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Mind Control in New Religious Movements

Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 101-121

"Mind Control" in New Religious Movements and the American Psychological Association

Alberto Amitrani

Raffaella Di Marzio

GRIS, Roma


During the past 10 years some scholars have claimed that the American Psychological Association (APA) formally rejected the notion of brainwashing as unscientific because APA rejected the report of a committee headed by noted cult critic, Dr. Margaret Singer.  In an attempt to investigate the accuracy of these claims the authors embarked upon a long and difficult search for the documents on which this seemingly significant claim is based.  They concluded that a careful reading of the relevant documents indicates that APA has not rejected the notion of brainwashing and that, as Dr. Benjamin Zablocki notes, “like so many others theories in the behavioral sciences, the jury is still out on this one.”

Researchers and scholars in 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.

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 a 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 defense 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 of scholars in order to try to understand the current situation of research concerning theories of "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 well known in Italy. The people whose articles and interviews we referred to are generally recognized as experts in the field of New Religious Movements.  Nevertheless, in the specific issue we were dealing withthe quotation and interpretation of the "Memo to the DIMPAC Committee"the authors we quoted had not behaved like experts, since they had acted naively (there is always somebody who will check the sources!):  real experts, in fact, always refer the whole idea of a source they quote.

These scholars told us 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. The final statement was supposed to have been made long ago, in May 1987.

This, for example, is what Massimo 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" theoriesof the first or second generationapplied to religious movements are not scientific, and US courts have ever since rejected them systematically.

The same author repeats this allegation in an article published on CESNUR's Web Site, "The Return of the Jacobins: The Report of the Belgian Parliament Inquiry Committee on Cults":

... 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 Associationprobably the most authoritative body in the world in the field of psychological sciencespublished 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 favorable 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 report given at a press conference at the National Press Club on December 1st, 1997 in Washington, D.C.  The report was 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.

Another CESNUR member, Pier Luigi Zoccatelli, repeats these ideas in an article published in the February 1997 issue of Il Messaggero di S. Antonio, and reprinted on their Web Site.  At the end of this article, "Scientologia, Religione e Gnosticismo," 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 program called Lavori in Corso [Work in Progress], broadcast on December 9, 1997 Mr. Introvigne said the following:

...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 nonexistent 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 call a theory scientific, but that these theories deal with a phenomenon which does not even exist.

During a TV transmission (the seventh edition of 7 volte 7 [7 time 7], broadcast by Telenova and Telesubalpina and re-broadcast by Sat2000, the Italian Bishops' Conference satellite TV, Mr. Introvigne said that the words, "cult" and "brainwashing" or "mind control," are typical of anti-cult movements. These movements supposedly use them as "sticks" with which to beat minority religious movements. They are only a way of expressing religious intolerance.

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

The position of these Italian scholars is also shared by other Italian and foreign scholars. This is a current in sociology and psychology that 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 inclined to accept the opinion of the "expert" is the mention of the prestigious 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 harbor some doubts about such absolute certainties.  In a field as complex and controversial as that of psychology, acquiring certainties is truly difficult.  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 that, considering its importance, should have been easily available to everybody, especially to those who quote it on their own Web site.  We 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.  Dr. Melton, whom we repeatedly contacted by e-mail, never sent the document, although he said he had it and was ready to fax it to us. (1)

We then decided to go to the source, and contactedby e-mailseveral 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. Michael Langone of AFF and Dr. Benjamin Zablocki (a Rutgers University sociologist who published an article in Nova"The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion") helped us to increase our knowledge and to clear up many issues which had been left in the dark.

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

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

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 a lack of proper methods.

The memo called on DIMPAC members to avoid stating that APA shared the conclusions of their report.

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.

The CESNUR Web site now includes a copy of the complete memo.  However, the scholars we mentioned seem to have forgotten about this sentence of the memo, which is certainly not a secondary one.  Yet this sentence, which does exist, does not appear in any of the documents we quoted.

