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Posted by on May 7, 2007 in brainwashing, faith schools, reason, religion | 4 comments

religious schools and brainwashing

In the last couple of posts I’ve been exploring two ways in which we might explain, or try to shape, someone’s beliefs – by giving reasons, or by applying purely causal mechanisms.

One of the most obvious ways of engaging in purely causal manipulation of what people believe is, of course, brainwashing. What is brainwashing, exactly?

Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in physiology at the University of Oxford who has published a study of brainwashing, writes that five core techniques consistently show up:

One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.

The isolation may involve physical isolation or separation. Control covers restricting the information and range of views people have access to, and includes censorship. Cults tend endlessly to repeat their beliefs to potential converts. This repetition may include, for example, very regular communal chanting or singing. Under uncertainty, Taylor discusses the discomfort we feel when presented with uncertainty: by providing a simple set of geometric certainties that cover and explain everything, and also constantly reminding people of the vagaries and chaos of what lies outside this belief system, cultists can make their system seem increasingly attractive. Emotional manipulation can take many forms – most obviously the associating positive feelings and images (e.g. uplifting or serenely smiling icons) with the belief system, and fear and uncertainty with the alternatives.

Of course, the extent to which these techniques are applied varies from cult to cult. Clearly, they are also be applied by non-religious cults and regimes. A school in Mao’s China or under the present regime in North Korea would almost certainly check all five boxes.

That these and other purely causal mechanisms are effective at influencing belief even outside a cult’s headquarters or a prisoner of war camp is surely undeniable. We are all very heavily influenced by them. The success of the advertizing industry is testimony to their effectiveness. Indeed, many advertising campaigns check many, if not all, of the Taylor’s five boxes for brainwashing.

When challenged on this, the industry typically insists that it is merely “informing” the public – providing good reasons and evidence on which consumers can base a rational, informed choice. Nevertheless the main tools of the advertizing trade are for the most part purely causal. An advertisement for soap powder, lipstick, a car or a loan typically contains very little factual information or argument. The power of these adverts to shape our thinking and behaviour is mostly purely causal – they play on our uncertainties and rely very heavily on repetition and emotional manipulation.

I note (though Turner doesn’t), simply as a point of fact, that religious schools of the sort that tended to predominate in this country up until the 1960’s also very clearly check all five boxes.


  1. For those with the emotional reserves to do so, the following link describes the techniques used by certain Christian sects in America to ‘convert’ people. I must admit, I find it heartbreaking, as I have lost a (highly intelligent) friend to these people’s South African clones by similar methods. There is a certain tragedy, not dissimilar to Alzheimer’s disease, to watching helplessly as another’s mind succumbs. Anyway, the link is here. Be sure to watch something cheerful afterwards though!

  2. Taylor’s study as presented here states that ‘five core techniques consistently show up’. This suggests that some independent criteria was used to identify cases of brainwashing, prior to the examination of them necessary to identify these common techniques. Because no claim is made that all or any are necessary in order to decisively label a particular teaching method ‘brainwashing’ we are still left with the initial question ‘what is brainwashing?’The choice of the author to associate it with cults, Mao’s China and North Korea may lead one to suspect that really what is at issue is dislike of the doctrine itself and not necessarily the indoctrination method. Many academic subjects require a certain minimum level of learning before any meaningful questioning or examination of issues can take place. We would not consider learning to read by being isolated in classrooms, chanting the alphabet, being warned of the uncertainties one would face if one were to end up illiterate, being given no choice as to the initial reading materials or being awarded praise or gold stars from a teacher as being an instance of brainwashing because we recognise the merit of the end goal. We do not consider advertising in which illiterate subjects are taunted by gremlins or teenage smokers are ostracised by their peers and potential boy/girlfriends to be threatening or undesirable despite their blatant use of emotional manipulation. The fact that poor techniques are employed in making an argument is not sufficient to render its conclusion false. If we can point to the five techniques as being only symptomatic of brainwashing this still leaves us with the question ‘what is brainwashing?’ And if we can find instances in which its use appears to be justified, it seems inconsistent to label it wrong simply because it is used to ‘teach’ something we ourselves find disagreeable.

  3. Stephen:Brainwashing has a touch of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ about it involving sleep deprivation, stress positions, white noise etc. That may apply to Dotheboys Hall but not the average school at any time in the 20th.century. What you have in mind would be more aptly termed indoctrination. Even then it is hard to distinguish the methods of ordinary schooling at the lower levels from indoctrination. In the past there may have been an attempt to stifle the critical examination that is supposed to develop with maturity. Universal education was provided to supply the needs of industry; the elites certainly did not want the masses thinking for themselves. John Carey is very good on this.All schools were out to produce a type or had an ideal in mind and I suppose faith schools were no different. Were they successful in getting people to internalise the message? I would say only in those cases where the teachers themselves presented the ideal in an authentic way. Otherwise they were seen for what they were, hypocrites and whited sepulchres and they had the opposite effect. You will recall that even Socrates had difficulty in getting people to think for themselves. It is amusing to read in Monk’s ‘Wittgenstein’ that his students aped their master’s mannerisms. Perhaps this is the classic path; first we internalise the master, then we expel him.

  4. Juliana,I think it is generous to call brainwashing a form of argument.Anyway, the question you raise that I find interesting is this: Are praise and condemnation forms of emotional manipulation?So, the gold star for reading well: is it emotional manipulation?And is there a problem with that?Clearly, being able to make your feelings felt to others – to say that this or that act makes me more or less well disposed towards you – is an indispensable part of good social interactions. It has an emotional impact, which is the whole point of it, so if this is manipulation, it is OK.Dishonest versions of this, love bombing for example, clearly should be condemned.But I guess there are cases where the cultist can express genuine cult-inspired feelings which serve to draw people into the cult. How is that to be judged?

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