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See:  Definitional Issues Collection; Understanding Groups Collection

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The Group Psychological Abuse Scale

William V. Chambers, Ph.D.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Peter Malinoski, M.A.


Presented to Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) American Psychological Association Annual Meeting
Toronto, Canada
August, 12, 1996

The study of cults has stimulated much disagreement among academics, clergy, and mental health professionals. These disagreements led to a resolution passed by Division 36 (Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues—now called Psychology of Religion) of the American Psychological Association, which says in part:

"...there is no consensus that sufficient psychological research exists to scientifically equate undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as ‘coercive persuasion,’ ‘mind control,’ or ‘brainwashing’) with techniques of influence as typically practiced by one or more religious groups." Further, the Executive Committee invites those with research on this topic to submit proposals to present their work at Divisional programs. (PIRI Executive Committee Adopts Position on Non-Physical Persuasion, 1991, p. 3).

This paper briefly explores some of the definitional confusion that contributes to the disagreements in this field and then reports on the development of a measure, the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994), which will contribute to the advancement of empirical research, as called for by Division 36, and, after it is fully developed, will help clarify definitional confusion in this field.

Definitional Issues

According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) the term "cult" has historically referred to "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings...a particular form or system of religious worship; esp in reference to its external rites and ceremonies...devotion or homage to a particular person or thing, now esp. as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers." The term has more recently been applied to "devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, etc., especially when regarded as a fad: as, the cult of nudism" (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1960).

Sociologically the term "cult" has usually referred to innovative religious groups, with "sect" referring to groups that split off from mainstream religions (Robbins, 1988). In 1969, for example, Robbins published an article entitled, "Eastern Mysticism and the Resocialization of Drug Users: The Meher Baba Cult" (Robbins, 1969). During the 1970s, however, and especially after the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, a steady stream of critical journalistic reports resulted in the term’s taking on a decidedly negative connotation of exploitation and extreme manipulation of followers. As a consequence some scholars have come to prefer the term "new religious movement (NRM)," which does not have the negative connotation of "cult." (Ironically, the Meher Baba group does not exhibit the negative features associated with the pejorative definition of "cult.")

Academic Disputes

During this period, the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961), or coercive persuasion (Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 1961), popularly called "brainwashing" or "mind control," was used to try to explain the behavior of many controversial groups that were being called "cults." Disputes arose between so-called "pro-cultists," who favored the term, "new religious movement," and "anti-cultists," who favored the term, "cult." The debate between these parties was often depicted as revolving around the question of whether or not thought reform, "brainwashing," exists, or whether it necessarily entails physical coercion. Proponents of thought reform models, however, have long held that their models apply to extreme examples of the sociopsychological influences seen in everyday life. Lifton, for example, extensively studied Chinese civilians who had not been exposed to physical coercion. And both he and Schein warned society about the dangers posed by sociopsychological influences within our own culture. Indeed, the American Psychological Association (APA), recognizing that even responsible, well-meaning psychologists should avoid the use of certain forms of influence, imposed ethical constraints on psychological researchers (APA, 1992).

The true source of the disagreement was summarized in the Division 36 resolution quoted above. This statement recognizes the existence of coercive persuasion, while noting that research does not yet tell us the degree to which coercive persuasion characterizes religious groups typically categorized under the terms "cult" or "new religious movement." Langone (1988, 1993) has advocated that a distinction be made between these two terms, reserving the former term for groups that are highly manipulative and exploitative and the latter for benign groups, such as the Meher Baba group. Many scholars, however, continue to write as though the two terms refer to the same category of group, thereby needlessly adding fuel to the spurious debate between so-called "pro-cultists" and "anti-cultists."

A Proposed Conceptual Integration

Galanter’s (1989) term, "charismatic group," has some advantages over "cult" or "new religious movement" in that it can encompass the benign and the destructive. Furthermore, the term may be applied to some nonreligious groups, such as political movements, human development organizations, and small subgroups of mainstream groups. A charismatic group is characterized by a shared belief system, a sustained high level of social cohesiveness, powerful behavioral norms, and a leader to whom members impute charismatic or divine power. Unfortunately, this term is not widely used.

The concept of psychological abuse, particularly that observed in groups, presents possibilities for further theoretical differentiation. Psychological abuse refers to practices that, simply stated, treat a person as an object to be manipulated and used, rather than as a subject whose mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity are to be honored (Langone, 1992). Obviously, for a group to be called psychologically abusive, abusive practices must reach a designated threshold of frequency and/or intensity. This threshold could be selected after sufficient research using the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers et al., 1994).

