The Brainwashing Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

By Rebecca Moore, The brainwashing myth, published on The Conversation . . . .

If brainwashing actually existed, we would expect to see many more dangerous people running around, planning to carry out reprehensible schemes.

[I]f brainwashing really existed, more people would join and stay in these groups. But studies have shown that members of new religions generally leave the group within a few years of joining.

I reject the idea of brainwashing for three reasons: It is pseudoscientific, ignores research-based explanations for human behavior and dehumanizes people by denying their free will.


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27 thoughts on “The Brainwashing Myth”

  1. Author critiques brainwashing for being pseudoscientific. Yet author does not specify exactly why she deems it so, or even give a coherent explanation of what ‘brainwashing’ means. Author expresses opinions but does not support them with evidence, not the swiftest behavior for one criticizing something for its lack of rigor. Whether something uplifts or demeans the view of what humanity is has no relevance to whether or not it is true.

    Color me underwhelmed.

    1. Personally, she just doesn’t like the word “brainwashing”, for whatever strange reason. So she needs a book, 10,000 words, and three more “precise” words to explain why one word is not sufficient.

      “There are at least three scientific, neutral and precise terms that can replace brainwashing.”

      “The first is “conversion,”

      “Next, there’s conditioning”

      “And finally, coercion”

      “Emerita Professor of Religious Studies, San Diego State University”

      Leave it to a Religion Professor to replace one common word that everyone understands, with a PhD thesis/book.

    2. I quoted the two predictions made by the author that our understanding of “brainwashing” would enable us to make and by which we can test the validity of the concept. That’s how scientific testing of hypotheses is done. Predictions are made that the hypothesis would lead us to expect and then tested against the results.

      As for the supporting data, one can find it by following the embedded links in the “conversation” article. It is a “conversation” piece inviting readers to consider how to scientifically test the concept and examine the related data.

      1. “If brainwashing actually existed, we would expect to see many more…”

        “Many more”? Not very scientific. 2 more, 10 more? How many more?

        “[I]f brainwashing really existed, more people would join and stay…”

        “More would join and stay longer”?
        How many more? Stay longer than two years? The reference provided was a book on Moonies. I think just off hand, without studying it, i’d say Mormons, Scientologist, ISIS, hand around along time. Just because there are a lot of ex members, doesn’t prove they stay less than 2 years. I don’t see the evidence. Unless her definition of “brainwashing” means that once “brainwashed”, always “brainwashed”, and if you can’t be “unbrainwashed”, then “brainwashing” doesn’t exist. Then I buy it. But my internalized definition of “brainwashed”, doesn’t include that you can never come back. I think it ironic that she doesn’t like the term “brainwashed”. More than likely, as a religion professor, she has heard the term used in reference to religion, and she simply doesn’t like it much.

        1. Oh Gary, you’re being silly in refusing to accept the clear intent and meaning of the article. I wondered why until I read your last sentence which tells us you have an “unscientific” hangup against religion professors.

          1. I certainly wouldn’t go to a religion professor for any scientific study. Maybe 200 years ago, but not now. Although religion professors may be really good at knowing the nuances of brainwashing.

            1. Why not? A religion professor is exactly one type of person anyone interested in a scientific study of the role and nature of religion would want to consult. Your mind appears to be closed to any possibility of thinking your biases against religion are mistaken. It’s like my posts on terrorism. Because I consult and address works of professors who specialize in terrorism some commenters assume those sources are themselves supporters of terrorism. Would you expect a professor of Nazi Germany to publish only Nazi propaganda? One would expect a religion professor to have made their career the scientific or certainly valid scholarly study of religion.

              1. Rebecca Moore “But studies have shown that members of new religions generally leave the group within a few years of joining.”
                What studies? One book on Moonies, that I don’t have access to? What evidence? I admit to making generality statements on religion professors, and maybe I am wrong. But this particular study is lacking in evidence, but heavy on opinion.

              2. Oh Gary, leave your anti-religion bigotry outside. Of course it is heavy on opinion. That’s the whole point. It is an article published in a website devoted to engaging public opinion and stimulating debate and rethinking of issues.

                There are many studies that anyone interested in the topic knows about; I have seen several of them over the years. If you are so concerned about scientific method then you should restrict your reading to scientific journals and not waste your time with pieces published in The Conversation — guess that a site with a title like that is about! There is a difference between a conversation starter that invites people to seriously engage with the question and the points raised. That means more and more details will be introduced etc as the discussion gets under way.

