Notes on Brainwashing & ‘Cults’

“Brain­wash­ing”, as pop­u­larly un­der­stood, does not ex­ist or is of al­most zero effec­tive­ness. The be­lief stems from Amer­i­can panic over Com­mu­nism post-Korean War com­bined with fear of new re­li­gions and sen­sa­tion­al­ized in­ci­dents; in prac­tice, “cults” have re­ten­tion rates in the sin­gle per­centage point range and ceased to be an is­sue decades ago. Typ­i­cally, a con­ver­sion sticks be­cause an or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­vides value to its mem­bers.

Some old SIAI work of mine. Re­search­ing this was very difficult be­cause the rele­vant re­li­gious stud­ies area, while ap­par­ently com­pletely re­pu­di­at­ing most pub­lic be­liefs about the sub­ject (eg. the effec­tive­ness of brain­wash­ing, how dam­ag­ing cults are, how large they are, whether that’s even a mean­ingful cat­e­gory which can be dis­t­in­guished from main­stream re­li­gions rather than a hid­den in­fer­ence—a claim, I will note, which is much more plau­si­ble when you con­sider how abu­sive Scien­tol­ogy is to its mem­bers as com­pared to how abu­sive the Catholic Church has been etc), pre­fer to pub­lish their re­search in book form, which makes it very hard to re­view any of it. Some of the key cita­tion were pa­pers—but the cult panic was so long ago that most of them are not on­line or have been digi­tized! I re­cently added some cites and re­al­ized I had not touched the draft in a year; so while this col­lec­tion of notes is not re­ally up to my preferred stan­dards, I’m sim­ply post­ing it for what it’s worth. (One les­son to take away from this is that con­trol­ling up­loaded hu­man brains will not be nearly as sim­ple & easy as ap­ply­ing clas­sic ‘brain­wash­ing’ strate­gies—be­cause those don’t ac­tu­ally work.)

Read­ing through the liter­a­ture and es­pe­cially the law re­view ar­ti­cles (courts flirted dis­con­cert­ingly much with li­cens­ing kid­nap­ping and aban­don­ing free speech), I was re­minded very heav­ily—and not in a good way—of the War on Ter­ror.

Old Amer­i­can POW stud­ies:

  • Clark et al 1981 Destruc­tive Cult Con­ver­sion: The­ory, Re­search and Practice

  • Lif­ton 1961 Thought Re­form and the Psy­chol­ogy of Totalism

  • Ross & Lan­gone 1988 Cults: What Par­ents Should Know

  • Schein, Sch­neier & Barker 1961 Co­er­cive Persuasion

  • Singer 1978, 1979 “Ther­apy with Ex-cult Mem­bers” Jour­nal of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Pri­vate Psy­chi­a­tric Hospi­tals; “Com­ing Out of the Cults”, Psy­chol­ogy Today

Started the myth of effec­tive brain-wash­ing. But in prac­tice, cult at­tri­tion rates are very high! (As makes sense: if cults did not have high at­tri­tion rates, they would long ago have dom­i­nated the world due to ex­po­nen­tial growth.) This at­tri­tion claim is made all over the liter­a­ture, with some ex­am­ple cita­tions be­ing:

  • Barker 1984, 1987 The Mak­ing of a Moonie: Choice of Brain­wash­ing?; “Quo Vadis? The Unifi­ca­tion Church”, pg141-152, The Fu­ture of New Reli­gious Movements

  • Beck­ford 1981 “Con­ver­sion and Apostasy: An­tithe­sis or Com­ple­men­tar­ity?”

  • Bird & Reimer 1982 “Par­ti­ci­pa­tion rates in new re­li­gious move­ments and para-re­li­gious move­ments”

  • Rob­bins 1988 Cults, Con­verts and Charisma

  • Shupe & Brom­ley 1980 The New Vigilantes: De­pro­gram­mers, An­tic­ultists and the New Religions

  • Wright & Piper 1986 “Fam­i­lies and Cults: Fa­mil­ial Fac­tors Re­lated to Youth Leav­ing or Re­main­ing in De­viant Reli­gious Groups”

  • Wright 1983, 1987, 1988 “Defec­tion from New Reli­gious Move­ments: A Test of Some The­o­ret­i­cal Propo­si­tions” pg106-121 The Brain­wash­ing/​De­pro­gram­ming Con­tro­versy; Leav­ing Cults: The Dy­nam­ics of Defec­tion; “Leav­ing New Reli­gious Move­ments: Is­sues, The­ory and Re­search”, pg143-165 Fal­ling from the Faith: Causes and Con­se­quences of Reli­gious Apostasy