Group psychological abuse may be distinguished from thought reform, or "mind control," in that the latter may be viewed as a specialized instance of the former. Figure one presents Venn diagrams that illustrate the relationship between "thought reform," "group psychological abuse," "cult," "new religious movement," and "charismatic group."

The center circle represents group environments characterized by thought reform, or coercive persuasion. The following conditions are present in groups practicing thought reform:

  • Obtaining substantial control over an individual’s time and thought content, typically by gaining control over major elements of the person’s social and physical environment.
  • Systematically creating a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  • Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in such a way as to inhibit observable behavior that reflects the values and routines of life organization the individual displayed prior to contact with the group.
  • Maintaining a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure in the organization.
  • Maintaining a noninformed state existing in the subject. (Singer & Ofshe, 1990, pp. 189-190)

Psychologically abusive groups, may, but do not necessarily, have some or all of these features to varying degrees. Psychologically abusive groups may also be characterized by less potent or less systematic forms of influence that abuse people by treating them as objects. Psychologically abusive groups may be, but are not necessarily, charismatic, and may be, but are not necessarily, religious.

Encompassing the circle representing group psychological abuse is a circle labeled group-related harm. This circle refers to broader types of harm that would not necessarily be psychologically abusive, religious, or related to a charismatic group. For example, a relatively benign, nonmanipulative new age group might advocate an unorthodox diet that could be medically harmful to some or all of the group’s members.

Partly overlapping these three circles is a circle representing "charismatic groups" (Galanter, 1989). This circle includes groups commonly referred to as new religious movements, as well as groups—religious and nonreligious—commonly called cults, including those using thought reform. The circle also includes groups characterized by psychological abuse and other nonabusive types of harm, as well as benign groups.

Much needless disputation arises when the distinctions implied by these Venn diagrams are ignored or when the only distinction made is between benign and thought reform groups. As the Division 36 resolution suggests, the debate ought to be focused not on whether or not thought reform exists, but the degree to which it—and lesser forms of psychological abuse—characterize the broader category of charismatic groups. In other words, what ought to be the relative sizes of the Venn diagrams? Some who work with people harmed by psychologically abusive groups may be inclined to overestimate the number of psychologically abusive groups and the intensity or prevalence of abuse in such groups. Others, whose experience is primarily with benign groups, such as Meher Baba, or who don’t work with those who have been harmed, may be inclined to underestimate the prevalence of psychological abuse. This is an empirical disagreement that ought to be settled through empirical research, such as that called for by the Division 36 resolution.

Group Psychological Abuse Scale

The Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers et al., 1994) was developed to provide a measure that would permit such empirical research. One cannot study depression without a measure of depression, and one cannot study psychologically abusive groups without a measure of group psychological abuse.

The GPA was derived from a pool of 112 descriptive items, which formed part of a larger survey to which 308 subjects from 101 different groups responded. These items were selected from a delphi study (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985) that examined experts’ perceptions of cults, a careful review of the clinical literature on cults and thought reform programs, and Langone’s (1992) theoretical analysis of psychological abuse. Langone’s work suggested that cults, defined as exploitatively manipulative groups, would be conspicuous examples of group-induced psychological abuse. The descriptive items used to rate groups fell into three domains of interest:

  1. the purpose of the group,
  2. the relationships within the group, and
  3. the relationships with others outside the group.

A 20-page questionnaire, of which these 112 descriptive items formed a part, was sent to lists of ex-members and professionals and organizations who had access to former members of cultic groups. Approximately 35% of subjects responded (the exact number is not known because not all professionals and organizations handed out all questionnaires they received). Approximately 37% of the subjects had no or little contact with cult educational organizations. The average length of membership was 6.79 years. Sixty-four percent of the subjects were female. Their religious backgrounds were roughly representative of U.S. religious affiliations. Education was high, with subjects reporting an average of 14.84 years of school. Sixty percent of the subjects left their group without formal outside assistance, 9% were ejected, 13% had been deprogrammed (i.e., some restraint used), 17% had been exit counseled (an intervention in which the person is free to leave at any time). This subject population was much broader than that of earlier research in which the vast majority of subjects had left their groups because of family-initiated deprogrammings.

