Debunking Zablocki: Dick Anthony’s Searing Take-Down of Cult Brainwashing Theory

This is an excerpt from Benjamin Zablocki’s book “Misunderstanding Cults” which is one of the best representations of the 90’s era debate on Cults and Brainwashing.

What’s funny is that all the players, such as Dick Anthony and others, who thoroughly debunked the ideas of “cult brainwashing” just rode off into the sunset – leaving the believers in cult brainwashing to take over the internet and ruin the lives of Ex members of minority religions with their pseudo-scientific and science-denying beliefs.

This excerpt appears in Chapter 6 of that book and is titled “Tactical Ambiguity and Brainwashing Formulations: Science or Pseudo-Science?

Begin Excerpt:

Zablocki’s Third-Stage Brainwashing Formulation

Disorientation, Defective Thought, Suggestibility, and the False Self The following list represents the individual elements or hypotheses within Zablocki’s definition of his supposedly ‘new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing.’ (In later  sections  I  will evaluate the relationship of these individual elements/hypotheses to the theo­ retical foundation which Zablocki contends supports their role in brain­ washing.)

  • Absence of pre-motives: People who join new religions cults are not seeking alternatives to mainstream worldviews prior to their mem­ bership in the new
  • Disorientation: New religions or cults induce irrational altered states of consciousness as the core technique in seducing people into giv­ ing up their existing worldview. (Zablocki and other brainwashing theorists have referred to it as hypnosis, dissociation, trance, and so on. However, there is no meaningful distinction between these vari­ ous terms for primitive consciousness as they are used by brain­ washing theorists; that is, they are functional synonyms within the brainwashing worldview.)
  • Defective cognition: In the disoriented state essential to brainwashing, the person has a significantly reduced cognitive capacity to evaluate the truth or falsity of worldviews with which he or she is
  • Suggestibility: As a result of externally induced disorientation and defective cognitive capacity, the victim of brainwashing is highly ‘suggestible’; that is, prone to accept as her/his own, ideas and worldviews which are recommended by the person or organization that has induced the defective cognitive state.
  • Coercive or involuntary imposition of a defective or false The above sequence of criteria for brainwashing results in the involun­ tary imposition of a defective or false worldview, which anyone in a rational state of mind would have rejected.
  • Coercive imposition of a false self As a result of the brainwashing pro­cess, the person manifests a pseudo-identity or shadow self which has been involuntarily imposed upon him/her by brainwashing.
  • Deployable agency. The involuntarily imposed false self and defective world view persist after the brainwashing process has been com­ pleted and as a result the brainwashed person retains his commit­ ment to the new self and worldview even when he or she is not in direct contact with the group doing the brainwashing.
  • Exit costs: It is extremely difficult for the person to later repudiate his new worldview and false self-conception because he or she no longer has the capacity to rationally evaluate these choices.


All of these hypotheses were aspects of the original, generally dis­ credited CIA brainwashing model which Zablocki claims he is re­ placing with his ‘new approach.’ As we shall see, all of them were disconfirmed by generally accepted research on Communist thought reform, including the research which Zablocki claims supplies the pri­ mary theoretical foundation of his formulation.

Basically, Zablocki’s statement concerning the CIA brainwashing theory conflicts with generally accepted research on Communist thought reform in the same ways as did second-stage perspectives, but he has added a new level of tactical ambiguity to his argument.

At its core, Zablocki’s publications on brainwashing affirm the same characteristics of allegedly involuntary influence as did first- and second-stage brainwashing formulations, for example, those of Hunter, Singer, and Ofshe. For instance, he asserts that disorientation and a suspension of critical rationality are essential to the brainwashing pro­ cess. He states:

The core hypothesis is that, under certain circumstances, an individual can be subject to persuasive influences so overwhelming that they actually restructure one’s core beliefs and worldview and profoundly modify one’s self-conception. The sort of persuasion posited by the brainwashing conjecture is aimed at somewhat different goals than the  sort  of  persuasion  practiced  by  bullies or by salesman and teachers … The more radical sort of persuasion posited by the brainwashing conjecture utilizes extreme stress and disorientation along with ideological enticement to create a conversion experience that persists for some time after the stress and pressure have been removed … To be considered brain­ washing this process must result in (a) effects that persist for a significant amount of time after the  orchestrated  manipulative  stimuli  are  removed, and (b) an accompanying dread of disaffiliation which makes it extremely difficult for the subject to even contemplate life apart from the group. (Zablocki 1997: 104-5, emphasis mine)

Within this statement, in which Zablocki defines the core of his brainwashing formulation, the reader may recognize the very same altered states/suggestibility/overwhelmed-will concept that (1) con­ stituted the essence of the CIA brainwashing theory described above;

(2) is typically used as the primary basis for cultic brainwashing legal suits.

