Beyond ‘Indoctrination’ and ‘Brainwashing’: Understanding the Transmission of Extreme Beliefs

Beyond ‘Indoctrination’ and ‘Brainwashing’: Understanding the Transmission of Extreme Beliefs

When discussing the transmission of extreme beliefs, we tend to fall back on concepts such as ‘indoctrination’ and ‘brainwashing’. In this blog, we explain why this is problematic.

CW: Mentions of minor abuse.

In October 2019, a small village in the Dutch countryside made international headlines. A town by the name of Ruinerwold appeared to be the site of a child abuse case of unprecedented proportions. A Dutch father had kept six of his children captive and isolated from the outside world for years. They were never officially registered and did not go to school. Some of them had never even left the farmhouse that they were raised in – being frequently sexually, emotionally and physically abused by their father. Authorities discovered the family after one of the children managed to escape. Not long thereafter, experts and the media began to frame the Ruinerwold children as being ‘brainwashed’ and ‘indoctrinated’ with their father’s delusional beliefs.

According to Merriam Webster, brainwashing is defined as the “forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas”. Sociologist Massimo Introvigne (2004) describes how the concept of brainwashing was first introduced in the United States, during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Cold War (1945-1991). Back then, it served to understand how seemingly ‘normal’ people could convert to putative ‘evil’ ideologies, such as Communism. It was thought that brainwashing could be reversed by so called ‘deprogramming’ methods. The goal of these methods was to rewire the brain of indoctrinated individuals by using excessive force, coercion techniques, and hypnosis. The CIA would frequently use deprogramming techniques on suspected defectors of the American army, who were thought to support Communist movements (Young, 2012).

At the same time, a strong anti-cult discourse emerged within American society. This was a reaction to all kinds of New Religious Movements that gained popularity in the 1970s. Since many of these movements borrowed and reinterpreted select elements from Hinduism and Buddhism, they were perceived as a potential threat against the Protestant Church and its traditions – religious historian John Gordon Melton (1999) explains. American parents increasingly struggled to understand why their ‘civilized’ children would suddenly convert to these pagan ‘cults’. To them, the concepts of brainwashing and indoctrination provided a welcome rationale.

Since then, these terms have become ingrained into our vocabulary. Nonetheless, from a scientific perspective, there is little evidence supporting the brainwashing thesis. On the contrary, authors generally point at its lack of scientific validity (Young, 2012). An empirical analysis by Grail and Rudy (1985), for example, showed how the social context of extreme groups (i.e. belonging to a community of likeminded individuals) is very important. This social aspect is largely disregarded by brainwashing theories. Others have shown that individual characteristics, too, play a role in (resilience against) joining extreme groups (Richardson, 1985). Moreover, concepts of brainwashing and indoctrination disregard the notion of free will. They thereby ignore the fact that it is possible for people to break away from extreme beliefs on their own, without needing to be ‘deprogrammed’. These considerations have caused scholars like Raymond Hintjes (2019) to call brainwashing a pseudoscientific theory that dehumanizes the people involved, by denying them of their volition and agency.

When looking at the transmission of extreme ideas within a family context, as is the case for the children of Ruinerwold, explanations of brainwashing and indoctrination similarly fall short. In a recent systematic review (Van Wieringen, Weggemans, Krüsselmann & Liem, 2021) we showed how sectarian, radical and extremist ideas are transmitted from parent to child in various ways. Manipulation, coercion, and exploitation can be part of these processes, but not necessarily so. The role of loyalty, trust and affection in the transmission of extreme beliefs remains overlooked. In the Ruinerwold case, too, it is apparent that even after escaping the farmhouse, several of the children kept caring for their father, and some sources even suggest that there was genuine love between them. The ambivalence between abuse on the one hand and trust on the other, shows the complexity of these transmission processes. The brainwashing or indoctrination frame insufficiently reflects this, we argued.

It is beyond doubt that the children of Ruinerwold have suffered great harm. Yet, the fact that one of them (and later others, too) managed to break away from their father’s ideas and regime, indicates that the passive ‘mind control’ which the brainwashing frame implies, might be overly simplistic. Holding on to this depiction denies these and other children sharing similar experiences of their free will. And in the end, taking control of the trauma narrative and regaining a sense of agency, is crucial for overcoming and making sense of early-life exposure to extreme beliefs.