Deprogramming and Exit Counseling

The term deprogramming was coined in the 1970s, when the emergence of new religious movements peaked across the USA. Often guised as an intervention, deprogramming was the practice of convincing cult members to renounce their group’s ideology - using whatever methods were deemed necessary.

Now, decades later, the term is still being banded around, with evolved connotations. Deprogramming in the 70s was largely used to persuade members of religious cults to renounce their way of life - often through shocking and extreme methods. Now, the practice has been largely discredited and replaced with the altogether more modern - and arguably more humane - techniques of exit counseling.

Despite often being used interchangeably, deprogramming and exit counseling do differ - the latter is a therapeutic route to convincing the subject to explore their own thoughts and beliefs, while the former has distinctly unsavory connotations. However, the debate for and against deprogramming rages on to this day, as the cults of the 70s have given way to comparatively more sinister religious extremist groups.

What is deprogramming?

There is no standard definition for the term deprogramming but it is largely taken to describe an intervention aimed at reversing cult mind control or ‘brainwashing’. (Ciment, J. 2006)

Controversially, deprogrammers could be sought out by families to help loved ones ‘come to their senses’, using tactics that sometimes included coercion, kidnapping and violence. Often, hours would be spent trying to convince the subject that the beliefs held by their group were irrational or damaging, for which deprogrammers could charge not insignificant sums of money.

Deprogramming still exists, albeit on a small scale and often outside the law. This was not always the case - historical reports suggest that officials have, in the past, supported deprogramming attempts in some circumstances (Bromley, Melton, Gordon (2002), James T Richardson (1991)).

In the 1970s, Ted Patrick - widely known as the Father of Deprogramming - shot to prominence as a deprogramming expert, enlisted by hundreds of families to extract loved ones from cult mindsets.

Popular targets for Patrick’s deprogramming practices were members of the controversial Unification Church, led by Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon. The ‘Moonies’, as they were known, were accused of brainwashing, and stories of psychological and economic violations, as well as political and legal atrocities, were used to justify the deprogrammings (Kurtz 2012).

Ted Patrick used his own personal experiences with his son to inform his deprogramming sessions, adopting a confrontational style to challenge cult members and evoke an emotional response. His controversial methods often involved holding people against their will, and he was convicted of both kidnapping and false imprisonment during his career as a deprogrammer. After serving jail time for his convictions, Patrick altered his methods, removing the kidnapping element.

What is cult exit counseling?

In recent years, traditional deprogramming methods have been replaced with more acceptable techniques, known collectively as exit counseling. Exit counseling is approximately defined as non-coercive attempts to convince cult members to leave their group (New World Encyclopedia 2013).

Often at the request of family members who believe the cult member is being manipulated by damaging ideologies, exit counselors are tasked with talking to the subject and working with them voluntarily, rather than holding individuals against their will. In this way, subjects are given the control and autonomy that previous deprogramming practices ruled out (Kent, Szimhart 2002).

Many exit counselors also work to a code of ethics established by a group of thought reform consultants and informed by the professional standards of organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors and the National Association of Social Workers.

Retired exit counsellor and former chair of the Cult Awareness Network's national board of directors Carol Giambalvo states that thought reform consultation, a term often used interchangeably with exit counseling, aims to help families improve communication with the subject and facilitate greater understanding on both sides. The goal is to provide the cult member with enough information so that they can make an informed choice about their situation (Giambalvo 2000).

Manipulation and mind control: the deprogramming debate

The modern age brings with it natural progression, and the cults of yesterday have been succeeded by arguably more sinister extremist groups. In place of comparatively harmless religious groups, hate organizations and terrorist cells have developed around the world, many rooted in new and dangerous interpretations of religion.

As such, the deprogramming debate continues, as proponents for and against the practice thrash out how best to deal with the problem of extremism.