  • Wikipe­dia cites The Hand­book of Cults and Sects in Amer­ica, Had­den, J and Brom­ley, D eds. (1993)

  • a back of the en­velope es­ti­mate for Scien­tol­ogy by Steve Plakos in 2000:

    In ab­solute num­bers, that is from 8 mil­lion ex­posed to 150k ac­tive cur­rent, it means they’ve lost 7,850,000 bod­ies in the shop. That equates to a Re­ten­tion Rate of 1.875%. Now, to be fair, over the course of 50 years “X” num­ber of sci­en­tol­o­gists have dropped their bod­ies and gone off to Mars, etc,. who might still be mem­bers to­day if they weren’t dead We do not know what the mor­tal­ity rate is for Scien­tol­o­gists. To sig­nifi­cantly im­pact the RR, there would have to have been a 100% turn over in ac­tive mem­ber­ship due to gen­er­a­tional shift­ing. There is no ev­i­dence that 150,000 ac­tive mem­bers of the CofS have died over the past 50 years. Beyond that, we would also need to ap­ply the RR to de­ceased mem­bers to see what num­ber would have con­tinued be­yond 15 years. There­fore, us­ing the most fa­vor­able mem­ber­ship num­bers and not dis­count­ing for lose of mem­ber­ship be­yond the 15th year, we see a RR of 1.875%+“X”. If we as­sume that gen­er­a­tional shift­ing ac­counts for a 10% turnover amongst cur­rent mem­ber­ship, that is, that the cur­rent mem­ber­ship would be 10% greater had mem­bers sur­vived, X would equal 15,000 dead mem­bers, or, a to­tal Re­tained Mem­ber­ship of 165,000. That would give the CofS a 50 year Re­ten­tion Rate of 2.0625%.

Ian­nac­cone 2003, “The Mar­ket for Mar­tyrs” (quasi-re­view)

From the late-1960s through the mid-1980s, so­ciol­o­gists de­voted im­mense en­ergy to the study of New Reli­gious Move­ments. [For overviews of the liter­a­ture, see Brom­ley (1987), Rob­bins (1988), and Stark (1985).] They did so in part be­cause NRM growth di­rectly con­tra­dicted their tra­di­tional the­o­ries of sec­u­lariza­tion, not to men­tion the sen­sa­tional mid-six­ties claims God was “dead” (Cox 1966; Murch­land 1967). NRM’s also were ideal sub­jects for case stud ies, on ac­count of their small size, brief his­to­ries, dis­tinc­tive prac­tices, charis­matic lead­ers, de­voted mem­bers, and rapid evolu­tion. But above all, the NRM’s at­tracted at­ten­tion be­cause they scared peo­ple.

…We have trou­ble re­call­ing the fear pro­voked by groups like the Kr­ish­nas, Moonies, and Ra­jneeshees. Their years of ex­plo­sive growth are long past, and many of their “strange” ideas have be­come sta­ples of pop­u­lar cul­ture. [We see this in­fluence not only in to­day’s New Age and Neo-Pa­gan move­ments, but also in nov­els, mu­sic, movies, TV shows, video games, uni­ver­sity courses, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, re­spect for “cul­tural di­ver­sity,” and the in­tel­lec­tual elite’s broad cri­tique of Chris­tian cul­ture.] But they looked far more threat­en­ing in the sev­en­ties and eighties, es­pe­cially af­ter Novem­ber 18, 1978. On that day, the Rev­erend Jim Jones, founder of the Peo­ple’s Tem­ple, or­dered the mur­der of a U.S. Con­gress­man fol­lowed by the mass mur­der/​suicide of 913 mem­bers of his cult, in­clud­ing nearly 300 chil­dren.

