Reasons for Leaving

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 8, Number 2, 2009, pages 111-138

Reasons for Leaving: Psychological Abuse and Distress Reported by Former Members of Cultic Groups

Carmen Almendros, Ph.D.

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

José Antonio Carrobles, Ph.D.

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira, Ph.D.

Universidad de Barcelona

Manuel Gámez-Guadix

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid


This exploratory study aims to examine the perceptions that 101 self-identified Spanish former members of diverse abusive groups have of their past group and their reasons for leaving it, as well as the psychological distress they experienced following their exit. In addition, we compare the participants’ responses according to their methods of exiting the group and according to whether or not they received any assistance from cult-awareness organizations. Most of our participants walked away from the group following a period of personal reflection, without any external intervention, and they considered their own disillusionment as the main factor that led to their disaffiliation. Our results showed no differences between those participants who received support from cult-awareness associations and those who did not; nor did they show any differences, in terms of their motives for leaving, their perceptions of psychological abuse in their former groups, or their reported level of psychological distress, between those participants who walked away from the group and those who left after an outside intervention.

Key words: Cults; New religious movements; Cult disaffiliation; Method of exit

The study of cults, new religious movements, or psychologically manipulative groups, as they have come to be labeled, has acquired increasing relevance as society grows more and more concerned with the behavior of some of these groups. Various dramatic events, such as the “group immolations” associated with cults, even though they are not exactly representative of the social problem in question, have given rise to media coverage that is more or less proportional to the magnitude of the event. The bewilderment caused by these occasional deeds promotes the search for explanations as to how certain persons can go so far as to lose their lives or to threaten those of others for supposed “moral imperatives” dictated by a leader or group.

A study undertaken by Canteras, Rodríguez, and Rodríguez-Carballeira (1992) reported that 0.5% of a sample of young Spanish people between the ages of 14 and 29 belonged to some kind of religious cult-like association, and that 1.5% of the sample claimed to have been a member at some time in the past. More recently, a study carried out for the AIS association based in Barcelona, which examined the situation of psychologically manipulative groups (not solely of a religious nature) in Catalonia (AIS, 2005), reported that 0.82% of the population claimed to be members of psychologically manipulative groups in that region (Jansà, 2004).

Leaving a cult is a matter that has received little attention and is probably the least understood question related to the phenomenon (Wright, 1987). Empirical studies are few, which tends to limit most works to a reiteration of the few findings actually made between 1980 and 1990. At the same time, the literature is dominated by theoretical contributions of sociologists of religion, while very few studies have been carried out from a psychological perspective. One of the main stumbling blocks this field of study faces is the intellectual polarization among academics regarding such essential aspects as the denomination and description of the observed phenomena. This fact is reflected in the frequent allusions in the North American literature to two main stances adopted in the field (e.g., Winocur, 1996). One of these is the so-called sociological approach, given that it is one primarily attributed to sociologists, and above all to sociologists of religion, who in the main argue that the rise of cults is due to the simple maturation of a trend initiated last century (Melton, 1997), and which has been the precursor of a new era in North American religious worship (Robbins & Anthony, 1982; Winocur, 1996). The dominant literature in this vein tends to refer to these groups as “new religious movements” and to see them as new, alternative belief systems that, because they deviate from the dominant cultural context, are attacked. It has been argued that claiming that individuals are drawn into cults by methods of brainwashing, or that membership has psychopathological consequences contributes to these persons being seen as a mental health problem (West, 1990); this supposes a “medicalization” of religious groups (Robbins & Anthony, 1982), or a pathologization of a deviation (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003). In general, this position holds that membership is free and voluntary, and that the conversion and the experience of the members who commit themselves to these groups is genuine. The studies conducted from this perspective, primarily undertaken with active cult members whose participation has frequently been agreed to with the full cooperation of the cultic group (Ayella, 1990), report either no or only little evidence of psychopathology among them (Levine, 1984; Richardson, 1985, 1995). According to Saliba (1993), more than 75% of these studies tends to show that the psychological profiles of the individuals evaluated were “normal”. Likewise, some authors emphasize the existence of pro-social, functional, and adaptive consequences in these groups (Anthony & Robbins, 2004), arguing certain beneficial effects for the health of cult members (Anthony & Robbins, 2004; Galanter 1978; Richardson, 1995).

The second perspective, or mental health approach, has been mainly attributed to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists (Spilka, et al., 2003). This position tends to emphasize the manipulative practices that subordinate the health and well-being of the groups’ members to the benefit of the leaders or upper leadership of the groups, as elements that, unrelated to the beliefs or doctrines of these groups, really define them. This is why, in addition to the attribution of the name “cult”, a name with considerable repercussions in the media, other names have been used that refer to the practices of these groups (e.g., psychologically manipulative groups). Seen from this perspective, the cult member is considered a victim of extreme forms of influence or tactics of coercive persuasion (West, 1990), both in their recruitment and the way in which their commitment to the group is maintained (Zablocki, 1998). These studies are usually based on clinical observations and research with former cult members, most of whom were seeking help related to their former cult experience. It is claimed that the psychological pressure and the abuses practiced in the cultic groups result in a certain degree of psychological distress in the members, who would be relatively healthy in the absence of their cultic experience (Langone & Singer, 1994; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; Winocur, 1996). Special attention is paid to the findings that a high percentage of former cult members sought psychological or psychiatric help in relation to the psychological distress they suffered following their disaffiliation from the group (Winocur, 1996). Significant clinical levels of distress have also been reported in various samples of former members (for a review, see Aronoff, Lynn, & Malinoski, 2000). Based on these reports, legitimacy has been granted to favoring the adoption of legal actions that restrict the performance of certain cultic groups (Richardson & van Driel, 1984).