The ‘profoundly modified self’ referred to by Zablocki in the above statement as characteristic of brainwashing is essentially the same as the false self or ‘pseudo-identity’ which Singer with Lalick (1995: 60, 61, 77-9), West and Martin (1994), and other brainwashing theorists regard as an essential aspect of brainwashing. The new identity is viewed as false because it is allegedly imposed wholly by extrinsic influence, and thus is seen as discontinuous with the pre-existing val­ ues and self-conception of the person, that is, as being ‘ego-dystonic’ to use Zablocki’s appropriation of psychoanalytic terminology. (Within psychoanalysis the term ego-dystonic refers to distortions of ration­  al thought processes, such as delusions, hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, or compulsive behaviours, produced by eruptions of primi­ tive unconscious materials into consciousness.)

Zablocki discusses the false self imposed by brainwashing, which he refers to as a ‘shadow self,’ in his 1998a article (223,226,244). He states:

The result of this [brainwashing] process, when successful, is to make the individual a deployable agent of the charismatic authority. This is not merely commitment but a form of commitment that does not depend on continuous surveillance by the group. A rational choice perspective on the brainwashing model conceives of this process as a fundamental restructuring of the self through a reorganization of preferences. We  are talking about change on a deep although not necessarily permanent level … This ‘doubling’ or creation of a shadow self is something that I have often observed but cannot pretend to understand on more than a metaphoric level. (1998a: 223)15

At a later point, Zablocki states:

In these terms, brainwashing can be operationalized as an influence pro­ cess orchestrated towards the goal of charismatic addiction … The identi­ fication stage creates the biochemical alignment and the rebirth stage creates the fully addicted shadow self. (1998a: 244)


As Zablocki has said in his definition of brainwashing (previously quoted above, 1997: 104-5) in his view the cult is able to overwhelm – and replace with a shadow self – the pre-existing authentic self of the person only by inducing an altered, primitive state of conscious­ ness in which the person is unable to resist indoctrination. He re­ fers to this alleged state of primitive consciousness as ‘disorientation,’ one of several terms used by brainwashing theorists to refer to the allegedly primitive state of consciousness induced by brainwash­ ing techniques, the other most common ones being hypnosis and dissociation.

It is important to realize that neither disorientation, as Zablocki uses the term, nor any of the other terms that brainwashing theorists com­monly use to describe the primitive state of consciousness that they allege is essential to brainwashing – trance, hypnosis, loose cognition – are defined specifically enough to differentiate them from each other or from normal consciousness. (For instance, Zablocki doesn’t provide a definition for his use of the disorientation term, nor does he supply any citation to scientific research or other literature which could explain    to    his    readers    what   scientific    meaning   he    intends   by the term).16 These terms thus are functionally equivalent as used by brain­ washing theorists, and are in effect synonyms.17

Elsewhere, Zablocki elaborates upon the disoriented state which he considers to be the core of the brainwashing process. He states that those in the throes of the brainwashing process

are, at times, so disoriented that they do appear to resemble zombies or robots: glassy eyes, inability to complete sentences, and fixed eerie smiles are characteristics of disoriented people under randomly varying levels of psychological stress …

I, myself, happened to witness an entire building full of several hun­ dred highly disoriented Moonies, and it is not an experience that I will ever be able to forget. These people, though gentle and harmless, were frightening in their disjointed affect and loose cognition. (1998: 232)

In this passage, in addition to an extreme level of disorientation resembling that of ‘zombies or robots,’/ Zablocki refers to the ‘loose cognition’ which he believes to be characteristic of those who are in the process of being brainwashed. He also elaborates in a later section of the same article upon the loose cognition and suspension of critical rationality referred to in this passage, which he regards as essential to the brainwashing process (1998a: 241-4). He states:

