Harm and NRMs Perspectives From Psychology

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 2, Number 1, 2003.

Harm and NRMs: Perspectives from Psychology

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

University of Pennsylvania


In this paper, I examine harm in New Religious Movements (NRMs) from the perspective of a psychologist. After acknowledging the contributions of other disciplines to the study of NRMs, I define certain key terms and summarize some of the major relevant specializations within psychology. To support the argument that an implicit question leads to a unified psychology, I present 10 questions about harm that have shaped a range of methodologies, and a number of resulting answers that may generate further research and prevent or ameliorate harm by NRMs. I conclude that history, religious studies, and sociology can benefit unified psychology through collaboration and dialogue and that psychology can benefit other disciplines in the study of NRMs.

Research on NRMs is a multidisciplinary enterprise. We can turn to law to determine which harms are illegal, to political science to define the extent to which an NRM is separated from the state, to theology to describe the relationship of established religions to NRMs, and to social work for the development of effective treatment and support for former NRM members. Historians such as Jean-Francois Mayer can help us to understand the origins of NRMs.

At the 2002 AFF Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, the eminent English sociologist Professor Eileen Barker contributed actively to the topic. For example, her charts on harm as a function of intergroup relations and her analyses of ideal types of cult-watching groups were interesting to contemplate. Another academic sociologist, Janja Lalich, Ph.D., contributed as a discussant, while religious studies scholar Phillip Lucas, Ph.D. examined spiritual harm. As a psychologist, I have been critical of some sociologists who seemed to bury their data, if any, in a fog of jargon (Dole, 2002). Alternatively, I appreciate their use of ethnography, observation, interview, and narrative in their intensive studies of a variety of NRMs (Zablocki & Robbins, 2001).


To reduce confusion and misunderstanding, some clarification about psychologists and their use of key terms, constructs, and methods may be helpful. Psychology as a discipline lacks unity and coherence. Boundaries with biology, neuroscience, and psychiatry, as well as sociology, are fuzzy. The latest Directory of the American Psychological Association (2001) listed 84,351 members. The APA recognizes 53 divisions. Each division has its own officers and an official journal. Members of these divisions vary in interests, typical questions, technical terms, conceptual frameworks, and preferred methods of inquiry. For example, the white-coated experimental psychologist in his laboratory prefers tightly controlled investigations of “subjects” (often animals or sophomores) in an objective search for universal laws of behavior. He may prefer to belong to the much smaller American Psychological Society. In contrast, the clinical psychologist in her office or clinic treats “patients” who may present symptoms of mental illness, and she may rely on the theories of Sigmund Freud or Aaron Beck about the nature of humanity.

For more than half a century, psychologists in their many specializations have been locked in an uneasy alliance. For example, Isaac and Michael in 1981 identified nine different basic methods of research. Yin (1984) proposed a rigorous approach to case-study research, applying various designs and methods. Yale University Professor Robert Sternberg, a past president of APA and an expert on conflict resolution, is an excellent recent exemplar of the quest for unity. Sternberg and co-author, Elena L. Gregerenko (2001) contended that some psychologists have three bad habits: reliance on a single methodology, identification with a psychological sub-discipline, and adherence to a single underlying paradigm. They sum up:

Unified psychology then means giving up a single paradigm in favor of the use of whatever paradigm may help shed light on a problem. Multiple paradigms can contribute to the understanding of a single psychological phenomenon, whereas locking oneself into any single paradigm reduces one’s ability to fully grasp the phenomenon of interest. (p. 1077)


A wise recommendation in undertaking research, broadly speaking, is to stress the question format in studying a phenomenon. I will take that approach in presenting my particular perspective about harm in new religious movements. But first I need to make clear what I mean by harm, NRM, research, and my conceptual framework.


Some scientific psychologists stress that harm is caused by a physical agent, rejecting subjective harm when based only on report because it cannot be established objectively. I will rely in this paper on my Webster’s dictionary (McKechnie, 1979):

Harm (n.)

1. physical or material injury, hurt; damage, detriment, misfortune.

2. moral wrong, evil, mischief, wickedness. (p. 827)

New Religious Movement

Cult watchers, especially religious-studies specialists and sociologists, often use the expression “new religious movement,” because it is neutral. It does not beg the question of harmfulness. I use the terms NRM and religious cult interchangeably. All cults are not by definition always harmful. “Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads AFF associates to contend that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups” (Rosedale & Langone, 1998).


