Prevalence of Cults: A Review of Empirical Research in the U. S. A.

Presented at the International Cultic Studies Association, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid

July 14, 2005
By Edward A. Lottick, M. D.

We need to have a lot more information about cult membership in order to definitively address public health and safety concerns. Giants like Margaret Singer have presented an educated estimate of cult numbers based upon experience and personal records. She has set the upper figure of cults in the United States at around 5,000. There is fairly general consensus on this but let us continue to seek statistical verification. What we really want to know about prevalence are the answers to the following questions:

How many adverse cults are in operation at a particular time in a particular country? Are they increasing or decreasing, or stable in number?

How many adherents of adverse cults are there at a particular time in a particular country or locale? Are they increasing or decreasing or stable in number? It would also be interesting and important to know how many new adherents there are each year or at least how many new adherents there are each decade.

Finally at any given time, how many former adherents of adverse cults are alive? Are they increasing or decreasing or stable? The answer to this line of questions is a function of the cult exit rate and the death rate.

In summary, what I'm saying is we need to know the numbers of cults, the number of cult members, and the number of ex-cult members.

Recognizing and clearly characterizing cults is an essential factor in discerning and subsequently measuring prevalence. Like other human organizations, cults occupy a spectrum. While they may be black or white at the extremes, they come in all shades of gray. Although there are dozens of reasons why some cults may be described as adverse or negative, perhaps the largest common denominator for adverse cults is their utilization of social and psychological manipulation in order to break recruits down and render them malleable. During this process, the adherent becomes dependent and the manipulator achieves control and thereby increases his or her power. Especially dangerous and destructive during these past several decades are cult leaders' increasing skills at subverting the recruits' self-concept during the course of the manipulation. Today's mental manipulations are contrived to destabilize an individual's sense of self by undermining his or her basic consciousness, reality awareness, beliefs and worldview, emotional control, and defense mechanisms. Such attacks block the subjects capacity for self-evaluation, and are diametrically opposite to what is commonly regarded as psychotherapy. These destabilization programs in the United States utilize constraint but mostly do not utilize coercion. Constraint along with carefully contrived manipulation is sufficient for control. Having all this in mind but seeking to avoid prejudging cults for my latest survey I characterized such probably debilitating cults simply as "adverse" and explained adverse as "not being in the adherent's best interest."

Many people have wondered about prevalence in recent decades. Let us now look at the available data on prevalence. There have been a number of relevant studies over the past 23 years and I will refer to them in chronological order.

In 1982, Bird and Reimer did a survey of adult populations of San Francisco and Montreal which yielded a 20% participation rate in new religious or para-religious movements although more than 70% of the involvements were transient.

In 1984, Hulet in Organizations in Our Society reported upon the now historic Cult Awareness Network's compilation of over 2000 groups about which they had received inquires.

Also in 1984, Bloomgarden and Langone, reported that 3% and 1.5% respectively of high school students in two different suburbs of Boston said they were currently cult members.

In 1985, Zimbardo and Hartley reported upon their random sample of 1000 San Francisco Bay area high school students which yielded 3% reporting membership in cultic groups.

In 1989, Hart reported upon a Roper survey of teenagers and young adults which yielded 1% reporting that they had joined a religious cult.

The above studies that yielded 1% up to 3% cropped up more than once. Since two of the surveys were of high school students, we might use the figure for high school graduates in the United States for 1985 cited by the Educational Testing Service. That figure is 2 million. Using 2 million and multiplying by 4 years of high school yields a total U. S. high school population of 8 million. Now for a big assumption: Let us assume that suburban Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area are roughly representative of the United States as a whole. Now if we multiply 1% times 8 million, we get 80,000 high school students in cults and if we multiply by 3% we get 240,000 high school students in cults. 80,000 to 240,000, may seem on the high side but could actually be on the low side. Many cult adherents don't know that they are in a cult and would tend to under-report. More about this later. Let us complete the list of relevant surveys.

In 1993, I reported on a survey sent to 5400 physicians by the Pennsylvania Medical Society in 1992. 1500 responded. Overall 21% had some experience with cults, either personal or professional, or both personal and professional. From that survey we learned that 7.2% of respondents had personal rather than or as well as professional experience with cults and 2.2% reported a family member having been involved in a cultic group. For that survey "cult" was defined as clearly noxious: "a group which violates the rights of its members, harms them through abusive techniques of mind control, and distinguishes itself from a normal social or religious group by subjecting its members to physical, mental, or financial deprivation or deception to keep them in the group." Results were published in Pennsylvania Medicine in February of 1993.