Religious scholar and cult expert Robert Melton was a significant figure in the deprogramming debate of the 70s and 80s, arguing against traditional deprogramming methods and the concept that cult members are often brainwashed. The author of dozens of books, including the Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, Melton - sometimes described as a cult apologist - suggested that deprogramming violates a person’s civil liberties and religious freedom, rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The idea of brainwashing is a central theme in the exploration of cults as a subject. On the other side of the debate, clinical psychologist Margaret Singer was another key character in the historical deprogramming debate, exploring areas like religious group influence, brainwashing and coercive persuasion in the 1950s and 60s.

She published a number of articles and books, including Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (which she co-authored with Janja Lalich) and is known for her theory of Systematic Manipulation of Social and Psychological Influence, which she asserts can deprive individuals of free will.

Modern-day cult expert Warren Adler suggests that Jihad fits the criteria for definition as a cult, using brainwashing to convince its members that they have been commanded to take control of the planet. To break into the minds of brainwashed people can take many months of intensive physical and mental provocation, with the talking cure of psychiatry often failing, he states (Adler 2014).

While deprogramming is regarded as controversial and branded as impeding freedom of thought, Adler says that many recovering cult followers, who have been freed from their former mindsets, disagree. Cult members are often ‘programmed’ from a young age with the same repetitive precepts every day. Tactics like waterboarding, he suggests, trigger the basic survival instinct and release the brain from its controlled state.

Harmful or helpful? The potential benefits and risks of deprogramming

Deprogramming is not without risk. Traditional forms of deprogramming that involve kidnapping, coercion or violence put subjects in danger and remove their freedom of choice. Attaining a person’s agreement to renounce their cult mindset by force can be seen as ineffective, achieved through fear rather than through a person’s own rationalized processing.

The deprogrammers themselves also face a number of risks, including the potential for legal repercussions should they be found to be acting outside the law. The result of deprogramming lawsuits has, historically, included hefty fines and jail time, which in turn have knock-on financial and reputational consequences.

However, according to sociology professor Lester R. Kurtz, cults do pose a threat to socioeconomic order - disruption to families and the pain caused by a collapse of social networks are just a couple of resultant side effects when an individual joins a cult.

The opposition that cults face is equally unsettling, Kurtz claims. In some cases, cults have been dealt with by the state through violent means, resulting in tragedies and loss of life. In nonphysical ways, cult members are also subjected to harassment and not always extended their constitutional rights to freedom.

It could be argued, then, that deprogramming has potential to aid society by maintaining socioeconomic balance and helping individuals and their families avoid the anguish and isolation associated with cult membership. However, Kurtz maintains that freedom of religion should be protected by society and state action against religious organizations must adhere to strict boundaries, with prejudices put aside (Kurtz 2012).

To address another common theme, the premise that cult members have been brainwashed, meanwhile, is shaky, as it assumes that subjects have been convinced to surrender their free will by some mysterious form of mind control - a subject around which there is much debate by psychologists and psychiatrists. According to professor of psychiatry Saul Levine, deprogramming requires an individual to accept that they were not responsible for their actions, which can erode the subject’s identity and influence their freedom of choice.
In turn, the subject may feel incapable of making the right decisions without relying on others, creating dependency and removing a sense of responsibility. This may, in time, lead to denial and blame, Levine adds (Levine 1979).

In the modern world, where we face the increasing threat of terror and hate groups continue to spread their venomous ideologies - on religious grounds or otherwise - deprogramming may be seen as a tempting solution. Indeed, deradicalization programmes are in place around the world, dealing with extremist individuals and attempting to rehabilitate them into society with a new outlook, a job and a home (Gornall 2014).

But the results thus far are mixed - some programmes have recorded relative success; others have seen deprogrammed individuals return to extremism years later. What is clear is that there is no easy way to address membership of cults or extremist groups, even with evolved thought reform and exit counseling methods - only time will reveal the success of these modern-day deprogramming methods.

Dr. Kevin Fleming obtained his PhD from Notre Dame and is the Founder of Grey Matters International (, a neuroscience-based behavior change consulting firm.



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