Psychological Abuse Scale
Presented to Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) American
Psychological Association Annual Meeting
August, 12, 1996
The study of
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 Issuesnow 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.
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" (Websters 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 terms 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
During this period, the concept of
(Lifton, 1961), or coercive persuasion (Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 1961), popularly
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
Galanters (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 individuals time
and thought content, typically by gaining control over major elements of the persons
social and physical environment.
- Systematically creating a sense of powerlessness in the
- 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,
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
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 groupsreligious and
nonreligiouscommonly 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
itand lesser forms of psychological abusecharacterize 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 dont 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 Langones (1992) theoretical
analysis of psychological abuse. Langones 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
- the purpose of the group,
- the relationships within the group, and
- 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
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=cant 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
Universitys Danielsen Institute (Langone, 1996). This study examined former members
of the International
Churches of Christ (ICCoften 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 Catholicsall 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 Masters 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, Wilks =.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
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
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 GPAs four subscalesCompliance, Exploitation, Mind Control, and
Anxious Dependencyreflect 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).
GPA Mean Scores (Standard Deviations)
||Langone - n=23
||Adams - n=27
|ICC - Comp 1
||Langone - n=40
|ICC - Comp 2
||Langone - n=15
|ICC - Adams
||Clients - n=36
||Chambers et al.n=308
*SD not available
Applications of the Group Psychological Abuse
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
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 pressneither 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
Clinicians who want to assess the possible abusiveness of a
clients 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 ones 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 GPAs 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
leaders dictatorial control. The existence of bicameral normative systems helps
explain why there is so much disagreement among cult researchers. Some agree with
MacDonalds 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
Adams, D. (1993). The Cincinnati Church of Christ:
How former members rate the group on the cultism scale. Unpublished masters thesis,
Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio.
American Psychological Association. (1992). Ethical
principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist,
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,
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
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
Universitys 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,
Websters 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,