Probably both perspectives, in their more radical versions, have contributed to the simplification of the phenomenon. In general, authors adopting a mental health perspective have been accused of belonging to the so-called “anti-cult” movement, and of presenting a simplistic vision of the cult member as a defenseless victim of the sophisticated manipulative techniques employed by the cult, which is derided, however, as destructive or intrinsically harmful. By contrast, it has been argued that the academics deemed “sympathizers” of the new religious movements have tended to ignore or minimize abuses committed by these groups, rejecting any kind of negative accounts from former members regarding their experiences, or any adverse consequence to their health, whether reported by those who are affected, professionals, or researchers.

An examination of each of these controversies is beyond the scope of this study, which will center itself rather on the experience of leaving a cultic group and the subsequent attitudes expressed by these ex-members. Given that a large number of ex-members of cultic groups consider the terms related to trauma and psychological abuse relevant (Langone & Chambers, 1991), and that they also characterize their experiences in such terms (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994), it seems important to analyze the question in terms of whether the members of these groups suffer as a result of practices of psychological abuse.

Conversion is a dynamic process that should be constantly revitalized (Wright & Ebaugh, 1993). Therefore, not only does the group need to recruit members, resocialize them, and win their commitment, but the process also requires that the compromise is continually renewed and strengthened (Wright, 1983). Ultimately, what these groups aspire to is generating a lasting conversion experience that persists even when the group has withdrawn much of the pressure (Zablocki, 1997). For this reason, Zablocki (1998) and Kent (1997) characterized these groups primarily on their practices aimed at retaining members, fomenting fear, or hindering the individual from imagining an existence outside the group. However, this process might be interrupted for a variety of reasons, which lead to the member leaving the group. There is a certain consensus in the literature supporting the fact that the majority of cult group members end up leaving their groups after an undefined period of time (Bird & Reimer, 1982; Langone, 1993a; Levine, 1984), and that most of them do so on their own or without any apparent or organized help (Shupe & Bromley, 1980; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993; Zablocki, 1998). Even before conversion itself occurs, high percentages of individuals attending workshops run by the Unification Church in the United Kingdom and the United States have been reported as abandoning the process (Barker, 1984; Galanter, 1983). Based on these two pieces, a low success rate in cultic recruitment tactics in general has been argued (Anthony & Robbins, 2004; Barker, 1989), although the low success rates may seem high compared to other influence processes, such as a Billy Graham Crusade (Langone, 1993b).

Leaving a cult has been described as a complex phenomenon, in part because the decision is often believed to have transcendental implications (Skonovd, 1983), although it can also occur quite suddenly when the member is facing a specific critical event that serves as a detonator. Leaving often follows a long period of disenchantment with the group, during which the member frequently tries to overcome any initial doubts by employing one of the following tactics: repression or avoidance, justification or rationalization, redefinition or giving as good what is found to be incorrect, or seeking refuge in some part of the religion where the problem is less apparent (Skonovd, 1983). In this way, the individual might be able to deal with the problems, particularly if they are episodic rather than constant, and if he or she is compensated by positive experiences that bring the person closer to the group (Bromley, 1991). According to Bromley (1991), the difficulty in reaching any conclusion regarding the meaning of personal doubts may be exacerbated by the fact that often the individual, immersed in an active process of personal change, might interpret personal doubts as a simple stage in his or her own development. Moreover, the decision might be perceived as permanent and irreversible, unlike the situation in traditional religious groups (Bromley, 1991), with disaffiliation making it impossible to maintain effective ties with emotionally significant persons who remain members of the group.

Among the reasons given for leaving a cult, Wright (1983) identified the following “precipitating factors” in a sample of 45 subjects, distributed in groups of 15 from among former members of the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, and the Children of God: a break in the subject’s isolation from the outside world; the development of an intimate relationship or an effective commitment that competes with that felt for the group; disillusionment derived from the failure of the group to fulfill its declared goals; and the perception of inconsistencies between the actions of the leader or leaders and the ideals they supposedly represent. Chambers et al. (1994), in their study of 308 former members of various groups, highlighted the importance of time spent outside the group; suffering a disillusioning experience with the leader; becoming aware of being manipulated; or perceiving that one is the object of abuse or exploitation. Jacobs (1987) studied 40 former members of various groups and identified two main sources of disenchantment whereby the social bonds with the group itself break first, followed by deterioration in and rupture of emotional ties with the charismatic leader. The author described four areas of disaffection with the leader: principally forms of psychological abuse, such as verbal abuse; degradation and the perception of rejection or emotional disdain from the leader; unmaterialized affect and the perception of artificial feelings. The importance of the family has also been recognized as a factor in the decision to leave the group (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1989; Langone 1990). Wright and Piper (1986) specifically studied this family influence of “voluntary” disaffiliation from a cult and concluded that parental disapproval of a child’s involvement in a cult was the most important factor in accounting for the child’s exit from the cult.

The ways in which members leave a group can be classified as

  • Voluntary Exit, a term used by Wright (1984) to refer to those who leave a group without any outside intervention.

  • Involuntary Exit, which includes those who have left the group after a deprogramming process, which involves the kidnapping of the subjects by family or friends so that the individuals can be subjected against their will to the intervention. This group can also include those who left because they were expelled or because the group was dissolved. Or

  • Counseled Exit, which refers to those who left because of the efforts of family, friends, or professionals to bring about the subjects’ disaffiliation.

