An Object Relations Approach to
JOSEPH D. SALANDE, M.S.*
DAVID R. PERKINS, Ph.D.#
Several pieces of literature suggest that most individuals who are successfully
integrated into cults do not typically manifest symptoms of mental illness.
However, the public is often taken aback by the lack of autonomy displayed
by cult members and is bewildered by the ability of the cult leader and other
cult members to transform fundamental personality functioning in an indi-
vidual. Within the framework of an object relations model of personality
structure and functioning as delineated by Otto Kernberg and using existing
data concerning the cult experience, the authors engage in a theoretical
exploration of cult membership. The authors propose that some behaviors
exhibited by cult members may be a function of an object relations–level
regression, which is exempliﬁed by the activation of primitive defensive
operations that are usually relegated to those suffering with severe person-
KEYWORDS:cult; psychodynamic; object relations; defensive operations
In any discussion of the cult experience, whether from an objective/
empirical perspective or from a subjective/experiential perspective, it is
necessary to understand an oft-repeated concept in much of the literature
concerning cults: no one joins a cult (Zimbardo, 1997). In other words, cult
recruits typically believe they are joining a legitimate and healthy group
that will not abuse them (Almendros, Carrobles, & Rodriguez-Carballeira,
2007; Goldberg, 1997; Shaw, 2003 Zimbardo, 1997). It is necessary to start
here because understanding that cult members usually begin their journey
with a well-intentioned search for meaning, fulﬁllment, social change,
* South Louisiana Community College, Lafayette, LA; # University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA.
P.O. Box 43131, Department of Psychology, Girard Hall, Room 209, Lafayette, LA
70504. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY, Vol. 65, No. 4, 2011
happiness, and belonging helps dispense with the general incomprehen-
sion about why anyone would join a cult.
While individual cultic groups may vary in discipline (political, reli-
gious, social/philosophical), they often operate with a similar premise: the
world is bad, we are good, become a part of us. Viewing the world in this
way is not, in and of itself, destructive; and many mainstream religious and
political movements embrace similar philosophies. However, cult leaders
often reinforce this view with a frightening intensity while simultaneously
inducing dissociative states among their followers through extensive and
repetitive prayer (Goldberg, 1997; MacHovec, 1992; Young & Grifﬁth,
1992; Zimbardo, 1997), sleep deprivation (Goldberg, 1997; Morse &
Morse, 1987), and other methods to be discussed later. Constant social
pressure to conform and comply (Hassan, 1988, Zimbardo, 1997), rein-
forcement of paranoid ideation about the outside world (Morse & Morse,
1987; Rust, 1992; Zimbardo, 1997), and externally induced dissociative
states (Ash, 1985; DSM-IV-TR, 2000; Goldberg, 1997; Langone, 1996;
MacHovec, 1992; Morse & Morse, 1987) all coalesce to activate a primitive
level of object relationships as indicated by the cult member’s display of
primitive defense mechanisms. The relationship among primitive defensive
operations, level of personality organization, and adherence to and fervor
for the cult experience will be examined shortly.
The question of what qualiﬁes as a cult must be addressed before
delving further into the speciﬁc defensive operations to which we refer or
to the methods that cults use to bring about this impaired level of
psychological functioning. The authors of this paper use Chambers, Lan-
gone, Dole, and Grice’s (1994) deﬁnition of cults as being those
. . . groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or ﬁnancially,
typically by making members comply with leadership’s demands through
certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control,
and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the
group and its leaders (p. 88).
A distinction based on two sets of dynamics should be drawn between
legitimate political, social, and religious groups/movements and cults. The
ﬁrst is the ‘methods cults use (as opposed to those used by more benign
groups), the second is the disparity in outcomes between the two sets of
groups. Concerning the ﬁrst distinction, the following are frequently
reported occurrences in what are referred as cults (Almendros et al., 2007;
Goldberg, 1997; Langone, 1996; Shaw, 2003, Young & Grifﬁth, 1992;
Zimbardo, 1997), coercion, intimidation, threats, physical and verbal
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abuse, manipulation, dishonesty (by leadership), sexual bullying, isolation
and separation from friends and family, and forfeiture of personal ﬁnances.