In 2004, just last summer, I sent eight-page, 53-item questionnaires to nearly 3,000 psychology professionals using the membership list that I had purchased from the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. Slightly over 700 psychologists responded. 55% identified themselves as clinical psychologists, 17% identified themselves as counseling psychologists, and 9.5% identified themselves as school psychologists. 40% were male and 60% were female. Participants ranged in age from 23 to 96. Three weeks ago tabulation was complete and we began to analyze the data. The survey probed respondents' awareness of "cults" which were merely characterized as "adverse to adherent's best interests." I will give you some preliminary highlights of that study. In answer to two separate questions, 26% of respondents indicated that they had treated former cult adherents and 12% of the same respondents indicated separately that they had treated active cult adherents. These figures are larger than the 21% total experience, both professional and personal of the physician group. 13% of psychology respondents indicated personal experience involving self, family, or friends, a percent almost twice that of the 7.2% physician personal experience. Remember, over a decade separates the psychologist and the physician experiences. Although it is not surprising that psychologists have more professional exposure than primary care physicians, it is unexpected that psychologists would have significantly more personal experience. The major difference is the eras of the studies, 1992 for the physicians and 2004 for the psychologists. Has the incidence simply climbed between these two different decades?

One of the sidelights of the current study that occurred to me while I was designing the questionnaire resulted from my happening to read an article by a constitutional law scholar. That article was in the context of the well publicized kidnapping and subsequent brainwashing of 14-year old Elizabeth Smart in Utah. The article suggested that the kidnapper should be prosecuted for brainwashing as well as aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, and aggravated burglary. As a result of that article, it occurred to me to ask survey participants whether they would support or oppose a law against brainwashing in their own state, Pennsylvania. No discussion of the details of a possible brainwashing law was presented. There were 5 choices of answers: strongly support, support, can't say, oppose, or strongly oppose. Over 50% checked "strongly support," or "support," about a quarter checked "can't say," while only 13.5% checked "oppose," or "strongly oppose." These results suggest that more attention be given to this area.

Both of my own surveys have been based upon exposure to cults of those in helping professions. Neither were directly designed to measure prevalence. I think that we need lots of studies focusing on the questions that I outlined at the start of my talk. To answer those questions for the United States would require at least a random survey that is comprehensive enough to make it statistically representative of the general population of the United States. Obviously the study would have to be somewhat circumspect. In seeking incidence figures, it won't work to just ask a person: "Did you become involved with a cult this year?" Most people, especially in the honeymoon phase of their first year, would be shocked to think that the organization that is the object of their burgeoning interest is actually an adverse cult. One approach would be to address the survey to the head of household and ask him or her: "Has any member of your family joined any organization that resulted in their having a significantly changed relationship with you or with their friends?" Maybe you would like to suggest some additional questions that we might ask.

Note: Dr. Ed Lottick became an anti-cult activist after the death of his son Noah, a college student who committed suicide while a member of the Scientology cult. Noah's story was told in the 1991 TIME Magazine article by Richard Behar, "Scientology: the Cult of Greed and Power".


Bird, F., & Reimer, B. Participation rates in new religions and para-religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21, 1-14, 1982.

Bloomgarden, A., & Langone, M. D. Preventive education on cultism for high school students: A comparison of different programs' effects on potential vulnerability to cults. Cultic Studies Journal, 1, 167-177, 1984.

Hamilton, Marci: The Elizabeth Smart Case: Why we need Specific Laws Against Brainwashing.

Hulet, V. Organizations in Our Society. Hutchinson, KS: Virginia Hulet.

Langone, Michael: Prevalence.

Lottick, Edward: Survey Reveals Physicians' Experiences with Cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26-28, February 1993.

Singer, Margaret: Chapter 3: The Process of Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion, and Thought Reform. Cults in Our Midst, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Zimbardo, P. G., & Hartley, C. F. Cults go to high school: A theoretical and empirical analysis of the initial stage in the recruitment process. Cultic Studies Journal, 2, 91-148, 1985.

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