A Remarkable Consensus

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008

A Remarkable Consensus

Edward Lottick, M. D., Jean O’Brien, Ph.D., Charles Brooks, Ph.D.

This paper presents a summary presentation of data from the 2004 King’s College Psychology Department survey of psychology professionals. The paper also discusses “brainwashing” and advocates for a focused law to discourage deceptive, abusive, haphazard applications of demonstrably dangerous forms of brainwashing. The paper is based on a lecture presented at International Cultic Studies Association Annual International Conference, Fondation Universitaire, Brussels, Belgium, June 29 – July 1, 2007.

In the summer of 2004, we sent a 53-item survey to 2,980 members of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. The survey consisted of six sections. Each section contained different questions. The six sections are as follows: (1) demographics, involving age, gender, level of education, occupation, and association membership; (2) sources of information about cults and self-rating of extent of knowledge; (3) professional experience with cults; (4) personal experience with cults; (5) miscellaneous (cult retribution, criminal sanctions for “brainwashing,” and usefulness of various terms); and (6) opportunities to express further thoughts. Completed surveys were returned by 695 members, a 23.3% return. This rate of return compares well with an earlier collaboration with the Pennsylvania Medical Society, (Lottick, 1993). That 1992 survey of 5,400 Pennsylvania primary-care physicians and psychiatrists was shorter but had a slightly lower rate of return.

More than two-thirds of the 2004 survey of psychology respondents had a doctoral degree (70.9%), and most of the remaining respondents had a master’s degree (26.8%). The respondents practiced in 43 specialty areas; the group included a number of academic teaching and research psychologists, school psychologists, psychologists in industry, and some students who were completing psychology degrees. The great bulk of respondents consisted of practicing clinical psychologists, of whom 81.8% indicated that they were licensed. The ages of respondents ranged from 23 years to 96 years, with an average age of 51.

The 1992 survey showed that about 20% of primary-care physicians and about 50% of the psychiatrist respondents had experience with cults. In the current survey of psychologists, about half of the 695 respondents had experience with cults and half did not, which corresponds very well with the psychiatrists’ 50% experience with cults.

Of those psychologists with experience, 33% reported professional experience in treating active or former cult members, and 20.4% reported professional experience in treating family or friends of the cult-involved. Also, 13.1% reported personal experience with cults that involved themselves, family members, or friends. Two-thirds of those reporting experience with cults believed psychological symptoms in their cult clients were directly the result of their cult involvement. This finding suggests that these psychologists believe that cult experience contributes to mental-health problems. They often found that it was not, for example, the clients’ childhood, but their recent cult experience that was causative of mental-health problems. Specific psychological pathologies included depression, anxiety, dissociation, delusions, psychosis, suicide attempts, completed suicides, and a variety of other symptom constellations totaling 30.

For their efforts in treating those with mental health problems, fully half the psychologists (350) were subjected to retaliation by the cult. This retaliation consisted of much harassment, some investigation, and litigation.

During its development, this presentation has had a number of titles. Most noteworthy is “A Remarkable Consensus.” Let me explain. Two of the questions in the miscellaneous section of the survey developed when I read an article while I was writing the questions for the survey. I was at that time pursuing a computer search of the highly publicized kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, when I came across an editorial by legal scholar and Supreme Court litigator Marci Hamilton (Hamilton, 2003). She subsequently published a book (Hamilton, 2005) which I reviewed for the Cultic Studies Review (Lottick, 2006). In her editorial, Hamilton advocated that the vagrant who kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart should be indicted for brainwashing as well as aggravated kidnapping. That perspective suggested to me that I might ask psychologists how they felt about a law for Pennsylvania against brainwashing.

Hamilton’s response to the Elizabeth Smart case is a dramatic reconsideration of a law against brainwashing. And the psychologists apparently liked my fortuitous questions. When asked if they would like a law similar to the proposal for Elizabeth Smart for Pennsylvania, 21.4% responded “strongly support,” 35.0% checked “support,” 29.0% checked “can’t say,” 10.1% checked “oppose,” and 4.5% checked “strongly oppose.” The remarkable consensus is that respondents who were apparently expectantly open to further discussion totaled 85.4%, and the percentage of those whose response was negative was only 14.6%. Although awareness of brainwashing legislation is relatively new, and the topic was presented without much qualification or specification, respondents who were opposed totaled only 10.1% and those who were strongly opposed totaled only 4.5%. Also when asked how inclusive such a law should be, 15.3% checked “for minors only,” 7.7% checked “for minors and young adults,” 9.2% checked “for minors, young adults, and senior citizens,” and 67.9% checked “for all citizens.”

