CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

by Dick Anthony

elisabeth smart“Brainwashing” is in the news again in the United States. Elizabeth Smart, a 15 year-old Mormon girl in Salt Lake City Utah, was kidnapped nine months ago (when she was 14) by Brian Mitchell, and his female cohort Wanda Barzee. Mitchell is a self-proclaimed prophet of God with ideas similar to "fundamentalist" splinter Mormon groups advocating polygamy. Barzee is his only regular follower. Smart has recently been found and returned to her parents by the police. Initially when contacted by the police Smart denied her identity. Other facts surrounding her abduction and rescue suggest to some the possibility that she could have returned on her own initiative long ago if she had wanted.

Smart is from a mainstream Mormon middle-class family. Some have claimed that Smart had converted to Mitchell’s extremist worldview and that she, along with Barzee, had accepted Mitchell’s wish that she was to become one of his polygamous wives, helping him to perform his prophetic mission. This is allegedly the reason that Smart hadn’t escaped and returned to her family at an earlier point.

Was Elizabeth Smart brainwashed by her kidnappers? Her father says yes. Her uncle says no, she was merely held against her will by the constant vigilance and physical control of her kidnappers. Proponents of the cultic brainwashing theory such as Rick Ross and Steven Hassan have appeared on media talk shows asserting that Smart was brainwashed in a manner similar to that used to bring about the involuntary conversion of Patty Hearst to the Symbionese Liberation Front [SLA] and to that commonly used by religious cults to produce the involuntary conversions of their members.

On the other hand academic critics of the cultic brainwashing theory, e.g. Professor James T. Richardson of the University of Nevada as quoted in the New York Times, claim that because both Smart and Patty Hearst had been subjected to physical coercion and control by kidnappers, their compliance with the commands of their captors had nothing in common with formally voluntary conversions to alternative religions in which physical coercion is not present.

Hearst herself seems to view the facts of Smart’s kidnapping as similar to her own and argues that as in her own experience with the SLA, Smart could not escape from Mitchell and Barzee because her free will had been psychologically overborne by the circumstances of her kidnapping and ideological indoctrination. Hearst sent a message to Smart though her appearance on CNN’s Larry King show:

"You have been so abused and so robbed of your free will” Hearst said in her televised message to Smart, “and so frightened that you believe any lie that your abductor has told you. You think that either you will be killed if you reach out to get help or ... your family will be killed."  

The cultic brainwashing theory has generally been rejected by mainstream academicia as a pseudoscientific myth that has been definitively repudiated on the basis of authoritative research on Communist coercive persuasion and also by generally accepted research demonstrating that people convert to off-beat religions through a voluntary process. According to such experts, the brainwashing term and concept are bandied about as if they have some clear meaning, though in fact they lack a precise denotation. There is, however, a definite connotation. The brainwashing explanation tends to be used when someone appears to have made a decision against his or her best interest or to have altered his or her convictions in a seemingly disadvantageous and inappropriate manner. The person is seen as having been manipulated in such a way as to have lost his or her personal autonomy and free will.

Moreover, even some moderate critics of the brainwashing idea acknowledge that situations involving physical coercion and enthusiastic compliance with the wishes of the captors (such as the Patty Hearst or Elizabeth Smart kidnappings) may possibly be evidence for one version of the brainwashing idea.

If an apparently well-adjusted, well-networked young person such as Elizabeth Smart or Patty Hearst can so quickly experience changed interests through physical coercion, they say--to the point that she is not even recognizable as the same person--couldn't this also happen to a poorly adjusted, poorly networked young person (a profile supposedly common to many converts to religious cults) through social/emotional coercion alone? On the basis of that reasoning, they ask, don’t situations such as the apparently involuntary conversion of a well-adjusted person such as Elizabeth Smart provide a problem for the general academic rejection of the “brainwashing thesis” with respect to conversions to alternative religions.

In order to answer such apparently reasonable questions about the challenge to the academic dismissal of the brainwashing thesis by the facts of the Smart case, it is important that we have a clear understanding of what the brainwashing thesis is. We all know that people sometimes make choices that may reasonably be regarded as against their best interests, and that sometimes those choices include changes of worldview and identity. I don't know of any scholars of new religious movements [nrms] who interpret choices made by members of the People's Temple or Heaven's gate as having been in their best interests. This is the phenomenon that needs explanation, and the occurrence of another instance of the phenomenon as in the Elizabeth Smart situation does not provide evidence for any particular attempt to provide a scientific explanation of the phenomenon, it is merely another instance of it.

