“Liar, Liar”: Brainwashing, CESNUR and APA

by Massimo Introvigne - See also a collection of documents on APA and the brainwashing controversy. This text is also available in Italian and French.

Scholars and anti-cult movements have often disagreed throughout recent history and, whilst the American cult wars of the 1970s and 1980s were not particularly civilized, they look like nursery playgrounds when compared to today’s European cult wars, in which governments are directly involved. France in 1996, and Belgium in 1997, for instance, both published parliamentary reports on cults, which relied largely on information supplied by their intelligence services and by private anti-cult movements. CESNUR protested these reports through press conferences, articles, and books. We also pointed out dozens of factual mistakes and the use of an anti-cult model (centered on the notion of brainwashing or mind control) debunked in the English-speaking world from, at least, the 1980s onwards. Later reports, although in their turn also controversial (including the 1998 report of the German commission), took into account the scholarly criticism of the French and Belgian reports and adopted a somewhat more moderate attitude on many issues. CESNUR, in the meantime, had exposed the French and Belgian approach in press conferences and seminars held in Paris, Brussels, Rome and Washington D.C., as well as at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and elsewhere. In the U.S., the Helsinki Committee and the House International Relations Committee started an investigation on “Continuing Religious Intolerance in Europe”, with myself as one of the witnesses, particularly in relation to France.
There was, substantially, no valid answer to CESNUR and other scholarly criticism of the French and Belgian report. Instead, campaigns were launched aimed at discrediting CESNUR, its managing director and several prominent international scholars associated with its efforts. Kenneth Starr wannabes were unleashed to investigate my private and professional life as well as that of other CESNUR officers, with no stone left unturned, and at considerable expense. Old charges were suddenly revived, and an entire anti-CESNUR Web site, with hundreds of pages, was launched with great fanfare, although the results far outweighed the huge and expensive efforts it entailed. A certain Miguel Martinez, for instance, wrote a gossipy Web biography of my life, claiming that I am both a member (not only a supporter) or Freemasonry and a supporter (although not a member) of the fiercely anti-Masonic Brazilian organization TFP (Tradition, Family and Property). All this despite the fact that my own and CESNUR’s writings on Freemasonry have, if anything, been subjected to strong criticism by the official journal of the largest Italian Masonic body as “a vigorous attack on Freemasonry” (“Massoneria Oggi”, vol. 2, no. 4, August-September 1995, pp. 69-71). In ten years of international conferences more than one thousand papers have been presented at various CESNUR events. Not even one of them was devoted to TFP and its controversies (covered briefly in an article in one of the many books I have edited, and discussed perhaps in merely a couple of paragraphs and footnotes in my otherwise large body of writings on the subject of cult controversies). The central claim of the anti-CESNUR Web site is that TFP invented the notion of an anti-cult movement (clearly a figment of its leaders’ imagination) in 1985, and that I established CESNUR in 1988, acting in accordance wit the TFP script, in order firstly to persuade public opinion of the existence of an anti-cult movement, and secondly to start the cult wars by recruiting academics into an anti-anti-cult movement. This claim, of course, immediately identifies the anti-CESNUR Web site as hopelessly paranoid. The cult wars started way back in the 1970s, quite independently of me and the TFP (I was in high school at that time). Veteran academics fighting anti-cultists in the 1970s will be very surprised now to learn that they were, in fact, acting out a script formulated by a Brazilian movement in 1985.
It is true that years of investigation have gathered a certain amount of gossip, often false and occasionally downright distasteful. You might learn, for example, from the anti-CESNUR Web site that an officer of the French chapter of CESNUR, a married man, has a “militant homosexual” as his associate and colleague, and for proof of my involvement in Masonic conspiracies you will be directed to a publication called Sodalitium. This is, in fact, a very worthy Italian magazine, in which you will find a number of articles claiming both that John Paul II, being too liberal, is not really and validly the Pope (he is the Pope only “materially”, but not “formally”), and that blood libel tales about the Jews are absolutely authentic. According to this magazine, Jews ritualistically kill Christian children and preserve their blood. (My mention of the blood libel mythology as an early example of moral panic and urban legend directed against a religious minority obviously did not endear me to this publication). In general terms, however, Kenneth Starr has clearly been more fortunate. In our case there was no blue dress to be found.
Or wasn’t it? Suddenly, in the summer of 1998, our little Kenneth Starrs got extremely excited and announced that they had finally found an impeachable offense. Unhappy that the German parliamentary commission on cults had not subscribed to the most extreme brainwashing theories (after having heard the undersigned as one of the witnesses), an international anti-cult network started accusing me of false witness. I had, in fact, stated before the German commission (and elsewhere) that in 1987 the American Psychological Association (APA) had rejected the brainwashing or mind control theories applied to new religious movements on the ground that they were outside the field of mainline science. One of the most extreme characters in the European anti-cult lobby is Berlin Lutheran Pastor Thomas Gandow. Using information picked up here and there on the Internet, Gandow published in his bulletin Berliner Dialog an article entitled “The APA Lie - A Scholarly Scandal” (Die APA-Lüge - Ein Wissenschaftsskandal, in Berliner Dialog, 1-98, p. 27), accusing me of “an obvious lie”, “conscious fraud” and a “courage to lie”. Gandow’s accusations were immediately translated into various languages and largely used by the anti-cult network to launch a sustained attack against CESNUR and myself. After I repeated the statement about APA before the Helsinki Commission in Washington, Miguel Martinez specifically proposed a parallel with Starr’s investigation. In a statement posted on http://watch.pair.com/CSCE.html, he claimed that “Introvigne lied publicly before an official US body just as he had lied publicly before a committee of the German parliament. Something like the Sexgate!”. (watch.pair.com is a web site exposing, inter alia, a world-wide conspiracy led by the Roman Catholic Church, the “Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth” [eucharist.html], including Freemasons, the Stuart family, the Priory of Sion, and many others, aimed at a “Vatican conquest of the Holy Land” in order to “reestablish the Holy Roman Empire”: priory.html).


