NOTE: The following article is taken from the 5th chapter of Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, entitled, Towards a Demystified and Disinterested Scientific Theory of Brainwashing.
I have attempted to test the model as much as possible with the limited data that currently exist. I have relied on three sources of evidence. The first and most important of these consists of ethnographic studies of a wide variety of contemporary American charismatic cults conducted by myself and others. The first-hand opportunities I have had to watch (at least the public face of) charismatic resocialization in numerous cult situations has convinced me of the need to theorize about this phenomenon. The second source of data consists of interviews with former leaders of charismatic groups. Although I have only a handful of such interviews, they are particularly valuable for elucidating the process from the perspective of ‘management,’ rather than from the perspective of the subjects. The third source of data consists of reports of ex-members of cults, drawing heavily on scientifically sampled interviews that my students and I have conducted. Most of these respondents were interviewed at least twice over a roughly twenty-five-year period.
Because evidence in this field of study tends to be so bitterly contested, it is perhaps necessary to point out that my own studies in this area were all subject to rigorous and competitive peer review. Five of my studies were reviewed and funded by three organizations — the National Institute of Mental Health (2), and the National Institute of Health (1) — over a period extending from 1964 to 2001. On all of these I was the principal investigator, and the research designs are in the public record. During this same period, other research of mine in this same field of study was funded by peer-reviewed faculty research grants from all of the universities with which I have been affiliated: the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and Rutgers University. It is a strange anomaly that this body of work seems to be generally respected throughout the social and behavioural sciences, with the exception of a small field, the sociology of new religious movements, where some try their best to hold it up to ridicule and disesteem.
Bainbridge (1997) has argued that most ethnographic studies of cults have failed to find evidence of brainwashing. But it is more accurate to say that ethnographers have been divided on this subject. Lalich, Ofshe, Kent, and myself have found such evidence abundantly (Kent and Krebs 1998; Lalich 1993; Ofshe, Eisenberg et. al. 1974; Zablocki 1980). Even Barker, Beckford, and Richardson, who are among the most hostile to the brainwashing conjecture, have found evidence of attempted brainwashing, although they have claimed that these attempts are largely or entirely unsuccessful (Barker 1984; Beckford 1985; Richardson, Harder et. al. 1972). Still other ethnographers (Balch 1985; Rochford, Purvis et. al. 1989) seem ambivalent on the subject and not sure what to make of the evidence. Others such as Palmer (1994) and Hall (1987, 2000) have been fairly clear about the absence of brainwashing in their observations.
Such disparity is to be expected. There is no reason to believe that all cults practise brainwashing any more than that all cults are violent or that all cults make their members wear saffron robes. Most ethnographers who did discover evidence of brainwashing in the cults they investigated were surprised by the finding. The fact that evidence of this sort has been repeatedly discovered by researchers who were not particularly looking for it suggests that the process really exists in some cults. I have observed fully developed brainwashing processes in some cults, partially developed ones in others, and none whatsoever in others. As ethnographic work in cults continues to accumulate, we should expect to find a similar degree of heterogeneity in published reports. certainly , there is abundant evidence of uncritically obedient behaviour in charismatic cults (Ayella 1990; Davis 2000; Katchen 1997; Lalich 1999; Lifton 1999; Wallis 1977), and this behaviour needs to be explained. The presence or absence of brainwashing may ultimately turn out to contribute to such an explanation.
When I first studied the Bruderhof thirty-five years ago, using ethnographic methods, I noticed a strong isomorphism between the phases of Bruderhof resocialization and the phases of brainwashing in Chinese re-education centres described by Lifton. Since I could think of no other reason why the Bruderhof would support such a costly and labour-intensive resocialization program if it were not to create deployable agents with long-term loyalty to the community, I hypothesized that something akin to brainwashing must be going on. My observations over the next thirty-five years have only strengthened my confidence in the correctness of this hypothesis. Bruderhof members were never kept from leaving by force or force threat. But the community put a lot of time and energy into assuring that defections would made rare and difficult by imbuing in its members an uncritical acceptance of the teachings of the community and a terror of life outside the community.1
Some (but not all) of the other cultic groups I have lived with as a participant-observer have shown signs of a brainwashing process at work. Individuals being plucked suddenly out of the workday routine of the group, appearing to become haggard with lack of sleep for prolonged periods, secretiveness and agitation, alternating periods of shunning and warm communal embrace, all suggest the presence of such a process. Some of these people, years later, having left the cult, have confirmed to me that such a process is what they went through when I observed them under this stress. According to my ethnographic observations, some sort of fully or partially developed brainwashing process figures in the resocialization of at least half of the cults I have studied during at least some phases of their history.
