Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques
Richard Ofshe, Ph.D. and Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.
This paper analyzes the literature concerning the use of massive social pressure to substantially modify a person’s worldview. The use of “coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control” in China and the Soviet Union as well as in American cultic, “growth,” and psychotherapy organizations is considered. Special consideration is given to the centrality of the aspects of a person’s identity, which are denigrated and undercut in coercive influence and control programs. It is suggested that the technology of this sort of influence has developed well beyond what was employed in the Soviet Union and China. Applications in these cases were largely for the purpose of extracting confessions and carrying out political “thought reform.” The development in technology reflects a focusing upon central rather than peripheral aspects of a person’s self and the use of techniques, often borrowed from clinical psychological practice, to neutralize a person’s psychological defenses. Evidence is reviewed which suggests that there is a risk factor associated with exposure to the type of influence tactics used by some organizations that attempt thought reform.
We are addressing an unusual topic–the technology of influence programs used to conduct thought reform and to effect extraordinary degrees of control over individuals. The programs to be described below depend on selecting, sequencing, and coordinating numerous influence tactics over periods of time that can extend from days to years.
In this paper we will address two matters. The first is an historical review of the influence techniques employed in “first” and “second generation of interest” influence and control programs. By first generation of interest programs we refer to Soviet and Chinese thought reform and behavior control practices studied twenty to thirty years ago. Second generation examples are of programs which are either currently operating or have been in existence during the last decade. We will suggest that the two categories of programs differ in the sophistication of the interpersonal and psychological influence tactics they employ.
The second concern of the paper is the presentation of a theoretical analysis of one of the principal differences we find between first and second-generation programs. The difference is in the manner and degree to which a person’s self-concept is destabilized in the course of attempts to gain influence and attain control over an individual. Attacking targets’ evaluation of self is a technique present in both older and newer programs. We suggest, however, that the focal point of attack on targets’ self-conception is an important difference between the programs. In older programs, attacks on the stability and acceptability of existing self-evaluations were typically focused on elements we classify as peripheral. Newer programs tend to focus on elements of self we classify as central.
Peripheral elements of self are defined as self-evaluations of the adequacy or correctness of public and judgmental aspects of a person’s life (e.g., social status, role performance, conformity to societal norms, political and social opinions, taste, etc.). We define as central elements of self, self-evaluation of the adequacy or correctness of a person’s intimate life and confidence in perception of reality (e.g., relations with family, personal aspirations, sexual experience, traumatic life events, religious beliefs, estimates of the motivations of others, etc.).
We assume that peripheral and central elements vary in their emotional significance, with central elements having far greater emotional arousal potential than peripheral elements. The basis for this assumption rests on conventional clinical psychological understanding of the significance of early childhood experiences, emotional development, defense formation, and ego strength. That is, reality awareness, emotional control, and basic consciousness are at the core of the self. Social roles reflect later and less core learnings in human development. We propose that influence and control programs which manipulate central self-evaluations are likely to have more powerful and profound effects on targets than programs which focus on the manipulation of only peripheral elements of self.
We suggest that attack on the stability and quality of evaluations of self-conceptions is the principal effective coercive technique used in the conduct of thought reform and behavior control programs. By attacking a person’s self-concept, aversive emotional arousal can be created. By supporting positive self-conceptions, painful arousal can be avoided or reduced. In the programs we have studied, the ability to generate or reduce aversive emotional arousal is used to punish or reward targets. Non-conformity is responded to with attacks on the target’s self conceptions while agreement to demands for ideological acceptance and behavioral compliance are rewarded with support for positive self-conceptions.
During the last decade there has been a dramatic renewal of public and academic interest in the procedures and effects of “coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control.” That is, programs designed first to induce radical changes in facets of a person’s worldview (e.g., beliefs about a political philosophy, scientific theory, psychological theory, ethical philosophy, etc.), and subsequently to generate great conformity to organizationally specified prescriptions for behavior. The combined effects of (1) acceptance of a particular world view, (2) establishment of effective procedures for peer monitoring, including feedback about an individual to the controlling organization, and (3) the use of psychological, social, and material sanctions to influence a target’s behavior, can render a person a highly deployable agent of an organization (Ofshe, 1980; Whyte, 1976).
Over a generation ago, studies of coercive influence and behavior control programs began to appear. They described the power of these programs to influence cognition, behavior, and the mental health status of program participants. The topic was reported and studied under names such as “brainwashing” (Hunter, 1953), “thought reform” (Lifton, 1961), and “coercive persuasion” (Schein, 1961).1
Recently renewed interest in the topic can be traced to the actions of various “new religions and social movements” (Glock and Bellah, 1976). Public concern has been about the recruitment activities, apparent personality changes, and emotional disorders found in some recruits, and the culturally distinct lifestyles associated with membership in some groups. Some of these organizations and communities were founded or rapidly expanded during the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. Beginning in the early 1970’s, claims were made that some of these organizations were conducting programs of “coercive influence and behavior control” (i.e., “thought reform, “brainwashing,” etc.).