Unfortunately for these conspiracy theorists, dozens of documents exist about the issue. A short review of the facts is now in order.

1. In the early 1980s, some U.S. mental health professionals became controversial figures for their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against new religious movements, during which they presented their anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or “coercive persuasion” as if they were generally accepted concepts within the scientific community. In the meantime, in 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) had accepted the proposal to form a task force called DIMPAC (Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control). Dr. Margaret Singer, the most vocal proponent of the anti-cult coercive persuasion theories, was asked to chair DIMPAC and report to APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility (BSERP). Singer personally recruited most of the DIMPAC members. They included, among others, Professor Louis J. West (arguably the most extreme anti-cultist among U.S. mental health professionals), and Michael D. Langone of the anti-cult American Family Foundation.

2. DIMPAC pursued its work for some years, whilst Dr. Singer and other professionals continued to appear as expert witnesses in court cases using their coercive persuasion and brainwashing theories. Dissatisfied with this continuing state of affairs, “on February 5, 1987, during its winter meeting, the APA Board of Directors voted for APA to participate in the [Molko ] case as an amicus” (American Psychological Association, Memorandum on APA’s activities regarding the Molko case, July 11, 1989, p. 1). Molko was a case pending before the California Supreme Court, involving issues of brainwashing and coercive persuasion with respect to the Unification Church. On February 10, 1987 APA joined other parties in submitting a brief in the Molko case. The brief stated that as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion “is not accepted in the scientific community” and that the relevant methodology “has been repudiated by the scientific community”. It would be difficult to state a position more clearly than that, and the brief also implied that, when applied to new religious movements, theories of mind control were uniformly regarded as “not accepted in the scientific community”, be they referred to as “brainwashing”, “mind control”, or - as Singer prefers -“coercive persuasion”.

3. Singer, and a number of her friends, complained that it was inappropriate for APA to remain in the Molko case because in doing so it was anticipating a verdict not yet rendered. In fact, the DIMPAC task force had not yet submitted its final draft report to BSERP and the latter, on behalf of APA, had not yet decided whether to accept or reject it. Bearing these arguments in mind, therefore, “the Board of Directors [of APA], in the spring of 1987, reconsidered its prior decision to participate in the brief and voted, narrowly, to withdraw” (APA Memorandum of July 11, 1989, p. 1). This means that “APA’s decision to withdraw from the case was based on procedural as opposed to substantive concerns. APA never rejected the brief on the ground that it was inaccurate in substance” (ibid., p. 2). When filing its March 24, 1987 motion to withdraw from the Molko case, APA cautioned that “by this action, APA does not mean to suggest endorsement of any views opposed to those set forth in the amicus brief” (ibid., p. 2). Summing up, in a brief filed in a court case in 1987 pursuant to a decision of its Board of Directors, APA declared that as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion “is not accepted in the scientific community”. APA subsequently withdrew from the case “based on procedural as opposed to substantive concerns” and “never rejected the brief on the ground that it was inaccurate in substance”.

