The Many Faces of Brainwashing—From Heaven’s Gate to QAnon

Author Joel E. Dimsdale unravels the elusive concepts of mind-control behind brainwashing.

The Daily Beast/February 7, 2022

By Matt Hanson

Brainwashing is the kind of thing that never happens to you; it’s always what you accuse someone else of. No one likes to be called out on their bullshit, of course, and it’s a rare soul indeed who has the integrity to admit when they’re regurgitating received opinion. When institutional, political, and scientific means get in the mix, that’s when we start sinking into murkier moral and legal waters. To better understand what we talk about when we talk about brainwashing, Joel E. Dimsdale, a professor of Psychiatry at UC-San Diego, undertook Dark Persuasion: A History of Brainwashing from Pavlov to Social Media.

American journalist Edward Hunter coined the term brainwashing. Hunter worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor of the CIA, and it’s interesting to see how much of a Cold War fetish brainwashing was, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Ivan Pavlov experimented with how dogs responded to different stimuli, prompting specific reactions based on sounds and smells. Even though Pavlov wasn’t a Bolshevik, Lenin was very much intrigued by his experiment’s potential for mass social conditioning. Dimsdale potently connects this state-mandated idea of consent with the Stalinist show trials a couple of decades later, once Stalin had solidified his grip on the party apparatus. Victims, often high-ranking party members, were spontaneously arrested, jailed, and coerced into declaring themselves guilty of fake or exaggerated crimes and then swearing eternal allegiance to the glory of the very party whose official policy was to have them erased or murdered.

If this makes brainwashing sound like an exclusively Russian phenomenon, rest assured that the free world engaged in it quite a bit, especially during the paranoia-drenched 1950s. After the Korean War, the CIA warmed to the idea that “basic changes in the functional organization of the human mind cannot be brought about by the traditional methods of physical torture… newer or more subtle techniques had, therefore, to be considered.” It’s quite ironic that the CIA policy for fighting Communist brainwashing was to try and develop more and better ways to brainwash people themselves.

These included, but were not limited to, “psychosurgery, electrical shock, or drugs” while oceans of grant money poured into universities that pledged to research behavioral research programs, a “Manhattan Project of the Mind.” The CIA’s MK-Ultra program had an administrator named Sidney Gottlieb who “routinely slipped LSD and other drugs into his staff’s food, drinks, or cigarettes” just to gauge their reactions, sometimes with tragic results. Once word got out, Gottlieb testified to Congress that “[this] country was involved in a real covert war… I considered all this work… to be extremely unpleasant, extremely difficult, extremely sensitive, but above all, to be extremely urgent and important.”

Dimsdale devotes a couple of chapters to the Stockholm Syndrome, wherein someone who is kidnapped or held captive ends up feeling sympathy or agreement with their captors, such as in the widely publicized case of Patty Hearst, the publishing heiress whose abduction and subsequent conversion to militant radicalism made national news and fed into ambient fears about seventies-era counterculture. Hearst wasn’t genuinely radicalized through argument or evidence; her change of name and bank robbing seemed to have much more to do with how traumatized she was by her abduction. Interestingly, Hearst had quite a few prominent advocates from across the political spectrum and letters asking for clemency for Hearst were the seventh most popular reason for writing President Carter, who commuted her sentence to 22 months in prison in 1979.

The cults and mass suicides of Jamestown and Heaven’s Gate, which were major scandals in the 1980s. Jim Jones, clad in black sunglasses, aped radical rhetoric about community and rebellion against the powers that be and convinced, through constant reiteration of slogans and paranoid accusations, a disturbing number of people to move with him to Guyana and commit “revolutionary” mass suicide through drinking cyanide once it looked like the jig was finally up.

Dimsdale suggests that as applied to the Jonestown cult the term “brainwashed” isn’t quite sufficient. After all, “many congregants were educated, idealistic, and articulate.” Perhaps the better term is “persuaded” since it suggests how easily otherwise ordinary people can fall for it. Persuasion, of one kind or another, is everywhere. It’s our job to figure out what’s worth being convinced of and what isn’t. Maybe if you can be talked into something, you can be talked out of it, which makes understanding why people open themselves up to persuasion, and why governments are so interested in exploring it, so important.

