Mind control is a general term for a number of controversial theories proposing that an individual's thinking, behavior, emotions or decisions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be manipulated at will by outside sources.

The principal feasibility of such control and the methods by which it might be attained (either direct or more subtle) are both subject to hot debates among psychologists and sociologists. Also the exact definition of mind control and the extent of its influence on the individual are debated.

The different views on the subject do have legal implications. Mind control was an issue , e.g., in the court case of Patty Hearst and also in several court cases regarding New Religious Movements. Also questions of mind control are regarding ethical questions linked to the subject of free will.

The question of mind control has been discussed in relation with prisoners of war, totalitarianism, cults, terrorism but also regarding the battered wife syndrome.

While mind control remains a controversial subject, the principal possibility of influences on individuals by methods like advertising, media manipulation, propaganda, group dynamics, or peer pressure has been well researched in social psychology and is today undisputed.

Theoretical models and methods

There are several and very different methods which were suggested for achieving mind control. None of these methods have been universally accepted in the science community.


The CIA program MKULTRA made from 1950 tried to achieve mind control through drugs. Drugs used in experiments were LSD or heroin, mescaline, psilocybin, scopolamine, marijuana, alcohol, and sodium pentothal or a combination of barbiturates and amphetamine.

Other theories have been based on the use of antidepressant drugs and mood stabilizers which have a definite effect on mood, through what is believed to be a direct action on the chemistry of the brain. However, most people would not say that this constituted mind control, and people taking these drugs do not feel "controlled".

There is no scientific evidence that mind control can be achieved by drugs.

Physical methods

In the MKULTRA program, radiation and electroshocks were tested, but apparently did not achieve any sort of mind control.

With intense modern magnets and the technique of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or repetitive TMS (rTMS), researchers have succeeded in transiently suppressing certain thought processes — such as the conjugation of verbs — with fleeting magnetic pulses to specific areas of the brain. The technique has proved a valuable tool for testing hypotheses about the role and interplay between brain regions in particular cognitive activities and psychiatric symptoms such as depression.

Tests with ELF technology are better documented. From the 1950s to the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and the United States carried out several experiments using ELF pulse transmissions to mimic human nerve impulses, in effect implanting certain states of consciousness -- particularly emotions -- by radiation. Scientists found that certain ELF frequencies, when transmitted in pulse mode, could induce emotions in subjects.

Any further going conclusions from these results, belong rather in the field of conspiracy theories than of science. Rauni-Leena Luukanen-Kilde, e.g, a former Finnish physician and a well-known ufologist and conspiracy theorist, sees many 'schizophrenics' as misdiagnosed victims of mind-control experiments. Physical implants discovered in the cerebral tissue of such 'schizophrenics' have allegedly substantiated such claims.

Silva Method

In the 1960's, José Silva made known the Silva Mind Control Method (later Silva Method) which uses a combination of positive thinking, visualization, meditation, and self-hypnosis and claims that its application can achieve psychic abilities, remote viewing and healing, none of which is empirically proven.

Subliminal advertising

  1. James Vicary coined the term "subliminal advertising".
  2. The publication in 1957 of Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders brought the term to the attention of the general public.
  3. In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that advertising made widespread use of subliminal techniques and could in theory be used as a form of mind control.

Lifton brainwashing model

Psychiatrist Robert Lifton described in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China eight coercive methods which, he says, achieve the change the minds of individuals without their knowledge and were used with this purpose on prisoners of war in Korea and China. These include

  1. milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world)
  2. mystic manipulation (the group has a higher purpose than the rest)
  3. confession (confess past and present sins)
  4. self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards a not-attainable perfection)
  5. aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)
  6. loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-white thinking)
  7. doctrine over person (the group is more important than the individual)
  8. dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)

In his 1999 book Destroying the world to save it: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism, he concluded, though, that thought reform was possible without violence or physical coercion.

Edgar Schein, who investigated similar programs in China concluded in his book Coercive Persuasion that physical coercion was an important feature of brainwashing.

Margaret Singer's conditions for mind control

Psychologist Margaret Singer, using the work of Lifton, described in her book "Cults in our Midst" six conditions, which would, she says, create an atmosphere where thought reform is possible. Singer sees no need for physical coercion or violence.

