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The term “brainwashing” first became widespread in the 1950s, to explain why some US soldiers, taken prisoner in Korea defected to the enemy. GIs were strong-willed, patriotic, trained not to crack under torture – and so, the reasoning went, only the most sinister mind-control techniques could have defeated them. The concept was a handy way of avoiding darker questions about psychology. If brainwashing exists, the main thing is just to keep clear of brainwashers. But in fact the world’s full of “hidden persuaders”, large and small. There isn’t a secret switch that lets villains control your thoughts; instead, there are TV ads and manipulative friends and guilt-inducing religions, and a million other ways in which we influence, and are influenced, all the time. No wonder psychologists shun the term “brainwashing” these days. It isn’t really a thing – and if you don’t believe me, I’ll shut you in a sensory deprivation chamber and blast sound waves at you till you do.All this makes it more, not less, alarming to read two new books on Scientology: Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, withheld from UK publication due to legal worries; and The Church Of Fear, by the BBC’s John Sweeney, who was notoriously provoked into bellowing rage by Scientologists in LA. The stories they relate are alternately infuriating, sad and hilarious. (Wright, describing one errant member’s punishment, claims, “He was made to run around a pole in the desert heat for 12 hours a day until his teeth fell out.”) How, you want to know, could so many people – including Tom Cruise and John Travolta, no idiots when it comes to the movie business – fall for the fantastical ramblings of an insecure pulp novelist who abused his wives and fretted that a fondness for masturbation made him evil?
The answer, it’s clear from Wright’s scrupulously fair-minded account – which Scientology says is based on interviews with a “posse of lunatics” – isn’t brainwashing. Sure, there are some hugely sinister allegations, but once people are drawn in, through curiosity or lostness, what keeps them there is shockingly mundane. First, there’s the “sunk cost bias”. Scientology costs money – hundreds of thousands of dollars, reportedly, to reach the top rung. And once you’ve invested cash in something, it feels “wasteful” to stop doing so.
In other ways, too, we modify present sentiments to justify past actions. In one classic study of “effort justification”, participants underwent one of two initiations to join a group – one insignificant, the other embarrassing (reading sexual words aloud). All membership involved, it transpired, was listening to a dull tape. But those who’d already made a sacrifice for the group, by embarrassing themselves, rated the experience more positively. Besides, we crave the sense of having consistent personalities, and that means not abandoning a path you’ve been on for months or years already.
None of this exonerates Scientology. But it helps explain why “normal” people get sucked in. Moreover, it’s worthwhile, and a bit alarming, to ask how many other projects we fail to abandon – bad jobs, bad marriages, bad wars – because we think we’ve invested too much to turn back. Scientologists believe some ridiculous things (for example, that humans are possessed by the souls of extraterrestrials who were brought to earth 75m years ago, and killed using hydrogen bombs). The scarier truth is that the rest of us do, too.
Follow Oliver Burkeman on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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