Not all the “new religion,” “growth,” or “radical psychotherapy” organizations have been alleged to employ techniques of “mind control” or “coercive influence and behavior control.” Some organizations, however, have been centers of controversy for more than a decade, and they have given rise to grass-roots reactions and substantial media attention as early as the mid-1970’s.
General public awareness of “cults” came through news reports of numerous bizarre crimes and acts of terrorism committed by members of some now infamous organizations. Through these reports, the public became somewhat educated as to the extraordinary social organization, practices, and techniques of influence employed by the leadership of the groups associated with the crimes.
Starting in 1909, with the several brutal murders committed by Charles Manson and his devotees (Bugliosi and Gentry, 1974; Watkins, 1979), the string includes the 1973 Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapping and conversion of Patricia Hearst (Hearst, 1982); a 1977 murder spree carried out by Mormon polygamy sect leader Ervil LeBaron and his followers against their Mormon opponents (Bradlee and Van Atta, 1981); an October 1978 attempted murder by rattlesnake engineered by Synanon leader Charles Dederich (Mitchell et al., 1980; Ofshe, 1980); the November 1978 mass murder/suicides in Jonestown, Guyana conducted at the direction of People’s Temple leader Jim Jones (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982); an attempt by members of a faith healing cult to bomb a sheriffs department in Arizona (Trillin, 1982); a 1982 infant’s beating death caused by his parents acting in conformity to their cult leader’s theory of childrearing (Zito, 1982); widely publicized accusations of child abuse following from alleged conformity to the visions of a leader of a Vermont commune called the Northeast Kingdom Community Church (Bearak, 1984); and, most recently, allegations of child abuse carried out for years at a nursery school reported to have used techniques of psychological terrorism to prevent children from revealing their experiences (L.A.. Times, 1984).
First Generation of Interest Programs
The modern literature on the intentional use of coercive influence and control programs starts with reports of prisoner interrogation and retraining in the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. Studies of these “first generation of interest” programs are consistent on several points no matter what descriptive label the authors used (Chen, 1960; Farber et al., 1956; Schein, 1961; Schein et al., 1960; Segal, 1957). Although significant physical abuse was frequently a part of the influence method, it was not uniformly so (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Rickett and Rickett, 1957). Even when physical abuse was used, the primary mechanism for accomplishing behavior control was that of interaction between the target and those who could sanction the person materially and socially. In addition to small material rewards, the target’s interaction partners controlled the only available source of feedback as to what was socially correct in the new society. Hence, they controlled the target’s only source of external feedback upon which new self-evaluations might be based.
Interaction partners typically possessed superior knowledge about both the substance of the ideology to which the target was being exposed and the behavior rules advocated by the controlling organization. Interaction partners were sometimes the target’s organizational superiors (jailers, officials, etc.). More often, they were ideologically advanced but organization status equals who became the target’s peer group. Targets often developed strong emotional ties with peer group members. These individuals came to know the target’s personality and history exceedingly well.
The setting within which the influence system was operating sometimes included prison confinement of targets, but more frequently did not (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Whyte, 1976). In prison settings, initial conformity to demands for participation in interrogation sessions and conformity to prescribed patterns of interaction with power holders (jailers, organizational superiors, or cellmates) was instrumental to cessation of gross punishment. In non-prison settings, participation was usually obtained without having to resort to physical abuse, although it was often obtained from persons knowing that imprisonment was a possible consequence of resistance (Whyte, 1976). In settings such as revolutionary universities, initial participation in the indoctrination process was usually voluntary since the experience was viewed as instrumental to transforming Chinese society or to personal upward mobility.
In all settings, participation, conformity, and demonstrations of apparently genuine change or zeal were rewarded. In the harshest settings, rewards would include some seemingly minor but contextually significant material advantages (Segal, 1957). In all settings (with the possible exception of P.O.W. camps) peer or jailer social support, acceptance, and friendship also followed incremental changes in the prescribed direction.
The role of peer interaction in the creation and manipulation of guilt and associated emotional states is acknowledged as crucial in understanding how a target’s behavior was shaped (Lifton, 1961; Schein, 1961). The target’s peers did the principal work in this shaping. They had two tools with which to mold the individual.