  1. controlling a persons time and environment, leaving no time for thought
  2. creating a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency
  3. manipulating rewards and punishments to suppress former social behaviour
  4. manipulating rewards and punishments to elicit the desired behaviour
  5. creating a closed system of logic which makes dissenters feel as if something was wrong with them
  6. keeping recruits unaware about any agenda to control or change them

BITE model of Steven Hassan

Psychologist and cult counselor Steven Hassan, using the research of Singer and Lifton and the cognitive dissonance theory of Leon Festinger, describes in his 2000 book Releasing the Bonds his BITE (from Behavior, Infformation, Thought, Emotion]] model which explains mind control as a combination of control over behavior, information, thought and emotions. This model dispenses with any required environment control, its effects can be achieved, according to Hassan, when this control mechanisms create overall dependency and obedience to some leader or cause.

Hassan's critics argue that Steve Hassan uses the term "mind control" (for what they see as essentially a strong form of influence) only to justify the forcible extraction of believers from religious groups. They argue that Hassan does not merely say that fraudulent salesmanship persuaded the believers; he claims that these groups literally take away a victim's freedom of mind. For this reason an involuntary procedure must operate in order to "rescue" a "victim" from a "destructive cult", for "victims" may not realize their victimhood status and may resist rescuing. Hassan, after taking part in a number of deprogrammings in the late 1970s, distances himself from this practice and the criminal activities associated with that occupation and refers to his method as "strategic interaction".

Mind Control and the Battered Women Syndrome

A very different explanation of the control some groups have over their members is by associating it to the Battered Women Syndrome. This has been done by psychologists Teresa Ramirez Boulette, Ph.D. and Susan M. Andersen, Ph.D. (as well as by former Scientologist Robert Vaughn Young.

Social psychology tactics

A contemporary view of mind control sees it as an intensified and persistant use of well researched social psychology principles like compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing or emotional manipulation.

One of the most notable proponents of this theory is social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, former president of the American Psychological Association:

I conceive of mind control as a phenomena encompassing all the ways in which personal, social and institutional forces are exerted to induce compliance, conformity, belief, attitude, and value change in others.
"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."

Social psychological conditioning by Stahelski

Anthony Stahelski identifies five phases of social psychological conditioning which he calls cult-like conditioning techniques employed by terrorist groups: [Stahelski, 2004]:

  1. Depluralization: stripping away all other group member identities
  2. Self-deindividuation: stripping away each member’s personal identity
  3. Other-deindividuation: stripping away the personal identities of enemies
  4. Dehumanization: identifying enemies as subhuman or nonhuman
  5. Demonization: identifying enemies as evil

Cults and mind control controversies

Several of the above mind control models have been related to religious and non-religious cults (for debates regarding what is a cult, see the article). Among scholars, adherents of NRMs and the pro-cult and anti-cult communities, it is hotly debated, if mind control is applied in any or certain cultic movements.

Scholarly positions

While in science of religion the majority of scholars reject mind control (e.g., Massimo Introvigne and J. Gordon Melton), it is often accepted in psychology and psychiatry (e.g., Margaret Singer, Michael Langone, and Philip Zimbardo) and in sociology the opinions are divided (e.g., David G. Bromley and Anson Shupe contra, Stephen A. Kent and Benjamin Zablocki pro). Most scholars have either a decided contra or a decided pro opinion, there are few who advocate a moderate position.

According to James T. Richardson on his "Brainwashing" Claims and Minority Religions Outside the United States: Cultural Diffusion of a Questionable Concept in the Legal Arena, while heavy on theory, the mind control model is light on evidence:

"The CCM movement has collected some information to support its belief that religious groups successfully employ mind-control techniques. But the data is unreliable. The information typically represents a very small sample size. It is not practical to obtain information before, during and after an individual has been in a NRM. Often, their data is disproportionately obtained from former members of a religious organization who have been convinced during CCM counseling that they have been victims of mind-control."
Dr. James Richardson, a Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, claims that if the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that NRMs would have high growth rates, while in fact most have not had notable success in recruitment, most adherents participate for only a short time, and that the success in retaining members has been limited. In addition, Tom Robbins, Eileen Barker, Newton Maloney, Massimo Introvigne, John Hall, Lorne Dawson, Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley, Gordon Melton, Marc Galanter, Saul Levine and other scholars researching NRMs have argued -- and established to the satisfaction of courts and relevant professional associations and scientific communities -- that there exists no scientific theory, generally accepted and based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing theories as advanced by the anti-cult movement.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a statement in 1977 related to brainwashing and mind control. In this statement the ACLU opposed certain methods "depriving people of the free excercise of religion". The ACLU also rejected (under certain conditions) the idea that claims of the use of 'brainwashing' or of 'mind control' should overcome the free exercise of religion.

On the other hand, sociologist Benjamin Zablocki sees strong indicators of mind control in some NRMs and demands the concept should be researched without bias:

"I am not personally opposed to the existence of NRMs and still less to the free exercise of religious conscience. I would fight actively against any governmental attempt to limit freedom of religious expression. Nor do I believe it is within the competence of secular scholars such as myself to evaluate or judge the cultural worth of spiritual beliefs or spiritual actions. However, I am convinced, based on more than three decades of studying NRMs through participant-observation and through interviews with both members and ex-members, that these movements have unleashed social and psychological forces of truly awesome power. These forces have wreaked havoc in many lives—in both adults and in children. It is these social and psychological influence processes that the social scientist has both the right and the duty to try to understand, regardless of whether such understanding will ultimately prove helpful or harmful to the cause of religious liberty." (Zablocki, 1997)
Sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe consider the idea that "cult"s are brainwashing American youth to be "implausible", on the other hand, the Canadian sociology professor Stephen A. Kent published several articles where he relays practices of NRMs with brainwashing.

The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 requested Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to set up a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC).

In 1987 the DIMPAC committee submitted its final report to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On May 11, 1987 the Board rejected the report. In the rejection memo is stated: "Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue.".

There are two interpretations of this rejection: one side (e.g. Amitrani and di Marzio 2000) see it as no position on the issue of brainwashing, the other (e.g. Introvigne 1997) sees it as rejecting all brainwashing theories.

In 2002 Dr. Philip Zimbardo commented on the request by former members of new religious movements (NRMs) to reconsider the APA's position on the possibility of mind control

Recently, there are indications that some members of both parties are willing to start a dialog, e.g. the 2001 book "Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field" in 2002 the American Family Foundation invited Eileen Barker to its yearly conference and the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions had J. Gordon Melton and Douglas Cowan as conference speakers.

Mind control and exit counseling

Opponents of some new religious movements accused so-called "cult"s of coercing recruits to join (and members to remain) via strong influence acquired and maintained by manipulation (see also anti-cult movement and Christian countercult movement). Many of these opponents advocate exit counseling as necessary to "free" the victim of a cult from mind control. The practice of coercive deprogramming has practically ceased. (Kent & Szimhart, 2002)]

Opponents of exit counseling generally regard it as an even worse violation of personal autonomy than any (possible) loss of personal freedom attributable to the allegedly deceptive recruiting tactics of new religions. These opponents complain that targets of deprogramming are (1) victims of deception, (2) denied due process and (3) forced to endure more intense manipulation by their supposed rescuers than they encountered during their previous group membership.

Mind control and recruitment rates

Eileen Barker documents that out of 1000 people persuaded by the Moonies [Unification Church] to attend one of their overnight programs in 1979, 90% had no further involvement. Only 8% joined for more than one week Only 8% joined for more than one week and less than 4% remained members in 1981, two years later."

Tyler Hendricks, former president of the Unification Church, estimates approximately 100,000 people "moved into" the Unification Church as full-time members from the 1970s to the 1990s. Membership in the church was 8,600 in 2004 (counting only those who joined as adults, and excluding the children of members). This is an attrition rate of 93%.

Billy Graham, one of the most successful evangelists of the last century had only an average of 1% of the attendants of his evangelizations heed the altar call at all. Follow-up work after evangelizations shows that only 10% of the people responding to an altar call actually do join a church. So successfull Christian evangelizations result in a longterm success rate of 0.1 % - compared to the 4% of Barker's observation. And these 0.1 % do not become fulltime missionaries like in the Unification Church. (Langone, 1993).

