Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Beyond Cult "Deprogramming"

The new goal is to empower reality-testing.

Key points

  • There are better ways than deprogramming to extricate loved ones from abusive groups.
  • Forcibly removing someone from an abusive group is disrespectful to their rights as an individual, and it can backfire dramatically.
  • Many family members are concerned about personality changes in their loved ones, but deprogramming can do more harm than good.
  • When dealing with loved ones who hold problematic beliefs, communication, kindness, and respect are vitally important.

Many people are now being recruited online into all kinds of authoritarian cults, including QAnon and other derivative I AM cults that teach a version of Ascended Masters ideology. Most family and friends feel frustrated when they see a radical personality change and experience the believer’s zealous efforts to proselytize their “crazy beliefs.”

When most people begin to search for ways to release friends or relatives from authoritarian cults, they know little or nothing about mind control, the characteristics of destructive cults, or how or where to begin. Unfortunately, the term "deprogramming" is used sloppily when, in fact, there is a need to understand its actual history. Some people think the only option is deprogramming, a coercive content-oriented persuasion approach that can be lengthy, expensive, and illegal.

In a classic deprogramming scenario, a cult member is physically held (or abducted) and held at a secret location or forcibly detained while visiting home. A security team guards the person for several days, 24 hours a day, while the deprogrammer, former cult members, and family members present information. The cult member might be held for many days until the individual snaps out of the cult’s mind control (or pretends to do so).

The process aims to reverse the cult’s brainwashing and destructive mind control influence through information control. With cult deprogrammers, power and control are placed in the hands of ex-members, external authority figures who know "the truth."

In the 21st century, people search for “cult experts” and “deprogrammers” to find help. They need to understand the history of these terms and the processes—and that intervention has evolved into a nontraumatizing, ethical, and legal approach.

History of Cult Deprogramming

In the early 1970s, Ted Patrick, a man with plenty of street smarts but, at the time, no formal training in counseling, believed that members of his family were being brainwashed by Moses David Berg, the leader of a group called the Children of God, now known as The Family. Patrick was determined to take action. He reasoned that since cults use indoctrination methods that “program” beliefs through hypnosis, repetition, and behavior modification techniques, he would reverse the process. He called the new procedure “deprogramming.”

In the middle to late 1970s, increased media coverage brought about a rise in public awareness of the destructive potential of cult membership. Professional deprogrammers were being hired to rescue cult members to reverse a cult’s brainwashing forcibly.

For thousands of cult members, this proved successful. However, there were also many cases where deprogramming from a cult failed, resulting in members and cults bringing about lawsuits against families and deprogrammers.

In the 1970s, there were few other options. But by the early 1980s, exit counseling had become the preferred approach. Unlike deprogramming, exit counseling is noncoercive and legal. It respects a person’s free will, as participation is entirely voluntary. But exit counseling is restricted to freeing a cult member by providing information about cults and their destructive influence.

The Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA)

The Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA), which I have developed and tested to combat cult mind control, encourages a positive, warm relationship between cult members and their families while helping to raise essential questions for cult members to consider. The SIA is noncoercive and empowers individuals by giving them the tools they need to detect and remove undue influence from their minds. It requires a respectful, curious, warm approach to asking questions, with the aim of empowering the person to reflect and think. Waiting for a response, sometimes for many minutes, for the person to think is another key part of the process. The goal is not to offer facts and persuade the person that they are wrong. The goal is to help reality-test.

The SIA proposes a “dual identity” model: the individual's self and their cult pseudo-identity. The Strategic Interactive Approach aims to empower people, first teaching them about social psychology and, in particular, models of brainwashing, thought reform, or coercive control. Engendering understanding that there was no informed consent and that, in fact, they were lied to about the leader, the doctrine, and its historical policies, is a necessary process.

Asking people the question, "If you knew then what you know now, would you ever have gotten involved?" is a powerful question. It helps remind people who they were before their minds got hacked. Encouraging people to imagine themselves back in time, with new perspectives and experience enables people to reconnect with their authentic self. The person can realize that they would have said "no" and chosen never to join or to exit, understanding how they had been co-opted.

People can be taught to reclaim their personal power and reclaim their values and sense of self. SIA teaches them how to process and integrate the pseudo-cult identity. The goal is to restore the creative, interdependent authentic self and enable the individual to digest and integrate their experience and become stronger.

The SIA focuses on the development of healthy relationships within the family. A safe and nurturing environment offers many opportunities to heal old wounds. The cult member is automatically included in the process as an integral part of the family system. Everyone gets traumatized by cult involvement, even those not directly involved. Feelings get hurt. Belief systems are assaulted or shifted. People lose sleep. They get depressed. There's anger, frustration, and resentment. Each person involved in the experience of having a loved one in a destructive cult needs psychological and emotional support.

The focus is on small, strategic, meaningful interactions that communicate unconditional love and allow the loved one to express doubts and fears. This ongoing process makes each telephone call, letter, and visit most effective. In some cases, a formal three-day intervention is beneficial. Many times, mini-interactions may make a formal intervention unnecessary.

Differences Between Strategic Interactive Approach and Cult Deprogramming

Deprogramming does not take into account any problems that may have existed before the cult involvement and that may persist beyond it. It doesn’t deal with psychological issues in the cult member or the family. It does not typically involve counseling family members, nor does it address the damage done to them by the cult experience. And it does not adequately prepare the former cult member for follow-up care. The experience often leaves scars that can take years to heal, if ever.. And there is little room to customize the approach.

The goal of post-cult counseling is to empower the individual to think critically, to evaluate, to reality-test; and to exercise their own free will. The person learns to listen to their inner voice rather than the instructions of an authority figure. The aim is to empower them to make their own decisions, take back their lives and learn to detect and remove the virus of mind control.


Hassan, S. (2015). Combating Cult Mind Control. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press.

Atack, J. (2023, February 25). The "Ripple Effect". Jon Atack, Family, and Friends YouTube. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from

Smith, T. (2021, March 2). Experts In Cult Deprogramming Step In To Help Believers In Conspiracy Theories. All Things Considered. broadcast, National Public Radio. Retrieved March 21, 2023

More from Steven A Hassan PhD
More from Psychology Today