Targets could be subjected to various forms of punishment by peer groups. Although punishment might be physical, most often it took the form of group criticism of the individual’s past or present social beliefs and behaviors. The target’s peers could withdraw support, isolate him or her, and subject the target to seemingly endless negative feedback regarding deviations from proper ideological positions and prescribed behavior. In these criticism sessions, the target faced precisely those individuals on whom, due to circumstances, he or she was totally dependent for external validation of social identity. Peers acted in concert and aggressively criticized the target from a fixed standard of evaluation. Their focus was on any degree of deviation from absolute conformity to theoretical ideals of ideological understanding and behavior.
It was required that individuals make public to others within the group their life stories. This included prior social experience, family history, and family position. They were also obliged to reveal acts which, by the new moral code of the nearly new society, were deemed transgressions. The group’s access to the target’s social and political history provided a basis for inducing guilt in the individual for acts which, by the old society’s standards, were proper or tolerable. The group demanded that the target acquire a sense of guilt with respect to previously privileged social position and previously acceptable actions. The target was also required to offer appropriate expressions of guilt and display remorse before peers would accept professed contrition regarding past transgressions.
First Generation Program Casualties
That the arousal caused by group criticism was punishing and harmful to targets is supported by reports that this procedure was capable of producing symptoms of severe psychological disturbance in some targets (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Strassman et al., 1956). Although it might be argued that psychological distress was to some extent caused by physical abuse and deprivation, reports of responses directly related to physical abuse components of the influence process are lacking. Knowledge of the potential for physical abuse was probably a factor in the target’s estimate of the threat potential of the controlling organization. Physical debilitation due to the effects of poor diet and other health factors should also be viewed as a context factor which, at least, reduced the individual’s ability to cope with stress. It is probably reasonable to describe all targets of these influence programs as (1) physically and emotionally stressed as well as (2) extremely apprehensive if not terrorized due to awareness of the ever-present and often arbitrary use of punishment power by the controlling organization (Farber et al., 1956; Gaylin, 1974). As reported below, however, neither physical abuse nor deprivation was necessary for the influence process to cause psychiatric casualties.
Reports of rates of severe psychiatric disturbance have not been published. There is general recognition of the ability of all versions of the influence procedures to induce personal confusion, disorientation, and variously described psychological disturbances in targets (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Schein et al., 1960; Schein and Singer, 1962; Strassman et al., 1956). In revolutionary university and cadre training schools, there was no period of physical abuse prior to participation in small group interaction. Typically, these programs were entered voluntarily.
Revolutionary university and cadre training experiences are reported to have produced the highest rate of dramatic psychopathological response of any of the systems under discussion (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956). The stress of struggle groups, peer pressure, constant surveillance together with the requirements of self-exposure and self-accusation regularly resulted in psychological breakdown. Lifton (1961) reports that influence pressures at revolutionary universities often resulted in psychotic breaks of unspecified severity. At cadre training schools,
the majority of students ultimately reached the point at which they went through an emotional crisis associated with tears and depression . . . A religious fervor and a feeling of “conversion” frequently accompanied this emotional breakdown (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956, p.167).
After the development of fervor, “a fair proportion of students suffered one or more relapses of fears and doubts” (Finkle and Wolfe, 1956, 168). 2
Although the evidence is limited, it suggests that physical brutality or deprivation, even when combined with interpersonal coercion, did not regularly cause emotional breakdown or psychotic episodes. There is a notable absence of reports of frequent psychotic breaks among American military prisoners and among imprisoned Westerners in China. When dramatic, emotional reactions are reported, they invariably occur in violence-free settings in which targets are coerced by peers who are their intimates (Hinkel and Wolfe, 1956, 160).
The inference consistent with these reports is that psychological disturbance is more likely to be induced when targets of the influence process actively participate in group-based interaction and have been induced to tell the group about their histories and sentiments. One explanation for the relationship is that public exposure of even moderately intimate aspects of self permits peers to continually manipulate the target’s emotionality. Peer group members have the ability to focus their criticisms on significant aspects of the target’s self and to repeatedly arouse guilt and anxiety.
In these programs, it appears that aversive arousal, coupled with peer rejection, became the driving force through which the target was coerced. Through this procedure, conformity to behavioral demands was obtained. Targets, motivated by a desire to avoid further social/emotional punishment, learned to perform according to role prescriptions defined by the organization. The peer group’s ability to immediately punish resistance, through members’ abilities to arouse and sustain anxiety and guilt, permitted the organization to avoid the use of physical punishment except under rare circumstances. Social and psychological punishment by peers became the workhorse of the system. For many individuals this process induced psychological breakdown.