The jury might still be out as to whether or not the term brainwashed still means what it’s supposed to, or if it has been sapped of its power through zealous overuse and disingenuous misapplication, as with terms like “bipartisanship” or “socialist” (but not, to be sure, “fascist”). There is a tendency, especially in politics, to throw loaded phrases around as though they were self-evident truths or de facto proof. Maybe brainwashing is like bad breath: the ones who most urgently need to recognize it are usually the last to know.

The Daily Beast emailed professor Dimsdale about the reasons why he wrote the book, the difference between brainwashing and persuasion, the Heaven’s Gate cult, why evil is not monochromatic, and the “deadly beauty of flame.”

What made you want to write this book?

I have always been interested in trying to understand how people make destructive decisions. In my previous book Anatomy of Malice, I studied the Nazi cabinet ministers on trial at Nuremberg to understand how they could orchestrate genocidal malice. But what about the Nazis’ followers, how were they persuaded to do such horrible things? Was it that they were innately murderous? Was it propaganda? Or was it brainwashing? And what on earth did that term mean? Where did it come from?

Nonetheless, I probably never would have started writing Dark Persuasion except for my neighbors in the Heaven’s Gate commune who castrated themselves and conducted a mass suicide. It is one thing when a cult half a world away does such horrible things, but when it happens close to home, it grabs your attention.

At one point you make a distinction between brainwashing proper and what you call “persuasion”—why do you think there’s a difference between the two?

Words matter and the borders that separate overlapping concepts are rarely as clear as we would like. While brainwashing shares some common territory with persuasion, the crucial distinction is that brainwashing involves coercion. Brainwashing is a flamboyant word coined by a retired OSS propaganda operative. Experts have always preferred the term “coercive persuasion,” because it is more precise. However, popular culture vastly prefers the term brainwashing, so we are stuck with it.

You quote the father of one of the Jonestown cult members as saying, “There’s a thin line separating sensitivity to realities from fantasies of persecution.” Can you elaborate on the difference between the two, at least for the people involved?

Psychiatrists and psychologists are familiar with persecutory delusions in psychotic patients, but persecutory beliefs are actually quite common and can be stoked by astute leaders, be they politicians or clergy. When people are isolated, when they cannot check out information from other sources and rely on input from limited sources, persecutory beliefs get amplified.

In some ways, it seems like the CIA & the KGB were using very similar methods of brainwashing, even though of course they couldn’t be further apart politically. Each government had very different goals in mind but used similar methods. Can you say more about this?

Coercive persuasion is a tool that is available for any political persuasion.

The Heaven’s Gate cult sure sounded a lot like a self-help group—it tightly regulated the behavior of the members, it got them off drugs, fast food, etc. Do you think that imposition of order and structure is what helped persuade people to join who felt like their lives were unmanageable? Or was there a different, deeper need that they were addressing?

There were many things that attracted people to Heaven’s Gate but most of all, these individuals were searching and felt lost in their lives. Heaven’s Gate gave them structure, a shared set of beliefs and community of friends. Many of the members who killed themselves had been in the commune for decades and had no one else in their lives other than their close associates in the movement.

You write that “I wish I could say that there was a clear distinction between a belief and an inflexibly held opinion. There isn’t.” Could you say more about that?

Let me back into this indirectly. Doctors love it when we can make a crisp diagnosis (“He has ‘condition A’” or “She has condition ‘B’”), but regrettably so much in life and illness is on a continuum. When it comes to the varieties of belief, we are confronted by different shades of gray.

One question that has always bothered me (particularly when looking at American politics over the past few years) is that I’m not sure if people are being manipulated through being told what they already want to hear, and thus having their own beliefs reflected back to them, or because they are attracted to an exciting new idea or image that seems exciting and so they want to follow it. What do you think?

One of the things that I learned from my work on Nuremberg was that evil is not monochromatic. The backgrounds, motivations, and presence or absence of psychiatric conditions varied enormously across the war criminals at Nuremberg. I suspect that if we looked closely at people who are manipulated by things like QAnon, we would see similar diversity.

Whatever brought them to the movement initially—once they stay long enough, they get “hooked.” In his prayer “for an addict,” the poet John O’Donohue described addiction as a fatal attraction. I think it is very apt.

“On its way through the innocent night,

The moth is ambushed by the light

Now nothing else can satisfy

But the deadly beauty of flame.”

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