Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK,
Member of The Family Survival Trust
HOW TO IDENTIFY DANGEROUS CULTS, THEIR LEADERS AND THE HARM THAT THEY DO – HOW SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH DEVELOPMENTS SHOULD INFORM GOVERNMENTS, POLICY AND LAW
Abstract : there was a Power Point presentation in Pisa
This short paper asks if there is a way of accurately and scientifically identifying destructive cults and the potential for harm for their members? Is there a way of being able to tell if a cult leader is dangerous and controlling and if the leader is likely to be causing harm to group members? Increasingly scientific research is providing some real answers to these questions which governments should not and can not ignore.
A short summary of some contemporary developments in research that addresses these questions can be outlined, focussing on the following key areas:
- The psychopathology of the cult leader – based on Lifton’s (1961) themes – how to convince the authorities that a leader is harming the people under him or her. A checklist of common traits can be presented from research undertaken in this field and used in the court room in the UK.
- The change in identity in the cult member – research on the Totalistic Identity Theory (Dubrow-Marshall 2007) will be presented. How to spot the changes in people’s identity and psychological make up when they join and get deeply involved in a dangerous group or sect.
- The pattern of harm or psychopathology amongst ex-members – research is increasingly identifying specific patterns of harm which relate to the sect or cultic group environment (e.g. using scales such as the Extent of Group Identity Scale (Dubrow-Marshall, Martin & Burks 2003) and Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole & Grice 1994)).
The implications for law and policy are wide ranging and profound and go across national boundaries. The developments in scientific research allows for measurement of the level of sectarianism in the group – of the leader’s undue influence on members, of the degree of ‘totalistic identity’ amongst sect members and the amount of psychological harm caused by the group. The courts will then have a legitimate basis to take notice of this evidence and act to protect people where their well being is not being protected or where the group is harming them. Most legal systems contain a ‘duty of care’ under which organisations have a legal duty to protect the safety of their members or employees, including their mental health and well being. This duty should be extended to voluntary organisations and to churches and political groups so that sects can be held to account in the same way as other organisations or individuals.
Lifton, R. J. (1961) . (1961) Thought Reform and the psychology of totalism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Dubrow-Marshall, R. (2007) Understanding Cultic and Totalistic Identities – Insights and Directions for the Future from Developments in Social Psychology. Paper presented at ICSA Annual Conference, June 28-30th 2007, Brussels
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