Critique of “Brainwashing” Theories

Brainwashing theories serve the interests of those espousing them, which is a major reason they are so readily accepted. Parents can blame the groups and their leaders for what were probably volitional decisions to participate by their sons and daughters. Former members can blame the techniques for a decision to participate which the participant later regrets. Deprogrammers can use brainwashing theories as a justification for their new “profession” and as a quasi-legal defense if they are apprehended by legal authorities during attempted deprogrammings, which often have involved physical force and kidnapping. Societal leaders can blame the techniques for seducing society’s “brightest and best” away from traditional cultural values and institutions. Competitive religious leaders as well as some psychological and psychiatric clinicians attack the groups with brainwashing theories, to bolster what are basically unfair competition arguments (Kilbourne and Richardson 1984).

Thus it is in the interest of many different entities to negotiate an account of “what happened” that makes use of brainwashing notions. Only the NRM membership, which is usually politically weak, is left culpable after these negotiated explanations about how and why a person joined an NRM. All other parties are, to varying degrees, absolved of responsibility (Richardson, van der Lans, and Derks 1986).

The claim that NRMs engage in brainwashing thus becomes a powerful “social weapon” for many partisans in the “cult controversy.” Such ideas are used to “label” the exotic religious groups as deviant or even evil (Robbins and Anthony 1982). However, the new “second generation” brainwashing theories have a number of logical and evidentiary problems,
and their continued use raises profound ethical issues.

Misrepresentation of classical tradition

Modern brainwashing theories sometimes misrepresent earlier scholarly work on the processes developed in Russia, China, and the Korean POW situation (Anthony 1990). These misrepresentations are as follows. First, the early classical research by Schein et al. (1961) and Lifton (1963) revealed that, contrary to some recent claims, the techniques were generally ineffective at doing more than modifying behavior (obtaining compliance) even for the short term. Such theories would seem less useful to explain long-term changes of behavior and belief allegedly occurring with
NRM participation.

Second, the degree of determinism associated with contemporary brainwashing applications usually far exceeds that found in the foundational work of Lifton and of Schein. Anthony and Robbins (1992) contrast the “soft determinism” of the work of Lifton and of Schein with the “hard determinism” of contemporary proponents of brainwashing theories such as Singer and Ofshe (1990). The “hard determinism” approach assumes that humans can be turned into robots through application of sophisticated brainwashing techniques, easily becoming deployable “Manchurian Candidates.” Classical scholars Lifton and Schein seemed more willing to recognize human beings as more complex entities than do some contemporary brainwashing theorists.

Third, another problem is that classical scholars Lifton and Schein may not be comfortable with their work being applied to noncoercive situations. Lifton (1985: 69) explicitly disclaims use of ideas concerning brainwashing in legal attacks against so-called cults, and earlier (1963: 4) had stated:

“. . . the term (brainwashing) has a far from precise and questionable usefulness; one may even be tempted to forget about the whole subject and return to more constructive pursuits.”

The work of Schein and of Lifton both evidence difficulty in “drawing the line” between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors on the part of those involved in influencing potential subjects for change (Anthony and Robbins 1992). Group
influence processes operate in all areas of life, Robbins 1992).

The techniques of brainwashing supposedly are so successful that they can transform a person’s basic beliefs into sharply contrasting beliefs, even against their will. This aspect of brainwashing theory is appealing to proponents who have difficulty recognizing that an individual might have been attracted to a new and exotic religion perceived by the
recruit as offering something positive for themselves.

Sizable numbers of participants are from higher social class origins in terms of education level and relative affluence, a finding raising questions about application of brainwashing theories as adequate explanations of participation.

Both Barker (1984) and Kilbourne (1986) have found that there are predisposing characteristics for participation in the Unification Church – such as youthful idealism. Thus, the brainwashing argument would seem to be refuted, even if such data are often ignored.

Brainwashing proponents also conveniently ignore volitional aspects of recruitment to new religions. Brainwashing theorists such as Delgado (1982) turn predispositions and interest in exotic religions into susceptibilities and vulnerabilities, adopting an orientation toward recruitment which defines the potential convert in completely passive terms, a philosophical posture that itself raises serious ethical problems. Most participants are “seekers”, taking an active interest in changing themselves, and they are often using the NRMs to accomplish planned personal change (Straus 1976, 1979).

There is growing use of an “active” paradigm in conversion/ recruitment research which stresses the predispositional and volitional character of participation. This view is derived from research findings that many participants actually seek out NRMs to accomplish personal goals (Richardson 1985a). This nonvolitional view ignores an important aspect of classical work in the brainwashing tradition. For instance, Lifton’s (1963) work clearly shows the voluntaristic character of much of the thought reform which went on in China (his last chapter discusses voluntaristic personal change).

Therapeutic effects of participation ignored

Brainwashing theorists usually claim that participation in NRMs is a negative experience, claims countered by many lines of research. Participation seems to have a generally positive impact on most participants, an often-replicated finding which undercuts brainwashing arguments, but is usually ignored by proponents of such theories. Robbins and Anthony (1982) summarized positive effects which have been found, listing ten different therapeutic effects, including reduced neurotic distress, termination of illicit drug use, and increased social compassion.

