The International Cultic Studies
Association (ICSA) is an interdisciplinary network of academicians,
professionals, former group members, and families who study and educate the
public about social-psychological influence and control, authoritarianism, and
zealotry in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments.
Founded in 1979 as AFF (American Family Foundation), ICSA took on its current
name in late 2004 to better reflect the organization's focus and increasingly international
and scholarly dimensions. ICSA is guided by a distinguished
Board of Directors and Executive
What ICSA Offers
information service that annually responds to more than 2,500 inquirers.
E-Library with more than 4,500 news and scholarly articles and
E-books, with thousands of items to be added in the future.
Free E-Newsletter, which enables you to keep abreast of events of
note, new publications, news, popular articles, and research and educational
activities of ICSA's volunteers and other experts and activists.
scholarly journal (with an abridged print edition),
Cultic Studies Review, which will keep you abreast of the
latest advances in the field, including newspaper accounts and academic and
annual conference where you can learn about new research and other
developments, meet experts and others interested in the field, and attend
practical sessions for families, former group members, and professionals.
Workshops and mini-conferences for former group members, families,
and mental health professionals.
Volunteer professional committees
In 1978 nearly 1000
people committed suicide or were murdered at the People's Temple compound in
Guyana. In the mid 1980s followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh were convicted of
wiretapping, conspiracy to murder a U.S. Attorney, the deliberate spreading of
salmonella among the local population of Antelope, Oregon, and other crimes.
In 1993 dozens of men, women, and children were burned with their Branch
Davidian leader, David Koresh, at the end of a long siege by U.S. federal
agents. In 1995 members of Aum Shinrikyo released Sarin gas in the
Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters and injuring over 5000. In 1994-1995
members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France were murdered
or committed suicide. In 1997 thirty-nine members of Heaven's Gate
committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. In 2000 more than 1000
members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were
murdered in Uganda. (1) And on September 11, 2001 in New York and March 11, 2004
in Madrid a new kind of fanaticism shook the world and made us aware of the
terrible possibility that small bands of zealots are capable of mass
These horrific events all
depended on the extraordinary level of influence and control certain leaders
wielded over their followers. They are extreme examples of tragedies and
abuses that occur every day, involving families and individuals shattered by
the domineering influence of an exploitative leader in a cultic,
authoritarian, or other harmful group or movement.
ICSA seeks to apply
academic and professional research and analyses to the practical problems of
such families and individuals and to the professionals who seek to help them
and/or forewarn those who might become involved in harmful group situations.
Although there is no
definition of cult, one proposed by Rutgers sociologist
Benjamin Zablocki seems to highlight key elements of high-influence group
situations: "An ideological organization held together by charismatic
relationships and demanding total commitment." Charisma refers to a
spiritual power or personal quality that gives leaders influence or
authority over large numbers of people. Hence, a cult is characterized by an
ideology, strong demands issuing from that ideology, and powerful processes of
social-psychological influence to induce group members to meet those demands.
This high-demand, leader-centered social climate places such groups at risk of
exploiting and injuring members, although they may remain benign, if
leadership doesn't abuse its power.
manipulation and control associated with some cultic groups may sometimes be
found in other organizations and movements, including those in the mainstream.
However, unlike new groups focused on a living leader who answers to nobody,
mainstream movements may be restrained or corrected by higher authorities to
whom they are accountable.
Research studies suggest
that one to two percent of the U.S. population (two to five million persons)
have been involved in cultic groups and that several hundred thousand people
enter and leave cultic groups each year. Similar percentages appear to hold
true for Western Europe.
ICSA has information in its
files on over 4,000 groups, many of which have been the object of critical news
reports. However, the percentage of these groups that could be categorized as
"cults" is unknown.
