Questionnaire Study: Preliminary Report
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
The following is a preliminary report on results from a survey given to 308 former group members in 1991. Two reports related to this survey have been published in AFF’s Cultic Studies Journal, one concerning terminology and one involving the development of a measure, the Group Psychological Abuse Scale.
If a reader would like to use any of the information in this preliminary report for educational or research efforts, please write to AFF’s executive director, Dr. Michael Langone, before doing so.
The questionnaire study had the following general goals:
Collect demographic data on diverse ex-member populations.
Collect data on background factors, especially those that may relate to joining the group or to post-group distress.
Evaluate post-group distress levels and attitudes toward the group and helping resources.
Collect data on group characteristics and attempt to extract the essence of “cultism” as seen by this population of subjects.
Examine the relationships among selected variables. (I cannot report on this aspect of the study because we are still analyzing the data.)
Demographics and Background Factors
308 persons completed the questionnaire.
64% were female; 36% were male.
24.8 was the average age at which subjects joined the group.
6.70 was the average number of years subjects belonged to the group.
36.8 was the average age of subjects when they completed the questionnaire.
13.44 was the average number of years of schooling before joining the group.
5.10 was the average number of persons in the subjects’ family or origin. (Although confirmation has not yet been obtained, I believe that this figure is higher than the national average by perhaps as much as one person.)
67% of subjects’ parents were living together when they joined the group, 33% were not. (I do not yet know how these figures compare to national norms.)
18% of subjects were married, 9% divorced, 3% separated, and 70% single when they joined the group.
41% were married, 19% divorced, 4% separated, and 36% single at the time of completing the questionnaire.
Pre-group religious affiliations were: None, 13%; Protestant, 47%; Catholic, 24%; Jewish, 8%; Other, 8%.
Post-group religious affiliations were: None, 46%; Protestant, 30%; Catholic, 8%; Jewish, 5%; Other, 12%.
On average, 2 months passed between the subject’s first contact with the group and his/her becoming a member.
The following number (% of total sample in parentheses) of subjects left their groups because of:
185 (60%) on their own, without formal outside assistance
39 (13%) involuntary deprogramming
53 (17%) exit counseling / voluntary deprogramming
29 (9%) the group asked them to leave
5 (2%) as a result of a legal conservatorship
29 (9%) assistance from a mental health professional
15 (5%) assistance from another professional
85 (28%) other
Some subjects checked more than one reason; therefore, the figures add up to more than 100%.
With regard to satisfaction with the group experience, subjects gave the following ratings:
6% very satisfying
42% very unsatisfying
With regard to benefit/harm of the experience, the subjects gave the following ratings:
3% very beneficial
44% very harmful
With regard to the extent to which group pressures made it difficult to leave, the subjects gave the following ratings:
47% very difficult
4% not sure
11% mildly difficult
14% no difficulty
With regard to the question of whether they had ever been “depressed for one week or more without letup,” subjects responded as follows:
27 (9%) said they had been so depressed before the group experience
153 (50%) said they had been so depressed during the group experience
172 (56%) said they had been so depressed after the group experience
With regard to whether or they had been victims of sexual abuse, subjects responded as follows:
69 (22%) had been victimized before the group experience
34 (11%) had been victimized during the group experience
10 (3%) had been victimized after the group experience
With regard to whether or not they had attempted suicide, subjects responded as follows:
28 (9%) had attempted suicide before the group experience
20 (6%) had attempted suicide during the group experience
23 (7%) had attempted suicide after the group experience
With regard to whether or not they had experienced severe anxiety attacks, subjects responded as follows:
58 (19%) had such attacks before the group experience
97 (31%) had such attacks during the group experience
105 (34%) had such attacks after the group experience
With regard to how they initially made contact with the group, subjects responded as follows (some subjects checked more than one item, so the totals are greater than 100%):
34 (11%) through a recruiter on a college campus
40 (13%) through a meeting on the street (not on campus)
106 (34%) through a friend who joined the group
76 (25%) through a boyfriend or girlfriend who joined the group
23 (7%) through a brother or sister who joined the group
62 (20%) through reading materials
101 (33%) other
43% of the subjects were students when they joined the group
10% were high school students
27% were undergraduates
6% were graduate students
Of those who were students when they joined, 38% dropped out of school after joining the group.
