Psychological Abuse

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, 1992, pages 206-218

Psychological Abuse

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

American Family Foundation


Psychological abuse refers to situations in which techniques of persuasion and control are used to exploit and/or otherwise mistreat people. Its opposite, respect, has four aspects: the honoring of mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity (MAID). At heart, psychological abuse and respect are ethical concepts. In treating victims of psychological abuse, it is important to address the ethical dimension, for recognizing that they have been wronged is crucial to victims' recovery of mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity. Affirmation of the ethical dimension in individual cases of abuse also contributes to a strengthening of the unwritten ethical rules that undergird pluralistic societies.

According to dictionaries, "abuse" is at heart an ethical concept because it suggests wrongly using someone. "Psychological abuse" refers to situations in which psychological techniques of persuasion and control are used to exploit and/or mistreat people. Although aspects of psychological abuse can be studied scientifically, the phenomenon cannot be properly understood without analyzing its ethical dimension. This paper examines psychological abuse and its implications for the treatment of victims and for the strengthening of pluralistic societies. The paper does not describe the psychological techniques and behaviors that result in abuse (for a description of the "how" of psychological abuse in the extreme cases of cults, see Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Langone, 1990).

The range of phenomena falling under the category "psychological abuse" is broad. Consider the following case sketches:

Case One. Lucy, a seemingly normal 18-year-old sitting on her front porch in a rural Vermont town, is persuaded by two odd people to come away with them on the spot. Two weeks later her parents receive a postcard from her. She says that she has joined a nomadic religious group and is devoting her life to God. For two years her parents search unsuccessfully for Lucy. Then one day Lucy calls home from a bus station. She had fled her group in the middle of the night because she didn't think she would be able to resist their pressure if she tried to leave openly. She is terrified that God will punish her with a horrible death.

Case Two. Peter, a 24-year-old real estate salesman who has never exhibited any interest in religion, agrees to attend a weekend "transformational training" strongly recommended by a friend. During the training the trainer viciously attacks the trainees because they don't have the courage to make their lives work. The trainer tears them down and then builds them up according to his image of the New Humanity. Near the end of the training Peter has a profound religious experience in which he becomes convinced that he is God. Two days later the police pick him up in a subway where he is harassing passengers because they will not bow down to him.

Case Three. Robert, a reformed alcoholic, is questionned by police following the murder of a woman who lived across the street. During the interrogation, police deviously extract a confession from Robert, who is persuaded that he must have murdered the woman during an alcoholic blackout. Subsequent investigation proves that it was impossible for Robert to have committed the crime.

Case Four. Emma and Jonathan befriend one of their son's friends and his father, who is supposedly temporarily out of work because of a delay in his research funding. This man pretends to be an M.D. doing research at Stanford. Over a short period of time he convinces the young couple that their oldest boy is suffering from childhood schizophrenia and prescribes a treatment program that leads to the couple's being reported to authorities for child abuse. They had been turned in by Emma's mother, who was horrified by the changes she had observed in her daughter and son-in-law and by the "discipline" they were using on her grandson.

Case Five. Tricia and Chuck fall in love in their early twenties. For the first year they are very happy. Gradually, however, Chuck becomes more and more critical of Tricia. In time he begins to beat her. Each time they make up he is very loving. Chuck convinces Tricia that she is a terribly deficient wife and deserves the beatings, which continue to escalate. During one row, neighbors call police, who find Tricia near death.

Case Six. Denise is the 23-year-old secretary of an overbearing attorney, Jim. A perfectionist, she is very skilled and has had attractive job offers from other attorneys. Jim begins to pick at her work, making a fuss over small errors. He complains to her about the tough time he is having economically and convinces her that he is being kind to permit her to continue working. She comes to believe that nobody else would put up with her incompetence. Jim persuades her to take a pay cut and postpone her vacation. Denise's friends are unable to get her to see that she is being mistreated. Jim insists that they are merely trying to make her feel good and don't have the courage to tell her the truth.

Case Seven. Robert, a hyperactive fourth-grader, repeatedly gets on his teacher's "nerves." In her frustration she begins to call Robert "problem child" in front of the class and takes obvious delight in pointing out his classroom mistakes. With the subtle encouragement of the teacher, other children begin to tease Robert. Robert's behavior becomes more aggressive. The teacher tells the school psychologist that the boy is too emotionally disturbed to participate in a normal classroom.

