The Brainwashing Controversy



The concept "brainwashing" first came into public use during the Korean War in the 1950s as an explanation for why a few American GIs defected to the Communists. The two most authoritative studies of the Korean War defections concluded that "brainwashing" was an inappropriate concept to account for this renunciation of U.S. citizenship.

When several new religions came into high profile during the youth counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s the concept of "brainwashing" was again employed as a culturally acceptable explanation to account for the fact that some idealistic "flower children" came under the influence of "cult" leaders.
A quarter-of-a-century of scholarly research on why people join new religions has come to essentially the same conclusion as the Korean War studies-"brainwashing" is not a viable concept to describe the dynamics of affiliation with new religions. Defenders of "brainwashing" have used other concepts like "mind control" and "thought reform," but they have failed to produce a scholarly literature to support their claims. Thus, whatever euphemisms may be employed, the basic conclusion against the brainwashing thesis is not altered.

Still, the mass media continues to report claims of "brainwashing" as if the alleged phenomenon were real. And, as a result, the concept of "brainwashing" sustains considerable currency in popular culture. It is, to be sure, a powerful metaphor. "Brainwashing" communicates disapproval of influence by persons, or groups, the user of the term considers to be illegitimate.

Given the power of this concept to communicate ill-gotten influence, the concept of "brainwashing" will almost certainly remain a central component of the controversy about religious movements.

Discrimination, or legal action, against religious groups because someone doesn't like them is clearly a violation of the free exercise of religion, a human right increasingly recognized around the world. But the claim of "brainwashing" shrouds the discrimination by claiming that religious groups are victimizing recruits and potential recruits by employing powerful means of manipulation that are extremely difficult to resist.

Social scientists who study religious movements do not reject the general proposition that religious groups (old and new) are capable of having considerable influence over their members. Indeed, most argue that "influence" is ubiquitous in human cultures. But they argue, further, that the influence exerted in "cults" is not very different from influence that is present in practically every arena of life.

This section on the Brainwashing Controversy presents materials that will illumine the history of the concept, provide examples of materials that have fueled public debate as it has periodically raged over the past quarter-of-a-century, explore the scientific evidence that is pertinent to the debate, and offer an extended bibliography. The materials presented here will permit interested persons to explore the controversy in considerable depth.

My own perspective is squarely in the social science camp in opposition to the "brainwashing" thesis. Most persons and groups who promote the "brainwashing"/"mind control" perspective do not acknowledge the existence of a scholarly literature that challenges their perspective. Or, if they do acknowledge the existence of a scholarly literature, they dismiss it with ad hominem arguments. We offer ample writings that are representative of both scholarly and ideological perspectives and leave it to readers to weigh the evidence themselves.

I would also invite readers to explore my course lectures on topics relevant to this issue. The most directly relevant lecture is on the topic of brainwashing. A second lecture on influence highlights arguments set forth in a popular book by Robert Cialdini entitled Influence. The objective of this lecture is to raise students' consciousness of the prevalence of influence in every arena of life. Other lectures explore social science literatures that illumine the questions of why people join new religious movements and why most of them leave after a short period of time.

Let me also encourage you to write me with your suggestions for materials to be included in this section on the brainwashing controversy.
Jeffrey K. Hadden
Last modified: 11/26/00