From Wikipedia, the free
uses, see Mind control (disambiguation).
redirects here. For other uses, see Brainwashing (disambiguation).
The examples and perspective
known as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, mind abuse, menticide, thought control,
or thought reform) refers to a
process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others
to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the
person being manipulated”. The
term has been applied to any tactic, psychological
or otherwise, which can be seen as subverting an individual’s sense of control
over their own thinking,
behavior, emotions or decision making.
War and the origin of brainwashing
The Oxford English Dictionary records its
earliest known English-language usage of brainwashing in an article by
Edward Hunter in Miami News published on 7 October 1950. During the Korean War,
Hunter, who worked at the time both as a journalist and as a U.S. intelligence
agent, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing.
The Chinese term 洗腦 (xǐ năo, literally
“wash brain“) was
originally used to describe methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the
Maoist regime in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary
into “right-thinking” members of the new Chinese social system. To
that end the regime developed techniques that would break down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard
to information processing, information retained in the mind and individual
values. Chosen techniques included dehumanizing of individuals by keeping them
in filth, sleep deprivation, partial sensory deprivation, psychological harassment,
inculcation of guilt and group
social pressure. The term punned on the Taoist custom of
“cleansing/washing the heart/mind” (洗心, xǐ xīn) prior to
conducting certain ceremonies or entering certain holy places.
Hunter and those who picked up
the Chinese term used it to explain why, unlike in earlier wars, a relatively
high percentage of American GIs
defected to the enemy side after becoming prisoners-of-war. It was believed
that the Chinese in North Korea used such techniques to disrupt the ability of
captured troops to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment.
British radio operator Robert W. Ford and
British army Colonel James Carne also claimed that the Chinese subjected
them to brainwashing techniques during their war-era imprisonment. The most
prominent case in the U.S. was that of Frank
Schwable, who confessed to having participated in germ warfare while in
After the war, two studies of the
of American prisoners of war by Robert
and by Edgar
concluded that brainwashing (called “thought reform” by Lifton and
“coercive persuasion” by Schein) had a transient effect. Both
researchers found that the Chinese mainly used coercive persuasion to disrupt
the ability of the prisoners to organize and maintain morale and hence to
escape. By placing the prisoners under conditions of physical and social deprivation and disruption, and then by
offering them more comfortable situations such as better sleeping quarters,
better food, warmer clothes or blankets, the Chinese did succeed in getting
some of the prisoners to make anti-American
statements. Nevertheless, the majority of prisoners did not actually adopt Communist
beliefs, instead behaving as though they did in order to avoid the plausible
threat of extreme physical abuse. Both researchers also concluded that such
coercive persuasion succeeded only on a minority of POWs, and that the
end-result of such coercion remained very unstable, as most of the individuals
reverted to their previous condition soon after they left the coercive
environment. In 1961 they both published books expanding on these findings.
Schein published Coercive Persuasion
and Lifton published Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
More recent writers including Mikhail Heller have suggested
that Lifton’s model of brainwashing may throw light on the use of mass
propaganda in other communist states such as the former Soviet
In a summary published in 1963, Edgar
Schein gave a background history of the precursor origins of the
Thought reform contains elements
which are evident in Chinese culture (emphasis on interpersonal sensitivity,
learning by rote and self-cultivation); in methods of extracting confessions
well known in the Papal Inquisition (13th century) and elaborated
through the centuries, especially by the Russian secret policeprisons, mental hospitals and other institutions for
producing value change; in methods used by religious
sects, fraternal orders, political
elites or primitive societies for converting or initiating
new members. Thought reform techniques are consistent with psychological
principles but were not explicitly derived from such principles.
Mind-control theories from the
Korean War era came under criticism in subsequent years. According to forensic
psychologist Dick Anthony, the CIA invented the concept
of “brainwashing” as a propaganda strategy to undercut communist
claims that American POWs in Korean communist camps had voluntarily expressed
sympathy for communism. Anthony stated that definitive research demonstrated
that fear and duress, not
brainwashing, caused western POWs to collaborate. He argued that the books of
Edward Hunter (whom he identified as a secret CIA “psychological warfare
specialist” passing as a journalist) pushed the CIA brainwashing theory
onto the general public. He further asserted that for twenty years, starting in
the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted
secret research (notably including Project
MKULTRA) in an attempt to develop practical brainwashing techniques, and
that their attempt failed.