These hypothetical cases are very different from each other. Yet they have an important common theme. Each person, if we were to fill in the details, could be shown to have been victimized by someone unethically employing psychological techniques of persuasion and control. Although some cases involve physical abuse, all are examples of psychological abuse.


Psychological abuse can, of course, vary in severity from slight to severe, with the milder forms perhaps being called psychological harassment or neglect. It can occur in families, religious groups, schools, psychotherapy, fraternities, courtrooms, police stations, the workplace, and other settings. Mental health professionals who study the more serious forms of psychological abuse usually classify it under other headings, for example, enmeshed families, spouse abuse, religious and psychotherapy cults, coerced confessions, high-pressure salesmanship, sexual harassment, and so forth. Although the phenomena under consideration are rarely classified as psychological abuse, some researchers, mostly in the child abuse field, have employed the term, or the related term, "psychological maltreatment." A useful definition coming out of child abuse research is the following:)

Psychological maltreatment of children and youth consists of acts of omission and commission which are judged by community standards and professional expertise to be psychologically damaging. Such acts are committed by individuals, singly or collectively, who by their characteristics (e.g., age, status, knowledge, organizational form) are in a position of differential power that renders a child vulnerable. Such acts damage immediately or ultimately the behavioral, cognitive, affective, or physical functioning of the child. Examples of psychological maltreatment include acts of rejecting, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, and mis-socializing. (Proceedings of the International Conference on Psychological Abuse of Children and Youth, 1983, p. 2, cited in Hart & Brassard, 1987, p. 160)

Psychological abuse of adults is fundamentally similar. A group or an individual (e.g., a psychotherapist, religious leader, police officer) in a position of differential power over an adult uses psychologically manipulative and coercive techniques, for example, rejecting, terrorizing, isolating, to control that person's behavior, affects, and cognitions, usually to the influencee's detriment.

Although mental health professionals tend to avoid value judgments and base their actions on scientifically collected data, the pain of psychologically abused individuals often compels these professionals to take a stand on ethical grounds. A psychotherapist, for example, may not be able to demonstrate conclusively that the behavior of Denise's boss (case six above) caused Denise to take a pay cut and postpone her vacation. At best he or she may be able to make a reasonable case for attributing causality to the boss. The psychotherapist can, however, affirm fundamental social values by pointing out that the boss's behaviors were wrong, regardless of their effects.


Respect, the opposite of psychological abuse, entails showing esteem, consideration, and courtesy toward others. It necessarily implies that the person toward whom respect is directed is seen as having inherent value, is a subject with whom one relates, rather than an object one manipulates. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition all people are to be treated with respect because they are made in the image of God. The Declaration of Independence asserts that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Our legal system and its ethical substrate are all built on respect for the individual. Respect for individuality permeates our folklore. Respect, then, is a fundamental value of our culture.

In our culture, respect, unlike psychological abuse, affirms the following fundamental aspects of personhood (which can be summarized under the acronym "MAID"):

Mind. Human beings use their minds, including intellect and intuition, in order to discover what is true and good. The natural inclination is to seek the truth; recoiling from the truth tends to occur only in a context of fear or confusion. Regardless of one's philosophical position on whether or not "truth" and "good" exist or are knowable, people do at least pursue that which they believe is true and good. "Reality testing" is an important concept in psychopathology because gross deficiencies in a person's capacity to determine what is "true" certainly impairs his or her judgment and ability to make "good" choices. Even those, such as psychological abusers, who knowingly lie to others do so in order to pursue goals they deem positive and true for themselves. Respect, therefore, pays due consideration to mind, to the person's need to make choices based on true and accurate information.

Autonomy. Choices can be associated with varying degrees of freedom. Choices made under threat or duress are not considered voluntary. Choices made as a result of deception and manipulation are also often considered involuntary, or at least constrained. Autonomy, then, refers to the capacity to make choices with minimal pressure from without. These choices may be intelligent or unintelligent, but if the person choosing has not been manipulated or coerced, then he or she is demonstrating autonomy. Our culture, which exalts the individual above the collective, has a decided preference for autonomy over obedience or dependency. Although civil order obviously requires a minimum level of conformity to authority, western culture has clearly been moving in the direction of greater autonomy and civil rights for the individual. Respect pays due consideration to autonomy by requiring that influencers step back and allow individuals to choose according to their best judgment about what is true and good.