A good many scientific psychologists use a model of research adapted from experimental inquiry in the hard sciences: null hypothesis; method, stressing systematic control of variables; results; and discussion. In this paper, I will use a broader definition, again following Webster (McKechnie, 1979):

Research, n. 1. . . .careful, patient, diligent inquiry or examination in some field of knowledge, undertaken to establish facts or principles; laborious or continued search after truth. (p. 1539)

Conceptual Framework[1]

By training, I am a dust-bowl empiricist, steeped in the importance of data and evidence, pragmatic, and wary of premature theory. I spent 15 years as a professional psychologist, following a scientist/practitioner model, and then I became an academic, a skeptical inquirer, and a teacher/supervisor of aspiring clinicians. Over the years, I have come to realize that human emotion and the stream of consciousness are complex fields of knowledge about which we know very little. Added to my background as an academic and professional psychologist, an intense personal experience with one of the NRMs shaped my thinking about such groups. In Dr. Barker’s chart, I am a member both of the cult-awareness and the research-oriented categories of cult watcher.

Ten Typical Research Questions

To illustrate a unified psychological approach to the phenomenon of harm in some NRMs, I will summarize 10 research questions that I am familiar with and that have been associated with a variety of paradigms and research methods, and that range in statistical sophistication. A sample of the results will suggest their usefulness in understanding, preventing, and ameliorating harmfulness. (For a fuller review of this topic and of AFF’s history, see Langone, 2002.)

1. Why did eminent scientists support a conference sponsored by the Rev. Moon? (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1981)

Thirty eminent scientists who had publicly endorsed the Annual International Conference of the Unity of the Sciences, sponsored by the Rev. S. M. Moon, responded to a personal letter. We asked them whether they would recommend accepting from Moon this free scientific meeting to be held in Boston in 1978, and, if yes, why, considering the sponsor’s negative reputation. Applying content analysis, we classified 24 (89%) scientists as supportive. Our findings were consistent with those documented by sociologist Irving L. Horowitz (1978). In return for a free scholarly meeting, these distinguished academics overlooked alleged harm by an NRM that planned to establish a worldwide theocracy.


Note that the design of this study, the method, and the statistics were simple. Results suggest that even mature and brilliant scientists may not realize that there is no free lunch.

2. How harmful were selected New Age religious groups and in what respects, as rated by various panels? (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1995)

In a series of studies into the nature of the New Age Movement and its beliefs, terms, and practices (Dole et al., 1995), we surveyed the opinions of selected panels—the AFF Board of Advisors, skeptical scientists, and persons knowledgeable about the New Age. As part of an investigation of harm (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1993), we presented panels of 52 New Age critics and 85 proponent/sympathizers (called critics and experts, respectively) with a list of New Age groups. Then we compared the panels on their ratings as measured by five-point Likert scales of beneficial/harmful. As one example of our many results, 100% of the critics rated the term Scientology as “harmful” or “very harmful”; 65% of the experts agreed. Dole and collaborators (1994) concluded, “Mutual understanding and respect between the Judeo-Christian and New Age paradigms were desirable” (p. 1).

We summarized our findings for the series (Dole et al., 1995): “Our studies clearly indicate that in the eyes of our panelists the New Age Movement is distinct, diverse, multifactorial, and fluid” (p. 10).


In this research, we used an opinion survey design, a comparative method, and highly sophisticated statistics. We varied substantially in the rigor with which we collected the three samples, and the psychometric characteristics of our measures (reliability and validity) were not fully developed. The importance of the findings may lie in their support of discernment, of balancing skepticism and tolerance.

3. What psychological principles possibly may explain, in part, how some NRMs recruit and convert members?

Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1963) is one of the most widely cited in psychology (Miller, Collins, & Brief, 1995). The procedure involves a white-coated scientist ostensibly conducting an experiment on learning, a naive subject, and a learner (actually, a confederate). The subject is instructed to administer increasingly more severe punishment for each of the learner’s “mistakes.” In many, varied experiments, about two-thirds of the subjects obeyed the experimenters’ orders that they “shock” a protesting “victim” to the maximum point. This result may explain, in part, why some potential recruits obey an NRM authority and why some NRM members have been willing to lie and to deceive in order to entrap and convert victims.