My argument is that his transition to the biological [essential to brain­ washing] involves both a suspension of incredulity and an addictive orien­tation to the alternation of arousal and comfort comparable to the mother­ infant attachment …

At the cognitive level this relationship [between the charismatic cult and its brainwashed victim] involves the suspension of left-brain criticism of right-brain beliefs such that the beliefs are uncritically and enthusiastically adopted By preventing even low-level testing of the consequences of our convictions, the [brainwashed] individual is able rapidly to be convinced of a chang­ing flow of beliefs, accepted uncritically. (1998: 241-2, emphasis mine)18

This passage defines the ‘suggestibility’ which Hunter and other brainwashing theorists contend results from the inducement of a primitive state of consciousness in brainwashing (‘the suspension of left-brain criticism of right-brain beliefs such that the beliefs are uncrit­ically and enthusiastically adopted’). As should be clear from my dis­cussion above, the notion that brainwashing uses the induction of a primitive state of consciousness and a resulting inability to resist indoctrination – leading in turn to an addictive or compulsive attach­ment to a new worldview and a false self – is the heart of the CIA brainwashing paradigm. (In Zablocki’s formulation, the conversion to the new worldview is regarded as involuntary and compulsive because it follows from the absence of even ‘low-level testing of the consequences of our convictions,’ and thus the new worldview is ‘accepted uncritically.’)

Disconfirmation of the Primitive Consciousness Hypothesis

As I discussed in the introduction to this chapter, Zablocki claims to base his brainwashing formulation upon research on Communist thought reform at the time of the Korean War, particularly the research of Schein and Lifton. Contrary to Zablocki’s claims that such research supports his formulation, however, with its central proposition that brainwashing results from the induction of a primitive state of defec­tive cognition and resulting suggestibility, these and other researchers found that such Communist influence did not result from diminished cognitive competence. Schein states:

There is always a certain amount of distortion, sharpening, leveling, and false logic in the beliefs and attitudes which other people acquire. Because people are ambivalent on many issues it is easy to play up some ‘facts’ and play down others when our value position or feeling changes. Coer­ cive persuasion involves no more or less of such distortion than other kinds of influence, but our popular image of ‘brainwashing ‘suggests that somehow the process consists of extensive self-delusion and excessive distortion. We feel that this image is a false one: it is based on our lack of familiarity with or knowledge about the process and the fact that so much publicity was given to the political influence which resulted in a few cases. (Schein 1961: 239)

In addition, Schein found in his research that Communist coercive persuasion did not result from the induction of hypnosis or  other forms of dissociation. He states:

Given these considerations, it is difficult to see how Meerloo and Huxley can be so sure of the effectiveness of brainwashing and of their interpreta­ tion of it as a process based on hypnosis and Pavlovian psychology. The chief problem with the hypnotic interpretation [of Communist coercive persuasion] is that the relationship between hypnotist and subject is  to a large degree a voluntary one, whereas the coercive element in coercive persuasion is paramount (forcing the individual into a situation in which he must, in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose him­ self to persuasive attempts). A second problem is that as yet we do not have an adequate theoretical explanation for the effects seen under hyp­ nosis, and hence there is little to be gained by using it as an explanatory concept. Third, and most important, all hypnotic situations that I know of involve the deliberate creation of a state resembling sleep or dissociation. The essence of coercive persuasion, on the other hand, is to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, mentally intact individual. (Schein 1959: 437, emphasis mine; see also Schein 1959: 437)

Such statements indicate that cultic brainwashing formulations such as Zablocki’s which highly resemble the CIA mind-control theory on the issue of whether brainwashing is based upon the induction of primitive states of consciousness, explicitly contradict their claimed theoretical/ empirical foundation of generally accepted research on Communist thought reform. The central scientific question that re­mains with respect to the primitive states of consciousness hypothesis, then, is whether falsifiable, primitive states of consciousness are instru­mental in producing involuntary conversion and commitment to new religions, even though they were not involved in Communist thought reform.

