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This controversial term refers to the possibility that coercive or deceptive indoctrination techniques can take control over a person’s mind; for example, causing the individual to join a radical religious movement.  A considerable body of research indicates that popular versions of the brainwashing theory are simply wrong, yet its ideas can be linked to similar concepts that have legitimate scientific interest. In turn, these ideas also can illuminate phenomena studied by the social science of religion — but only if understood critically.

Whether called brainwashing, thought control or something else, the concept entered popular culture through the apparent power of radical propaganda in the context of the coercive social structures of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  l Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1948) is the best known of many works of fiction from the twentieth century that dramatized the idea.  Shortly after Orwell’s novel was published, there emerged a classic case of supposed brainwashing in the real world over  the “coercive persuasion” (Schein et al, 1961) of American prisoners of war held by the Communists in the Korean War of 1950-1953.  Yet this episode  transformed few if any of the captive soldiers into Communists.

The connection between brainwashing and recruitment to religious movements was powerfully made in the aftermath of the culturally turbulent 1960s, both in popular culture and for scholars.  Some parents who were concerned that their children had joined radical “cults” supported a deprogramming movement that used coercive techniques in attempts to reverse the sinister programming that they had supposedly suffered (Patrick and Dulack 1974).  Social scientists David Bromley and Anson Shupe (1981:211) summarized the false assumption thus: “The centerpiece of the anti-cultists’ allegations is that cults brainwash their members through some combination of drugging, hypnosis, self-hypnosis, chanting or lecturing, and deprivation of food, sleep, and freedom of thought.”

It cannot be emphasized forcefully enough that the brainwashing theory does not, in fact, explain recruitment to radical religious movements, based on extensive observations by researchers in the field who were able to gain access to a variety of such groups.  Only a small fraction of the people who attend the meetings of a radical group eventually join, rates of defection never reach zero even after years of membership, and it is fairly common for “cults” to disintegrate, whether through organized schisms or total collapse (Barker 1984, 1986).  Ironically, one piece of evidence often misinterpreted is that a few of these groups seem to try to brainwash members, imposing strict lifestyle regimens and intensive indoctrination procedures, but that may reflect leaders’ awareness of how fragile their group is, or members’ genuine desire for leaders to help them transform their own identities.

Yet the brainwashing concept can offer valuable theoretical insights if considered coolly.  First we may wish to study what functions a belief such as brainwashing has for the believer.  A parent whose young adult child has joined a radical group may need an antidote for shame, and a practical solution for a problem facing the family.  A person may become a “deprogrammer” or take on some other form of rescue mission in order to gain social status, and yes, money.  Members of conventional religious denominations and secular individuals may want an explanation of recruitment to a radical religion that does not require them to take its beliefs seriously.  Thus the notion of brainwashing illustrates how theories can have instrumental value for the people who adopt them.

It also is worth noting that social science almost never assigns a hundred percent of the variance to one explanatory factor, which is to say that every effect has multiple causes.  Indeed, the indoctrination practices of every social movement, whether religious or political, radical or conventional, probably have some effect on recruits.  Thus a main problem with the brainwashing theory is its totalitarian quality, that it leaves no room for other factors that pull people into a movement, or push them out (Snow and Machalek 1984).

A third qualifying observation is that the brainwashing theory is psychological, whereas research on radical religious movements tends to be sociological or anthropological.  The association of religious radicalism with mental pathology is not a new idea; a century before the 1960s, psychiatrists believed that many cases of severe mental illness were the result of “religious excitement” (Bainbridge 1984).  Writing in a collection of essays titled The Future of New Religious Movements, Bromley, Hadden and Hammond (1987:215-216) considered the psychology-sociology debate about brainwashing and expressed great concern about its dysfunctional quality:

  The psychologically based interpretation of cults in many respects represents a frontal assault on the sociological perspective, for it begs the very questions sociologists regard as central to an understanding of new religious groups and their individual members.  It ignores such issues as the role of sociocultural forces in the emergence of social movements; the interactional dimensions of affiliation and organizational participation; the role of subordinates in the creation and maintenance of charismatic authority; and the organization problems of social movements.  In essence, the brainwashing perspective represents a return to pathology theory, traditionally a perspective portraying social movements as havens for those unable to cope with the rigors of conventional society.  The anti-cult reformulation simply substitutes “manipulated” for “naturally occurring” helplessness.  At base, there is a challenge to the more dynamic, interactive conceptions of individual and group structure that dominate current sociological thinking.

A fourth broad area of debate concerns implications for legal determination of responsibility for harmful actions.  Probably the most famous and intensively debated case is that of heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in 1974 by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army but then apparently was converted to its cause and participated in a bank robbery (Isenberg 2000).  The equivalent of a brainwashing defense failed, and she was convicted, sentenced to a long prison term, but then presidents of the United States first commuted her sentence then pardoned her.  This sensational case should not obscure the fact that very serious scholarly debate circles around the contradiction between the religion-related concept of moral responsibility, and the tendency of some theories in both psychology and sociology to have a deterministic character, as reflected in the title as well as the content of Daniel Robinson’s (1980) book, Psychology and Law: Can Justice Survive the Social Sciences?  Thus the brainwashing theory, while usually framed in simplistic and unscientific terms, may be a useful introduction to many profound issues in the social and behavioral sciences.


Bainbridge, William Sims.  1984 “Religious Insanity in America: The Official Nineteenth-Century Theory,” Sociological Analysis 45: 223-240.

Barker, Eileen.  1984.  The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?  Oxford: Blackwell.

Barker, Eileen.  1986.  “Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown,” Annual Review of Sociology, 12:329-346.

Bromley, David G., and Anson D. Shupe, Jr.  1981.  Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare.  Boston: Beacon.

Bromley, David G., Jeffrey K. Hadden, and Phillip E. Hammond.  1987.  “Reflections on the Scholarly Study of New Religious Movements,” pp. 210-217 in The Future of New Religious Movements, edited by David G. Bromley and Phillip E. Hammond.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Isenberg, Nancy.  2000.  “Not ‘Anyone’s Daughter’: Patty Hearst and the Postmodern Legal Subject,” American Quarterly, 52(4): 639-681.

Robinson, Daniel N.   1980.  Psychology and Law: Can Justice Survive the Social Sciences?  New York: Oxford University Press.

Orwell, George.  1949.  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Patrick, Ted, and Tom Dulack.  1974.  Let Our Children Go!  New York: Dutton.

Schein, Edgar F., Inge Schneier, and Curtis H. Barker.  1961.  Coercive Persuasion.  New York: Norton.

Snow, David A., and Richard Machalek.  1984.  “The Sociology of Conversion,” Annual Review of Sociology, 10:167-190.


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