Indeed, Dr. Langone told us (Personal Communication) that in a deposition he was once handed a copy of the memo that did not have the last paragraph.  It apparently had been eliminated through the photocopy process.  (Being a member of the Task Force, Dr. Langone had received an original copy of the memo, which had the missing paragraph.)  

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. The reason is clearly stated in the memo: sufficient scientifically validated research and hypotheses are lacking, so a final answer cannot be given to this question.

The saddest part of this story is that APA quite properly asked "mind control" theorists not to say that the Association shared their opinions. However they did not then realize that that small memo, that relatively unimportant note, could be manipulated by others and presented as an official APA rejection of 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, whichalthough of only relative importancedeserves to be quoted in full. Anybody who is considered, and considers himself, an objective and acknowledged expert in this field should be aware of this fact.

An Examination of the Relevant Documents

In case there are any doubts, let us examine this issue in more detail.

In an article, "Liar! Liar!," (published on the CESNUR Web site at Massimo Introvigne says:

In the early 1980s, some U.S. mental health professionals became controversial figures for their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against new religious movements, during which they presented their anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or "coercive persuasion" as if they were generally accepted concepts within the scientific community. In the meantime, in 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) had accepted the proposal to form a task force called DIMPAC (Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control).

This statement could lead one to think that the Task Force called DIMPAC was set up as a sort of "commission of enquiry" on certain "controversial" psychologists and psychiatrists.

However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened (Kahn, A. S., Letter with attached Memorandum dated July 12th 1983 signed by the then Administrative Officer of the BSERP). In fact, the 6-page Memorandum attached to the letter (where the establishment of the Task Force is proposed) specifies the purposes of the Task Force and, hence, the job APA appointed it do:

  • Investigate the techniques of psychological coercion.
  • Decide whether one can or must, or cannot or must not, impose restrictions on the use of techniques and principles of psychological coercion used by psychologists and nonpsychologists in a manner abusive of individual or constitutional rights.
  • Establish the conditions under which use of such techniques is more or less appropriate. "The charge to the Task Force will be to define the parameters and limits to which coercive psychological techniques may be used before invoking the principle of the ‘need to protect the individual.’ "

Further on, the document says that the APA is especially interested in these techniques being used to promote individual well-being.  What particularly interests the Association is the fact that

techniques of indoctrination, “brainwashing” and "coercive persuasion" have not been subject to the same scrutiny as other psychological techniques ... Such techniques are currently being used by religious cults (e.g., the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, etc.) as well as nonreligious organizations (e.g., est, Lifespring, etc.).

The Memo then remarks on the importance of undertaking this enquiry in the light of the increasing involvement of psychologists in disputes associated with cults, for example in the courts, where psychologists were often called in as witnesses (two cases are mentioned involving the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology).  The memo then mentions so-called "training seminars," such as est and Lifespring.  Further on, the Memorandum says:

It is quite clear that many of the religious organizations have been involved in recruitment techniques which are the equivalent of psychological assessment. It would appear that these techniques need to be well defined and, if certain people are a high risk, that these people need to be warned with regard to potential harm. The fundamental issue facing psychology is a determination of whether or not certain people need to be protected from coercive psychological techniques. It may be impossible to discuss this aspect of the abuse of coercive psychological techniques without discussing legalistic implications. A thorough discussion of coercive techniques and the possible need for recommendations in order to protect the public would be in the best interest of psychology.

The part regarding the outcome of the study performed by the Task Force also expresses the hope that something may be published in the future concerning this issue.

This document, then, shows that the Task Force was set up, not to put an end to the "anti- cult" activities of some psychologist, but for reasons of public interest, in order to safeguard the psychological welfare of individuals who might be subject to coercive psychological techniques, either in NRM's or in other organizations.

An Extraordinary "Slip"?

