Under atypical circumstances, human relationships can go beyond normal ethical limits and become characterized by inappropriate mechanisms of control and influence. Such relationships can appear in scenarios, ranging from specific family, society, labor, or group dynamics to the intense control observed in psychologically manipulative groups (a term that we prefer to “cult” or “sect”). The psychological abuse often associated with manipulative groups is found in situations in which psychological techniques of persuasion and control are used to mistreat people (Langone, 1992). Although these psychological manipulation techniques are becoming a more visible phenomenon in our society, recognizing them is still sometimes difficult.
Recruitment is important to many different groups, including psychologically manipulative groups, especially during those groups’ initial development. Because adolescence represents a crucial period in the acquisition of relationship patterns, teenagers are an especially vulnerable group for potential recruitment by such groups. Some teenagers are frustrated, suffer from a sense of personal anomie, and feel a lack of purpose in their lives (Jansà, 2004, Markowitz, online). This feeling of hopelessness makes them more prone to turn to mystification and idealization of the counterculture (Markowitz, online). In addition, youths are intellectually and spiritually open to new ideas, but they have not achieved the balance of experience and maturity that would enable them to sort truth from illusion and reality from fantasy in all situations (Hunter, 1998).
A study of 1,000 high-school students aged 14 to 19 (most clustered around ages 16 to 18) found that 535 students (54%) reported at least one contact with a cult recruiter. Among all students, only 49% stated they would reject the likelihood of accepting an invitation (Zimbardo and Hartley, 1985). One study in Spain found that among 1,517 Spanish participants aged 14 to 29, 25.9% expressed approval of cults, while 0.5% reported being cult members (Canteras, Rodríguez, & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 1992). A survey of adult populations in San Francisco and Montreal yielded a 20% participation rate in new religions or para-religious movements, although more than 70% were transient (Bird & Reimer, 1982). Bloomgarden and Langone (Bloomgarden & Langone, 1984) reported that 3% and 1.5% of high school students in two respective suburbs of Boston said they were cult members. Lottick’s (Lottick, 1993) survey of more than 1,000 physicians (who are accustomed to making differential diagnoses) found that 2.2% reported that they or a family member had been involved in a cultic group, with “cult” clearly defined as a noxious group.
AIS (Atenció i Investigació de Socioaddiccions) is an independent, nonprofit private body set up in 1977. Its activities concentrate on prevention, treatment, and advice for individuals and families affected by psychologically manipulative groups. AIS, like most specialized cult organizations, for many years has offered conferences and seminars on psychologically manipulative groups. Conferences and theoretical seminars, however, have not always been effective in preventing risky behaviors and promoting healthy ones. For this reason we have developed a prevention program to counter psychological manipulation techniques directed toward 14- to 16-year-old teenagers. This program aims to (a) prevent group dependencies and manipulation, (b) make members of this age group aware of their vulnerability to be manipulated, and (c) offer information about psychologically manipulative groups and manipulation techniques.
The program has been designed and evaluated according to the principles of promoting health. Following a training period, the teachers of selected adolescents would conduct the proposed activities.
Population and Methods
The Psychological Manipulation Technique Prevention Program was designed during the school year 2004-2005 and was piloted in 12 classes from four different schools (two public and two private) in Barcelona (Spain) to ensure the adequacy and viability of the material.
The program was implemented during the school year 2005-2006 in 15 different Barcelona (Catalunya, Spain) secondary schools, specifically at ESO (Enseñanza Secundaria Obligatoria-Compulsory Secondary Education) grades 3 and 4, which correspond to grades 9 and 10 in U.S. high schools. First, a training workshop was organized for teachers interested in implementing the program in their educational centers. The workshop consisted of 4 hours, with a first part that included basic theoretical training on psychologically manipulative groups, and a second part that included practical training in the program. At the workshop, teachers were given the teacher’s guide and a feedback sheet about the workshop.