The “cults” ag­gres­sively pros­ely­tized and so­lic­ited on side­walks, air­ports, and shop­ping cen­ters all over Amer­ica. They re­cruited young adults to the dis­may of their par­ents. Their lead­ers pro­moted bizarre be­liefs, dress, and diet. Their mem­bers of­ten lived com­mu­nally, de­voted their time and money to the group, and adopted highly de­viant lifestyles. Cults were ac­cused of gain­ing con­verts via de­cep­tion and co­er­cion; fund­ing them­selves through ille­gal ac­tivi­ties; prey­ing upon peo­ple the young, alienated, or men­tally un­sta­ble ; lur­ing mem­bers into strange sex­ual li­aisons; and us­ing force, drugs, or threats to de­ter the exit of dis­illu­sioned mem­bers. The ac­cu­sa­tions were elab­o­rated in books, mag­a­z­ine ar­ti­cles, news­pa­per ac­counts, and TV drama. By the late-1970s, pub­lic con­cern and me­dia hype had given birth to anti-cult or­ga­ni­za­tions, anti-cult leg­is­la­tion, and anti-cult ju­di­cial rul­ings. The pub­lic, the me­dia, many psy­chol­o­gists, and the courts largely ac­cepted the claim that cults could “brain­wash” their mem­bers, thereby ren­der­ing them in­ca­pable of ra­tio­nal choice, in­clud­ing the choice to leave. [Par­ents hired pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors to liter­ally kid­nap their adult chil­dren and sub­ject them to days of highly-co­er­cive “de­pro­gram­ming.” Courts of­ten agreed that these vi­o­la­tions of nor­mal con­sti­tu­tional rights were jus­tified, given the vic­tim’s pre­sumed in­abil­ity to think and act ra­tio­nally (An­thony 1990; An­thony and Rob­bins 1992; Brom­ley 1983; Richard­son 1991; Rob­bins 1985).]

We now know that nearly all the anti-cult claims were overblown, mis­taken, or out­right lies. Amer­i­cans no longer ob­sess about Scien­tol­ogy, Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion, or the Chil­dren of God. But a large body of re­search re­mains. It wit­nesses to the ease with which the pub­lic, me­dia, policy-mak­ers, and even aca­demics ac­cept ir­ra­tional­ity as an ex­pla­na­tion for be­hav­ior that is new, strange, and (ap­par­ently or ac­tu­ally) dan­ger­ous.

…As the case stud ies piled up, it be­came ap­par­ent that both the me­dia stereo­types (of sleep-de­prived, sugar-hyped, brain­washed au­toma­tons) and aca­demic the­o­ries (of alienated, au­thor­i­tar­ian, neu­rotics) were far off mark. Most cult con­verts were chil­dren of priv­ilege raised by ed­u­cated par­ents in sub­ur­ban homes. Young, healthy, in­tel­li­gent, and col­lege ed­u­cated, they could look for­ward to solid ca­reers and com­fortable in­comes. [Rod­ney Stark (2002) has re­cently shown that an analo­gous re­sult holds for Medieval saints—ar­guably the most ded­i­cated “cult con­verts” of their day.]

Psy­chol­o­gists searched in vain for a prevalence of “au­thor­i­tar­ian per­son­al­ities,” neu­rotic fears, re­pressed anger, high anx­iety, re­li­gious ob­ses­sion, per­son­al­ity di­s­or­ders, de­viant needs, and other men­tal patholo­gies. The y like­wise failed to find aliena­tion, strained re­la­tion­ships, and poor so­cial skills. In nearly all re­spects—eco­nom­i­cally, so­cially, psy­cholog­i­cally—the typ­i­cal cult con­verts tested out nor­mal. More­over, nearly all those who left cults af­ter weeks, months, or even years of mem­ber­ship showed no sign of phys­i­cal, men­tal, or so­cial harm. Nor­mal back­ground and cir­cum­stances, nor­mal per­son­al­ities and re­la­tion­ships, and a nor­mal sub­se­quent life—this was the “pro­file” of the typ­i­cal cultist.

…Numer­ous stud­ies of cult re­cruit­ment, con­ver­sion, and re­ten­tion found no ev­i­dence of “brain­wash­ing.” The Moonies and other new re­li­gious move­ments did in­deed de­vote tremen­dous en­ergy to out­reach and per­sua­sion, but they em­ployed con­ven­tional meth­ods and en­joyed very limited suc­cess. In the most com­pre­hen­sive study to date, Eileen Barker (1984) could find no ev­i­dence that Moonie re­cruits were ever kid­napped, con­fined, or co­erced (though it was true that some anti-cult “de­pro­gram­mers” kid­napped and re­strained con­verts so as to “res­cue” them from the move­ment). Sem­i­nar par­ti­ci­pants were not de­prived of sleep; the food was “no worse than that in most col­lege res­i­dences;” the lec­tures were “no more trance-in­duc­ing than those given ev­ery­day” at many col­leges; and there was very lit­tle chant­ing, no drugs or al­co­hol, and lit­tle that could be termed “frenzy” or “ec­static” ex­pe­rience (Barker 1984). Peo­ple were free to leave, and leave they did—in droves.