4. The Molko brief was only one of the documents presented in 1987 in which APA declared that, as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion is not scientific. In fact, although Singer later claimed that all drafts were still provisional and that she needed more time, by the end of 1986 APA's BSERP had submitted the latest draft of the DIMPAC report both to internal reviewers and to two outside academics, namely Dr. Jeffrey D. Fisher and Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. The latter was, and is, well-known for his lack of sympathy towards “cults”. On May 11, 1987 BSERP released a Memorandum, on behalf of APA, evaluating what it called the “Final Report of the Task Force”. The DIMPAC report was rejected because it “lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur”. The Memorandum contains five paragraphs plus enclosures, the latter including reviews by two BSERP members and two external experts. A version of the BSERP Memorandum was filed in different court cases, and was so widely circulated that, according to Singer herself, it could be regarded as having been “publicly distributed” (Margaret Singer and Richard Ofshe, Summons in the case against American Psychological Association and others before the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Alameda, January 31, 1994, n. 110, p. 31). This version includes the two external reviews. The two internal reviews were not part of the document as “publicly distributed” although one, by Dr. Catherine Grady, was later quoted in a court case. Dr. Grady concluded that the techniques asserted by the task force as used by religious movements “are not defined and cannot be distinguished from methods used in advertising, elementary schools, main-line churches, AA and Weight Watchers”. References to “harm”, Grady wrote, were “extremely confused”: “It’s all unsubstantiated and unproved newspaper reports and unresolved court cases. It’s not evidence”, she said. External reviewer Jeffrey D. Fisher, of the University of Connecticut, wrote that the report was “unscientific in tone”, “biased in nature” and “sometimes (...) characterized by the use of deceptive, indirect techniques of persuasion and control - the very thing it is investigating”. “At times, the reasoning seems flawed to the point of being almost ridiculous”. The historical part on “cults”, Fisher wrote, “reads more like hysterical ramblings than a scientific task force report”. DIMPAC criticized the use by scholars of “new religious movements”, and insisted that “cults” should be used. Fisher commented that this was “some of the most polemical, ridiculous reasoning I’ve ever seen anywhere, much less in the context of an A.P.A. technical report”. Since Singer had contested the other experts from the point of view of their bias in favour of “cults”, Beit-Hallahmi’s review was particularly important. (Although, quite ridiculously, Singer later stated that “upon information and belief, Beit-Hallahmi had at the time established an academic reputation of being protective of the type of coercive psychological cults whose abuses DIMPAC had been charged with investigating”: Singer & Ofshe's Summons in the Alameda County case, n. 105, p. 29). The Beit-Hallahmi review, dated February 18, 1987, asked: “What exactly are deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control? I don’t think that psychologists know much about techniques of persuasion and control, either direct or indirect, either deceptive or honest. We just don’t know, and we should admit it. Lacking psychological theory, the [DIMPAC] report resorts to sensationalism in the style of certain tabloids”. Beit-Hallahmi’s verdict was clear: “The term ‘brainwashing’ is not a recognized theoretical concept, and is just a sensationalist ‘explanation’ more suitable to ‘cultists’ and revival preachers. It should not be used by psychologists, since it does not explain anything”.

5. Thus, for the second time following the Molko brief, APA stated in 1987 that brainwashing or coercive persuasion theories, when applied to new religious movements, are not scientific. To state that a report “lacks scientific rigor” is tantamount to saying that it is not scientific, and to state that brainwashing “is not a recognized theoretical concept” but, rather, “a sensationalist ‘explanation’ more suitable to ‘cultists’ and revival preachers” is even worse. It simply will not do to claim that APA’s BSERP rejected only the DIMPAC report, in particular, and not the brainwashing and mind control theories as applied to new religious movements, in general. The DIMPAC report is a faithful and comprehensive representation of the brainwashing and mind control theories as applied by the anti-cult faction to new religious movements. It would also not do to state that BSERP unfairly evaluated a provisional draft of the report. 1986-87 correspondence shows that the text was the “final draft of the report, minus the reference list” (letter from Dorothy Thomas, executive assistant at BSERP, December 29, 1986). In all fairness and in my own personal opinion, the DIMPAC report also includes some valid sections, particularly those on the history of what scholars of the New Age call seminar religion or culture (and which DIMPAC prefers to call "Large Group Awareness Training", or LGAT). Its main thrust, however, is the standard anti-cult idea that cults are different from genuine religions, and that they should be referred to as "cults" rather than "new religions" or "new religious movements". To use the latter terms would result in "an attitude of deviance deamplification towards extremist cults, and a tendency to gloss over critical differences between cultic and non-cultic groups" (DIMPAC report, p. 13). "The term 'cult' as employed henceforth in this report is intended to mean 'totalist cults'" (ibid., p. 15). A "cult" is defined by DIMPAC as "a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive dedication or devotion to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative (i.e. deceptive and indirect) techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. Unethically manipulative techniques include isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc." (ibid., p. 14). In short, "cults" are likely "to exhibit three elements to varying degrees: (1) excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment by members to the identity and leadership of the group; (2) exploitative manipulation of members, and (3) harm or the danger of harm" (ibid., p. 14). Cults are not distinguished from religions "for their professed beliefs" but "by their actual practices" (ibid., pp. 14-15).