“Second Generation of Interest” Programs
We term as “second generation of interest” those examples of coercive influence and behavior control programs which are currently creating public concern. They can be distinguished from “first generation” programs in several ways. One of the significant differences is that the organizations and residential communities within which programs are carried out lack the power of the State to command participation. Further, they lack the right of the State to back demands for compliance and conformity with the use of force. This results in a radically different method of generating the initial involvement of targets with “second generation” organizations.
The method typically relies on capitalizing upon some area of overlap between the interests of the target and the advertised activity or service of the organization. The point of overlap may involve anything from an exercise program, treatment for psychological or physical ailments, growth programs for personal development, the realization of superhuman abilities, or an interest in affiliation with a spiritual or social movement.
In order to conduct a coercive influence and behavior control program, an organization must obtain both psychological dominance over an individual and a considerable measure of power in the individual’s life. The second necessary element, actual power, is often attained in newer organizations by making the target’s continuing relations with intimates and friends, as well as economic security, contingent upon continuing membership in the organization.
The initial phase of recruitment often involves an organized “seduction” period during which affective bonds between recruiting agents and the target are developed (Bainbridge, 1978; Of she et al., 1974, 1980; Taylor, 1978; West and Singer, 1980). During this period, targets are encouraged to believe that the organization can provide a service they desire or that it is committed to goals they value. The strength of developing bonds is continually tested against demands for increasing involvement and deference to the demands of the controlling organization.
Influence tactics figure in the development of a target’s dependence on an organization in at least two ways. Direct social pressure may be used to induce a sequence of decisions leading to the establishment of power relations which enable an organization to coerce an individual. Depending on the basis for the apparent interest overlap between the organization and the individual, enticements to accept the authority of the organization and to conform to its lifestyle rules may come from promises to achieve a cure for a longstanding problem, to improve the individual, to develop a career for the target with the organization, or through the availability of a ready-made community into which the target may fit. The target is confronted by people seeming to be genuinely interested in his or her well-being. Recruiters, whatever their sentiments, act as agents of the controlling organization and ease the target along the road to dependence.
Often, initial acceptance of the authority and rules of the organization leads to structural and rnaterial changes in the individual’s life which render the target increasingly dependent on continuing membership. For example, targets may be induced to move into a communally organized residence, accept employment in an organization’s business, leave school or contribute whatever economic assets they control. Given these sorts of commitments, rejection by the organization would entail loss of job, residence, and investment.
In addition to material and structural changes, the ability of the organization to increase its relative power over the individual’s life depends upon shifting the target’s social and emotional attachments to individuals who have accepted the organization’s authority and rules. For this reason, when being recruited to some organizations, individuals find themselves recipients of great affection, displays of interest, and virtually endless invitations to group functions. Targets are often expected to involve their families with the recruiting organization. Family members, once involved, are subject to the same influence process as was the original target. This may lead to family members’ becoming more committed to the organization than to the relative who first brought them in.
With increasing time and emotional commitment to a new group, it is obvious that a target’s network of organizationally independent intimates and friends will atrophy if for no other reason than decreasing contact. If an organization requires proclaiming a viewpoint that seems bizarre when baldly stated (e.g., expectations of acquisition of superhuman powers, the new order is at hand, etc.), or if the organization requires highly assertive or unusual demeanor, targets are liable to discover difficulties emerging in relations with friends or family members who no longer understand them.
An organization will have maximized its structural and social power over a target if it succeeds in introducing changes into the person’s life such that the individual’s intimates are all subject to its authority and the organization controls the target’s income, employment, capital, and social life. Under these circumstances, a person threatened with expulsion is threatened simultaneously with being cut off from many of the major social supports upon which stability of identity and emotional well-being depend. The controlling organization can create this level of extreme threat since the individuals who matter most to the target are subject to the organization’s authority and will reject the person if the organization does so.
If an organization succeeds in shifting a target’s social ties to other organizational members, it gains the potential to bind the person to the organization in a fashion which far exceeds the binding power of investments, job, and residence. Immersed in a social world in which peer esteem and disapproval are dispensed for conformity to community norms, an individual will find that community standards become the only standards available for self-evaluation.
Common attributes of programs of coercive influence and control are strict rules inhibiting private expressions of disagreement with community or company policy. It is also often expected that members will make frequent public expressions of agreement with policy and acceptance of community norms. One reason for the widespread existence of such rules is their restraining effect on the formation of political opposition within the group (Ofshe, 1980; Selznick, 1960).
In addition to inhibiting organized opposition, the elimination of the expression of counter-authority sentiments and demands for public displays of agreement with community standards have additional effects. These are the elimination of evidence of the validity and very existence of alternative standards for judgment within the group. Promoting displays of agreement with management policy reminds observers that others in the group accept management directives. A person introduced into a community operating with these requirements for inhibiting criticism and displaying agreement finds pervasive reinforcement for particular aspects of behavior and for verbal expressions which are consistent with community positions.