Principal components analysis with varimax rotation revealed four interpretable factors, each with eigenvalues greater than 3. The strategy for scale development was to choose items that loaded substantially on the factors, assuming that the scales made up of such items would reflect the factors from which they were chosen. Seventy-five of the 112 items loaded substantially on one or more of the four retained factors. Four subscales with 7 items each (28 items altogether) were identified, using items that loaded substantially on only one of the four factors in order to increase the unidimensionality, and thus interpretability, of the scales. Items were rated on a 1-5 likert scale with 1=not at all characteristic, 2=not characteristic, 3=can’t say/not sure, 4=characteristic, and 5=very characteristic. Each subscale can produce scores from 7 to 35, while the GPA summary index of psychological abuse can range from 28 to 140. Scores of 21 for the subscales and 84 for the GPA summary index mark the dividing point between ratings indicating abuse and ratings indicating nonabuse. An analysis of items loading on the subscale factors indicated that the following were appropriate names for the factors: Compliance, Exploitation, Mind Control, and Anxious Dependency. The average scores of the subjects on the GPA scale were 110.70 for the summary index (SD=13.42), 29.27 for Compliance (SD=5.30), 22.96 for Exploitation (SD=5.91), 31.64 for Mind Control (SD=3.43), and 26.52 for Anxious Dependency (SD=5.55).

Research on the ICC

The GPA was used in a research study conducted at Boston University’s Danielsen Institute (Langone, 1996). This study examined former members of the International Churches of Christ (ICC—often called "the Boston Movement"), one of the most controversial and fastest growing groups in the country. The study looked at the nature and level of psychological distress and perceptions regarding the psychological abusiveness of the group. The GPA served as a measure for the latter objective. In one component the GPA was mailed, with two other questionnaires, to 228 former ICC members throughout the U.S., of whom 40 responded. In another component, the GPA was given, along with a psychological test battery, to 15 former ICC members, 23 graduates of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a mainstream campus ministry, and 19 former Roman Catholics—all of whom were seen either at the Danielsen Institute or an alternate site. These latter groups permitted comparisons between an allegedly cultic group (ICC) and former members of two mainstream religious groups. In one of these groups, the members had left (i.e., graduated) on good terms; in the other group, the members had left because they were disenchanted for various reasons. The latter comparison group tested the hypothesis that former cult members have negative perceptions about their groups simply because they are disgruntled. If this were the case, then former Catholics and former ICC members would rate their groups similarly.

In fact, the former ICC members rated their group much higher on the GPA than either of the two comparison groups: M=105.60 (SD=13.69 -- Component One) and 108.50 (SD=11.28 -- Component Two) versus 65.26 (SD=15.90) for the ex-Catholic group and 46.91 (SD=8.10) for the InterVarsity group. Subscale scores were also much higher for the ICC group. These results were consistent with the only other study to use the GPA, a Master’s thesis (Adams, 1993) that compared former ICC members in Cincinnati and graduates of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

A discriminant analysis was conducted to see if the composite GPA score alone could correctly classify individual subjects in their respective groups. The discriminant function analysis revealed that the GPA score alone could predict group membership better than chance, Wilk’s =.188, F(2,52) = 112.62, p <.001. Thirteen of the 14 former ICC members (92.9%) were correctly classified on the basis of their GPA scores. None of the former IV members and only 2 of 19 former Catholics were incorrectly classified as former ICC members. Overall, the discriminant function correctly classified 76.4% of the cases. However, it should be noted that discriminant functions derived from a sample and used to classify cases on the same sample capitalize on chance variation of the sample and are very likely to generate more accurate classification results than would be achieved if the canonical coefficients were used to classify cases on a separate sample.

Ohio University/Wellspring Data

GPA data have also been collected by researchers at Ohio University and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a residential treatment facility for former cult members. Thirty-six former cult members attending Wellspring and 52 former cult members attending a national conference of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) were administered the GPA.

The mean of the GPA summary index for the first group was 100.70 (SD=19.91), 95.50 (SD=11.45) for the second group. Subscale scores, along with all other GPA scores reported here, are summarized in Table 1.

These data indicate that the GPA may have much potential to contribute to the kind of research called for in the Division 36 resolution. More psychometric work must be performed, however, before the GPA will be fully developed. The scale must be given to large numbers of current and former members of charismatic and mainstream groups, religious and nonreligious, in order to determine if it retains its discriminative capacity across a wider subject population. Test-retest reliability studies must be conducted, as well as criterion and construct validity studies. Such studies will take some time and effort, but they can be completed.

