Second Thoughts on Cultic Involvement and Addictive Relationships

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 3, Number (2/3), 2004, pages 171-182

Second Thoughts on Cultic Involvement and Addictive Relationships

Miguel Perlado

Psychologist, Psychotherapist

Attention and Research on Socio-addictions (AIS)

Barcelona, Spain


In this article, certain analogies between drug addiction and cultic involvement are reviewed. From clinical experiences, we propose that in some cases cultic commitment involves a similar symptomatic profile as that observed in other addictive attachments. Moreover, we aim to include cultic addiction within the category of addictive relationships without drugs, thus reviewing some considerations about them.

Since it was founded in 1977, Attention and Research on Socio-Addictions (AIS), a pioneer organization in Spain that provides information and advice on cults, has focused its therapeutic activity on cultic involvement, although we also treat cases related to unethical influence in “groups of two” (therapeutic or emotional abuses without the existence of a group). Two peculiarities of these types of cases are that they allow us to better appreciate the dynamics of how unethical influence affects an individual; also, a certain component of pathological attachment and manipulation can be isolated in all of them.

In our clinical experience, these types of cases have slowly opened up the therapeutic field to other demands for help (addictive behavior related to sexuality, to the Internet, manipulation through Internet or chats, etc.). In these cases, it is possible to observe a significant number of symptoms similar to those witnessed in situations regarding cults. Part of these cases appear as an evolution of a cultic problem (i.e. addictive sexual behavior in people who leave a cultic religious group), while in other cases the attachment aforementioned seems to constitute the primary problem without any existence of a manipulating source.

In a previous article (Perlado, 2003) we indicated that in a considerable number of cases treated in our unit, the symptoms manifested by cult followers were comparable clinically to those observed among drug addicts. We indicated that, beyond the dissociative model and along with thought reform processes, the symptomatic profile of the follower could be compared to addictive disorders.

In fact, this comparison is neither metaphorical nor new, given that other specialists on cults have suggested links between both phenomena, either based on empirical verification of how organizations that seek to help drug addicts tend to establish a form of compensatory dependence (Galanter, 1980; Halperin & Markowitz, 1991; Rebhun, 1983) or based on the hypothesis that certain cultic ritual practices are supposed to trigger the same brain mechanisms as drugs in regards to dopamine and certain endorphin secretions (Galanter, 1980).

In more general terms, the idea that cults tend to promote an intense dependency is implicit in a widely accepted definition of “cult”: “group or movement that exhibits a great or excessive dedication or devotion to some person, idea or thing and employing unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community” (Rosedale & Langone, 1985) (italics added).

The progressive appearance of such clinical situations—seemingly different from cultism—has led the AIS therapeutic staff to a re-evaluate the assistance it offers. The field of work has widened to include in our unit complementary services and professionals that could attend to addictive situations without drugs.

In what follows, I will review some analogies between drug addiction and addictions without drugs, as well as the links between them, and a description of some of the addictive relationships that are witnessed among some followers of cults in comparison with non chemical addictions.

Drug Addiction and Cultic Involvement

The model of addiction is one of the possible paths to approach the clinical suffering of the cult follower, especially current members. In Spanish, the term addiction designates an “appointment, devotion or joining” (Real Academia, 1992); also, the term addict refers to “enthusiast, prone or follower” (Casares, 1959).

On the other hand, phonetic similarities exist between “follower” and “addict” in Spanish (in Spanish there are two words, “adepto” and “adicto” that address the link of a person to a cult or to a drug).

But, there is another series of clinical phenomena that invite to this reflection: (a) drug addicts often abandon addiction within the framework of a cult; (b) some rehabilitation groups present cultic factors; (c) similarities in the discomfort felt once the drug (or group) is abandoned; (d) states of de-personalization that both addicts and cult followers experience; (e) links between emotional and cultic experience that ex-followers point to; and (f) the exchangeability of certain addictions.