Once the target chooses to interact with peers, the only available medium for communication is in group determined modes of thought and expression. When community-approved terminology is employed, the target gets approval. When other vocabularies or concepts are employed, the target is criticized and shunned. Through dispensing approval or criticism and isolation, the organization encourages the target to employ the appropriate terminology and to find merit in aspects of the community position. The target is, in a special fashion, being acculturated to a new world. The target is not ordered explicitly to conform to community rules. As the process of reinforcing and punishing the target’s statements proceeds, the cumulative effect is to restrict the target’s expressions to community-approved forms.
An individual immersed in a world in which communication is strictly limited must either remain aware of the difference between private beliefs and permitted public expression or, somehow, come to reconcile public expression with private self. If an environment that permits peer interaction only in terms of certain values and beliefs, it is likely that even a person’s statements about what he or she actually values will eventually be molded into the contours of the controlling environment. This leaves the person in the position of surface conformity with perhaps private disagreement.
Having to participate for an extended period in an environment in which an individual must, on a daily basis, use a given ideology and set of customs as the basis for integrating action with the behavior and conversation of others can have a powerful cumulative effect. Because the reinforcement structure of the environment is arranged to shape behavior, participation in the environment will create a history of activity which, when reviewed, would normally tend to lead the individual to conclude that perspectives and values consistent with these activities are indeed his or her own (Bem, 1972). In some groups, there is considerable attention given to pointing out to the individual that conformity to group standards is, by definition, voluntary. That is, there is pressure to publicly agree that action is voluntary.
Peripheral self-evaluations are also likely to be manipulated through the same mechanisms of community control. Since community-defined values and standards are the basis on which peers and management dispense approval and disapproval, these standards organize virtually all feedback to the individual. If the target is to exist in the community, he or she must conform to community rules even if they are not privately accepted. Once again the target is faced with the problem of integrating public conformity to one set of standards and private disagreement. The target must either remain aware of the discrepancy between personal standards for self-evaluation and community standards, while behaviorally conforming to community standards, or accept community standards as his or her own. Constantly faced with this demand, it is likely that targets will abandon personal standards in favor of those of the controlling environment. Relinquishing these standards relieves the target of the constant burden of being aware that there is, in a sense, a secret and disapproving private self judging the performance of the person’s public self.
The effects we describe are not easily produced or maintained. We suspect that if the environment is to approach even temporary realization of these effects on cognition and self-evaluation, rules about expression of dissent from community positions must be successfully enforced. If targets are able to share with one another their private doubts and reservations, the principles of the reinforcement structure are violated. Knowledge that others maintain private standards different from supposed community consensus, will support independent judgment. If a target were to discover that many of those who participate in the criticism of the target’s deviant actions actually shared the target’s disagreement, the genuineness of the criticism would be destroyed and the punishment value of the activity significantly reduced. If, however, a target lacks even occasional external support for doubts, it is seductively easy and conflict-resolving to, at some point, literally abandon old standards by creating the rationalization that “I now understand” the correctness of the community’s viewpoint, or even that “I don’t understand it, but I will trust the community and conform.”
Although it is theoretically possible to maintain a double standard of public conformity and private disagreement indefinitely, there is evidence that even in prisoner populations, at least temporary attribution to self for beliefs and values demanded by captors was common. A substantial part of the interest in “first generation” programs of influence and control was caused by the unexpected reactions of non-Chinese released from thought reform camps and returning POW’s. For at least a short period after their release, many former prisoners expressed sentiments seemingly reflective of the ideology of their captors. Although these sentiments were rapidly shed upon release from captivity, their attitudes and judgment standards were very much biased by their experiences.
Unlike attitude changes as ordinarily treated in the literature, the sort of shift to the community’s position we are describing does not seem to result in stable cognitive reorganization or even stable attributions to self as the source of beliefs. Persons fully involved in the controlling environment may maintain that they “believe” the group’s ideology and that they freely accept it. It is often the case, however, that after terminating membership, and therefore being removed from the constant support and coercion present in the environment, seeming belief and confidence in the ideology of the group rapidly erode. This often leaves the person in a state of considerable confusion since he or she can no longer understand the basis for prior conformity to the group’s standards.
Rather than conceive of the shift towards conformity standards during residence in the group as the result of attitude change, it may be more fruitful to view the shift in behavior as the result of direct suppression of aspects of the person’s self. Once separated from the reinforcement structure of the environment and, therefore, lacking constant group pressure to refrain from acting upon or even entertaining deviant thoughts, old viewpoints, and standards for evaluation may reassert themselves. This reassertion may be surprising to the former group member and may cause the member to doubt that the group’s ideology was ever believed.
