Brainwashing: A Solid Legal Defense Or Hogwash?


Does the brainwashing defense being used by sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo have legitimate scientific standing? The Washington Post explores that question. Whether Malvo is a “Manchurian Candidate” sniper or a coldblooded killer who acted on his own “ventures into complicated territory — that of the human mind and an often bitter three-decade debate over the validity of brainwashing,” the Post says.

“Brainwashing” may recall the blank stares and swastika-carved foreheads of Manson family murderers, the mass suicide at Jonestown 25 years ago, and the mass suicide by Heaven’s Gate members, convinced that by killing themselves they would rejoin alien kin on a spaceship heading home.

Social scientists and legal scholars are split over whether brainwashing is junk science or a real phenomenon. “A pseudo-scientific myth,” says psychologist Dick Anthony. Counters psychiatrist Robert Lifton: “The concept can be wrongly exaggerated and equally wrongly denied.”

Newspaper journalist Edward Hunter coined the term during the Korean War to describe mind control used on American POWs who defected to Korea and China. In his 1956 book “Brain-Washing,” Hunter, described “a system of befogging the brain so a person can be seduced into acceptance of what otherwise would be abhorrent to him.”

Almost no clinical studies have been done openly, because of ethics and legal consequences. Facing congressional investigations, the CIA in 1973 acknowledged it had experimented with brainwashing, found it didn’t work, and destroyed its records.

In the Malvo case and others, the verdict comes down to what the jury believes, says psychologiwst Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University. “How do you get somebody to step across that line between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” he asks. “Brains don’t get washed, but extreme forms of social influence happen all the time. Coercive persuasion? Sure it exists. But juries find it hard to believe. Nobody wants to believe human nature is so pliable.”


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