With regard to whether or not they had received professional counseling or psychological/psychiatric care, subjects responded as follows:
42% said they received professional counseling before the group experience
22% said they received professional counseling during the group experience
70% said they received professional counseling after the group experience
15% said their care included hospitalization
With regard to how beneficial/harmful the group was for the majority of members, subjects responded as follows:
1% saw the group as very beneficial
4% saw the group as beneficial
7% gave a neutral reply
37% saw the group as harmful
51% saw the group as very harmful
Post-Group Distress and Attitudes Toward Helping Resources
The following are selected indicators of distress during the first six months after leaving the group. A rating of 1 = the person was not at all troubled by the item; 2 = he/she was troubled a little; 3 = unable to say; 4 = a moderate amount; 5 = a great deal. The figure indicates the percentage (of total subject population) of persons rating the item. The totals do not always add up to 100% because percentages for individual ratings have been approximated to whole numbers.
Item 1 2 3 4 5
medical ills 4% 20% 3% 16% 16%
conflicts with loved ones 25% 22% 7% 22% 24%
anxiety/fear/worry 9% 11% 1% 25% 58%
indecisiveness 9% 17% 6% 20% 48%
difficulty concentrating 12% 14% 7% 25% 42%
vivid flashbacks to group 15% 10% 3% 25% 46%
feeling that family friends watch you too closely 41% 13% 10% 18% 18%
guilt about what you did when in the group 17% 22% 5% 24% 32%
desire to return to the group 55% 15% 3% 18% 9%
desire to help friends in group 12% 16% 5% 23% 45%
a longing to restore certain aspects
of group experience 28% 21% 7% 23% 21%
despair/hopelessness/helplessness 17% 18% 5% 20% 41%
unable to manage day-to-day tasks 29% 28% 5% 20% 18%
depression 11% 20% 5% 26% 41%
anger toward group leader 27% 13% 3% 22% 54%
fear of physical harm by group 45% 15% 2% 17% 21%
“floating” among very different states of mind 20% 20% 5% 26% 29%
low self-confidence 11% 14% 3% 24% 48%
feel like live in unreal world 30% 14% 5% 18% 33%
feelings of shame/humiliation 18% 21% 4% 25% 32%
compulsive need to talk about group 19% 16% 3% 27% 36%
financial difficulties 27% 12% 4% 19% 38%
difficulty finding suitable employment 40% 13% 6% 13% 27%
difficulty making relationships work 25% 20% 6% 20% 29%
With regard to the question of how much contact subjects had with organizations or persons concerned about cultic groups, the subjects responded as follows:
9% no contact
28% a little contact (e.g., received info)
33% moderate amount of contact (e.g., attended meetings/conferences;
multiple phone contacts)
30% much contact (e.g, attended meetings/multiple phone contacts;
On average subjects were out of their groups 29 months before they first made contact with such organizations or persons, i.e., resources specializing in helping former cultists.
Subjects rated the helpfulness of these resources as follows:
55% very helpful
0% very harmful
68% of subjects knew of former members of their groups who had not been in contact with such helping resources.
These 68% of subjects knew an average of 27.55 former members who have not contacted helping resources.
The following percentages of former members who have not contacted helping resources were viewed as having had difficulty adjusting to post-group life:
6% hardly any of the former members
13% some of the former members
4% about half
21% most of the former members
30% all or nearly all
25% don’t know
The following items were rated on helpfulness. 1 = very helpful; 2 = helpful; 3 = neutral/not sure; 4 = harmful; 5 = very harmful. The figures are the percentage responding to that item.
