Mind control (also known as brainwashing, reeducation, coercive persuasion, thought control, or thought reform) is a theoretical indoctrination process which results in "an impairment of autonomy, an inability to think independently, and a disruption of beliefs and affiliations. In this context, brainwashing refers to the involuntary reeducation of basic beliefs and values".
Theories of brainwashing and of mind control were originally developed to explain how totalitarian regimes appeared to systematically indoctrinate prisoners of war through propaganda and torture techniques. These theories were later expanded and modified by psychologists including Margaret Singer and Philip Zimbardo to explain a wider range of phenomena, especially conversions to new religious movements (NRMs). The suggestion that NRMs use mind control techniques has resulted in scientific and legal debate; with Eileen Barker, James Richardson, and other scholars, as well as legal experts, rejecting at least the popular understanding of the concept.
Newer theories have been proposed by scholars including: Robert Cialdini, Robert Jay Lifton, Daniel Romanovsky, Kathleen Taylor, and Benjamin Zablocki. The concept of mind control is sometimes involved in legal cases, especially regarding child custody; and is also a major theme in both science fiction and in criticism of modern corporate culture.
The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest known English-language usage of brainwashing in an article by newspaperman Edward Hunter, in Miami News, published on 7 October 1950. Hunter, an outspoken anticommunist and said to be a CIA agent working undercover as a journalist, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing, and the word brainwashing quickly became a stock phrase in Cold War headlines.
The Chinese term 洗腦 (xǐ năo, literally "wash brain") was originally used to describe methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the Maoist government in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary imperialist mindset into "right-thinking" members of the new Chinese social system. The term punned on the Taoist custom of "cleansing/washing the heart/mind" (洗心, xǐ xīn) before conducting certain ceremonies or entering certain holy places.
Hunter and those who picked up the Chinese term used it to explain why, during the Korean War (1950-1953), some American prisoners of war cooperated with their Chinese captors, even in a few cases defecting to the enemy side. 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 U.S. military and government laid charges of "brainwashing" in an effort to undermine detailed confessions made by military personnel to war crimes, including biological warfare. After Chinese radio broadcasts claimed to quote Frank Schwable, Chief of Staff of the First Marine Air Wing admitting to participating in germ warfare, United Nations commander Gen. Mark W. Clark asserted: "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 the 1950s many American movies were filmed that featured brainwashing of POWs, including The Rack, The Bamboo Prison, Toward the Unknown, and The Fearmakers. Fraser A. Sherman comments: "The possibility that advanced psychological techniques could reprogram people's minds became a permanent part of pop culture." Forbidden Area told the story of Soviet secret agents who had been brainwashed (through classical conditioning) by their own government so they wouldn't reveal their true identities. In 1962 The Manchurian Candidate "put brainwashing front and center" and featured a plot by the Soviet government to take over the United States by use of a brainwashed presidential candidate.
The concept of brainwashing became associated with the research of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov; which mostly involved dogs, not humans, as subjects. In The Manchurian Candidate the head brainwasher is Dr. Yen Lo, of the Pavlov Institute.
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In 1956, after reexamining the concept of brainwashing following the Korean War, the U.S. Army published a report entitled Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War which called brainwashing a "popular misconception." 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."
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, but the abuse had no relation to indoctrination "in which [North Korea was] not particularly interested." In contrast American POW's in the custody of North Korea's Chinese Communist allies did face a concerted interrogation and indoctrination program. However, "systematic, physical torture was not employed in connection with interrogation or indoctrination," the report states.
The "most insidious" and effective Chinese technique according to the US Army Report was a convivial display of false friendship, which persuaded some GI's to make anti-American statements, and in a few isolated cases, refuse repatriation and remain in China:
"[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." 
Two academic studies of the repatriation of American prisoners of war by Robert Jay Lifton and by Edgar Schein concluded that brainwashing (called "thought reform" by Lifton and "coercive persuasion" by Schein), if it occurred, had at best a transient effect. In 1961, they both published books expanding on these findings. Schein published Coercive Persuasion and Lifton published Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
In 1999, forensic psychologist Dick Anthony concluded that the CIA had 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. 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. Succumbing to their own propaganda, 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; the results are unknown. (See also Sidney Gottlieb.)
In the 1970s, the anti-cult movement applied mind control theories to explain seemingly sudden and dramatic religious conversions to various new religious movements (NRM's). 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.
