on the cohesion scale and a low score on the independence scale of the FES. Thus, enmeshment was measured by averaging the parent score for the cohesion and independence scales.

Family Questionnaire (Cult Families)

This questionnaire, developed in conjunction with the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services Research Team on Cults, is a 32-item questionnaire requiring either short answers or forced-choice responses. The parents were asked to discuss each question with one another and to formulate one answer together.

The items cover specific information on the cult member's background, including: present age, age at recruitment, number of siblings and their ages, and school, social, and health history. It also asks specific questions about the cult member's family's health history, religious affiliation and level of observance, and demographics (marital status, education, vocation and income). In addition, the parents were asked if, to the best of their knowledge, in the twelve months prior to cult membership the cult member experienced any of the following events: death of a close friend, sickness of a close relative or friend, broken romantic relationship, loss of a job, frustration in finding a job, failure at school, extensive travel in the United States/overseas and/or abrupt personality change. 'Me parents were asked to check all of the experiences that occurred.

Family Questionnaire (Comparison Families)

This is a 26-item questionnaire, similar to the Cult Family Questionnaire except that six questions regarding issues of cult involvement were not included.

Parents were requested to focus in on either their eldest, one of their middle, or youngest child. They were also asked to discuss each question and to formulate one answer jointly. One of the questions asked the parents if their children had experienced any or all of eight stressful events in any 12-month period between 18 and 30. This question represented an attempt to elicit information parallel to that gathered in the Cult Family Questionnaire. However, it became apparent that this instruction did not necessarily specify a period similar to the year prior to cult involvement in the cult group.


As described above, one hundred and forty-five cult-family research packets were handed out at the welcoming desk at the Citizens Freedom Foundation convention in Washington, D.C., in October 1982. The packets included the Family Environment Scale Form R, an appropriate Family Questionnaire, and a self-addressed stamped envelope which the participants were requested to mail back to the researcher at their earliest possible convenience if they were unable to complete the packet at the convention itself. The critical directives were to hand the packets in by the last day of the convention. However, only three families handed the completed materials back by the end of the convention. This was due to the fact that both parents were not present at the convention or to the lack of time due to programming at the convention. One-half of the packets contained a letter of instructions asking them first to complete the Fan-dly Environment Scale Form R individually and then the Family Questionnaire together. The other half were asked to jointly complete the Family Questionnaire first and then separately to complete the Family Environment Scale Form R. This procedure controls for the effect of the order of presentation of the instruments.

The instruction letter told the parents to fill out FES Form R retrospectively, referring them to when their offspring was between 16 and 18. This age range was chosen since it typically precedes the time when the child may have gone off to college and is often the last time many families are intact.

Of the 145 cult-family research packets that were handed out, 51 (359'o of the total) were returned. Of those, 35 (25% of the 145) came from two-parent families and contained both parents' Family Environment Scales and the Family Questionnaire; 8 (5.5%) were returned with only one Family Environment Scale completed due to death, divorce, or reluctance of the other parent to participate; 4 (2.8%) were returned with only the Family Questionnaire; and 4 (2.8%) were returned missing the Family Questionnaire.

To constitute a comparison group, 145 Caucasian families with offspring between 18 and 30 were randomly selected from the membership lists of New York area Jewish Community Centers and Catholic and Protestant Churches, a., mentioned earlier. Research packets containing the Family Environment Scale Form R, an appropriate Family Questionnaire, and a self-addressed stamped envelope were mailed to all these families. A letter of introduction and instructions requested the parents to fill out the Family Questionnaire jointly an( the FES Form R separately, and gave instructions for the order of filling then out. The parents were instructed to fill out the Family Environment Scale, retrospectively, as of the time their youngster was between 16 and 18.

Of the 145 packets mailed, 43 (30%) were returned; 35 (25% of the 145 contained the Family Questionnaire and a completed FES Form R from each parent. Five were returned by single parents and 3 (2%) were returned with only the Family Questionnaire. Of all the returned packets, 19 of those who were instructed to complete the Family Environment Scale first were included in the analysis and 16 who were instructed to complete the Family Questionnaire first.

