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Possible Predisposition for Cult Involvement

Abstract

The contribution to empirical research of a possible predisposition for cult involvement is rarely available on an international scale. The current observations, experiences and statements made to this theme are indeed countless but are also often extremely inconsistent. So it is claimed, for example, that many cult members come from dysfunctional families or that a psychopathological disorder was already existent before joining a cult. In opposition to this include those who hold the opinion that cult members come from completely normal, functional and protective families who clearly have no history of psychopathological illness. The proposed work should be ascertained whether such a disposition to joining a cult actually exists and if so, which factors could be responsible.
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Possible Predisposition for Cult Involvement
Summary of an Empirical Study by Dieter Rohmann
(as originally published in Germany in Report Psychologie, 10/99)
Translated by Jacqueline Trewin.
The contribution to empirical research of a possible predisposition for cult involvement is
rarely available on an international scale. The current observations, experiences and
statements made to this theme are indeed countless but are also often extremely
inconsistent. So it is claimed, for example, that many cult members come from
dysfunctional families or that a psychopathological disorder was already existent before
joining a cult. In opposition to this include those who hold the opinion that cult members
come from completely normal, functional and protective families who clearly have no
history of psychopathological illness. The proposed work should be ascertained whether
such a disposition to joining a cult actually exists and if so, which factors could be
responsible.
All the data of conducted inquiries included in this study were derived from families who
consulted the author for advice because one or more of their family members decided to
join a cult.
The basis of this inquiry represented a semi-standardised questionnaire of case histories
which was sent to the affected families, partners and/or friends before the initial
consultation. Hence, the questionnaire was an external assessment in the form of a
written examination. It managed to achieve the quantitative and qualitative data of a
sample of 110 cult members aged between 12 and 50 years. This is (at least for the
Federal Republic of Germany) the largest sample ever conducted in relation to this
theme.
The following focal points should be thoroughly examined:
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The family background and the personality of the cult members, as well as the
situational conditions and the psychological state just prior to joining the cult.
The most significant results are as follows:
The majority of persons, who were single before joining the cult, came from
either middle-class or upper-middle-class families and were aged between 21
and 25 years. In addition, they were raised with several brothers and sisters
in small provinces and rural towns (astonishingly, from the total amount
surveyed, only 3 individuals were without siblings). The standard of
education was comparatively high. Most of the parents were married.
The majority of persons suffered simultaneously from several burdening
experiences before joining a cult. Further, most of them experienced a
dysfunctional family background and were confronted with difficult life
situations (critical life events) immediately prior to joining a cult.
Only a small amount of persons indicated a psychopathological disorder.
Approximately half of those surveyed were discribed as being altruistic,
sensitive and lonely. Only a quarter of those surveyed were found to be
naive, unstable, introverted, idealistic and/or denoted a lack of self-
awareness.
According to slightly more than half of the cult members (after individual
statments were made), the decisive factor for joining a cult was the desire for
a binding doctrine. Only a small amount regarded self-realisation or
discontentment as a motive for joining.
Specific differences in gender could be proven. An increasing number of female
cult members came from small towns and Protestant families who rarely
attended church. These women viewed their family situation as incriminatory
and the communication as restrictive. While the women were more
dissatisfied with their life circumstances, the male cult members were
described as being increasingly introverted. Furthermore, the male members
were more interested in the doctrine/ideology of the respective grouping.
Further, it succeeded by presenting a profile of 3 cult categories: Christian-
Fundamentalist groups, Guru Movements and Psycho-Cult/Esoteric Movements.
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In the following, the profile of these 3 cult categories shall be presented in more detail.
Those who joined a Christian-Fundamentalistic cult, were mainly aged between 21
and 25 years. A majority reported to have attended church on a regular basis and were
reared in families who showed a lack of communicative competence. Further, they often
regarded a sense of community, a binding doctrine and the search for a meaningful life as
being significant reasons for joining.
Those who joined the Guru Movements, were aged between 16 and 20 years. A
majority of these members were men and first-born children who mainly attended
secondary school without having completed their matriculation. Regular church
attendance took place. Fewer persons were reported to have experienced incriminatory
family situations whilst more claimed to have experienced competent communication
within the family. They were considered as being neither altruistic nor depressive, but
rather introverted. Further, they claimed to be searching more for a binding doctrine and
less for a meaningful life.
The members of the alleged Psycho-Cults and Esoteric Movements entered these
groups at a notably older age, between 26 and 30 years. These movements were
predominately made up of female members who rarely attended church and came from
split families. Further, they experienced increasingly burdening family situations and
suffered from problems relating to work or school immediately before joining a cult.
They were not regarded as being introverted but were described as having egoistic
personalities. In addition, they considered that neither the search for community nor the
need for a binding doctrine were relevant means for joining a cult.
These results helped to gain an initial insight into a largely unsearched area. Furthermore,
they contributed towards the clarification of the specific biographical and thematic
backgrounds which may suggest a predisposal to cult membership.
This examination has clearly demonstrated the complexity involved in joining a cult and
should therefore be taken into consideration when working with ex-cult/cult members
and their relatives. Both sides should be given equal consideration - not only the cult
(referred to as, `The Lock´) and its internal dynamics, but also to the person (referred to
as, `The Key´) and his/her individual needs.
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The results of this study clearly suggest, among other factors, that persons with similiar
life histories are increasingly confined to specific cult categories. Some pre-disposed
factors are responsible for joining a cult. However, it also becomes clear that the reason
for joining a cult is not purely generated by a few concise factors but rather by multiple
causes.
It could be proven that the majority of persons had to simultaneously cope with several
and unsolved problems immediately before they joined a cult. For instance, within their
family, their relationships, at school and/or at work. Because of the increasing existing
pressures in the various areas of life, and because of the subjective valency which was
ascribed to these occurrences, the persons involved in this report were joining cults
which were undoubtedly promising solutions and a sense of superficial relief.
Those interested in obtaining the complete empirical study (which unfortunately is only
available in German) should contact the author himself.
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