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. (See “Cults of hatred,” p. 30). 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
was originally published in the Monitor
on Psychology, November 2002.
It is reprinted with permission of the American Psychological