Third-generation cultic brainwashing formulations claim  that  they are. See for instance Ofshe and Singer (1986), where they claim that cults use brainwashing techniques that are different from and more effective than techniques used in Communist thought reform. (Zablocki 1998: 222n21 specifically claims that Ofshe and Singer’s article is part of the  empiri­cal basis of his own brainwashing formulation.)  According  to  Ofshe and Singer (1986: 15-17), such new and more effective techniques in so-called second-generation brainwashing include various techniques such as hypnosis for inducing primitive states of consciousness. Such claims focused specifically on ‘hypnosis’ have become central to other third-generation brainwashing formulations  (e.g.,  those  of  Abgrall 1996: 179-90; West and Martin 1994: 273; and, most relevantly with respect to this article, Zablocki 1998a: 237).

Claims that brainwashing is based upon hypnosis and/or dissocia­tion are also central to almost all testimony in brainwashing legal trials (see, for example, Abgrall 1990: 42-59; Ofshe 1989: 3-8; Singer 1983: 5, 325). There are many other examples (see discussions in Anthony 1990: 313-16, 1996: 228-30, Anthony and Robbins 1995a: 528-9).

Surprisingly, on this issue contemporary cultic brainwashing formu­lations are very similar to earlier mind-control formulations that were used as a basis for attacks on American religious movements in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries (Taves 1999; Jenkins 2000). As with contemporary cultic mind-control formulations, such formula­ tions were based primarily on the contention that alternative move­ments induced primitive stages of consciousness, variously  referred to as ‘hypnosis’, ‘dissociation’, ‘trance’, and so on. Also, as with Zablocki’s and other contemporary formulations, nineteenth-century dissociative formulations were primarily speculative, and they pro­vided no empirical criteria by which religious experience and conver­sions could be distinguished from each other with respect to whether they were voluntary or involuntary.19

Many theories of the distinctive character of religious meaning, as opposed to other realms of cultural knowledge and understanding such as science, emphasize that religious knowledge and faith distinc­tively depend upon altered states of consciousness which cannot be meaningfully evaluated by epistemological criteria relevant to other realms of meaning. (See Hood 1995, for a collection of articles on the experiential dimension of a variety of religious traditions.) From this point of view, attacks upon religious conversion as being involuntary because they involve ‘irrational’ states of mind are evaluative rather than scientific because they are tautological; that is, they simply define all non-rational states of consciousness involved in religious conver­sions as undesirable without providing falsifiable empirical criteria for evaluating this assumption.

Contemporary cultic brainwashing theorists attempt to provide fal­sifiable empirical support for their claim that brainwashing induces primitive states of consciousness in order to produce involuntary com­mitment to religious movements by citing research on ‘hypnosis’ that supposedly demonstrates that hypnosis can force people to engage in unethical or illegal behavior that they would not do of their own free will. Abgrall, for instance, adopts this strategy when he claims that the work of T.X. Barber (1969), a leading researcher on hypnosis, is the sci­ entific basis for his claim that alleged mental manipulation by new reli­ gions is based upon hypnosis (Abgrall 1996 chap. 8, n. 15). Similarly, West and Martin (1994: 273) and Miller (1986) claim that the hypnotic research of Milton Erikson (1939, 1980) demonstrates that hypnosis can force individuals to engage in unacceptable behavior against their will. Finally, Zablocki (1998a: 227) claims that the research of Orne (1972)  as reported in his article, ‘Can a Hypnotized Subject Be Compelled to Carry Out Otherwise Unacceptable Behavior?’ provides scientific sup­ port for the idea that hypnosis can be used to compel involuntary behavior. In the section of his article on mental or physical impairment as an explanation for cult membership Zablocki states: ‘Orne has done some interesting experimental work on the extent to which subjects can be hypnotized to do things against their will.’ In the same para­ graph he also cites Katchen’s article entitled ‘Brainwashing, Hypnosis and the Cults’ for the idea that hypnosis can be used to force individu­

als susceptible to it to submit to cultic membership.

However, contrary to the contentions of Zablocki, Abgrall, and the other anticult brainwashing authors, it is well established in the rele­ vant scientific communities – i.e., psychology and psychiatry – that hypnosis is not an effective technique for causing people to engage involuntarily in conduct that is immoral, illegal, or against their own self-interest. (See Conn 1982; Orne 1961, 1962, 1972; Orne and Evans

1965; M. Erikson 1939, 1980,  vol. 1, 46; Moss 1965: 32-6; Barber  1961;

Fromm and Shor 1979: 6, 12; and Spanos 1996: 52. Several of these authors, such as T.X. Barber, Martin Orne, Milton Erikson, and Nicho­ las Spanos, are among the foremost scientists who have studied the hypnotic phenomenon.)

