Michael D. Langone, Ph. D.
This study compared four different types of one-session, cult preventive education programs for high school students: a live presentation by an ex-cult member, a videotape of that presentation, a film (“Moonchild”), and a filmstrip (“Cults: the Appeal, The Danger”). A no-treatment control was also employed. One-hundred-ninety high school students in 15 classrooms were randomly assigned to the five conditions. The dependent measure was a pre-post change score on a questionnaire examining general knowledge about cults, attitudes toward cults, and likelihood of attending a cult meeting or submitting to manipulative tactics. Four aggregate variables (which incorporated a total of forty-two questions) and 27 individual questions were statistically analyzed and reported on. The live ex-member and the video of the ex-member resulted in significant attitude change on three of the four aggregate variables, while the movie and filmstrip showed significant change on only one of the aggregate variables. In the analysis of individual questions, the two ex-member conditions were associated with 12 and 11 significant findings, whereas the movie showed nine and the filmstrip six significant changes. Implications of these findings are discussed.
During the past 15 years cults have generated considerable controversy. Defenders of cults maintain that they fulfill needs that are inadequately met by traditional religions and the family (Galanter, 1982; Robbins & Anthony, 1981) and that they are unjustly accused simply because they are deviant (Bromley & Shupe, 1981). Critics, on the other hand, have charged that many of the several thousand cults existing today cause significant psychological, medical, and social harm (Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Delgado, 1977, 1982; Levine, 1982; Rudin, 1979-80, 1984; West & Singer, 1982).
Critics of cults have responded by implementing or proposing four classes of remedial action, which have generated varying degrees of opposition. (Langone & Clark, in press). Deprogramming, a procedure that seeks to bring back critical thinking and “awaken” the pre-cult mind (usually involving forced detention of the convert), has come under the greatest amount of attack, although it has passionate defenders. Legislative proposals, such as conservatorship bills that would enable parents to remove an adult child from a cult for a period of psychiatric observation, have also been subject to much debate. Voluntary counseling, a third response to the problems associated with cult membership, is much less controversial, although, from the critic’s standpoint, it affects only a small proportion of the total population adversely affected by cults.
Preventive education (Clayton, 1979; Langone, 1982; Schwartz & Zemel, 1980; Swope, 1980; Willis, 1983), the fourth type of remedy, is theoretically the most attractive response in that, if successful, it forestalls the cult affiliation which generates the controversy in the first place. A serious problem with preventive efforts, however, is deciding what to teach young people, where to teach, and by whom (Langone, 1982). Furthermore, although many well-intentioned persons have initiated cult education programs, little exchange of information has taken place and virtually no formal evaluation of programs has occurred. Given the passion aroused by this topic and the varied education approaches that have been and can be employed, the development of sound evaluative procedures is necessary in order to direct energy efficiently and effectively.
In order to lay the groundwork for future evaluative work in this area, the authors developed a questionnaire for evaluating attitude change concerning cults and used this questionnaire in a pre-post evaluation of four one-session cult education programs for high school students.
Subjects were 190 students from a middle-class Boston suburb. They ranged in age from 16 to 19 years, in grade level from freshman to senior (with most being juniors and seniors), and were in one of 15 classrooms randomly assigned to the treatment conditions. Classrooms ranged across a wide variety of disciplines, mostly within the social sciences and humanities. Students were aware that they would be receiving an educational program on cultism at the time of the pretest.
These classrooms were randomly assigned to each of five conditions:
- a no-treatment control;
- an award-winning file, “Moonchild,” which dramatizes the conversion and deprogramming of a young man who joined the Moonies in San Francisco;
- a 10-minute filmstrip (“Cults: The Appeal, The Danger”) followed by a 20-minute discussion led by a staff member of the American Family Foundation;
- a structured 40-minutes talk by Rita, a former member of the Unification Church;
- a video of Rita’s talk, which had been given to a small group of high school students in another town.
Since so little work has been done in this area, the authors had to develop a measure to assess the attitude and knowledge change which was hypothesized to result from the educational interventions. The pre-questionnaire consisted of: 1) an introductory section inquiring into demographics and the student’s experience with cults and cultists (which will be reported on in a later paper); 2) a series of hypothetical scenarios illustrating diverse manipulative recruitment techniques followed by questions asking how likely the person would be to accept the invitation, yield to pressure, and so on; 3) a series of questions exploring the subject’s idea of what features identify a cult; and 4) several questions on the subject’s attitude toward people who join cults. The post-test was identical, except that it lacked the introductory section and included several questions concerning the subject’s global evaluation of the educational program. Although the measure was not subjected to any formal psychometric testing, it did undergo two revisions, one based upon a pilot study conducted in another Boston suburb.