Mind control and faith

Leon Festinger based his theory of the cognitive dissonance, a component of Hassan's Mind Control model, on his observation that the faith of most members of a UFO cult was unshattered by failed prophecy.

Barrett who is affiliated with CESNUR and Eileen Barker, whom some anti-cult activists consider cult apologists, wrote that logical arguments are irrelevant when trying to persuade some members to leave a movement due to the certainty that they have about their faith which he sees as not confined to cults, but also occurring in some forms of mainstream religion. He also wrote that some members do not leave the movement even though they realize that things are wrong. See also Leaving a cult.

Counter-cult movement and mind control

In the Christian counter-cult movement there are several voices explaining membership in Christian and non-Christian cults exclusively with a theological regarding spiritual problems and therefore refuting mind control as a factor in cult membership.

In a article by the evangelical Christian writers Bob and Gretchen Passantino, first appearing in Cornerstone magazine, titled Overcoming The Bondage Of Victimization: A Critical Evaluation of Cult Mind Control Theories they challenge the validity of mind control theories and the alleged "victimization" by mind-control, and assert in their conclusion:

... the Bogey Man of cult mind control is nothing but a ghost story, good for inducing an adrenaline high and maintaining a crusade, but irrelevant to reality. The reality is that people who have very real spiritual, emotional, and social needs are looking for fulfillment and significance for their lives. Ill-equipped to test the false gospels of this world, they make poor decisions about their religious affiliations. Poor decisions, yes, but decisions for which they are personally responsible nonetheless. As Christians who believe in an absolute standard of truth and religious reality, we cannot ignore the spiritual threat of the cults. We must promote critical thinking, responsible education, biblical apologetics, and Christian evangelism. We must recognize that those who join the cults, while morally responsible, are also spiritually ignorant.
In a rebuttal to the Passantino's article, a protagonist of the counter-cult movement, Paul R. Martin, Ph.D. et al. in his Overcoming the Bondage of Revictimization: A Rational/Empirical Defense of Thought Reform, (first appeared in Cultic Studies Journal 15/2 1998), writes :

"The Passantinos are well known and respected evangelical writers. Consequently, their critique, which is rife with errors and misinterpretations, disturbs us very much and calls for a detailed rebuttal. [...]For us, theological considerations inform our understanding of the sociological and psychological destruction caused by cults, although others hold similar positions without considering theological issues. Cults distort one's perceptions both of natural reality (sociological and psychological) and spiritual reality. In the Christian tradition, the former is supposed to reveal the latter; therefore, those interested in spiritual issues must address both sides in order to minister adequately to former cult members.

Legal issues

Some persons have claimed a "brainwashing defense" for crimes committed while purportedly under mind control. in the cases of Patty Hearst, Steven Fishman and Lee Boyd Malvo the court did reject such defense.

Also in the court cases against members of Aum Shinrikyo regarding the 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo's subway system the mind control defense was not a mitigating factor.

Starting from the Fishman case (1990) (where a defendant accused of commercial fraud raised as a defense that he was not fully responsible since he was under the mind control of Scientology) American courts consistently rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation, stating that these were not part of accepted mainline science according to the Frye Standard (Anthony & Robbins 1992: 5-29). Margaret Singer and her associate Richard Ofshe filed suits against the APA and the American Sociological Association (who had supported APA's 1987 statement) but they lost in 1993 and 1994.

The Frye standard has since been replaced by the Daubert standard and there have been to court cases where testimonies about mind control have been examined according to the Daubert standard.