Participants of both groups were assured of confidentiality; their names never appeared on either the Family Environment Scale or the Family Questionnaire.

Three different types of statistical analyses were performed on the data. A discriminant analysis tested for the hypothesized differences between the experimental and comparison group. A cluster analysis of the ten FES subscales as separate dimensions was done to see if any patterns would develop that would discriminate between the groups. In addition, tests were performed on al; questionnaire variables to test for significance. The primary analysis compares the experimental and comparison groups on the basis of the results of the Family Environment Scale computations. The Family Questionnaire has been used as a supportive secondary source of information to augment the findings of the Family Profile supplied by the Family Environment Scale.


The following hypotheses were proposed:

I. That parents of cult members would perceive their families as being more enmeshed (high parental expectations, lack of individuation, fluid boundaries) than the comparison group (as evidenced by a higher score on the Cohesion subscale and a lower score on the Independence subscale for families of cult members as compared to the comparison group.).

2. That parents of cult members would report a higher incidence of psychopathology in their families as compared with the comparison group (as reflected by their responses to the questionnaire item regarding reported psychopathology in the immediate or extended family).

3. That parents of cult members would perceive their family environments as having less moral religious emphasis than the comparison group (as evidenced by a lower score on the FES Moral-Religious Emphasis subscale for the cult group).

4. That parents of cult members would perceive their family environments as having stronger achievement orientation than the comparison group (as reflected by a higher scale score on the FES Achievement subscale on the Family Environment Scale for the cult families).

5. That parents of cult members would perceive their family environments as having greater intellectual-cultural orientation than the comparison group (as evidenced by higher scores on the Intellectual-Cultural Orientation subscale for the cult families).


Data were collected from 35 parent couples in an experimental (cult) group and from 35 parent couples in a comparison group. Of the 70 cases processed, two were excluded from the former group in the discrimination analysis as they lacked complete data for at least one discriminant variable. In sum, 33 cult cases and 35 comparison cases were used in the discriminant analysis. In addition, an analysis of 60 of the families, controlled for religion, was made in an attempt to see whether classifying families on the basis of clusters of parentally perceived characteristics would yield significant distinctions between the two family types.

In the 68 cases in the discriminant analysis, the average age of the pertinent offspring was 26 at the time of the study. The families in both samples averaged four offspring. The average educational level of the offspring discussed was two years of college with a B average. The majority of the fathers of these children had graduated from college, whereas the typical mother attended college but did not graduate.

The two samples differed significantly (p <.02) in the distribution of self-declared religious affiliation. In the cult group 51% were Protestant, 21% Catholic, and 22% Jewish. The comparison group consisted of 23% Protestant, 27% Catholic, and 50% Jewish families. Whether this difference results from distinctions in the two universes from which the samples were drawn or from differential response rates within those populations cannot be determined.

Table I

Raw Scores Discriminating Cult and Comparison Offspring at Statistically Significant Levels

Variable Cult Group Comparison Group P


Standard Deviation


Standard Deviation







Romantic Involvement






Alcohol Use






Religious Training






On the variables measured by the Family Questionnaire, a Wilkes Lambda (i.e, correlation test) revealed that the groups differed significantly on only four out of twenty possible variables. As shown in Table 1, the cult offspring were reported as having fewer close friendships, fewer romantic involvements, less alcohol use, and less religious training.

Friendship was rated on a one to three scale representing no relationships, casual relationships, and close relationships. The score of 2.96 for the comparison group means that on the average these offspring had closer relationships with friends than the cult offspring, as reported by their parents.

In the case of Romantic Involvements, the study scores show that on the average the comparison group offspring had close to two romantic involvements, whereas the cult group member on the average had only one romance, as reported by their parents.