First and second generation programs differ in the extent to which they effectively use milieu control as an influence tactic. Milieu control in first generation programs was extensive over an environment which was distinct from the target’s usual environment. Whether it was a prison, training center, or re-education camp, it was a special place at which targets resided for defined periods. While in residence, targets could be obliged to participate in special activities and subjected to close monitoring. The social organization of these environments could be, and was, designed to foster cognitive change in targets. The milieu was, however, merely a temporary place for the individual and the persons with whom the target interacted. They had concerns for one another which were limited to their common, relatively short-term, residence in these special places with their limited and special goals.
Second generation programs often far exceed this level of milieu control by expanding the size of the milieu which is controlled and the length of time it is to be the target’s milieu. Expansion of the milieu involves including within it a greater range of the target’s life activities while still maintaining a high level of control over all activities. One method for accomplishing this is to establish residential communities within which family, occupational, educational, spiritual, and social life is conducted. In these communities all aspects of life can, at least in theory, be defined for residents, and residents can be subject to peer group monitoring as to conformity on any and all of these aspects. In effect, unique worlds are created within which people often expect to live their entire lives. With expectations for lengthy residence and total involvement, it is not surprising to find that residents are under pervasive pressure to accept the standards of the society as their own.
Control in such a world comes in two ways. One is in the power of leadership to specify precisely what will be the values and norms of the environment. The second source of control in the community is the power to choose how and when to utilize methods of coercive influence to promote conformity to chosen beliefs and policies.
Techniques of Coercive Influence
As with first generation programs, second generation programs employ procedures which undermine self-confidence and manipulate a target’s emotional arousal to motivate learning and for purposes of behavioral control. Unlike first generation programs, second generation programs tend to rely on the target’s already established standards for judging guilt and performance. They tend to direct their efforts at magnifying awareness of guilt or inadequacy by focusing the target’s attention on memories of stressful and emotionally significant events in his or her past. The result is often a dramatic increase in anxiety and the creation of a strong need to resolve it. Since participation in these activities is typically promised to result in relief from emotional problems or in improved performance, targets of second generation programs are likely to participate fully.
The cause of existing emotional or physical problems or inferior performance is often explained as the result of particular “improperly” experienced events or inadequate behaviors in the target’s past. For example, one growth program alleges that imperfect vision is caused by a person’s having refused to “see” something in the past. Others claim that all of a target’s interpersonal problems are caused by unexpressed feelings associated with childhood events. As a method for rapidly curing problems allegedly caused by particular past events, some organizations advocate recalling memories of traumatic or difficult events and attempting to “fully experience” and express all associated emotions. Supposedly, the full expression of the emotion associated with the event will immediately cure the target’s current problems. This theory rationalizes inducing the target to focus attention on emotionally difficult past events and justifies the organization’s use of any available techniques to promote intense emotional arousal.
Some second generation programs rely heavily on peer group techniques, similar to encounter groups, but with a focus on intimate rather than peripheral topics. Other second generation programs employ more sophisticated emotion-arousing tactics. Techniques used in clinical psychotherapeutic practice are often appropriated to the programs. Hence, much of what has been learned about the management of emotional experience in the practice of clinical psychology and psychiatry is brought into play as a method through which to cause the target to experience intense emotion.
Given a target’s initial willingness to participate, a range of exercises can be used to generate intense emotional arousal. For example, in some cases meditative and hypnotic techniques are used to accomplish arousal. In some programs, targets in trance states are induced to imagine hypothetical events and react to them with full emotional expression. The hypothetical circumstances might involve a disaster or the realization of the target’s greatest fear. In other instances hypnosis is used to induce targets to recapture the details of an event such as rape or a parent’s death scene. Using simple hypnotic techniques, some programs manipulate targets into fantasizing events from “past lives,” the moment of their conception or other memories they expect now to be available to them. Through the use of hypnosis and suggestion targets can be led to supposedly re-experience moments of intense emotion from their pasts or even from their imagined “past lives. ”
Similarly, some groups employ emotional flooding techniques, the stripping away of psychological defenses, and provide elaborate emotion-evoking exercises. Targets may be expected to engage in role-playing exercises and replay scenes from their pasts. They may be expected to role-play themselves or others, now acting out what they “really-felt.” In all such exercises there is an expectation that what the target will discover is a strong emotion underlying the character’s behavior and the target is expected to express this emotion.