ICSA does not maintain a list of "cults." Each case
associated with concern about a particular group should be evaluated
indicates that cultic and other high control groups vary enormously in their
potential for harm. Harm may be physical, psychological, economic, social,
and/or spiritual. Different people will respond in varied ways to the same
intense group environment, some remaining unscathed, while others are
devastated. Although scholars may dispute the level, causes, and effects of
harmful practices in particular groups, a common-sense assumption underlies
ICSA's work: Under some circumstances, some groups can harm some people. ICSA
is interested in the causes, nature, prevalence, and remediation of such
group-related harm. (3) Resource
collections for mental health professionals seeking to help those adversely
affected by group involvements can be found
here. Legal resources can be found
here (although some in the latter collection are available in the
former, free collection); clergy resources,
here. Other collections of note:
course, the most desirable way to combat cultic and related manipulations is
to forewarn potential victims, especially young people. Millions of
well-meaning youth, as well as adults and even elderly people going through
vulnerable transition periods in their lives, enter the “cult marketplace”
each year. ICSA's research indicates that 43% of cultic group members were
students when they first joined their groups, and 38% of these persons dropped
out of school after joining their groups. (4)
A crucial need, consequently,
is preventive education. (5)
Education of the general public and professionals can also result in a
decrease in cultic abuses. Vigorous public discussions about cult-related
problems, for example, can sometimes result in fruitful dialogues that cause
controversial groups to change. In his book, Recovery from Abusive
Churches, Dr. Ronald Enroth describes several cases in which criticism of
cultic evangelical groups resulted in public apologies by the group leaders
and clear changes in their practices. ICSA staff and advisors have had
fruitful exchanges with leaders of the Hare Krishna movement, which appears to
be struggling with genuine attempts to reform the organization from
Vigorous public discussion is also necessary before institutional authorities
(including religious, educational, health, and government) can justify taking
actions to curtail certain behaviors of cultic groups, which often call upon
the First Amendment for protection—with some justification. Institutional
authorities in most countries have thus far done very little, in part because
the information base in this area has not yet reached a sufficiently
sophisticated level to motivate institutional leaders to act, especially given
the civil liberties dimension of the problem. ICSA hopes that in time the
research base in this area will reach a level that will enable institutional
authorities to make more informed, balanced, and effective decisions regarding
what to do about the problems cultic groups pose. (7)
On occasion ICSA has
been able to afford, or has received special grants for, supporting research
studies. Among the more notable research developments are:
The development of the Group Psychological Abuse
Scale (GPA), a measure of perceived psychological abuse in groups. The GPA
has been translated into Spanish and Japanese and has been used in more than
a dozen studies around the world. (8)
Dr. Edward Lottick's
survey of Pennsylvania physicians, which provides, among other
findings, valuable data pertinent to prevalence.
Studies that use standardized psychological
measures, including ICSA's GPA, to assess the level of psychological
distress in former group members. (9)
The development of detailed curricula designed to
help people born or raised in cultic groups (a population with specific
Beginning in 2004 ICSA instituted what we hope
will become an annual project, the compilation of an annotated bibliography
of the cultic studies literature in
English, French (English
complete report in French),
Spanish (and ultimately other languages). The first bibliographies
(numbering more than 50 pages) review the literature from 2003.
research directions that interest ICSA include:
Outcome studies of remedial and preventive
interventions, including exit counseling, psychotherapy of former members,
residential treatment, and educational curricula.
Process studies that examine the nature of
interventions in detail.
Characteristics of the kinds of powerful
influences associated with cultic groups, zealotry, and authoritarianism.
The further development and refinement of
existing measures, such as the Group Psychological Abuse Scale.
The development of new measures to assess family
contexts and reactions, group environments, and the psychological,
cognitive, and social status of group members and former group members.
The ways in which group and person variables
interact in cultic situations.
The development of practical classification
systems with regard to groups, families, and individuals.
Further studies of prevalence of group membership
and harms associated with group membership.
(1) For a
sociological analysis of cultic violence, see: Kent, Stephen A. (2004).
Scientific evaluation of the dangers posed by religious groups: A partial
Cultic Studies Review,
(2) See: Centner,
Christopher. (2003). Cults and terrorism: Similarities and differences.
(3) For a summary of clinical and research studies pertinent to harm
see: (a) Dr. Michael Langone's paper, "Research
on Destructive Cults," at and (b) McKibben, J. A., Lynn, S. J.,
& Malinoski, P. (2002). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?
(4) Other survey results from this study.
(5) See the State of Maryland Task Force Report, to which ICSA (formerly AFF)
advisors contributed. Also see: Kropveld, Michael. (2004). Preventive education: A North American perspective. ICSA E-Newsletter,
3(2). Pseudoscience Fact sheets are also a useful educational resource.
(6) See our special collection on the Hare Krishna movement.
(7) See the report of a
panel discussion at ICSA's (formerly AFF's) 1999 annual conference in which
representatives of 13 cult-educational organizations from around the world
came to a consensus on needed actions: Langone, Michael. (2001). What should
be done about cults? Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 69-81.
(8) For more information on the GPA see: 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(1), 88-0117. Almendros, C., Carrobles, J., Rodríguez-Carballeira, A., &
Jansà, J. (2003). Psychometric properties of the Spanish version of the Group Psychological
Abuse Scale. Cultic Studies Review, 2(3).
(9) Among the
empirical studies of harm in cultic groups published in our periodicals are
the following: Martin, P., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Wiltrout, J. (1992). Post-cult symptoms as measured by the MCMI before and after
residential treatment. Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 219-250.
Weishaupt, K., & Stensland, M. (1997). Wifely subjection: Mental health issues in Jehovah’s Witness women. Cultic Studies
Journal, 14(1), 106-144. Asser, S., & Swan, R. (2000). Child fatalities from religion-motivated neglect. Cultic Studies
Journal, 17, 1-14. (Reprinted from Pediatrics, April 1998,
625-629). Aronoff McKibben, J., Lynn, S. J., & Malinoski, P. (2002). Are cultic environments psychologically harmful? Cultic Studies