Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Information Disease: Effects of Covert Induction and Deprogramming - Flo Conway; James H. Siegelman; Carl W. Carmichael; John Coggins


In their 1978 book Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, Conway and Siegelman introduced the term »information disease« for what may represent a new class of information-processing disorders caused not by germs, drugs, illness, or any recognized physical abuse, but by the manipulation of information. Their concept proposed that basic human capacities of thinking and feeling can be altered solely by information and communication.

In this initial explication, Conway and Siegelman supported their contentions with comments from interviews with former members of some extremist religious sects they refer to as ‘cults’ and a number of related »mass-marketed self-help therapies,« many of which, according to their distinction, employ »identifiable communication techniques« that may »make captive« and, over time, alter or impair fundamental individual information-processing capacities (Conway and Siegelman, 1978, 1979, p. 220).
Ex-members they spoke with reported a variety of disturbances of thinking and feeling that persisted for months and, in some instances, for years after they left the group. Such conversations were sufficiently convincing that the authors felt it necessary to conduct a more systematic study to document the alleged effects of the communication techniques used by these so-called »new age« cults and sects. A questionnaire was constructed that contained 98 specific and four open-ended questions covering every stage of experience in the new cults and sects: recruitment, conversion, daily membership life, separation, »deprogramming,« rehabilitation, and long-term effects.

The questionnaires were distributed to ex-sect members who were contacted through intermediaries: psychiatrists, lawyers, social workers, clergy, etc. Nearly a quarter of the questionnaires sent out by these intermediaries were completed and returned, almost all within six weeks. A summary of preliminary findings published by Conway and Siegelman (1982) received widespread attention and has become the subject of growing interest in the academic community.

In light of this growing interest, however, and because of the controversy that surrounds this subject, the authors were reluctant to release their full findings until the entire body of data could be analyzed, substantiated, and prepared for more formal presentation. In 1984, this effort was undertaken jointly by Conway and Siegelman and researchers at the University of Oregon Communication Research Center Project on Information and Social Change. This report represents the first in a series of studies on this subject and related issues of communication, persuasion, and social change to be presented by the project.

Overview of the Project on Information and Social Change

Analysis of the Conway and Siegelman Data

A total of 426 questionnaires were obtained, each providing slightly over 100 bits of information on each respondent (including multiple coding of open-ended questions). Seventy-three of these were completed by parents, which will be analyzed separately; therefore, the sample size for the data analysis reported here is 353.

Makeup of Groups Represented in the Sample

Subjects were ex-members of 48 different sects, including the five largest represented in the sample: Unification Church (N = 153, or 44 percent); Divine Light Mission (N = 40, or 11 percent); Church of Scientology (N = 36, or 10 percent); The Way International (N = 22, or 6 percent); and Hare Krishna (N = 19, or 5 percent). In addition, there were smaller numbers of other international groups and local or minor sects such as the Children of God, the Faith Assembly, the Love Family, the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation, the Rajneesh Neosannyas International Commune, the Farm, and the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Background of the Sample (Appendix, Part I)
From the demographics obtained, the respondents appeared to differ little from the national population. Slightly more than half the subjects are women (50.1 percent/49.9 percent). They range in age from mid-teens to mid-fifties, with a mean age of 21 at the time of first contact. Their prior religious background also seems to be fairly typical:

Protestant, 45 percent; Catholic, 27 percent; and Jewish, 21 percent, with the exceptions of a disproportionate number of ex-members of some sects from both Catholic and Jewish backgrounds (primarily in Eastern and esoteric groups), which may or may not accurately represent their true proportions within any particular group.

Time in and First Contact
Respondents, on the average, spent just under three years (34 months) in their respective groups. Subjects experienced first contact with the organization in a variety of places, but the most frequently cited place was on the street--with school and home running a close second and third: on street (33 percent); at school or college (25 percent); in private home (19 percent); at work (8 percent); through books, ads, etc. (6 percent); and at airport/train terminal (2 percent).

It is no surprise, then, that the type of person initiating that first contact was described primarily as a »stranger« (63 percent), as opposed to a »friend« (30 percent) or a »relative« (7 percent).

Reasons for Joining

Subjects were asked to rate a variety of factors that might explain their attraction to these groups on a scale of whether each was »very important,« »important,« »not important,« and »most important.« An interesting finding here is that those factors receiving the most »very important« ratings seem to relate to a »personal persuasions« dimension. For example, two-thirds of the sample rated perceived happiness of other members as very important, and 37 percent rated it as the single most important factor. Ratings of the other factors can be seen in the following.


