The late Benjamin Zablocki talks about cults and mind control

An interview with

Benjamin Zablocki

By Steven Van Neste

Excerpt from “Ethics and the Modern Guru” a publication on cults.

Benjamin Zablocki is a sociologist whose main field of interest is religion, cults and the functions of brainwashing and charisma. The following ‘interview’ was done as a written questionnaire, and to respect the wishes of Mr Zablocki, we would like to make the disclaimer that he is not a psychiatrist and that his words are a mixture of facts, opinions, theories and conjectures. Furthermore, anyone who feels he is the victim of a cult or of brainwashing etc. should seek the help of well-trained and qualified professionals such as a physician or psychotherapist.

Before beginning this interview, however, I would like to share a few notes of Mr Zablocki, which he prepared for a lecture. These notes will help you understand Mr Zablocki’s research. For readability we shall weave these notes together in a single text, the words of Mr Zablocki appear between quotation marks.

Brainwashing is “Not a metaphor!” but “An observable set of transactions between a totalistically structured group and an isolated member of that group with the goal of transforming that member into a deployable agent.” Brainwashing is “A retail technique for retaining members, not a wholesale technique for obtaining members” and “has little or nothing to do with hypnotism”.

“Under the right (i.e.: wrong) circumstances, anybody can be brainwashed”, it “Requires initial enthusiastic compliance, a long period of uninterrupted time, isolation, totalistic control over the individual and the environment, and a supportive affectionate peer group.” It is “a three-stage process involving unlearning, new learning, emotional addiction to the group, and traumatic aversion to the forbidden and the sinful (…) it involves nothing more than plain vanilla techniques of influence that have been known to and studied by social psychologists for decades.” Also, “Unlike hypnotism, brainwashing can get people to perform ego-dystonic acts (e.g.: in extreme cases has resulted in a parent beating his own child to death, suicide bombing, beheadings, berserker military action)”

The effects of brainwashing “Can last a lifetime with occasional reinforcement unless there is intervention.” However, “With time and in the absence of reinforcement, effects are steadily (but slowly) diminished. Hypercredulity is the earliest to be diminished; implanted false memories are often the last. With therapy, effects can be asymptotically extinguished but never 100% eliminated.”

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Thank you very much for speaking with us. How did you come to study brainwashing?

Benjamin Zablocki:

I started studying charismatic influence in isolated communal groups in 1963. At that time, more than a few people were becoming fanatical followers of charismatic leaders but I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of brainwashing. I had read Robert Jay Lifton’s book, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” and was impressed with it but I thought of it as something Communist states did on a large scale rather than as something cults could or might want to do on a small scale. I did intensive participant-observation fieldwork in the Bruderhof (the subject of my first book, “The Joyful Community”) and realized that what they did to their members corresponded almost exactly to each of Lifton’s steps of the brainwashing process. I got to see the process in action at the Bruderhof and I got to see the longer-term effects when I interviewed ex-members of the Bruderhof. Some of these ex-members I interviewed repeatedly over quite a few years. I feel it’s important to say that my work at the Bruderhof was over 50 years ago and I have no idea whether they still practice any of these same techniques.

After the Bruderhof work, I taught at U.C. Berkeley and Cal Tech during the 60s and early 70s where my colleague, Philip Selznick introduced me to the key concept of “the deployable agent” in his lectures and in his book, “The Organizational Weapon.” I received generous funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation to carry out a large scale study of 120 charismatic communitarian groups all around the country. Some results of this were reported in another of my books, “Alienation and Charisma”. Work on that huge study is still going on, mostly by my students and former students. From the late 1990s on, I began looking at the long-term effects of people who reported being brainwashed in some of these groups. It’s important to note that, of the thousands of members of these groups over the years, only a very small per cent saw themselves as having been brainwashed and less than half of these fit the rigorous definition of brainwashing that I use. It would be a big mistake to think that every cult member has been brainwashed. True brainwashing is a terrible thing but it is fortunately not very commonly found even among cult members. To brainwash a person fully requires a big investment of resources and few cults will take the trouble to go through the whole brainwashing process except with cult members for which tight total control is deemed important. However, partial brainwashing is, unfortunately, more commonly found among cult members.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Why do you use the term brainwashing over other terms?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Please be aware that the use of the word brainwashing is controversial in the behavioural sciences and even those who use the term often vary in their definitions. Get people to define their terms. I don’t really care what term people use as long as they define their terms carefully. As far as I’m concerned, it could just as well be called the XYZ process. Of the many terms that have been used in the literature, some just curse words like mind control or mental rape. It’s understandable that the victims are angry and want to lash out verbally, but these terms really have no scientific meaning. The two terms used more or less interchangeably by Lifton, “thought reform” and “brainwashing” is much more scientifically rigorous. I prefer brainwashing because I hypothesize that these are concrete changes that occur in the structure and function of the BRAIN (although not irreversible to anticipate one of your later questions) and also because the process involves not just thoughts. The manipulation of emotions is just as important as the manipulation of thoughts and one can’t go very far without the other.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