Data was analyzed with SPSS subprograms on the DEC-10 computer at Tufts University. Four aggregate variables were created by combining the subquestions that comprised questions 9a-10a, 12b-q (12a was eliminated because control group pre-post change was significant), 13a-o, and 14a-i. These aggregate variables will be referred to as follows:
9a – 10a behavior; scenario
12b –q attitude/factual; defining a cult
13a-o attitude/factual; true objectives of cults
14a-I attitude; type of people who join
These variables were tested for between-group differences with the Anova Oneway program and the Scheffe procedure, a conservative statistical test of post-hoc comparisons. Since question 13 was the only one that did not contain Likert scale data, aggregate variable 13 was analyzed as a change in ration of positive/negative statements (since there were seven of each when excluding 13c, which was problematic due to its ambiguity). Within subjects t-tests were used to measure the significance of pre-post change scores in each of the four aggregate variables. In addition, twenty-seven questions were analyzed individually with the Anova Oneway subprogram in order to test for between group significant differences. A within subjects t-test was used to test the pre-post significance level in change scores on each of these individual questions.
Results are summarized in Tables One and Two. Since the aggregate variables are most relevant from a program-evaluation standpoint, we will limit our discussion to them. In two of the four aggregate variables (both had Likert 5-point scales), the control group did not change from pre-post at a significant level. These two variables were 9a-10a (behavior: scenarios) and 12b-12q (attitude/factual: defining a cult). In the behavior variable, three of the four programs showed a significant pre-post change: the filmstrip, t(26)=2.73, p=.011; Rita-Video, t(34)=4.10, p=.000; and Rita-Live, t(32)=4.82, p=.000. This seems to indicate that the students in these conditions showed less willingness to accept an ambiguous invitation or to comply with manipulative techniques.
Means of Aggregate Variables
Variable 1: Questions 9a-10a (scenario questions)
Rita-Live Rita-V Moonchild Filmst. Control ANOVA
Pre 5.67 6.31 5.36 6.15 5.47 NS
Post 4.21 4.77 4.92 5.26 5.31 NS
Sig.L. .000 .000 NS .011 NS —
Variable 2. Questions 12a-12q (attitude/factual: definition of cult)
Rita-Live Rita-V. Moonchild Filmst. Control ANOVA
Pre 37.77 36.70 34.53 37.81 34.73 NS
Post <40.78> <39.81> 38.47 38.88 35.76 <.05>
Sig.L. .000 .000 .000 NS NS —
< > indicate significant difference between < > and the control group according to Scheffe analysis
Variable 3: Questions 13a:13o (attitude/factual: true objective of cults)
Rita-Live Rita-V. Moonchild Filmst. Control ANOVA
Pre .202 .286 .675 .286 .552 p<.03
Post .220 .411 .232 .229 .280 NS
Sig.L. NS NS .013 NS .018 —
Variable 4: Questions 14a-14i (attitude: people who join cults)
Rita-Live Rita-V Moonchild Filmst. Control ANOVA
Pre 25.77 23.13 23.03 25.39 23.04 NS
Post <28.31> 24.49 24.48 <26.25> 21.73 p.<.05
Sig. L. .003 .026 .050 NS .048 —
Pre-Post Significance for Individual Questions
Question Rita-Live Rita-V. Moonchild Filmst. Control
9a .000 .001 .014 .047 NS
9b .001 .006 NS NS NS
10a .003 .001 NS .030 ,021
11b NS .023 NS NS NS
12a .029 .002 .060 .000 .045
12b NS .055 NS NS NS
12c NS NS NS NS NS
12d NS .003 .000 NS NS
12e .009 NS NS NS NS
12f NS .014 NS NS NS
12g NS NS .006 NS NS
12h .012 NS .010 NS NS
12i NS NS NS NS NS
12j .017 NS .003 NS NS
12k .033 NS .064 .003 NS
12l .030 .010 .024 NS NS
12m .030 .005 NS NS NS
12n .000 .004 .041 .022 NS
12o NS NS .046 .056 NS
12p .032 NS .065 NS NS
12q NS .054 NS .050 NS
14a .068 .011 NS .059 NS
14b NS .011 NS NS .057
14c NS NS NS NS .055
14d NS NS NS NS NS
14e .040 NS NS NS NS
14f .046 NS .055 NS NS
On the attitude/factual variable, again, three of the four programs showed a significant pre-post change. In this case, Moonchild and the two Rita conditions were the most effective: Moonchild, t(31)=4.58, p=.000; Rita-Video, t(36)=4.21, p=.000; Rita-Live t(36)=4.03, p=.000. Students in these conditions were more likely to show insight into cult techniques and the cult milieu by agreeing or disagreeing with statements designed to test the student’s ability to distinguish between a harmless group and a destructive cult. Moreover, in the Scheffe test of differences between groups (on the posttest), the Rita-Video and Rita-Live conditions were significantly different from the control group at the p=.05 level. However, while the Scheffe produced no significant results on the pretest, the Anova did: F(182)=3.26, p=.013.