A second source of evidence may be found in reports given by people who were actually responsible for practising brainwashing with their fellow cult members. Several cult leaders who left their groups have since apologized to other ex-members for having subjected them to brainwashing methods. One such former cult leader put it this way:
“What you have to understand is that, for us, breaking the spirit … emptying out our ego, is very very important. And any means to that end … well, we would have said it was justified. And over the years we developed [by trial and error] ways of accomplishing this [task]. It was only after I was finished with [the cult] and living in the world again that I did some reading and realized how similar [our techniques] were to what the Communists did – to brainwashing. I think you would have to say that what we did was a kind of brainwashing even if we didn’t mean it to be so.’
In another case I interviewed the widow of a cult leader who had died and whose cult had disbanded soon thereafter. She said the following:
‘Those kinds of things definitely happened [on quite a few occasions]. It’s not like we sat down and said, hey we’re going to brainwash everybody. That would have been crazy. It’s more like we knew how important our mission was and how [vulnerable it was] to treachery. I think we got a little paranoid about being overcome by treachery within, especially after Gabe and Helen left and started saying those things about us. So everybody had to be tested. I had to be tested. Even he [the leader] had to be tested. We all knew it and we all [accepted it]. So we would pull a person out of the routine and put him in solitary for awhile. Nobody could talk to him except [my husband] and maybe a few others. I couldn’t even talk to him when I brought him meals. That was usually my job … At first it was just isolation and observation and having deep long talks far into the night about the mission. We didn’t know anything about brainwashing or any of that stuff. But gradually the things you describe got in there too somehow. Especially the written confessions. I had to write a bunch of them towards the end when [X] was sick. Whatever you wrote was not enough. They always wanted more, and you always felt you were holding out on them. Finally your confessions would get crazy, they’d come from your wildest fantasies of what they might want. At the end I confessed that I was killing [my husband] by tampering with his food because I wanted to – I don’t know – be the leader in his place I guess. All of us knew it was bullshit but somehow it satisfied them when I wrote that … And, even though we knew it was bullshit, going through that changed us. I mean I know it changed me. It burned a bridge … [T]here was no going back. You really did feel you changed into being a different person in a weird sort of way.’
Perhaps the closest thing I have found to a smoking gun in this regard has to do with a sociology professor who became a charismatic cult leader. Two of this cult leader’s top lieutenants independently spoke to me on this subject. Both of these respondents described in great detail how they assisted in concerted campaigns to brainwash fellow cult members. Both felt guilty about this and found the memory painful to recount. One of them indicated that the brainwashing attempt was conscious and deliberate:
‘During her years in academia, Baxter became very interested in mass social psychology and group behaviour modification. She studied Robert Jay Lifton’s work on thought reform; she studied and admired ‘total’ communities such as Synanon, and directed methods of change, such as Alcoholic Anonymous. She spoke of these techniques as positive ways to change people.’ (Lalich 1993: 55)
In this cult, which has since disbanded, there seems to be general consensus among both leaders and followers that systematic brainwashing techniques were used on a regular basis and were successful in their aim of producing deployable agents.
Our third source of evidence is the most controversial. There has been a misguided attempt to deny the validity of negative ex-member accounts as a source of data about cults. They’ve been condemned as ‘atrocity tales’ (Richardson 1998: 172), and Johnson (1998: 118) has dismissed them categorically by alleging that ‘the autobiographical elements of apostate narratives are further shaped by a concern that the targeted religious groups be painted in the worst possible light.’
The apostate role has been defined by Bromley (1997) largely in terms of the content of attitudes towards the former cult. If these attitudes are negative and expressed collectively in solidarity with other negatively disposed ex-members, they constitute evidence that the person must not be an ordinary ex-member but an ‘apostate.’ This is a direct violation of Robert Meron’s (1968) admonition that role sets be defined in terms of shared structural characteristics, not individual attitudes. What if this same logic were used to denigrate abused spouses who choose to be collectively vocal in their complaints? Nevertheless, this perspective on so-called ‘apostate accounts’ has been widely influential among cult scholars.