The hypothesis that hypnosis can be used to overwhelm free will is one of the most well-researched questions in the history of hypnosis research, and because of this it is the consensus of informed scientific opinion that hypnosis cannot be used effectively for the purpose of overwhelming free will or for substituting the will of the hypnotist for the will of the hypnotized. The myth of overwhelmed will by means of hypnosis is a staple of stage hypnotism that has long been repudiated by scientific research. Moreover, the idea that hypnosis could be used to impose a false personality on another and to establish long-lasting control over their whole lifestyle is so far-fetched that it is found only in popular science fiction, such as the book, and subsequent film, The Manchurian Candidate.

Strangely, several of the prominent scientists who did the most highly regarded research on the issue of whether hypnosis can be used to overwhelm  free  will  and  compel  otherwise  unacceptable  behavior are thesame authors whom cultic brainwashing authors cite in favour of this long-discredited myth. For instance, Abgrall (1990) cites Barber (1969) in support of the idea that hypnosis can overwhelm free will, even though Barber’s research on this topic (1961) has been among the most influential in disconfirming the hypnosis/overwhelmed-will myth. Similarly, West and Martin (1994: 273) and Miller (1986) both cite the work of Milton Erikson in support of this myth, even though Erik­ son also did some of the most highly regarded research repudiating this notion (M. Erikson 1939; 1980, 1: 46).

Zablocki makes this same fundamental error in support  of  the  no­ tion that hypnosis and other primitive states of concsciouness form the basis for brainwashed  involuntary  commitment  to  religious  groups; that is, Orne’s research, which Zablocki cites in support of his hypnosis/ overwhelmed-will hypothesis, actually flatly contradicts it. For instance, in the abstract to the article that Zablocki cites in support of his  hypothe­ sis, Orne states: ‘Further, no evidence is available to indicate that hypnosis increases the behavioral control of the hypnotist over that already present prior to its induction. Certainly, the popular view which holds that hypnosis is able to exert a unique form of control over the hypnotized individual, which can compel him to carry out other­ wise repugnant actions, must be rejected’ {1972: 101).

Significantly, Milton Ome’s program of research on  this topic, which he conducted over a long period (1961, 1962, 1972; Orne and Evans 1965), was originally undertaken in an attempt to evaluate the CIA the­ ory that hypnosis is an effective tool for brainwashing (1961). Ome’s research on this topic became among the most influential disconfirma­ tions of the CIA brainwashing theory. In this instance also, then, as with Zablocki’s claim that the research of Schein (1961) and Lifton (1961) supports the brainwashing idea, the claimed empirical foundation for his brainwashing formulation actually disconfirms it rather than confirms it.

In this connection, Nicholas Spanos, perhaps the most distinguished scientific researcher on hypnosis in the recent past, has evaluated the claimed role of hypnosis in causing involuntary influence, especially as it has been alleged to occur in the CIA brainwashing theory and in cultic brainwashing formulations such as Zablocki’s. See Spanos (1996: 49-53) where he criticizes Hunter as the originator of the CIA brain­ washing paradigm, and also the use of the CIA paradigm as a basis for allegations that cults brainwash converts by using hypnosis. He states (52):

The idea that people can be transformed into robots in this manner [i.e., through brainwashing] is a cultural myth that grew out of the Korean conflict and subsequent cold war tensions. The myth was reinforced both by simplistic notions concerning Pavlovian conditioning and by even older cultural myths concerning the coercive ‘power’ of hypnosis. The robot mythology was maintained because it served a number of useful propaganda purposes, and it continues to serve such purposes today for those who use notions like ‘brainwashing,’ ·’mind control,’ ‘spot hypno­sis,’ and ‘cult programming’ to explain why people sometimes join new religious movements such as the Unification Church (Moonies) and the Hare Krishna sect. (Anthony and Robbins 1992)

Note that in this passage Spanos cites in support of his viewpoint Anthony and Robbins (1992), one of Tom Robbins’s and my articles cri­tiquing the scientific standing of cultic brainwashing formulations.