The U.S. military and government
laid charges of “brainwashing” in an effort to undermine detailed
confessions made by U.S. military personnel to war crimes, including biological
warfare, against the Koreans. Frank
Schwable, Chief of Staff of the First Marine Air Wing was shot down in
North Korea. After Chinese radio broadcasts claimed to quote him admitting to
participating in germ warfare, United Nations commander Gen. Mark W.
Clark denounced said: “Whether these statements ever passed the lips
of these unfortunate men is doubtful. If they did, however, too familiar are
the mind-annihilating methods of these Communists in extorting whatever words
they want …. The men themselves are not to blame, and they have my deepest
sympathy for having been used in this abominable way.” In
August[date missing], Secretary of
Defense Charles E. Wilson set up a task force to study
the response of U.S. prisoners of war to brainwashing.
report debunks brainwashing of American prisoners of war
In 1956 the U.S Department of the
Army published a report entitled Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination,
and Exploitation of Prisoners of War which called brainwashing a
The report states “exhaustive research of several government agencies
failed to reveal even one conclusively documented case of ‘brainwashing’ of an
American prisoner of war in Korea.”
While US POW’s captured by North
Korea were brutalized with starvation, beatings, forced death marches, exposure
to extremes of temperature, binding in stress positions, and withholding of
medical care, the abuse had no relation to indoctrination or collecting intelligence
information “in which they [North Korea] were not particularly
contrast American POW’s in the custody of the Chinese Communists did face a
concerted interrogation and indoctrination program—but the Chinese did not
employ deliberate physical abuse. “Extensive research has disclosed that
systematic, physical torture was not employed in connection with interrogation
or indoctrination,” the report states.
The Chinese elicited information
using tricks such as harmless-seeming written questionnaires, followed by
The “most insidious” and effective Chinese technique according to the
US Army Report was a convivial display of false friendship:
“[w]hen an American soldier
was captured by the Chinese, he was given a vigorous handshake and a pat on the
back. The enemy ‘introduced’ himself as a friend of the ‘workers’ of America .
. . in many instances the Chinese did not search the American captives, but
frequently offered them American cigarettes. This display of friendship caught
most Americans totally off-guard and they never recovered from the initial
impression made by the Chinese. . . . [A]fter the initial contact with the
enemy, some Americans seemed to believe that the enemy was sincere and
harmless. They relaxed and permitted themselves to be lulled into a
well-disguised trap [of cooperating with] the cunning enemy.” 
It was this surprising,
disarmingly friendly treatment, that “was successful to some degree,”
the report concludes, in undermining hatred of the communists among American
soldiers, in persuading some to sign anti-American confessions, and even
leading a few to reject repatriation and remain in Communist China.
and the shift of focus
After the Korean War,
applications of mind control theories in the United States shifted in focus
From the 1960s an increasing number of American youths started to come into
contact with new religious movements (NRM), and some who converted suddenly
adopted beliefs and behaviors that differed greatly from those of their
families and friends; in some cases they neglected or even broke contact with
their loved ones. In the 1970s the anti-cult movement applied mind control theories
to explain these sudden and seemingly dramatic religious conversions.
The media was quick to follow suit,
and social scientists sympathetic to the anti-cult
movement, who were usually psychologists, developed more sophisticated models of
While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were
for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs.
of mind control and religious conversion
Over the years various theories
of conversion and member retention have been
proposed[by whom?] that link mind
control to NRMs, and particularly those religious movements referred to as
their critics. These theories resemble the original political brainwashing
theories with some minor changes. Philip
Zimbardo discusses mind control as “the process by which individual or
collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that
modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral
and he suggests that any human being is susceptible to such manipulation. In
a 1999 book, Robert Lifton also applied his original ideas about thought reform
Shinrikyo, concluding that in this context thought reform was possible
without violence or physical coercion. Margaret
Singer, who also spent time studying the political brainwashing of Korean
prisoners of war, agreed with this conclusion: in her book Cults in Our Midst she describes six
conditions which would create an atmosphere in which thought reform is
Approaching the subject from the
perspective of neuroscience and social
psychology, Kathleen Taylor suggests that
manipulation of the prefrontal cortex activates
“brainwashing”, rendering a person more susceptible to
Meanwhile, in Influence, Science and Practice, social psychologist Robert
Cialdini argues that mind control is possible through the covert
exploitation of the unconscious rules that underlie and facilitate healthy
human social interactions. He states that common social rules can be used to
prey upon the unwary. Using categories, he offers specific examples of both
mild and extreme mind control (both one on one and in groups), notes the
conditions under which each social rule is most easily exploited for false
ends, and offers suggestions on how to resist such methods.