As reported by parents, the comparison group offspring on the average used alcohol occasionally; the average cult offspring was a less frequent user. This score was based on a 3-point scale where scores of 1, 2, and 3 respectively represented no alcohol use, occasional use, and frequent use.

The average amount of reported religious training in the comparison group was significantly greater than that in the cult group. Approximately 50% of the comparison group had at least parochial school training, while the average cult group member only attended Sunday School.

In addition, all cult offspring were parentally reported on the Family Questionnaire to have experienced at least one of eight stressful experiences in the twelve-month period prior to cult involvement: death of a close friend or relative; sickness of a close friend or relative; broken romantic relationship; loss of a job; frustration in finding a job; failure at school; extensive travel in the USA or overseas; abrupt personality change. Data for the comparison group were not suitable for comparative scoring on this factor.

These distinctions are not among those specifically set forth hypothetically at the start of the study, but appeared as the result of an analysis undertaken after the findings directly related to the study hypotheses proved unrewarding.

Tests of Hypotheses

The first hypothesis of the study states that the parents of cult members will report greater family enmeshment than the comparison group parents will report.

Enmeshment was measured by averaging the scores for both parents on the Cohesion and Independence subscales, as suggested by Moos (1983). As shown in Table 2, discriminant analysis tests revealed no significant difference between the levels of perceived enmeshment. Plus, the hypothesis was not supported.

Table 2

Summary of Data Pertinent to Five Hypotheses

Hypothesis Cult Group Comparison Group P


Standard Deviation


Standard Deviation



















Achievement Orientation






Intellectual orientation






The second hypothesis states that the families of cult members will have a higher incidence of psychopathology, as parentally reported on the family questionnaire, than will families in the comparison group. This variable was measured on a two-point scale. A score of I indicated no reported psychopathology in the family; a score of 2 reflected a report of psychopathology in the family. As shown in Table 2, the two means are almost identical; thus, this hypothesis was not supported.

Hypothesis three states that parents of cult members will perceive their families as evidencing less moral religious emphasis than will non-cult parents. The Moral Religious Emphasis FES subscale measures "the degree of emphasis on ethical and religious issues and values in the family." As Table 2 shows, there is no significant difference between the self-reported moral religious emphasis in the two classes of families. Thus, the third hypothesis was not supported.

Hypothesis four states that families whose offspring entered cults have stronger achievement orientation than the comparison group, as perceived by the parents. The FES Achievement Orientation subscale measures the "extent to which activities are cast into an achievement oriented or competitive framework." As seen in Table 2, discriminant analysis tests show no significant difference between the degree of achievement orientation in the two groups of families. Thus, hypothesis four was not supported.

Hypothesis five states that the families of cult members have a greater intellectual-cultural orientation than do families without cult members, as parentally perceived. ne Intellectual Cultural Orientation subscale measures "the degree of interest in political, social, intellectual and cultural activities." Table 2 shows that there was no significant difference between the cult and comparison groups. Thus, hypothesis five was not confirmed.

In an additional attempt to see if cult members and comparison members could be differentiated, family profiles based on a three cluster solution using a k- means algorithm (Hartigan, 1975) were compiled. The clusters were based on the ten subscales of the Family Environment Scale. As shown in Table 3, three distinct family clusters were found. Cluster I consisted of families who perceived their environment as highly supportive, controlling, and organized, yet a high amount of conflict, self-expression, and independence was evidenced. The families in Cluster 2 perceived their environment as low in control and moral- religious emphasis with an average amount of support, self-expression, and independence. Cluster 3 consisted of families who perceived their environments as highly supportive and organized, with a high moral religious emphasis. However, conflict and self-expression were extremely low in these families.

Table 3

Cluster Profiles Based on Clustering 10 FES Subscale Variables

Cluster 1

Cluster 2

Cluster 3





















Achievement-Culture Orientation




Active Recreational




Moral Religious Emphasis












However, as shown in Table 4, cult and comparison members were represented in each cluster in nearly equal proportions suggesting that there is no particular family type associated with having a child in a cult. These data support the results of the discriminant analysis.

