Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A term, first coined and introduced into popular use in 1953 by CIA-connected journalist Edward Hunter, that refers to a putative psychotechnology capable of subverting the free will and mentally enslaving persons subjected to its effects.

In its original Chinese usage, "to cleanse [or wash clean] thoughts," the term was an ideological concept referring to sociopolitical attitude "correction." However, the subsequent American literature transformed the concept into a sometimes coercive, sometimes subtle seductive and hypnotic process of mind control against which the average person is helpless. A post-Korean War literature (predominantly based on either thought reform seminars employed in "Revolutionary Colleges" or the harsh treatment of American POWs during the Korean War) produced primarily by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists elaborated these claims.

The term brainwashing (and related terms such as menticide, mind control, coercive persuasion, thought control, spiritual hypnosis ) was resurrected in the early 1970s by the modern American anti-cult movement (ACM), and its use spread during the 1980s to Europe, Australia, and other regions of the world. Anti-cult groups seized on the post-Korean War literature as evidence that the unconventional lifestyle/spiritual choices their loved ones apparently made were not in fact freewill decisions. Rather, they alleged, new religious movement (NRM) leaders had perfected potent brainwashing mechanisms that superficially resembled spiritual conversion but in fact rested on coercive mind control techniques. The concept allowed the ACM to distinguish between legitimate religious groups and those that they labeled "cults." For families with relatives involved in any one of a wide range of NRMs, brainwashing functioned to conceal conflicts and deflect feelings of guilt and blame experienced by both family members and former NRM adherents.

Behavioral scientists who were sympathetic with the ACM's goals and became spokespersons for its viewpoint developed more sophisticated versions of the brainwashing concept, adding terms such as cult-imposed thought patterns, cult-imposed personality syndromes , and dissociative states . The most sophisticated formulation of the ACM perspective has been developed by Margaret Singer in her "systematic manipulation of social influence" model (SMSI), and the most articulate critique of the ACM perspective has been formulated by Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins. It was the distinction between cultic and legitimate groups, resting on various versions of the brainwashing concept, that was the focal point of the cult controversy beginning in the 1970s. The ACM sought to legitimate its brainwashing argument in legislative and judicial forums but met with sufficient opposition from NRMs and most social scientists who conducted field studies on these movements that these concepts were not accorded official standing in state regulatory agencies.

See also Anti-Cult Movement, New Religious Movements

Anson Shupe and David G. Bromley


D. Anthony, "Religious Movements and 'Brainwashing' Litigation," in In Gods We Trust , ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990): 295-344

D. Anthony and T. Robbins, "The 'Brainwashing' Exception to the First Amendment," Behavioral Sciences and the Law 10(1992):5-30

D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (eds.), The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1984)

E. Hunter, Brainwashing in Red China (New York: Vanguard, 1953)

E. Hunter, Brainwashing from Pavlov to Powers (New York: Bookmailer, 1962)

R. J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: Norton, 1963)

J. Meerlo, The Rape of the Mind (New York: World, 1956)

W. Sargent, Battle for the Mind (New York: Doubleday, 1957)

A. Shupe and D. G. Bromley, The New Vigilantes (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980)

M. Singer and J. Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

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