In their study of cultic characteristics of organizations that seek to help drug addicts, Rodríguez & González (1989) have clearly exposed other interesting parallelisms between chemical addictions and cultic involvement. For these authors, both cases involve: (1) previous phenomena that resurfaced with new elements in the second half of the 20th Century; (2) harmful effects on health; (3) no specific predictive profile that would permit determining who will become an addict or a cult follower; and (4) adolescence and childhood as the periods of greater vulnerability for being recruited; emotional crisis (mourning, frequently) can act as a vulnerability factor.

Although numerous coincidences between drug addiction and cultism exist, one of the main distinctions—apart from the lack of a chemical substance—is that in the case of cult dynamics a thought reform process unfolds and alters internal and external relations, generating a state of pathological attachment in the follower (Perlado, 2002).

Addictive Relationships Without Drugs

Despite the diversity of definitions of “addiction,” there seems to exist some consensus that addiction produces, in variable degrees, loss of control, a pathological dependency, obsessive rumination in respect to the object of addiction, loss of interest in other activities unrelated to the addictive relationship, denial, and significant impairment in personal, professional, and family life.

In the different modalities of addictions, the individual seeks to obtain immediate gratification, presents serious difficulties assessing long term consequences and obsessive rumination about that relation arises (during the times in which there is absence of contact).

The time devoted to the newly established relationship tends to increase in frequency and intensity, which leads to losing interest in other activities that formerly elicited a certain pleasure. At a later time, the addictive relationship is characterized by denial of the problem. Although the environment or the relationship in itself point to something negative, the individual cannot stop carrying out the activity and comes up with all types of rationalizations and justifications in order to make sure nothing will interfere in carrying it out.

Despite the attempts to help by family and friends, the addictive relationship continues its course and starts to show its destructive effects at the personal, family, and social levels.

Recently, the definition of “addiction” has widened. In fact, the current broadening of the definition of addiction has led to diagnosing patients who are not hooked on any substance as addicts. In fact, different authors are starting to talk about “behavioral addictions” or “psychological addictions” to refer to a wide scope of addictions without drugs (Echeburúa, 2003; Lejoyuex, McLoughlin, & Adès, 2000; Marks, 1990).

As has happened sometimes with cults, however, the media tend to treat these “new addictions” with sensationalism. According to Lejoyuex, McLoughlin & Adès (2000) the addictions without drugs more often described are kleptomania, trichotillomania, pyromania, pathological gambling and compulsive shopping.

On the other hand, such research shows that in these types of addictions, high levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking can bring on a higher risk of developing an addictive pattern.

According to Marks (1990), the common points between drug addiction and behavioral addiction are: (1) a desire to carry out a counterproductive activity; (2) a state of tension when the activity cannot be carried out; (3) a release of tension after carrying out the activity; (4) a new desire to carry out the activity after a variable period of time elapses; (5) a presence of particular external indicators for each addiction; and (6) a pleasurable tone in the initial moments of the addiction.

Other authors (Echeburúa, 2003; Larger, 2001) further widen the scope of addictions without drugs including: the addiction to food, to shopping, to work, to sex, to the Internet, or to physical exercise. However, there is not currently sufficient research to enable establishing specific diagnostic criteria in most of them. Some of these categories are too wide, not specific enough, does not show sufficient empirical consistency or the greater part of studies lack sufficient rigor or cannot be extrapolated (DeAngelis, 2000; Tejeiro, 2001).

Widening the notion of addiction therefore implies that any type of pleasurable activity or relationship can end up being addictive. The essential element in addictive types would not so much be the substance or the addictive object (toxic or not) per se, but rather the type of relationship that the individual establishes with that object, an exclusive relationship that is absorbing and damaging to the individual and his environment.

Although the research inconsistencies, the idea that certain activities or relationships can become addictive seems plausible in therapeutic terms and in certain people and under certain conditions, generating significant personal, family, professional, and social impairment.