The validity of negative reports provided by former members who perceived themselves to be objects of abuse and manipulation while in the group has been called into question. Their testimonies have been labeled “atrocity tales” (Bromley, Shupe & Ventimiglia, 1983; Shupe & Bromley, 1980), based on the understanding that these appraisals of their former cultic experiences would be negatively biased by their method of exit—involuntary or counseled exit (Lewis, 1986; Solomon, 1981), and/or the influence of any contacts maintained with cult-awareness associations (CAAs) after they have left the group. It has even been claimed that the tendency of former members to hold negative and stereotypical attitudes toward their groups would correlate closely with the degree of exposure to the socializing influences of the “anti-cult movement” (Lewis, 1986; Solomon, 1981), and that this relationship results in descriptions of supposed mental aberrations that occurred in the group. Even more, claims have been made that the subjects who had left the group after any kind of exit-counseling would tend to adopt these “anti-cult” organizations, or coalitions of opposition (Bromley, 1998; Wright, 1998), as their groups of reference, which would in turn pressurize former members to verify their victimization so that they manifested greater difficulties or psychopathology than those who abandoned the group by their own choice (Lewis & Bromley, 1987). The former members would be encouraged to follow a “social script” defined by the anti-cult organization, which would highlight their role as “victim” or “survivor” in the context of a “captivity narrative” (Wright, 1998). Finally, it has been argued that these negative testimonies and evidence of victimization of the former members, above all those who have been deprogrammed, constitute the main evidence that shapes or influences public opinion regarding these groups (Bromley, 1998).

In this exploratory study, based on an examination of the perceptions of the former members of these manipulative groups, we aim to investigate the motives and the circumstances that led subjects to leave their groups. We also examine the extent to which the perceptions of the former members regarding their reasons for leaving the group vary, the degree of psychological abuse they experienced, and the level of psychological distress shown by the participants, as a function of their method of exiting and the assistance they might have received from CAAs.



Our study sample was composed of 101 Spanish individuals, self-identified as former members of one of a total of 27 different abusive groups. The groups that they informed us about differed in nature and included new age, religious, political, and commercial groups, and so on. We contacted the subjects using data provided by associations that provide information, education, or assistance in relation to psychologically manipulative groups (32.7%); by professionals, primarily from the field of mental health although not necessarily familiar with the subject in question (33.7%); and by former members—participants or otherwise in our study—who put us in contact with other former members (33.6%). In addition, 50 of these former members responded on a second occasion to one of the instruments included in this study: the Spanish version of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale.


We prepared a background questionnaire ad hoc (Almendros, 2006), which collects information about some of the subjects’ socio-demographic data. We also recorded the subjects’ perceptions of various matters related to their former membership of the group: method and reasons for leaving, contact with any CAA, search for psychological advice, and positive or negative aspects of their experience. To determine their reasons for leaving, we included the Cult Disaffiliation Factors Scale (CDF), based on the literature (Chambers et al., 1994; Wright, 1983, 1984), which comprises 10 brief items with a range of response choices from “0 = Not at all” to “5 =Completely”.

We employed the Spanish version of the Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA-S; Almendros, Carrobles, Rodríguez-Carballeira & Jansà, 2004; Almendros, 2006). The original GPA Scale (Chambers et al., 1994) is a standardized measure developed to evaluate perceived psychological abuse in group settings. The Spanish version comprises 28 items distributed in three subscales: Compliance (10 items), Mind Control (10 items), and Exploitation (8 items). Each item is rated on a 5-point Likert scale (from “1= not at all characteristic” to “5 = very characteristic”), with a possible range of scores for the Compliance and Mind Control subscales from 10 to 50 and from 8 to 40 for that of Exploitation, with a range for the GPA overall scale from 28 to 140. Scores above 81 on the global scale are considered positive, indicating that the subject perceived the group to be abusive. The reliability coefficients identified for the Spanish version applied to a group of former members of various manipulative groups, and which have been used in this study, were, in general, satisfactory, fluctuating between 0.70 for the Exploitation subscale, to 0.75 for that of Mind Control, and 0.86 for that of Compliance. We administered the test twice, separated by varying time intervals.

We used the Symptom Checklist—90—Revised (SCL—90—R; Derogatis, 1983—Spanish version adapted by González de Rivera et al., 2002). This self-report inventory contains 90 items designed to detect and measure current symptoms of psychopathology and symptom patterns. Each item is a description of a psychological symptom and is rated by the subject on a Likert scale, from 0 (total absence of problems related to the symptom) to 4 (severe problems), in accordance with the severity of the problem experienced over the preceding seven days. Based on these 90 items, a summary index of psychological distress, the Global Severity Index (GSI), is obtained. The index is typically used as a simple sensitive measure of a subject’s overall psychological distress.


We collected the data over a fairly long period (June 2001 to May 2005). The participants, who lived in a number of different Spanish provinces, were, in those instances where they were interviewed face-to-face by the first author, assessed in suitable locations. Because of the characteristics of the sample, among which we should highlight the difficulties in making contact with the participants, and a certain reluctance on the part of some subjects to participate in person, we included two modes of participation in the study: face-to-face and by mail. A total of 58 subjects (57.4%) participated face-to-face and 43 individuals (42.6%) replied to the instruments and returned their responses by mail. This latter group was informed of the nature of the study by telephone. They all completed an informed-consent form, participating voluntarily and without recompense in the study. Only two people who met the inclusion criteria refused to participate in the study (in either mode) during the initial telephone interview. All those who agreed to be interviewed in person came to the interview at the time and place assigned. Of the 62 packages sent to be completed by mail, either directly to the participant or indirectly to a research collaborator, 43 were returned and successfully completed, and two were incorrectly completed. This gave us a return rate of 72.58% for the mail mode and an effective response rate of 69.35%.

The material for the test-retest study was sent to those participants among the 101 former members who gave a standard mailing address in the first contact (70 subjects). Of these, 50 respondents returned the tests correctly filled in, giving an effective response rate of 71.4%. The time intervals between evaluation varied greatly from one subject to another, ranging between 1.25 months and 32.32 months, with the average time elapsed being 15.52 months (SD: 7.26).


