Hey everyone. I’ve been talking about Scientology and destructive cults for some time now and we have discussed the concepts of undue influence, coercive persuasion and mind control or brainwashing, but I’ve never really dived deep into this and talked about what this is and isn’t. As Justice Potter Stewart famously said about hard core pornography, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it and the same might be said for brainwashing. But is it really so easy to see and understand? Are there pitfalls in talking about it vs free will and an individual’s rights to decide and choose what is best for his or her own life? What is the dividing line between personal choice and mind control?
The term brainwashing comes from the Chinese term xinao, which literally means “wash brain” and refers to the idea of cleansing or purifying a person’s thoughts so they are right thinking and therefore right acting. The first serious studies of this subject were conducted in the early 1950s, the most famous and public of them written up by Robert J. Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study in ‘Brainwashing’ in China which fed into the then-popular notion of the creation of a Manchurian candidate. Those were the Red Scare days when McCarthyism had taken strong hold in Washington and anyone and everyone could possibly be a Soviet or Communist spy. Brainwashing was a theory which explained how POWs during the Korean War could be made to issue public statements against their country of origin and the government they were fighting for. The theory soon proved to be a fact when the techniques of overt and covert manipulation were broken down and examined more closely.
Lifton’s book was published in 1961 but five years earlier, the US Army had concluded that brainwashing was not really a thing. This was very surprising since the Army’s report shows that it most certainly was a thing. In the pamphlet entitled Communist Treatment of Prisoners of War – A Historical Survey, Senator James O. Eastland comments in the introduction about the commonality of experience between Russian, Chinese and Korean POWs and how the Geneva Convention was routinely violated in their treatment since the POWs were considered political pawns more than human beings. The report itself states:
“In the field of interrogation and indoctrination, the Senate Government Operations Committee’s investigation of ‘brainwashing’ concluded that the popular conception of this practice was not correct. While it was true that the Communists had considerable skill in the extraction of information from prisoners, the investigation rendered the opinion that the Communists did not possess new and remarkable techniques of psychological manipulation. In connection with these practices, the Chinese Communists and North Koreans, according to the committee, violated … the Geneva Convention with their use of isolation techniques, their shackling of prisoners, their exposure of prisoners to the curiosity of local populations, their inadequate medical attention, poor clothing, gross inadequacy of foods, improper hospital facilities, and physical mistreatment of prisoners. Coercive interrogation and extraction of false confessions were other practices employed.”
It’s hard to understand how the writers of this study came to the conclusion that there were no well documented cases of brainwashing when in the same study, a victim of Chinese and Korean techniques was quoted as follows:
“Medieval tortures are nothing in comparison to the atomic-age torture of brainwashing. It amputates your soul and grafts another one upon you. Persuasion has taken the place of punishment. The victims must approve and justify in their own eyes the measures which crush them. They must recognize themselves guilty and believe in the crimes which they have not committed. I have seen men leave camp who were dead and did not know it, for they had lost their own personality and had become slogan-reciting robots. I myself nearly lost my reason.”
The only logical reason I can come to myself about this is that the Army’s conclusion was perhaps made in an effort to downplay the impact and significance of the psychological manipulation and physical torture which Communist countries were willing to carry out on their POWs, and also perhaps to publicly deny that such techniques were effective while US government-funded programs to investigate the matter further were already underway, namely the CIA’s MK-Ultra program. The head of this program, Sydney Gottlieb aka Joseph Schneider, was quoted in the book Carnival of Shadows by RJ Ellroy as saying that Gottlieb “hoped to find a technique that would crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit to anything.” A simple Google search will show you the depths to which Gottlieb was willing to go to achieve this purpose and it is a shameful black mark on the US government that they sanctioned this program and allowed it to go on as long as it did. Not that the Americans were the only ones involved.
Of course, the Korean War was not the beginning of these techniques. Nazis were well at it back in World War II, having carried out brutal experiments on human beings of all kinds. The truth is that torture is very likely as old as Mankind itself, since we’ve always had a bit of an aversion to pain. If one looks back into history, one finds many examples of people being convinced to switch sides in military or espionage conflicts, their reasoning not always the most sound.