In the field of cultic involvement, once the addictive relationship is established in the current member, it is possible to observe a particular set of symptoms. Regarding the symptoms that would allow for the presence of “cultic addiction” to be determined, the following criteria have been tentatively proposed (Cubero, 2001); these have been extracted from clinical records of the patients that have sought out our services, which at the present moment add up to 1,170 cases.

Excessive time dedicated to group (at least one of the following criteria): a) the time dedicated to the group tends to increase progressively; b) time dedicated to the family, work, or social relationships decreases excessively.

The subject reacts with great irritability and/or anxiety when unable to attend meetings or group activities.

Subject manifests intense affiliation feelings toward the group and its members.

Changes in attitude toward people in his previous environment (at least two of the following): a) cold and distant attitude, b) lies, c) fear, and d) hostility.

Unmeasured self-criticism of his pre-cult past.

Conceding excessive importance to the group, this does not adjust to reality.

Tolerates and justifies personal exploitation in different areas; for example, work, economic, or sexual.

Increase of daily activities as a consequence of the growing dedication to the group.

Experiences of great euphoria or enthusiasm.

Tendency to a monothematic discourse.

Behavioral changes that stand out that are in accordance with group norms or habits (at least two of the following criteria): a) in dressing or personal care, b) in language, c) in hobbies, d) in sexual behavior.

Addictive Relationships

Addiction is a psychiatric concept. It is not a psychopathological entity that we can find within psychoanalytical conceptions; neither is cultism a problem that has elicited great interest among psychoanalysts.

In Freud’s work we cannot find any specific text dedicated to the study of addiction, although there are isolated or brief references in several of his writings. Some of his observations merit our attention. This is the case of the possibility of addictions without drugs. In fact, Freud was the first psychoanalyst to highlight that there was a certain relationship between drug addictions and those without drugs, especially in relation to the problem of pathological gambling, as a result of his study of Dostoevsky (Freud, 1928).

In his first writings, after the period in which he experimented with cocaine as an analgesic, Freud suggested that compulsory masturbation would be the first addiction and that the rest of addictions (to alcohol, tobacco, morphine, etc.) came as substituting formations (Freud, 1897). He observed, as well, that under the influence of toxic effects the adult regresses behaviorally to a childish mental functioning, weakening the barrier of repression and super-ego self criticism (Freud, 1912, 1928).

Moreover, among the effects of the toxic object, Freud emphasized suppressing repression, manic triumph, decrease of self-criticism, and destruction of sublimation processes. He established interesting parallelisms between intoxication and other manic states, where intoxication allows the triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle (Freud, 1912, 1928).

Also, he established some analogies between addictions and love relationships, where the addictive object occupies the place of the love object. The idealization of the addictive object would be the result of confirmation on the part of the individual that the object provides immediate pleasure or displeasure, which grants the individual a certain sense of omnipotence in believing he can control emotional states with the idealized object.

The Freudian proposal, therefore, suggests that the addictive relationship would be founded upon a process of personal attribution that the subject carries out upon the object, and that it is idiosyncratic in each individual case. We find a sort of bi-directional relation: on the one hand, an individual who attributes some properties to the substance (or non-toxic object); on the other hand, a substance (or object) that has differential effects upon the person.

Other psychoanalysts have discussed the idea of drug addiction as a substitute for satisfaction of unconscious desires, as a defense against states of internal anxiety, as a result of internal conflict, and even as a result of structural deficiencies of the mental apparatus (Yorke, 1970).

These hypothesis find certain correlations in the clinical aspects of cultism, where we observe groups that develop ritualized practices and where the same relationship dynamic leads to behavioral regressions, to the annulling of repression and the surfacing of very primitive childhood contents, to alterations of the Super-Ego system with the introduction of the doctrinal system of the group, to a hypo- manic state within the follower that leads to omnipotence, and to a relationship with the rest of the group reminiscent of a highly idealized love relationship.