6. As Singer herself admitted, the rejection of the DIMPAC report was “described by the APA as a rejection of the scientific validity of the theory of coercive persuasion” (M. Singer and R. Ofshe, Summons of January 31, 1994, n. 110, p. 31), inter alia in subsequent court cases. This rejection played a crucial role in the Fishman case of 1990, a landmark decision in which testimony about mind control was not admitted in a case involving the Church of Scientology. Fishman included a careful review of the whole controversy, and accepted critical claims that anti-cultists were, in fact, and contrary to what they claimed, misquoting and misusing Lifton’s theories of Communist thought reform (for crucial differences between the anti-cult mind control theory and Lifton’s original thought reform model, see Dick Anthony’s Ph. D. dissertation, “Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence: An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials”, Berkeley 1996). Gandow writes that the APA 1987 Memorandum simply says that “BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue”. This is the fourth paragraph of the May 11, 1987 Memorandum, which Gandow conveniently omits to inform his readers was preceded by three other paragraphs directing attention to the enclosures, and stating that the DIMPAC report “lacks scientific rigor”. What, we may ask, is “this issue” mentioned in the fourth paragraph on which APA's BSERP claims to lack “sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position”? Sentences should be interpreted within the context of whole documents, and documents include enclosures. Surely, the issue on which APA’s BSERP is not “taking a position” cannot be the DIMPAC report, because the aim of the whole document was precisely to take a clear stand on the report. Neither can it be the coercive persuasion or brainwashing theory as applied to new religious movements, since it formed both the very content of the DIMPAC report and the subject matter of the external reviewers' wrath presented in the enclosures. When one reads the enclosures and considers the whole controversy, it becomes clear that the issue not resolved by the 1987 Memorandum is the much larger issue of unethical behavior and misrepresentations in persuasion processes, a problem not exclusive to the field of new religious movements or "cults". Unethical behavior and false representation may occur quite independently of any brainwashing, coercive persuasion, or mind control practices, both in religion and in psychotherapy. Beit-Hallahmi, in his review, for instance stated that “psychotherapy as it is practised most of the time (private practice) is likely to lead to immoral behavior (…). I have no sympathy for Rev. Moon, Rajneesh, or Scientology, but I think that psychologists will be doing the public a greater favor by cleaning their own act, before they pick on various strange religions”. It is on larger issues of this kind, rather than on brainwashing as allegedly practised by new religious movements, that BSERP experts disagreed among themselves, and BSERP was not in a position to reach a definitive conclusion. This, by the way, is the same position I took when giving evidence before the German parliamentary commission. I stated then that, while the common anti-cult brainwashing or mind control theories have been largely rejected by the scholarly community (with few exceptions), forms of persuasion or influence based on false or otherwise unethical representations continue to exist within some of the new religious movements, and that they constitute serious problems. Again, misrepresentations are rather different from brainwashing.

7. APA thus declared not once but at least twice in 1987 that “the theory of coercive persuasion is not scientific” and that it “lacks scientific rigor”. The statement I made before the German commission that the American Psychological Association had rejected the brainwashing/mind control theories in 1987 insofar as they applied to religious movements, on the basis that they were not scientific is, therefore, perfectly accurate. It is, in fact, almost identical to Singer’s own statement that the rejection of the DIMPAC report was “described by the APA as a rejection of the scientific validity of the theory of coercive persuasion”.


