Probing Question: Does brainwashing exist?

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Turn on talk radio or check the headlines and you are sure to hear the accusation: somewhere, a group of people has been "brainwashed" into abandoning their own values and beliefs and supporting a political party, a religion, or a leader. But does brainwashing really exist?

Not in the way that the mainstream media portray it, says Roger Finke, professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State. "The popular idea is that brainwashing techniques can completely alter a person's opinions, while he or she is powerless to stop the conversion," he says. "But such techniques have never actually been found to exist."

Finke argues that the term is a historical inaccuracy that has become entrenched in social lore. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English use of the word brainwashing dates from 1950. It entered the language from the Chinese words "xi nao" meaning "wash brain," a term used to describe the coercive methods of the Maoist regime.

However, Finke notes that the popular portrayal of brainwashing became widespread in the United States during the 1970s, a time in which a number of cults and religious movements, like the Unification Church, were on the rise.

"Critics of these movements could not understand why anyone would join," says Finke. "They argued that the leaders were using almost magical brainwashing techniques to recruit members." The Jonestown cult mass suicide in 1978, in which 909 members drank cyanide-laced flavored drink mix, served to further popularize the idea. From this catastrophe, the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" was coined, meaning someone who is blindly following the beliefs of a charismatic leader because of successful brainwashing.

When these movements were studied systematically by social scientists, however, it was found that they had no powers of brainwashing, says Finke. Propaganda and other methods of persuasion were used to make the movement look as attractive as possible to prospective members, but, in the end, the vast majority of people that explored these movements never joined them. "It was really only a tiny percentage that joined," notes Finke.

So what drove those who did join? The testimonials of friends and family, he says. "When a close friend or family member tells you that a leader or belief has changed them into a new and better person, it's the most effective ' brainwashing' that you can receive," he adds.

Finke emphasizes that the power of friends and family to influence us plays a role not only in religious conversion, but political and social conversion as well. "Propaganda and information control may get your attention and encourage change, but for true, long-lasting conversion on matters of importance, these persuasive techniques must be supplemented by support from someone you trust."

Roger Finke, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology & Religious Studies at Penn State. He is the author of The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy and Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. He can be reached at rfinke@psu.edu or 814-867-1427.

Last Updated November 03, 2009