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". 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.
Theories of brainwashing and of mind control were originally developed to explain how totalitarian regimes appeared to succeed systematically in indoctrinating prisoners of war through propaganda and torture techniques. These theories were later expanded and modified by psychologists including Jean-Marie Abgrall and Margaret Singer to explain a wider range of phenomena, especially conversions to new religious movements (NRMs). A third-generation theory proposed by Ben Zablocki focused on the use of mind control to retain members of NRMs and cults. The suggestion that NRMs use mind control techniques has resulted in scientific and legal controversy.
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 October 7th, 1950. Hunter, said to be a CIA propagandist, 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 some American GI 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."
Reexamining the concept of brainwashing after the 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 "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.
Instead, the Chinese elicited information using tricks such as harmless-seeming written questionnaires, followed by interviews. 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. 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.
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Largely in response to alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean use of mind control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war in Korea, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created its own secret mind control program in 1950. The CIA wanted to experiment with similar methods on their own captives. (See also Sidney Gottlieb.)
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.
After the Korean War, applications of mind control theories in the United States shifted in focus from politics to religion. From the 1960s an increasing number of American youths started to come into contact with new religious movements (NRMs), 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 brainwashing. While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs.
Margaret Singer "invented a new profession as a psychologist in the service, for several years almost full-time, of anti-cult lawsuits and initiatives". After the American Psychological Association rejected her theories, and her testimony was no longer allowed in court cases, she unsuccessfully sued the APA for "defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy."
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. 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 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: in her book Cults in Our Midst she describes six conditions which would create an atmosphere in which thought reform is possible.
According to Ted Patrick, the founder of FREECOG (later the Cult Awareness Network), brainwashing consisted of "hypnosis through brain waves projected from a cult recruiter’s eyes and fingertips". Based on this reasoning Patrick began developing a means of reversing cultic programming, which he termed deprogramming.
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 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.
Although most sociologists of religion consider the theories of brainwashing or mind control to be discredited, the anti-cult movement still follows the 'brainwashing thesis'.
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 to Bromley, Thomas Robbins, Dick Anthony, Eileen Barker, Newton Maloney, Massimo Introvigne, John Hall, Lorne Dawson, Anson Shupe, 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.
The anti-cult movement is not without its critics. Although some scholars accept that brainwashing exists, some 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 counseling. 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 NRMs. 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.
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; and that it isn't "a process that is directly observable." The "real sociological issue", Zabloki 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, and that Barker and other sociologists of religion are frequently paid by cults to provide legal services on their behalf. These scholars tend to see no consensus, while what Melton sees as a majority of scholars regard it as a rejection of brainwashing and of mind control as legitimate theories.
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 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 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 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 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).
"Plagio" is a term deriving from the Latin "plagium".[clarification needed] In Italy there is still a controversy on this 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 declared plagio unconstitutional[clarification needed] and found the concept to be imprecise, lacking coherence, and liable to arbitrary application. A few years after, in the presence of Leonetto Amadei, the President of the High Court Corte (costituzionale della Repubblica Italiana), who cancelled the crime; in a scientific conference held in Forte dei Marmi in 1989 the new juridical situation was debated. According to a review of Michael Langone in the Cultic Studies Journal (IX,1,126-129) of International Cultic Studies Association, the conference "Socially Accepted Persuasion , Plagio, and Brainwashing" addressed the full range of phenomena associated with the continuum of psychological manipulation.
Stephen 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 Programs; Terrorist Groups; Dysfunctional Corporate Culture; Interpersonal Violence; and Alleged Chinese Governmental Human Rights Violations Against Falun Gong".
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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.'
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.
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.
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 brainwashing concept is sufficiently useful that it continues to appear in a wide variety of legal, political, and social contexts. This article identifies those contexts by summarizing its appearance in court cases, discussions about cults and former cult members, terrorists, and alleged victims of state repression between the years 2000 and mid-2007. In creating this summary, we discover that a physiologist has examined the biochemical aspects of persons going through brainwashing processes, and that (to varying degrees) some judges and others related to the judiciary have realized that people who have been through these processes have impaired judgment and often need special counseling. Most dramatically, a new brainwashing program may be operating in Communist China, a country whose political activities toward its own citizens in the late 1940s and 1950s spawned so much of the initial brainwashing research.