The results of the aggregate variable Q13a-o (attitude/factual: true objectives of a cult) are difficult to evaluate. This variable was tested by measuring the change in ratio of positive/negative statements about cults, since there were seven of each (after eliminating 13c, which was difficult to define as positive or negative). The results indicate that this may have been an inadequate way of handling the data, as the only two significant pre-post findings were in the control group, t(48=2.44, p=018, and Moonchild, t(32)=2.63, p=.013. Students in these conditions were more likely to have changed their pre-post ratio of positive/negative statements in favor of more negative statements about cults in the posttest. This may have occurred because students in both conditions had very different means than the others (i.e., M=.657, M=.552; the other three conditions were M=.202, M=.286, M=.286), probably causing the significant Anova finding, F(183)=2.77, p=.03 on the pretest, between-group analysis. Possibly, those students who agreed with more positive statements (e.g., extreme scorers) in the pretest tended to agree with more negative statements in the posttest, regardless of preventive education program. A;lso, there may have been a ceiling effect for the other three conditions, since the means of their positive/negative rations were so low in the pretest.
The fourth aggregate variable, Q14a-I (attitudinal/factual: type of people who join cults), had very interesting results in that the control group changed significantly, but in a direction opposite to the change that the students in preventive education programs showed. Students in the control group became more likely to answer questions in a manner unsympathetic to people who join cults (e.g., agreeing with “A smart, well-like person wouldn’t join a cult”), thus failing to acknowledge their own vulnerability to cults. This tendency in considered to be a vulnerability in itself: one of the goals of preventive education should be to help students acknowledge, rather than deny, their own vulnerability to manipulation. (If this significant finding in the control group pre-post change – t(48)=2.03, p=.048 – is indeed indicative of a tendency to blame the victim the more one thinks about a phenomenon while not being educated about it, the stronger is the case for preventive education found for Moonchild, t(30)=-2.04, p=.05; Rita-Live, t(38)=0-3.19, p=.003; and Rita-Video, t(37)=-2.33, p=.026, all indicating that students became more sympathetic to the victims of cults, and more willing to acknowledge the ability of cults to manipulate an average, healthy person. Among those who changed significantly on the pre-post, a significant difference (p=.05) from the control group, Rita-Video, and Moonchild.
Generalizations from this study should be presented as hypotheses, rather than conclusions. The sample, which was based in one high school, is not necessarily representative of high school students in general. Furthermore, the subjects were not naïve, (The study was a big event in the school and much conversation probably preceded it.), nor did the classrooms reflect a random sampling of even that high school’s students. (There were indications that participating teachers tried to get the higher level classes to see Rita live.)
Another weakness of the study is the lack of psychometric testing on the questionnaire. It is difficult to say, for instance, whether the control group pre-post changes reflect actual changes due to extra-experimental events, poor test-retest reliability, or response sets. In addition, the design of the questionnaire inevitably involves some decision as to what ought to be the goals of a preventive education program in this area. The authors attempted to be fair by being comprehensive, looking at knowledge, attitudes, and self-reported behavioral tendencies. Yet a program could be very effective on one component measured by the questionnaire, e.g., knowledge, without being particularly effective on the others. Given the unreliability of self-reported behavioral tendencies, such a knowledge-oriented program might have more value than would be indicated by a pre-post analysis based on the authors’ questionnaire. Also worth noting is the fact that Rita’s talk was structured around a social psychological perspective (see the article by Andersen & Zimbardo in this issue) that was more consonant with the questionnaire’s assumptions about desirable content than were the contents of Moonchild or the filmstrip.