What is the difference between brainwashing and mass manipulation? And is this a strict difference, or do they involve the same neural processes?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Mass manipulation is a far more common process, easier to perform and easier to escape from. We’re all subject to mass manipulation, at school, at work, on tv etc. More serious mass manipulation can happen in cults and political movements. It can be the prelude to making people vulnerable to brainwashing but it isn’t in itself brainwashing. To put it another way, mass manipulation is a WHOLESALE way of OBTAINING followers. Brainwashing is a RETAIL way of RETAINING members and turning them into deployable agents. A mass-manipulated person may helplessly dance on his or her charismatic puppeteer’s strings but a brainwashed person will do the charismatic leader’s bidding even without the strings, even when the leader is thousands of miles away and has no way of directly spying on the victim. Unless the charismatic leader needs a person to become a fully deployable agent capable of such things as killing, smuggling, suicide bombing, or brainwashing other people, there is often no need for the guru to invest the time and effort needed to perform full brainwashing.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

What does brainwashing do to our (supposed) free will?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Brainwashing is a scientific concept. Free will is a philosophical concept. A scientific theory of brainwashing thus has nothing to say about the existence of a free will. But one of the interesting (and diabolical) aspects of brainwashing is that a brainwashed person can become convinced that he is acting out of his own choices when he is really following his leader’s orders. The reasons for this at the neurological level are not fully understood at this time and what is understood about it is quite complicated and technical.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

So brainwashing is an individual thing rather than a group thing?

Benjamin Zablocki:

The popular perception that brainwashing is a group thing comes from confusing mass manipulation with brainwashing (see above). Brainwashing is (fortunately) difficult to accomplish. To brainwash a person is labour-intensive and requires a highly controlled and isolated environment. Brainwashing is usually accomplished by focusing on one person at a time or sometimes a few people at a time.  Even in cults like the Manson Family, Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate where most of the members were brainwashed, they were brainwashed as individuals or in small groups. Although mass meetings of brainwashed people can make the process smoother, faster and more effective.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

What can make a person more (or less) prone to the effects of brainwashing?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Everybody is potentially susceptible to brainwashing including you and me. The real question should be what makes a person let themselves be put in the clutches of a brainwashing leader or group? And why, especially in the early stages where the brain is still fairly autonomous, why doesn’t the person walk away once she realizes she is being brainwashed? The answer to this question would be long and rambling. It has to do with life-stage, emotional vulnerability, the need for approval, the need to find meaning in life, the need to self-medicate against anxiety, depression, psychosis and many other things. I’m certainly not saying that only crazy people let themselves be brainwashed; but sometimes, for people fighting mental illness, brainwashing can feel like just what the doctor ordered. Other people simply experiencing the normal stresses of life can also experience a sense of profound relief in the “warm” embrace of a cult.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Does brainwashing cause-specific (and perhaps irreversible) neural rewiring?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Yes, specific and no, not irreversible. We are still in the early stages of learning about such things as neuroplasticity and mirror neurons but we know enough to understand the elasticity of our brains even in adulthood can make us terribly vulnerable to victimhood, but wonderfully available to recovery. I think in the next 10 to 15 years, we will know a lot more about how to facilitate recovery, but even now, success rates are high if the victim wants to succeed and the environment is understanding and supportive. Most troublesome to erase are implanted false memories but that’s another story for another time.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

When it comes to the psychological mechanisms (and related brain activity) are there similarities between brainwashing and addiction?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Yes, but I would put it a little differently. I would say that brainwashing induces a new addiction, to the love and approval of the leader and/or the group. This addiction is a part of the brainwashing process but it’s not the whole thing. Thinking of brainwashing solely as a form of addiction can be misleading because it ignores the equally important cognitive intellectual reprogramming involved in brainwashing.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Are the three phases of brainwashing (stripping—group identification—death/rebirth) linear, meaning that unless there is first a proper stripping etc. there can be no successful coercion?