An experiment by Philip Zimbardo (1971) on the psychology of imprisonment also suggests how ordinary people may be influenced to harm others. In Zimbardo’s laboratory at Stanford, students were paid to assume the roles of prisoners or guards in a simulated prison setting. The “guards” verbally abused the “prisoners.” This experiment illustrates how much a person’s identity depends on the role he is playing. Thus, a missionary for an NRM may abandon ethical principles for what she considers a greater good such as soliciting funds or harming “enemies.”


In this experimental paradigm, methods of social control are systematically varied in a laboratory setting, and the statistics are rudimentary. From the results, one can generalize that obedience to authority applies in many situations, as, for example, in the response of converts to a religious leader.

4. What were the impacts of an NRM on its members’ psycho/emotional development? (Malinowski, Langone, & Lynn, 1999)

Three groups were compared on measures of psychological distress: 15 former members of the International Church of Christ, a reputed cult; 19 former Catholics; and 23 inter-varsity Christian Fellowship graduates. The NRM members scored significantly higher on measures of anxiety, dissociation, depression, and symptoms of avoidance and intrusion. Two-thirds sought therapy after leaving the ICC. The investigators concluded (Malinowski et al., 1999): “These findings support clinical reports of significant levels of psychological symptoms in former cult members.”


In this study, a comparative design can suggest but not conclude that harm was caused by the NRM experience, the conceptual framework is health oriented, the method relies primarily on a selective sample of participants and on standardized tests of psychological distress, and the statistics are at about the level of an introductory undergraduate course.

5. To what extent, if any, were selected members of NRMs emotionally disturbed immediately after the experience and after post-cult treatment? (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992)

Martin et al (1992) administered the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory and other standardized psychological measures of distress to 13 former cultists who attended an educational conference and 66 former cultists who attended a residential treatment center. To evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment, the rehabilitation group participated in a six-month follow-up. Measures of post-cult distress were higher than normal for both groups, and they did not differ significantly. After treatment, there were marked personality shifts on the MCMI. The results suggested that dissociative processes were central to the cult experience, and that residential treatment mitigated the harm.


This is both a comparative and an outcome study within a medical paradigm; the design is, in part, longitudinal. The method relies on selective samples and on standardized measures of distress. The statistics are moderately sophisticated. The results are consistent with clinical investigations of former members of certain NRMs. Because data are hard to attain, no one to our knowledge has measured directly psychological distress before a cult experience. The data are suggestive but do not answer directly the question, “Did the NRMs cause emotional disturbance?”

6. For a particular member of an NRM, how did voluntary deconversion occur? (Dubrow-Eichel, 1990)

For his dissertation, Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel audio-taped the voluntary deprogramming of a devotee of the International Society for the Study of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). He sampled 1,938 speech fragments from the conversation between the Hare Krishna and three deprogrammers for intensive analyses. To code the fragments, he developed and applied the Deprogramming Statements Checklist as well as the Experiencing Scale. According to Dubrow-Eichel (1990),

Results suggested that this deprogramming was a persuasive conversation and moral discourse in which the primary activities were asking for and receiving information (education) and self-disclosing (affiliation). The cultist’s decreased attentional motility and increased ideational activity suggested improved concentration and implied a change in consciousness. (p. 174)

In other words, if this devotee’s NRM experience was harmful to his cognitive and emotional functioning, the successful deconversion showed how he improved in these capacities.


Within a conceptual framework adapted from many years of outcome and process research on psychotherapy by mental health specialists, an idiosyncratic design generated speech fragments that were analyzed quantitatively over time. The checklist was exploratory, and the extensive statistics were moderately sophisticated. A case history (Dubrow-Eichel, 1989) added a qualitative dimension to the research. Findings lay the groundwork for further studies, but generalizations from them are limited.

7. How did an NRM use covert hypnosis to influence the behavior of a member? (Hassan, 2001)

Hypnosis has been applied under ethical circumstances both clinically and in the laboratory for many years, by psychologists as well as by physicians. In this presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, Hassan (2001) showed a videotape in which two former members of the Church of Scientology assumed roles to reenact a “training session.” Using techniques of induction, repetition, and so on, the “trainer” altered the concentration of the neophyte member and successfully insulated him from criticism, argument, or challenge as he mastered the beliefs of this NRM. The neophyte was not informed that he was hypnotized. The result was a videotape, a document.