Identity. The statement that the unexamined life is not worth living need not necessarily be interpreted as the call of the "contemplative wilderness." It can be interpreted as an affirmation of psychological identity: people have the capacity and need to look at and define themselves, however crudely. Having a name signifies having an identity. But obviously an identity involves much much more than a name. It involves a sense of individuality, of belonging to a wider community and culture, and of internal integration. Multiple personalities are not considered a boon (i.e., five personalities are not thought to be better than one). They are considered pathological because internal integration is deemed a good. Similarly, despite our culture's preference for individuality, individuality is not to be carried to such an extreme that the individual ceases to belong anywhere.

Respect pays due consideration to a person's identity. Respecting identity means treating people as unique beings (rather than forcing them into predetermined molds), not tampering with their social support systems, and not interfering with their sense of psychological integration, of wholeness. A person's identity ought not to be treated like a house that can be torn down and rebuilt. The hypothetical identity that might be, however luminous, ought always defer to the identity that is, however deficient. This does not mean that people should not change. It simply means that they should be respected as they are and that change should be organic, not speciously "transformational."

Dignity. Part of the reason that people change, but change reluctantly, is their need to feel worthwhile, in the eyes of others as well as themselves. They change to become better than they are (according to their view of the good), but they change reluctantly in order to defend the worth of the imperfect self that is. I prefer the term "dignity" to "self-esteem" as the former more clearly reflects a social dimension than the latter -- psychopaths can have high self-esteem but little dignity.

Respect gives due consideration to a person's dignity, a sensitivity to his or her feelings. We tolerate one another's illusions about ourselves because we all recognize how important feeling worthwhile is. That is why one of the cruelest actions is to strip persons of their dignity.

Psychological Abuse

Respecting individuals means honoring mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity. Psychological abuse, respect's opposite, results when one person (or a group of persons) influences another (or others) so as to:

  1. control information in order to manipulate thinking and judgment,

  2. manipulate or coerce choice

  3. fragment or alter personal identity to serve the influencer's interests

  4. systematically or intentionally undermine the influencee's feelings of worth

In psychological abuse, other people are not respected. They are treated as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of another. Respecting psychologically abused people obliges one to intervene in some way; otherwise one implicitly condones the abuse. However, deciding what intervention is appropriate in a particular case can be very difficult. It may depend upon factors such as the closeness of one's relationship with the abused person, the probability of success of a given intervention, the availability of help, the degree of abuse, one's personal skills and resources, and the psychological makeup of the abused person. Sometimes the realistic ethical course may be to support certain social changes that would make abuse less likely, for example, educational programs on child abuse.

Also complicating the decision to intervene is the tendency to impute unconscious motivations or character deficiencies to abused persons. Such imputations can be self-serving in that they provide observers with a rationalization for not acting on behalf of others. Students of psychological abuse, however, recognize that, although personal vulnerabilities play a role in the process, the primary cause of the painful effects is the unethical manipulations of the victimizer(s). Victimizers abuse victims. However much victims' vulnerabilities may contribute to the process, victimizers must not be excused. What they do -- regardless of its effectiveness or the proclaimed nobility of its goals -- is ethically indefensible. When this is recognized, an ethical obligation to combat psychological abuse automatically arises. This obligation may, depending upon the observer's circumstances, manifest anywhere along a continuum from "moral support" to full-time dedication to countering one or more types of psychological abuse.

Treatment Implications

This view of psychological abuse has important implications for treatment. Because the process of abuse is done to victims, however much their vulnerabilities may single them out as especially at risk, victims must come to understand the psychological techniques that enabled the victimizer(s) to abuse the victims' mind, autonomy, identity, and dignity. In addition to protecting victims against future manipulations, such an understanding also enables victims to demystify victimizers and knock them off the phony thrones from which they played God. Leveling the playing field, so to speak, enhances victims' capacity to restore their dignity.