Note also that Spanos’s book was published by the American Psycho­logical Association. These two facts should go far in demonstrating that the viewpoint expressed in this section – that is, that social influ­ence in new religions is not based upon hypnosis and other alleged primitive states of consciousness such as disorientation – reflects a strong consensus among scientists who are qualified to speak on this topic.

Exit Costs, Pre-motives, and Totalitarian Influence

Brainwashing as Exit Costs and Absence of Pre-motives

The novel feature of Zablocki’s version of the CIA model, when com­ pared to previous versions of the cultic brainwashing model, is the sur­ prising claim that research on thought reform did not demonstrate involuntary conversion of its victims to a new  Communist  worldview but rather the coercive intensification of commitment to a Communist world­ view to which the victims of thought reform were already committed. Zablocki states: ‘An examination of any of the foundational literature makes it very clear that what these researchers were attempting to explain was the persistence of ideological conversion after the stimulus was removed, not how subjects were initially hooked into the ideology’8 (1997: 100).

In endnote 8, Zablocki also cites both Lifton’s and Schein’s 1961 books on Communist thought reform. But none of Schein’s or Lifton’s subjects were Communists before they were subjected to thought reform in the sense of having adopted, provisionally or otherwise, the Communist worldview. What could Zablocki possibly mean when he makes it so central to his formulation of a brainwashing argument?

Could he be implying that because their Western subjects were imprisoned in Communist thought reform prisons, and Lifton’s Chi­ nese subjects were living within a Communist society, that these condi­ tions were somehow equivalent to their having provisionally adopted a Communist worldview, and thus that they had already been ‘hooked into the ideology’ before being subjected to thought reform. But how does that follow? In my reading, none of their subjects had adopted a Communist worldview before they were subjected to thought reform. (This is particularly obvious with their Western subjects, who were imprisoned during the thought reform  process; if  they were already se ing the world through the lens of Communist ideology, why would they have had to be imprisoned in order to undergo thought reform?)

Elsewhere Zablocki seems to be saying that Lifton’s and Schein’s subjects were already Communists prior to thought reform in the sense of already having joined a Communist organization. He states:

Brainwashing may be defined as a set of transactions between a charis­ matically led collectivity and an isolated agent of the collectivity with the goal of transforming the agent into a deployable agent. In the terminol­ ogy I am using here, there exist three levels of affiliation in such collectiv­ ities: recruits, agents, and deployable agents. A recruit is a person who is considering membership in the group and perhaps is also being courted by the group. An agent is a person who has already made the commit­ment to become a member of the group and accept its goals. A deployable agent is a person who has internalized the group’s goals to such an extent that he or she can be counted on with high probability to act so as to implement those goals even when free of direct surveillance and even when those goals run counter to the individual’s personal goals.

The target of brainwashing is always an individual who has already joined the group. (1998: 221)

It seems clear that  Zablocki  is  claiming  here  that  brainwashing is only used with respect to people who have already adopted an alter­ native worldview; that  is,  ‘agents’  or  ‘ordinary  members,’  ‘who have already joined the group’ but who have not yet become  so­ called deployable agents. Thus, Zablocki seems  to  be  contending that Schein’s and Lifton’s subjects had already joined Communist groups because they were existing within Communist prisons or living in a Communist society. But that doesn’t follow either. None of their subjects ever joined Communist organizations, either before or after they were subjected to thought reform.

As we will see below, none of Schein’s or Lifton’s subjects ever became recruits, agents, or deployable agents of Communism by adopting Communist worldviews or joining Communist organiza­ tions, even after they had been subjected to thought reform much less before. And as we will see also, none of them ever had trouble repudi­ ating any degree of interest they may have had in Communism after they left the thought reform environment; the only kind of exit costs they encountered were the difficulty of getting out of prison.

Thus, the assumptions that Zablocki adopts in defining a suppos­ edly ‘new’ exit costs definition of brainwashing, in an attempt to differ­ entiate his perspective from earlier cultic brainwashing arguments, does not hold up to any kind of informed scrutiny.

Pre-motives: It would seem that Zablocki’s insistence that Lifton’s and Schein’s subjects were Communists (recruits or agents) before being brainwashed involves a strained analogy between Communist imprisonment and becoming a member of a new religion. This analogy doesn’t hold up. Imprisonment does not indicate that a person has adopted a worldview or joined a group, whereas those who voluntar­ ily become members of new religions have accepted, at least provision­ ally the worldview of the group they have joined.