It is common for cult-brainwashing experts to argue in their statements to the media relative to situations in which someone has been influenced to make a choice, particularly a choice of a changed worldview and related change in their sense of themselves (what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson referred to as their ego-identity), that such situations are evidence for the plausibility of the brainwashing thesis. But in courtroom testimony and in more formal statements in their publications they argue something more specific than this, i.e. they argue that such brainwashing allegations are based upon a scientific brainwashing theory that is methodologically sound and that is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community as providing a scientific basis for drawing a clear-cut objective line between situations of normal voluntary conversion to a new worldview and identity, on the one hand, and situations in which someone has been coercively influenced to change their worldview and ego-identity against their will, on the other. They further argue that such “brainwashing” occurs totally on the basis of external influence:1) which is accomplished totally by the application of a coercive psychotechnology defined in terms of coercive behavior rather than offbeat ideology or belief; 2) without intense physical coercion; 3) without an interaction of the person’s pre-existing personality and values with the ideology of the group and worldview to which they convert.

My and other nrm scholars critiques' and research (Jim Richardson's, Tom Robbins', Eileen Barker's, Newton Maloney's, Massimo Introvigne's, John Hall's, Lorne Dawson's, Anson Shupe’s, David Bromley's, Gordon Melton's, Marc Galanter’s, Saul Levine’s and many others) have established to the satisfaction of courts and relevant professional associations and scientific communities that such claims are incorrect, i.e. that there is no scientific theory that is generally accepted and based upon methodologically
sound research that meets those criteria, In particular such critiques have demonstrated that the reputable research upon Communist coercive persuasion or thought reform is not the scientific foundation for such a theory and in fact actually contradicted the brainwashing theory as it had been formulated by the American CIA as a propaganda device.

It is well established on the basis of scholarly research that the CIA invented the brainwashing ideology as a propaganda strategy to undercut Communist claims that American P.O.W.s in Korean War Communist prison camps had voluntarily expressed sympathy for Communism and had admitted that they had engaged in war crimes against the Chinese and North Korean forces. The CIA brainwashing theory was propagated to the general public though the books of Edward Hunter, who was a secret CIA “psychological warfare specialist” with a cover identity as a journalist.

If one looks more carefully at the situations to which the idea of brainwashing has been applied, there is less than meets the eye. Beginning in the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted secret research for twenty years, attempting to develop practical brainwashing techniques. The research was a complete failure.

Furthermore, very few Korean War POWs actually converted to Communism (11 out of 3000), although a larger number “collaborated” in the sense of making statements (e.g., about alleged American germ warfare) desired by their captors. (There was a much smaller percentatge of American POWs who had converted to the worldview of the enemy or collaborated in the Korean War than in previous American wars, and more than half of Korean and Chinese POWs captured by western forces in this war converted to the western worldview and refused repatriation, a result that the Communists claimed had been obtained by American brainwashing.) Additionally, definitive research demonstrated that collaboration by western POWs had been caused by fear and duress, not brainwashing. More particularly, greater privileges were granted to cooperative prisoners in a context where conditions of captivity were very harsh. Over fifty percent of western POWs died because of the harshness of their physical maltreatment by the Communists.

Erik Erikson, Robert Lifton, Edgar Schein, T. W. Adorno et al, Milton Rokeach, Hannah Arendt and many other theorists and researchers developed a class of totalitarian or authoritarian conversion theories that contradicted brainwashing theories of why people convert to obviously totalitarian or authoritarian social organizations and ideologies. Members of this class of theories all interpreted such conversions as resulting from an interaction between certain types of personalities and certain types of ideologies and groups. Many of these theories, unlike brainwashing formulations, are generally accepted as scientifically meaningful and as based upon methodologically sound, e.g. falsifiable, research. Arguably they are also relevant to explaining some choices made by some people to convert to some nrms. I discuss them and their relevance to nrms at great length in my dissertation and other publications, some of them co-authored with Thomas Robbins and/or Steven Barrie-Anthony.

In addition, Tom Robbins and I recently finished a long chapter (forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of New Religions, an important reference work edited by James Lewis, to be published by Oxford University Press later this year) that describes the compatibility of such “totalitarian influence” theories, and the incompatibility of cult brainwashing theories, with an important body of research by other nrm scholars such as Eileen Barker, James T. Richardson, and many others.
(Those who would like to see a lengthy and detailed review of the body of academic research and theory which forms the basis for rejecting the scientific standing of the cultic brainwashing theory may view a draft of this chapter, entitled Conversion and Brainwashing, which has been posted on the CESNUR website.)

