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Mind control (also referred to as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, and thought reform) refers to a broad range of psychological tactics thought to subvert an individual's control of his or her own thinking, behavior, emotions, or decision making. Brainwashing and mind control theories originally developed to explain how totalitarian regimes were thought to indoctrinate prisoners of war through propaganda and torture techniques. These theories were later expanded or modified to explain a wider range of phenomena,especially conversions to new religious movements (NRMs). Since their application to NRMs, mind control theories have been especially controversial within scientific and legal contexts, and currently most social scientists agree with the stances taken by the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association, which have found no scientific merit in them.

The Korean War and the origin of brainwashing

The Oxford English Dictionary records its earliest known English-language usage of "brainwashing" by Edward Hunter in New Leader on 7 October 1950. During the Korean War, Hunter, who was working both as a journalist and a U.S. intelligence agent, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing. The Chinese term 洗腦 (xǐ năo, literally "wash brain") originally referred to methodologies of coercive persuasion used in the 改造 (gǎi zào, "reconstruction", "change", "altering") of the so-called feudal (封建 fēng jiàn) thought-patterns of pre-revolutionary Chinese citizens. The goal of the Maoist regime in China was to transform an individual with a "feudal" or capitalist mindset into a "right-thinking" member of the new social system. To that end they 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" (洗心 xǐ xīn) prior to conducting certain ceremonies or entering certain holy places. Hunter, and those who picked up the term used it to explain why, unlike in earlier wars, a relatively high percentage of Americanmarker GI defected to the enemy side after becoming prisoners-of-war. It was believed that the Chinese in North Korea were using these 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 to have been subjected to brainwashing techniques during their war era imprisonment by the Chinese.

After the war, two studies of the repatriation of American prisoners of war by Robert Lifton and by Edgar Schein concluded that brainwashing (called "thought reform" by Lipton 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 quality 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 like Mikhail Heller have suggested that Lifton's model of brainwashing may be relevant to the use of mass propaganda in other communist states like the former Soviet Unionmarker.

Korean war era mind control theories have been criticized in recent 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 Departmentmarker conducted secret research (notably including Project MKULTRA) in an attempt to develop practical brainwashing techniques, and that their attempt failed.

New religious movements (NRMs) and the shift of focus

After the Korean war applications of mind control theories in the United States shifted in focus from politics to religion. Starting in the 1960s an increasing number of American youths were coming into contact with new religious movements, and those 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 brainwashing. While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. In the years that followed, brainwashing controversies developed between NRM members, various academic researchers, and cult critics.

Theories of mind control and religious conversion

Over the years various theories of conversion and member retention have been proposed that link mind control to NRMs, and particularly those religious movements referred to as "cults" by their critics. These theories resemble the original political brainwashing theories with some minor changes. For instance 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 outcomes," 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 to Aum 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 and in her book Cults in Our Midst she describes six conditions which would create an atmosphere in which thought reform is possible.

The subject has even been approached from the perspective of neuroscience and social psychology. Kathleen Taylor suggests that "brainwashing" is activated by manipulation of the prefrontal cortex rendering the person more susceptible to black and white thinking. 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.

Deprogramming and the anti-cult movement

The theories of Singer, Lifton and other researchers have been adopted and adapted by both academic and non-academic destructive cult critics from the inception of the anti-cult movement. These critics often argue that certain religious groups use mind control techniques to unethically recruit and maintain members. At first many of these critics advocated or engaged in deprogramming as a method to liberate group members from apparent "brainwashing". However the practice of coercive deprogramming fell out of favor in the West and was largely replaced by exit counseling. For instance exit counselor Steve Hassan promotes what he calls the BITE model in his book Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. The BITE model describes various controls over human 1) behavior, 2) information, 3) thought, and 4) emotion. 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 of conversion caution against the broader implications of these models. For instance, 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 treatments.

Scholarly opposition

James Richardson states that if the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that NRMs would have high growth rates, while in fact most have not had notable success in recruitment. Most adherents participate for only a short time, and the success in retaining members has been limited. For this and other reasons, sociologists like David Bromley and Anson Shupe consider the idea that "cults" are brainwashing American youth to be "implausible." In addition, to Bromley, Thomas Robbins, 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 and relevant professional associations and 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.

Some sociologists disagree with this consensus. For instance, Benjamin Zablocki sees strong indicators of mind control in some NRMs and suggests that the concept should be researched without bias. Stephen A. Kent has also published several articles about brainwashing. These scholars tend to see the APA's decision as one of no consensus while the majority of scholars see it as a rejection of brainwashing and mind control as legitimate theories.

Legal issues, the APA and DIMPAC

Since their inception, mind control theories have also been used in various legal proceedings against "cult" groups. For instance, 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, like Patty Hearst, Steven Fishman and Lee Boyd Malvo have not been successful.

In 1983 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. The brief repudiated Singer's theories on "coercive persuasion" and suggested that brainwashing theories were without empirical proof. 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 brainwashing theory espoused "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."

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 incident. Yet her career as an expert witness ended at this time. She was meant to appear with Richard 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 (Anthony & Robbins 1992: 5-29). Yet there have been two court cases since this time where testimonies about mind control have been examined in accordance with the more recent Daubert standard.

In popular culture

Print media

  • In George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949 before the popularization of the term "brainwashing"), the fictional totalitarian government of Oceania uses brainwashing-style techniques to erase nonconformist thought and rebellious personalities.
  • In the novel Night of the Hawk by Dale Brown, the Soviets capture and brainwash U.S. Air Force Lieutenant David Luger, transforming him into the Russian scientist Ivan Ozerov.
  • In the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the protagonist undergoes a re-education process called the "Ludovico technique" in an attempt to remove his violent tendencies.
  • Vernor Vinge speculates on the application of technology to achieve brainwashing in Rainbows End (ISBN 0-312-85684-9), portraying separately the dangers of JITT (Just-in-time training) and the specter of YGBM (You gotta believe me). This picks up on themes of "mindrot" and controlled "Focus" in Vinge's earlier novel A Deepness in the Sky.

Video media

Brainwashing became a common trope of films, television and games in the late twentieth century: a convenient means of introducing changes in the behavior of characters and a device for raising tension and audience uncertainty in the climate of Cold War and outbreaks of terrorism. For a classic example:

  • the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate makes the concept of brainwashing a central theme. Specifically, Communist brainwashers turn a soldier into an assassin through something akin to hypnosis.
  • the 1974 film The Parallax View includes a brainwashing scene where the main character watches a film. The film shows a word followed by a picture representing that word, such as MOTHER followed by related photograph. Over time the images and words become opposites to induce reverse associativity, such as the word MOTHER followed by images of destruction.
  • the 2001 film Zoolander contains a brainwashing scene where the protagonist, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), is brainwashed into assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia.

In more recent media, the television show Dollhouse explores the applications and consequences of direct mind manipulation, namely through the use of computers. This show demonstrates a more liberal view of the powers of mental malleability, whereby entire personalities can be erased and rewritten on a whim.

See also


Further reading

External links

Video - The History Channel (2000)

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