Mind Control: Psychological Reality Or Mindless Rhetoric?
Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D.
President, American Psychological Association
One of the most fascinating sessions at APA’s Annual Convention featured presentations by former cult members. Several participants challenged our profession to form a task force on extreme forms of influence, asserting that the underlying issues inform discourses on terrorist recruiting, on destructive cults versus new religious movements, on social-political-“therapy” cults, and on human malleability or resiliency when confronted by authority power.
That proposal is intriguing. At one level of concern are academic questions of the validity of the conceptual framework for a psychology of mind control. However, at broader levels, we discover a network of vital questions:
- Does exposing the destructive impact of cults challenge the principle of religious freedom of citizens to mindfully join nontraditional religious groups?
- When some organizations that promote religious or self-growth agendas become rich enough to wield power to suppress media exposés, influence legal judgments, or publicly defame psychology, how can they be challenged?
- What is APA’s role in establishing principles for treating those who claim to have suffered abuse by cults, for training therapists to do so, and for establishing guidelines for expert testimony?
A basic value of the profession of psychology is promoting human freedom of responsible action, based on awareness of available behavioral options, and supporting an individual’s rights to exercise them. Whatever we mean by “mind control” stands in opposition to this positive value orientation.
Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition, and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles.
Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies. In some combinations, they create a powerful crucible of extreme mental and behavioral manipulation when synthesized with several other real-world factors, such as charismatic, authoritarian leaders, dominant ideologies, social isolation, physical debilitation, induced phobias, and extreme threats or promised rewards that are typically deceptively orchestrated, over an extended time period in settings where they are applied intensively.
A body of social science evidence shows that when systematically practiced by state-sanctioned police, military or destructive cults, mind control can induce false confessions, create converts who willingly torture or kill “invented enemies,” and engage indoctrinated members to work tirelessly, give up their money—and even their lives—for “the cause.”
It seems to me that at the very heart of the controversy over the existence of mind control is a bias toward believing in the power of people to resist the power of situational forces, a belief in individual will power and faith to overcome all evil adversity. It is Jesus modeling resistance against the temptations of Satan, and not the vulnerability of Adam and Eve to deception. More recently, examples abound that challenge this person-power misattribution.
From the 1930s on, there are many historical instances of state power dominating individual beliefs and values. In Stalin’s Moscow show trials, his adversaries publicly confessed to their treasons. Catholic Cardinal Mindzenty similarly gave false confessions favoring his communist captors. During the Korean War, American airmen confessed to engaging in germ warfare after intense indoctrination sessions. The Chinese Thought Reform Program achieved massive societal conversions to new beliefs. It has also been reported that the CIA put into practice nearly 150 projects—collectively termed MKULTRA—to develop various forms of exotic mind control, including the use of LSD and hypnosis. More than 900 U.S. citizens committed suicide or murdered friends and family at the persuasive bidding of their Peoples Temple cult leader, Jim Jones.
The power of social situations to induce “ego alien” behavior over even the best and brightest of people has been demonstrated in a variety of controlled experiments, among them, Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority studies, Albert Bandura’s research on dehumanization, my Stanford Prison Experiment, and others on deinviduation.
Understanding the dynamics and pervasiveness of situational power is essential to learning how to resist it and to weaken the dominance of the many agents of mind control who ply their trade daily on all of us behind many faces and fronts.
This article was originally published in the Monitor on Psychology, November 2002. It is reprinted with permission of the American Psychological Association.
Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., 2002 President of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, is one of the nation’s most distinguished psychologists, Dr. Zimbardo has conducted extensive research on the processes of social influence and control.