The GPA will also contribute to theoretical development in this area. The GPA’s four subscales—Compliance, Exploitation, Mind Control, and Anxious Dependency—reflect varieties of abuse, while the summary index of the four factors is a statistically efficient measure of the extent of abuse. The permutations of the four scales may be useful in developing an empirically based classification system of groups with respect to the notion of psychological abuse.

The importance of developing the GPA is underscored by research indicating that one to two percent of the population may have been at least transiently involved with psychologically abusive groups (Bird & Reimer, 1982; ICR Survey Research Group, 1993; Lottick, 1993; Zimbardo & Hartley, 1985). Although the number of such groups is not known, evidence indicates that there are probably thousands, if one includes those that may have no more than a few dozen members (Langone, 1993).

Table 1

GPA Mean Scores (Standard Deviations)   

Subject Group GPA Comp-
Exploitation Mind Control Anxious  Depend-
Ex-Roman Cath. 65.26 (15.90) 17.63 (3.96) 14.47 (4.47) 17.58 (5.80) 15.58 (3.89) Langone -n=19
InterVarsity 46.91  (8.10) 15.36 (3.91) 10.57 (1.96) 12.04 (4.01) 8.89 (1.38) Langone - n=23
InterVarsity 42.15 * 12.71 (4.70) 10.37 (2.59) 10.59 (3.15) 8.48 (2.13) Adams - n=27
ICC - Comp 1 105.60 (13.69) 31.70 (3.90) 19.30 (4.35) 31.48 (3.66) 23.13 (4.40) Langone - n=40
ICC - Comp 2 108.50 (11.28) 31.86 (3.28) 21.79 (2.81) 30.43 (4.55) 24.43 (3.25) Langone - n=15
ICC - Adams 107.68 * 32.96 (2.35) 20.18 (4.68) 31.43 (3.57) 23.11 (4.63) n=28
Wellspring? 100.69 (18.91) 27.27 (5.98) 18.92 (6.49) 30.41 (5.12) 24.69 (6.12) Clients - n=36
CAN Ex-Cultists 95.50 (11.45) 25.77 (3.17) 21.36 (6.35) 23.23 (2.00) 26.26 (4.43) n=52
Diverse groups 110.70 (13.42)   29.27 (5.30) 22.96 (5.91) 31.64 (3.43) 26.52 (5.55) Chambers et al.n=308













*SD not available

Applications of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale

Given the large number of harmful groups and the number of people who have had at least transient involvements in such groups, an instrument that measures group psychological abuse would have many applications. Currently, for example, clinicians and researchers rely upon a priori checklists of destructive group characteristics and anecdotal or clinical data to evaluate groups. Passionate debates sometimes surround allegations that a particular group is a "cult." The GPA draws attention away from the difficult-to-define and categorical concept of cult and focuses instead on the intuitively meaningful and theoretically quantifiable concept of psychological abuse. If developed psychometrically, the GPA could provide quantitative, systematically collected data that would greatly reduce reliance upon anecdotes, participant observation, and clinical impressions. Moreover, because the GPA has four distinct factor scores, as well as a summary index, it will permit much more nuanced evaluations of groups than is currently possible and will reduce the level of disagreement among professionals in the field.

The following are additional applications envisioned for the GPA:

Once the GPA has been used to evaluate at least several dozen groups, it may become possible to select several small groups that, according to the GPA, are especially abusive. Current and former members could then be studied in depth in order to increase understanding of the mechanisms that sustain such groups, harm at least some of their members, and induce some to commit violent or criminal acts. Presently, the only criteria for selecting groups to study are their availability and level of controversy in the press—neither of which is a reliable indicator of the degree to which the group is in fact psychologically abusive.

The GPA can be used to help determine if there are any relationships between perceived psychological abuse in group environments and pre-existing or post-group psychopathology. Ongoing studies at Ohio University and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center are examining this question.

By comparing the GPA subscale profiles of various controversial and noncontroversial groups, it may be possible to develop empirically grounded theories and classification systems pertaining to the varieties of group psychological abuse. Such a use of the GPA might draw attention to relatively noncontroversial groups that, though not highly abusive, may be sufficiently abusive on one or two subscales to warrant criticism. Conversely, using the GPA in this way may call into question allegations of abuse in certain groups whose controversial nature may be unjustified or based on factors other than abuse. In other words, the GPA will give a measure of objective clarity to disagreements currently based upon opinion or relatively unstructured observations.