Mr. Introvigne also says in "Liar! Liar!":

DIMPAC pursued its work for some years, whilst Dr. Singer and other professionals continued to appear as expert witnesses in court cases using their coercive persuasion and brainwashing theories. Dissatisfied with this continuing state of affairs, "on February 5, 1987, during its winter meeting, the APA Board of Directors voted for APA to participate in the [Molko ] case as an amicus" (American Psychological Association, Memorandum on APA’s activities regarding the Molko case, July 11, 1989, p. 1) […] The brief stated that as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion "is not accepted in the scientific community" and that the relevant methodology "has been repudiated by the scientific community."

This reconstruction would lead the reader to think that the submission of the amicus brief (which denied the validity of coercive persuasion theories) was brought about by an unbearable situation, in which the Task Force was still going on with its proceedings, while psychologists and psychiatrists continued to make absurd statements in the courts, presented as if they had a scientific foundation.

However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened:

Firstly, the Memorandum attached to the letter of July 12th, 1983, states that the Task Force started its full proceedings in 1984, and that such proceedings would take two or three years, depending on the time required to draw up the final report.

Secondly, concerning the amicus brief approved by some APA board members, submitted on February 10th, 1987, and then soon withdrawn, this whole matter would appear to be much less "clear" if it were presented in other terms.

For example, one could say that while the APA was waiting to review the report of the Task Force (which APA itself had set up and appointed Dr. Margaret Singer to run) some of its directors decided to sign the famous amicus brief in the name of APA (some even claim that this document was approved on the basis of a round of phone calls and with no in-depth examination). All of this, of course, without consulting the Task Force that had been set up for the very purpose of studying something that the APA board members now suddenly decided did not exist!  Considering the situation, one can hardly say that APA stood out for transparency; it looked rather as if its right hand knew not what the left did. With such an embarrassing situation, APA quickly withdrew the amicus brief and then, after a few months, rejected the report by the Task Force. When one sees the facts in this light, the submission and then withdrawal of the amicus brief could well be seen as an attempt by APA to free itself as quickly as possible of a "hot potato."

Even though the APA withdrew from the battlefield, some people today still try to pass the Molko amicus brief matter across as if it had represented a stand taken by the Association.   Such an attempt of course helps the NRM's, but not scientific accuracy.

Among those who protested against the presentation of the amicus brief was Dr. L. J. West who wrote a letter (signed by about two dozen UCLA psychologists) to Dr. Bonnie Strickland, then President of APA. She answered this and other letters by saying that the whole issue of "coercive persuasion" was still awaiting discussion by the members of the Association, in order to achieve a more profound understanding of the use and abuse of social influence.

Introvigne then says in "Liar! Liar!":

APA subsequently withdrew from the case "based on procedural as opposed to substantive concerns" and "never rejected the brief on the ground that it was inaccurate in substance."

This does not however seem to mean that APA officially approved the contents of the brief, i.e., the notion that the theory of coercive persuasion applied to NRM's is not accepted by the scientific community. If it never rejected it, neither did it ever approve it officially, turning it into the final stand of the whole Association. The only indisputable fact is that APA withdrew the brief and never presented it again.

There is only one way to prove the contrary: to bring out an official APA documentif it existswhich states that that brief, as it was drawn up in 1987, has received the imprimatur of the Association, decreeing the end of scientific debate on "coercive persuasion."

Even so, people would still have the right to think differently, since APA, however prestigious it may be, does not in any case represent all the psychologists on earth, nor is America necessarily and always the model to follow.

Let us take a further look into the about face of the APA, by examining the Memo of July 12th, 1989, sent by R.D. Fowler, Chief Executive Officer of the APA, to Dr. W. D’Antonio. This document explains some of the reasons the brief was withdrawn: Fowler mentions a letter, dated May 17th, 1989, from Dr. Richard Ofshe to Dr. D’Antonio.  On page 2 of his letter, Ofshe had said that the APA brief

improperly slipped through the APA’s administrative structure… and [was] filed by the former executive director of APA despite objections by APA’s legal counsel."

After having denied this statement by Ofshe, Fowler says that the Executive Director of APA resigned after the episode, but that "…the APA Executive Director did not resign because a brief was filed in the case." In light of all that had transpired, we cannot help but wonder why the APA director resigned.