Table 4

Proportion of Cult and Comparison Families in Each Cluster of a Three Cluster Solution

Cluster 1 Cluster 2 Cluster 3

Cult Families 54% 50% 52%

Comparison Families 46% 50% 48%

The only FES subscale on which the two groups significantly differed (p<.03) was Independence. The Independence subscale measures "the degree to which family members are encouraged to be assertive, self-sufficient, to make their own decisions and to think things out for themselves." The cult group's higher mean score (7.64) reveals greater parent-reported independence orientation than is shown in the comparison group (7.0). On all the other nine subscales of the FES, the two groups did not differ significantly,

The individual subscale means and standard deviations of the two samples, even though based on retrospective perceptions, were very similar to Moos' findings for current perceptions by parents of adolescent children. For example, in the present study, the mm of the two groups combined for the Moral Religious Emphasis subscale was 5.25 with a standard deviation of 2.16; in the Moos' work, the mean score was 5.19 with a standard deviation of 2.19. Similarly, on the Achievement Orientation subscale the present study yielded an overall mean of 5.76 with a standard deviation of 1.62, while in Moos the mean for Achievement Orientation was 5.6, with a standard deviation of 1.7.


In sum the five hypotheses relating vulnerability to cult involvement to familial factors were not supported by the data in this study. Cult families differed from the comparison group on only one of ten FES subscales (Independence). In addition, on the items of the Family Questionnaire the cult families differed significantly from the comparison group on only four items, namely, reported amount of romantic involvement, quality of friendships, religious training, an( alcohol use.


Analysis of the data did not support any of the hypotheses, either with or without control variables. Thus, the overriding hypothesis, that familial factors are an important aspect of vulnerability to cult involvement is not supported. In discussing this research, three main aspects of the research merit discussion: the findings and their meanings, the methodology and its bearing on these findings, and the implications, both substantive and methodological, for future research.

The Findings

Assuming that methodological shortcomings (discussed below) can be largely discounted, this study does not support the Schwartz and Kaslow (1979, 1982) and Vickers (1977) contentions that cult members come from families that place extremely great value on responsibility to the family, a hallmark of the enmeshed family. In the present study, the cult families did not differ statistically from the comparison group on measures that reflect enmeshment. It is possible that this lack of distinction may be related to the inadequacy of the FES in measuring enmeshment or in studying important family issues. This issue will be discussed later. A more likely explanation appears to be that the lack of the findings supports the position taken by Clark et al. (1981), Singer (1979), Swope (1980), and Carr (1981), all of whom concluded that familial factors are not significant in joining a cult. Clark, for example, found that two- thirds of the individuals who enter cults are normal young adults recruited during a vulnerable period in their lives. Swope, indeed, summed up his view unequivocally: "Cult members are no different from anyone else. Given the right time, place, and circumstances, anyone is vulnerable."

The findings concerning stressful events in the year prior to joining a cult are compatible with a non-family-role perspective; however, the lack of data from the comparison group or of normative data based on the general population in this age range makes it difficult to evaluate this finding. Almost all (95%) of the parents of cult members reported that their offspring had at least one stressful event in the twelve months prior to cult involvement; the mean of such reported events was 1.25. These stressful events included broken romantic relationships, deaths of close friends or relatives, job or school failures, or an abrupt personality change. This finding is consistent with Cary's (1981) conclusion that the loss of a significant relationship by death, serious physical-mental disorder, or romantic breakup increases vulnerability to cult involvement, but is not as emphatic as that of Eden (1981), who found that 88% of her respondents had experienced at least three stressful events. The more modest finding of the present study, in comparison to that of Eden, must be considered in the light of the respective methods; parental retrospective reporting may fall significantly short of a possibly more accurate incidence as compiled by Eden respondents reporting on their own experiences. It is quite likely that parents know, or recall, or report only "major" experiences, whereas first-hand respondents also recall and report less significant incidents. Moreover, it is possible that stress is a "threshold" phenomenon: once you cross the sill, the number of pushes isn't important.

The lack of significant differences between the two classes of families in reported incidence of member psychopathology supports the previously mentioned notion that families of cult members are generally similar to families whose offspring do not enter cults. It should be noted, however, that although the presence of members' psychopathology is often considered an index of the possibility of family dysfunctionality, the absence of individual psychopathology is not a guarantee of a functional family.

The lack of significant differences between the groups on the FES Moral- Religious Emphasis Scale, whether without or with control variables, is noteworthy. Although part of the comparison group was recruited from churchgoers and the entire comparison group had a greater average amount of religious training, there was no difference between the two groups on moral- religious emphasis. What this says about churchgoing and religious training may not be so clear, however; the membership of the experimental sample, parents in the Citizens Freedom Foundation, may constitute a "churchgoing equivalent" and at the least may indicate an underlying "moral-type" orientation not common among most non-churchgoers with a similar level of religious training.

The equivalence of both groups on the FES Achievement Orientation Scale does not support Schwartz and Kaslow's (1979) and Scharff's (1982) view that children who get involved in cults grew up in achievement-oriented homes and are prone to perfectionistic striving. The lack of such a distinction in the two samples again supports the contention that the familial factor is not significant in cult involvement.

On the other hand, the finding that the two samples were not significantly different in their intellectual-cultural orientation does not support Carr's (1981) view, based on her finding that parents of her sample of cult members had a high level of education (18% with Doctoral Degrees), that cult-member parents probably are relatively highly accepting of various philosophies and values. Carr, it should be noted, does not provide evidence supporting her assumption that educational level reacts significantly to such "accepting" attitudes, even if it can be taken as an index of intellectual-cultural orientation. Similarly, the results of this study do not support Kelly's (1979) finding that "often the subjects [ex-cult members themselves] had an inordinate admiration for the intellect in a very unrealistic way." On the whole, then, it seems that the non- distinguishing finding regarding parents' level of education and intellectual orientation supports the non-family-factor perspective of cult vulnerability.

The portrait of cult members prior to cult involvement, as painted by their parents, is similar to that presented in the literature by Kelly (1979), Galanter et al (1979), Carr (1981), Eden (1981), and Markowitz (1982). The cult member was seen as coming typically from a generally middle-income family, being in the 18-30 age range at the time of recruitment, and attending college with a B average.

In addition, in the present study, a significant difference on the Family Questionnaire is the parents' description of the cult member as having been less socially active, in the sense of having fewer close friendships and fewer romantic involvements, than the comparison group offspring. This distinction, if accurate, clearly suggests the importance of the recruitment process. The young adult with limited talents in interpersonal relationships may be readily attracted to the cults by friendly recruiters. There may, of course, be some underlying difference in the two parent groups' knowledge of their children's friendships, or in their tendencies to characterize them as "close" or "casual." If so, this would be an extremely significant aspect differentiating family backgrounds; but no such distinction is suggested in the literature, and the present study was not designed to investigate such a possibility.

One must view with caution the meaning and significance of the Independence Scale, the only FES subscale which discriminated between the two groups. The finding was in the opposite direction from what was hypothesized: that the cult family would have a lower independence score than the comparison group. One possible interpretation is that this finding is pure chance. However, an interpretation based on Fromm (1941) and Becker (1973) may apply: the youngster was unable to deal with freedom, so he sought an environment that would restrict his freedom. In a sense, the experiential meaning of "independence" is at issue. It is not at all impossible that this may be a critical matter in distinguishing the two types of families. In the cult-offspring family, for example, 'independence" may be construed as the lack of overt external interference, whereas in the comparison family it may be more a matter of internalized freedom and ability to make and carry out decisions. The independence construct must be refined and the distinction must be replicated before its significance can be reasonably assessed.

Methodological Considerations

The methodological difficulties of research on the cult phenomenon have been widely noted. For example, Clark el al. (1981) comment extensively on these difficulties:

Scientific investigators of the cult phenomenon encounter a number of serious methodological difficulties that detract from the authoritativeness of their findings. First of all, it is very difficult to obtain objective, unbiased measures of the variables under study. It is not easy, for example, to reduce the conversion process to a list of codifiable behaviors that can be tallied by observers and fed into a computer for analysis. And even if such meticulous scientific observation were feasible, it is doubtful that cults would allow it.

For this reason, all researchers have to depend upon personal reports for their data. This, of course, raises serious problems, for in such a controversial area as cults, personal reports are likely to be biased, especially, as is usually the case, when reporting is retrospective.

The subject bias factor is compounded by the difficulty in obtaining random samples of the population under study. Clinical investigators, for example, see primarily those individuals who seek help, while other researchers are frequently dependent upon cult volunteers, whose representativeness is open to question. Such a lack of representative samples obscures the comparisons that can be made among various studies.

... the methodological problems suggest that all inferences be made cautiously ... Perhaps the most important goal of future research should be to obtain samples that are representative of the cult population. This can be achieved either by drawing random samples from many cults or by studies, each using random samples, of different cults. Only through the investigation of numerous subjects drawn randomly from many cults will re- searchers be able to make reliable conclusions about and comparisons among various groups (pp. 40-41).

Unfortunately, Clark et al. do not suggest procedures for obtaining cooperative random samples of cult members and their families; neither do they suggest how to study the pertinent variables. Meanwhile, failing the ideal, research deals with the feasible, with various flawed investigations exercising mutually corrective influences.

This study attempted to deal with this issue by drawing from a large population with representation of different cults from all over the United States. However, the experimental population had a limitation in that it consisted of parents many of whom were highly emotionally involved because of their child's conversion. Furthermore, their responses may have been influenced by their involvement in the Citizens Freedom Foundation. Also, the comparison group may not have been typical of non-cult families, as many of the parents were recruited from churches.

A second methodological question mark inheres in the data-collection techniques. Clearly parents may not be objective on self-report measures related to how they perceive their child, especially in an emotionally charged area. Beyond this relatively overt difficulty is the more subtle problem mentioned in connection with the FES independence factor: even if they are equally "objective" and knowledgeable and honest, do different classes of respondents construe the content of data-gathering instruments in significantly different ways, so that scores actually rate different phenomena in the two classes?

The validity and reliability of self-report measures has been a source of wide debate, with contradictory findings, in the psychological and sociological literature. Niemi (1968), for example, reported that parent-child agreement on family life is poor. He reasoned that parents, who have invested time and energy in maintaining a family, report a closely integrated family and relationships in which they have influence over their children. In contrast, adolescents, as a product of the striving for independence associated with their stage of life, are more apt to suggest they are independent of their families. Nienii concludes that neither parent nor child can be relied upon for objectively accurate accounts of the independent aspect of family fife.

Similarly, Jessop (1981), in a study of the responses of 3,988 high school students matched with data from their parents, found that the level of agreement between them was uniformly low regardless of the aspect of family life being reported - whether it was reports of concrete behavior or evaluation of the quality of family relationships. She found that both parents and children systematically enlarge the degree of influence they themselves have in the family.

A second limitation often associated with self-report measures is their retrospective nature. They often require individuals to recall past experiences which might have occurred as much as several years earlier, a time lapse which may introduce inaccuracies. Olson (1970) found that individuals are not able to recall material regarding their own intentions even soon after a behavior occurred, certainly not after a longer period.

A third limitation associated with the self-report measure is the various types of reporting and perceptual biases which may occur. According to Olson (1970), "although it is important to emphasize that data based on 'perceived reality' of situations is of considerable importance in understanding human behavior, this type of data does contain certain perceptual biases." One major bias that Olson noted was that individuals tend to give socially desirable answers.

Yarrow, Campbell and Burton (1964), in research on the use of the retrospective method for measuring child-rearing practices, found that mothers tend to upgrade their role and to downgrade the father's role in rearing. The mother saw herself as more nurturant than she was originally rated. Some mothers recalled their spouses as being absent from the home more often and for longer periods than objectively gathered baseline data indicated. Yarrow et al. also reported that mothers' retrospective portraits of their children's behavior generally "upgrade" the children in comparison to appraisals made at the time being considered. Yarrow et al. conclude that "the data of the present study focus on certain methodological shortcomings in the study of the family; they demonstrate a very large error source in the retrospective data on parent-child relations. In this sense, our findings pose serious technical and theoretical problems for this area of research, However, to 'attack' the time-honored research interview is less rewarding than to discover a new and better approach." A better approach remains to be developed.

On the other hand, Brown and Harris (1978) reported 81% agreement between schizophrenic patients and their relatives about the occurrence of the same event and no disagreement, three months after the event, about time of onset of the disorder. Brown and Harris conclude that "there is no reason why recent life- events cannot be collected with a good deal of accuracy, certainly enough for scientific purposes."

Despite all of the criticism of the self-report measures and retrospective method, it was used in this study, as it is still used in other research, since it appears to be the only feasible means of collecting data on the family life of the cult member prior to cult involvement. Neither time nor investigative resources were available for another approach; and the "nature of the beast" conspires against theoretically more desirable approaches.

Finally, there may be methodological difficulties in using the Moos Family Environment Scale. Though the scale purports to measure the overall social environment of the family, it may not be sensitive enough to pick up the reciprocal role relationships, boundary difficulties, or power struggles which family systems theory would hypothesize to be the essential background of cult involvement. Also, it may be insensitive in revealing the influence of the father as a male authority figure, as noted by Schwartz and Kaslow (1979). Moreover, it must be kept in mind that the FES deals with parents' perceptions and not those of cult members themselves. And, again, there is the question of whether Moos' constructs may obliterate distinctions or elicit spurious distinctions when applied to different populations.

It should be remembered, however, that despite the retrospective nature of reporting, the means and standard deviations computed for the data of the present study are similar to those for Moos' scale for Parents of Adolescent Children who were tested in the present. In addition the lack of differentiation between die groups using a cluster analysis lends some support to the view that family background is not a major factor in cult involvement.

Implications for Future Research

The following recommendations are suggested for future research,

1. The present investigation analyzed data from a sample recruited solely from the Citizens Freedom Foundation. Future research should examine the perceptions of family environments of a sample not involved with any support group whose association may contaminate their responses.

2. The present investigation was based on parental perceptions of the family environment. Future research should try to incorporate the cult members' and/or other family members' perceptions of the family environments. Each family member's perception can be compared with the parents' perceptions and scored for a Family Incongruence Score, a potentially revealing "measure of the extent of disagreement among family members with regard to their perceptions of family climate."

3. The present investigation analyzed data employing the Moos Family Environment Scale, which may not have been sensitive enough to pick up data regarding such important issues as boundary difficulties or power structures within the family. Future research should examine boundary and power issues via the use of observational techniques, administered questionnaires, including questionnaires formulated on the basis of family systems theory and not sociological theory, or interviews that are specifically adapted to this task.

4. The present study did identify certain personal variables on which the two groups differed; this may be a useful area of additional investigation. Future research should concentrate on specific personal variables of cult members or employ an interdisciplinary approach which would examine a gestalt of familiar factors, personal factors, and their interrelationships.


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Neil Maron, Ph. D., is a New York State licensed psychologist in private practice in Brooklyn, New York and Cedarhurst, Long Island. A Diplomate of the 1. A. B. M. C. P., he focuses on fancily therapy, learning disabilities, and behavioral medicine.