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Research Plan 2/2

AFF Research Plan
    Part 1/2
    Part 2/2

November 1999

  1. With regard to psychologically abusive groups, what is the relationship between person variables, group variables, and psychopathology?

AFF�s Executive Director, Dr. Michael Langone, whom Boston University named the 1995 Albert V. Danielsen Visiting Scholar, conducted a study at Boston University of the International Churches of Christ movement. He used the GPA Scale and a new scale (the DDD Scale�Deception, Dependency, and Dread Scale) to assess the abusiveness of the Boston Movement, as rated by former members. He also used a psychological test battery to assess the nature and degree of psychological distress experienced by former members of the Boston Movement and two comparison groups: graduates of a mainstream campus ministry and former members of a mainstream religion. This test battery is identical to that used in an Ohio University study described below. Dr. Langone's report to the Danielsen Institute is available from AFF.

A team of three psychology graduate students under the direction of Ohio University�s Dr. Steve Lynn gave a standardized test battery to clients of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center and a matched comparison group of college students in order to assess the nature and degree of psychopathology among former cult members. A report on this research was published in Cultic Studies Journal, 16(1), 1999. Members of this team also wrote a comprehensive review of the empirical literature in this field [Aronoff, J.B., Lynn, S.J., & Malinoski, P.T. (in press). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Clinical Psychology Review].

The Marshall and Kendall studies, mentioned above, are also using a standardized battery to assess harm.

A team of four psychology graduate students under the direction of Pepperdine University�s Dr. David Foy have used the Los Angeles Symptom Checklist (a standardized instrument designed to measure symptoms common to victimization populations) to measure distress and the Group Experience Index (GEI) to assess the severity of exposure to cult-related pressures and abuses in order to study the relationships between post-cult distress and variables related to pre-cult history and adjustment, cult-related experiences, and post-cult history. A multiple regression research design was used to evaluate the relative contributions of the variables under investigation to post-cult distress. The Winocur article mentioned above also reports on this aspect of these studies.

Data from the AFF questionnaire from which the GPA Scale was derived await analyses and reporting by Dr. Langone and colleagues. This questionnaire explored subjects� psychological and social history, background variables related to cult joining, characteristics of the group environment, subjects� responses to the cult experience, subjects� post-group experiences (including recovery), and subjects� evaluations of helping resources.

Dr. Arthur Dole has written a methodological paper, published in Cultic Studies Journal, 12(2), 1995, explaining how to apply case study methodology to the cult area. Over the next few years, AFF would like to enlist the support of clinicians in this field to conduct a series of case studies using Dr. Dole�s methodology.

Although considerable research has been conducted, much more research is needed to adequately answer this question.

  1. What is the prevalence of membership in psychologically abusive groups and how many such groups are there in the United States?

The first research-planning meeting decided that existing prevalence data are sufficient for current research purposes and that a full-scale epidemiological study on cultic groups would be an inappropriate use of limited resources at this time. It was decided, however, that surveys of professional populations (e.g., clergy, psychologists), such as Dr. Edward Lottick�s survey of primary care physicians [Lottick, E.A. (Feb. 1993).Survey reveals physician's experiences with cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26-28 -- available from AFF], would provide useful data at relatively low cost (and would also contribute to professional education). Such surveys will be conducted as funds allow.

Scientifically determining the number of psychologically abusive groups, or cults, in the U.S. is a daunting task. Perhaps the most feasible approach would be to compile a comprehensive list of groups about which AFF receives inquiries, select a random sample from this list, and conduct in-depth studies of this sample, using when possible the GPA Scale and/or other scales to be developed in the future. This study would enable us to make reasonable and empirically based generalizations about the broad population of groups we receive inquiries on (e.g., what percentage appears to be abusive). This study obviously will require considerable funding. 

Develop a methodology for assessing the nature and extent of cultic influence on a university campus. AFF believes that if we could develop an effective and efficient survey instrument, colleges and universities could use this instrument to help them assess cult-related problems on their campuses. Dr. Russell Eleven's research, which was published in Cultic Studies Journal, 15(1), 1998, has laid the groundwork for the development of such a measure.

  1. What is the relationship between person, group, and treatment variables and amelioration in post-group distress?

Currently, the most thorough outcome evaluation of psychological treatment for former group members is that of Dr. Paul Martin and his colleagues at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, published in Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 1992.Although controlled outcome studies are obviously preferred, such studies require considerable funding. In the meantime, the state of knowledge would be advanced if other clinicians in this field attempted to evaluate treatment effectiveness using standardized pre- and post-measures, as Wellspring does.

  1. What are the legal implications of the cult phenomenon?

The American Bar Association report published in Cultic Studies Journal, 12(1), 1995 provides a literature review and analysis of case law relating to mind control issues, undue influence, and fraud. Cultic Studies Journal has also published articles on other aspects of the legal dimension of this subject, including custody, violence against women laws, emancipation of minors, hypnotic testimony, and certain reports of governments. The international dimension of the cult issue greatly complicates the legal arena. It would be helpful to develop a manual of pertinent laws, precedents, and unresolved issues in various countries in order to make the scholarly analysis above accessible to greater numbers of people. Obviously, this is a major task that would require funding and the skills of a legal scholar.

  1. What are the cultural implications of the cult issue?

AFF believes that the cultural implications of cultism can be explored fruitfully by answering the following key question:

The answer to this question includes, but is not limited to, legal considerations. A key component of the answer, for example, has to do with the ethics of how we influence each other, a subject on which AFF has published a number of articles. Answering this question also demands an analysis of fundamental societal values and how conflicting values can most effectively be reconciled.

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Last revised: June 06, 2008
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