Very Important


Most Important

Apparent happiness of members


66 percent


37 percent

Group’s beliefs


48 percent


19 percent

Pressure from members/leaders


41 percent


15 percent

Group’s social/political goals


35 percent


6 percent

Attention of opposite sex member


25 percent


8 percent

Group leader’s »charisma«


24 percent


2 percent

Group’s rituals or techniques


21 percent


6 percent

To escape from family/society


20 percent


9 percent


That »desire to escape from family or society« received the least rating lends some credence to the researchers’ hypothesis that involvement in these groups has come about primarily as a result of persuasive techniques from within rather than from other external factors. Similarly, the leader’s »charisma« did not receive a very high rating. Only two percent rated it as the most important factor. Similar observations can be made by looking at the other end of that scale--the »not important ratings« of the group-attracting factors: group rituals or techniques (48 percent); attention of opposite sex member (48 percent); means of escape from family/society (48 percent); group leader’s »charisma« (47 percent); group’s social/political goals (33 percent); pressure to join from members/leaders (26 percent); group’s beliefs (11 percent); and apparent happiness of members (6 percent).

Selected Aspects of Daily Life in the Group (Appendix, Part II)

Sleep and Diet
Some aspects of daily life in these groups are strikingly similar and some show considerable variance from group to group. The amount of sleep reported averaged only six hours--with a narrow range of only 5.2 to 6.4 hours. Clearly, sleep was not an »escape« offered these subjects nor, at an average of six hours per night, could it be considered an extreme physical deprivation in most groups.

Similarly, nearly half of the respondents reported a vegetarian or low-protein, but not unhealthy, diet (50 percent), while the remaining half were equally split between those who reported a well-balanced diet (26 percent) or a poor, non-nutritious diet (24 percent).


Sexual activities were not a major aspect of life in these groups. In fact, 71 percent reported a celibate existence and most of the others indicated some heterosexual activity (24 percent). Only two percent reported any homosexual activity and, despite the celibate lives led by so many, only 22 percent reported instances of masturbation while in the group. The major exception in all categories of sex was the Children of God, a number of whose former members reported engaging in sexual activities with group leaders or as part of recruiting activities.

The amount of money donated to and earned for these kinds of groups is an issue of concern and is, of course, difficult to document. Conway and Siegelman’s self-report data indicated an average of $3,516 donated from savings and personal possessions and $25,211 earned from fundraising and outside jobs during the time of membership. These overall averages, however, are rather misleading since this is one of the variables showing considerable discrepancy between groups. For example, the range for donations was from $961 for Hare Krishna subjects to $9,331 for Scientologists. This could be explained in part by the differing structures of the sects. For example, in contrast to other sects surveyed, many Scientology donations represent charges made to members, both by the course and by the hour, for the sect’s purported therapeutic practices. As a group, Scientologists also ranked among the oldest sect members (average age at time of first contact: 24.8 years), which could account for members’ greater personal income and discretionary funds for such donations and payments.

The Hare Krishnas, in contrast, averaged the highest amount for earnings ($71,630), while members of The Way averaged the smallest amount ($1,258). The large sums could be explained by the Krishna sect’s apparent concentration on fundraising. Undoubtedly, the kinds of members recruited by each sect and the types of fundraising activities engaged in would explain many of the differences. It is beyond the range of this study, however, to be able to account for other between-group differences.

Recruiting Activities

Recruitment of new members also showed extreme variance between groups. The number of recruits averaged per subject ranged from 1.5 for Unification Church members to 9.5 for the Bible sects. Fundraising and recruitment do not seem to relate within any one organization.

Communication-Related Aspects of Daily Life
The communication-related aspects of daily life in these groups are more relevant to our field. For example, identifiable communication techniques such as the ritual practice of chanting, meditation, or »auditing« were reported variously by nearly all subjects. Although it is apparent that chanting was the most widely practiced technique overall, generalizations about such communication activities over groups are unwarranted.

Each group seemed to have its own profile of recruitment, conversion, and daily ritual methods that employed a unique combination of communication tools. Some groups were reported to have used primarily one technique (for example, chanting for the Krishnas or meditation for the Divine Light Mission), while others were more equally distributed among several activities. As can be seen in the Appendix, Part II, the Unification Church and the Bible sects were almost identical in their breakdown of subjects« responses on the types of activities, yet the amount of time spent engaged in such activities varied greatly--4.5 hours per day for the »Moonies« and 6.4 for the Bible sects, with an overall average of 4.3 for all groups.