Such totalitarian influence theories and the nrm research with which they are compatible provide the only available scientifically and academically accepted body of information for understanding such unwise conversions. On the other hand, the brainwashing thesis is all smoke and mirrors, i.e. it is not based upon methodologically sound research and it does not even in principle provide or constitute a well-formed theory that could in the future be scientifically evaluated by methodologically sound research. Incidents such as the Elizabeth Smart event and the earlier Patricia Hearst events do nothing to change that situation one way or the other. See my chapter in the Zablocki-Robbins edited book Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 1991) for an ambitious attempt to demonstrate this conclusion.

Finally, there is good reason to be somewhat skeptical of Patricia Hearst's self-serving biographical reconstruction of her relationship with the SLA and her participation in its crimes. Arguably Hearst fit the profile of the "individual totalist" or “authoritarian personality” as developed by Erikson, Lifton, Adorno et al and others, of a person with a confused or split ego-identity who was attracted to totalistic ways of viewing the world before she was kidnapped by the SLA. Consequently there is good reason to think that her involvement in SLA crimes was based upon a real conversion resulting from the interaction of her pre-existing totalistic personality with the indoctrination to which she was exposed as a result of her kidnapping.

If we accept the Erikson-Lifton-Adorno et al theories of totalistic conversion as based upon an interaction between totalistic personalities and totalistic ideologies, and of the validity of Lifton's research that seemed to confirm this approach relative to victims of Communist thought reform, most other persons kidnapped and indoctrinated in a fashion similar to that of Hearst would have behaviorally complied with the demands of their SLA captors, but would not have really converted, and would, unlike Hearst, have returned to their former way of life and their families as soon as they were no longer physically in SLA control. Of Lifton's 40 thought reform subjects, only two were significantly influenced by thought reform, and even those two did not fully convert to the Communist ideology. What those two had in common that the others did not was that each of them was significantly totalistic in their personality structure and worldview before they underwent thought reform.

Similarly, published accounts (for instance Shana Alexander’s well-researched book Anyone’s Daughter, Viking Press, 1979, on the Patty Hearst/SLA situation and the Hearst trial) give some basis for thinking that Hearst: 1) was already a rebellious behavior problem at her prep school; 2) was increasingly alienated from her family and from mainstream conventional values from that point forward; 3) took psychedelic drugs while a University of California at Berkeley undergraduate and saw the world as dualistically divided between corrupt mainstream people and good counter-culture people and down-trodden minorities; 4) was sympathetic to totalistic social movements well before she was kidnapped by the SLA.

If we accept these facts as accurate, and they seem to be pretty well-established by competent journalistic coverage at the time of the Hearst trial, Hearst fit the profile of an “individual totalist” prone to seeking for a totalitarian counter-cultural worldview (as described by the Erikson-Lifton theory of predispositions to convert to the ideologies of totalitarian movements) which was shared with the other white female converts to the SLA who had not been kidnapped. (These were among the factual allegations upon which Joel Fort, the prosecution’s primary expert witness for rebutting the brainwashing theory of the defense, based his conclusion that Hearst had converted to the SLA worldview voluntarily for reasons similar to those of the other SLA converts, and therefore, that she, like them, was herself responsible for her own participation in the SLA crimes.

Additionally, Fort based his rejection of the Hearst defense and of Lifton’s interpretation of Hearst’s cooperation in SLA crimes as involuntary, upon the following more or less uncontroverted facts: After Hearst’s kidnapping and indoctrination she for months at a time was not under physical control or monitoring by the SLA, and so by normal standards could have left if she had chosen to. She only recanted her commitment to SLA ideology after she had been arrested for her share of SLA crimes, and the psychological or psychiatric experts who helped in her defense at her trial, i.e. Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer, L. J. (Jolly) West, as well as F. Lee Bailey and her other lawyers, helped her in the process of biographical reconstruction that served as the basis for her defense.

Hearst at the time of her trial thus may have been in the same situation as other ex-members of totalistic nrms, some of whom have also been accused of crimes while members of nrms. I have been an expert for the prosecution in two murder trials, two criminal fraud trials, and two kidnapping trials, where cultic brainwashing was used as a defense, similarly to the way it was used in the Hearst trial. The conversions to anticult ideology and biographical reconstruction arguably help ex-members of totalistic religious or political movements such as Hearst to reconceive their past in such a way that they evade responsibility for their former participation in unconventional institutions and activities.