David Bromley is a sociologist theorist of great personal integrity but limited field experience. I think that if Bromley and his followers could just once sit down with a few hundred of these emotionally haunted ex-members whom they blithely label ‘apostates’,’ and listen to their stories, and see for themselves how badly most of them would like nothing more than to be able to put the cult experience behind them and get on with their lives, they would be deeply ashamed of the way they have subverted role theory to deny a voice to a whole class of people.
Dawson (1995) has correctly pointed out that there are methodological problems involved in using accounts of any kind as data. We need to be careful not to rely only on ex-member accounts. Triangulation of data sources is essential. But even the reports of professional ethnographers are nothing more than accounts, and thus subject to the same sort of limitations. Ex-member accounts have been shown to have reliability and validity roughly equivalent to the accounts given by current cult members (Zablocki 1996).
Solomon (1981) has provided some empirical support for the argument that those with stormy exits from cults and those with anti-cult movement affiliations are more likely to allege that they have been brainwashed than those with relatively uneventful exits and no such affiliation. ‘Cult apologists’ have made much of the finding that ex-members affiliated with anti-cult organizations are more likely to allege brainwashing than those who are not. Their hatred of the anti-cult movement has blinded them to two important considerations: (1) The causal direction is by no means obvious — it is at least as likely that those who were brainwashed are more likely to seek out anti-cult organizations as support groups as that false memories of brainwashing are implanted by anti-cult groups into those ex-members who fall into their clutches; and (2) Although the percentages may be lower, some ex-members who don’t affiliate with anti-cult groups still allege brainwashing.
Many ex-members of cults find brainwashing the most plausible explanation of their own cult experiences. While some might be deluding themselves to avoid having to take responsibility for their own mistakes, it strains credulity to imagine that all are doing so. Here, just by way of example, are excerpts from interviews done with five ex-members of five different cults. None of these respondents was ever affiliated, even marginally, with an anti-cult organization:
‘They ask you to betray yourself so gradually that you never notice you’re giving up everything that makes you who you are and letting them fill you up with something they think is better and that they’ve taught you to believe is something better.’
‘What hurts most is that I thought these people were my new friends, my new family. It wasn’t until after that I realized how I was manipulated little step by little step. Just like in Lifton; it’s really amazing when you think of it … couldn’t just be a coincidence … I don’t know if you can understand it, but what hurts most is not that they did it but realizing that they planned it out so carefully from the beginning. That was so cold.’
‘I’ve never been able to explain it to people who weren’t there. I don’t really understand it myself. But black was white, night was day, whatever they told us to believe, it was like a test. The more outrageous the idea the greater the victory, when I could wrap my mind around it and really believe it down to my toes. And, most important, be prepared to act on it just like if it was proven fact. That’s the really scary part when I look back on it.’
‘In the frame of mind I was in [at the time], I welcomed the brainwashing. I thought of it like a purge. I needed to purge my old ways, my old self. I hated it and I felt really violent toward it … I wanted to wash it all away and make myself an empty vehicle for [the guru’s] divine plan … [Our] ideal was to be unthinking obedient foot soldiers in God’s holy army.’
Many wax particularly eloquent on this subject when interviewed in the aftermath of media events involving cultic mass suicides or murders. The fifth respondent said the following:
‘It makes me shudder and … thank God that I got out when I did. ‘Cause that could have been me doing that, could have been any of us. [I have] no doubt any one of us would have done that in the condition we all were in — killed ourselves, our kids, any that [the leaders] named enemies.’
I have quoted just five ex-members because of limitations of space. Many more could be found. Thousands of ex-members of various groups (only a small minority of whom have ever been interviewed by me) have complained of being brainwashed. Contrary to the allegations of some ‘cult apologists,’ very few of these are people who had been deprogrammed (and presumably brainwashed into believing that they had been brainwashed). The accounts of these people tend often to agree on the particulars of what happened to them, even though these people may never have talked with one another.
