The Manchurian Candidate

Mind control (also known as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, or menticide) refers to the use of unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated. The term has been applied to any tactic, psychological or otherwise, which can be seen as subverting an individual’s sense of control over their own thinking, behavior, emotions or decision making.

Theories of brainwashing and of mind control were originally developed to explain how totalitarian regimes appeared to succeed systematically in indoctrinating prisoners of war through propaganda and torture techniques. These theories were later expanded and modified by psychologists including Margaret Singer, to explain a wider range of phenomena, especially conversions to cults (new religious movements, NRMs). A third-generation theory proposed by sociologist Ben Zablocki focused on the utilization of mind control to retain members of NRMs.

The OED records its earliest known English-language usage of brainwashing in an article by Edward Hunter in a 1950 ‘Miami News’ article. During the Korean War, Hunter, who worked at the time both as a journalist and as a U.S. intelligence agent, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing. The Chinese term (literally ‘wash brain’) was originally used to describe methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the Maoist regime in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary imperialist mindset into ‘right-thinking’ members of the new Chinese social system. To that end the regime developed techniques that would break down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, information retained in the mind and individual values.

Chosen techniques included dehumanizing of individuals by keeping them in filth, sleep deprivation, partial sensory deprivation, psychological harassment, inculcation of guilt and group social pressure. The term punned on the Taoist custom of ‘cleansing/washing the heart/mind’ prior to conducting certain ceremonies or entering certain holy places. Hunter used the term to explain why, unlike in earlier wars, a relatively high percentage of American GIs defected to the enemy side after becoming prisoners-of-war.

It was believed that the Chinese in North Korea used such techniques to disrupt the ability of captured troops to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment. British radio operator Robert W. Ford and British army Colonel James Carne also claimed that the Chinese subjected them to brainwashing techniques during their war-era imprisonment. The most prominent case in the U.S. was that of Frank Schwable, who confessed to having participated in germ warfare while in captivity.

After the war, two studies of the repatriation of American prisoners of war by Robert Jay Lifton and by Edgar Schein concluded that brainwashing (called ‘thought reform’ by Lifton and ‘coercive persuasion’ by Schein) had a transient effect. Both researchers found that the Chinese mainly used coercive persuasion to disrupt the ability of the prisoners to organize and maintain morale and hence to escape. By placing the prisoners under conditions of physical and social deprivation and disruption, and then by offering them more comfortable situations such as better sleeping quarters, better food, warmer clothes or blankets, the Chinese did succeed in getting some of the prisoners to make anti-American statements. Nevertheless, the majority of prisoners did not actually adopt Communist beliefs, instead behaving as though they did in order to avoid the plausible threat of extreme physical abuse.

Both researchers also concluded that such coercive persuasion succeeded only on a minority of POWs, and that the end-result of such coercion remained very unstable, as most of the individuals reverted to their previous condition soon after they left the coercive environment. In 1961 they both published books expanding on these findings. More recent writers including Mikhail Heller have suggested that Lifton’s model of brainwashing may throw light on the use of mass propaganda in other communist states such as the former Soviet Union.

In a summary published in 1963, Edgar Schein gave a background history of the precursor origins of the brainwashing phenomenon: ‘Thought reform contains elements which are evident in Chinese culture (emphasis on interpersonal sensitivity, learning by rote and self-cultivation); in methods of extracting confessions well known in the Papal Inquisition (13th century) and elaborated through the centuries, especially by the Russian secret police; in methods of organizing corrective prisons, mental hospitals and other institutions for producing value change; in methods used by religious sects, fraternal orders, political elites or primitive societies for converting or initiating new members. Thought reform techniques are consistent with psychological principles but were not explicitly derived from such principles.’

Mind-control theories from the Korean War era came under criticism in subsequent years. According to forensic psychologist Dick Anthony, the CIA invented the concept of ‘brainwashing’ as a propaganda strategy to undercut communist claims that American POWs in Korean communist camps had voluntarily expressed sympathy for communism. Anthony stated that definitive research demonstrated that fear and duress, not brainwashing, caused western POWs to collaborate. He argued that the books of Edward Hunter (whom he identified as a secret CIA ‘psychological warfare specialist’ passing as a journalist) pushed the CIA brainwashing theory onto the general public. He further asserted that for twenty years, starting in the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted secret research (notably including Project MKULTRA) in an attempt to develop practical brainwashing techniques, and that their attempt failed.

The U.S. military and government laid charges of ‘brainwashing’ in an effort to undermine detailed confessions made by U.S. military personnel to war crimes, including biological warfare, against the Koreans. Frank Schwable, Chief of Staff of the First Marine Air Wing was shot down in North Korea. After Chinese radio broadcasts claimed to quote him admitting to participating in germ warfare, United Nations commander Gen. Mark W. Clark said: ‘Whether these statements ever passed the lips of these unfortunate men is doubtful. If they did, however, too familiar are the mind-annihilating methods of these Communists in extorting whatever words they want …. The men themselves are not to blame, and they have my deepest sympathy for having been used in this abominable way.’

In 1956 the U.S Department of the Army published a report entitled ‘Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War’ which called brainwashing a ‘popular misconception.’ The report states ‘exhaustive research of several government agencies failed to reveal even one conclusively documented case of ‘brainwashing’ of an American prisoner of war in Korea.’ While US POW’s captured by North Korea were brutalized with starvation, beatings, forced death marches, exposure to extremes of temperature, binding in stress positions, and withholding of medical care, the abuse had no relation to indoctrination or collecting intelligence information ‘in which they [North Korea] were not particularly interested.’

