Some Thoughts on Conducting Research with Former Members

Cults & Society: An Internet Journal, Volume 1, 2000

Some Thoughts on Conducting Research with Former Cult Members

Peter Malinoski, M.A.

Conducting research with former cult members presents unique challenges and issues, including finding a sufficient number of participants, deciding on an appropriate data collection procedure, considering important ethical issues, and following through after the data collection is complete. This article provides suggestions and guidelines about these issues for those interested in conducting research with former cult members.


Size. One of the primary challenges in conducting quantitative research with former members of psychologically abusive groups is gaining access to appropriate samples. Former cult members can be extraordinarily difficult to find, so achieving an adequate sample size for inferential statistics is a major concern. Failure to garner enough participants will result in underpowered statistical tests, meaning that true differences or relationships in the data are less likely to be detected. Thus, prior to collecting data, a power analysis should be conducted to determine the number of participants needed to detect differences at a given significance level and effect size.[1] If adequate sample sizes prove to be impossible to procure, one possible alternative is to conduct qualitative research. Kazdin (1981) has developed guidelines for drawing valid inferences from case-study designs. Dole (1995) provides an excellent outline for collecting case-study material from former cult members. In-depth case-study data are a rich source of information for understanding the phenomenology of the cult involvement and subsequent experience.

Composition. The composition of the sample is also important. Consider whether the research question requires participants to be former members of the same cult, or whether it is appropriate to have a mixed sample. Gathering data from former members of a variety of groups is often easier than getting a reasonable sample of participants from a single group, and permits evaluation of a sort of generalized cult phenomenon. However, group-specific samples are required for making statements about a particular group. Multiple group-specific samples from a variety of groups on the same measures are vital for helping classify groups on different dimensions of abuse.

Bear in mind that any sample of former cult members is likely to be non-random, and consequently less than representative of the population of individuals who leave cults. The method of recruiting participants introduces a significant source of bias in sample selection. A complete description of the participant sample must therefore include methods of participant recruitment. Providing this information enables the consumers of research to evaluate how the non-randomness of a sample may impact the findings.

Finding Participants

Where can you find former cult members to participate in studies? The best places to start are the many organizations that serve the needs of former members of specific groups. The first place to look is on the Internet. Many of these former-member groups have web sites that list contact information. Other organizations such as the AFF (American Family Foundation) provide helpful information and support to members from many psychologically abusive groups. Some former-member networks host annual conferences. Such conferences may be appropriate places to meet former members, explain your research project, and collect data. Some organizations may be willing to send out a survey or questionnaire to the individuals on their mailing list either as an insert in a newsletter, or separately.

It is very important to build strong working relationships with the leaders of former-member organizations and to keep clear lines of communication open during the course of the study. In their minds, they are taking a risk by allowing you access to their membership, so anything you can do to address their concerns will be helpful. Send them your vita or resume, a brief description of your proposal, the rationale for your study, and how it will add to the extant research base in the field. It's valuable to take the time to explain how your research may eventually help others. If you are a graduate student, a letter from your advisor on university letterhead attesting to your project's merit may also be useful.

Several other sources of subjects can be considered. Therapists who specialize in treating former cult members may be helpful, although they will want assurances that their clients' participation in the research will not adversely affect therapy. Sometimes clergy are aware of members of their congregations who have been involved in destructive groups in the past. Finally, former members often know other former members from their group, and may be able to lead researchers to other potential participants in a "snowball" method of data collection.

Researcher Presence

The researcher's being physically present for data collections offers many advantages: the researcher is better able to explain the study, answer any questions immediately, administer the study protocol under controlled conditions, and ensure that missing data are minimized. Moreover, nothing gets lost in the mail.

Plan well in advance. Pilot your test procedure with colleagues to find any glitches and to make sure the instructions are clear. If you are collecting data at a conference, you may be able arrange in advance for a particular time and place for the data collection. Having a specific time slot on the conference schedule can make a significant difference in rates of participation.