Another striking aspect of these brainwashing accounts by ex-members is that they are held to consistently for many years. I have interviewed many ex-cult members twenty to thirty years after leaving the cult, and have yet to have a single case of a person who alleged brainwashing immediately after leaving the cult, later recant and say it wasn’t true after all. More than anything else, this consistency over extended periods of time convinces me that ex-member accounts often may be relied on. Even if some of the details have been forgotten or exaggerated with the passage of time, the basic outline of what happened to them is probably pretty accurate. All in all, therefore, I think it is fair to conclude, both from accumulated ethnographic and ex-member data, that brainwashing happens to at least some people in some cults.
Incidence and Consequences
Finally, we come to the aspect of brainwashing theory for which our data are sketchiest, the one most in need of further research. How often does brainwashing actually occur (incidence) 2 and how significant are its consequences?
Defining what we mean by incidence is far from a simple matter. In the reporting of brainwashing there are numerous false positives and false negatives, and no consensus as to whether these errors lead to net underestimation or net overestimation. Several factors can produce false positives. Unless the term is precisely defined to respondents, some answers will reflect folk definitions of the term. It might mean little more to them than that they believe they were not treated nicely by their former cults. Other respondents may share our definition of the term, but answer falsely out of a desire to lay claim to the victim role or out of anger towards the cult. False negatives also can occur for several reasons. Most significantly, current members (as well as ex-members who still sympathize with the cult) may deny brainwashing to protect the cult. Others may understand the term differently than do the interviewers, and still others may be embarrassed to admit that they had been brainwashed. These errors can be minimized but hardly eliminated by in-depth interviewing in which respondents are asked not merely to label but to describe the process they went through.
There is insufficient space in this chapter to discuss these important methodological issues. I will therefore merely state the criteria upon which I base my own measurement. I treat incidence as a ratio of X to Y. in Y are included all those who were fully committed members of a cult for a year or more, but who are currently no longer affiliated with any cult. 3 In X are included those members of the Y set who both claim to have been brainwashed and who are able to give evidence of the particulars of their own brainwashing experience (at least through phase 2) consistent with those discussed in the previous section of this chapter.
In the handful of systematic studies that have been done, estimates of brainwashing incidence seem to cluster around 10% (plus or minus 5%) of former cult members (Katchen 1997; Wright 1987; Zablocki, Hostetler et. al. in press). However, there is tremendous variation in estimates for this number given by people working in this field. Ignoring those scholars who deny that brainwashing is ever attempted or ever successful, I have heard anecdotal estimates as low as <0.1% and as high as 80%, given by ethnographers.
Stuart Wright’s (1987) data on voluntarily exiting ex-members indicate that 9% say they had been brainwashed. This study is noteworthy because it examined ex-members of a variety of different cults rather than just one. It relied, however, on each respondent’s own definition of what it meant to be brainwashed.
My national longitudinal study (Zablocki 1980) relied primarily on a two-stage sampling procedure in which geographical regions were first selected and groups then sampled within these regions. I have followed 404 cases, most of them surveyed at least twice over intervals extending up to twenty-five years. Of those who were interviewed, 11% meet the criteria for having been brainwashed discussed above. Interestingly, all those in my sample who claim to have been brainwashed stick to their claims even after many years have passed. My own study is the only one that I know of that has repeatedly interviewed members and former members over several decades.
Another issue is whether overall incidence among the ex-member population is the most meaningful statistic to strive for given the heterogeneity among cults and types of cult member. Cults vary in the proportion of their members they attempt to brainwash from 0% to 100%. Since brainwashing significantly increases exit costs (according to hypothesis 8), it follows that examples of brainwashed individuals will be somewhat over-represented among current cult members and somewhat under-represented among ex-members.
The incidence, among ex-members, is higher (24% in my sample) when the relevant population is confined to a cult’s ‘inner circle,’ the core membership surrounding the leader. In an important and neglected article, Wexler (1995) makes the point that it is simplistic to think of a cult as comprising only a leader and a homogeneous mass of followers. Most cults have a third category of membership, a corps of lieutenants, surrounding the leader, which Wexler refers to as a ‘decision elite.’ It follows from the hypotheses discussed earlier that we should expect attempts to brainwash to be concentrated among members in this category.
One study suggests that incidence is also higher among adults who grew up in cults (Katchen 1997). My own ethnographic observation supports the last point, and further suggests that cults under extreme stress become more likely to engage in brainwashing or to extend already existing brainwashing programs to a much wider circle of members.