Often the arousal techniques used by second generation programs are linked into sequences which have a “marathon” character. That is, the intensive indoctrination portion of the organization’s system for managing new participants may continue for a weekend or for as long as a month. In some instances, the organization may stretch the intensive indoctrination period over a span of several months with short breaks between portions. The effects of repeatedly employing techniques for generating intense arousal should not be overlooked. There is likely to be an interaction between the frequency of raising of psychologically stressful topics and the strength of the target’s response. For example, if stress experience disturbs a target’s sleep cycle, the person’s ability to control subsequent stress responses will likely deteriorate as fatigue increases. As fatigue and disorientation increase, the effects of the techniques used to generate arousal are likely to increase.
Given the initial desire of targets to benefit from involvement with the training organization and the ability of the organization to manipulate the target, peer group, and environment to provide targets with experiences that can be interpreted within the framework of the organization’s theory, it is not surprising that targets can be significantly influenced (Bem 1972; Schacter, 1965). For example, one mass “training organization reports that fully 25% of those who begin the organization’s first course are subsequently induced to become unpaid labor and recruiters for the organization. As a method for preparing targets for long term residence in a “therapeutic” community, one psychotherapy cult subjected targets to a several-week-long period of emotional stress. Another organization prepares targets for long-term involvement through early extensive hypnosis training and exercises directed at the recovery of stressful moments from the target’s past.
Given a theory that asserts that cure, transformation, or enhanced functioning follows from fully experiencing stressful events and fully expressing emotions associated with these events, if a target is not cured, transformed, or improved, the reason is obvious. The target must have failed to fully experience the event or to have fully expressed the associated emotions. Therefore, until the target acknowledges relief from whatever emotional problem or deficiency prompted initial interest in the program, he or she may be required to repeat the exercise of locating and “reliving” difficult life events. Even if the target is willing to agree that he or she is “fixed,” the organization may not always allow the target to claim transformation. In some organizations, when an individual’s productivity goes down, or when the person is inadequately enthusiastic, it is assumed that the further release of supposed problem-causing emotion is required. The person is obliged to undergo more of the group’s curative exercises.
Second Generation Program Casualties
We believe that in the course of seeking to gain power over the individual through the use of arousal states as influence techniques, some programs may have the effect of unleashing more anxiety and emotion than the person can tolerate. Traumatic events, about which the target has successfully established defenses, may be recalled in such a way as to neutralize the person’s established method for handling the emotion related to the topic. Stripping a person’s defenses in this manner may have devastating consequences.
Often the procedures used to accomplish emotional arousal are applied simultaneously to large groups, or when done on an individual basis follow a fixed format. When done in either fashion, there is no possibility of monitoring the content of the experience remembered by the target. When the event recalled is something such as childhood physical or sexual abuse, rape, the death of a parent, or an action about which the target is particularly ashamed, fully experiencing the emotion associated with the event may prove quite overwhelming.
Judging from reports of studies of targets of both first and second generation influence systems, long periods of exposure to the surveillance and interpersonal control procedures necessary to maintain high levels of conformity can induce a state of at least temporary confusion and disorientation when the controlling system is withdrawn (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Singer, 1978, 1979, 1986). ‘
There is a growing suspicion and slowly accumulating evidence that the practices of some spiritual or psychological “growth” programs which, in our opinion, can be considered examples of second generation influence programs, have a significant potential to induce far more serious damage than disorientation. Clark (1977, 1978) reports that long term involvement can lead to transient problems for those whose histories suggest that they were normal prior to involvement and can exacerbate problems for those with histories of psychological difficulties. Reports by Glass et al., (1977), Kirsch and Glass (1977), Higgit and Murray (1983), and Haaken and Adams (1983) suggest that some psychological “growth” programs which depend heavily on the manipulation of unusual body states’ and emotional arousal have the potential to induce psychiatric disturbances. Glass et al. and Kirsch and Glass report on seven casualties of a mass “training” program. Five casualties were diagnosed as schizophrenic, three with paranoid symptomatology, one was manic-depressive, and one was diagnosed as having a depressive neurosis. Only one of the seven had a previous history of disorder. All seven patients presented symptoms during or shortly after completion of the program.
Peripheral and Central Elements of Self:
Second generation programs of coercive influence and behavior control appear to directly attack the core sense of being–the central self-image, the very sense of realness and existence of the self. In contrast, the attack of first generation programs is on a peripheral property of self, one’s political and social views. The latter views could be seen as mere wrong learnings imposed from the outer world, for which there could be easy substitutions. The inner person, the self, was not the focus of attack. The newer programs can make the target feel that the “core me” is defective. Alter the self or perish is the motto. Thus intense anxiety can be engendered about the worthiness and even the existence of the self. The self is under attack to merge with and identify with the offered new model. Feelings of personal disintegration can be induced. For many, there is a temporary to more lasting identification with the contents, demeanors, and prescribed behaviors advocated by the program’s operators just as there was with the first generation programs. It also appears that attacks on the central elements of self may have certain grave and not yet fully determined effects.