Barker’s com­pre­hen­sive enu­mer­a­tion showed that among the rel­a­tively mod­est num­ber of re­cruits who went so far as to at­tend two-day re­treats (claimed to be Moonies’ most effec­tive means of “brain­wash­ing”), fewer than 25% joined the group for more than a week, and only 5% re­mained full-time mem­bers 1 year later. Among the larger num­bers who vis­ited a Moonie cen­tre, not 1 in 200 re­mained in the move­ment 2 years later. With failure rates ex­ceed­ing 99.5%, it comes as no sur­prise that full-time Moonie mem­ber­ship in the U.S. never ex­ceeded a few thou­sand. And this was one of the most suc­cess­ful cults of the era! Once re­searchers be­gan check­ing, rather than sim­ply re­peat­ing the num­bers claimed by the groups, defec­tors, or jour­nal­ists, they dis­cov­ered dis­mal re­ten­tion rates in nearly all groups. [For more on the prevalence and pro­cess of cult defec­tion, see Wight (1987) and Brom­ley (1988).] By the mid-1980s, re­searchers had so thor­oughly dis­cred­ited “brain­wash­ing” the­o­ries that both the So­ciety for the Scien­tific Study of Reli­gion and the Amer­i­can So­ciolog­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion agreed to add their names to an am­i­cus brief de­nounc­ing the the­ory in court (Richard­son 1985).

Singer in par­tic­u­lar has been heav­ily crit­i­cized; “Cult/​Brain­wash­ing Cases and Free­dom of Reli­gion”, Richard­son 1991:

Dr. Singer is a clini­cal psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice who earns a con­sid­er­able por­tion of her in­come from cult cases. She has been an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­ifor­nia at Berkeley, but has never held a paid or tenured-track po­si­tion there. See H. New­ton Malony, “An­tic­ultism: The Ethics of Psy­chol­o­gists’ Re­ac­tions to New Reli­gions,” pre­sented at an­nual meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Psy­cholog­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion (New York, 1987) and An­thony, “Eval­u­at­ing Key Tes­ti­mony” for more de­tails on Singer’s ca­reer.

…The [am­i­cus cu­riae] brief fur­ther claimed that Singer mis­rep­re­sents the tra­di­tion of re­search out of which terms like “thought re­form” and “co­er­cive per­sua­sion” come. She ig­nores the fact that these ear­lier stud­ies fo­cus on phys­i­cal co­er­cion and fear as mo­ti­va­tors, and that even when us­ing such tac­tics the ear­lier efforts were not very suc­cess­ful. With great fa­cil­ity, Singer moves quickly from situ­a­tions of phys­i­cal force to those where none is ap­plied, claiming that these “‘sec­ond gen­er­a­tion’” thought re­form tech­niques us­ing af­fec­tion are ac­tu­ally more effec­tive than the use of force in brain­wash­ing peo­ple to be­come mem­bers. Thus, Singer is crit­i­cized for claiming to stand squarely on the tra­di­tion of re­search de­vel­oped by schol­ars such as Edgar Schein and Robert Lif­ton, while she shifts the en­tire fo­cus to non-co­er­cive situ­a­tions quite un­like those en­coun­tered in Com­mu­nist China or Korean pris­oner of war camps. The brief points out, as well, that Singer ig­nores a vast amount of re­search sup­port­ing the con­clu­sion that vir­tu­ally all who par­ti­ci­pate in the new re­li­gions do so vol­un­tar­ily, and for eas­ily un­der­stand­able rea­sons. No mag­i­cal “black box” of brain­wash­ing is needed to ex­plain why sig­nifi­cant num­bers of young peo­ple chose, in the 1960s and 1970s, to aban­don their place in so­ciety and ex­per­i­ment with al­ter­na­tive life styles and be­liefs. Many youth were leav­ing lifestyles that they felt were hyp­o­crit­i­cal, and ex­per­i­ment­ing with other ways of life that they found to be more fulfilling, at least tem­porar­ily. Par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy, but ig­nored by Singer, are the ex­tremely high at­tri­tion rates of all the new re­li­gions. Th­ese groups are ac­tu­ally very small in num­bers (the Hare Kr­ishna and the Unifi­ca­tion Church each have no more than two to three thou­sand mem­bers na­tion­wide), which puts the lie to brain­wash­ing claims. If “brain­wash­ing” prac­ticed by new re­li­gions is so pow­er­ful, why are the groups ex­pe­rienc­ing so much vol­un­tary at­tri­tion, and why are they so small?