The Prevention Program
The preventive educational program was developed within the theoretical framework of the Attitude Self-Efficacy Model (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1975; Bandura, 1997; De Vries, Dijstra, & Kuhlman, 1998). The program is based on the evidence of previous interventions that demonstrates the efficacy of educational programs to reduce young persons’ vulnerability when they are faced with situations that place them at risk. These educational interventions focus on developing knowledge, skills, and attitudes (protecting factors) that help youth/adolescents to successfully confront such situations by choosing healthy behavior options.
The program includes the following materials:
A leaflet that describes the program, outlines its content, and explains its activities.
A training workshop for teachers, to improve their abilities to develop and present the program. The workshop consists of two differentiated parts (one, theoretical, with basic information for the teachers, and another, practical, aimed at learning the intervention process and its potential difficulties).
A teacher’s guide, with activities for students to complete in class (described below).
Backup material aimed at the families of the pupils taking part. This material includes basic information about the characteristics of psychologically manipulative groups (before the backup material was distributed to the families, 25 people, both male and female, and of varying ages and socio-economic levels, evaluated the material for its design, language appropriateness, content clarity, and information quality).
Interactive material aimed at the adolescents who participate in the program, which reinforces the content presented through the different activities.
The activities proposed to the teachers for the program consist of six different units, to be presented weekly, with an estimated duration time of one hour each. Unit 1, “We need people like you!,” focuses on the knowledge and beliefs the typical recruiting process experience revolves around. The adolescents receive a poster or a letter from their teacher that proposes their participation in a foreign course. Information about the activities included in the course is scarce, but the young adults are required to give personal information. In unit 2, “Oscar’s personal notebook,” the alumni read and discuss the diary of a young man who has been lured into a coercive group. The discussion will specifically focus on the young man’s vulnerabilities, how he has been attracted and drawn in, and which of his actions are critical in facilitating his psychological manipulation and group involvement. Unit 3, “I got you!,” proposes a discussion about different offers from various groups (e.g., groups focused on religion, solidarity, or specific topics of interest). This unit also includes the students’ self-evaluation, based on the available information, of their potential to be enticed into a coercive group. Units 4 and 5, “What can I do?,” are oriented toward using role-playing exercises to analyze different psychologically manipulative situations within the adolescents’ personal relationships. Unit 6, “Where can I go?,” aims to promote active critical research skills among students to find information about who is providing the recruitment information and which options are in his/her best interests. An emphasis is given to Internet research because the Internet is often adolescents’ principal research source.
Evaluation of the Prevention Program
The participating schools were divided into three different groups (according to the socio-economic background and type of school—e.g., public or private). A different intervention was applied in each group of schools. One intervention consisted of two sessions with a face-to-face activity (with AIS personnel), and four sessions performed by the teachers (n=5 schools, 389 students; hereafter, the 2+4U group). Another intervention consisted of the six sessions performed by the teachers, with no face-to-face activity with AIS personnel (n=6 schools, 319 students; hereafter, the 6U group). The third group did not follow any intervention and was considered the control group (n=4 schools, 292 students).
A 22-ítem, self-administered questionnaire regarding information on coercive groups and attitudes and beliefs was designed, with the objective of determining the differences in these areas for each participant before (‘pre’) and after (‘post’) the intervention. The mean difference between the pre and post intervention was 4 months. The questionnaire was administered to the 1,000 students from the different groups. Of that number, 147 students did not return the ‘after intervention’ questionnaire, so information was available for only 853 students—371 (95%) from the 2+4U group, 308 (97%) from the 6U group, and 174 (60%) from the control group. A high percentage of the alumni did not correctly fill in the personal codes, which made it impossible to match some questionnaires. A final number of 525 paired questionnaires was included in the analysis (257 from the 2+4U group, 215 from the 6U group, and 53 from the control group). Chi-squared test models were run to compare the responses on the questionnaires between the ‘pre’ and ‘post’ intervention. Criteria for statistical significance were set at p<0.05. All statistical analyses were conducted with STATA 8.2 statistical software.