The self-elements threatened by second generation programs are those which have grown out of experiences and feelings generated in deeply intimate relationships and emotionally charged transactions over the person’s lifetime. These are the elements of the historical, experiencing self which has feelings dating back to early childhood. Coping with emotions over the years shapes the development of specific psychological defense mechanisms used by the person for handling emotions from past and present interactions. The central self has to cope with resonating to memories of experiences of intimacy, intense affective states, family relationships, sexual experiences, and traumatic life events. These central self-elements define the inner, private domain in which emotions, past and present, are experienced and dealt with and where that special sense of self experienced as “me” is located. Psychological coping and balance is maintained through the central self’s ability to monitor and control emotions stirred up by reacting to and providing interpretations for both outer and inner perceptions and through judging what is real.
First generation program attacks focused on peripheral elements of self. They constituted a degree of attack on the psychological stability of the person far different from second generation attacks on central self-elements. Attacking a target’s confidence in the rightness of political opinions and appropriateness of social class position may have caused humiliation, embarrassment, and punishing emotional arousal. It may even have been life-threatening. We do not mean to imply that such treatment did not evoke strong emotional reactions in those so treated. Rather, we want to contrast the hypothesized difference in impact of having one’s own political background attacked and the attendant distress caused thereby, with the impact of having one’s core psychological stability and defense mechanisms stripped away as can be done by the techniques used in second generation programs.
We suspect that this sort of stripping of a person’s central coping mechanisms is the key to understanding the reason for psychological casualties in these programs as well as understanding why some programs are able to cause such a rapid and apparently dramatic acceptance of the program’s advocated ideology. Apparently for some persons, bypassing traditional coping mechanisms by inducing them to vividly recall or relive events of great emotional significance can create a psychologically powerful experience. For some, the experience appears to be sufficient to induce psychological decompensation.
For those not so overwhelmed by the experience, we suspect that it creates circumstances in which the easiest way to reconstitute the self and obtain a new equilibrium is to “identify with the aggressor” and accept the ideology of the authority figure who has reduced the person to a state of profound confusion. In effect, the new ideology (psychological theory, spiritual system, etc.) functions as a defense mechanism. It protects the individual from having to further directly inspect emotions from the past which are overwhelming. The person is then able to focus attention on some intellectual abstraction rather than on details of the distressing events themselves.
1. The phrase “coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control” is introduced to escape any suggestion that this form of influence and social control depends upon the unique historical circumstances under which it was previously studied. Further, and of equal importance, our introduction of a new term is motivated by a desire to separate this analysis from some of the connotations which have become associated with the terms “thought reform,” “coercive persuasion, n and “brainwashing.”
“Brainwashing” is the least satisfactory of the common names for the phenomenon. It conjures up, at least for the non-professional reader, ideas of mindless automatons deprived of their capacity for decision-making. “Thought reform” is a more neutral term but has an historical connotation linking it to a range of attempts to propagandize, indoctrinate, and re-educate as well as coercively influence and control China’s population after Mao’s revolution. As generally used, “coercive persuasion” connotes a substantial reliance on physical abuse and imprisonment. It is a term developed to describe procedures used on U.S. and U N. military personnel who were captured during the Korean War.
2. The only available experimental evidence relating to the ability of group pressure to cause psychological casualties is reported in Yalom and Lieberman (1971). In their study of short duration, 30-hour encounter group experiences, a 9.4 per cent casualty rate was found. Casualties were not associated with all varieties of encounter group experience. Casualties occurred in groups in which leaders focused upon individuals, were authoritarian, and acted in an intrusive, confrontative, and challenging manner.
3. Our analysis of second generation programs is based on research and clinical work exceeding two decades, if our separate experiences are totaled. We have interviewed well over one thousand individuals, or relatives of individuals, who were formerly or currently involved in different coercive influence and behavior control programs. We have studied casualties of various programs, and have conducted participant observation field research and direct observation studies of different programs. Because of issues of confidentiality of informants and court-ordered silence, as well as the controversy surrounding many of the programs we have studied, we are being deliberately opaque as to program identities.
4. Not all second generation programs are used to influence and control targets for lengthy periods of time or to lead individuals to become completely deployable agents of the organization with which they become involved. Some organizations tend to involve people as agents used to sell commercial programs to others. For the purposes of this paper we are drawing primarily on programs which involve targets for lengthy periods of time and often include either communal residence or near isolation from relationships from non-group members.
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Richard Ofshe, Ph. D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Margaret T. Singer, Ph. D., is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.