This consensus is important enough for me to digress into a concise but complete discussion of a law against brainwashing. How might such a law be formulated and enacted? Abusive practices, which might be addressed in such a law, were alluded to using Elizabeth Smart as an example, but the time is ripe to be more specific. The term “brainwashing” can be very general. In common usage, the term has become generic for all persuasion and influence. But let me specify. For the purpose of our discussion, we would use the more restricted connotation of brainwashing:

Brainwashing consists of orchestrated deception, constraint, and manipulation; and

Brainwashing is generally harmful. (The harm spectrum of brainwashing ranges from not necessarily being in the best interest of its subjects all the way to being frankly abusive to its subjects, even unto their death.)

I will now rely upon Margaret Singer, to discern some specific abusive practices of brainwashing. Margaret Singer first wrote about the practices I will cite in several scientific papers (Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990) and discussed them further in her book, Cults In Our Midst, Second Edition (Singer 2003). I have devised more precise terminology for the practices.

Abusive practices that might form the basis for a specific law about brainwashing are

Sustained, nonconsensual, mental and physical constraint;

Orchestrated, deceptive, and malicious manipulation; and

Subversion of the self-concept, or “attack-on-the-self.”

The object of such constraint and manipulation is to create malleable, deployable agents for the cult and its leaders and, let us not forget, for terrorist provocateurs, as well. These above-three-cited abusive practices might serve as anchor points for a specific law. They are not meant to be limiting, since manipulation for nefarious purposes can occur outside of the above parameters. The basis of bringing a criminal action against an individual or a group is the judgment that there is abuse. If a prosecutor has a clear bill of complaints regarding abuse, whether or not that abuse fits proposed parameters, an action should be initiated that would lead to an injunction or an arrest. The perpetrator would be charged. Thus, sustained abuse would properly become an ongoing crime, subject to interruption, and subject to prosecution and defense before a jury. Extremely intense abuse, psychological as well as physical, might even require emergency action, including police intervention.

In itself, having a law might not be a solution for every affected individual. The victim, like the frog in the kettle of gradually hotter water, might never jump out, and family or friends might not perceive the situation clearly enough to make a complaint. But having a law on the books would be a deterrent toward preventing criminal manipulation. A law would send a resounding message to the manipulators and abusers of this world and put them on notice. As things stand, there is nothing clearly in place to bring this mental abuse before a traditional court. Our survey of psychologists suggests that they themselves have become a default court-of-last-resort for cult victims of abuse. Helping with recovery from such abuse indeed is beneficial, but that help does not mitigate the crime or the criminal impulses.

Is the above list of these abusive practices concrete enough for inclusion in a law? When someone is murdered, there is generally a corpse to clarify the fact that a crime has been committed. But when there is abuse, we must look to other indicators of crime. Overt acts such as victim suicide are suggestive. And lesions or scars on the person of the victim may be quite clear. But what about the predominantly mental, physiological, and basically invisible lesions of mental bondage, mental deception, mental manipulation, or mental assault? Is anyone justified in saying that such crimes are too vague for the police, or the jury, or the judge? Would anyone argue the conclusion that because there is no photographic physical evidence, there is no crime?

Let us spend a little more time on the last abuse on the list of Margaret Singer’s specific brainwashing abuses, subversion of the self-concept. This consequence can be devastating. Survey participants indicated that 62% of cult adherents with whom they had experience were 25 years old or younger, which confirms that much cult abuse is directed at young persons who are still undergoing developmental change, and whose higher brain centers involving judgment, reason, and planning have not yet fully matured (see Goldberg, 2001). The age group, 25 years or younger, is especially vulnerable to self-concept destabilization. These individuals deserve careful scrutiny and assistance.

We still have not discussed the half of the survey participants whose information about cults came only from sources other than direct contact. The sources of information for all participants were varied. The survey revealed the following sources of information in order of greatest to least percentages of citing respondents: professional literature (45.3% of respondents); magazines (40.3%); colleagues (29.9%); clients (23.6%); continuing education courses (22.9%); professional meetings (22.6%); mass-market books (19.5%); friends (16.0%); self-study books (15.5%); graduate course work (14.6%); college course work (10.7%); computer Web sites (7.9%); independent research (7.4%); family (6.5%); and conference workshops on cults (3.1%). Because professional literature leads this list, we need to underline the importance of getting more scholarly information about cults into publication.

