Today we will examine a moral panic that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. The terrifying tales centered on persons being brainwashed and led into cults, crime, or other undesirable destinations. Many times, those telling the tale were the same ones selling or touting the cure: Deprogramming.
The difference between influence and brainwashing is that the latter seeks to have the victims completely dedicate themselves to a cause or position that they previously had been ambiguous to or even opposed. Additionally, washing of the brain is forceful. Someone showing up at your front door to sell you rain gutter protection or asking you to sign a petition to bring back the high school marching band will take no for an answer. Someone intent on brainwashing will not and, in fact, will seek to control most aspects of your life.
Writing for Skeptoid, Dunning noted that even the Hare Krishnas fall short of brainwashing since they attempt influence, not intimidation. He explained, “They convince intelligent adults to shave their heads, wear robes, and forego worldly possessions. That’s pretty radical. And their recruitment methods are absolutely systematic. However, they generally don’t force this onto anyone, so it’s not brainwashing.”
By contrast, he continued, the Scientology organization Sea Org qualifies as brainwashing since it “is notorious for confining and isolating new members, imposing uniforms, and cutting off ties to family and friends. It is radical, systematic, and forced.” Other examples would include Patty Hearst and U.S. POWs during the Korean War.
So it has genuinely occurred, although as we will see shortly, its effects were short-lived. Moreover, most supposed brainwashings would more accurately be called instances of wayward or curious youth trying to find their way and place in the world.
Questioning a tenet of one’s faith or political leanings that one has been imbued with is healthy and checking out new groups or beliefs is common. Even if one comes to embrace “the other side,” that is part of life’s journey and there is no need to be deprogrammed. In fact, attempting that on an adult who has made the choice may qualify as kidnapping and, ironically, as brainwashing.
According to Dunning, the concept of deprogramming was the brainchild of Ted Patrick, who claimed his son had been consumed by a cult, and Patrick was one of many deprogrammers who were convicted for their activities.
Beyond its often-illicit nature, deprogramming is likewise unnecessary. That’s because brainwashing’s impact on victims is temporary, if it exists at all.
Dunning noted that two experts who studied the U.S. POW brainwashing, psychiatrist Robert Lifton and psychologist Edgar Schein, found that most of the victims had merely gone through the motions of saying and doing what their tormenters wanted so as to avoid further torture. The few who came to believe in communism stopped doing so upon release. Similarly, many deprogramming subjects also just went through the motions and gave the desired responses so as to put an end to it.
In summary, brainwashing is nothing to worry about unless it is followed by a deprogramming.