Benjamin Zablocki:

That’s one of the problems of behavioural science theories.  In order to write about these things, we have to put them in a simplistic linear order. Reality is always messier and more variable. The earlier stages usually continue mixed in with the latter. Especially stripping and group identification can sometimes go round and round, each reinforcing the other.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Is everyone prone to being brainwashed? What can one do to protect oneself from it?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Yes, everyone is susceptible if we’re unlucky or unwary enough to put ourselves in totalitarian isolated clutches. If you find yourself being isolated from previous social ties, you should run for the exit. It’s true that some disciplines (like medical school or military service) can require a certain amount of isolation from your previous surroundings. But if you aren’t even allowed to have an occasional phone conversation with a parent or a sibling or a devoted old friend, I’d be concerned.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

If a full psycho-neurological model of brainwashing is possible, would this also mean that such a model could greatly aid in the recovery from the trauma associated with brainwashing?

Benjamin Zablocki:

We are still pretty far from a full psycho-neurological model of anything and most especially brainwashing. But, yes, the more we know, the better and easier recovery will be.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Since recovery from cults is (as you state) a washing of washing, does this mean these processes are irreversible? If so, does recovery come with its own kind of trauma?

Benjamin Zablocki:

The process is definitely NOT IRREVERSIBLE. This is important to emphasize because the victim can sometimes feel like the brain has been tied in such knots that it will never be able to be untied. This has not proven to be the case. That’s why a fluid metaphor-like washing is more appropriate than something like knotting or pounding. Supportive families of brainwashing victims have to understand that recovery from brainwashing is like recovery from trauma or traumatic abuse. It is asymptotic. That means it can go to 50% cured, then to 75%, then to 90%, then to 95%, then to 99%, then maybe to 99.9%. But never to 100%. One can recover from brainwashing, but one never escapes a certain fragility that was not there before and that just has to be lived with forever. But, with common sense and supportive friends and family, this need not prevent one from having a normal and happy life.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Can brainwashing cause mental illness (besides trauma)?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Like any trauma, brainwashing can tip a person over into a mental illness if the mental illness was already latent before the brainwashing. Practically, this means that a cure for such a person will require treating both the brainwashing and the mental illness. Fortunately, there are organizations and therapists with training and experience in this area.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Strictly from a neurological point of view (when looking at the behaviour of neurons and the release etc. of neurotransmitters) is there a difference between the activity occurring during brainwashing and taking certain drugs? Meaning, is successful brainwashing a very specific process, involving very specific brain activity?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Drugs affecting oxytocin and natural opioids may be implicated. We really don’t know very much about this. For what little is known, the question is best addressed to an M.D.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Is there any area of the brain that is more involved in the process of brainwashing than the others?

Benjamin Zablocki:

There’s no simple answer to this question. Several different areas of the brain seem to be involved and I don’t know enough about how they work together to feel confident about giving you a detailed answer to this question. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that anybody currently around would be able to answer this question. Ask it again in another ten years.  research in this area is progressing rapidly. As we learn more, the answers will be coming less from social and behavioural scientists like myself and more from neuroscientists.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Can the trauma caused by brainwashing be fully healed? The “black holes”, can they ever be integrated again within a healthy brain structure?

Benjamin Zablocki:

The black hole is a scary metaphor. But, yes, the prognosis seems to be favourable if the victim really wants to recover and is lucky enough to have supportive friends and family. Oh, and I should have said supportive and patient friends and family. I can’t overemphasize the importance of patience. If you love a brainwashing victim, be prepared to have your patience torture-tested. Just when you think everything is hunky-dory, there may be some backsliding. For the caregivers, it may be important to remember that you can love and support a brainwashing victim back to health (or so close to health that you won’t notice the difference). But you will NEVER FULLY UNDERSTAND what the brainwashing victim went through and what she still has to go through to keep the tiny black holes from getting big again.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

The danger of revisiting the guru etc., is this similar to the alcoholic getting a taste of alcohol again?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Well, kind of. But maybe more like a victim of battle-field trauma being suddenly exposed to fireworks going off.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Why are those the most resistant to brainwashing the slowest to recover?

Benjamin Zablocki:

This is a question I’ve thought about for a long time and I haven’t found the answer. It kind of makes sense to me in a very vague sense and it is supported by clinical evidence. I think if we could really figure out the answer to this, we would be a lot further along at being able to help the victims, even the victims who don’t want to be helped.

Ethics and the Modern Guru:

Is there anything one can do in order to safeguard oneself from brainwashing (and manipulation etc. in general)?

Benjamin Zablocki:

Beware of isolated environments with totalitarian control. Beware of ideologies that offer answers to all the world’s problems. Beware of anyone or anything that asks you to cut all ties to previous loved ones or that makes you believe that none of them ever really cared about you.

Benjamin Zablocki Born January 19, 1941 – April 6, 2020

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