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Home arrow Psychological Issues arrow A Short Review of Academic Research Into Cults

A Short Review of Academic Research Into Cults

copyright 1993 by Jeff Jacobsen


  1. Tension: A discrepancy between how one finds oneself and how one wants to be.
  2. Type of Problem-solving Perspective: psychiatric, political, and religious perspectives are available, but most choose the religious. 
  3. Seekership: Conventional religious institutions seem inadequate, so a person sees himself as a religious seeker.
  4. The Turning Point: One feels himself to be at a critical stage in his life, thus enhancing the feeling that an important step or change is in order.
  5. Cult Affective Bonds: A friendship or some type of bond with a current cult member must be established for conversion to take place.  84.7% of the cult members in one study were first introduced to their cult by a friend or acquaintance in a group.
  6. Extra-Cult Affective Bonds: affiliation with people who have negative opinions of the cult must be weak or at least weaker than the cult bond.
  7. Intensive Interaction: this separates "verbal" converts from "total" converts.  The interaction with "verbal" converts is generally to get them to become "total" converts through greater interaction with the "total" converts.

(from Lofland and Stark (1965) American Sociological Review 32;30:865-875)


  1. Intellectual: a person studies the organization without any participation in the organization.  He is basically a believer by the time he begins to participate.
  2. Mystical: St. Paul's conversion is the prototype of this.  This conversion comes from a power outside the individual with little or no social pressure involved.
  3. Experimental: a person participates in the organization to see if he likes it or it is what he is looking for.
  4. Affectional: a relationship with a cult member is the main motivation for this conversion.
  5. Revivalist: a profound experience occurs within an emotionally aroused crowd sufficient to cause a conversion.
  6. Coercive: the individual is forced either knowingly or not into a conversion.  Seven steps are used:
  • total control of the person's environment. 
  • uncertainty — for example, being praised and punished for doing the same thing at different times. 
  • isolation from the outside world. 
  • mental and/or physical torture. 
  • physical debilitation and exhaustion. 
  • personal humiliation. 
  • certainty of the individual's guilt. 

(from Lofland-Skonovd (1981 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(4):373-385)


The major point of discussion currently in the field of cult research is whether a convert has an active role in his conversion, or whether he is influenced from without toward a conversion.  But from part II we can see that both are correct — it just depends on which TYPE of conversion we are talking about.  Mystical, revivalist, affectional, and coercive conversions all have large degrees of influence on a mostly passive convert, whereas the intellectual and experimental conversions are mostly active events performed by the convert himself.


An important point to keep in mind is that the academician gets his information on cults almost exclusively from interviews with current and former members of cults.  While this is beginning to change today, almost no researcher had direct personal experience within a cult.  Second hand information is often open to misinterpretation, and this is quite noticeable in the academic research being done.  For example, on article sought to find out whether Hare Krishna members had any psychological harm from involvement with the cult.  Unfortunately, the sample of members chosen was influenced by the Hare Krishna movement itself, which greatly weakens the results.  The Hare Krishnas could hide those members who were psychologically unstable, and in fact there is evidence that most cults simply kick out people who develop any mental difficulties.  So, while the study found no harm to the sample, it does not prove anything except about those few people studied. 

Researchers, then, must be willing to either become a participant observer or admit that their evidence cannot confidently explain what happens inside a cult.  Even a participant observer has difficulties in that he most likely will not be convincing in trying to show his commitment, since he actually has none.  Using ex-members is also problematic because they may try to put a worse light on the group than is actually the case. 



Involves "control of human communication."

  • controls communication from without — news, who you speak with. 
  • controls what you think about internally (i.e. rejection of doubts, inducing fear when thoughts of doing "wrong" occur). 

"He is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it.  Instead, he is called upon to make an absolute polarization of the real (the prevailing ideology) and the unreal (everything else)" (p.421).


Designed to produce "planned spontaneity".  The followers create a mystique around the group and its goals — it is portrayed as an ultimate truth that comes directly from God, or some such claim.  The group and its goals are seen as more important than anything else.  "any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose" (p.422).


The world is sharply divided between the pure and the impure.  Pure things are those which conform to or are included in group policy.  All impurity must be eliminated.  "the underlying assumption is that absolute purity is attainable, and anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral" (p.423).  Of course, no one can actually acheive absolute purity, so shame and guilt result.  The group is where you gain "forgiveness" from this guilt.  Guilt comes from contact with the impure world, so one withdraws more and more into the group exclusively. 


Confession is the method used to get rid of impurity.

  • you must go to the group for cleansing. 
  • you must open your mind to the group to get cleansed. 
  • your mind becomes the property of the group. 
  • confession becomes a skill after a time. 
  • one learns how to keep secrets in order to maintain some identity, but this leads to tension and guilt. 


Group ideals claim absolute scientific precision — there is no doubt that its claims are True.  To doubt is to be "unscientific" or crazy.  There is no need for a search for truth, and in fact such a search is a straying from the Truth and a denial of it (one can see here why there is little regard for education). 


"The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed" (p.429).

  • used to mark membership in the group — you "know the lingo". 
  • constricts thought by dismissing problems through cliches.  For example, "John is a `lukey'" (meaning a lukewarm Christian) answers all necessary questions about why John doesn't pay tithes, even though he prayed fervently to God about his terminally ill daughter and believed that God allowed him to use all his resources for a hopeful operation. 


Personal history becomes reworked in light of group doctrine.  Everyone must fit the doctrinal mode.  If some human experience seems to contradict the doctrine an elaborate rationalization will explain the discrepancy and prove that the doctrine is right and the experience wrong.  An excellent example of this comes from 1844.  William Miller had convinced thousands that Christ would return on October 22.  The believers donned white robes and ascended hills to await His coming.  When Christ did not return, Miller admitted he was in error, apologized, and never preached again.  But Ellen G. White, a Miller follower, declared that Christ had indeed made a great move — He had gone on that day into the Heavenly library to begin the judicial inquiry into the fate of the dead.  From this rationalization sprang the 7th Day Adventist Church. 


Outsiders are somehow not wholely people.  They are missing some aspect in their life that the group people have.  So there is hope for outsiders if they will come to the group, unless they have already come and rejected the message.  The group decides who is a real person and who is not.

"Ideological totalism ... evokes destructive emotions, produces intellectual and psychological constrictions, and deprives men of all that is most subtle and imaginative — under that false promise of eliminating those very imperfections and ambivalences which help to define the human condition" (p. 436).

* from THOUGHT REFORM AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALISM, by Robert J. Lifton (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1969).