Whereas those conditions certainly exist in legitimate organizations
(Young & Grifﬁth, 1997), they are often the exception rather than the rule.
Concerning the second point: no legitimate religion, political move-
ment—or any group for that matter—has a 100% retention rate, much
less a 100% success rate in whatever areas of personal or social functioning
that they purport to improve. However, with cults, the member is, more
often than not, left in a much worse position than in which he started,
whether it t be ﬁnancially, psychologically, relationally, or some combina-
tion of these and other factors (Langone, 1996; Morse & Morse, 1987;
Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997).
The question, from a social-psychological perspective, of how an
individual is drawn into and eventually controlled by a cult becomes one
of established research. The power of social inﬂuence on conformity, as
well as the power of an authority ﬁgure to induce compliance, have both
been made abundantly clear and certainly play an integral role in cult
integration. However, this perspective does not address the more internal
dynamics that are activated through the cult experience, to which we
attempt to speak. It has been observed that those who join cults do not
appear to suffer signiﬁcantly higher instances of psychological illness
before entering the cult environment than the general population. As
Langone (1996) stated, “No particular psychopathology proﬁle is associ-
ated with cult involvement, in part because cults, like many effective sales
organizations, adjust their pitch to the personality and needs of their
prospects” (p. 2). The acknowledgement that cult members are not
qualitatively different from the general population in any speciﬁc area of
adjustment or psychological functioning is an essential component of the
current authors’ proposed theory. It is worth mentioning, however, that
several authors have found that there are some developmental and rela-
tional factors that may make some individuals more susceptible to cult
recruitment (Buxtant, Saroglou, Casalﬁore, & Christians, 2007; Buxtant &
Saroglou, 2008; Robinson, Frye, & Bradley, 1997).
The authors propose that many of the experiences of the cult member
serve to weaken normal ego functioning through methods which induce
dissociation (Ash, 1985; Goldberg, 1997; Morse & Morse, 1987), compro-
mise critical thinking and volition (Goldberg, 1997; Morse & Morse, 1987;
Robinson et al., 1997; Young & Grifﬁth, 1992; Zimbardo, 1997), and
impose tremendous social pressure to conform and comply (Hassan, 1988;
Langone, 1996; Zimbardo, 1997). These experiences lead to the activation
Object Relations and Cult Membership
of a primitive level of object relationships and defensive operations that
Otto Kernberg linked speciﬁcally to the borderline level of personality
organization (Kernberg, 1976; Kernberg, 1984).
OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY AND ITS ROLE IN THE CULT
The role of object relations in the cult experience may only be a topic
of conjecture but the authors propose, as have others, that the cult
experience taps into unconscious attachment needs that motivate and
direct the cult member’s behavior. As stated earlier, an intense process of
dissociating and manipulating experiences set the stage for an ego regres-
sion. This externally induced ego regression activates early attachment
needs, a primitive level of object relationships and object representations,
and corresponding engagements in primitive defensive operations. It is the
emergence of these defensive operations that indicate the cult member is
indeed operating, if only temporarily, at the borderline range of personality
Theoretical particularities aside, it is also important to note that the
construct of borderline personality organization is not synonymous with
the DSM-IV TR diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. While
individuals ﬁtting the DSM-IV TR diagnostic criteria for Borderline
Personality Disorder certainly utilize primitive defensive operations (and
are in fact operating at the borderline level of personality organization), the
borderline personality organization construct also describes other severe
personality disorders. A borderline level of personality organization, as
indicated by the use of primitive defensive operations is also commonly
observed in Narcissistic Personality Disorder as well as Antisocial Person-
ality Disorder (Gacono, Meloy, & Berg, 1992; Kernberg, 1984; Psychody-
namic Diagnostic Manual 2006).