The legal morass surrounding brainwashing is old and difficult. A defense of diminished capacity, related in a way to the insanity plea, has really only been used in murder cases while undue influence is a legally recognized term but mainly applies only to contract law and to challenge last wills. As far as I can see, undue influence has never been used as a challenge against someone else corrupting, intimidating or otherwise controlling another in say a religious cult situation.
Now the focus of this history has been on brutal treatment in concentration and POW camps and there’s a point to that. It takes an incredible amount of determination, force and effort to bend someone else’s will and to control what they say and do, even if only for a short period of time. Our psychology is complex and unique from person to person, but it’s pretty non-controversial to say that the human mind is tough and can endure a tremendous amount of abuse before it collapses entirely and won’t work on its own anymore. People bounce back and when they have been persuaded against their own principles, morals or long-held beliefs, they tend to recover and go back to their old thought patterns fairly quickly. So the use of force to persuade someone to change their mind is something I’d say you would have to use in reverse proportion to how much the person is resisting your efforts. When you can get someone to cooperate with the indoctrination and believe that it is for their own good, the use of force falls to almost nothing but all the other techniques that are used from the concentration camps are still very much in play. So let’s take a look at those.
In her book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer writes:
“How cult leaders and other clever operators get people to do their bidding seems arcane and mysterious to most persons, but I find there is nothing esoteric about it at all. There are no secret drugs or potions. It is just words and group pressures, put together in packaged forms. Modern-day manipulators use methods of persuasion employed since the days of the cavemen, but the masterful con artists of today have hit upon a way to put the techniques together in packages that are especially successful. As a result, thought reform, as a form of influence and persuasion, falls on the extreme end of a continuum that also includes education as we typically see it, advertising, propaganda and indoctrination.”
In the past I have often made comparisons between what destructive cult leaders do and what is fed to the public at large by politicians, mass news media and Madison Avenue. Thinking of coercive influence as a spectrum or scale is a great way to think about the varying degrees of force and effort made to change hearts and minds and this model also shows how it is not always destructive to do so. Intent matters, although maybe not as much as some manipulators would like to think since it’s so very easy for most people to justify lying or deceiving others if they think they are doing it for the greater good. What is more important is (1) how aware the person is about what is being done to them, (2) the person is being given enough information to give truly informed consent and (3) how much free will they are allowed to use in deciding to continue or stop participating in the activity. To the degree any of these factors are eclipsed is the degree that the person is being unknowingly or unwillingly coerced. For me, that’s the real difference between personal choice and coercion or undue influence because a person can’t make good or rational or sound decisions if the data they are operating on is faulty or just plain wrong.
The process of cult indoctrination, or any reshaping of someone’s personality, is a slow, gradual process. There may be a sudden shift of attention and interest in a person when they join any new group and they are naturally excited at all of the possibilities of what they imagine they will gain from it. In new romantic relations, they even call this New Relationship Energy because it is so pronounced and noticeable. But in the area of thought reform, what is wanted is not so much the person’s excitement and enthusiasm, but their willingness to compromise their principles and replace their own ideas with those the manipulator wants them thinking. Their enthusiastic approach to their new found area of interest, whatever it may be, is something that helps manipulators since they are depending on the person’s imagination to create justifications and rationale for why they are changing or even upending their whole life for this new cause. The bottom line is that the manipulator wants to change the person from what they are, into an obedient follower who will not question their authority and will fall lockstep in line with the rest of the group members, ideally with the idea that everything they are doing was their idea in the first place, not something they were manipulated into doing.
In Singer’s book, she identifies six conditions which must be present for thought reform to take hold. These are:
1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
Group pressures play a big role in this. When a person joins a new group and is surrounded by what they believe are loving, caring or compassionate people, new friends who are only looking out for what is good for the person, he or she will naturally filter out most of the warning signs or red flags they may see. The human need for social interaction and approval can overcome any initial doubts or reservations, especially when those fears are acknowledged by other group members saying “Oh sure, I had my doubts too when I was new, but you see I’m still here and loving this and it’s great. Don’t worry, just keep doing it and you’ll see.” Playing on this newfound trust and understanding, the group members and group leader, either in person or through his written or recorded words, will reassure the person that all is well and good and there is nothing going on that is not perfectly natural and safe.