In contrast American POW’s in the custody of the Chinese Communists did face a concerted interrogation and indoctrination program–but the Chinese did not employ deliberate physical abuse. The Chinese elicited information using tricks such as harmless-seeming written questionnaires, followed by interviews. The ‘most insidious’ and effective Chinese technique according to the US Army Report was a convivial display of false friendship:

‘[w]hen an American soldier was captured by the Chinese, he was given a vigorous handshake and a pat on the back. The enemy ‘introduced’ himself as a friend of the ‘workers’ of America . . . in many instances the Chinese did not search the American captives, but frequently offered them American cigarettes. This display of friendship caught most Americans totally off-guard and they never recovered from the initial impression made by the Chinese. . . . [A]fter the initial contact with the enemy, some Americans seemed to believe that the enemy was sincere and harmless. They relaxed and permitted themselves to be lulled into a well-disguised trap [of cooperating with] the cunning enemy.’

It was this surprising, disarmingly friendly treatment, that ‘was successful to some degree,’ the report concludes, in undermining hatred of the communists among American soldiers, in persuading some to sign anti-American confessions, and even leading a few to reject repatriation and remain in Communist China.

After the Korean War, applications of mind control theories in the United States shifted in focus from politics to religion. From the 1960s an increasing number of American youths started to come into contact with new religious movements, and some who converted suddenly adopted beliefs and behaviors that differed greatly from those of their families and friends; in some cases they neglected or even broke contact with their loved ones. In the 1970s the anti-cult movement applied mind control theories to explain these sudden and seemingly dramatic religious conversions. The media was quick to follow suit, and social scientists sympathetic to the anti-cult movement, who were usually psychologists, developed more sophisticated models of brainwashing

While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo discusses mind control as ‘the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes,’ and he suggests that any human being is susceptible to such manipulation.

Approaching the subject from the perspective of neuroscience and social psychology, Kathleen Taylor suggests that manipulation of the prefrontal cortex activates ‘brainwashing,’ rendering a person more susceptible to black-and-white thinking. Meanwhile, in ‘Influence, Science and Practice,’ social psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that mind control is possible through the covert exploitation of the unconscious rules that underlie and facilitate healthy human social interactions. He states that common social rules can be used to prey upon the unwary. Using categories, he offers specific examples of both mild and extreme mind control (both one on one and in groups), notes the conditions under which each social rule is most easily exploited for false ends, and offers suggestions on how to resist such methods.

Many in the anti-cult movement advocated or engaged in ‘deprogramming’ as a method to liberate group members from apparent brainwashing. However, the practice of deprogramming fell out of favor in the West and was largely superseded by exit counseling. Exit counselor Steven Hassan promotes what he calls the ‘BITE’ model in his book ‘Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves.’ Hassan claims that cults recruit and retain members by using, among other things, systematic deception, behavior modification, the withholding of information, and emotionally intense persuasion techniques (such as the induction of phobias).

He refers to all of these techniques collectively as ‘mind control.’ Critics of mind control theories caution against the broader implications of these conversion models. In the 1998 report on ‘So-called Sects and Psychogroups’ in Germany, a review was made of the BITE model that concluded: ‘control of these areas of action is an inevitable component of social interactions in a group or community. The social control that is always associated with intense commitment to a group must therefore be clearly distinguished from the exertion of intentional, methodical influence for the express purpose of manipulation.’ Indeed virtually all of these models share the notion that converts are in fact innocent ‘victims’ of mind-control techniques. Hassan suggests that even the cult members manipulating the new converts may themselves be sincerely misled people. By considering NRM members innocent ‘victims’ of psychological coercion these theories open the door for psychological treatments.

The anti-cult movement is not without its critics. Although most scholars seem to accept that brainwashing exists, a minority of sociologists who commonly refer to themselves as ‘sociologists of religion’ assert that the anti-cult movement uses brainwashing to its own financial gain. Perhaps notable among the sociologists of religion is Eileen Barker, who criticizes theories of conversion precisely because they function to justify costly interventions such as deprogramming or exit counseling. For similar reasons, Barker and other scholars have criticized mental health professionals like Margaret Singer for accepting lucrative expert witness jobs in court cases involving NRMs. Singer was perhaps the most publicly notable scholarly proponent of ‘cult’ brainwashing theories, and she became the focal point of the relative demise of those same theories within her discipline. The anti-cult movement and scholars counter that Barker and other sociologists of religion are frequently paid by cults to provide legal services on their behalf.

James Richardson observes that if the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that NRMs would have high growth rates, yet in fact most have not had notable success in recruitment. Most adherents participate for only a short time, and the success in retaining members is limited. For this and other reasons, sociologists of religion including David Bromley and Anson Shupe consider the idea that ‘cults’ are brainwashing American youth to be ‘implausible.’ Scholars researching NRMs have argued and established to the satisfaction of courts that there exists no scientific theory, generally accepted and based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing theories as advanced by the anti-cult movement.

Other scholars disagree with this consensus among sociologists of religion. Benjamin Zablocki asserts that it’s obvious that brainwashing occurs, at least to any objective observer; the ‘real sociological issue,’ he states, is whether ‘brainwashing occurs frequently enough to be considered an important social problem.’ According to Zablocki, Richardson misunderstands brainwashing, conceiving of it as a recruiting process, instead of a retaining process. So although Richardson’s data are correct, Zablocki states, properly understood, brainwashing does not imply that NRMs will have a notable success in recruitment; so the criticism is inapt. Perhaps most notably, Zablocki says, the sheer number of former cult leaders and ex-members who attest to brainwashing in interviews (performed in accordance with guidelines of the National Institute of Mental Health and National Science Foundation) is too large to be a result of anything other than a genuine phenomenon.

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