Because we found no significant differences in the variables of interest between the methods of response (in person or by mail), we consider the data together in the rest of the analysis (GPA: Mean Mail Score: 103.37; Mean In-person Score: 103.79; t(99)=-0.12; p=0.91) (GSI males: 0.70; 0.66; t(41)=0.17; p=0.87) (GSI females: 0.99; 0.86; t(37)=0.58; p=0.57).

Sample Characteristics

The sample comprised a total of 101 subjects, self-identified as former members of one of a total of 27 abusive manipulative groups ranging from religious, to new age, to rehabilitative/ pseudotherapeutic, to political and/or commercial. Fifty-five subjects were male (54.5%), and 46 subjects were female (45.5%). Their mean age on participation was 43.47 years (SD: 12.22). The mean age of the subjects when they joined their respective groups was 26.75 years of age (SD: 12.26; Range: 0-60). The participants had belonged to the group for a mean period of 9.83 years (SD: 9.55), and the mean time elapsed since they had left the group until the day they participated in the study was 6.35 years (SD: 6.68).

At the time they completed the tests (n=99), 18 subjects (17.8%) had finished primary education or the equivalent, 32 participants (31.7%) had finished secondary education or vocational training programs or the equivalent, 22 subjects (21.8%) had completed a diploma degree program, and 27 participants (26,7%) had higher educational qualifications. Most of the participants (59.4%) described themselves as being of a Medium socio-economic status, 20.8% of them described themselves as being Medium High (19.8%) or High (1%), and the rest claimed to be Medium Low (12.9%) or Low (4%).

Of the 99 subjects who responded to the question that asked them to describe how they had left the cultic group, excluding the three subjects who chose the option “other”, 61.5% (59 participants) responded “walk away, personal reflection”; 25% (24) of the subjects replied “exit following counseling from a professional and/or family member/s and/or friend/s”; 11.5% (11) replied by “expulsion or invitation to leave by the group”; and 2.1% (2) responded that they left because of the “dissolution of the group.” None of the participants chose the option “involuntary deprogramming.” We should stress that the participants were able to choose more than one method of leaving the group, and so frequently they chose the category “personal reflection” plus another option. In such cases, we considered the alternative option to that of personal reflection, so that the figure of 61.5% corresponds to those who responded only to this option, a total of 77 subjects. Of the 98 participants responding as to whether they had at any time received support or advice from a CAA, 29.6% (29 subjects) said they had, as opposed to 70.4% (69 subjects) who responded they had not. We should stress that those who did receive such counseling were not necessarily those who said they left the group following the counseling of a professional, family member, and/or friend. Finally, 18.2% (18 persons; n=99) were receiving psychological attention at the time they participated in our study, although this was not necessarily in relation to their group experience.

Reasons for Disaffiliation

A total of 91.1% of the subjects (92) completed the Cult Disaffiliation Factors scale correctly without omitting any of the items. We calculated the item-total correlation values for all of the items, which were, in general, adequate and greater than 0.30, with the exception of item 4 (“actions taken by family members and/or friends”), which had a lower correlation value (rj(x-j) = 0.19), indicating a weaker relation between this item and the scale total. We evaluated reliability, estimated as the internal consistency of the 10-item CDF scale, by calculating Cronbach’s Alpha; we obtained a value (alpha = 0.77), which showed a moderate degree of internal consistency for the scale. It was also noted that the only item whose elimination would result in an increase in the scale’s Alpha coefficient was item 4. Thus, we discarded this item from the analysis, thereby increasing Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient for the CDF scale to 0.79. However, we considered this item as an independent external factor of disaffiliation.

We next performed an exploratory factorial analysis with the nine remaining items, following a prior analysis of the suitability of such a test, calculating Bartlett’s sphericity test (p=0.00) and the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy (0.76). The extraction method used was that of Principal Components, and we employed the Varimax rotation method. The analysis revealed a structure made up of two factors that accounted for 53.22% of the total variance. The first of these factors (percentage of variance: 27.77%; eigenvalue: 2.50) consisted of the following five items: “Questioning some of the regulations and obligations” (factorial load: 0.87); “Restrictive life style in the group” (0.77); “Experience of greater intimacy and private space not controlled by the group” (0.68); “A feeling of being abused and/or exploited” (0.66); “Spending time away from or without contact with the group” (0.41). Following a theoretical analysis of the items that made up the factors, we labeled the first of these Regulation, in reference to the living conditions in the group where the individual’s life, including his or her private space, is controlled, including the obligations and restrictions that can even result in his or her exploitation. The second factor (25.45%; 2.29) was composed of four items: “Disillusionment with the leader and/or group” (0.78); “Contradictions between the group’s doctrine and practices” (0.74); “Becoming aware of deceitful practices or manipulation” (0.67); “Repeated errors of prediction or failed prophecy” (0.61). We have called this second factor Disillusion, in reference to the inconsistencies within the group or as manifest by the leader and the expressed perception of having been deceived. Cronbach’s Alpha coefficients for the subscales were acceptable (Regulation: 0.75; Disillusion: 0.69) considering the small number of items (five and four, respectively). We also calculated the mean scores for both subscales, as well as for item 4, which we considered an independent factor. The factor with the highest mean score, with a possible range from 0 to 5, was that of “Disillusion” (3.39; SD: 1.35), followed by that of “Regulation” (2.49; SD: 1.37), and finally that of “Family Intervention” (2.00; SD: 2.08).