Over the years various theories of conversion and member retention have been proposed that link mind control to some new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those religious movements referred to as "cults" by their critics. 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.
Margaret Singer, who also spent time studying the political brainwashing of Korean prisoners of war, in her book Cults in Our Midst, describes six conditions which would create an atmosphere in which thought reform is possible.
In 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) asked 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 10 February 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 proof. Afterward the APA filed a motion to withdraw its signature from the brief, since Singer's final report had not been completed.
On 11 May 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." 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.
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. 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.
James Richardson observes that if the new religious movements (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, Thomas Robbins, Massimo Introvigne, Lorne Dawson, Gordon Melton, Marc Galanter, and Saul Levine, amongst other scholars researching NRMs, have argued and established to the satisfaction of courts, relevant professional associations and scientific communities that there exists no generally accepted scientific theory, based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing theories as advanced by the anti-cult movement.
Benjamin Zablocki responds that it's obvious that brainwashing occurs, at least to any objective observer; but that it isn't "a process that is directly observable." 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. Zablocki adds that the sheer number of former cult leaders and 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 points out that in the 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.
Eileen Barker criticizes mind control theories because they function to justify costly interventions such as deprogramming or exit counseling. She has also criticized some mental health professionals, including Singer, for accepting expert witness jobs in court cases involving NRMs. Her 1984 book, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? describes the religious conversion process to the Unification Church (whose members are sometimes informally referred to as "Moonies") which had been one of the best known groups said to practice brainwashing. Barker spent close to seven years studying Unification Church members. She interviewed in depth and/or gave probing questionnaires to church members, ex-members, "non-joiners," and control groups of uninvolved people from similar backgrounds, as well as parents, spouses, and friends of members. She also attended numerous Unification Church workshops and communal facilities. Barker writes that she rejects the "brainwashing" theory as an explanation for conversion to the Unification Church, because, as she wrote, it explains neither the many people who attended a recruitment meeting and did not become members, nor the voluntary disaffiliation of members.
Joost Meerloo, a Dutch psychiatrist, was an early leading proponent of the concept of brainwashing. His view was influenced by his experiences during the German occupation of his country in the Second World War and his work with the Dutch government and the American military in the interrogation of accused Nazi war criminals. He later emigrated to the United States and taught at Columbia University. His best-selling 1956 book, The Rape of the Mind, concludes by saying: "The modern techniques of brainwashing and menticide-those perversions of psychology-can bring almost any man into submission and surrender. Many of the victims of thought control, brainwashing, and menticide that we have talked about were strong men whose minds and wills were broken and degraded. But although the totalitarians use their knowledge of the mind for vicious and unscrupulous purposes, our democratic society can and must use its knowledge to help man to grow, to guard his freedom, and to understand himself." ("Menticide" is a neologism coined by Meerloo meaning: "Killing of the mind.")
In Italy there has been controversy over the concept of plagio, a crime consisting in an absolute psychological—and eventually physical-domination of a person. The effect of such domination is the annihilation of the subject's freedom and self-determination and the consequent negation of his or her personality. The crime of plagio has rarely been prosecuted in Italy, and only one person was ever convicted. In 1981, Italy the Court found the concept to be imprecise, lacking coherence, and liable to arbitrary application.
By the Twentyfirst century the concept of brainwashing had spread to other fields and was being applied "with some success" in criminal defense, child custody, and child sexual abuse cases. In some cases "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).
In his 2000 book, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Robert Lifton applied his original ideas about thought reform to Aum Shinrikyo and the War on Terrorism, concluding that in this context thought reform was possible without violence or physical coercion. He also pointed out that in their efforts against terrorism Western governments were also using some mind control techniques, including thought-terminating clichés.
In 2003 Dick Anthony asserted in the Washington Post that "no reasonable person would question that there are situations where people can be influenced against their best interests, but those arguments are evaluated on the basis of fact, not bogus expert testimony." Dismissing the idea of mind control, he has defended NRMs, and argued that involvement in such movements may often have beneficial, rather than harmful effects: "There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."
In her 2004 book, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, neuroscientist and physiologist Kathleen Taylor put forth the theory that the neurological basis for reasoning and cognition in the brain and the self itself are changeable. She describes the physiology behind neurological pathways which include webs of neurons containing dendrites, axons, and synapses; and explains that certain brains with more rigid pathways will be less susceptible to new information or creative stimuli. She utilizes neurological science to show that brainwashed individuals have more rigid pathways, and that rigidity can make it unlikely that the individual will rethink situations or be able to later reorganize these pathways. She explains that repetition is an integral part of brainwashing techniques because connections between neurons become stronger when exposed to incoming signals of frequency and intensity. She argues that people in their teenage years and early twenties are more susceptible to persuasion.Taylor explains that brain activity in the temporal lobe, the region responsible for artistic creativity, also causes spiritual experiences in a process known as lability.