All of this was done to me starting on day one of showing up at a Scientology organization to find out what it was all about. When anyone not involved with Scientology would question my involvement or how it was changing me, it was easy to ignore them because the Scientologists were constantly telling me how much better I was because of Scientology, including my parents. I know I’m not alone in how this was done and having been a Scientology staff member myself, I know for a fact that love bombing, reassurances and carefully watching over new members to make sure they “make it” is all very premeditated activity.
2. Control the person’s time and, if possible, physical environment.
One of the biggest buttons that gets pushed in Scientology is time. People never seem to have enough time to get done all the things they want, especially when they have hectic jobs or children or a thousand other interests that may occupy their attention. We would tell people that the best way to deal with not having enough time is to invest their time in doing Scientology and that would put them at cause over time, an imaginary state of being where it was implied or sometimes stated outright that they would be able to control time itself. The idea, of course, was to get the person to participate more in Scientology and less in anything else. Many of Hubbard’s writings concern the urgency of Scientology’s mission, how nothing else is more important and how it is an utter waste of one’s time to go to college, particpate in non-Scientology activities or basically do anything but Scientology courses and counselling as much as humanely possible. We used to push this incessantly and with a great deal of passion on the paying public Scientologists, making it our business to be involved in their business and trying very hard to control every aspect of their life. Often we succeeded. It’s almost a no-brainer to see how control of people’s time and environment becomes even more rigorous when they become Scientology staff members or Sea Org members.
3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear and dependency.
No Scientologist would ever in a million years tell you that they are controlled through fear or powerlessness or that they are dependent on Scientology for their happiness. Yet if you dig deeper and start asking them more sharp and pointed questions, you’ll soon find out that they are terrified of not making it to the top of Hubbard’s Bridge to Total Freedom before they die, lest they forget everything they have learned in Scientology and have to somehow stumble their way back in again in a future lifetime to do it all over.
You’ll also find that many Scientologists are almost violently angry and deeply afraid of psychiatry, even though most Scientologists have never even met a psychiatrist or psychologist and don’t have a clue what modern pyschiatry looks like. They have been indoctrinated by L. Ron Hubbard to believe that icepick lobotomies are still the order of the day and believe that psychiatrists are literally reincarnated evil entities who have been ruining societies and civilizations here and on other planets for billions if not trillions of years.
The phobias and dependencies built in to the Scientology belief system are legion and even though they may not be obvious to Scientologists, they come right to the surface when you start talking to them about Scientology’s future and whether they are really clearing the planet or not.
4. Suppress much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes.
In Scientology, old behavior patterns and ideas are written off or discouraged with many different thought-stopping cliches, such as “You don’t want to go out and party. That’s just your reactive mind talking” or “Oh you still like those friends from college. Why? They’re so PTS to the middle class.” By labelling a person’s pre-cult behavior, interests and hobbies in a derogatory way, getting a person to shed old friends and contacts, and pumping up pro-Scientology behavior as “pro-survival,” “the greatest good,” or “ethical,” Scientologists are led to believe their pre-cult life was full of lies and manipulation and that they are now free of all that because they have adopted Scientology as their new way of life.
5. Instill new behavior and attitudes.
Scientology has many codes of conduct, including an Auditor’s Code for their counsellors, a Supervisor’s Code for their teachers, the Code of a Scientologist for everyone and a Code of Honor for those who aspire to live by Hubbard’s most rigorous teachings. The Code of Honor includes such gems as “Never fear to hurt another in a just cause” and “Never withdraw allegiance once granted.” Of course, this ignores the fact that millions of people in history have been slaughtered by people fighting for just causes and that if I could never withdraw allegiance once granted, I’d still be a Scientologist and a Rush Limbaugh Dittohead. I’ll pass on both of those, thank you.