To examine the disaffiliation factors in relation to whether or not the method the subject used to leave the group involved external intervention, we used Student’s t-test for independent samples. This t-test let us examine whether there were any statistically significant differences between the scores of the two CDF scales and the item of “Family Intervention” for the two groups—walk-away exits and counseled exits. Figure 1 is a graphic representation of the mean scores of the subscales and the item in relation to the method used to leave the group. Our results indicate the absence of any significant differences between the groups, whatever the method of group exit, when the reasons for leaving were “Regulation” (t(77)=-0.55; p=0.58) and “Disillusion” (t(75)=-0.70; p=0.49). We found statistically significant differences, however, between the methods of exit (t(78)=-7.04; p=0.00) in the case of “Family Intervention,” whereby those subjects who left the group after professional, family member/s, or friendly advice presented a greater intervention by family members.

We used the same Student’s t-test to analyze the differences we found between the mean scores for the disaffiliation factors in terms of the contact maintained by the participants with any CAA. Here again, we did not find any significant differences between the scores of the two groups (those who were assisted by an association and those who were not) for the factors of “Regulation” (t(91)=-0.74; p=0.46) and “Disillusion” (t(88)=-0.47; p=0.64). By contrast, we found significant differences for the item “Family Intervention” between the two groups (t(92)=-3.72; p=0.00), so that some kind of family intervention was more likely in the case of those who had been in contact with a CAA (see Figure 1).

Post-Exit Perceptions of the Group

To examine whether the method of exit or whether contact with a CAA influenced the former members’ perception of the degree of psychological abuse inflicted within their groups, we considered their responses to the Group Psychological Abuse Scale. The mean score of all the participants on the

Figure 1. Disaffiliation Factors by Method of Exit (Walked Away or Counseled) and Contact or Not with Cult Awareness Associations

GPA-S was 103.61 (SD: 18.16), well above the cut-off point of 81, which indicates that the subject considers the group as being abusive. As for the GPA-S subscales, “Compliance” obtained a mean score of 41.55 (SD= 8.64), followed by “Mind Control,” with a mean score of 41.06 (SD= 6.84). The “Exploitation” subscale, comprising eight items, presented a mean score of 21.00 (SD=6.76).

We compared the mean scores of the participants, based on whether the method of exiting the group was “walked away” or “counseled,” for the global GPA scale and its subscales (see Figure 2). In the case of the global scale, the mean scores of the different groups were Walked away: 102.46 (SD: 18.05) and Counseled: 102.46 (SD: 20.0). We found no significant differences between the two groups for the GPA-S (t(81)=0,00; p=1,00), or the Compliance (t(81)=0,55; p=0,58), Mind Control (t(81)=-0,78; p=0,44), and Exploitation (t(81)=0,05; p=0,96) subscales.

Likewise, we examined the mean scores of the participants on the GPA and its subscales (see Figure 2), to examine whether there were any significant differences between the mean scores of those who had received assistance from a CAA (103.07; SD: 17.94) and those who had not (103.52; SD: 18.58). We did not find any significant differences for either the GPA (t(96)=-0,11; p=0,91) or the “Compliance” (t(96)=0.94; p=0.35), “Mind Control” (t(96)=-0.10; p=0.93), and “Exploitation” (t(96)=-0.81; p=0.42) subscales.

We also examined the consistency over time of the responses of the 50 participants who responded to the GPA-S a second time. Prior to doing this, we used the Student’s t-test for related samples to compare the mean scores we had obtained in the first application of the GPA scale among those subjects who had received the material for the test-retest study and had completed and returned it (n=50), and those subjects who did not (n=17). We found no significant differences between the groups (Retest mean=104.98; SD=17.59; No retest mean=103.35; SD: 12.23; t(65)=0.35; p=0.73). Next, we assessed the reproducibility of the scores on the scale using the intraclass correlation coefficient; we found the values to be significant and, in general, appropriate (Anastasi, 1988) for the GPA scale (r=0.86; p=0.00) and its subscales (Compliance: r=0.90; p=0.00; Mind Control: r=0.73; p=0.00; Exploitation: r=0.81; p=0.00).

Figure 2. Perceived Psychological Abuse by Method of Exit (Walked Away or Counseled) and Contact or Not with Cult Awareness Associations

Psychological Distress

Eighty-two participants completed the Symptom Checklist-90-R (SCL-90-R) correctly; of those, 52.4% was male and 47.6% female. The mean scores for the Global Severity Index (GSI) were 0.68 (SD: 0.60) for the males and 0.92 (SD: 0.69) for the females. We used the Student’s t-test to compare the mean scores on the GSI (see Figure 3) separately, taking into consideration the participants’ sex according to their exit method (walked away or counseled); we did not find any significant differences between the groups, nor between the male (t(31)=0.32; p=0.75) and female participants (t(32)=0.12; p=0.91).

Likewise, we compared the mean scores on the GSI between those participants who had been counseled by a CAA and those who had not (see Figure 3). The groups did not present any significant differences in their mean scores, or between the male (t’(40.9)=1.65; p=0.11) and female participants (t(35)=-1.32; p=0.20).


Despite the limitations of our sample of self-identified former members of abusive groups—i.e., the small sample size, the difficulty of ensuring that the sample is representative, and the fact that it is based on retrospective information, it would appear to be reasonably appropriate for the comparisons that we have undertaken here. In this sense, we do manage to overcome some limitations noted by Wright (1984), Lewis (1986), Lewis and Bromley (1987) and others. Researchers’ selection of groups that they call “cults” or some related term has been criticized. In this study, however, the subjects, not the researchers, identified their groups as “abusive.”

