Clarifying some issues

"Brainwashing" in New Religious Movements


Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio, from the Roman seat of G.R.I.S. 

April, 1998.  


This issue is not an easy one to deal with. Researchers and scholars, both in the fields of sociology and psychology, hold different positions concerning the existence of techniques of mental manipulation inside New Religious Movements. 

Some deny it altogether, others state that it definitely exists, yet others take on intermediate positions, some more in one direction, others more in the other. 

These different stands depend on many elements, one of the most important being the theoretical orientation of the scholar, psychologist or sociologist, who cannot avoid having his own opinions. Dependence on opinions is even more obvious in the case we are dealing with, where research is still far from being complete. A more thorough study of this phenomenon is indeed necessary, supported and validated by further and more accurate research in order to shed light on such a delicate and controversial matter.  

What is definitely harmful for balanced research in the fields of sociology and psychology of religion is the unfortunate division of scholars into two opposing camps. Some, in fact, behave as if they were in symbolic courtroom, where New Religious Movements are being judged, or where freedom of religion is under discussion. In this hypothetical courtroom, scholars play the roles of defence lawyers or public prosecutors, instead of doing their job, which is that of investigating and drawing up hypotheses for experimental verification.  

When we started looking into the various positions in order to try to understand the current situation of research in the field of theories on "mind control" or thought reform applied to New Religious Movements, we chanced on certain statements, according to which the whole matter seems to have already been settled, and no further research appears to be necessary, as science has already given a final reply. 

Considering the complex nature of this issue, these statements had a profound effect upon us, also because they were made by scholars known in Italy as "experts" in the field of New Religious Movements.  

It was from them that we learnt that the last word had already been said by one of the most prestigious professional associations in the world: the APA (American Psychological Association), which has about 150.000 members and represents the entire profession. The final statement was supposed to have been made long ago, in May 1987.  

This is what M. Introvigne had to say in an article published in Avvenire on January 2, 1997, p. 18, titled Ma il cattolico non va alla setta : "... back in 1987, the American Psychological Association officially stated that "brainwashing" theories - of the first or second generation - applied to religious movements are not scientific, and US courts have ever since rejected them systematically..." 

The same author repeats this statement in an article published on CESNUR's Web Site, titled The Return of the Jacobins : The Report of the Belgian Parliament Inquiry Committee on Cults, where the following is said : "... opposition to the anti-cult model based on theories of mental manipulation and brainwashing is virtually unanimous among both psychologists and sociologists of religion. In 1987 the American Psychological Association - probably the most authoritative body in the world in the field of psychological sciences - published a document stating that the theories of mental manipulation and brainwashing applied to new religious movements lack in "scientific rigor" and must not be presented as scientific […]. No "division in the academic world" therefore exists, dividing it into two different fields, one favourable and one contrary to the theses of the anti-cult movements. The overwhelming majority of academic researchers reject these theses as not being scientific ..." 

The CESNUR Web Site also quotes from a conference at the National Press Club, held on December 1st, 1997, and entitled Religious liberty in Western Europe: "... On May 11, 1987 the Board rejected the report and concluded that the mind control theories, used in order to distinguish "cults" from religions, are not part of accepted psychological science. The results of this document were devastating for mind control theories ..." 

We find the same statements in a paper presented by M. Introvigne on November 23 1997 in San Francisco and published in English on the CESNUR Web Site : ... "... The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 allowed Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to create a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). In 1987 the final report of the DIMPAC committee was submitted to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On May 11, 1987, the Board rejected the report and concluded that the mind control theories, applied to new religious movements, are not part of accepted psychological science (American Psychological Association 1987)...". The reference bibliography for this article quotes the exact title of the document CESNUR and Introvigne so often mention: American Psychological Association, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology. 1987. "Memo to the DIMPAC Committee". Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association 

Another CESNUR member, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, repeats these ideas in an article published in the February 1997 issue of Il Messaggero di S. Antonio, and reprinted in their Web Site. The title of the article is : Scientologia, Religione e gnosticismo 

At the end of the article, the author says: "Today, therefore, the crime of plagio [undue persuasion] no longer exists, and the idea of bringing it back is hardly to be imagined. The same conclusion, regarding "brainwashing" theories of both the first and second generation…, was reached in 1987 by the authoritative American Psychological Association, which called such theories "not scientific" 

In a radio programme called Lavori in corso, broadcast on December 9, 1997 M. Introvigne said the following exact words : "... I do not believe one should speak too quickly here of plagio [undue influence], which our Constitutional Court in 1981 called a fictitious and non-existent crime in 1981, or brainwashing, which the American Psychological Association equally declared to be non existent in 1987...". In this specific case, he is actually claiming that APA came to a final conclusion, according to which "brainwashing" theories are not only lacking in the features needed to make a theory worthy of the name of scientific, but that these theories deal with a phenomenon which does not even exist.  

The latest "performance" of the "professor", of which we have had word, was during a TV transmission (the seventh edition of 7 volte 7, broadcast by Telenova and Telesubalpina and re-broadcast by Sat2000, the Italian Bishops' Conference satellite TV). During this programme, Introvigne spoke to say that the words "cult" and "brainwashing" or "mind control" are typical of anti-cult movements. These movements supposedly use them as "sticks" to beat minority religious movements with. They are only a way of expressing religious intolerance. 

We could continue for a long time with quotes and examples of lectures or programmes of various kinds where such statements were made.  

The position of these Italian "experts" is also shared by other Italian and foreign scholars. This is a current in sociology and psychology which opposes a different view of the problem, upheld by other scholars who do not deny the existence of forms of conditioning in certain religious movements, although in different degrees and with different features, depending on the individual case.  