A major focus in this study is on the relationships between these specific communication techniques and various physical, emotional, and mental conditions reported by individuals in the period after they had left their groups. Such effects, Conway and Siegelman contend, may be directly related to the intense or extended practice of these communication techniques.

Reported Effects

The types of lasting effects reported by subjects ranged from physical changes (weight gain/loss, sexual dysfunction) to emotional changes (depression, sleeplessness, guilt, anger, hostility, etc.) to various cognitive problems (»floating,« hallucinations, memory loss, etc.). The breakdown of reported data on these in the Appendix, Part IV, shows several interesting patterns. First, the individual groups vary considerably; generalizations across groups are impossible. A close examination of this table is recommended. Second, comparing categories of effects: emotional and cognitive changes were far more frequently reported than physical changes. Third, several unique findings stand out as unusual. Among them:

1. Ex-Krishna women reported a higher incidence of menstrual dysfunction than other groups (42 percent).

2. Ex-Scientologists reported a high frequency of loneliness (89 percent).

3. Former members of all major groups except The Way International reported weight gain, not weight loss, after leaving their groups. The Way appears to stand alone in producing more weight loss after individuals left their groups.

4. Ex-Scientologists reported the most total months of combined effects--average 139 months; ex-Way members averaged the least--43 months.

5. Similarly, ex-Scientologists had the highest reports of suicidal or self-destructive tendencies (52 percent), while ex-Way members had the lowest (15 percent).

6. In contrast, ex-Scientologists had the lowest reporting of inability to break mental rhythms of chanting, meditation, speaking in »tongues,« etc. (18 percent), while ex-Krishnas, Divine Light Mission, and Way members reported the highest numbers unable to break the rhythms of such ritual practices.

The variance, in this instance, may be explained in part by Scientology’s relative lack of emphasis on rhythmic mental rituals. Yet its own distinctive rituals, »auditing,« »training regiments,« and other communication techniques appear to cause more intense effects than those of other sects.

These identifiable sect rituals and regimens that have been widely referred to as forms of »mind control« or »self-hypnosis« are termed by Conway and Siegelman methods of »covert induction.« They hypothesize that, practiced intensely and over time, these covert methods may have lasting impact on both basic (physical) and higher-order (emotional and cognitive) information-processing capacities of the brain and nervous system.

Testing for Correlation: Ritual Time Versus Effects

One of the major findings of this initial analysis conducted on the data focused on the time spent in ritual activities and respondents’ reported effects or changes. Acknowledging the sampling’s weakness of not being able to make experimental/control group comparisons, Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficients were run, testing ritual time and alleged effects for each major group.

The correlation table in the Appendix, Part V, shows 63 statistically significant correlations between ritual time and reported effects. While there were some significant correlations between ritual time and reported physical effects--primarily in the Church of Scientology, whose former members reported incidents of weight loss (nine percent, p = .026), sexual dysfunction (24 percent, p = .007), and menstrual dysfunction (17 percent, p = .039)--the majority of correlations were strongest for emotional cognitive effects.

Among the most significant emotional effects for all subjects were depression (75 percent, p < .0001), loneliness (68 percent, p = .014), sleeplessness (31 percent, p < .0001), violent outbursts (17 percent, p = .09), and feelings of anger toward group leaders (68 percent, p = .002). Former Scientologists stood out appreciably with regard to depression (76 percent, p = .001), loneliness (89 percent, p = .004), violent outbursts (27 percent, p = .005), and guilt feelings about leaving the group (58 percent, p = .001). Ex-members of The Way, the only major group to show stronger correlations for combined ritual and additional study time than for ritual alone, were significant on this measure for loneliness (57 percent, p = .021), sleeplessness (33 percent, p = .013), violent outbursts (14 percent, p < .0001), feelings of guilt (57 percent, p = .029), and embarrassment (52 percent, p = .030).