Students were aged 14 years to 18 years, with a median age of 15.5 years. Youth aged 15 years to 16 years were distributed as follows: 87.1% in the 2+4U group, 79.0% in the 6U group, and 73.2% in the control group. These differences were statistically significant. Gender was equally distributed among the groups (45.8%, 43.6%, and 48.0% females in the 2+4U, 6U, and control groups, respectively). Low levels of paternal education were more frequent among those students in the control group (9.3%, versus 5.4% (in the 2+4U group) and 7.4% (in the 6U group) (p<0.05).
Table 1 describes the attitudes and beliefs of adolescents in the three different groups before and after the intervention. A change in the attitudes and beliefs about whether it is harmful to join a psychologically manipulative group was observed among those adolescents who underwent either the 6U intervention or the 2+4U intervention. Both interventions directly influenced the adolescents’ perception that psychologically manipulative groups make attractive offers to attract new young people. After the interventions only the teenagers in the 6U group expanded their ideas about what might be considered psychological manipulation. This group of teenagers also increased their conviction that the information available on the Internet is not necessarily valid and trustworthy (46.9% after the 6U intervention, versus 31.7% before the intervention). Before the intervention, 41.9% of the adolescents in these two groups reported living in situations that included psychological manipulation.
Table 1. Attitudes and Beliefs of Students Before (pre) and After (post) the Intervention [in Percentages (%)] (n=525).
Are led without their knowledge
Receive all the information.
Are not intelligent.
Have more than one erroneous belief.
“Joining a psychologically manipulative group is harmful.”
“Psychologically manipulative groups make attractive offers.”
“I am currently living in a psychologically manipulative situation.”
It is psychological manipulation to:
Refuse to talk if someone is angry.
Victimize to elude responsibilities.
Insist when someone says no.
Table 2. Perceived Vulnerability of Students Before (pre) and After (post) the Intervention [in Percentages (%)] (n=525).
Think they could be lured into a psychologically manipulative group
Think their friends could be lured into a psychologically manipulative group
Table 3 shows the adolescents’ intention in the event they are in a group with unclear objectives. The two interventions increased the students’ intentions to ask for more information and to not give any personal data or other information about their interests and hobbies to unknown people. Adolescents in the control group did not change their intended behavior in the post questionnaire. Boys participating in the 6U group were more prone to change their attitude after the intervention.
Table 3. Intended Behavior of Students Before (pre) and After (post) the Intervention [in Percentages (%)] (n=525).
In the event you were in a group with unclear intentions:
I would search for information.
I would search for more information regarding one specific activity.
I would ask for clarification if the norms were unclear.
If a friend or I was in this situation, we would ask for more information.
I wouldn’t give personal data.
Table 4 presents the behavior of the students during the previous month. Before the intervention, 407 (77.5%) students reported not having contacted a group with unclear intentions. From the 118 students who reported a positive contact with a group with unclear intentions, only 31 (26%) reported searching for extra information about the group. After the intervention, those participants from the 2+4U group reported their need increased to search for information. There were no differences by gender.
Table 4. Past Month’s Behavior of Students Before (pre) and After (post) the Intervention [in Percentages (%)] (n=525).
“During the past month I have searched for information about a group with unclear intentions.”
No, because I have not experienced this situation.
No, because I did not know how and where to search.
No, although I could have searched for it.
The students evaluated the program in a positive way; the main differences between the two interventions were the increase in knowledge in the 2+4U intervention and the development of research skills in the 6U intervention.
The Prevention Program on Psychological Manipulation Techniques was found to be beneficial for the adolescents; specifically, to expand their appreciation for the risks associated with groups that have unclear intentions, increase their awareness of the existence of such groups, and, ultimately, help them to avoid situations of psychological manipulation. Although there were some differences between the two interventions, they both appear to be beneficial when compared to the control group. In general terms, the 2+4U intervention obtained better results in the areas of increased knowledge of psychologically manipulative group dynamics and of the type of people who are recruited into psychologically manipulative groups. The first item could be explained by the fact that the two first sessions were conducted by specialists in the area of psychologically manipulative groups. Although the teachers received a lot of information and were trained by our experts, their theoretical background was obviously less broad. In any case, the 6U intervention obtained better results in the items related to the participants’ change of attitudes regarding psychologically manipulative situations and in how trustworthy the information was that they encountered on the Internet. The two interventions 2+4U and 6U expanded the youths’ perspectives on items related to their vulnerability and intended behavior. The 2+4U intervention resulted in more positive responses on issues related to asking for clarification if the group norms were unclear, and to searching for more information.