What makes the reader or the listener immediately accept the opinion of the "expert" interviewed or who wrote an article, is the mention of such a representative association as APA. It is natural to think that, if such an important Association expressed a negative opinion on a theory, this theory cannot be scientific and must be rejected.  

However, common sense and experience in this field led us to harbour some doubts about such absolute certainties, in a field as complex and controversial as that of psychology, where acquiring certainties is truly difficult; and for this reason, we wondered whether the famous official APA document actually said what it was supposed to have said.  

We therefore started a long and difficult search for a document which, considering its importance, should have been easily available to everybody, especially to those who quote it on their own Web site.  

We therefore explicitly asked CESNUR (which claims to have a library of over 10.000 books) for a copy of the document; inexplicably, they referred us to their American colleague, Gordon Melton. Gordon Melton, repeatedly contacted by us by e-mail, never sent the document, although he said he had it and was ready to fax it to us.  

We then decided to go to the source, and contacted - by e-mail - several members of APA (including Department Chiefs), asking for a copy of the document. We were very surprised that none of these people were able to place this document, so important for deciding the fate of a scientific theory. We were told that the document exists but is not easy to find. Thanks to the admirable help of members and officers of this Association, we received a considerable quantity of bibliography on the issue of "mind control" applied to New Religious Movements. 

This help, together with that of Dr. Langone of AFF (American Family Foundation) and of Dr. B. Zablocki, who published an article in Nova Religio on The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion (now available on the Web Site of the Magazine), helped us to increase our knowledge and to clear up many issues which had been left in the dark.  

First of all, in order to understand a document, one needs to know its historical setting. The US Supreme Court had asked APA to take a public stand on the issue of the scientific reliability of theories about "mind control" applied to New Religious Movements.  

For this reason, in 1984, APA, appointed Margaret Singer, chairperson of the DIMPAC (Task force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control) committee, to investigate this and other issues. This committee prepared a report which was rejected by a board appointed by APA , the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP). This Board, which no longer exists, rejected the final DIMPAC report with a short Memorandum on May 11, 1987.  

After two months of research on Internet, we were finally able to obtain a photocopy of the document by fax from the USA. We can now clarify some basic points:  

1) The document opens and closes thanking the Task Force (DIMPAC) for its job, and openly expressing the enormous difficulty involved in coming to a final report on such a complex and controversial issue. No polemics with those who had done the job, rather the acknowledgement of the job they had done, which the Board, while not agreeing, did appreciate. 

2) The report drawn up by DIMPAC was examined by two outside experts and by two members of the APA committee called Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP). They found the DIMPAC report lacking in scientific rigor and in an impartial critical approach needed to obtain APA approval. The report was therefore unanimously rejected by 4 people (only 2 of whom belonged to APA) 

The main point of the document is this: the Memorandum expresses no official rejection of mind control theories, but only rejects a report drawn up buy a committee on the issue of mental manipulation theories as applied to New Religious Movements. This rejection was due to lack of proper methods.  

3) The Memo also called on DIMPAC members to avoid stating that APA shared the conclusions of their report. BSERP invited DIMPAC to make their report public only after having stated that BSERP had not accepted it.  

4) The most important part of the Memo, which is the part that interests us, says: "Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue".Unfortunately, the scholars we mentioned previously forgot this sentence of the Memo, which is certainly not a secondary one. However, this sentence - which does exists - does not appear in any of the documents we quoted! 

This therefore is the truth, and it is quite different from what we were told : APA, a professional Association of great domestic and international importance, has never taken a clear and official stand on theories of thought reform and mind control as applied to New Religious Movements. It has taken a waiting stand, and rejects the positions of both sides. The reason is clearly stated in the Memo: sufficient information is lacking, in other words sufficient research and scientifically validated research and hypotheses are missing, so no final answer can be given to this question. 

The saddest part of this story is that APA quite properly invited "mind control" theorists not to say that the Association shared their opinions. However they did not think that that small Memo, that relatively unimportant note, could be manipulated by others, that is by those who reject a priori the existence of mental manipulation in New Religious Movements. The latter have made of this note a flag to rally around, quoting only part of a document, which - although of only relative importance - deserves to be quoted infull. And anybody who is considered, and considers himself, an objective and documented "expert" in this field should be aware of this fact.  

Information, however, today is no longer only at the reach of a few "scholars". As in the days when knowledge, thanks to the printing press, came out of the convents and became available to all, today - thanks to Internet - information travels from one end of the world to the other in real time. This information revolution means the end of silent complicity for "cults" and the revelation of many "secrets".  

In the scientific field, on the other hand, thanks to e-mail, Mailing Lists, etc ... the age of information monopoly is over : information has become accessible to all, once the language barrier has been overcome.  

Today, motivation, patience and good will allow all to "investigate" (as we did), on every sort of issue. 

In today's "global village", it is not the "licence of an expert", but documents, which make the difference!  

Copyright © 1998 - Reproduction of this article, in part or in whole,
is forbidden without express consent of the authors

May 11, 1987


TO: Members of the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC) 

FROM: Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) 

SUBJECT: Final Report of the Task Force 

BSERP thanks the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for its service but is unable to accept the report of the Task Force. In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur. 

The report was carefully reviewed by two external experts and two members of the Board. They independently agreed on the significant deficiencies in the report. The reviews are enclosed for your information. 

The Board cautions the Task Force members against using their past appointment to imply BSERP or APA support or approval of the positions advocated in the report. BSERP requests that Task Force members not distribute or publicize the report without indicating that the report was unacceptable to the Board. 

Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue. 

The Board appreciates the difficulty in producing a report in this complex and controversial area, and again thanks the members of the Task Force for their efforts. 


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