Brainwashing and Deprogramming


They reached their peak in the 1980s, a few elite specialists called deprogrammers. Their hotshot skill was as a sort of psychological exorcist, an expert at reversing the effects of brainwashing. Young people who were believed to have been forcibly brainwashed into joining cults, criminal organizations, or fringe movements could be deprogrammed in intense sessions, and thus restored to their former identities and value systems. It was a radical element of society that nobody talked about much, the sort of thing that someone might tell you about in hushed tones. The idea that it’s possible to be brainwashed is a frightening one, and the notion of heroic deprogrammers repairing the damage is pretty remarkable. But the skeptical mind is forced to wonder whether brainwashing is really as effective as depicted, and whether dramatic deprogramming is truly the only answer.

Hollywood brainwashing usually takes the form of a virtuous person converted against their will into a mindless assassin. The Manchurian Candidate, The Bourne Identity, and even The Naked Gun have all followed this familiar formula. Deprogramming often made real life more thrilling than the movies, with midnight abductions, duct tape imprisonment in a basement, and harsh, sleep-deprived, antagonistic grillings.

There’s a difference between brainwashing and simply convincing someone of something. Let’s say I have my own religion or club or whatever it is, and I explain the benefits to you; and after some discussion, you eventually decide that it sounds pretty good and decide to join. That’s not brainwashing. Brainwashing requires a few specific elements. First, the beliefs have to be pretty radical. There’s no clear delineation of what this means, but generally it’s something that’s significantly beyond anything you would have come to believe on your own without my influence. Second, my efforts have to be systematic. A lot of mere convincing is systematic; telemarketing pitches, for example. A lot of sales pitches follow a written script that includes branches and responses to typical objections. The difference with brainwashing is that the system is designed to change your beliefs, not to sell you something or get you to vote for a particular candidate. Finally, there must be some aspect of the pressure that is forcible. If you have the option to stand up and walk out any time you want, my pressure is not considered brainwashing. The definition requires me to apply some kind of pressure that eliminates your free will to leave my sphere of influence. Brainwashing is a forced, systematic, radical change of belief.

Take a group like the Hare Krishnas. They convince intelligent adults to shave their heads, wear robes, and forego worldly possessions. That’s pretty radical. And, their recruitment methods are absolutely systematic. However, they generally don’t force this onto anyone, so it’s not brainwashing.

Scientology is well known for its highly structured, methodical, and relentless recruitment. But for ordinary members, the beliefs they advocate are not at all radical; little different from Oprah-esque self-help Kool-Aid. Their bizarre space opera beliefs are kept from new members. It’s not until you’re already in and approach the cult-within-a-cult, the Sea Org, that their recruitment qualifies as true brainwashing. The Sea Org is notorious for confining and isolating new members, imposing the uniforms and cutting off ties to family and friends. Radical, systematic, and forced.

Patty Hearst is one of the most famous cases of brainwashing. A wealthy heiress, she claimed to have been kidnapped by a group of young political radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, with whom she later committed a number of bank robberies and killings. She was convicted of bank robbery despite her defense that she had been a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages develop sympathy for their captors and tend to support them. But on the theory that she was not responsible because her indoctrination into the group did indeed qualify as brainwashing, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and later she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Brainwashing has also been practiced in wartime, most infamously by the Chinese upon American POWs during the Korean war. Their goal was to convert the prisoners into spokesmen for communism. This was done in three basic steps, all under great physical duress and exhaustion. First was to break down the prisoner’s sense of self, eventually getting him to admit that he’s not a killer, not here to hurt people, that it was wrong for him to come to Korea as a soldier. Finally his identity was in crisis. The second step was to offer him the possibility of salvation, along with some small gift, like his first drink of water in days; he need only reject his former beliefs. The third phase was to rebuild the new self, with growing rewards as he embraced each new aspect of his “good” new identity. This was brainwashing at its most pure: radical, systematic, and forced.

After the war, knowledge of this brainwashing process reached the pop culture consciousness. Over the next few decades, through hippie culture and New Age, cults began popping up more visibly than ever before, and a lot of young people experimented with them. This new idea of “brainwashing” was the first explanation that many parents reached for: “My baby would never join that strange cult; he must have been brainwashed.”

