Understanding the Scientology Mindset Pt 11 – ‘Brainwashing’

brainwashingIn the previous 10 parts of this series I have explored some of the insights that post-war psychology provides into the extraordinary power which the Church of Scientology  holds over its members.

These  theories did not exist in the early days of the Church of Scientology. The only psychological framework that seemed to offer an explanation for the strange behaviour of converts then, was ‘brainwashing’.

Unfortunately,  Cold War ideology got in the way of science, and the result was a very questionable theory.

Since then, there has been almost half a century of progress in psychology and social psychology (and intensive study of a variety of ‘cults’). This progress has both discredited the brainwashing thesis, and provided much better explanations for ‘mind control’. This new understanding is more subtle and complicated… but that’s life.

I will try to explain below why I believe that ‘brainwashing’, as an explanation for the behaviour of Scientologists,  should be abandoned, why it has persisted for so long,  and why this matters.

What is ‘Brainwashing’

During the Korean War, prisoners taken by the Chinese-Konan pow campsupported regime were  subject to prolonged torture – they were deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and harangued for days on end.

The result abusing of 350 prisoners in this way was that 21 chose to making statements on film (obviously written for them by their captors) that criticized the US involvement in the war.

This small propaganda success touched off a moral panic in the US. When people at home saw the propaganda films, they refused to believe that American soldiers would comply in this way. Instead, they chose to believe that the communists were practising a new form of mind control. Then a CIA operative gave it a name – “brainwashing” – and a modern myth was born.

After the Korean war, information was available to the US government and military indicating that ‘brainwashing’ was ineffective,

In 1956, the psychiatrists Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolf , of Cornell University, undertook an exhaustive study of brainwashing, with the support of the government and full access to the secret files of the CIA as well as some former communist interrogators and their prisoners. Their declassified, but conveniently overlooked, report refutes the effectiveness of all efforts to brainwash anyone – especially through inducing altered states of consciousness. Where thought-reform techniques do seem to have produced results, they argue, we are merely witnessing behavioural compliance brought on by threats and the experience of physical abuse

Ref: 1994 “Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence”, pgs 457 – 71 in Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour , Vol 1. San Diego Calif.: Academic Press.

If Brainwashing Doesn’t Work, Why does the Idea Persist?

Brainwashing by Edward HunterPoliticians and the military felt the need to unite the country behind the Korean war effort, and the US yielded to the temptation to use the perceived threat of brainwashing for propaganda purposes.

The term ‘brainwashing’ was, in fact popularised by a CIA operative and tireless anti-communist campaigner who wrote an extremely popular book on the subject (image left).

Edward Hunter was doing what he perceived to be his patriotic duty – turning American public opinion against the threat he saw in Chinese communism. He was not overly concerned with scientific accuracy.

His creation turned out to be a powerful propaganda tool . Whether it was effective or not, ‘brainwashing’ was a frightening idea. The fear that your enemy has a technique which can change your mind against your will is so powerful that it it has subsequently been used in a wide range of  fiction (from “The Manchurian Candidate” to the ‘Borg’ of Star Trek).

The social reaction to the rise of Scientology in the 1950’s should be understood in this context. American culture places a high value on individual freedom – the fear of  ‘Communist brainwashers’ came from their implied threat to individuality. When Scientologists were seen to have lost their individuality, this was explained with an already familiar idea – brainwashing.

L Ron Hubbard Jumps on the Bandwagon


In 1955 a pamphlet appeared. The title page claims that it was “Published as a Public Service by the Church of Scientology”. It purports to a lecture by a Soviet official to  American students at Lenin University about “Psycho-politics” which is supposedly,

[…] the art and science of asserting and maintaining dominion over the thoughts and loyalties of individuals, officers, bureaus, and masses, and the effecting of the conquest of enemy nations through “mental healing.”

This elevates the myth of brainwashing from something that can be used against individuals to a technique that can (supposedly) manipulate social groups and whole populations.

Of course, this document was a forgery written by Hubbard himself. This is revealed by the dig against “mental healing” above (implying that Hubbard’s oldest enemy, psychiatry, was in the pay of  the Soviet Union) and the vocabulary, style, and word order used – all so characteristic of Hubbard’s writing.

Hubbard had many motivations for creating this farcical forgery. These  probably include an attempt to break the link in the public mind between communism and Scientology (via brainwashing) by presenting  Scientology as a virulently anti-communist organisation which was  exposing brainwashing.

 Why Brainwashing Theory is a Poor Match for ‘Cult’ Groups like Scientology

Brainwashing was originally supposed to take place in a place (a POW camp) where interrogators had complete physical control over their victims. They could starve them, deprive them of sleep and inflict torture.

As we have seen, even under those conditions, brainwashing failed to bring about permanent changes of mind. Cult groups which have considerably less control over their members (at least in the early stages).

People who join Scientology have not been forced to do so. They are subject to psychological manipulation (see the previous entries in this series) but this cannot be described as brainwashing because they can walk away at any time.

What About the Sea Org?

There is good evidence to suggest that Members of thesea org ‘paramilitary’ Sea Org suffer hunger, sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Surely, then, the Sea Org practices  ‘brainwashing’.

One difficulty with this claim is that many Sea Org members were Scientologists for years before they joined. Their conversion had already taken place, before they were subject to physical control.

Also, there is also good evidence to suggest that Sea Org members are constantly subject to surveillance and security measures that are designed to prevent them from escaping. Much of this information comes from Sea Org defectors. If brainwashing brought about a permanent personality change constant security measures would not be necessary because there be no defectors.

It seems more likely that, like the American prisoners of war who co-operated with the Chinese, many Sea Org ‘officers’ are only complying with the demands put upon them in order to avoid further punishment.

Conditions in the Sea Org have far more to do with enforced servitude and learned helplessness than ‘brainwashing’.

Please Note

I am not denying that the Church of Scientology submits its members to unconscionable and abusive psychological manipulation  – they do.

I am arguing that, if we want to understand what is being done to the minds of Scientologists, we need to discard the tainted concept of  ‘brainwashing’ and replace it with insights from the half-century of advances in Psychology that have taken place since ‘brainwashing’ was invented.

Why Does it Matter?

Some readers will be thinking “What does it matter what you call it – when we say ‘brainwashing’ everyone understands what we mean…”

Deprogramming1Belief in brainwashing led (logically) to the practice of ‘Deprogramming’.  Briefly a new breed of ‘professional deprogrammers’ took money to kidnap vulnerable believers, hold them captive, and supposedly ‘change their minds back ‘ using the same sort of coercive practices.

Deprogrammers claimed that the end justified the means – always a very bad sign. In fact ‘deprogramming’ was illegal, unethical and cruel.

Deprogramming was also counter-productive People who escaped deprogammers were often confirmed in the their belief that the world outside of their cult was cruel and corrupt – failed deprogramming attempts may well transformed someone who would have drifted away from belief (most people do) into a lifelong believer.

Unfortunately, this idea follows logically from belief in brainwashing. If you are convinced that someone’s mind had been changed by force, then it follows that force is the only way to change it back.

Brainwashing, and all of its ideological baggage, needs to be discarded not only because it is wrong and dangerous but also because it distracts from better explanations.

The insights of modern psychology provide more rational and humane ways of helping ex-Scientologists adjust to life outside the Church  (for example, cognitive behaviour therapy, which I will also discuss another time)and more effective ways of engaging with Scientologists so as to lead them to question their allegiance to the Church.

Further Reading

Brainwashing: the fictions of mind control”  by David Seed brainwashing in fiction

This book discusses the history of brainwashing in fiction, and examines how this idea has been transformed over the years from a popular expression of Cold War anxieties, to fears about internal threats to personal liberty.