We will now spend some time differentiating this paper’s object
relations theory framework from others. While the foundation of object
relations theory lies in Freudian drive/structural theory, the concept of
object relations has been widely expounded upon by many noteworthy
theorists. Melanie Klein, W.R.D. Faribairn, D.W. Winnicott, Harry Gun-
trip, Heinz Hartman, Marget Mahler, Edith Jacobson, Heinz Kohut, and
Joseph Sandler all have made invaluable contributions to object relations
theory. Despite sharing the same theoretical school of thought, they often
disagree with each other’s conceptions on the object and relevance of the
groundwork laid by Sigmund Freud. While there are some conceptually
signiﬁcant differences among the different schools of thought within object
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY
relations theory, they are tied together by the underlying theme of internal
representations of important “objects.” At their core all object relations
theories are concerned with unconscious mental representations of others
(often called introjects) that form in the earliest parts of mental life and the
internal relationship to those representations. The internal relationships to
these mental representations then guide interactions with others. As
Greenberg and Mitchell (1983) stated, “In some way crucial exchanges
with others leave their mark; they are internalized and so come to shape
subsequent attitudes, reactions, perceptions, and so on” (p. 11).
This distinction among different object relations theorists is relevant
only to the extent that the authors are using an object relations model of
personality developed by Otto Kernberg. This model retains much of the
theoretical groundwork of Freud’s structural/drive model. Kernberg con-
structed his theory within the framework of the Freudian meta-psychology,
at least in part, because he saw object relations theory as “already implied
in Freud’s writings” (Kernberg, 1976, p. 58). He also viewed object
relations theory as a sort of venue of commonality, a theoretical disposition
“which permits relating the works of authors of different schools to one
another” (1976, p. 58).
At this juncture it would be useful to brieﬂy describe some of the
essentials of Kernberg’s views on personality organization, which will be of
relevance to this topic. In his book Object Relations Theory and Clinical
Psychoanalysis (1976), Kernberg proposed the existence of two separate
levels of “ego organization,” with each level centered on the defensive
pattern of splitting or repression. These differing levels of personality
organization are indicated by differing patterns of defensive operations,
with pathological ego/superego development leading to the display of
“primitive” patterns of defensive operations, while healthy ego/superego
development leading to the utilization of higher order defensive operations
(Kernberg, 1976; Kernberg, 1984).
Kernberg went on to discuss in detail, in his 1984 work Severe
Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies, an expanded set of
primitive defensive operations including splitting, primitive idealization,
denial, omnipotence, devaluation, and projective identiﬁcation. Kernberg
identiﬁed those individuals who, due to genetic/temperamental factors in
conjunction with poor ego/superego development and integration, utilize
this pattern of primitive defensive operations as operating at the “border-
line” level. And while ego/superego strength and integration determines
one’s level of personality organization, where an individual falls along the
continuum of personality organization (healthy-neurotic-borderline-psy-
Object Relations and Cult Membership
chotic) may be inferred by the defensive pattern which he or she utilizes.
This theoretical disposition also recognizes identity integration and main-
tenance of reality testing as integral components of personality organiza-
tion, and interestingly enough, these dimensions also appear to be com-
promised by the cult experience, though this paper will limit itself to the
primitive defensive operations exhibited by cult members.
PSYCHOLOGICAL DYNAMICS ASSOCIATED WITH CULT
MEMBERSHIP & SPECIFIC DEFENSIVE OPERATIONS
The authors do not argue that the cult experience leads to the spon-
taneous development of a personality disorder. Rather, we propose the cult
experience weakens healthy ego functioning in such a way that much of the
puzzling and self-destructive behavior exhibited by cult members is the
result of primitive defensive operations. This pattern of defensive opera-
tions appears very similar to that exhibited by individuals operating at,
what Otto Kernberg termed, the borderline level of personality organiza-
tion. In essence, the cult experience degrades the ego, effectively causing
the individual to regress into a transient state of borderline personality
organizational-style functioning that may resolve itself once the individual
leaves the group. This assertion is based on two separate observations. The
ﬁrst, as mentioned before, is that cult members exhibit behavior that is
strikingly similar to behaviors associated with primitive defensive opera-
tions, such as splitting (Goldberg, 1997; Whitsett, 1992). The second
seems to be the activation of important object relations-level attachment
needs, which helps to motivate the cult member’s behavior (Shaw, 2003;
We seek to shed light on some of the more puzzling behaviors of cult
members in terms of their striking similarity to the primitive defensive
operations described by Kernberg. The ﬁrst, most apparent, and broadest,
defensive operation that seems to be expressed in the well-integrated cult
member is splitting. This is an observation made by Doni P. Whisett
(1992) in her discussion of the cult phenomenon from a self-psychological
approach based on Heinz Kohut work, “cults divide up the world into
‘we/they’—‘we’ being the saved” (p. 370). As simpliﬁed by Kernberg
(1984), “the clearest manifestation of splitting is the division of external
objects into “all good” and “all bad” (p. 16).