There is a substantial body of methodologically sound research conducted by Stuart Wright, Trudy Solomon, Marc Galanter, and other nrm scholars, which tends to show that ex-members of nrms who subsequently participate in the anticult movement and convert to anticult ideology view their former conversions to nrms as having been involuntary and harmful. On the other hand, ex-members of the same nrms who do not become participants in the anticult movement or convert to anticult ideology tend view their former nrm involvement as voluntary and benign. Claims of involuntary conversion and harm by the small percentage of ex-members who convert to anticult ideology, then, appear to result more from their conversion to the ideology of the anticult movement and from the anticult-mediated biographical reconstruction process than it does from objective factual accounts of their former nrm involvements.

The main findings of this and other components of the generally accepted body of research on nrms are quite consistent with totalitarian influence theories such as those of Adorno et al or Erik Erickson, on the one hand, and quite incompatible with the cultic brainwashing theory, on the other. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, Lifton’s primary intellectual mentor, actually was the original developer of the totalism theory. Lifton applied Erikson’s theory under Erikson’s guidance as the primary basis for his interpretation of the Communist thought reform experience of his subjects, and as main theoretical basis for his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Norton, 1961.

However, Lifton did not use Erikson’s totalism theory (which he had formerly used as his primary basis for interpreting his interviews with victims of Communist thought reform) as the basis for his defense of Hearst’s participation in SLA crimes as involuntary. In fact, in his testimony in the Hearst trial Lifton specifically claimed that the totalism theory he had used as the primary theoretical basis for his analysis of the effects of Communist Thought Reform was not relevant to the facts of Hearst’s involvement in SLA crimes. Rather, he argued that Hearst had never actually converted to the totalistic SLA ideology and that she had participated in SLA crimes only because she was at all times afraid for her life if she didn’t comply with SLA directives. He further strongly asserted that only extreme life or death physical threat as had been present in Hearst’s experience with the SLA, was capable of overwhelming a person’s free will and of coercing involuntary compliance with totalitarian ideology and directives.

The subsequent anticult movement use of Lifton’s testimony in the Hearst case and of his research upon Communist thought reform as the primary foundation for the cultic brainwashing ideology therefore rest upon a complete misinterpretation of his testimony in that case as well as of the Erikson-Lifton totalism theory. That theory, because of its insistence that individual totalistic tendencies interact with totalistic ideology in the production of totalistic conversions, cannot plausibly serve as the basis for allegations of involuntary conversion to those same ideologies.

The Erikson-Lifton totalism theory strongly asserts that only those individuals who are naturally attracted to totalitarian ideology because of their own pre-existing personality and values will be influenced by totalitarian indoctrination. The theory maintains that this principle, i.e. that extremist pre-existing personalities interact with extremist worldviews in bringing about conversions to totalitarian social movements, is operative both in situations like Communist thought reform of westerners where such indoctrination was enforced by extreme physical threat and imprisonment, and also in situations like that of conversion to nrms where no physical coercion is typically involved.

Hearst is an intelligent and sophisticated person, and she has managed to influence a large segment of the educated public to the view that she was not responsible for her crimes and was never a genuine convert to the SLA. However, she was unable to convince a jury of that claim, and the jury had a much better and more detailed understanding of the actual facts surrounding her crimes than does the general public influenced by Hearst's subsequent claims. I tend to agree with the jury on this point, although I see Hearst as an attractive personality who is leading an interesting and worthwhile life and I don't hold her past against her.

At any rate, Hearst's attempt to explain the Elizabeth Smart situation as analogous to her own is unconvincing to me. Smart's compliance with the will of her captors is probably explicable on some other basis then her having been a totalistic personality before her kidnapping, perhaps some combination of the malleability of a child in the face of strong influence and indoctrination by adults with actual continued physical control by the adults.

On the other hand, Smart was only 14 years old when she was kidnapped and she apparently had had a strict Mormon upbringing. She may actually have been predisposed to accepting the stern religious authority of the self-appointed prophet Brian David Mitchell. Mitchell’s messianic creed is somewhat akin to those of various fundamentalist sects that have split off from the mainstream Mormon church, and which the mainstream Mormon church regards as beyond the pale of legitimate Mormon theology and conduct. Such offbeat theological worldviews allegedly primarily attract conversions from rebellious young persons from Mormon backgrounds.