As we move into this new century, recent reading about our new understanding of brain function (Cozolino, 2002; Kandel, 2006; Restak, 2003; Schwartz & Bagley, 2002; Taylor, 2004) suggests to me a further question that probably should be included in any future survey. Although the respondents went to great lengths to list a complete panoply of symptoms affecting present, or recent, victims of constraint or manipulation, I failed to include the option “cult indoctrinee syndrome.” Described by Margaret Singer in Cults In Our Midst, this syndrome consists of five basic aspects: “During their initial processing, recruits of cults often become dependent, lose much of their self-identity, suffer a destabilization of their world view, suffer disruption of traditional ties and beliefs, and lose emotional control” (Singer, 2003). [Also see Delgado (1977) and Lottick (2006)] I think the cult indoctrinee syndrome is better named the “cult subjugation syndrome,” because subjects of constraint, deception, and manipulation are not merely indoctrinees, but are brainwash victims.

These days, a variety of psychological symptom constellations are being subjected to brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. I would like to suggest that in choosing psychological syndromes for these studies, cult subjugation syndrome should be included. Although “cult subjugation syndrome” suggests dependence on a new group, it is far more than simple dependency. I don’t think I would be very far out of line to suggest that the reason cult subjugation syndrome is not mentioned by respondents when they are listing psychological syndromes affecting cult victims is because it is so commonly overlooked by much of the professional psychologist community, including our neglect of it in our survey. Thus, it might be very helpful to focus MRI study on the cult subjugation syndrome during cult recovery processes such as exit counseling—essentially, a study of brainwashing in reverse.

Now, what should the half of my respondents who are therapists with no hands-on experience with cult victims do about the cult subjugation syndrome if it should turn up in future encounters? The numerous standard psychological symptoms are more than enough for practitioners who have no prior experience with cult victims to deal with. These practitioners would benefit greatly from the help of a cult information specialist, or what is commonly called an “exit counselor.” It is becoming more and more clear that cult subjugation syndrome, like many of the other symptom constellations, is a matter of radical brain pathway or circuit reconfigurations (Cozolino, 2002; Kandel, 2006; Restak, 2003; Schwartz & Bagley, 2002; Taylor, 2004) that need reversal. The relatively new profession of exit counselor can augment the therapeutic program of the more traditional therapist who might not have an extensive knowledge of cults. Exit counselors are largely self-taught and are often ex-members of the relevant cult. They can offer much insight about the overall psychological recovery of the brain.

There is some additional detail to the results, which I will share if any of you have questions (elottick@aol.com). But these are the major findings. This effort is, after all, a pilot survey that could be paralleled in your locale. I hope this survey information has expanded your understanding of the Pennsylvania’s psychologists’ views on cults, and their problems in coping with cults and assisting cult victims and their families and friends. I am also pleased to have offered some possibilities for future exploration.

My most basic insights from all of the above are as follows: Not only is brainwashing associated with abuse, but brainwashing techniques such as sustained nonconsensual mental and physical constraint, orchestrated deceptive and malicious manipulation, and subversion of the self-concept, are abuse.

And finally, perhaps the most monumental conclusion: Our study provides very significant confirmation that certain forms of brainwashing are not just a random public health problem limited to psychiatrists or psychologists. Little is to be gained from constricting the discussion of this significant public danger and threat to the common good. We believe the time is now ripe to expand the discussion and extend it into public-policy dimensions, and include much of the legal profession. Constriction of discussion to the same old partisans does not promote the common good.


Cozolino, L. J. (2002). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Building and rebuilding the human brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Delgado, R. (1977). Religious totalism: Gentle and ungentle persuasion under The First Amendment. Southern California Law Review, 51(1), 3–98.

Goldberg, E. (2001). The executive brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, M. A. (2003). The Elizabeth Smart case: Why we need specific laws against Brainwashing. FindLaw.com

Hamilton, M. A. (2005). God vs. the gavel: Religion and the rule of law. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kandel, E. R. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Lottick, E. A. (1993). Survey reveals physicians’ experience with cults. Pennsylvania Medicine, 96, 26–28.

Lottick, E. A. (2005). Book review: God vs. the gavel: Religion and the rule of law by Marci A. Hamilton. Cultic Studies Review, 4(3).

Lottick, E. A. (2006). The forgotten freedom, The Torch, 79(3), 26–30.

Ofshe, R. & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3–23.

Restak, R. M. (2003). The new brain: How the modern age is rewiring your mind. Rodale, St. Martin’s Press.

Schwartz, J. M. & Begley, S. (2002) The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. New York: HarperCollins.

Singer, M. T. (2003). Cults in our midst. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Singer, M. T. & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20:4 (April).

Taylor, K. (2004). Brainwashing: The science of thought control. New York: Oxford University Press.