Also, it has been noted that samples are most frequently compiled with the collaboration of cult-awareness groups. Only about one-third (32.7%) of our participants was contacted through data provided by these organizations. The reliance on samples composed predominantly of individuals who left the group with the aid of deprogramming or other “exit therapy,” or of those whose accounts may have been influenced by their socialization with the so-called anti-cult movement, has been questioned. None of our participants was deprogrammed, and only 25% left the group after counseling. Only 29.6% had sometimes taken advice from a CAA because of their cultic group experience. Finally, the reliance on clinical samples of people who were seeking psychotherapy or were about to initiate treatment with the

Figure 3. Psychological Distress by Method of Exit (Walked Away or Counseled) and Contact or Not with Cult Awareness Associations

researchers has been criticized. Just a few of our subjects (18.2%) were receiving psychological advice at the moment the study took place, and not necessarily concerning their cultic experiences.

Most of our participants walked away from the group by themselves or did so following a period of personal reflection, due, in the main, to a sense of disenchantment or their appreciation of inconsistencies between the doctrine and the group’s ideals and its actual practices, as well as their becoming aware of deceit. Other reasons for their leaving that seem to be important were the imposition of certain norms and restrictive ways of behaving that might even become abusive. Therefore, it appears that, among the reasons for leaving that the former members referred to, the greatest importance is given to those reasons that related to the former members’ growing perception of manipulative practices and contradictions. This item is followed in importance by factors that affected how they led their lives as members of the group, or that resulted in their suffering abuse. In all likelihood, the personal betrayal that some former members felt when they realized they were the victims of deceit and lies regarding something that, up until that time, they had believed genuine, might well have been more painful than other forms of abuse to which they were subjected, such as exploitation or having to lead a restricted life of sacrifice to achieve their supposed goal. It seems that certain abuses will be tolerated so long as members remain confident about the group’s ideals, but once the group or its leaders lose credibility in the members’ eyes, abuse is harder to tolerate.

Finally, though family intervention was reported to be the least important factor as a reason for leaving the group for the overall sample, it was the most important reason given, above the Regulation or Disillusion factors, for those who left the group after they had received counseling from a professional, family member and/or friend. Of the overall sample, twenty-five percent of the participants chose the option “Completely” to describe the importance of the item “actions taken by family members and/or friends” as a reason for leaving, compared to 41.7% who chose the option “Not at all.” Why so many rated the family factor so low is unclear. Perhaps many of these subjects had little contact with their families. Perhaps their families’ attitudes toward the subjects’ group involvement were positive or indifferent. Or perhaps the subjects paid little attention to negative family attitudes toward the group and, as a consequence, gave a low rating to the family factor.

Unlike the arguments forwarded from the sociological camp, which tend to discredit information provided by former members who have received counseling, our data show no differences regarding the perceptions of the motives for disaffiliating from the group, or in the abusive practices reported, between those who left “voluntarily” (Wright, 1984), those who left after a period of what we have termed “personal reflection” (considering only those subjects who chose just this one option), and those whose exit was counseled or “involuntary” (Wright, 1984). Indeed, we should stress the similarity in the perceptions among these individuals of the psychological abuse experienced in their former groups, manifested both in their overall scores on the GPA-S, and in the types of abuse captured by the subscales. Likewise, neither did we find any significant differences in the psychological distress, reported via the Global Severity Index (GSI) of the SCL-90-R test, in the two groups and in both sexes.

The same absence of differences in the variables mentioned was also found when we compared the group of individuals who had received assistance from a CAA and the group who had not. We had expected to find differences between the groups, but, contrary to arguments forwarded from a sociological perspective, we expected those differences along the lines that counseled individuals would show lower levels of psychological distress. Among these participants, Almendros (2006) found no differences in the psychological distress reported between those who had received counseling after leaving (excluding those receiving this support at the time they participated in the study), and those who had never received any psychological help following their exit from the group. Overall, our results do not suggest that former members demonstrate any benefits from counseling, whenever it was received in their psychological state at the time they responded to the questionnaires. It is possible that the professional help they received would, in many cases, have been of a generalist type, given the lack of specialist resources for this particular social group (Rodríguez, 1994). In the literature, in the case of former cult members, we find several references to possible diagnostic errors by professionals unfamiliar with the field and so who might find the problems presented by the former members unusual (Goski, 1994, Hassan, 1990; Rodríguez & Almendros, 2005; Tobias & Lalich, 1994), particularly if the latter have yet to come to terms with the experience so that they can present the information in such a way as to seek more specific help.

A study by Lois Kendall in the UK (2009), distinguished among first and second generation former “sect” members when looking at distress levels over time among those who had received post-sect counseling and those who didn’t. She found marked decreases in distress over time for second generation former members with counseling compared to second generation without counseling. However, first generation former members didn’t show this decline in distress, even with counseling.

Kendall’s study did not inquire into whether or not subjects received counseling from cult specialists. So far as we know, no study has compared mental health outcomes among former members who had received specialized and non-specialized counseling. Clinical experience with thousands of former cult members (Langone, 1993a), however, strongly suggests that an understanding of cultic dynamics and the special problems of cult members would enhance the effectiveness of mental health professionals by reducing their tendency to make erroneous diagnoses, improving their capacity to respond to cult-related causes of clients’ problems, and making them more likely to refer clients to specialists.

Overall, the participants in our study highlighted the deception and manipulation practiced by the group as their main reasons for leaving, and they presented high scores on the Mind Control subscale of the GPA. We detected no differences, as we have discussed above, in these responses according to the method of leaving or whether or not there had been any contact with a CAA. In an earlier study of the perceptions of former members regarding their initial involvement with the group (Almendros, Carrobles & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2007), these subjects highlighted “manipulation” as the main motive for their having entered the cult.