In his 2007 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, 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.
In 2009 historian Daniel Romanovsky wrote about what he called "Nazi brainwashing" of the people of Belarus by the occupying Germans during the Second World War, which took place through both mass propaganda and intense re-education especially in schools. He notes that very soon most people had adopted the Nazi view of the Jews, that they were an inferior race and were closely tied to the Soviet government; views that had not been at all common before the occupation.
Mind control has often been an important theme in science fiction and fantasy stories. Terry O'Brien comments: "Mind control is such a powerful image that if hypnotism did not exist, then something similar would have to have been invented: the plot device is too useful for any writer to ignore. The fear of mind control is equally as powerful an image." A subgenre is "corporate mind control", in which a future society is run by one or more business corporations which dominate society using advertising and mass media to control the population's thoughts and feelings.
Modern corporations are said to practice mind control to create a work force which shares the same common values and culture. Critics have linked "corporate brainwashing" with globalization, saying that corporations are attempting to create a world-wide monocultural network of producers, consumers, and managers. In his 1992 book, Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization, Stanley A. Deetz says that modern "self awareness" and "self improvement" programs provide corporations with even more effective tools to control the minds of employees than traditional brainwashing. Modern educational systems have also been criticized, by both the left and the right, for contributing to corporate brainwashing.
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Since the late 1980s, though a significant public belief in cult-brainwashing remains, the academic community-including scholars from psychology, sociology, and religious studies-have shared an almost unanimous consensus that the coercive persuasion/brainwashing thesis proposed by Margaret Singer and her colleagues in the 1980s is without scientific merit.
In September 1950, the Miami News published an article by Edward Hunter titled '"Brain-Washing" Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.' It was the first printed use in any language of the term "brainwashing," Hunter, a CIA propaganda operator who worked under cover as a journalist, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the subject.
During the Korean War, captured American soldiers were subjected to prolonged interrogations and harangues by their captors, who often worked in relays and used the "good-cop, bad-cop" approach, alternating a brutal interrogator with a gentle one. It was all part of "Xi Nao," washing the brain. The Chinese and Koreans were making valiant attempts to convert the captives to the communist way of thought.
In the United States at the end of the 1970s, brainwashing emerged as a popular theoretical construct around which to understand what appeared to be a sudden rise of new and unfamiliar religious movements during the previous decade, especially those associated with the hippie street-people phenomenon.
Mind control is 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. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles. Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies. In some combinations, they create a powerful crucible of extreme mental and behavioral manipulation when synthesized with several other real-world factors, such as charismatic, authoritarian leaders, dominant ideologies, social isolation, physical debilitation, induced phobias, and extreme threats or promised rewards that are typically deceptively orchestrated, over an extended time period in settings where they are applied intensively. A body of social science evidence shows that when systematically practiced by state-sanctioned police, military or destructive cults, mind control can induce false confessions, create converts who willingly torture or kill 'invented enemies,' and engage indoctrinated members to work tirelessly, give up their money—and even their lives—for 'the cause.'
BSERP thanks the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for its service but is unable to accept the report of the Task Force. In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur.
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah who built a global business empire. He called both North Korean leaders and American presidents his friends, but spent time in prisons in both countries. His followers around the world cherished him, while his detractors accused him of brainwashing recruits and extracting money from worshippers.
Your susceptibility to brainwashing (and other forms of influence) has much to do with the state of your brain. This will depend in part on your genes: research suggests that prefrontal function is substantially affected by genetics. Low educational achievement, dogmatism, stress, and other factors which affect prefrontal function encourage simplistic, black-and-white thinking. If you have neglected your neurons, failed to stimulate your synapses, obstinately resisted new experiences, or hammered your prefrontal cortex with drugs (including alcohol), lack of sleep, rollercoaster emotions, or chronic stress, you may well be susceptible to the totalist charms of the next charismatic you meet. This is why so many young people baffle their more phlegmatic elders by joining cults, developing obsessions with fashions and celebrities, and forming intense attachments to often unsuitable role models.