With regard to consequences, we must distinguish between obedience consequences and traumatic consequences. Uncritical obedience is extinguished rapidly, certainly within a year of exiting if not sooner. The popular idea that former cult members can be programmed to carry obedience compulsions for specific acts to be performed long after membership in the cult has ceased is, in my opinion, wholly a myth based largely on a movie, The Manchurian Candidate. I know of nobody who has ever seen even a single successful instance of such programming. However, many brainwashed ex-members report that they would not feel safe visiting the cult, fearing that old habits of obedience might quickly be reinstilled.
There is evidence, in my data set, of persistent post-traumatic effects. The majority of those who claim to have been brainwashed say that they never fully get over the psychological insult, although its impact on their lives diminishes over time. The ability to form significant bonds with others takes a long time to heal, and about a third wind up (as much as a quarter of a century later) living alone with few significant social ties. This is more than double the proportion of controls (cult participants who appeared not to have been brainwashed) that are socially isolated twenty-five years later. Visible effects also linger in the ability to form new belief commitments. In about half there is no new commitment to a belief community after two years. By twenty-five years, this has improved, although close to 25% still have formed no such commitment. Occupationally, they tend to do somewhat better, but often not until having separated from the cult for five to ten years.
We can conclude from all of the above that those who claim that cultic brainwashing does not exist and those who claim it is pandemic to cults are both wrong. Brainwashing is an administratively costly and not always effective procedure that some cults use on some of their members. A few cults rely heavily on brainwashing and put all their members through it. Other cults do not use the procedure at all. During periods of stressful confrontation, either with external enemies or among internal factions, or in attempts to cope with failed apocalyptic prophecies, it is not uncommon for brainwashing suddenly to come to play a central role in the cult’s attempts to achieve order and social control. At such times, risk of uncritically obedient violent aggression or mass suicide may be heightened.
Hopefully, it will be clear from this chapter that brainwashing has absolutely nothing to do with the overthrow of ‘free will’ or any other such mystical or non-scientific concept. People who have been brainwashed are ‘not free’ only in the sense that all of us, hemmed in on all sides as we are by social and cultural constraints, are not free. The kinds of social constraints involved in brainwashing are much more intense than those involved in socializing many of us to eat with knives and forks rather than our hands. But the constraints involved differ only in magnitude and focus, not in kind. Any brainwashed cult member always retains the ability to leave the cult or defy the cult as long as he or she is willing to pay the mental and emotional price (which may be considerable) that the cult is able to exact for so doing.
As I finish this chapter, a number of European nations are debating the advisability of anti-brainwashing laws, some of which eventually may be used to inhibit freedom of religious expression. In light of this trend a number of colleagues have criticized me, not on the grounds that my facts are incorrect, but that my timing is unfortunate. One socked me with the following, particularly troubling, complaint: “Ben, if you had discovered evidence, in 1942, of a higher prevalence among Jews than non-Jews of the Tay-Sachs genetic defect, would you have published your findings in a German biology journal?” Ultimately, although I respect the sentiments behind my colleagues’ concerns, I must respectfully disagree with their fastidious caution. It never works to refuse to look at frightening facts. They only become larger, more frightening, and more mystically permeated when banished to one’s peripheral vision. A direct, honest acknowledgement of the limited but significant role that brainwashing plays in producing uncritical obedience in some cults will serve, in the long run, to lessen paranoid reactions to ‘the threat of the cults,’ rather than increase them.
- Bruderhof members, particularly those in responsible positions, are never fully trusted until they have gone through the ordeal of having been put into the great exclusion (being sent away) and then spiritually fought their way back to the community. Such exclusion serves as the ultimate test of deployability. Is the conversion deep enough to hold even when away from daily reinforcement by participation in community life? The degree to which the Bruderhof stresses the importance of this ideal serves as additional evidence that the creation of deployable agents is a major aim of the socialization process.
- A related question is what portion of those a cult attempts to brainwash actually get brainwashed. No data have been collected on this issue to the best of my knowledge.
- I do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary mode of exit in my measure because my sample includes only an insignificant number (less than one-half of one percent) who were deprogrammed out of their cults.