and the anti-cult movement
Both academic and non-academic
critics of destructive cults have adopted and adapted the
theories of Singer, Lifton and other researchers from the inception of the
onwards. Such critics often argue that certain religious groups use mind
control techniques to unethically recruit and maintain members. Many of these
critics advocated or engaged in deprogramming
as a method to liberate group members from apparent brainwashing. However, the
practice of deprogramming fell out of favor in the West and was
largely superseded by exit counseling. Exit counselor Steven
Hassan promotes what he calls the “BITE” model in his book Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for
The BITE model describes various controls over human (B)ehavior, (I)nformation,
(T)hought and (E)motion.
Hassan claims that cults recruit and retain members by using, among other
things, systematic deception, behavior modification, the withholding of
information, and emotionally intense persuasion techniques (such as the
induction of phobias).
He refers to all of these techniques collectively as “mind control”.
Critics of mind control theories
caution against the broader implications of these conversion models. In the
1998 Enquete Commission report on “So-called Sects and Psychogroups”
in Germany, a review was made of the BITE model. The report concluded that
“control of these areas of action is an inevitable component of social
interactions in a group or community. The social control that is always
associated with intense commitment to a group must therefore be clearly
distinguished from the exertion of intentional, methodical influence for the express
purpose of manipulation.”
Indeed virtually all of these models share the notion that converts are in fact
innocent “victims” of mind-control techniques.
Hassan suggests that even the cult members manipulating the new converts may
themselves be sincerely misled people. By
considering NRM members innocent “victims” of psychological coercion
these theories open the door for psychological
The anti-cult movement is not without
its critics. Although most scholars seem to accept that brainwashing exists, a
minority of sociologists who commonly refer to themselves as ‘sociologists of
religion’ assert that the anti-cult movement uses brainwashing to its own
financial gain. Perhaps notable among the sociologists of religion is Eileen
Barker, who criticizes theories of conversion precisely because they
function to justify costly interventions such as deprogramming or exit
For similar reasons, Barker and other scholars have criticized mental
health professionals like Margaret
Singer for accepting lucrative expert witness jobs in court cases involving
Singer was perhaps the most publicly notable scholarly proponent of
“cult” brainwashing theories, and she became the focal point of the
relative demise of those same theories within her discipline.
The anti-cult movement and
scholars are quick to point out that Barker and other sociologists of religion
are frequently paid by cults to provide legal services on their behalf.
James Richardson observes that if
the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that
NRMs would have high growth rates, yet in fact most have not had notable
success in recruitment. Most adherents participate for only a short time, and
the success in retaining members is limited.
For this and other reasons, sociologists of religion including David
Bromley and Anson Shupe consider the idea that “cults”
are brainwashing American youth to be “implausible.”
In addition to Bromley, Thomas Robbins, Dick
Anthony, Eileen Barker, Newton Maloney, Massimo Introvigne, John Hall, Lorne
Dawson, Anson Shupe, Gordon
Melton, Marc Galanter, Saul Levine
(amongst other scholars researching NRMs) have argued and established to the
satisfaction of courts, of relevant professional associations and of scientific
communities that there exists no scientific theory, generally accepted and
based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing
theories as advanced by the anti-cult movement.
Other scholars disagree with this
consensus amongst sociologists of religion. Benjamin
Zablocki asserts that it’s obvious that brainwashing occurs, at least to
any objective observer; the “real sociological issue”, he states, is
whether “brainwashing occurs frequently enough to be considered an
important social problem”.
Zablocki disagrees with scholars like Richardson, stating that Richardson’s
observation is flawed.
According to Zablocki, Richardson misunderstands brainwashing, conceiving of it
as a recruiting process, instead of a retaining process.
So although Richardson’s data are correct, Zablocki states, properly
understood, brainwashing does not imply that NRMs will have a notable success
in recruitment; so the criticism is inapt.
Additionally, Zablocki attempts to debunk the other criticisms Richardson, et
al., apply to brainwashing: if Zablocki is correct, there’s a plethora of
evidence in favor of the claim that some NRMs brainwash some of their members.
Perhaps most notably, Zablocki says, the sheer number of former cult leaders
and ex-members who attest to brainwashing in interviews (performed in
accordance with guidelines of the National Institute of Mental Health and
National Science Foundation) is too large to be a result of anything other than
a genuine phenomenon.