…Con­sid­er­able re­search re­ported in refer­eed schol­arly jour­nals and other sources sup­ports the idea that the new re­li­gions may be serv­ing an im­por­tant ame­lio­ra­tive func­tion for Amer­i­can so­ciety. The groups may be func­tion­ing as “half-way houses” for many youth who have with­drawn from so­ciety, but still need a place to be un­til they de­cide to “re­turn home.” Par­ti­ci­pa­tion in some new re­li­gions has been shown to have demon­stra­ble pos­i­tive effects on the psy­cholog­i­cal func­tion­ing of in­di­vi­d­u­als, a find­ing that Singer re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge.

“Over­com­ing The Bondage Of Vic­tim­iza­tion: A Crit­i­cal Eval­u­a­tion of Cult Mind Con­trol The­o­ries”, Bob and Gretchen Pas­santino Corner­stone Magaz­ine 1994:

Nei­ther brain­wash­ing, mind con­trol’s sup­posed pre­cur­sor, nor mind con­trol it­self, have any ap­pre­cia­ble demon­strated effec­tive­ness. Singer and other mind con­trol model pro­po­nents are not always can­did about this fact: The early brain­wash­ing at­tempts were largely un­suc­cess­ful. Even though the Kore­ans and Chi­nese used ex­treme forms of phys­i­cal co­er­cion as well as per­sua­sive co­er­cion, very few in­di­vi­d­u­als sub­jected to their tech­niques changed their ba­sic world views or com­mit­ments. The CIA also ex­per­i­mented with brain­wash­ing. Though not us­ing Korean or Chi­nese tech­niques of tor­ture, beat­ings, and group dy­nam­ics, the CIA did ex­per­i­ment with drugs (in­clud­ing LSD) and med­i­cal ther­a­pies such as elec­troshock in their re­search on mind con­trol. Their ex­per­i­ments failed to pro­duce even one po­ten­tial Manchurian Can­di­date, and the pro­gram was fi­nally aban­doned.

Although some mind con­trol model ad­vo­cates bring up stud­ies that ap­pear to provide ob­jec­tive data in sup­port of their the­o­ries, such is not the case. Th­ese stud­ies are gen­er­ally flawed in sev­eral ar­eas: (1) Fre­quently the re­spon­dents are not from a wide cross-sec­tion of ex-mem­bers but dis­pro­por­tionately are those who have been exit-coun­seled by mind con­trol model ad­vo­cates who tell them they were un­der mind con­trol; (2) Fre­quently the sam­ple group is so small its re­sults can­not be fairly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of cult mem­ber­ship in gen­eral; (3) It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to gather data from the same in­di­vi­d­u­als be­fore cult af­fili­a­tion, dur­ing cult af­fili­a­tion, and af­ter cult dis­af­fec­tion, so re­spon­dents are some­times asked to an­swer as though they were not yet mem­bers, or as though they were still mem­bers, etc. Each of these flaws in­tro­duces un­pred­i­cat­i­blity and sub­jec­tivity that make such study re­sults un­re­li­able…The ev­i­dence against the effec­tive­ness of mind con­trol tech­niques is even more over­whelming. Stud­ies show that the vast ma­jor­ity of young peo­ple ap­proached by new re­li­gious move­ments (NRMs) never join de­spite heavy re­cruit­ment tac­tics. This low rate of re­cruit­ment pro­vides am­ple ev­i­dence that what­ever tech­niques of pur­ported mind con­trol are used as cult re­cruit­ing tools, they do not work on most peo­ple. Even of those in­ter­ested enough to at­tend a re­cruit­ment sem­i­nar or week­end, the ma­jor­ity do not join the group. Eileen Barker doc­u­ments [Barker, Eileen. New Reli­gious Move­ments: A Prac­ti­cal In­tro­duc­tion. Lon­don: Her Majesty’s Sta­tion­ery Office, 1989.] that out of 1000 peo­ple per­suaded by the Moonies to at­tend one of their overnight pro­grams in 1979, 90% had no fur­ther in­volve­ment. Only 8% joined for more than one week, and less than 4% re­mained mem­bers in 1981, two years later:

. . . and, with the pas­sage of time, the num­ber of con­tin­u­ing mem­bers who joined in 1979 has con­tinued to fall. If the calcu­la­tion were to start from those who, for one rea­son or an­other, had vis­ited one of the move­ment’s cen­tres in 1979, at least 999 out of ev­ery 1,000 of those peo­ple had, by the mid-1980s, suc­ceeded in re­sist­ing the per­sua­sive tech­niques of the Unifi­ca­tion Church.

Of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance is that this ex­tremely low rate of con­ver­sion is known even to Has­san, the best-known mind con­trol model ad­vo­cate whose book [Has­san, Steven. Com­bat­ting Cult Mind Con­trol. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1990?] is the stan­dard text for in­tro­duc­ing con­cerned par­ents to mind con­trol/​exit coun­sel­ing. In his per­sonal tes­ti­mony of his own in­volve­ment with the Unifi­ca­tion Church, he notes that he was the first con­vert to join at the cen­ter in Queens; that dur­ing the first three months of his mem­ber­ship he only re­cruited two more peo­ple; and that pres­sure to re­cruit new mem­bers was only to reach the goal of one new per­son per mem­ber per month, a sur­pris­ingly low figure if we are to ac­cept the in­evitable suc­cess of cult mind con­trol tech­niques.

Ob­jec­tion: High At­tri­tion Rates Ad­di­tion­ally, nat­u­ral at­tri­tion (peo­ple leav­ing the group with­out spe­cific in­ter­ven­tion) was much higher than the self-claimed 65% de­pro­gram­ming suc­cess figure! It is far more likely a new con­vert would leave the cult within the first year of his mem­ber­ship than it is that he would be­come a long term mem­ber.

Gomes, Un­mask­ing the Cults (Wikipe­dia quote):

While ad­vo­cates of the de­pro­gram­ming po­si­tion have claimed high rates of suc­cess, stud­ies show that nat­u­ral at­tri­tion rates ac­tu­ally are higher than the suc­cess rate achieved through deprogramming

“Psy­cholog­i­cal Ma­nipu­la­tion and So­ciety”, book re­view of Spy­ing in Gu­ru­land: In­side Bri­tain’s Cults, Shaw 1994

Even­tu­ally Shaw quit the Emin group. Two months later he checked in with some Emin mem­bers at the Heal­ing Arts Fes­ti­val, a psy­chic fair. He avoided many Emin phone in­vi­ta­tions for him to at­tend an­other meet­ing. He dis­cov­ered that most, if not all, of the peo­ple who joined with him had dropped out. This is con­sis­tent with what Shaw has noted about most cults and re­cruits: the dropout rate is high.

An­thony & Rob­bins 1992, “Law, So­cial Science and the ‘Brain­wash­ing’ Ex­cep­tion to the First Amend­ment”:

Lif­ton and Schein are also char­ac­ter­ized in Molko (54) as at­test­ing to the effec­tive­ness of brain­wash­ing, al­though Schein, an ex­pert on Chi­nese co­er­cive per­sua­sion of Korean War POWs, ac­tu­ally thought, as do a num­ber of schol­ars, that the Chi­nese pro­gram was rel­a­tively in­effec­tive (Schein, 1959, p. 332; see also An­thony, 1990a; Schefiin & Op­ton, 1978)…Schein ap­pears to ac­tu­ally have con­sid­ered the com­mu­nist Chi­nese pro­gram to be a rel­a­tive “failure” at least, “con­sid­er­ing the effort de­voted to it” (Schein, 1959, p. 332; An­thony, 1990a, p. 302)…Var­i­ous clini­cal and psy­cho­me­t­ric stud­ies of devo­tees of well-known “cults” (Ross, 1983; Unger­lei­der & Wel­lisch, 1979) have found lit­tle or no per­son­al­ity di­s­or­der or cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment.

  • Ross 1983. “Clini­cal pro­file of Hare Kr­ishna devo­tees”, Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Psychiatry

  • Schein, E. (1959). “Brain­wash­ing and to­tal­i­tar­i­aniza­tion in mod­ern so­ciety”. World Poli­tics, 2,430441.