Zablocki’s insistence that brainwashing consists of coercive change in level of commitment to totalistic ideology, rather than coercive conver­ sion to totalistic ideology in the first place, is all the more puzzling when other passages are taken into account, such as those in which he seems clearly to define brainwashing as coercive conversion to a new worldview. See for instance, Zablocki (1971: 239, 243-6, 251-2, 257,282;1980: 7-10, 357; 1997: 104-5, and throughout).

It seems likely to me that Zablocki’s tactical ambiguity on this key aspect of his theory can be explained by his attempt to evade the impli­cations of a body of research on both Communist indoctrination prac­tices and new religious movements [NRMs], which disconfirmed the contention of both first- and second-stage brainwashing formulations that brainwashing produces, purely through extrinsic techniques of influence, involuntary conversion to a new worldview.

Research with respect to Communist indoctrination practices as well as a considerable body of research on NRMs (Wuthnow 1979, Richardson 1993, Zimbardo and Hartley 1985, Barker 1984, Anthony and Robbins 1974, and many others) seems to have rather conclusively established that the ‘invasion of the body snatchers’ view of con­ version to NRMs as having resulted primarily from the efficacy of extrinsic techniques of proselytization is inaccurate. The research demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of converts to NRMs (including most plaintiffs in brainwashing trials) fit a profile of a ‘seeker’: a person who is disillusioned with mainstream  worldviews and is searching actively for alternative worldviews prior to his or her conversion to NRMs.

Clearly, if brainwashing perspectives were to survive such volumi­ nous disconfirmations, and the repeated findings by the courts that cultic brainwashing testimony could not be allowed because of its lack of scientific support, some revision of the involuntary conversion aspect of the CIA brainwashing model was necessary.

According to Zablocki and other brainwashing theorists, brainwashing consists of overwhelming or irresistible ‘extrinsic’ influence to which the inner qualities of the person are irrelevant, as opposed to normal ‘intrinsic’ influence, resulting from an interaction between the inner characteristics of the person and outside influence. (For a book­ length discussion and analysis of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic psychological paradigms of influence and motivation, see Per­ vin 1984. For a discussion of the application of this distinction to brain­ washing versus totalitarian influence approaches to social influence see Anthony (1996: 221-5).

Zablocki (1998: 225) repeatedly claims that the brainwashing para­ digm does not take into account individual differences between people who are being exposed to brainwashing, in accounting for how such influence occurs or which person will be successfully brainwashed. He states: ‘it is situational and relational factors rather than predisposi­ tions that help us to predict this [successful brainwashing] phenome­ non. (See also Zablocki 1998: 222,235; 1993: 83-4; 1997: 101; Singer and

Lalich 1995: 15-20.)

The extrinsic influence character of brainwashing formulations is essential to establish that such influence is ‘involuntary.’ Sociologists have demonstrated that contemporary ‘postmodern’ (pluralistic, mul­ ticultural) society is characterized by a focus upon individual aut­onomy as the prime determinant of authentic personhood. While unreflective conformity is the mark of the inauthentic or ‘false’ self (Winnicott 1960).

In order to be a genuine person in a contemporary, multicultural society, individuals are expected to independently reflect upon and consciously choose their own identities and worldviews from among the pluralistic mixture of alternatives with which they are presented. Consequently, if a person is viewed as having passively accepted an identity and worldview without having evaluated it in relation to their own   distinctive   inner characteristics  and                          organic development of authentic personhood, he/she is viewed as not being a ‘real’ or authen­ tic person. However, in practice all of us choose our identities, world­ views, and lifestyles as a result of an indeterminate mixture of outside influence and inner reflection and choice. Thus, most of us are unsure of the degree to which we are conformists or authentic ‘self-actualizers.’ One function of the brainwashing myth may be that it provides its believers with a line at which social influence overwhelms inner authenticity. By doing so this myth creates for its believers a definition of false personhood, thus creating a stereotype which, by contrast, will reaffirm their own supposedly authentic personhood. Unfortunately for the scientific credibility of the brainwashing idea, this aspect of the paradigm has been disconfirmed by three important sources of data: research on conversion to Communist and other totalitarian political ideologies, research upon conversion to alternative religions, and state­ ments by brainwashing theorists themselves upon intrinsic motivation for joining new religions.