Zablocki also reveals that of two most prestigious journals dedicated to the
sociology of religion, the number of articles “supporting the brainwashing
perspective” have been zero, while over one hundred such articles have
been published in other journals “marginal to the field”.
From this fact, Zablocki concludes that the concept ‘brainwashing’ has been
“blacklisted” unfairly from the field of sociology of religion.
Moreover, Zablocki claims that some prominent scholars who do not share his
viewpoint have received “lavish funding” from NRMs.
A. Kent has also published several articles about brainwashing.
These scholars tend to see no consensus, while what Melton sees as a majority
regard it as a rejection of brainwashing and of mind control as legitimate
issues, the APA and DIMPAC
Since their inception, mind
control theories have also been used in various legal proceedings against
“cult” groups. In 1980, ex-Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim successfully sued the Church of Scientology in a California court
which decided in 1986 that church practices had been conducted in a
psychologically coercive environment and so were not protected by religious
freedom guarantees. Others who
have tried claiming a “brainwashing defense” for crimes committed
while purportedly under mind control, including Patty
Hearst, Steven Fishman and Lee
Boyd Malvo, have not been successful.
In 1983, the American Psychological Association
(APA) asked Margaret Singer to chair a taskforce
called the APA
Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control
(DIMPAC) to investigate whether brainwashing or “coercive persuasion”
did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements. Before the taskforce
had submitted its final report, the APA submitted on February 10, 1987 an amicus
curiæ brief in an ongoing court case related to brainwashing. Although
the amicus curiæ brief written by the APA denies the credibility of the
brainwashing theory, the APA submitted the brief under “intense pressure
by a consortium of pro-religion scholars (a.k.a. NRM scholars)”.
The brief repudiated Singer’s theories on “coercive persuasion” and
suggested that brainwashing theories were without empirical
Afterward the APA filed a motion to withdraw its signature from the brief,
since Singer’s final report had not been completed.
However, on May 11, 1987, the APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility
for Psychology (BSERP) rejected the DIMPAC report because the report
“lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for
APA imprimatur”, and concluded that “after much consideration, BSERP
does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in
taking a position on this issue.”
This leaves the APA’s position on brainwashing as equivalent to: more research
is needed until a definitive scientific verdict can be given.
Two critical letters from
external reviewers Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Jeffery D. Fisher
accompanied the rejection memo. The letters criticized “brainwashing”
as an unrecognized theoretical concept and Singer’s reasoning as so flawed that
it was “almost ridiculous.”
After her findings were rejected, Singer sued the APA in 1992 for
“defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy” and lost. Benjamin
Zablocki and Alberto Amitrani interpreted the APA’s response as meaning
that there was no unanimous decision on the issue either way, suggesting also
that Singer retained the respect of the psychological community after the
Yet her career as an expert witness ended at this time. She was meant to appear
Ofshe in the 1990 U.S. v. Fishman Case, in which Steven
Fishman claimed to have been under mind control by the Church of
Scientology in order to defend himself against charges of embezzlement, but the
courts disallowed her testimony. In the eyes of the court, “neither the
APA nor the ASA has endorsed the views of Dr.
Singer and Dr. Ofshe on thought reform”.
After that time U.S. courts
consistently rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation, stating
that such theories were not part of accepted mainline science according
to the Frye Standard of 1923.
Mind control is a general term
for a number of controversial theories proposing that an individual’s thinking,
behavior, emotions or decisions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be
manipulated at will by outside sources. According to sociologist James T. Richardson, some of the concepts of
brainwashing have spread to other fields and are applied “with some
success” in contexts unrelated to the earlier cult controversies, such as
custody battles and child sexual abuse cases, “where one parent
is accused of brainwashing the child to reject the other parent, and in child
sex abuse cases where one parent is accused of brainwashing the child to make
sex abuse accusations against the other parent” (possibly resulting in or
causing parental alienation).
A. Kent analyzes and summarizes the use of the brainwashing meme by
non-sociologists in the period 2000-2007, finding the term useful not only in
the context of “New Religions/Cults”, but equally under the headings
of “Teen Behavior Modification ProgramsTerrorist
Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control
- Crowd manipulation
- Jason Scott case
- Mind control in popular culture
- MKULTRA (a
and Propaganda model
- Subliminal message
human experimentation in the United States