  • Unger­lei­der, T., & Wel­lisch, D. K (1979). “Co­er­cive per­sua­sion (brain­wash­ing), re­li­gious cults, and de­pro­gram­ming”. Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try , 136,3,279-82.

“Brain­washed! Schol­ars of cults ac­cuse each other of bad faith”, by Char­lotte Allen, Lin­gua Franca Dec/​Jan 1998:

Zablocki’s con­ver­sion to brain­wash­ing the­ory may sound like com­mon sense to a pub­lic brought up on TV images of zom­bielike cultists com­mit­ting fiendish crimes or on the Chi­nese mind con­trol ex­per­i­ments dra­ma­tized in the 1962 film The Manchurian Can­di­date. But among so­cial sci­en­tists, brain­wash­ing has been a bit­terly con­tested the­ory for some time. No one doubts that a per­son can be made to be­have in par­tic­u­lar ways when he is threat­ened with phys­i­cal force (what wouldn’t you do with a gun pressed to your head?), but in the ab­sence of weapons or tor­ture, can a per­son be ma­nipu­lated against his will?

Most so­ciol­o­gists and psy­chol­o­gists who study cults think not. For starters, brain­wash­ing isn’t, as Zablocki him­self ad­mits, “a pro­cess that is di­rectly ob­serv­able.” And even if brain­wash­ing could be iso­lated and mea­sured in a clini­cal trial, eth­i­cal ob­jec­tions make con­duct­ing such a test al­most un­think­able. (What sort of waivers would you have to sign be­fore al­low­ing your­self to be brain­washed?) In the last decade, while brain­wash­ing has en­joyed a high pro­file in the me­dia-in­voked to ex­plain sen­sa­tional cult dis­asters from the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate mem­bers to the twelve sarin deaths on the Tokyo sub­way at­tributed to the Aum Shin­rikyo cult-so­cial sci­en­tists have shunned the the term as a symp­tom of Cold War para­noia and an­tic­ult hys­te­ria. In­stead, they fa­vor more be­nign ex­pla­na­tions of cult mem­ber­ship. Alter­na­tives in­clude “la­bel­ing” the­ory, which ar­gues there is sim­ply noth­ing sinister about al­ter­na­tive re­li­gions, that the prob­lem is one of prej­u­di­cial la­bel­ing on the part of a main­stream cul­ture that sees cult mem­bers as brain­washed dupes, and “pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion” the­ory, which posits that cult mem­bers are peo­ple who are men­tally ill or oth­er­wise mal­ad­justed be­fore they join. (A cou­ple of schol­ars have even pro­posed malnu­tri­tion as a pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion, ar­gu­ing that cal­cium defi­ciency may make peo­ple prone to charis­matic sus­cep­ti­bil­ity.)

Thus, when Zablocki pub­lished an in­dig­nant 2-part, 60-page defense of brain­wash­ing the­ory in the Oc­to­ber 1997 and April 1998 is­sues of Nova Reli­gio, a schol­arly jour­nal de­voted to al­ter­na­tive be­lief sys­tems, he ig­nited a furor in the field. Point­ing to the “high exit costs” that some cults ex­acted from those who tried to defect-shun­ning, forfei­ture of parental rights and prop­erty, and veiled threats-Zablocki ar­gued that these were in­di­ca­tions of brain­wash­ing, signs that some groups were us­ing psy­cholog­i­cal co­er­cion to main­tain to­tal con­trol over their mem­bers. Although he ad­mit­ted he could not prove brain­wash­ing em­piri­cally, he ar­gued that at the very least brain­wash­ing should not be dis­missed out of hand.