Splitting is most often referred to in the context of an individual
changing his perception of and reaction to an external object from that of
an “all good” classiﬁcation to an “all bad” classiﬁcation, or vice versa.
However, splitting also may be a function of how an individual views the
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY
group he or she is part of, and that group’s relationship to the outside
world. Thus, by virtue of being part of the “good” group, one is made “all
good” and is thereby in serious conﬂict with the outside world, which is,
of course, “all bad.” Robinson, Frye, and Bradley (1997) alluded to this
phenomenon in their discussion of cult afﬁliation and disafﬁliation, “crit-
ical thinking is compromised and individuals are encouraged to view their
families of origin and the non-cult world as bad or evil, whereas the cult
beliefs and activities are all seen as good” (p. 167).
Omnipotence and devaluation, which are “derivatives of splitting
operations affecting the self and object representations” (Kernberg, 1984,
p. 17), are expressed by the cult member through the ways in which he
views himself in relation to those who are not part of the group. Cult
members are sometimes fearful or hostile towards those on the outside, but
often there is an air of pity or even condescension towards those “unen-
lightened” individuals who are not part of the group. For example,
individuals who have left the Church of Scientology have reported that
nonbelievers are sometimes referred to as “wogs” by active scientologists.
“Wog” is a sort of light-hearted pejorative in the religion of Scientology,
describing those who are not “on the path to total freedom,” in other
words, those who are not part of the Church (Goodstein, 2010). Scientol-
ogy also encourages its members to separate themselves from “SPs”, or
“suppressive persons,” those individuals critical of the organization and
thus, major impediments to the progress of practicing Scientologists
(Goodstein, 2010). This dynamic of omnipotence vs. devaluation is often
overtly based on the premise that those belonging to the group, especially
the leadership, have surpassed the abilities and knowledge of a “normal”
person and gained access to some special knowledge or salvation reserved
exclusively for the group members. This separation of the omnipotent cult
leader (and by extension, cult members) from the devalued public is not
simply a function of a philosophy or world view, but a reﬂection of
primitive object relationships that have been activated through the cult
Cult members often see themselves, and the group they are a part of, as
more enlightened, informed, understanding of the true nature of things, or
just better than the population at large; they may manifest this as an
arrogant dismissal of more mainstream ways of thinking and acting, or
express a form of antagonistic deﬁance in the face of what the members
perceive as external aggression. In the case of the latter, cult members
manifest the defensive operation of projective identiﬁcation (a primitive
form of the better-known defense mechanism of projection). Projective
Object Relations and Cult Membership
identiﬁcation differs from projection in that projection involves the detec-
tion of one’s own feelings or impulses in an external object; projective
identiﬁcation involves an unconscious effort to elicit an expected response
or behavior from an external object.
Thus, cult members expect nonmembers to be hostile or threatening to
them or their group, but actually, they create the dynamics between
themselves and the outside world that ﬁts their own relational expecta-
tions. As one former Uniﬁcation Church member (now cult exit counselor
reported), “Whenever people yelled at me and called me a ‘brainwashed
robot,’ I just took it as an expected persecution. It made me feel more
committed to the group” (Hassan, 1988, p. 53). Cult leaders such as David
Koresh and Jim Jones were notoriously paranoid about interference from
the government, and this paranoid ideation was reﬂected in many of their
follower’s attitudes and behaviors. In reality however, these leaders and
their followers effectively guaranteed the exact kind of interference that
they claimed to fear.