The information former members reported regarding the psychological abuse inflicted by their former groups remained unaltered, even after time periods of more than 2½ years separating the two administrations of the GPA-S. Here, we should stress that Almendros (2006) also didn’t find any differences in the scores when participants were grouped according to the time (four separate groups) that had elapsed between the two assessments. This finding is in line with reports made by Zablocki (1996; cited by Lalich, 2001; 2001), who claims that the accounts of former members remain consistent over periods of many years.

As in other social situations, what is ultimately important is not “to deny a voice to a whole class of people” (Zablocki, 2001), but rather to provide the prudent validation of the experiences of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse that these individuals report having suffered.


AIS (Atención e Investigación sobre Socioadicciones). (2005). Grupos de manipulación psicológica en Cataluña situación y conceptos. Barcelona: Autor.

Almendros, C. (2006). Abuso psicológico en contextos grupales. Doctoral dissertation presented at the Psychology Faculty. Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.

Almendros, C., Carrobles, J. A., & Rodríguez-Carballeira, A. (2007). Former members’ perceptions of cult involvement. Cultic Studies Review, 6, 1–20.

Almendros, C., Carrobles, J. A., Rodríguez-Carballeira, A., & Jansà, J. M. (2004). Propiedades psicométricas de la versión española de la Group Psychological Abuse Scale para la medida de abuso psicológico en contextos grupales. Psicothema, 16, 132–138.

Anastasi, A. (1988). Psychological testing. New York: Macmillan.

Anthony, D., & Robbins, T. (2004). Conversion and “brainwashing” in new religious movements. In J. R. Lewis (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of New Religions (243–297). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aronoff, J., Lynn, S. J., & Malinoski, P. (2000). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 91–111.

Ayella, M. (1990). “They must be crazy.” Some of the difficulties in researching “cults.” American Behavioral Scientist, 33, 562–577.

Barker, E. (1984). The making of a Moonie: Choice or brainwashing. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Barker, E. (1989). New Religion Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO.

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

Bromley, D. G. (1991). Unraveling religious disaffiliation: The meaning and significance of falling from the faith in contemporary society. Counseling & Values, 35, 164–185.

Bromley, D. G. (1998). The social construction of contested exit roles: Defectors, whistleblowers, and apostates. In D. G. Bromley (Ed.), The Politics of Religious Apostasy (19-48). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Bromley, D. G., Shupe, A., & Ventimiglia, J. (1983). The role of anecdotal atrocities in the social construction of evil. In D. G. Bromley & J. T. Richardson (Eds.), The brainwashing/deprogramming controversy (139–160). New York: Edwin Mellen Press.

Canteras, A., Rodríguez, P., & Rodríguez-Carballeira, A. (1992). Jóvenes y sectas: Un análisis del fenómeno religioso-sectario en España. Madrid: Centro de Publicaciones. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales.

Chambers, W. V., Langone, M. D., Dole, A. A., & Grice, J. W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11, 88–117.

Conway, F., Siegelman, J., Carmichael, C. W., & Coggins, J. (1986). Information disease: Effects of covert induction and deprogramming. Update, 10, 45–57.

Derogatis, L. R. (1983). SCL-90-R. Administration, Scoring and Procedures Manual II for the Revised Version of the SCL-90. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Galanter, M. (1978). The relief effect: A sociobiological model for neurotic distress and large-group therapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 135, 588–591.

Galanter, M. (1983). Unification Church (“Moonie”) dropouts: Psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group. American Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 984–989.

Galanter, M. (1989). Cults: Faith, healing and coercion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, L., & Goldberg, W. (1989) Family responses to a young adult's cult membership and return. Cultic Studies Journal. 6 (1), 86–100.

González de Rivera, J. L., et cols. (2002). SCL-90-R. Cuestionario de 90 síntomas. Manual. Madrid: Publicaciones de Psicología Aplicada. TEA Ediciones.

Hassan, S. (1990). Cómo combatir las técnicas de control mental de las sectas. Barcelona: Urano.

Jacobs, J. (1987). Deconversion from religious movements: An analysis of charismatic bonding and spiritual commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 26, 294–308.

Jansà, J. M. (2004, October). Groups of psychological manipulation in Catalonia (Spain). Paper presented at ICSA International Conference: Understanding Cults and New Religious Movements, Atlanta, GA.

Kendall, L. (2009, July). The value of counseling for second-generation former sect members. Paper presented at ICSA Annual International Conference, Geneva, Switzerland.

Lalich, J. (2001). Pitfalls in the sociological study of cults. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding cults: Searching for objectivity in a controversial field (123–155). Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Langone, M. D. (1990). Working with cult-affected families. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 194–198.

Langone, M. D. (1993a). Introduction. In M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults. Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse (1–21). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Langone, M. D. (1993b). Helping cult victims: Historical background. In M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults. Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse (22–47). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Langone, M. D., & Chambers, W. V. (1991). Outreach to ex-cult members: The question of terminology. Cultic Studies Journal, 8, 134–150.

Langone, M. D., & Singer, M. T. (1994). Trastornos psicológicos y psiquiátricos más comunes causados por los cultos. In AIS (Ed.), II Congreso Internacional: Grupos Totalitarios y Sectarismo (151–162). Barcelona: Author.

Levine, S. V. (1984). Radical departures: Desperate detours to growing up. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Lewis, J. R. (1986). Reconstructing the cult experience: Post-involvement attitudes as a function of mode of exit and post-involvement socialization. Sociological Analysis, 46, 151–159.

Lewis, J. R., & Bromley, D. (1987). The cult withdrawal syndrome: A case of misattribution of cause? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 26, 508–522.

Melton, J. G. (1997). European Receptivity to the New Religions. In H. Meldgaard & J. Aagaard, (Eds.), New religious movements in Europe (18–30). England: Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, J. T. (1985). Psychological and psychiatric studies of new religions. In L. B. Brown (Ed.), Advances in the psychology of religion (209–223). Oxford, England: Pergamon.