Among the most significant cognitive effects (disorders of perception, memory, awareness, and other information-processing capacities) for all subjects were disorientation (66 percent, p = .004), reports of »floating« in and out of altered states (61 percent, p = .015), nightmares (48 percent, p = .024), and reports of bewildering »psychic« phenomena (17 percent, p = .048). Former members of the Divine Light Mission stood out appreciably in this category with regard to disorientation (56 percent, p = .001), floating (67 percent p = .008), hallucinations and delusions (10 percent, p < .0001), and psychic phenomena (13 percent, < = .000). Ex-members of The Way, compared on ritual time alone, reported high instances of floating (71 percent, p = .008), and compared on both ritual and added study time, showed significant effects for disorientation (57 percent, p = .026), nightmares (38 percent, p = .001), and psychic phenomena (24 percent, p .008).

The strength of Conway and Siegelman’s assumptions about the relationships between ritualized communication activities and such effects is confirmed in the extent of these correlations. We were especially surprised to find significant r’s between ritual time and total combined effects for all major groups, and between ritual time and average rehabilitation time for all major groups except the Unification Church.

Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficients (significant at p = .05 or less)


Total Effects
(combined months)


Rehabilitation Time

Unification Church


75.7 p .0016


16.6 p = .109

Church of Scientology


139.1 p = .001


20.1 p = .020

Divine Light Mission


52.9 p = .00001


12.3 p = .0067

The Way International


43.5 p = .007


9.5 p = .014

All Subjects


81.5 p = .001


16.0 p = .005


Deprogrammed Versus Not-Deprogrammed (Appendix, Part VI)

Perhaps of as much interest to our field as the ritual communication techniques practiced by these sects and their apparent effects is the unorthodox procedure termed »deprogramming« by which many respondents came to separate from their groups and re-enter the larger society.

Seventy-three percent of the respondents in the survey reported having been »deprogrammed.« Again, differences between groups are important to note. Ex-members of the Church of Scientology were less than half as likely to have been deprogrammed than the proportion for all sects. In contrast, all of the respondents in the survey who had been members of The Way International reported having been deprogrammed. (Chi-square significant at .0001.) Among those who had been deprogrammed, the amount of time spent in this process differed significantly by sect (ANOVA, p = .004). The difference derives from the average amount of time spent in deprogramming, which ranged from ex-Scientologists (14.7 hours) to ex-Moonies (78.5 hours, p = .05) to ex-Divine Light Mission members (82.29 hours, p = .05).

Men were no more likely than women to have been deprogrammed, nor were those from some religious backgrounds rather than from others. But subjects who left their sects by being abducted, and those placed in their parents’ legal guardianship or conservatorship, were significantly more likely to have been deprogrammed (p = .00001).

Subjects who were deprogrammed were more likely to have entered the sect at a younger age (t-test, p = .001). Notably, the younger a respondent was upon entering the sect, the longer the time they spent in deprogramming (Pearson r, p = .008). Deprogrammees spent less time in the sect than those not deprogrammed (t-test, p < .05). The shorter the time since leaving, the longer the time spent being deprogrammed (r, p = .03).
On examination of possibly relevant physical factors, the amount of sleep individuals averaged while in the group did show some correlations with a number of related physical, emotional, and cognitive effects. Sleep also appeared to be a factor in deprogramming: deprogrammed subjects as a group were found to have slept less while in the sect, and the less they slept, the longer their deprogramming time (r, p = .0001).

The extent of the subject’s overall involvement in the sect did not seem to relate to factors of separation and deprogramming. The amount of time spent in ritual or study, the number of people recruited, or the amount of money donated to or earned for the group--none of these factors differed significantly between the deprogrammed and non-deprogrammed groups (all t-tests). Maintaining greater contact with one’s family did not affect the time spent in deprogramming. Those who were deprogrammed, however, reported a greater number of different ritual activities (p = .05). Also, the greater the amount of money earned, the longer the time spent in deprogramming (r, p = .03).

Deprogramming Versus Effects
Subjects who had been deprogrammed showed significantly less time experiencing a variety of effects. They report, for example, experiencing depression only 62 percent as much as those who were not deprogrammed (1, p = .02). Similarly, those deprogrammed spent only 64 percent of the time experiencing loneliness (t, p = .05), 59 percent of the time being disoriented (t, p = .05), 45 percent of the time with insomnia (t, p = .06), 41 percent of the time with sexual dysfunctions (t, p = .07), 60 percent of the time feeling guilty (t, p = .09), 70 percent of the time being angry at group leaders (t, p = .08), and 44 percent of the time fearing harm from the group (t, p = .01).