Of the participating adolescents, 41.9% reported living in situations of psychological manipulation before the intervention, but only 22.5% reported having contacted a group with unclear intentions, suggesting that some of the reported psychological manipulation could be present within a familial or friendship context. In contrast to the work of Zimbardo (Zimbardo and Hartley, 1985), this study was not intended to estimate any prevalence, so it is difficult to interpret these percentages. Zimbardo’s study found that 54% of a sample of 1,000 high students contacted an identified cult member. The prevalence in our population, with the same distribution of age and gender, would be far from the prevalence encountered in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s, but close to that of the Montreal survey (Bird, 1982).
We faced several difficulties that deserve to be discussed. We could not match the pre- and post-interventions in 38% of the cases because the adolescents did not correctly fill in the personal codes, which made it impossible to match the two sets of questionnaires. The final size of the sample was smaller than expected. Moreover, although we looked for homogenization between the groups by matching the schools according to socio-economic background and the characteristics of the school (public or private), the students from the 2+4U intervention were in a better socioeconomic situation. The percentage of low paternal education was higher among those students in the control group.
Compared with other public health or social problems, and according to the available data, cultism is not considered one of the most prevalent phenomena at the present time (approximately 0.87% of the population in Catalonia, or 1% in other international estimates) (Pascual & Vidaurrázaga-Meza, 2005). Nevertheless, the perception of risk associated with cultism, and its potential impact, are usually underestimated. Misconceptions and poor information about the main characteristics of cults and the social consequences of psychologically manipulative groups prevent politicians and others technically responsible for the health, security, legal rights, and education of individuals to take the appropriate measures and assign the necessary resources to this matter (Villamarín & Alvarez, 1998).
We are not aware of other existing prevention programs on psychological manipulation techniques in Spain, and although some of the described limitations need to be addressed, the results we encountered suggest that we should continue with the implementation of this program in other schools. Some issues to be improved include more tools for students to learn how to resist the pressure of the group, and recommendations to teachers that place more emphasis on the importance of adolescents being aware and asking questions if anything in a group is not clear and the information has not been given clearly. Further strategies should also be developed to encourage and support teachers, since they represent the key for a correctly developed program.
We are currently expanding this program’s implementation in the Barcelona area and planning its implementation in other areas of Spain. We have mailed information to more than 100 schools and are waiting for their responses indicating willingness to implement the program. We are also planning to increase the follow-up period, after a year or so, to study the permanence of the concepts learned throughout the implementation. AIS is also interested in preventing other social addictions such as compulsive buying, Internet addiction, and video game abuse. The translation and adaptation of the program is also being considered.
In conclusion, adolescence and early youth are key periods for the adoption of relationship patterns and decision-making attitudes. For this reason, this segment of the population is especially vulnerable to the techniques of psychologically manipulative groups, group dependencies, and other social addictions. Informing individuals in this age group about persuasive and coactive social influence, and helping them develop skills to confront these issues, can decrease their vulnerability.
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This study was funded by grants from the General Secretary of Youth of the Generalitat de Catalunya.
The authors are indebted to the participating schools and teachers for their generous involvement, to Mrs. Julia Nueno for her unconditional support of the program and her editorial assistance. Mrs. Elisa Nueno for her support in the preparation of the material and its distribution to the participating schools, Mrs. Dolors Gironés for her assistance in documentation, and to Associació per la Prevenció i Promoció de la Salut (CEPS) for their involvement in developing the program.
Conflict of interest: none declared.
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