Richardson, J. T. (1995). Clinical and Personality Assessment of Participants in New Religions. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 5, 145–170.

Richardson, J. T., & van Driel, B. (1984). Public support for anti-cult legislation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23, 412–418.

Robbins, T., & Anthony, D. (1982). Deprogramming, brainwashing and the medicalization of deviant religious groups. Social Problems, 29, 283–297.

Rodríguez, C., & Almendros, C. (2005). Ladrones de Libertad. Pseudoterapias “religiosas” New Age. Madrid: Ediciones Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

Rodríguez, P. (1994). Tu hijo y las sectas. Madrid: Ed. Temas de Hoy.

Saliba, J. A. (1993). The new religions and mental health. In D. G. Bromley & J. K. Hadden (Eds.), Religion and the social order. The handbook on cults and sects in America (99-113). Vol. 3, part B. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Shupe, A. D., & Bromley, D. G. (1980). The new vigilantes: Deprogrammers, anticultists and the new religions. Beverly Hills: Sage.

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

Skonovd, N. (1983). Leaving the cultic milieu. In D. Bromley & J. Richardson (Eds.), The brainwashing/deprogramming controversy (91–105). New York: Edwin Mellen.

Solomon, T. (1981). Integrating the ‘Moonie’ experience: A survey of ex-members of the Unification Church. In T. Robbins & D. Anthony (Eds.), In gods we trust (275–295). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Spilka, B., Hood, R. W. Jr., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R. (2003). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Swartling, G., & Swartling, P. G. (1992). Psychiatric problems in ex-members of Word of Life. Cultic Studies Journal, 9, 78–88.

Tobias, M. L., & Lalich, J. (1994). Captive hearts, captive minds: Freedom and recovery from cults and abusive relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

West, L. J. (1990). Persuasive techniques in contemporary cults: A public health approach. Cultic Studies Journal, 7, 126–149.

Winocur, N. (1996). The assessment of cult involvement and its relationship to psychological distress in former cult members (Doctoral dissertation, Pepperdine University at Culver City, CA, 1995). Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (11B), 6413.

Wright, S. A. (1983). Defection from new religious movements: A test of some theoretical propositions. In D. G. Bromley & J. T. Richardson (Eds.), The brainwashing/deprogramming controversy (106–121). New York: Edwin Mellen Press.

Wright, S. A. (1984). Post-involvement attitudes of voluntary defectors from new religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 23, 172–182.

Wright, S. A. (1987). Leaving cults. The dynamics of defection. Washington, DC: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Wright, S. A. (1998). Exploring factors that shape the apostate role. In D. G. Bromley (Ed.), The politics of religious apostasy (95–114). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Wright, S. A., & Ebaugh, H. R. (1993). Leaving new religions. In D. G. Bromley, & J. K. Hadden (Eds.), Religion and the social order. The handbook on cults and sects in America (117–138). Vol. 3, part A. Greenwich, CT.: JAI Press.

Wright, S. A., & Piper, E. S. (1986). Families and cults: Familial factors related to youth leaving or remaining in deviant religious groups. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 48, 15–25.

Zablocki, B. (1997). The blacklisting of a concept: The strange history of the brainwashing conjecture in the sociology of religion. Nova Religio, 1, 96–121.

Zablocki, B. (1998). Exit cost analysis: A new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing. Nova Religio, 1, 216–249.

Zablocki, B. (2001). Toward a demystified and disinterested scientific theory of brainwashing. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding cults: Searching for objectivity in a controversial field (159–214). Canada: University of Toronto Press.

About the Authors

Carmen Almendros, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Biological and Health Psychology Department at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her doctoral dissertation included four theoretical and four empirical sections devoted to: psychological abuse in group contexts, cult involvement; leaving cults; and psychological consequences of abusive group membership. She is currently principal researcher of a project entitled: “Psychological abuse, influence and adaptation to violence in partner relationships” financed by the Comunidad de Madrid and Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (CCG07-UAM/HUM-1942). She was the 2005 recipient of ICSA's Margaret Singer Award, given in honor of her research into the development of measures relevant to cultic studies.

José Antonio Carrobles, Ph.D., is Full Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology and past Head of the Department of Biological and Health Psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid. His work focuses in the areas of Psychopathology and Clinical and Health Psychology. He is Past President of the European Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Therapies (EABCT). He has directed numerous Doctoral Theses and is author of an important number and variety of articles and books in his areas of specialization. He has organized and participated in numerous national and international psychology congresses, among which stands out his participation as President of the Scientific Committee at the "23rd International Congress of Applied Psychology" held in Madrid in 1994. He is member of the Editorial Boards of several national and international journals.

Álvaro Rodríguez-Carballeira, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Psychology, Social Movements, and Legal Psychology at the University of Barcelona (Spain). From 1999 to 2008 he was Director of the Social Psychology Department. During the 1980s, before and after a 1985 internship at ICSA, he worked with families and victims affected by cult membership. He then worked as a professor at the University of Barcelona, where he completed a doctoral dissertation in 1991 on psychology of coercive persuasion. During recent years he has extended this line of research, linking it to other contexts (e.g., domestic, work, school) where manipulation and psychological violence may occur. His publications include the book, El Lavado de Cerebro: Psicología de la Persuasión Coercitiva. (Brainwashing: Psychology of Coercive Persuasion).

Manuel Gámez-Guadix, M.S., is a Doctoral student in the Clinical and Health Psychology Department at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. His research interests include parenting, marital conflict, and psychological abuse in intimate relationships and cultic groups.

Correspondence: Carmen Almendros, Facultad de Psicología, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Ciudad Universitaria de Cantoblanco – 28049 Madrid (Spain). E-mail: