Does Brainwashing Exist?

In the last half century, “brainwashing” has taken up residence in the English language, seemingly never to be evicted. And yet we are unable to agree on what constitutes brainwashing or even that it exists. The American Psychological Association, for example, has declined to take a position on brainwashing as a valid psychological concept. The courts have debated whether brainwashing is an acceptable legal defense or not – mostly it’s not – and scholars have argued both sides of the issue with no resolution.

But brainwashing is not going away. It seems to be with us and to come into sharp focus every time the media unveils another Patty Hearst, Elizabeth Smart, or another Jonestown.

Jonestown especially seems to have captured the popular imagination. Even after 30 years, many Americans know what you are talking about when you mention Jonestown. How could Jonestown happen? How could over 900 people be persuaded to commit suicide? Were they brainwashed?

To some extent, the brainwashing explanation is useful because it gets us off the hook. We’re not responsible. It wasn’t our fault. “The devil made me do it.” Does that mean brainwashing is merely a convenient rationalization to avoid personal responsibility? In 1649, Rene Descartes argued that “The will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained.” Since then much has changed, and Descartes’ assertion has been brought into serious question. There seem to be situations, such as Jonestown, where free will can indeed be constrained.

The tragedy of Jonestown, and what happened that day in November 1978, is well documented, and does not need to be recounted here. But it remains difficult for most people to get their minds around the idea that so many people could be persuaded to kill themselves simply because Jim Jones commanded them to do so. The appeal of the brainwashing theory is that it bridges the gap between common sense (that rational individuals would have refused to comply) and what actually happened (almost everyone drank the poison and died).

Brainwashing in its most controversial form is sometimes called “robot theory.” The idea is that people can be made into robots, such that they will perform the most horrendous acts or behave in ways completely at variance with their prior beliefs and values. This form of brainwashing was popularized in the 1959 book and 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate, in which an American soldier in Korea is programmed by his communist captors to commit murder on command. Perhaps the Jonestown analog of the Manchurian Candidate is the case of Larry Layton who posed as a defector and accompanied the congressional investigating party to the Port Kaituma airstrip, where five people – including Representative Leo Ryan – were killed, and a dozen more were wounded, including two by Layton. Was Layton acting as a robot, robbed of his free will and programmed by Jim Jones to commit murder? Or was he fully aware and in control of his actions and therefore responsible for what he had done? The courts found him guilty and he served his time in prison. However, I wonder if even Larry knows what happened to cause him to fire his weapon.

Not every example of brainwashing needs to be as dramatic as robot theory. An example of what might be termed “brainwashing lite” is the “Stockholm syndrome.” It refers to the ability of powerful captors, in this case hostage takers, to create in their victims a loyalty and identification that defies reason. The term originated in 1973 during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, during which the robbers held bank employees hostage for several days. The victims became emotionally attached to the robbers. They actually resisted attempts to rescue them and even defended the robbers after they were freed. Since then other examples of Stockholm syndrome have been reported by the media. After her kidnapping, for example, Patty Hearst joined her captors in the Symbionese Liberation Army, repudiated her family, and helped the SLA to rob a bank. Also noteworthy are cases of domestic abuse, where it is common for victims to identify with their abusers. They may refuse to leave the abusive relationship and are repeatedly abused as a result. These are examples of brainwashing as well. They demonstrate the potential of those with life-threatening power over us to affect our beliefs and our behavior in ways we ordinarily would have thought impossible.

Some authors have argued that brainwashing theory (robot theory) is unscientific and therefore unproven. That may be so, but it should be pointed out that doing prospective studies to test a theory of brainwashing would be unethical and thus impossible to perform. We cannot subject human subjects to the conditions experienced in Jonestown and in other cults to see if people can be brainwashed or not.

The courts seem to have firmly rejected brainwashing as a criminal defense, but this does not necessarily mean that brainwashing is a myth. Margret Singer, a psychologist who interviewed many cult members, including survivors of Jonestown, believed that cults successfully employed brainwashing to overcome the individual’s ability to exercise free will. In his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert J. Lifton reports the results of his study of brainwashing (or thought reform as he prefers to call it) in Communist China. He describes eight psychological themes characteristic of thought reform in totalitarian states and cites several case studies of individuals who were subjected to thought reform in China. Lifton and others have made a persuasive case that thought reform exists. But whether it is employed by cults (or New Religious Movements) such as Peoples Temple, and whether it explains what happened in Jonestown, is another matter. Recently, Lifton has refined his theory and distinguished “world-destroying cults” such as Aum Shinri-kyo from others, and he has postulated the characteristics that define them.

More recently 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given us examples of individuals persuaded by powerful leaders and ideology to overcome the normal impulse for self-preservation and society’s prohibition against the killing of innocents. The 9/11 attackers knew they would not survive, but they nevertheless trained for months and carried out their attacks, seemingly without hesitation. Their religion, Islam, does not condone the killing of innocent victims such as the office workers and others in the World Trade Center that died. The attackers knew they were not killing combatants but rather innocent people who had never raised a hand against them or their country. While we may never know the specifics of their experiences leading up to the attack, it seems reasonable to conclude that they were strongly influenced by Al Qaeda ideology and by a powerful leader, Osama Bin Laden.

Since the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many others in these countries have followed in the footsteps of the 9/11 attackers and become suicide bombers. Most of those killed have been ordinary Iraqi and Afghan civilians, often including women and children. As more and more suicide bombers die in these attacks, Al Qaeda has boasted that they have no shortage of people to fill their ranks. As for the rest of us, though, we believe that we could never be brainwashed to become suicide bombers, just as we believe we could never have been persuaded to drink the Kool-Aid in Jonestown.

The suggestion of a few researchers that individual personality factors predispose some people to join cults, bears closer examination. This is an interesting theory to consider, but it is also dangerously close to “blaming the victim.” It would be comforting to believe that the people who joined Peoples Temple were those who were highly suggestible, who were emotionally dependent, or who had experienced emotional problems early in life. To hold such a belief, it should be pointed out, is self-protective. One can be reassured by this idea that he or she, being of sterner stuff, would not have joined such a cult.

Many people have trouble accepting that they might be influenced by cults, or they assert that only “weak-minded” people can be brainwashed. In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, conducted a study in which the experimenter ordered ordinary college students to administer what they believed were painful electric shocks to other students in a separate room. As the shocks were increased in intensity, the victims’ cries of pain and agony could be heard through the wall. Most of the students were compliant and continued to increase the shocks as the experimenter ordered them to do. The recipients of the shocks were actually confederates of the experimenter and no shocks were actually given. Nevertheless, Milgram’s study demonstrated that ordinary people are susceptible, and they will override their own beliefs of what is moral or acceptable behavior if ordered to do so by a powerful person. As Milgram put it in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Our view of ourselves is often that we are stronger than others, and any attempt to influence our beliefs or change our values will certainly fail. This is a myth. But we continue to believe in our own superiority and immunity to brainwashing despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

So far I have discussed brainwashing as a threat to individual freedom and the means of causing ordinary people to commit murder and suicide. But is brainwashing in all its forms only a tool of those wishing to perpetrate evil and injustice, or can it be used for good purposes as well? Our view of brainwashing may be biased and a consequence of our Western culture with its emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom. Unlike the West, Eastern societies do not always put the emphasis on individual interests before collective ones. Certainly the Chinese Communists, with whom the term “washing the brain” originated, viewed it as a positive good. Even today, “reeducation” is used in China to rehabilitate those who have fallen into wrong ideas. We Westerners may view this practice as an attack on individual freedom, but from a communal perspective, rehabilitating individuals who have strayed from the flock is the right thing to do.

Even in the West, the exercise of free will and freedom of expression do not always trump the needs of the community. For example, consider our own departments of corrections and rehabilitation. Their job is to reform prison inmates and to instill in them the moral and ethical values we as a society deem necessary. We applaud when a convicted criminal who has been “rehabilitated” is released from prison, publicly apologizes for his past crime, testifies to his redemption, and promises to be a good and law abiding citizen in the future. Is this so different from what the Chinese are doing in their society?

When our community is perceived to be under threat, individual freedom may be curtailed on a broad scale, and managing or changing public attitudes and beliefs may be employed as an aid in protecting the community. For example, during World War II, American propaganda portrayed the Japanese enemy as sub-human, evil and alien. Extolling the virtues of Japanese culture and art were not popular following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much effort went into “educating” the American population about the evils of Japan and its people. As a result, few complained when Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps. After the war was won, the camps closed and their occupants re-integrated into the general population. America gradually accepted the Japanese again. Japan itself and the Japanese government were rehabilitated in the eyes of Americans, and Japan became a full partner with America and its allies in the post-war world.

What we call brainwashing may depend on what we already accept as desirable ideology. We don’t call it brainwashing when mainline churches convert people to widely-held religious beliefs. But when New Religious Movements persuade their adherents to believe in radical ideas, or ideas we perceive as dangerous to us and to our way of life, we are tempted to label them as cults and to perceive their methods as brainwashing.

To argue that brainwashing does not exist or is unproven flies in the face of what happened in Jonestown. To suggest that the people who died there were of weak or defective personality may simply give us false reassurance that we could never be taken in by a Jim Jones.

We need to accept that in the world today there exist powerful methods of influencing ordinary people, including ourselves, that can change long-held belief systems and behavior. These methods can be used for good or evil. Understanding the power of brainwashing can arm us against it. Developing the technology of brainwashing for the good of our community, however we define that good, can lead to a better world. We do ourselves no favor by continuing to deny the existence of brainwashing or to insist that it is only a tool of our ideological enemies.

(Michael Haag is a social psychologist and long time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at