The weaknesses of this study are certainly not unique to program evaluations, for obtaining experimental control over real-world situations is much more difficult than in the psychological laboratory. Nevertheless, the study does illuminate some important issues regarding preventive education concerning cults.
First, it does underline the importance of setting change goals for an educational intervention concerning cultism. Should the program seek to alter attitudes, affect behavioral tendencies, impart knowledge, or some combination of these three? Second, the study will, we hope, stimulate others to develop more sophisticated evaluative measures, as well as a variety of measures to assess different educational goals.
This study also suggests areas requiring further research. Our subjective impressions, for example, indicate that discussion or at least advice may be important in effecting attitude and behavioral change. Moonchild was very well received, but may not have scored as high as it would have, if a discussion had followed the film, as occurred with the filmstrip. If discussion does make a difference, would a trained discussion leader have a greater effect than a teacher with a discussion guide? The live ex-member seemed to be the most potent intervention, but the video of the ex-member did surprisingly well in comparison. Is the effectiveness of the video due to the personal characteristics of Rita (a trained actress) or does it reflect the capacity of the television screen to maintain the attention of high school students? If the latter is the case, ore effort should be directed toward developing videotapes, which are much less expensive to produce than films. Might certain subgroups of high school students be at risk to cult recruitment, as indicated by one study (Zimbardo & Hartley, in press), and might these at risk groups respond differently to educational programs than the majority of student? If, for example, “scare” programs turn off at risk students while reinforcing the already negative attitudes of those not at risk, a “scare” intervention might appear effective, while it in fact is ineffective. And lastly, as with all educational interventions, one will ask: what are the long-term effects? Will the change brought about by a preventive education program last and will it generalize to real-life situations?
Although these questions certainly deserve study, those on the firing line, those who can’t wait for the “definitive” study, will probably ask: What should we do based upon what we know now? In our view, this study and other experiences suggest that those conducting cult education programs do the following:
- Don’t assume that what “feels” true is true. Seek feedback on the actual results of your intervention, utilizing formal evaluative methods when possible. Also, try different approaches.
- Try to place your cult education work within the braoder context of the psychology of social influence (again, we refer the reader to the Andersen and Zimbardo article in this issue). Although there is little experimental research on manipulative processes within cults, there is a great deal of laboratory research bearing on manipulative processes in other situations. Also consider real-life example of manipulation, e.g., the ubiquitous scenario: boy meets girl.
- Avoid “scare” programs. They may have a reverse effect on those most susceptible to cult enticements. The old anti-marijuana film, “Reefer Madness,” for example, is treated as a comedy by many pot-smoking young people.
- In designing your programs, consider the relative importance of knowledge, attitude change, and behavioral change. Different educational techniques may be needed for each of these areas.
- If possible, don’t rely on passive programs. A film may prove very popular (as Moonchild has on many occasions). But it will probably have more impact, if followed by a structured discussion.
- Share your educational experiences with others interested in this field and keep abreast of what others are doing. Regarding the latter, we refer you to Preventive Education on Cults: A Resource List, available from the American Family Foundation, the Cultic Studies Journal and the Cult Observer, as well as a preventive education newsletter to be initiated in mid-1985.
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West, L. J., & Singer, M. T. (1982). Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, & B. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatr edition). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
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The authors wish to thank the following individuals for contributing to the design and/or execution of this study: Professor David Harder, Professor Walter Swap, and Mr. Robert Houser – all of Tufts University; Professor Dean Borgman and the staff of the Media Department of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Ann Smith of the American Family Foundation; Rita Ashdale; and the teachers, administrators, and students of the public schools which participated in the study.
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Andrea Bloomgarden worked on this study for her Honors Thesis at Tufts University, from which she graduated in 1984. Ms. Bloomgarden is currently pursing a Ph. D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Michael D. Langone, Ph. D., is Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal and Director of Research for the American Family Foundation. A Licensed Psychologist, Dr. Langone has counseled approximately 100 cultists and family members of cultists and has published a number of articles on the subject.