And when there’s a need, the market is quick to provide a solution. Deprogrammers appeared on the scene, presenting themselves as hired gun intervention superheroes, sometimes charging tens of thousands of dollars. They promised to reverse-engineer the brainwashing and restore the former identity. The pioneer was Ted Patrick, whose own son was (as he described it) “psychologically kidnapped” by a cult. He was a lifelong activist who, when faced with this new threat, boldly created the whole subculture of deprogramming. He was hired hundreds of times by aggrieved parents. Patrick’s methods began with a kidnapping, followed by physical restraint and forced counseling.

Like Patrick, many deprogrammers did not have any formal counseling credentials, and so the process itself had much more in common with the Chinese brainwashing than it had with any legitimate psychotherapy. They would begin not by breaking down the subject’s identity, but that of the cult leader, eventually getting the subject to recognize the reasons the cult leader has been rejected by moral society. At last the subject would see himself as allied with the deprogrammers against the cult leader.

Deprogramming was quite sticky from a legal standpoint. Obviously, kidnapping and false imprisonment are illegal, and many deprogrammers were convicted, including Patrick himself. The American Civil Liberties Union often took up the cases of deprogramming subjects, pointing out that they had joined the cults on their own free will, and it was the deprogrammers who were the only criminals involved. However, courts often found that parents and their hired deprogrammers were acting properly, since they believed (rightly or wrongly) that their children were in immediate danger. Usually the children were legally adults, and so police couldn’t get involved with their disappearances; parents were on their own.

But as it turns out, deprogramming was never really necessary in the first place. The majority of research into actual cases of brainwashing has found that the effect is temporary at its best, and completely ineffective at its worst. Sociologists note that no cults have ever made any significant progress, thus demonstrating that any brainwashing techniques they may try to employ are not very effective. According to census numbers and the religions that people report, even the most aggressive mind control recruiters, like Scientology, grossly overstate their membership. In 1961, two books came out by prominent researchers who had studied the effects of the Chinese brainwashing on American POWs. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China) and psychologist Edgar Schein (Coercive Persuasion: A socio-psychological analysis of the “brainwashing” of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists) both found that most of the POWs had simply gone through the motions of saying and acting the way their captors wanted as a way to avoid punishment and obtain the rewards. Those few who actually did adopt the communist beliefs held them for only a very short time, and quickly reverted to their previous belief systems once they left captivity. Many deprogramming subjects turned out to have also been pretending to go along with the deprogramming, and returned to their cults shortly afterwards.

The U.S. court system agrees, now ruling claims of brainwashing as inadmissible, similar to lie detector results. According to what the legal system calls the Frye test or Frye standard, sciences are only ruled as admissible evidence when they’re in line with the general scientific consensus on the subject. In the case of brainwashing, this consensus comes from the American Psychological Association, which in 1987, withdrew a report they’d commissioned called the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control. Their withdrawal was based on their finding that the existence of brainwashing was not based on scientific and methodological rigor. They didn’t say that it doesn’t exist; they said there is insufficient evidence to conclude that it does.

Consequently, when convicted Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo tried the “insanity by brainwashing” defense in 2003, it didn’t work. He would have had to prove that he’d been sufficiently dissociated from what he was doing that he had no conscious intention of killing the victims at the time he pulled the trigger. Malvo had undoubtedly been encouraged and indoctrinated by his fellow sniper, the older John Allen Muhammad, but the court found that his actions could not be excused. This finding endorses Patty Hearst’s conviction, as it can’t plausibly be argued that she had no conscious intention of robbing the bank, when she had numerous opportunities to walk away.

So to sum it all up, brainwashing is probably not something you need to be too worried about. Although it’s been tried and taken very seriously, the evidence of its effectiveness simply isn’t there. This makes deprogramming the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Deprogramming is really just brainwashing under another name, and equally ineffective. Their midnight abductions may have been spectacular, and their results impressive; but when you consider that their subjects were just ordinary young people who had made conscious decisions to try some new far-out lifestyle, the value of understanding the real science becomes clear. Of brainwashing and deprogramming, you should always be skeptical.

By Brian Dunning