Fowler also mentions another letter by Dr. Ofshe, of June 14th, 1989 in which Ofshe says he was invited, together with Dr. Singer, to attend a symposium organized by APA's Division 1. The Symposium concerned coercive persuasion and its clinical, ethical, cultural, and legal implications. Somebody of course might wonder, "Why did APA invite to a symposium two scholars who had supposedly been entirely discredited by their Association after the rejection of the DIMPAC report and the submission of the amicus brief?"  Perhaps pre-empting such a possible question, Fowler contends that the attendance at the symposium by the two scholars did not have the meaning Ofshe implies:

This statement is somewhat misleading in that this is not an APA sponsored symposium. Drs. Singer and Dr. Ofshe were invited by Division 1 (one of forty plus APA Divisions) to participate in a Division 1 sponsored Symposium.

If we take Fowler's statement into account, we can still ask: "If a single Division of APA does not represent the whole Association, then can't we also say that four experts (the number of people reviewing the DIMPAC report), only two of whom were APA members, do not represent the views of the whole Association?

From the same document, we also learn that APA's decision not to get back into the case after the rejection of the DIMPAC report was due to "… budget constraints and other pressing business." These rather surprising motives could lead us to think, as Prof. Benjamin Zablocki puts it, that it was

... simply a matter of trying to put the best possible public face on what was an embarrassing situation for the cult apologists. Neither the cult apologists nor the cult bashers had enough votes in the APA to force through whichever measure each side would have wanted. Instead there was a face-saving compromise in which the APA essentially washed its hands of the entire matter—quite properly, in my opinion. Big national professional organizations like the ASA or the APA have no business taking political stands of any sort as long as there is substantial disagreement within the membership even if one side can get 51% of the votes and the other only 49%"… The APA's action in denying cult apologists' request to support the amicus was an implicit act of censure. (personal e-mail communication)

Spring Follies

Introvigne also says in "Liar! Liar!":

In fact, although Singer later claimed that all drafts were still provisional and that she needed more time, by the end of 1986 APA's BSERP had submitted the latest draft of the DIMPAC report both to internal reviewers and to two outside academics, namely Dr. Jeffrey D. Fisher and Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi …It would also not do to state that BSERP unfairly evaluated a provisional draft of the report. 1986-87 correspondence shows that the text was the "final draft of the report, minus the reference list" (letter from Dorothy Thomas, executive assistant at BSERP, December 29, 1986)."

This reconstruction seems to show that Dr Singer continued arbitrarily claiming that DIMPAC was merely a draft, absurdly asking for more time to go on with the proceedings of the Task Force.  However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened.

The Memorandum of December 29th, 1986 from Dorothy Thomas and addressed to the Task Force with the title "Final draft of Task Force Report," says that, in the meeting held from October 31st to November 2nd 1986, the final draft of the report had been examined by the members of BSERP.  Ms. Thomas states:

For the most part, they felt it was a good report. However, because of the magnitude of the issues involved, BSERP decided to send the report out for independent review by a number of people who are knowledgeable in this area. BSERP members were also asked to give the report a more careful review (the final draft version was available to members at the meeting) and to prepare comments for further discussion of the report at their May 1987 meeting. … BSERP will decide on a process for finalizing the report in the spring.

In other words, this was no absurd claim by Dr. Singer, but a reality based on this document, which she and other Task Force members had received.  The phrase, "final draft version," here clearly implies that this was not the finished report, which was to have been prepared after the BSERP discussion in the spring.

So we are left to ask: "What happened between December 29th, 1986 and May 11th, 1987?"   What could have induced the BSERP to change its orientation and its work schedule concerning the Task Force so drastically?

All we can do is list some facts, without claiming to be able to answer the question:

  • The Memo of December 29th, 1986 advises of the "change of the guard" at the leadership of the SER (Office of Social and Ethical Responsibility); the new director was to come into office on January 5th, 1987.
  • Barely one month later, on February 5th, 1987, the APA directors presented an amicus brief stating the nonexistence of "coercive persuasion."
  • On March 24th, 1987, APA withdrew from this very amicus brief and never signed on again.
  • On May 11th, 1987 BSERP (which had called the Task Force report "good" at the end of October) rejected it during the Meeting that had been scheduled to discuss its final draft and to establish the criteria for completing it.

