The Mind Control Myth

When people join cults, is brainwashing really to blame?


| March-April 1999



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.

Chuck Beatty
1/27/2009 10:24:49 AM

I was almost 7 years in the "Rehabilitation Project Force" (Scientology staff elite's "prison/mind reform program", nicknamed the "RPF"), and I will gladly be interviewed. My total time on Scientology staff, 1975-2003, and my last 7 years was spent on the RPF, 1996-2003, I can thus answer questions for any researchers wishing a firsthand participant, willing and at times unwilling, to the Scientology lifetime staff "RPF" program. Most notable target of the "RPF" program for brainwashing, is the infamous "Truth Rundwon" fraud spiritual counseling procedure that is the main "spiritual" (it's fraud mental therapy in my opinion today) where we RPF members recanted our critical views of the "good" Scientology leaders and groups, and we were led to realign our thoughts in a totally positive fashion supportive of the Scientology lifetime staff organization which is named the Sea Organization, and also rejazzing up our support for the good leaders of the same. I'll talk. Who's doing any type of research?! There are plenty of us ex RPF members who've done 5-10 years on the damn RPF program. We'll goddamn talk! Who is goddman researching for real out there with guts to do the research!! Chuck Beatty, ex Sea Org member 1975-2003, Pittsburgh, USA, 412-260-1170. I realize research is a long haul hard job. I have been trying to encourage MORE academic research of the Scientology RPF, and there's pitiful interest! Only Professor Stephen Kent of Univ of Alberta is doing anything. Where are the damn researching academics willing to dig into the lives of the dozens and dozens of ex RPF members willing to talk! The "Truth Rundown" of the Scientology RPF program hasn't even been touched yet in print, except me, on anti Scientology chat sites!


John Gorenfeld
1/26/2009 5:18:08 PM

As the author of a book on cult leader Sun Myung Moon, let me say that I am totally agnostic as to whether there is an important distinction between the storied art of "brainwashing" and your garden-variety manipulation and swindling that goes on in less-messianic settings, whether it's prison camps or Ponzi schemes. But your article overlooks the most explosive charge in Zablocki's research: that academics have allowed themselves to be corrupted by big money from Scientologists and other dictatorial churches with a vested interest in shutting down the discussion. I can't tell you how many people have told me how frustrated they've been to discover that their universities won't let them step on the toes of the "New Religions" patrolling the campus for lonely freshmen to recruit...whether it's putting the kibosh on a Cult Awareness program at U-Minn. or doing doctoral research into this stuff. The most astounding thing I learned via Zablocki's research was that the leading proponent of the P.C. theory of cults had actually taken cash from the Aum Supreme Truth guys to profess their innocence in Tokyo, after the group had gassed commuters in the mid-'90s.