                I myself was once part of a cult that was said to be a brainwashing outfit. I read and was largely persuaded at one time by Steve Hassan’s books on “cult mind control”. I continued to study and learn more about myself and others and came to doubt the very notion of “brainwashing”, too, just like Rebecca Moore.

                Rebecca is appealing for people to educate or inform themselves and stop and think about their belief in “brainwashing” — she argues it is a misinformed and dehumanizing concept.

                Now if you are interested in scientific discussion how about putting up some scientific evidence for “brainwashing” as a valid way to describe the process of converting people to cults and other extremist groups — and why Rebecca is misinformed and fails to understand human nature.

              3. Since I was involved with the LDS Church (a long time ago) – brainwashing for me still stands as a good word to describe the process. The idea that most “converts” quit after two years or less is rather ridiculous. Maybe Moonies, but not Mormons or Scientologist. Scientology is a really good scam – mental manipulation using interrogation with skin galvanic response – designed by a science fiction writer. You should read some of L Ron Hubbard’s books on mental manipulation, if you don’t think “brainwashing” is a good word to describe the process 🙁

              4. Not so much any longer, no. If the word “brainwashing” somehow absolves the one being converted of responsibility, or somehow implies they are weak-minded, no.

                In the church to which I belonged members generally thought of ourselves as united over the long term. We knew a few individuals had left over the years, but we were aghast to later learn that at minimum a whole third had left. Later, it was many more than that, even. Ditto experiences with SDAs and Mormons from my reading and contacts. I don’t know what the defection rate is among Scientologists. It would be hard to find a reliable figure, I suspect.

                How conversion to cults works is very similar to the way radicalisation of extremists works. https://vridar.org/?s=radicalisation

                Which reminds me, there is another book in those posts I must finish posting about!

              5. However, assigning scientific evidence for brainwashing is a task I have no idea how to do. However, reading L Ron Hubbard is a task that falls under the category that “when I see it, I recognize it as brainwashing”. How you assign numbers as evidence? – is a task beyond my capabilities. And it is, INDEED, dehumanizing. That’s the whole point, as to why brainwashing is a good word for it. What – we should assign a political correct word/words to it, to make brainwashing more psychologically acceptable. You should read L Ron Hubbard’s opinions on psychiatry 🙂

              6. Rebecca’s point about dehumanizing refers to outsiders and how they view those who are converted. It is not helpful for outsiders to have a dehumanized view of any group in society, another race, another sexuality, another religion, another socio-economic group, another educational status….

                Dehumanization is correctly applied to the action of those who do treat others as mere tools, types, raw material to be exploited, as something other than “naturally human”…. That use of the term dehumanization is valid and correct.

              7. “If the word “brainwashing” somehow absolves the one being converted of responsibility, or somehow implies they are weak-minded, no.”…
                In no way do I see “brainwashing” as imbedded in it the meaning of either absolves or weak minded. I just see myself as being totally stupid. Others, I see, as totally vulnerable. Most Mormon converts, as far as my experience goes, stick around either forever, or for many years, not less than two. Don’t have stats on it though. Just personal experience. Although my experience brings up an interesting experience. You drop out. They still come and bug you. This went on many years. Finally, when two missionaries showed up to check my status, I had enough. I told them to get lost. I was not part of their church, I told them. I said the magic words that got action. I said, “I think you guys are a cult”. They still maintain you in their Ward List (like a telephone book of members). But they put DNC by your name. Do Not Contact. So – time went by, and who should show up but the Stake Counselor ( big Weenie). He told me in all sincerity, “if you no longer want to be a member, I need to write a letter to the Stake President” (really big weenie) saying I no longer want to be a member. I told him I determine what church I go to, and I certainly don’t need to write a letter. They have this attitude that it is a mortal sin, therefore you need to document it, so it is my responsibility to go to hell, not theirs. I slammed the door. Later, I got a nice letter that said I was excommunicated, and it was my responsibility, not only for me, but my family – their chance to get to the celestial kingdom. Kind of a joke now. It’s like pulling teeth, getting rid of them.

              8. I’m glad you got out and can start anew. That’s great. Some day you might like to read some of the scholarly research into the experiences you have been through and get a broader perspective on what happened and how it was done. It took me some years of learning and I am still learning about my own experience. But it takes a while before the emotional trauma subsides sufficiently to try to appreciate more objective understandings of what it was all about. Not that your emotional reaction is not justified; it certainly is. Have a look at some of those posts on how radicalisation works. You might be surprised to see how remarkably similar it is to your own experience.