Perhaps Gandow and his friends have been misled by a statement in the APA Memorandum of May 11, 1987, i.e. that “the Board appreciates the difficulty in producing a report in this complex and controversial area, and (…) thanks the members of the Task Force for their efforts”. This statement only goes to show that, unlike Gandow, the members of APA’s BSERP were familiar with the most elementary rules of courtesy. Singer, however, was not over-enthusiastic about this courtesy. In fact, she filed two subsequent lawsuits against APA and the American Sociological Association, as well as a number of individual scholars, accusing them all of having organized the whole incident “fraudulently, intentionally, falsely, and/or in reckless disregard for the truth, with intent to deceive and in furtherance of the Conspiracy” (M. Singer and R. Ofshe, Summons in the California case, n. 107, p. 30). Singer claimed that APA and the leading scholars were all part of a “Conspiracy” (always written by Singer with a capital C). The aim of the “Conspiracy” apparently was to discredit brainwashing and mind control theories in order to protect some of the more controversial new religious movements (who, Singer alleged, probably financed the whole operation anyway).
This conspiracy theory, even if true, would be of no help to Gandow and his friends in the present controversy. The question they have raised is not why in 1987 APA declared the brainwashing and mind control theories as applied to new religious movements as non-scientific, but rather whether APA actually took that position. Nor is it a question of APA’s present position (if any) on brainwashing or “cults”. APA has no continuing policy on the issue. APA never repudiated its 1987 actions, however, not even in the face of lawsuits filed later by Singer, when it would have been tempting to settle by repudiating its earlier actions. Instead, APA vehemently denied the accusations that its actions of 1987 were illegitimate and indeed spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending their legitimacy.
Conspiracy theories, nonetheless, warrant a passing reference here, because they are currently being revived, after many years, within the context of the new European cult wars in almost the same terms, and quoting the same documents. Singer in particular (Summons in the California case, n. 217, p. 70) offers, as evidence of the conspiracy, documents about meetings conducted in New York between December 10-12, 1989 with representatives of the Unification Church and three sociologists. One of the sociologists concerned later wrote a memorandum indicating that the possibility of Unification Church funding for future initiatives involving these scholars had been discussed (with the three scholars disagreeing between themselves on the issue). Singer, however, failed to prove that anything came from these contacts, or that the Unification Church had, in fact, subsidized or financed subsequent activities carried out by these scholars in the United States or anywhere else. It is true that Singer forgot in her theory of the “Conspiracy” to mention the Freemasons, the Brazilian group TFP, and even “vampire sects” (associated with CESNUR, according to an American anti-cult publication: see "Jehovah's Witnesses Join Interfaith Efforts in U.S. and Europe", Comments from the Friends, vol. 17, no. 4, October 1998, p. 5. These “Friends” were probably confused by the fact that Dr. J. Gordon Melton and I both published scientific studies on the vampire myth and that we are both officers of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula (TSD). TSD, it should be noted, is a publisher of reputable scholarly journals and books, and is definitely not a “vampire sect”). In general, however, the current theory that the brainwashing/mind control theory failed not so much because (as APA claimed) it “lacks scientific rigor”, but rather as the result of a so-called “Conspiracy” is virtually identical to Singer’s allegations (with the Unification Church connection mentioned again as the smoking gun). There is nothing new here, and the “Conspiracy” theory has repeatedly been found wanting in court. On August 9, 1993 the United States District Court, S.D. of New York, dismissed the federal case brought by Singer and anti-cult sociologist Richard Ofshe against APA, the American Sociological Association and a number of scholars, finding no conspiracy and no “racket” (as Singer had alleged). Anti-racket statutes, the plaintiffs were told, “can have no role in sanctioning conduct motivated by academic and legal differences” (1993 W.L. 307782 S.D. N.Y.). Singer and Ofshe then turned to Californian state law and produced a true “bible” on the Conspiracy. Once again the case was swiftly thrown out of court. Judge James R. Lambden ruled on June 17, 1994 that “Plaintiffs have not presented sufficient evidence to establish any reasonable probability of success on any cause of action” (Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Alameda, case n. 730012-8, order of June 17, 1994). Those who would now like to revive the spectre of the great cult apologists “Conspiracy” would do well to listen to District Judge McKenna’s counsel in the federal case. Their “best remedy”, he said, remains not with conspiracy theories “but in continuing to maintain that their theories are sound within appropriate scientific and legal fora”. It is high time, therefore, that they cease shooting the messengers (or insulting them, or invading their privacy through pointless investigations of their private lives) and focus their efforts instead on formulating their own message, if indeed they have one.

© Massimo Introvigne and CESNUR, 1998

For a different point of view, see this page of SRS

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