Victims also need to realize that what was done to them was wrong. The ethical dimension of psychological abuse must be placed in bold relief and its victims must be allowed -- encouraged even -- to express appropriate moral outrage. The outrage will not magically eliminate the abuse and its effects. Nor will it necessarily bring the victimizer to justice. But it will enable victims to assert their inherent worth and their sense of right and wrong by condemning the evil done to them. Moral outrage fortifies good against formidable evil. Even implicitly denying victims' need to express moral outrage shifts blame from victimizers to victims. Perhaps that is why so many victims are disturbed by "detached" therapists, or "objective" scientific researchers. They interpret the detachment or "objectivity" as implicit blaming of themselves.

Using words such as "good" and "evil" may seem medieval to some. I believe, however, that the banishment of such terms and concepts from psychological language diminishes the mental health profession's effectiveness. The wife abuser does not merely have "different values" from the abused wife. The husband is morally culpable and the abused and mentally confused wife needs at some point to express moral outrage in order to reawaken her sense of right and wrong. This does not mean that respect should not or cannot be shown toward the victimizer. Moral condemnation is not incompatible with respect, because respect is not synonymous with approval. Indeed, as the abused wife reawakens her ethical sense through moral outrage, the abusing husband can reawaken his ethical sense through sincere contrition. To deny or ignore this vital ethical dimension is to deny or ignore the heart of psychological abuse and to short-change abuse victims seeking help. (Part of what makes child abuse -- psychological as well as physical -- so reprehensible is that young children often have not yet had an opportunity to develop a mature enough sense of right and wrong to feel moral outrage. Indeed, the psychological abuse may permanently damage their capacity to internalize a sense of right and wrong.)

Condemning certain actions as culpable does not mean that one cannot show understanding and compassion for culpable persons. Rosedale (1989) points out that the law distinguishes between culpability and exculpability, that is, diminished or nullified liability due to special circumstances. To help clarify the relationship between these two concepts in matters involving psychological abuse, he proposes a continuum of intent in which culpability and exculpability vary inversely and are not mutually exclusive. Thus, a cult member who, under the psychological influence of others, psychologically abuses a new recruit is culpable for his actions, although his or her culpability is diminished -- is exculpated to some extent -- by the psychological abuse to which he himself is subjected.

Rosedale's formulation is echoed in a psychological analysis by Shaver and Drown (1986). These researchers conclude that much of the empirical literature on self-blame is equivocal because researchers have not distinguished blame from responsibility and causality. Shaver and Drown say that

the cause of an event is that antecedent, or subset of antecedents, that is sufficient for the occurrence of the effect...responsibility is a label applied to the outcome of a a perceiver who takes several different dimensions into account...blame is the attribution made after the perceiver assesses and does not accept the validity of the offending person's justification (disagreement that the act was morally wrong) or excuse (claim of mitigation of one sort or another) for an effect that the perceiver believes was intentionally brought about. (p. 701)

Distinguishing between causality, responsibility, and blame and between culpability and exculpability can help mental health professionals avoid becoming "salesmen for the victim industry." The politicization of victim concerns has too often resulted in simplistic formulations in which victims are portrayed as helpless pawns of individual or corporate villains. Such distortions may bring media attention -- and even government funding -- but in the long run they interfere with treatment and preventive efforts.

Treatment should also distinguish between recovery and healing. "Recovery" refers to a return to a state from which one has fallen -- or been "pushed" in the case of victims. "Healing" refers to a restoration of a state of health in one who was in some way diseased or troubled. The distinction is subtle but important. A troubled person may be made more troubled by a victimizer. Recovery from the victimization would entail a return to the original troubled state. Healing would then involve a movement from the original troubled state to an untroubled one. A person who was "pushed" from an untroubled to a troubled state would merely have to return to that state, that is, recover. I stress this subtle distinction because victim groups often assume that recovery is all that is needed, that is, they underestimate the number of people who were troubled before victimization, whereas helping professionals often overestimate the number of people who were so troubled and underestimate the role of psychological manipulation. Professionals, then, must guard against blaming the victim (i.e., assuming that the person's distress results only, or even mainly, from inner motivations), whereas victim groups must guard against overprotecting the victim (i.e., assuming that all distress results from the actions of the victimizer).

Cultural Implications

Because it implies variety and the freedom to choose, pluralism inevitably results in competitive marketplaces -- whether of goods, services, or ideas. Although free compared to the social structures of an authoritarian or totalistic society, such marketplaces are not absolutely unrestrained. Legal and, more importantly, unwritten ethical rules of influence undergird the marketplaces and ensure that no individual or group so dominates that freedom is lost. The legal rules are essentially codified guides for dealing with more serious wrongs. Ethical rules restrain wrongs that are not damaging enough to warrant the freedom-limiting intrusion of legal rules.