              9. How do a I define the term brainwashing? (As a side note, this happened a long time ago. I’m too old to change – not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to.)
                But my opinion – brainwashing is when you are vulnerable, and therefore influenced in a negative way (here Rebecca can put her terms in play – coerced, manipulated, forced, influenced). So POW’s forced by torture, or as simple as Mormon missionaries hitting up someone as vulnerable. Good example – Mormon missionaries use to (I am dealing with old data here – maybe they’ve changed But I certainly don’t want to pursue research on it) is to visit people that had recent deaths in the family. Spouse, child, sibling. They play the “families are forever game”. You will be reunited with the dead person. Just got to sign up. Along with this – the crazy “baptism for the dead” ceremony. Go to temple (of course after you get hit up with tithing, building fund, fast donation – you name it $$$) and baptize the dead person, and you are sealed forever. Same thing for long dead persons. They got into trouble having members being baptized by proxy for long dead Holocaust victims. Anyway, unless vulnerable also equates to stupid (which I don’t think so), brainwashing might mean the individual is responsible, or not; dehumanized, or not; reduced mental capacity, or not. But their brain certainly was “washed”; thoughts bleached out, neurons readjusted, eyes glazed over; regardless of cause or fault or responsibility. In my case, I call it stupidity. But I won’t ever say the same for someone else. They have to make up their own mind what and why they were brainwashed. But they were still brainwashed. Sorry, Rebecca. Don’t buy her story.

              10. Rebecca’s uses the term “brainwashing” to refer to the idea that others have “undergone some sort of programming that allows others to manipulate them against their will.”

                How else to explain why people become immersed in fringe groups that seem so alien to their previous, more socially acceptable lives? How else to account for the fact that – in some cases – they’ll even commit crimes?

                Your own account is an example of how someone can be indoctrinated and convinced to embrace an entire new self-identity and world-view yet still have enough independence in the backroom somewhere there to “wake up” and reject it all.

                “Brainwashing” as Rebecca understands the term in her conversational essay means the “victim” no longer acts according to their real will, the will they had before brainwashing, because that independent will has been “washed” out of them. They are a bit like zombies, or more aptly, are under a kind of hypnosis in a way. If only a special task force could fight its way in and rescue them they could then be treated until they “snap out of it” or else be lost in their “lost mind” world forever, always parroting some other “leader’s view of the world”.

                Rebecca calls this a “dehumanizing” understanding because it does not fit with how humans really work. It thinks of them more like something less than really human.

                Your own experience tells you your conversion did not go that far. You were still holding on to enough of your “real self” to pull yourself out of your group and its way of thinking, its psychological manipulations, its emotional pressures and seductions, etc.

                The experience you have described is very similar in key ways to my own. I have found more explanatory power in the work by psychologists and sociologists who see exactly the same processes involved in winning converts to extremist groups, including terrorist organizations.

  2. She uses CNN as a source? That’s like me using The Manchurian Candidate as a rebuttal source.


    I think of the word “brainwashing” as a somewhat useless word, like the word “god”, because it was so poorly defined. I had not thought of it being unfalsifiable, which is a good point. I also had not thought of the negative impacts using such a word can have. We live and learn. (Well, some of us.)

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Using CNN as a source for one’s claim that “many people argue that people join cults because they are brainwashed is a most credible thing to do when that CNN article addresses one of the most popular authors and promoters of the idea that people join cults because of brainwashing.

  3. Neural pathways are created based on nature and nurture—genetics and interaction with the environment. Different types of environmental inputs create stronger neural pathways – especially when one is younger. Comparing neural pathways with road systems, we once learned that in years 0-7, the superhighways are created. From 8 – 18 the regional highways, and after 18, we are just building and modifying neighborhoods. We can only respond to input within the context of our neural pathways. Changing the neighborhoods is easy, but changing the superhighways is very difficult (look at people with learned fears that are imprinted as phobias) and we are finding (as Timothy Leary did in the 1960s) that hallucinogenics may play an important role in “reimprinting”.

    The idea of brainwashing as a way of overriding one’s free will assumes evidence not introduced — that there is free will rather than complex stimulus/response. However, intense experiences can reimprint neural pathways…for better or for worse.

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