One review of a large literature concerning personality assessment of participants concluded (Richardson 1985b: 221): “Personality assessments of these group members reveal that life in the new religions is often therapeutic
instead of harmful.” Kilbourne (1986) drew similar conclusions in his assessment of outcomes from participation, after finding, for instance, that members of the Unification Church felt they were getting more from their participation than did matched samples of young Presbyterians and Catholics. Psychiatrist Marc Galanter, who has done
considerable assessment research on participants in some of the more prominent NRMs, has even posited a general “relief effect” brought about by participation (Galanter 1978). He wanted to find out what about participation leads to such consistent positive effects, in order that therapists can use the techniques themselves. McGuire (1988) found that many ordinary people participate in exotic religious groups in a search of alternatives to modern medicine, and many think themselves the better for the experience. To ignore such scholarly conclusions seems ethically quite questionable.

Large research tradition and “normal” explanations ignored

There has been a huge amount of research done on recruitment to and participation in the new religious groups and movements, research almost totally ignored by brainwashing theorists. This work, which is summarized in such reviews as Greil and Rudy (1984), Richardson (1985a), and Robbins (1985), applies standard theories from sociology, social psychology, and psychology to explain why youths join such groups. These explanations seem quite adequate to explain participation, without any “black box” of mystical psychotechnology such as offered by brainwashing theorists. Examples of such “normalizing” research include Heirich’s (1977) study of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, Pilarzyk’s (1978) comparison of conversion in the Divine Light Mission and the Hare Krishna, Straus’s (1981) “naturalistic social psychological” explanation of seeking religious experiences, Solomon’s (1983) work on the social psychology of participation in the Unification Church, and the examination of process models of conversion to the Jesus Movement (Richardson, et al. 1979). The ethics of ignoring such work, while propounding empirically weak notions such as brainwashing and mind control, seem questionable.

Lack of “success” of new religions disregarded

Another obvious problem with brainwashing explanations concerns assuming (and misinforming the public about) the efficacy of the powerful recruitment techniques allegedly used by the new religious groups. Most NRMs are actually quite small: the Unification Church probably never had over 10,000 American members, and can now boast only 2,000 to 3,000 members in the US; the American Hare Krishna may not have achieved even the size of the Unification Church . . . Most other NRMs have had similar problems recruiting large numbers of participants. A related problem concerns attrition rates for the new religions. As a number of scholars have noted, most participants in the new groups remain for only a short time, and most of those proselytized simply ignore or rebuff recruiters and go on with their normal lives (Bird and Reimer 1982; Barker 1984; Galanter 1980). Many people leave the groups after being in them relatively short periods (Wright 1987; Skonovd 1983; Richardson et
al. 1986).

An example of one well publicized group . . . is The Family (formerly the Children of God) which has had over 57,000 young people worldwide join it over the group’s 25 year history. However, the group has only about 3,000 adult members worldwide at this time, which could be construed to mean they have a serious attrition problem! These histories of meager growth and/or rapid decline raise serious questions about the efficacy of brainwashing explanations of participation. Such powerful techniques should have resulted in much larger groups, a fact conveniently ignored by brainwashing proponents, who seem intent on raising the level of hysteria about NRMs, through misleading the public about their size and efficiency in keeping members.

“Brainwashing” as its own explanation

A last critique of brainwashing theories is that they are self-perpetuating, through “therapy” offered those who leave, especially those forcibly deprogrammed. As Solomon (1981) has concluded, those who are deprogrammed often accept the views which deprogrammers use to justify their actions, and which are promoted to the deprogramee as reasons for cooperating with the deprogramming. These views usually include a belief in brainwashing theories. One could say that a successful deprogramming is one in which the deprogrammee comes to accept the view that they were brainwashed, and are now being rescued. Solomon’s finding has been collaborated by other research on those who leave, including by Lewis (1986), Lewis and Bromley (1987), and Wright (1987). The social psychological truth that such ideas are learned interpretations or accounts undercuts truth claims by brainwashing theorists.


The preceding critique indicates that brainwashing theories of participation in new religions fail to take into account considerable data about participation in such groups. However, many people still accept such theories, and high levels of concern about the “cult menace” exist, in part because of the promotion of ideologically based brainwashing theories of participation. Serious attention should be paid to alternative explanations which demystify the process of recruitment to and participation in the new religions.

Motivations for accepting such empirically weak theories as “brainwashing” should be examined. Also, those who propound brainwashing theories of participation need to examine the ethics of promoting such powerful “social weapons” against minority religions. When such theories are used to limit people’s religious freedom and personal growth, then the society itself may suffer.

From Chapter Ten A Critique of “Brainwashing” Claims About New Religious Movements by JAMES T. RICHARDSON

From the Book: CULTS AND NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS: A READER Edited by Lorne L. Dawson