In the psychoanalytical diagnostic field, the term “addict” does not yield greater clinical significance, since being addicted to a substance or to a group does not add more information about the person involved, only about his pathologically dependent state.

According to psychoanalytical hypothesis, addiction is understood in terms of the relationship between an individual and an object (inert in the case of drugs, alive in the case of cults).

As seen from a relational viewpoint, the cultic involvement can be understood as bidirectional addiction: on the one hand, a leader who believes he/she is chosen, and on the other hand, a follower who ends up wishing to be the chosen leader. The leader thrives on the grandiosity; he looks for followers to make himself grander, and if he is left without them, he tends to feel empty. The follower comes to trust that the leader will offer the certainty of absolute conviction. At last, we can consider the leader as the first follower, in this case, a follower of his own omnipotent fantasies (Perlado, 2002).


The model of addiction allows us to approach the clinical complications of cults from the outlook of the patient, without forgetting the manipulations that the group produces to achieve a state of subjection in the follower (Perlado, 2002).

Focusing on cult involvement as a form of addiction does not deny the existence of unethical influence upon the follower or other psychopathological patterns as a result of thought reform processes, but it aims to delve into the personal aspects that play a role in these relationships.

Cultic addiction seems to share numerous characteristics with drug addiction, as well as with addictions without drugs. From a psychiatric point of view, once the diagnosis of addiction or no addiction is established, it would seem that the treatment would be standard for all types of addiction: suppressing the addiction, abstaining from the same, controlling the factors associated with it, resolving specific problems, preventing relapse, and helping to compose a new style of living (recovery).

Exclusively focusing attention on the addictive power of the drug or on the manipulative potential of the group, however, does not help the patient abandon his attachment any quicker. In the case of cults, experience has shown that assessment based on information (exit counseling) helps to unblock the intense dependency, but following this release, it is necessary to elaborate the problem so as to determine the personal factors that play a role and the degree of the group manipulation.

Beyond the theory, what interests us in therapeutic terms is to know if, in any given patient, the addictive relationship is or is not the main problem. Despite all of this, psychoanalytical professionals continue to debate whether addiction is a primary problem or a secondary problem.

In the field of cults, experience shows us that in a high proportion of cases, cultic addiction presents itself as the primary problem among some current members. So that it is pivotal to resort to initial assessment about the group before designing any kind of psychotherapeutic treatment.

The patient’s relational diagnosis, beyond his addictive relationship, will help to better plan his treatment. In the case of current cult members, it is not the same to propose an exit counseling intervention on a psychotic patient than on a neurotic one, for example, which is why it is especially important to dedicate the necessary time to the family in order to be able to establish an initial relational diagnosis that will subsequently be put to the test with the cult follower.

With exit counseling procedures, we intend to create a breach of doubt in the follower so that he will at least entertain the possibility of seeing things from another perspective. In other addictions, we try to turn the addiction into a symptom in the addict, meaning that he views what is happening as a problem.

Cultic addiction, as with other types of addictive relationships, is founded on denial and the absence of symptoms in the analytical sense (there is no experience of uneasiness about problems that are viewed as such from the outside), so that we must previously carry out some work with the current member based on exit counseling procedures about groups, in order to be able to open breaches in the strong defenses that the subject presents, with the aim of helping him enter into a therapeutic relationship that will offer an opening discussion of cultic commitment and his internal world.

Enlarging the realm of addictions and relating group addiction with the family of behavioral or social addictions opens up a new path of approaching the current cult member and in a field of research which is still in need of further investigations.


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Miguel Perlado, Psychologist, Psychotherapist. A graduate of the University of Barcelona (psychology), Mr. Perlado received psychotherapy training from Vidal Barraquer Foundation (Barcelona) and iPsi (Barcelona). He currently works with Attention and Research on Social Addictions (AIS) and also with iPsi as an exit counselor and psychotherapist. (

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