Within the paradigm of scientific, ethical, applied hypnosis, a covert procedure was demonstrated with role players selected by opportunity. The data were qualitative and vividly descriptive. The results suggest but do not prove in any rigorous way that an abusive group might use hypnotic procedures unethically, and perhaps in a destructive way. The question is by no means answered. More research is needed.

8. How characteristic of certain NRMs was psychological abuse, as rated by former members? (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994)

Chambers et al. (1994) developed the 28-item Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA). Three hundred and eight former members of 101 different NRMs rated their group on a Likert five-point scale ranging from “not at all characteristic” to “very characteristic.” The authors factor-analyzed the data to yield four subscales. The GPA gave mean scores on the total and on the four subscales. The authors presented evidence of reliability and validity. Chambers and his collaborators suggested (1994) “. . .the GPA should be useful in characterizing the varieties of abuse and in differentiating cults from innocuous groups.” (p. 89)


Grounded in scale-development theory, the method was sound psychometrically; selection of participants and therefore of NRMs was non-random, a sample of convenience; statistics were extremely sophisticated. GPA has proved useful in several subsequent studies and has distinguished harmful from harmless groups.

9. In what respects, if any, has an NRM experience harmed a particular member? (Dole, 1995)

This paper was intended to assist investigators interested in applying qualitative methods, particularly clinical case studies, to the study of members and former members of cultic and other destructive groups. Among multiple sources are personal documents, psychological tests and questionnaires, and structured interviews with informed observers and with the former cult member. Available evidence of the validity of the sources was presented. The end product can be a fair, accurate narrative—a life story that may include instances of harm. The case history may supplement or suggest other varieties of inquiry.


As presented, the conceptual framework from a psychologist’s perspective of qualitative research is eclectic and multidisciplinary. Its ideographic approach draws on experiment, history, journalism, literature, biology, and so on. Its methods should be rigorous and careful. They are appropriate to questions of how, why, what happened, and who did what; they are less valuable in determining what caused what, how many, and how much. A personal narrative is especially effective when it captures nuances, unique circumstances and characteristics, or changes and variations.

10. Is “mind control” an acceptable concept? (Hassan, 2000)

Cult authority and professional exit counselor Steven Hassan makes the case for mind control in his latest book, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves (2000). After first experiencing social influence by an NRM and then, after his deconversion, reading the literature and counseling hundreds of cultists and their families over more than two decades, Hassan (2000, Ch. 2) has generalized and systematized a description of destructive mind control. In brief, by applying undue social influence processes rigidly, an NRM may gain control of the individual’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life. “It discourages autonomy and individuality by immersing recruits in an environment that represses free choice” (Hassan, 2000, p. 38). To make his case, Hassan relies not only on his observations as a counselor, but also on relevant research by psychologists (e.g., Zimbardo, 1996) and on such informed and experienced clinicians as Margaret Singer. (Singer, 1979; Singer & West, 1980; Singer & Lalich, 1997) and Lifton (1961). Hassan’s end product is the Strategic Interaction Approach, a complex set of procedures for freeing the cultist or former cultist from a harmful NRM.


Hassan tries to synthesize scientific and applied psychology. His methods are almost entirely applied; he borrows heavily from psychotherapy process but does not include a large body of outcome research. As was true of other professional psychologists whom he cited, his sample of cultists was selected, not random—that is, those who came voluntarily for help. He did not use statistics. His evidence about the effectiveness of the Strategic Interaction Approach is anecdotal. Releasing the Bonds is incomplete when judged as inquiry, yet it is a powerful and useful book.


New Religious Movements

There are hundreds of NRMs. Each group has a set of beliefs and purposes, a history, an organization with leaders and followers who have life stories, practices that may be harmful, benign, or beneficial. Their characteristics change over time.

Psychologists are interested generally in the how and why of behavior; in the processes of cognition, emotion, adaptation, environmental influence; and in numerous other variables. However, only a handful of them are interested in the study of NRMs and harm. I have tried to indicate variation and flexibility by selecting 10 research questions known to me and summarizing a few of their answers about harm.

Let’s consider the psychologists’ conceptual frameworks and their methodologies, including their samples, and their statistics.