Clinicians who want to assess the possible abusiveness of a client’s group involvement could use the GPA to help determine the level and nature of perceived abuse.

Family members who approach clinicians for advice regarding a loved one’s group involvement could use the GPA to make at least a preliminary analysis of the possible abusiveness of the group.

Limitations and Future Research

The GPA’s major limitation is that it is a self-report measure. Instruments that assess group psychological abuse through behavioral observations are also needed. The development of such instruments, however, poses serious methodological problems and requires a much greater level of resources than the GPA demands. In part, behavioral measures will be enormously difficult to develop because the manifested psychological abusiveness of a group may, ironically, vary inversely with the skill of the abusive leader. At least in some case a skillful leader may have so thoroughly stifled dissent and enforced conformity that overt abuse may not often be necessary and, therefore, will not be readily observed. MacDonald (1987/88) proposed the concept of the bicameral normative system to account for this phenomenon: the abusive norms of the group will replace the seemingly benign surface norms only when a dissenter or noncompliant member threatens to disrupt the specious harmony resulting from the leader’s dictatorial control. The existence of bicameral normative systems helps explain why there is so much disagreement among cult researchers. Some agree with MacDonald’s contention that appearances can deceive; while others are more inclined to take appearances at face value. If MacDonald is correct, psychometrically meaningful observational measures of group abuse will be extremely difficult to construct. Langone (1989) proposed a framework for constructing a behavioral measure of group abuse, but his proposal does not overcome the problems posed by bicameral normative systems. More conceptual work is needed.

The GPA will not solve all measurement problems associated with psychologically abusive groups. But it will at least enable researchers to systematically assess the perception of psychological abuse among members and former members of a large variety of abusive and nonabusive groups. If, as expected, it succeeds in discriminating among types of groups, it will enable researchers to focus on those groups that are most abusive and, therefore, most likely to be useful in the development of observational measures and the examination of research questions. The GPA can undoubtedly provide a useful foundation for research in an area that cries out for solid empirical study.


Adams, D. (1993). The Cincinnati Church of Christ: How former members rate the group on the cultism scale. Unpublished master’s thesis, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio.

American Psychological Association. (1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 47(12), 1597-1628.

Bird, F., & Reimer, B. (1982). Participation rates in new religions and para-religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21, 1-14.

Chambers, W., Langone, M. D., Dole, A., & Grice, J. (1994). Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of cultic behavior. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.

Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1971). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dole, A. A., & Dubrow-Eichel, S. (1985). Some new religions are dangerous. Cultic Studies Journal, 2(1), 17-30. Galanter, M. (1989). Cults: Faith, healing, and coercion. New York: Oxford University Press.

ICR Survey Research Group. (1993). Cult-screening test conducted for the American Family Foundation.

Langone, M. D. (1989). Social influence: Ethical considerations. Cultic Studies Journal, 6(1), 16-24. Langone, M. D. (1988). Cults: Questions and answers. Bonita Springs, FL: American Family Foundation. Langone, M. D. (1992). Psychological abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 206-218.

Langone, M. D. (Ed.). (1993). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Langone, M. D. (1996). An investigation of a reputedly psychologically abusive group that targets collee students: A report for Boston University’s Danielsen Institute.

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lottick, E. (February, 1993). Survey reveals physicians’ experiences with cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26-28.

PIRI Executive Committee adopts position on non-physical persuasion. (1991). Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues Newsletter, 16(1), 3.

Robbins, T. (1969). Eastern mysticism and the resocialization of drug users: The Meher Baba cult. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8(2), 308-317.

Robbins, T. (1988). Cults, converts, and charisma. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Schein, E., Schneier, I., & Barker, C. H. (1961). Coercive persuasion: A sociopsychological analysis of the "brainwashing" of American civilian prisoners by the chinese communists. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20(4), 188-193.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. (1960). Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company.

Zimbardo, P. G., & Hartley, C. F. (1985). Cults go to high school: A theoretical and empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment process. Cultic Studies Journal, 2, 91-148.

NOTE: Researchers interested in possibly using the GPA should contact Dr. Michael Langone,







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We encourage inquirers to consider a variety of opinions, negative and positive, so that inquirers can make independent and informed judgments pertinent to their particular concerns.

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors.

See:  Definitional Issues Collection; Understanding Groups Collection

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors.

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