If you opt for a survey methodology, expect the return rate to be below 50 percent. Make sure that the instructions are clear and concise, and that the readability of the materials does not exceed the eighth-grade level. Provide return postage, and be prepared to send out at least one reminder notice with additional testing materials to all non-respondents. If you are surveying individuals in an ex-member organization, an accompanying letter from the leadership may help establish your credibility and improve your return rate.

Protecting Participants

Ethical issues. Make sure that the research you are proposing is reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board or its equivalent at your institution. This will help ensure that ethical issues in your research are appropriately addressed. It also provides some protection in the event that someone criticizes your research on ethical grounds.

Informed consent. The participants in your study have the right to know exactly what to expect in your protocol and any significant risks they may run in participating.[2] In most research in this field the risks are minimal, but bear in mind that asking former members about their experiences in their cult may dredge up painful memories and unresolved issues that may lead to psychological distress. Some former members may feel overwhelmed or simply may not want to continue with the protocol; it is important to emphasize that they are free to withdraw consent and discontinue participation at any time. If the data collection takes place under the direct supervision of the researchers, it is useful to have a mental health professional available if needed.

Confidentiality and anonymity. As some cults may harass or otherwise harm members who leave, the issue of confidentiality is particularly important. Know the limits of confidentiality you can guarantee your participants under federal and state law and include them in the informed consent forms. Consider obtaining legal consultation if you have unresolved questions. One method to ensure anonymity is to assign participants a code number for all instruments administered. Keep participants' signed informed consent forms from being associated with their test packets so that no possible link exists between participants' names and their responses.


Talk to research participants after the data collection is over to ascertain if there were any parts of the protocol that were difficult to understand or were particularly taxing. Such informal feedback can be useful in future revisions. If research funds allow, it is appropriate to compensate participants for taking part in the study.

Offer research participants access to your study results. One easy way to do this is to provide your business card and ask participants to contact you after a given date if they want a summary of the results. If you are collecting data at a former members' conference, you may also consider offering to present the research results at a future conference or write a brief summary for the organization's newsletter. Maintaining good relationships with the participants is important, particularly if you plan to follow them over time in a longitudinal design.

Rewarding Research

Conducting even small-scale research with former cult members is a major undertaking. Researchers should carefully consider the requirements of the research design, availability of participants, the size and composition of their samples, and the ethical issues in their research, especially informed consent and confidentiality. Researchers must also be sensitive to former cult members' experiences and recognize that participation in research may be painful for them.

In spite of these challenges and difficulties, doing research with former cult members can be very rewarding. By completing your protocol, participants may gain insights about their cult experience that can help them continue the healing process. Some may tell you in great detail about their involvement in the cult and how they are integrating their cult experience into the rest of their lives. And since the extant research base on the experience of former cult members is so limited (see Aronoff, Lynn & Malinoski [in press] for a review), even a small research project can make a significant impact on what we know about the field.


Applebaum, P.S., Lidz, C.W., & Meisel, A. (1987). Informed consent: Legal theory and practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

Dole, A.A. (1995). Clinical case studies of cult members. Cultic Studies Journal, 12, 121-147.

Hinkle, D.E., Wiersma, W., & Jurs, S.G. (1988). Applied statistics for the behavioral sciences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kazdin, A.E. (1981). Drawing valid inferences form case studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 49, 183-192.

Sieber, J.E. (1992). Planning ethically responsible research: A guide for students and internal review boards. Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Stanley, B. (1987). Informed consent in treatment and research. In I.B. Weiner and A.K. Hess et al. (Eds.). Handbook of forensic psychology (pp. 63-85). New York: Wiley.

Peter Malinoski, M.S., is a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology, Ohio University. Mr. Malinoski has conducted and published research assessing psychological distress in former cult members for five years. Last year, he completed a clinical psychology internship at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He expects to receive his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in the fall of 2000. He can be reached at

[1] See Cohen (1988) for a thorough, though technical, discussion of power; good introductions are available by Hinkle, Wiersma, & Jurs (1988) and many other introductory statistics texts.

[2] Sieber (1992), Stanley (1987), and Appelbaum, Lidz, & Meisel (1987) provide guidelines for establishing informed consent.