Item 1 3 4 5
FOCUS support meetings 38% 27% 32% 2% 1%
reading materials 62% 30% 3% 1% 3%
Cult Awareness Network National Conference 34% 60% 39% 0% 1%
professional mental health counseling 48% 25% 21% 2% 3%
attendance at a rehab facility 42% 7% 48% 1% 2%
exit counseling 53% 16% 27% 1% 3%
discussions with clergy 30% 32% 29% 7% 2%
legal consultations 21% 25% 47% 3% 3%
discussions with other individuals 62% 29% 4% 3% 2%
parents 22% 31% 33% 7% 7%
brothers/sisters 23% 32% 34% 7% 4%
spouse 49% 23% 21% 4% 3%
friends 49% 33% 14% 2% 2%
other ex-cultists 70% 23% 2% 1% 3%
other 70% 11% 12% 2% 6%
With regard to the question of how much pressure subjects felt from helping organizations and persons to adopt the helpers’ attitudes toward the group, subjects responded as follows:
3% great deal of pressure
5% much pressure
18% can’t say
23% little pressure
52% very little pressure
With regard to the degree to which these helping resources are similar to the subject’s charismatic group on the dimension of pressuring the subject to adopt their attitudes, the subjects said that the group and the helping resources were:
0% very similar
15% can’t say
58% very different
With regard to how the helping resouces have changed the subjects’ attitudes toward the group, subjects responded as follows:
70% they have made me feel more negative toward the group
20% they did not significantly affect my attitudes
6% they made me feel more positive toward the group
22% not applicable because the subject had little contact with
the helping resources
50% of subjects believe they still need assistance in adjusting to post-group life.
With regard to how well they are currently coping with their problems, subjects responded as follows:
40% said they were coping “very well”
43% said they were coping “adequately”
8% were not sure
8% said they were coping “inadequately”
3% said they were coping “very poorly”
35% said financial limitations prevent them from receiving the assistance they need.
The following coping techniques were rated as very helpful or helpful by 80% or more of the subjects responding:
having friends I can talk to
paying attention to my need for rest and nutrition
studying about how manipulative groups work
trying to talk “with” people not “at” them
making sure I take off time to think
trying to cultivate patience
working on hobbies or participating in sports
getting opinions from other people
using my emotions as signals about what my needs are
trying to cultivate the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I can’t, and the wisdom to tell the difference
having one person, a “buddy,” to whom I can turn in particularly tough times
reminding myself that I don’t have to solve all of my problems now
Characteristics of the Group
The questionnaire asks more than 100 questions concerning the characteristics of the groups to which subjects belonged. This was done intentionally so that we could later apply statistical procedures to derive the “essence” of cultism as our subjects see it. Dr. William Chambers, one of my colleagues on this study, has derived a four-scale factor analysis from this section of the questionnaire. The four factors and the items loading on these factors will, when we complete our analyses, constitute a scale for evaluating the “cultishness” of groups. We hope in future research to use this scale to compare cultic groups to each other and to mainstream groups. Unfortunately, we are not now ready to report on this line of inquiry.
In order to give you some sense of the items subjects seemed to associate most with their groups, I will merely list the ten items that received the highest average ratings (some ratings are low because the question was phrased in a “positive” way, and subjects saw the item as “not characteristic” of the group). Subjects used the following ratings: 1 = not at all characteristic; 2 = not characteristic; 3 = can’t say/not sure; 4 = characteristic; 5 = very characteristic. The ten most highly rated items and their average ratings were:
4.86 Members feel that they are part of a special elite.
4.76 The group advocates or implies that when members disagree with the group about fundamental perceptions and beliefs, e.g., the morality of a group action, the member must be wrong and should try to discover what is wrong with his or her thinking or perceptions.
1.28 Members are encouraged to question the group’s teachings.
1.39 Leaders respect the individual’s right to disagree.
1.40 The individual’s goals and needs are more important than those of the group or of the leader(s).
4.60 The group has its own jargon that outsiders find difficult to understand.
4.56 People who stay in the group do so because they are deceived and manipulated.
1.49 Members are just as capable of independent critical thinking as they were before they joined the group.
4.53 Has totalitarian world view (“us” against “them”).
4.55 The group advocates or implies that it is the sole source of truth.
Thank you for your help and for your patience!