Any group has guidelines and rules that restrict or control a person’s behavior, but joining a destructive cult goes way beyond following some rules and involves instilling new attitudes. For example, in Scientology one soon learns that there is an entire group of people who should never be trusted because of their emotional responses to life and others. These people are called “1.1s” because that is the number of the emotion of “Covert Hostility” on Hubbard’s Chart of Human Evaluation and Hubbard says that this includes any sexual perverts including all homosexuals. Not a controversial statement in 1951 when Hubbard first said it, but most Western societies have evolved over the past 66 years and have come to recognize that homosexuality is not anymore of a mental disorder than eating jelly beans. As a result, they have toned down the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and prejudices, although some are slower in coming to the party than others. Scientologists will never come to the party because in their world, Hubbard’s word is law no matter how old or unenlightened or prejudicial that word may be and so in the world of Scientology, the only acceptable attitude towards the LGBTQ community is a sort of sad regret that those people act that way and a hope that they may be able to control themselves long enough to stop being perverts so Scientology can eventually work its magic on them. In the meantime, they cannot be trusted.
6. Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
Probably the best example I can give of this is from the 1960s when Hubbard wrote a policy letter called Keeping Scientology Working. I’ve done an entire video dissecting it but in short it states that Scientology is the only workable, not perfect but workable, system that has ever been evolved by anyone ever and that only by following Scientology can a person achieve any real happiness or survive into the future. By raising Scientology on a pedastal, and also simultaneously raising himself along with it, Hubbard created a closed system of logic which simply states “Scientology works 100% of the time it is correctly applied; therefore, if it is not working on someone, the only reason is because it is not being correctly applied since it always works when it is correctly applied.” This is not a small point of minutiae in the world of Scientology. On the contrary, this policy letter is studied at the beginning of every single major course and whole sections of it are repeated so often that most Scientologists have memorized them.
When these six factors are present to a greater or lesser degree, you can be sure that everything is not on the up and up and have good cause to be suspicious that group or individual is up to no good.
There has been a lot of criticism about documenting mind control techniques over the years and it’s not the purpose of this video to refute them point-by-point. However, one thing that should be made clear is that in all the criticism that I’ve seen, I’ve never seen anyone say that coercive persuasion is not real or doesn’t happen or that people cannot be lied to, swindled or conned. Of course they can and anyone who says otherwise would be a fool. It’s all a matter of degree. Very few people in our modern society are going to endure the hellish environment of a POW concentration camp, so it’s hard to make realistic comparisons between that and what people in destructive cults experience. The question of persuasion and influence is really not so much a question of does it happen, but to what degree does it happen and what effects do various techniques have on various types of people. Getting scientific studies done in the humanities is difficult at best and rather than advocate for or against the reality of brainwashing, I’d say that sociologists and psychologists should be doing a lot more work on it. This is not a decided issue by any means.
Having lived through many years of being actively lied to and deceived by people who themselves were being deceived by people who in turn were being deceived by the cult leader, I know how pervasive this can get and how powerful a mindset can be created in an individual and a group. Eric Hoffer wrote a whole book about it, called The True Believer, in which he offers explanations and descriptions of observed, not made-up, behavior in mass movements.
Destructive cults are real, they use very real techniques of deception, distortion and phobia induction to convince people to join them and give over tremendous amounts of time and money to the cause and then dump them when they cease to be useful or start to question what is going on. Can we call that brainwashing on the same order as what was done to POWs in concentration camps? Yes, we sure can. We can call it by any of a number of terms but it still comes down to people being taken advantage of unfairly and unjustly and people getting away with it because the law hasn’t caught up to how to prosecute them.
In this short video, I’ve tried to give some of the indications and warning signs but there’s a lot more to this than what I could cover here. I highly recommend if you are interested in finding out more, that you read some of the books I’ve referenced and do your own study of the subject. I hope you found this helpful and informative and that this is just the beginning of your education on this subject.
Thank you for watching.