Both of the above explanations for Smart’s conduct after her abduction are plausible but speculative. Many other reasonable accounts of the reasons for Smart’s conduct after her abduction are equally plausible given the present rather limited state of our knowledge of the actual facts of her kidnapping and of her subsequent conduct and interpretation of her kidnappers’ worldview. We don’t really have a detailed and accurate picture at this point of what Smart’s actual conduct and belief were during the period of her abduction. We are in the position of Americans at the time of the Korean War before the war was over and before scientists had conducted careful research about what the behavior and beliefs of the POWs had been during their captivity. Until that point Americans Until careful research had answered those questions., Americans didn’t really know what western POWs had done in the camps or believed about Communist ideology. Even well qualified scholars can scarcely be expected to provide a definitive scientific explanation of the facts of Smart’s relationship with her abductors when we have only fragmentary and somewhat contradictory accounts at this point of what the facts actually were.

Given the lack of definitive factual knowledge or research upon Smart’s captivity, it is not possible even for well-qualified scholars to make conclusive judgments about Ms. Smart’s experience from the point of view of a scientific theory. Skeptical detachment, curiosity, and acceptance of ambiguity in the face of inconclusive information are consistent with an authentically scientific attitude in this situation. On the other hand, the rush to judgment by so-called brainwashing experts who claim certain knowledge about the character of Smart’s conduct and belief during her captivity is not consistent with a genuinely scientific approach. It is the nature of pseudo-science and of pseudoscientific brainwashing theory to pretend to certainty in interpreting situations where such certainty cannot possibly be based upon scientific knowledge. Such false claims of certain knowledge in the absence of a clear factual foundation for that knowledge are more characteristic of totalistic ideology than of genuine science..

We don't as scientists and/or scholars have to be able to explain every incident of unwise conversion to or compliance with social influence in order to be able to confidently recognize the pseudo-scientific character of attempts at such definitive explanation in the absence of factual knowledge interpreted through the lens of a genuinely scientific theory, As scientists and scholars we should continue to be able to distinguish between the occurrence of a phenomenon, such as that of unwise conversion to totalitarian ideologies, that is a worthwhile subject for scientific exploration, on the one hand, and pseudo-scientific claims to have provided an objective explanation for apparent instances of that phenomenon on the other.

Biographical Sketch: Dick Anthony, Ph.D.

Dick Anthony is a research and forensic psychologist who specializes in evaluating the social and psychological concomitants of involvement in alternative religious movements. As a research faculty member of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Psychiatry and later as the Research Director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California, he directed a series of research programs on the social and psychological precursors and effects of alternative religions. These research programs were funded by US government agencies (the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and the National Endowment for the Humanities) and by philanthropic foundations (the Ford, Rockefeller and San Francisco Foundations). He has published the results of his research in numerous professional articles and book chapters.

His research for the National Endowment for the Humanities was focused upon questions of coercion in the conversion and commitment to alternative religions. He published the results of this research on coercion in alternative religions in a series of journal articles and book chapters. Many of these publications unfavorably evaluated the cultic brainwashing approach to addressing the issue of coercion in alternative religions, and they also articulated an alternative approach to such questions that he developed through his research. As a result of these publications, he began to serve as a trial consultant and expert witness in cases involving allegations of coercive religious influence. His critique of the scientific and civil liberties problems associated with cultic brainwashing testimony has become the most frequently used legal and scientific basis for repudiating cultic brainwashing testimony in such cases.

His approach has also been a primary basis for Amicus Curiae Briefs sponsored by several professional associations (the American Psychology Association, the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion), which summarized the scientific basis for viewing cultic brainashign theories and testimony as unscientific. These amicus briefs also asked courts to disallow such testimony because of its unscientific and prejudicial character. The approach he has developed is also used as the primary basis for most trial briefs asking courts to rule against the admission of cultic brainwashing testimony because of its unscientific character. He has served as a trial consultant and/or expert witnesses in many cases in North America and Europe, both civil and criminal, involving allegations of coercive religious influence. (In these capacities he has served as an expert both for the defense and for the prosecution.) Much of his testimony and trial consulting is focused upon evaluating the pseudo-scientific character of cultic brainwashing testimony in relation to the legal criteria for the admissibility of scientific evidence. In most of the cases in which he has served as an expert on this topic, witnesses who base their prospective testimony on cultic brainwashing theory have not been able to testify.

Doctor Anthony’s office is in the San Francisco Bay area: 5200 Huntington Avenue, Suite 370, Richmond CA, 94804; telephone 510 527-1712.


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