Any comment, at this point, would be truly unnecessary!


In "Liar! Liar!" Introvigne says:

When one reads the enclosures and considers the whole controversy, it becomes clear that the issue not resolved by the 1987 Memorandum is the much larger issue of unethical behavior and misrepresentations in persuasion processes, a problem not exclusive to the field of new religious movements or "cults."  Unethical behavior and false representation may occur quite independently of any brainwashing, coercive persuasion, or mind control practices, both in religion and in psychotherapy … It is on larger issues of this kind, rather than on brainwashing as allegedly practiced by new religious movements, that BSERP experts disagreed among themselves, and BSERP was not in a position to reach a definitive conclusion.

Even after reading the enclosures and all the other documents several times over, we cannot honestly share this interpretation of the expression of the Memo of May 11, 1987.  Recall that this document concluded: "Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue."

Today, this document seems to have achieved an extraordinary fame and some people have interpreted it in quite creative ways.  But if the Task Force, according to the Memorandum attached to the letter of July 12th, 1983 (which is the document which set the Task Force up and defined its mission), was supposed to investigate possible abuses of psychologically coercive techniques among religious cults and training seminars, then it is quite clear what the "issue" to be examined was. When BSERP rejected the DIMPAC report because of its methodological faults, its lack of scientific rigor, it added that it could not express any opinion concerning the broader issue, which the Task Force was supposed to investigate, since it did not have enough information.

Our interpretation of this matter, which had been ignored for ten years and is now the subject of so much attention, seems to us to be much closer to the facts and to the documents.

Although the scientific validity of the subject matter studied by DIMPAC has not changed, i.e. techniques of "coercive persuasion," this does not necessarily mean that everything that was ever written about it is free of defects.  The rejection of one scientific report on a phenomenon does not cancel the existence of such a phenomenon.

Prof. Zablocki has this to say about the matter:

In my opinion, the DIMPAC committee went too far in the other direction by asking the APA to affirm that brainwashing in religious cults was a proven psychological fact. It was for this that they were censured. It is not true that the APA affirmed the contrary, that brainwashing was disproved. Instead, the APA argued that it could not go along with EITHER SIDE in this matter. I would say that neither side got what it wanted from the APA. As an organization representing ALL psychologists in the USA, it took a proper agnostic position that no final decision could be given at this time. (personal e-mail communication)

The Division 36 Resolution

It is interesting to note that those who proclaim APA's "rejection" of "brainwashing" theories have never, so far as we know, mentioned a later attempt to persuade APA to take a stand on this issue.  At its annual convention in 1990 a "Resolution on Brainwashing Testimony" was submitted to APA Division 36 (then called Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues, now called Psychology of Religion).  After hearing from both sides on the issue, the directors of Division 36 approved a resolution that clearly does not place APA on the side of either of the parties who have taken different sides in court cases.

The Executive Committee of the Division of Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues supports the conclusion that, at this time, there is no consensus that sufficient psychological research exists to scientifically equate undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as "coercive persuasion," "mind control," or "brainwashing") with techniques of influence as typically practiced by one or more religious groups.  Further, the Executive Committee invites those with research on this topic to submit proposals to present their work at Divisional programs. (PIRI Executive Committee Adopts Position on Non-Physical Persuasion Winter, 1991)

In its subsequent issue, the Division 36 Newsletter published a letter by AFF President, Herbert Rosedale, Esq., and AFF Executive Director, Dr. Michael Langone.  Rosedale and Langone say:

For hundreds of years social considerations have allowed testimony to be admitted to invalidate a Will by showing undue influence by a person who benefits from a bequest in the Will.  In cases dealing with sexual abuse and the manipulation of those with an impaired capacity to make independent judgments, psychologists frequently testify that certain action, which on its face appears to be voluntary and consensual, lacks certain necessary elements of such consent.