…Zablocki’s col­leagues were unim­pressed. In a re­sponse also pub­lished in Nova Reli­gio, David Brom­ley, a so­ciol­o­gist at Virginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity who has stud­ied the Rev­erend Sun Myung Moon’s Unifi­ca­tion Church, com­plained that in Zablocki’s for­mu­la­tion brain­wash­ing re­mained a vague, slip­pery, limit­ing, and ul­ti­mately untestable con­cept. More­over, he pointed out, cults typ­i­cally have low re­cruit­ment suc­cess, high turnover rates (re­cruits typ­i­cally leave af­ter a few months, and hardly any­one lasts longer than two years), and short life spans, all grounds for se­ri­ous skep­ti­cism about the brain­wash­ing hy­poth­e­sis. Even if you over­look these facts, Brom­ley added, “the ex­traor­di­nar­ily varied cul­tural ori­gins, pat­terns of or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment, and lead­er­ship styles of such groups pose a prob­lem in ex­plain­ing how they seem to have dis­cov­ered the same ‘brain­wash­ing’ psy­cho-tech­nol­ogy at al­most pre­cisely the same his­tor­i­cal mo­ment.” A quick sur­vey of the field re­veals that Brom­ley is far from be­ing the only doubter. Eileen Barker, a so­ciol­o­gist at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics who has also stud­ied the Unifi­ca­tion Church, says, “Peo­ple reg­u­larly leave the Moonies of their own free will. The cults are ac­tu­ally less effi­cient at re­tain­ing their mem­bers than other so­cial groups. They put a lot of pres­sure on them to stay in-love-bomb­ing, guilt trips-but it doesn’t work. They’d like to brain­wash them, but they can’t.”

…To fur­ther com­pli­cate mat­ters, re­searchers of­ten bring very differ­ent, even con­flict­ing ap­proaches to their work. Psy­chol­o­gists, for ex­am­ple, tend to em­pha­size how a re­peated en­vi­ron­men­tal stim­u­lus can elicit a con­di­tioned re­sponse-de­priv­ing sub­jects of their au­ton­omy. So­ciol­o­gists, by con­trast, typ­i­cally en­dorse a vol­un­tarist con­ver­sion model for re­li­gion, which posits that peo­ple join cults for gen­er­ally ra­tio­nal rea­sons con­nected to the group’s abil­ity to satisfy their needs: for a tran­scen­dent the­ol­ogy; for strong bonds of kin­ship and soli­dar­ity; for enough so­cial sup­port to en­able them to quit drugs or oth­er­wise turn their per­sonal lives around. (For ex­am­ple, one study has shown that schizophren­ics who joined cults func­tioned bet­ter than those who tried drugs or con­ven­tional psy­chother­apy.)

…In 1980 the New York state leg­is­la­ture, over ob­jec­tions from the Amer­i­can Civil Liber­ties Union, passed a bill that would have le­gal­ized de­pro­gram­ming (it was ve­toed by Gover­nor Hugh Carey). “With de­pro­gram­ming-with par­ents hav­ing their chil­dren ab­ducted and held cap­tive-the whole thing be­came in­tensely emo­tional,” says Thomas Rob­bins. “Who were the kid­nap­pers: the par­ents, the cults, or the po­lice? There were hard feel­ings on both sides.” Among the most out­raged were so­cial sci­en­tists who had never be­lieved that peo­ple could be brain­washed into join­ing cults and who, as good civil liber­tar­i­ans, were ap­palled by de­pro­gram­ming. Ofshe and Singer’s schol­arly tes­ti­mony (and fat fees) dis­tressed a num­ber of these schol­ars, whose cre­den­tials were equally re­spectable and whose own re­search had led them to con­clude that co­er­cive per­sua­sion was im­pos­si­ble in the ab­sence of some sort of phys­i­cal co­er­cion such as prison or tor­ture.

…Zablocki made an­other, po­ten­tially more damn­ing charge, how­ever-one that Rob­bins did not take up. A sig­nifi­cant amount of cult money, he wrote, has gone to schol­ars-in sup­port of re­search, pub­li­ca­tion, con­fer­ence par­ti­ci­pa­tion, and other ser­vices. Zablocki did not name names. But a num­ber of pro­fes­sors freely ad­mit that non­tra­di­tional re­li­gions (in most cases, the Unifi­ca­tion­ists and Scien­tol­o­gists) have cut them checks. The list in­cludes some of the most promi­nent schol­ars in the dis­ci­pline: Brom­ley, Barker, Rod­ney Stark of the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, Jeffrey Had­den of the Univer­sity of Virginia, and James Richard­son, a so­ciol­o­gist of re­li­gion at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada at Reno. All five have at­tended cult-sub­si­dized con­fer­ences, and Brom­ley, Had­den, and Richard­son have oc­ca­sion­ally tes­tified in court on be­half of cults or offered their ser­vices as ex­pert wit­nesses against brain­wash­ing the­ory. “This is an is­sue,” Zablocki wrote sternly, “of a whole differ­ent eth­i­cal mag­ni­tude from that of tak­ing re­search fund­ing from the Methodists to find out why the col­lec­tion bas­kets are not com­ing back as heavy as they used to.”