Understanding these kinds of influences and the legal and ethical rules which govern them is a demanding task. The less successfully citizens of a free and pluralistic society master this task, the more vulnerable will they be to unscrupulous and skillful influencers who seek to control and exploit them.

Social psychologists have shown that we are unaware of many of the influences that affect how we think, feel, and act. In his book Influence, Cialdini (1984) analyzes what he calls the "click-whirr" nature of a kind of automatic, mindless compliance that causes us to say "yes" without thinking, but that also helps us adapt to a complex environment.

The blitz of modern daily life demands that we have faithful shortcuts, sound rules of thumb to handle it all. These are not luxuries any longer; they are out-and-out necessities that figure to become increasingly vital as the pulse of daily life quickens. (Cialdini, 1984, p. 267)

Because these information-processing shortcuts are necessities, our freedom depends more than ever upon society's demanding strict adherence to rules of fair play. We simply must be inclined to trust others not to exploit us. Caveat Emptor will not suffice. In a rule-flouting, high-rev world, no individual can be so knowledgeable, so alert, so vigilant that he can go through life without "having his pocket picked" -- not once or twice, but countless times.

To keep our freedom, we must understand how the psychological "pickpockets" operate. Only through such understanding can we protect ourselves in our day-to-day lives and establish appropriate ethical and legal restraints on their behavior. Focusing only on legal restraints, which has been the modern tendency, can place a crushing burden on the judicial and law enforcement systems. Furthermore, such a reliance on law can indirectly encourage the very behavior the system is trying to restrain. Because the population at large fails to imbibe the rules of fair play that keep most people well clear of the legal-illegal boundary, the population is implicitly encouraged to test that boundary. The society then becomes increasingly legalistic, resulting in either an enlargement of the zone of permissible behavior or the range of behaviors which the law controls. In other words, when the law and ethics are coterminous, ethics deteriorates or the law becomes tyranical -- or both occur in different areas of society.

The study of psychological abuse can contribute a great deal to the elaboration of the rules of fair play because it exposes the rule breakers, the psychological "pickpockets." Moreover, through understanding psychological abuse we also come to understand its opposite -- respect. Respect is foundational to civilized society. All rules of fair play rest on respect for other people.

More than a decade ago, many people decried "the new narcissism." During the past few years much has been written and said about the "me-decade" of the 1980s. Surveys of youth often produce troubling findings, such as one survey of seventh- to ninth-graders that found that 65% of the boys and 47% of the girls said it is acceptable for a man to force a woman to have sex if they have been dating for more than six months (Kikuchi, 1988, cited in Bannerman, 1990). Clearly, our culture has become narcissistically preoccupied with self-gratification and confused about ethics and the meaning of respect.

By overemphasizing self-gratification and maligning life's "shoulds," the mental health field has unfortunately contributed significantly to the new narcissism. The field can begin to make amends to society by paying more attention to what it means to respect other people and by standing by the victims of psychological abuse and encouraging them to express their moral outrage. Only by listening to, understanding, and affirming that moral outrage can society rediscover the meaning of respect and revitalize the rules of fair play that keep genuine pluralism alive.


Bannerman, B. (1990). Satanic ritual abuse: The phenomenon resurfaces -- are social workers prepared? Dissertation, Graduate School of Social Work, University of Southern Mississippi.

Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: How and why people agree to things. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Hart, S. N, & Brassard, M. R. (1987). A Major threat to children's mental health: Psychological maltreatment. American Psychologist, 42 (2), 160-165.

Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 31(1), 3-24.

Rosedale, H. L. (1989). Legal analysis of intent as a continuum emphasizing social context of volition. Cultic Studies Journal, 6 (1), 25-31.

Shaver, K. G., & Drown, D. (1986). On causality, responsibility, and self-blame: A theoretical note. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 (4), 697-702.

Singer, M. T., & Langone, M. D. (1990). Psychotherapy cults. Cultic Studies Journal, 7(2), 101-125.


Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, is the Executive Director of the American Family Foundation, coauthor of Cults: What parents should know and Satanism and occult-related violence, and Editor of the forthcoming Recovery from cults.