Some Civil suits where mind control was an issue, were, though, more effective:

In the case of Wollersheim v. "Church" of Scientology of California" the court states church practices had been conducted in a coercive environment and so were not protected by religious freedom guarantees. Wollersheim was finally awarded $8 million in damages. (California appellate court, 2nd district, 7th division, Wollersheim v. "Church" of Scientology of California, Civ. No. B023193 Cal. Super. (1986)

"During trial, Wollersheim's experts testified Scientology's "auditing" and "disconnect" practices constituted "brainwashing" and "thought reform" akin to what the Chinese and North Koreans practiced on American prisoners of war. A religious practice which takes place in the context of this level of coercion has less religious value than one the recipient engages in voluntarily. Even more significantly, it poses a greater threat to society to have coerced religious practices inflicted on its citizens." "Using its position as religious leader, the 'church' and its agents coerced Wollersheim into continuing auditing even though his sanity was repeatedly threatened by this practice... Thus there is adequate proof the religious practice in this instance caused real harm to the individual and the appellant's outrageous conduct caused that harm... 'Church' practices conducted in a coercive environment are not qualified to be voluntary religious practices entitled to first amendment religious freedom guarantees"

1993 the European Court of Human Rights upheld a Greek sentence against Kokkinakis, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses who had been sentence to prison and a fine for proselytizing, arguing that they had applied "unacceptable psychological techniques" akin to brainwashing. KOKKINAKIS v. GREECE (14307/88) [1993] ECHR 20 (25 May 1993)

Mind control in conspiracy theory

Possible symptoms of schizophrenia (and sometimes of other forms of psychosis) include the belief that one is subject to external mind control, often by use of some form of technology. These often involve less plausible proposed mind-control technologies such as the use of microwave radiation or lasers to control thoughts, often by intelligence agencies and by secret societies.

Mind control is a common feature in many conspiracy theories, as it provides a mechanism by which an alleged conspiracy could maintain control over innocent people, prevent knowledge of the conspiracy's actions and, in some cases, prevent the conspiracy theorist's intended audience from believing him.

The means by which victims are alleged to be controlled varies according to the nature of the theory: theories centering on existing governmental groups usually feature mind control via subliminal messages or other technological means, while theories focusing on secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati are more likely to involve supernatural or magical means, or particularly fanciful technology such as "mind control satellite]]s". Theories that involve the United States government frequently refer to MKULTRA. Radio waves are frequently claimed to be used for mind control: radio and television broadcast towers, and more recently cell phone towers, are often considered suspect.

J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye was rumored to be a device for FBI/CIA mind control at one time, based on the apparent coincidence of Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark Chapman owning a copy. Seeing as this has always been a popular novel among intelligent and alienated young men, however, this coincidence of ownership is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, there is a large fringe literature on the supposed 'mind control' subtext of 'Catcher in the Rye'

Mind control in fiction

Mind control has proven a popular subject in fiction, featuring in books and films such as The Ipcress File, and The Manchurian Candidate, which has the premise that controllers could hypnotize a person into murdering on command while retaining no memory of the killing.

The TV series The Prisoner featured mind control as a recurring plot element.

George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four features a description of mind control, both directly by torture, and indirectly, in the form of pervasive mind control by the use of Newspeak, a constructed language designed to remove the possibility, Sapir-Whorf-wise of articulating or of even thinking subversive thoughts.

In science fiction, fantasy and superhero fiction, mind control often appears as the means whereby a person literally seizes control of the minds of the victims to the point where not only their bodies come under direct control, but also their consciousnesses as well, so that they become puppets or slaves to the controller. Fiction often depicts this process taking place electronically; the trademark equipment of the Batman supervillain The Mad Hatter—headgear designed to put victims under his control when placed in direct physical contact with the head—furnishes one example of this. In addition, characters with powerful telepathic or psychic abilities, like Professor X and Jean Grey of the X-Men, can do the same with mental concentration against a target.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy pokes fun at conspiracy theorists' assertions of pervasive mind control. The best known example for the book is the fnord, a word that the populace at large has been programmed since birth to not consciously notice, but to associate with a sense of fear and general unease; it is supposedly inserted into published works on current events, such as magazines and newspapers, but is absent from advertising, leading people to avoid knowledge of the world and to be obedient consumers.

Mind control as entertainment

Hypnotism has often been used by stage performers to make volunteers do strange things, such as clucking like a chicken, for the entertainment of audiences. The British psychological illusionist Derren Brown performs more sophisticated mental tricks in his television programmes, Derren Brown: Mind Control.