The Division's draft resolution appears to have been a transparent attempt to block expert testimony that may enhance a deceived or defrauded person's capacity to obtain legal redress from groups practicing extreme forms of sociopsychological influence.

After receiving correspondence from the undersigned and colleagues, the Division's leadership implicitly recognized the above points by, in the official resolution, acknowledging the existence of extreme influence and avoiding any insinuation that expert testimony should not be allowed. . . We applaud the directors for correcting these serious errors. (Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues. (Rosedale & Langone, 1991, 8-9)

In using the words, "undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as `coercive persuasion,' `mind control,' or `brainwashing')" the Division 36 resolution clearly acknowledges the existence of the phenomenon that others claimed APA rejected.  The resolution also made clear that "there is no consensus" regarding whether or not scientific research demonstrates that certain religious groups practice "brainwashing."

This resolution probably disturbs some cult critics as well as those who have touted APA's "rejection" of "brainwashing."  However, it is an accurate statement about the state of affairs in the profession.  The relationship of "brainwashing" theories and New Religious Movements is a subject on which scientists dispute, not one on which the "book has been closed."


We have reason to believe that APA, today like ten years ago, still considers "psychological coercion" to be a phenomenon worth investigating, and not a notion rejected by the scientific community.

Otherwise, why would people such as Margaret Singer, Michael Langone, and others considered to be "anti-cultists" contribute to APA Conventions and be respected in other prestigious professional bodies as well?  For example, Margaret Singer has published an article on these issues in the Merck Manual, the "Bible" of Medicine. The same scholar, together with L. J. West, published in the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, a prestigious textbook of Psychiatry.  Richard Ofshe wrote about thought reform in the Encyclopedia of Sociology after ASA and APA withdrew their support for the Amicus brief in 1987.  In 1996 Dr. Langone and colleagues presented a paper on their research with the Group Psychological Abuse Scale to APA's Division 36.

If such examples do not reflect the respect that the scientific community feels towards these scholars, how are we to interpret them?

In May 1997, the APA Monitor ran an interesting column, "What Messages are Behind Today's Cults?"  by Stanford's Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a former president of APA.  Dr. Zimbardo, who in 1989 (after the Task Force report had been rejected) appeared on an APA program with Drs. Singer, Langone, and others, says:

Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doingunder the right or wrong conditions. The majority of normal, average, intelligent individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personalitywhen manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions.

These are the facts, and they could not be otherwise, since the American Psychological Association, will never be able to avoid investigating the problem of manipulation inside certain groups and NRMs. These may be seen as special manifestations of the same processes of social influence that take place in daily life. Whether or not we use a theory such as "coercive persuasion" to describe such extreme forms of social influence, located along a continuum of differing intensity, is an issue which can and must be discussed with intellectual honesty in a professional association of psychologists.

Professor Zablocki has this to say about the position of APA and ASA on the issue of brainwashing theories:

Many people have been misled about the true position of the APA and the ASA with regard to brainwashing. Like so many other theories in the behavioral sciences, the jury is still out on this one. The APA and the ASA acknowledge that some scholars believe that brainwashing exists but others believe that it does not exist. The ASA and the APA acknowledge that nobody is currently in a position to make a Solomonic decision as to which group is right and which group is wrong.  Instead they urge scholars to do further research to throw more light on this matter. I think this is a reasonable position to take.  (personal e-mail communication)

This is our position too.  Absolute scientific truth does not exist. If scholars continue researching, with intellectual honesty and scientific rigor, they will perhaps find a way to do something useful to prevent damage to weaker individuals within certain pseudo-religious movements, while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of conscience of every human being and the right of everybody to practice and spread his religious faith.

Launching "Memo Wars," on the other hand, does not help to reach the truth.  Indeed, it creates an overheated climate which does not encourage scholars to look at the present or the future with the confidence and open-mindedness of those who share the motto that used to appear on the documents of the APA: "Advancing psychology as a science, a profession, and as a means of promoting human welfare."


