Is brainwashing actually a thing?

Is brainwashing actually a thing? January 6, 2016

Happy new year. If you’re still reading this blog after my extended hiatus, thank you so much. I’m back. Now to rebuild my audience.

Today a friend shared Cult Status on Facebook. It’s an article from 2001 by Kirsten Marcum, a former member of Vistar, a business cult that promised its members limitless success.

I have the microphone now. I’m trying to speak, but the trainer keeps interrupting.

“You’re coming from your head,” he says. I’m supposed to come from my heart. I start over several times. By the time he lets me finish, my knees are shaking. I mutter something about how I limit myself in order to protect other people’s feelings, then sit down.

“Who makes you feel that way?” he asks from the stage. I stand again.

“Um,” I whisper into the microphone, “my parents?” I burst into tears. The trainer asks a series of questions about my family. When he’s done, everyone applauds. I don’t stop crying all day. I seem to have experienced some sort of psychological breakthrough. If this is what it takes to make me a better person, I want more.

It’s a lengthy read but I recommend it if you have time. Marcum compellingly recounts what it’s like to get sucked into one of those groups. If you’ve ever been indoctrinated, I expect it will resonate with you. If you haven’t, this is a good place to get a sense of what it’s like.

Image: Brainwashing by Cesarleal. Creative Commons.
Image: Brainwashing by Cesarleal. Creative Commons.

Whenever people talk about cults, terrorists, or controlling churches, you hear the term ‘brainwashing’. What’s interesting is that the media uses ‘brainwashing’ as a term fairly uncritically, while the position among mainstream academics is actually that there’s no such thing. I want to be a rigorous skeptic, holding beliefs for which there is decisive evidence, and I also want to support the survivors of cults. Once you start digging in the literature, you’ll find that the question of what to think about brainwashing is far from straightforward.

On one side, you’ve got the Christian anti-cult movement. These are mostly evangelicals determined to destroy the works of the devil, and, you will not be surprised to learn, they sometimes demonise cults unfairly in a bid to stamp them out. Things like the ‘satanic panic’ or the late 80s and early 90s are the work of this brigade. They did a pretty effective job of convincing the world that satanists were going around ritually abusing children and animals, even though there’s never been a shred of good evidence that any of this actually happened.

In response to this, we have mainstream sociologists who sometimes defend cults on the grounds of freedom of religion. Groups like Inform, whose conferences I’ve spoken at twice, argue that freedom of religion has to be applied equally, and that religious groups should not be demonised just because they are new or small. These groups should only be treated as dangerous if there is good evidence, say Inform. I’m sure most skeptics would laud this sentiment.

The type of academics you are likely to hear at Inform conferences tend to argue that brainwashing is hogwash. They’ve got some good arguments. They point out that the CIA tried very hard to run a brainwashing programme in the 1960s, and failed. If the CIA couldn’t manage it with an apparently limitless budget, why do people believe that some obscure bunch of bearded cultists on a farm in Wisconsin have succeeded?

One person you don’t quote at an Inform conference unless you’re ready for a fight is Dr Margaret Singer. Singer is the author of Cults in Our Midst, which Kirsten Marcum cites in her experience. What’s interesting about Singer’s book is that to this day it resonates strongly with former members of cults, but mainstream academia thinks it is largely nonsense. In the 1980s, Singer provided expert testimonies at a number of high profile court cases involving cults, arguing successfully that members had been brainwashed and should be forcibly removed for their own good. She chaired the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control, and her report was rejected by the American Psychological Association as lacking rigour. Subsequently, Singer’s testimony was rejected in court. As I understand it, arguments from that report became the substance of Cults in Our Midst

Singers opponents are sometimes accused of being cult apologists. They argue that there is no known mechanism for brainwashing someone against their will. None of the methods that are usually suggested cut the mustard. People argue that brainwashing puts people in a highly suggestible state, sometimes by sleep deprivation or hypnosis, but there’s no evidence those methods can cause the radical belief and personality changes stereotypically associated with ‘brainwashing’.

In my view, these alleged ‘cult apologists’ are making a strawman argument. Advocates of brainwashing don’t claim that people are brainwashed against their will. As Kirsten Marcum explains in the article:

Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what’s happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she’s going someplace else. In Vistar, self-help is the distraction.

But, the cult defenders might say, if people consent to brainwashing, what’s the problem? You say the cults are bad for people. Maybe they are. But in our society, people are free to make decisions even if those decisions are bad for them. Understand that this is principally a legal argument. The pro-cult (I use that description as a shorthand that the academics I am discussing would not necessarily appreciate) may or may not be defending the cults on moral grounds. Their point is that if we are to have freedom of religion, it ought to apply to cults as well, and they should not be criminalised.

Now I’ll go off on a tangent. Skip the italics if you want to stay on the main point:

There’s a second point here, I think, and it’s one that will appeal to readers of the Patheos Atheist Channel: mainstream academics argue that cults and religions are essentially not that different. To the Christian anti-cult movement, this is anathema. They see that as a defence of cults. But saying cults and religions are similar is only a defence of cults if you think religions are good. 

I strongly dislike the way ‘cult’ is used to insulate religion (primarily Christianity) from critique. If a Christian individual or group does something evil like a mass suicide or beating a child to death, immediately that group gets labelled a cult, even if shortly beforehand it was known as a mainstream church. This saves other mainstream churches from the difficulty of examining what cult-like qualities their own groups might have, and considering whether an atrocity could possibly occur in their group.

Nevertheless, I think accounts like Marcum’s are credible. It may be that brainwashing requires initial consent, but what if, as Marcum argues, your consent is not fully informed?

Let’s imagine that I knowingly surrender my autonomy to a new religious group. I am a capable and consenting adult. I decide to let them lead my life for me, but at the time I make this decision, I believe they will make decisions for my benefit. They then put me through a programme where, with my co-operation, they make me less and less able to think for myself. Eventually, I am so committed to the group’s ideology that I am no longer thinking rationally. The group then has me doing things which I would never have consented to in the first place, had I known what was going to happen.

That is what Marcum describes and it is, I think, much more plausible than the straw-theory of brainwashing that usually gets attacked.

I hope to make this a series on brainwashing, since I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, but given my recent output, I won’t promise anything. This is a broad-strokes overview and I apologise to anyone knowledgeable on the subject who feels I’ve done an injustice to the views of the main schools of thought on brainwashing in my hasty introduction. I plan to add more nuance in subsequent posts.

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