In general, the reported length of time suffering from the more emotional effects of sect involvement varied inversely with the amount of time spent in deprogramming. Feelings of depression, loneliness, fearing harm from sect members, and feeling guilty all lasted significantly less time as time in deprogramming increased (partial correl., p = .05).

Deprogramming Versus Rehabilitation Time
Overall, respondents who went through deprogramming »reemerged« more rapidly (t, p < .0001). Deprogrammed subjects reported 71 percent of the amount of time to full rehabilitation--an average of five months less time (14.8 months versus 19.9 months, 1, p = .017)--than those who were not deprogrammed; and on the whole, experienced a third fewer combined months of effects (78 months versus 121 months, 1, p = .013).

There is no evidence from this study (at least so far), however, that being deprogrammed either reduces or increases feelings of hostility toward parents, experiencing »floating« or bewildering »psychic« phenomena, hallucinations, menstrual dysfunction, or involuntary patterns or rhythms.

Deprogramming Versus Self-Image and Attitudes

Respondents who were deprogrammed spent no more nor less time in counseling than those who were not deprogrammed, nor were those who spent more time in deprogramming found to spend either significantly more or less time in counseling. Nor were they shown to have changed noticeably in their self-images as a result of their experience in the sects, or from having been deprogrammed, in terms of having more or less self-confidence, being more or less trusting of others, being more or less self-centered, being more or less able to cope with complexity, or being more or less in control of their emotions than those not deprogrammed. Nor did those who were deprogrammed show a greater or lesser tendency to change with the amount of time spent being deprogrammed, with the exception that among those deprogrammed, the more time spent in deprogramming, the greater the reported ability to cope with complexity (Ken., Spear., p < .07).

Neither were subjects who were deprogrammed found to have changed their attitudes toward raising a family, toward their family’s religion, toward organized religion in general, nor toward spirituality in any way differently than those respondents who had not been deprogrammed.

These figures, of course, do not mean that respondents’ self-images or attitudes did not change as a result of their involvement in the sect, only that those deprogrammed did not change differently than those not deprogrammed.

Summary and Conclusions

Initial analysis of the complete data confirms, with slight variations, an earlier summary of findings published by Conway and Siegelman (1982) and found no evidence to support criticisms made in earlier post-hoc analyses by researchers who attempted to assess Conway and Siegelman’s findings without access to their original data (Kilbourne, 1983).
A comparison of deprogrammed subjects with those not deprogrammed aids in answering charges made by others (Wright, 1984) that some of the reported effects may have been the result of deprogramming rather than of the individual’s experiences in the group. For the sampling as a whole, effects were significantly greater for subjects not deprogrammed; and rehabilitation time was longer for all major groups except ex-members of the Divine Light Mission. But these initial findings from the Conway and Siegelman data will not put to rest larger areas of controversy. The data reported here are only a fraction of the analysis we have already run and will continue to run, and the attached summary and profile contains many figures that are not discussed at greater length in this initial report, including detail information on the processes of separation and emergence, aspects of deprogramming and rehabilitation (included initial figures from the parents of 47 reported »returneees«), and overall figures on changes in ex-members’ self-images and attitudes. At present, a number of related studies on this and other samples are planned or underway, including a long-range followup on members of the original population.

At this point we have provided some description of the sample, their experiences, their reported physical, emotional, and cognitive effects, and tried to answer some questions on the possible effects of deprogramming. In this initial analysis, we have focused on the major area of examining possible links between reported effects and the ritualized communication techniques used in individual groups. Although the data are self-report, the emergent patterns of responses indicate some support for Conway and Siegelman’s assertions that people who have been involved in such groups may be experiencing long-term problems that markedly affect their re-entry into the larger society. The many correlations between time spent in ritualized activities and numerous emotional and cognitive changes reported by the subjects provide conceptual support for their information disease hypothesis.

Carl W. Carmichael is director of, and Flo Conway, James H. Siegelman, and John Coggins research associates with, the Project on Information and Social Change of the Communication Research Center at the University of Oregon. This report comes from papers they presented to the International Communication Association in Honolulu in May 1985

Selected References

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1978, Delta, 1979.

------ »Information Disease: Have Cults Created a New Mental Illness?,« Science Digest, January, 1982.

Kilbourne, Brock K., »The Conway and Siegelman Claims Against Religious Cults: An Assessment of Their Data, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1983, 22(4):380-385.

Wright, Stuart A., »Post-Involvement Attitudes of Voluntary Defectors from Controversial New Religious Movements,« Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984, 23(2):172-182.