Overview: Educators, Cults, and Related Groups

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Educators can serve two important roles with regard to cultic groups.

First, if they learn of students or family members who may need help because of a cultic involvement, they can refer the affected persons to resources, such as those that ICSA provides.

Second, through their teaching they can help to inoculate young people against deceptive cultic recruitment by teaching them about cultic groups and especially by teaching them about the psychological manipulation that is often used to lure young people into joining groups.

Cults and related groups should concern educators because young people are often targeted by cultic groups. A survey of 308 former cult members from more than 100 different cult groups completed in 1992, for example, found that 27% of the respondents were undergraduates at a college or university when they first made contact with their group, while 6% were graduate students. Of those who were students when first contacted by cults, 38% dropped out of school after joining the group. Ten percent of the 308 former members in this study reported they were in high school when they were recruited.

Research also documents the extent of attempted recruitment of high school youngsters by cults. Fifty-four percent of high school students surveyed by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1985 reported that they had been approached by cult recruiters, and 3% reported they belonged to cultic groups. Surveys of high school students in the Boston area in 1984 found that 1.5% of the students in a working-class suburb and 3% in an affluent suburb reported that they had belonged or did belong to cultic groups.

In a survey of 414 chief housing officers of U.S. campuses (Elleven, Kern & Moore), 11.7% of respondents reported that a staff member was involved in a cultic group and 27.6% reported being aware of a student involved in cultic activity.

A task force appointed by the governor of Maryland met 11 times in 1999 in order:

To determine the extent to which there are groups whose activities on the campuses of USM institutions, St. Mary's College, or Morgan State University are, intentionally or innocently, inappropriately:
  • causing demonstrable physical, psychological or emotional harm to students;
  • interfering substantially with the educational mission of the institution and/or
  • violating institutional policies and/or federal, state or local laws.
and to make recommendations concerning courses of action that might be pursued by individuals or institutions to assist in the prevention and/or resolution of those problems.

Among other recommendations, the Task Force suggested that campuses should create an educational program for incoming students and ongoing education programs thereafter through graduation. These programs should assist students in assessing their decisions whether to join groups and how to recognize destructive behavior that may affect them.

The Task Force also recognized that “constitutional issues are extremely important, including freedom of religion, speech and assembly.”

ICSA also affirms the importance of respecting these fundamental freedoms in any educational work in this area. Therefore, we recommend that educational programs focus on the psychological processes through which individuals can be manipulated into doing things that they might not ordinarily do. Such a focus not only respects religious freedom issues, but it also arms students against manipulative groups that may not be religious. A rich body of research in social psychology attests to the capacity of environments to shape the behavior of individuals.  We believe that the cult issue should be placed within the broader context of social-psychological manipulation.

Although our capacity to give individualized responses to inquiries is limited, we do what we can and, when appropriate and feasible, refer inquirers to people who may be able to give additional assistance. 

If this service interests you, contact us.
Resources for Educators
Priority resources bolded.  Videos listed at bottom.

Videos (ICSA YouTube Channel)

How Can Young People Protect Themselves Against Cults?

Influence.  Robert Cialdini.

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets - Index
In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics.  ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.  Though some of the items in reading lists may seem a bit dated and a few may challenge conventional religious beliefs, these brief fact sheets are still useful antidotes to much nonsense that is sometimes distributed widely. Here is the list of fact sheets (best to use Google Chrome as a browser):
Characteristics of Cultic Groups. Michael Langone.

Cold Reading: The Tricks of the Psychics. William Goldberg, MSW, BCD

Creating the Illusion of Mind Reading in a Self-Transformation Training. Robert C. Fellows, MTS. Cultic Studies Journal, 4(2)/5(1), 1987/88, 44-58.

Cult Formation. Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. Cultic Studies Journal, 8(1), 1991, 1-6.

Cults Go To High School: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis of the Initial Stage in the Recruitment Process. Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD & Cynthia F. Hartley. Cultic Studies Journal, 2(1), 91-147.

How to Talk to People Who are Trying to Save You. Ross Miller. Cultic Studies Journal, 2(2), 1986, Page 296-297.

Mind-Hacking Alert: A Young Adult's Guide to Recognizing Undue Influence and Resisting Abusive Relationships (NJSS)

On Using the Term "Cult." Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq. and Michael D. Langone, PhD.

Preventive Education: A North American Perspective. Michael Kropveld. ICSA E-Newsletter, 3(2), 2004.

Religion vs. Cult. Rev. Richard Dowhower.

Report of the Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult. Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions - William T. Wood. Cults and Society, 1(1), 2001. Summary of the Report

Residence Halls and Cults: Fact or Fiction? Russell K. Elleven, Ed.D., Carolyn W. Kern, Ph.D., & Katherine Claunch Moore

Six Conditions for Thought Reform. Margaret T. Singer Ph.D. 

Teaching Young People.  Alex Stein

Ten Steps to Critical Thinking. Robert Fellows. From Easily Fooled, copyright © 2000 by Robert Fellows. 

Too Good to be True: A Teacher's Guide. A Lesson Plan for Middle Schools and High Schools. Marcia Rudin.

Vulnerable Characteristics. Robert Fellows, MTS. From Easily Fooled. Copyright Robert Fellows.

When You’re Asked About Cults. Robert Fellows, MTS. From Easily Fooled. Copyright Robert Fellows.

Why We Need To Become Spiritual Consumers. Rosanne Henry, M.A.; Sharon Colvin.

The following are available on ICSA's YouTube channel:
Cults: Saying NO Under Pressure
What is a Cult and How Does it Work?