How Cults Work

Cult Deprogramming

Overcoming the charisma of cult leaders, such as Jim Jones, is not an easy task.

­Deprogramming is the more drastic of the two approaches because it usually involves an initial kidnapping to get the cult member away from the cult. For this reason, deprogramming is a very expensive service. It can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. After the forced removal, deprogramming mostly involves hours and hours of intense "debriefing," during which a team of deprogrammers hold the cult member against his will and use ethical psychological techniques to try to counter the unethical psychological techniques used by the cult. The goal is to get the cult member to think for himself and re-evaluate his situation. Debriefing methods can include:

  • educating the cult member on thought-reform techniques and helping him to recognize those methods in his own cult experience
  • asking questions that encourage the cult member to think in a critical, independent way, helping him to recognize that type of thinking and praising him for it
  • attempting to produce an emotional connection to his former life by introducing objects from his past and having family members share their memories of his pre-cult existence

­ Deprogramming was relatively common in the 1970s, but has fallen out of favor as an acceptable cult-removal method, partly because it's so expensive, partly because it involves kidnapping and imprisonment and partly because that kidnapping and imprisonment led to a lot of lawsuits over the years. Now, most families turn to "exit counselors." Exit counseling leaves out the kidnapping and focuses instead on employing psychological techniques that might get the cult member to voluntarily submit to debriefing. Exit counselors guide the family in the most effective ways to get a cult member to communicate with "outsiders." Family members must be non-judgmental, calm and loving, or else they'll only reinforce the belief that all outsiders are "bad" and dangerous. If they succeed, and the cult member agrees to participate in the process, what happens next is essentially the same debriefing that occurs during deprogramming, with long sessions that take place over a number of days, but the cult member is free to leave.


There's is no guarantee that any cult-removal technique will work. Some sources say that at least one-third of deprogrammings fail, and there are no definitive statistics on the success rate of exit counseling. But when it does work, the cult member finds himself back in the outside world -- with a whole new set of problems. People who leave a totalist cult can suffer from a laundry list of psychological problems. Some common ones include depression, anxiety, paranoia, guilt, rage and constant fear. They may have difficulty thinking clearly, making decisions, analyzing situations and performing everyday activities like picking out something to wear or going to the store to buy groceries. Psychologist Michael Langone describes a common post-cult state he calls "floating," in which the former member goes back and forth from "cult to non-cult ways of viewing the world ... stalled in a foggy, 'in-between' state of consciousness."

Not everybody is psychologically damaged by a cult experience. Some go on with their lives after a relatively short adjustment period. But most people who have undergone thought reform suffer negative consequences when they leave the insulated environment of the cult. It can take years for a former cult member to readjust to life on the outside. Some people never completely return to their pre-cult level of functioning. But in most cases, counseling and family support can go a long way toward recovery.

For more information on destructive cults and related topics, including links to organizations that help people who've been hurt by cult involvement, check out the links below.


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More Great Links


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