The Mind Control Myth

When people join cults, is brainwashing really to blame?

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In the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, an American POW, conditioned by his Chinese communist captors to respond to suggestion when he sees the queen of diamonds, returns to the United States, is instructed to play a game of solitaire, and then assassinates a political candidate.

It's only a movie, right? The ultimate Cold War paranoid fantasy. Yet the year before it was released, two studies lent credibility to the idea of brainwashing. Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and Edgar Schein's Coercive Persuasion explained how mind control, or brainwashing, is achieved by extracting confessions and by controlling a prisoner's environment.

In the intervening years, brainwashing has been invoked to explain any number of disturbing incidents, from the mass suicide by poisoned Kool-Aid at Jonestown to the eerie deaths of 39 Heaven's Gate members, who packed overnight bags and donned new Nikes before swallowing phenobarbital-laced pudding and tying plastic bags over their heads. And brainwashing has been used in less sensational instances—to explain, for example, why children of the middle class routinely renounce family, friends, and often fortune after becoming Moonies or Scientologists.

But can brainwashing really explain the behavior of individuals who join cults or “new religious movements,” which is now the preferred term? That question has polarized scholars in a bitter academic debate, writes Charlotte Allen in Lingua Franca (Dec.-Jan. 1999). The debate, which has raged in academic journals and even in the courts, revolves around this question: In the absence of weapons or torture, can people be manipulated against their will?

Most psychologists and sociologists who study cults say no. They tend to see the matter from the point of view of individual group members and argue that the public is prejudiced against groups that dissent from the norm. Some “cult apologists,” as Allen calls them, contend that people who join cults are predisposed to joining them: They were maladjusted from the start. “Cult bashers,” on the other hand, see cults as destructive threats to individual freedom and traditional values.

The recent furor in the academy was sparked by Rutgers University sociology professor Benjamin Zablocki's defense of brainwashing published in Nova Religio (Oct. 1997-April 1998). Zablocki drew on the Lifton and Schein brainwashing studies to explain the behavior of cult members he had observed. He argued that there were signs that some groups used psychological coercion to maintain total control over members, similar to the control suggested by Lifton and Schein. There is no way to prove brainwashing empirically, Zablocki conceded, yet many of his subjects had reported undergoing rituals that were reminiscent of a prison camp. They were deprived of sleep; they were asked to write confessions; they were told their confessions were not adequate.

Members of the Center for Feeling Therapy—an offshoot of Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy—underwent similar abuses during the 1970s, but brainwashing is a simplistic explanation for what happened to them, says Marybeth F. Ayella in Insane Therapy: Portrait of a Psychotherapy Cult (Temple University Press, 1998). Based on interviews with former center members, Ayella describes a system of isolation and physical and verbal abuse used to break them down. Staff psychologists convinced them that they were crazy and could not function in the outside world. The center flourished for 10 years, beginning in 1971, and at its peak, 300 individuals lived in its “therapeutic community” in Los Angeles while 600 were treated as outpatients.

Why are people drawn to cults? And more importantly, why, in the face of such extreme abuse, do they stay? There has to be an initial attraction, Ayella argues. There has to be a fit between the individual and the group. Center for Feeling Therapy members, for example, were seeking change in their lives. They stayed on even when they encountered abusive treatment, and after the center collapsed they had trouble assuming their former identities. They had, according to Ayella, undergone “extreme identity change.”

But were they brainwashed? Ayella prefers to say they were “influenced.” She draws on a body of social science literature that theorizes how individuals are affected by authority figures and peer pressure. These theories suggest conditions that are necessary to make individuals vulnerable to the power of social influence:

  • A system of strong control over all aspects of group life. Isolation and communal living are particularly effective.
  • Deference to a charismatic leader.
  • Individual adherence to “the norm,” particularly when other group members appear to be in total agreement with the leader.
  • A visible system of rewards for those who conform and punishment for those who do not.

.According to these theories, we are all vulnerable to influence. And at any given time, some 2 million to 5 million Americans are involved in an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 cults. As the year 2000 approaches, we are likely to see a growing interest in millenarian groups like Heaven's Gate.

But do all of these numbers add up to brainwashing? The academics are still debating that question. They may conclude that it is a matter of semantics. Whether Jim Jones actually controlled his followers' minds or whether they were vulnerable to his particular brand of influence and leadership may be debated for some time. But while the verdict is still out, we might consider the idea that we are all subject to influence, in which case the message might be as simple as it is timeworn: Question authority.