American Psychological Association, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (1987, May 11).  Memo to the DIMPAC Committee.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Chambers, William V., Langone, Michael D., & Malinoski, Peter.  (1996, August 12).  The Group Psychological Abuse Scale.  Paper presented to Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) at the American Psychological Association Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada.

Fowler, Raymond D. (1989, July 12).  Memo to Dr. W. D'Antonio.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Introvigne, Massimo.  (1997, January 2).  Ma il cattolico no va alla setta.  Avvenire, 18.

Introvigne, Massimo.   (1997). Le retour des Jacobins.

Introvigne, Massimo.  (1998). Liar! Liar!: Brainwashing, CESNUR and APA.

Kahn, Arnold.  (1983, July 12).  Memorandum.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology.

Ofshe, Richard.  (1992).  Coercive persuasion and attitude change. In E. F. Borgatta & M. L. Borgatta (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sociology. (pp. 212-224).  New York: MacMillan.

PIRI Executive Committee Adopts Position on Non-Physical Persuasion.  (1991, Winter). Newsletter, 16(1), 3.  (APA Division 36 Newsletter, Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues).

Religious Liberty in Western Europe.  (1997, December 1).  Report released by CESNUR at a press conference held in Washington, D.C. at the National Press Club.

Rosedale, Herbert L., & Langone, Michael D. (1991, Spring).  Letter to the Editor.  Newsletter, 16(2), 8-9.  (APA Division 36 Newsletter, Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues)

Singer, Margaret T. (1986).  Group psychodynamics.  In R. Berkow (Ed.), The Merck manual of diagnosis and therapy (15th ed.), (pp. 1467-1471).  Rahway, NJ:  Merck.

Thomas, Dorothy.  (1986, December 29).  Memorandum.  Washington: D.C.: American Psychological Association, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology.

West, Louis J., & Singer, Margaret T. (1980).  Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies.  In Friedman, H. I. Kaplan, A.M. Freedman, & B. J. Saddock (Eds.) Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, III. (pp. 3245-3258).  Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins

Zablocki, Benjamin.  (1997).  The blacklisting of a concept: The strange history of the brainwashing conjecture in the sociology of religion.  Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 1(1), 96-121.

Zimbardo, Phillip.  (1997, May).  What messages are behind today's cults.  Monitor.  Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association.

Zoccatelli, Pier Luigi.  (1997, February).  Scientologia, religione, e gnosticismo.  Il Messaggero di S. Antonio.


  1. According to CESNUR, the diffusion of the documents of the APA controversy had been vetoed by the lawyers of those accused by Margaret Singer of having engaged in a criminal conspiracy against her, including APA officers and several scholars.  CESNUR acknowledges that it was our article that allowed it to prevail upon these lawyers and to post on CESNUR’s Web site most of the documents, including the DIMPAC report and two annexes to the 1987 APA Memorandum, which had never been published before.


Earlier versions of this article were originally published first on the GRIS-Roma Web site ( and then on the first issue of AFF’s Internet journal (  It is reprinted here with permission of the authors.

Alberto Amitrani is the former president of GRIS Rome, Italy.  GRIS (Group for Research and Information about Sects [Cults]) is a non-profit cultural and religious association, organised on February 8, 1987 and involved in researching, studying, and disseminating information concerning  "new religious movements."  On September 25, 1990, the articles of association of GRIS received the approval of the Italian Bishops' Conference.  Raffaella Di Marzio is President, GRIS Rome. She set up a support and counseling centre in Rome, for all those troubled, directly or indirectly, by experiences associated with belonging to a cult.  Dr. Di Marzio and her husband, Dr. Amitrani, both have two degrees, one in Psychology (University "La Sapienza" of Rome, 1981) and one in Educational Science (Pontifical Salesian University, 1981).  Moreover they both have the Superior Diploma in Religious Science from the Institute for Religious Studies Ecclesia Mater, linked to the faculty of theology of Pontifical Lateran University.  They have been teachers in a Senior High School in Rome since 1981.