Conceptual Frameworks and Methodologies

The conceptual frameworks included an empirical use of personal documents, opinions obtained through surveys, two controlled laboratory experiments based on a pure social science paradigm, and a role-played demonstration of covert scientific hypnosis. Medical models were used in three investigations: to compare religious groups, to evaluate the effectiveness of a rehabilitation agency, and, by combining paradigms from psychotherapy process research, and communications theory, to analyze speech fragments. Within the framework of rating-scale construction, a team of psychologists constructed a measure of group psychological abuse. Synthesizing the research literature, anecdotal data from clinicians, and years of personal experience, one author developed a theory of mind control. Finally, in constructing a case history, a qualitative approach to the study of a particular cultist, another psychologist melded clinical, developmental, and ecological theories of personality structure.

Sample and Statistics

In studying harm by NRMs, the selected co-investigators used samples of cult and former cult members ranging from one to several hundred. In one investigation, a small group of high-prestige scientists were defined as its target by an NRM. A clinician relied heavily on hundreds of anecdotes reported by his clients. When researchers administered surveys to former cult members or panels of observers, they depended upon opportunity and availability. In one investigation, the units of analysis were close to 2,000 speech fragments uttered by three people at three different points in time. Because of the difficulties in obtaining them, participants were often not a random sample of a defined population.

Statistics are a product of the number of available participants and the complexity of the researchers’ questions. In these studies, three researchers used no calculations; that is, they were descriptive. Three researchers applied primarily simple arithmetic, and four researchers ventured into graduate level, sophisticated analyses to tease out variables of interest. When psychological investigators use advanced statistics, some non-psychologists may have difficulties in understanding the findings.


In psychology, perfect studies are rare. Without exception, all 10 of these studies had flaws, especially in their sampling methods. However, 10 findings about harm and NRMs, using a variety of paradigms and methodologies, are more convincing than a single study. Among major findings:

Some mature scientists were seduced by a harmful NRM leader.

New Age groups varied on a continuum from harmfulness to beneficial as rated by informed panels.

According to former members, dozens of NRMs were harmful.

The Group Psychological Abuse Scale distinguished harmful from benign religious groups.

Former members of certain cults were more emotionally disturbed than members of other religious groups as measured by standardized tests, but recovered from severe pathology after six months in a treatment center.

Evidence for mind control by certain NRMs, for the power of undue social influence, such as the use of covert hypnotic techniques, was counterbalanced by an example of successful deconversion, by a case-history approach grounded in qualitative methods, and by a synthesis of clinical experiences.

The findings suggest a number of possible interventions after a member of an NRM has had a negative experience.

The psychological damage from undue social influence and from mind control apparently can be reduced.


When I selected 10 questions as examples for this paper, the psychological analyses of harm by NRMs varied considerably in respect to their conceptual frameworks, methodologies, and findings. If psychology is construed as a unified discipline, its unity may be based on a question format that shapes a range of approaches to inquiry—not on a particular paradigm, methodology, or specialty. Balance, skepticism, and tolerance, along with multiple paradigms and methods, are basic to this perspective.

In my view, psychology overlaps with an array of disciplines that share an interest in religious groups, including history, religious studies, and sociology. I tried to demonstrate that psychology has a variety of frameworks and methodologies that are relevant to the study of harm. These sister disciplines can be invaluable in exploring, for example, the background and the intergroup structures of NRMs. An ethnographic study of an NRM can provide good data that may not be available to psychologists who assume an adversarial position to that NRM. A constructive dialogue between disciplines may call to the psychologist’s attention his bias and tilted logic. Alternatively, we may supplement their methodologies when they address questions of harmfulness, or the personality dynamics of members or of their leaders. The AFF annual conferences and the edited book by Zablocki and Robbins (2001) are good examples of collaboration and dialogue between psychologists and sociologists.

In preventing or ameliorating harm associated with some NRMs, professional psychologists may apply research findings from their own discipline, such as those presented here; beyond that, they may suggest new research questions of interest to other disciplines; and they may incorporate clinical tools based in part on findings from other disciplines.

One example would be the clinician who informs herself from the literature in religious studies about the history, practices, beliefs, and culture of ISKCON while she is treating a former Hare Krishna.

Finally, from the perspective of this AFF-associated psychologist, I support a unified approach to the study of NRMs and harm. Use of multiple paradigms and a range of methodologies also facilitates collaboration with other disciplines. I have learned from sociology and philosophy that no researcher is entirely objective. Therefore, it is desirable to describe one’s particular perspective and possible sources of bias.


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