The question of whether internal motivation for joining new reli­gions is an important predictor of who responds favorably to attempts at proselytization, has been repeatedly answered in the affirmative by the very same anticult brainwashing authors who elsewhere (often in the same publications in which they also deny it) claim that conversion and commitment is solely determined by extrinsic influence. The types of pre-existing motivation for joining new religions affirmed by brain­washing theorists fall into two broad categories: (1) alienation or anomie relative to mainstream values and social institutions, resulting in a pattern of ‘seeking’ for non-traditional alternatives; and (2) fam­ily dysfunction combined with characterological predispositions to respond favourably to totalitarian ideologies.

Virtually all authors who have written about brainwashing describe widespread social change since the 1960s as resulting in widespread alienation or anomie, which in turn motivates young people to seek for and join non-traditional religions (see Zablocki, 1980). Such authors do not seem to realize that accounting for responsiveness to proselytiza­ tion in this way essentially negates the claim that people involuntarily join new religions primarily for extrinsic reasons. Obviously, even in periods of social turmoil, not all members of society are equally alien­ ated from traditional values and institutions. Alienation, therefore, dif­ fers in degree from person and person, and the more alienated are more apt to seek alternative worldviews and institutions.

Zablocki’s recent  brainwashing  articles  are  theoretical  and  specula­tive rather than being accounts of actual research on new religions. He claims, however, to base his brainwashing theory upon research on minority  religions  and  communes  which  he  conducted  and  described in earlier books (1971, 1980). Both books adopt the social change-produc­ing individual differences in anomie/alienation view of why particular peo­ple are more likely to join new religions (1971, 1980).

Indeed, in Zablock’s book, Alienation and Charisma (1980), alienation is one of the two master concepts (the other being charisma) by which he organizes his data. In this book, alienation is clearly treated as a motive which predisposes individuals to being influenced by charis­matic social movements, with higher levels of alienation predisposing individuals to choose more authoritarian movements, or, in Zablocki’s current terminology, ‘cults.’ (In his basic thesis in this book, alienation is cured by involvement in a charismatic social movement, with more extreme degrees of alienation requiring more authoritarian and extreme forms of charismatic organization for its cure.)

Thus Zablocki himself is, in this former guise as the author of these earlier publications, a proponent of what he now labels the ‘seekership conjecture’ school of new religions scholarship (1998: 234-6), a theoret­ical orientation that he now sees as conflicting with his current brain­washing perspective. In one of the theoretically incoherent and self­ contradictory twists characteristic of his brainwashing articles, he now claims that his earlier seekership tomes are actually the empirical basis for his new brainwashing formulation.

Interestingly, in note 43 in the seekership section of his 1998a article, which lists a number of publications he considers to be reputable scien­tific instances of the seekership conjecture, Zablocki includes Robert Lifton’s 1968 article entitled ‘Protean Man,’ as one of  the  examples. Here, as Zablocki acknowledges in this note, Lifton views proteanism – that is, anomic, relativistic cultural tendencies and the confused and ambiguous self-concepts that result from them – as  the  source  of motives for conversion to alternative religious movements. (In his later books on new religious movements [1993: 10-11, and  throughout; 1999: 5, 236-8] Lifton uses the proteanism concept as a master concept, along with totalism, to explain pre-existing motives, i.e., ‘seekership,’ as an explanation for why people convert to join new religions and totalistic fundamentalistic Christian sects [1993: 177-87].) Thus, at that  point  in his brainwashing article, Zablocki appears to  be acknowledging  Lifton as a proponent of the seekership explanation of conversion to new religions, whereas elsewhere he views Lifton’s work as the primary theo­retical foundation for the brainwashing  explanation  which  he  regards as contradictory to the seekership explanation.

These various indications that Zablocki both repudiates  and  em­braces what he refers to as the seekership explanation for conversion to new religions are further examples of the theoretical incoherence of his brainwashing formulation, a trait that I discussed  above  under  the  rubric of tactical ambiguity.

 End of excerpt. To read the whole book, check out this Amazon link to purchase. 

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