Primitive idealization is another defensive operation addressed by Otto
Kernberg that seems applicable to the well-integrated cult member. As
stated by Kernberg (1984), “Primitive idealization creates unrealistic,
all-good and powerful images” (p. 16). This is expressed in the classic cult
behavior of blindly following an “all-good” or “all powerful” charismatic
leader. The cult members’ zeal in following the leader is evidenced not
only by what the members are willing to subject themselves to, for
example, in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult multiple suicides; but also
in what cult members are willing to do to outsiders at the behest of the
leader, such as in the crimes committed by members of the Manson family.
One need not look to these more extreme examples to illustrate this
phenomenon. Primitive idealization is present in more benign cult settings,
and it would appear to be a reﬂection of the cult leader’s ability and need
to satisfy his or her own dependency needs by, as Shaw (2003) states
“exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in the
others”(p. 110). Shaw, a self-identiﬁed former cult member and now
clinical social worker, goes on to propose that “Cult leaders tap into and
re-activate this piece of the human psyche. Followers are encouraged to
become regressive and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on
pleasing the cult leader” (2003, p. 110).
Denial is a more obvious example of defensive operations at work
within the cult member’s psyche. As mentioned before, cult recruits
usually begin their journey with good intentions and high expectations.
Once the recruit is a member, and thus heavily invested in the group and
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY
its program, a certain amount of subjective experience must be detached
from the individual’s conscious awareness so that his subjective experience
matches his expectations, protects idealization of the leader, and secures
his own omnipotence over nonmembers.
Kernberg (1984) stated: “Denial may be manifested as a complete lack
of concern, anxiety, or emotional reaction about an immediate, serious,
pressing need, conﬂict, or danger to the patient’s life” (p. 17). While
Kernberg is clearly discussing denial in a clinical context, it would be an
error to assume that these dynamics are not applicable to nonclinical
situations in which ego functioning is compromised and infantile attach-
ment patterns are activated. In essence, the cult member would not be able
to continue the cult experience without evincing denial. Denial can
continue to protect the cult member’s beliefs even after the cult leader has
been shown to be a charlatan. “Loyal members of a cult believe that their
leader has magically transformed their lives and relieved their longing and
suffering. On that basis, they will staunchly defend their leader even when
his or her crimes are exposed” (Shaw, 2003, p. 118).
In his discussion of these primitive defensive operations, Kernberg
(1984) describes them as having “ego-weakening effects” (p. 113), while
this paper has proposed that other factors, such as excessive prayer and
mediation or sleep deprivation, are the actual culprits of the ego-weaken-
ing that cult members display. This is not, however, a disagreement of what
comes ﬁrst because we are talking about two very different populations.
Kernberg (1984) addresses these topics in the context of individuals with
temperamental and characterological predispositions to ego-weakness.
This paper addresses the activation of primitive defensive operations in the
context of those with relatively healthy personalities, or those at least
typically operating outside of the borderline range of personality organi-
zation. In other words, cult members begin the cult experience with
relatively good ego strength, which is methodically chipped away through
experiences that lead to ego-weakening, and thus the activation of prim-
itive defensive operations, which in turn further exacerbates this ego-
While this paper does not seek to discount the social-psychological
dynamics that inﬂuence cult members’ behaviors, it does attempt to
propose a new theoretical framework through which to understand the
cult member experience. Previous authors, such as Walsh and Bor (2001),
have called for a “psychological model” to better understand the “pro-
Object Relations and Cult Membership
cesses people experience as they meet, enter, and leave such groups”
(p. 127). We submit that there are powerful unconscious motivators, in the
form of the activation of early attachment needs and primitive defensive
operations, which heavily inﬂuence the cult member.
Possibilities for further investigation would include a more in depth
exploration of how ego strength and identity integration are compromised
through the early cult experience leading to successful integration into the
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Object Relations and Cult Membership
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