I’ve written about the MK ULTRA programs a lot recently; they’re an easy subject to write about because they’re so theatrical and unlikely. Magic mushrooms creating the perfect soldier? Psychokinesis undermining the Evil Empire? It all sounds made for Hollywood…
… which should be a red flag. We know that the MK ULTRA release in 1977 opened only a fraction of the program up to public scrutiny. John Marks (therefore, Bill Colby) says that Richard Helms destroyed a good deal of the MK ULTRA evidence around 1973. We don’t really know much about what MK ULTRA, the ‘mind control’ program, was investigating. We don’t really know if the CIA found out anything useful or not.
The showmanship surrounding the MK ULTRA project was designed to dazzle with ridiculous projects and then dissuade further investigation with claims of fruitless research. The point of this post is to suggest that the CIA did ‘discover’ something about ‘mind control’; something social observers have been aware of since the time of Plato. Mind-control is not a mystery: it’s an everyday occurance through social pressure, education and the arts. The most effective techniques are the most commonplace, which brings me to a paper by Susan M. Andersen and Philip G. Zimbardo titled On Resisting Social Influence.
The thesis of this essay is that “mind control” exists not in exotic gimmicks, but rather in the most mundane aspects of human experience. If this is true, it implies that people can learn to resist untoward influences, which are defined here as influences in which intentions are hidden and the subtle constraints of individual behavior are profound. When information is systematically hidden, withheld, or distorted, people may end up making biased decisions, even though they believe that they are freely “choosing” to act. These contexts may thus involve “mind control.” Although resisting cleverly crafted social influences is not easy, it is argued here that it is possible to reduce susceptibility to unwanted interpersonal controls by increasing vigilance and by utilizing certain basic strategies of analysis.
What if all those MK ULTRA files that Helms burned were about shuffling the boards of media companies; or working with the Department of Education; or buying recording studios; or employing advertizing consultants? What if MK ULTRA was about the CIA turning itself into the best-organized political lobby ever?
Zimbardo and Andersen’s paper was first published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1984, Volume 1, Number 2. Philip Zimbardo himself was one of the National Academy of Science’s personal sources for their biography of Carl Hovland (Zimbardo was a student of Hovland’s before taking a professorship at Stanford in 1968); Zimbardo was also president of the American Psycological Association, an organization which gets a lot of (bad) play in the MK ULTRA saga. (The APA is currently involved in an ongoing CIA-torture scandal.)
On Resisting Social Influence is an abridged version of a report Zimbardo and Andersen did for the Office of Naval Research, a US military/private industry collaborative organization . (The Office of Naval Research funded Zimbardo’s famous– and creepy– ‘Prison Experiment‘ in 1971, shortly after he got his first professorship. It seems Zimbardo was well connected with the military from day one.)
I’m not saying Philip Zimbardo is necessarily a CIA asset himself, but he learned and worked in their milieu, so I think it would be prudent to carefully consider Zimbardo’s observations on ‘mind control’:
Formidable quests to gain control over the human mind have often employed exotic technology. Exquisite torture devices, electroshock therapy, mind altering drugs, hypnosis, and sensory deprivation have all been used to get targeted persons to do the bidding of various agents and agencies of control. Indeed, these methods carry enough wallop to distort and sometimes destroy the mind’s normal functioning. But they are not adequate for the task of reliably directing behavior through specific scenarios as designated by would-be manipulators.
John Marks’ expose of the CIA’s secret mind control program (see The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”) suggests that no foolproof way of “brainwashing” another person has ever been found. After a decade of intensive, costly research into the technology of such control, the CIA’s MKULTRA program was deemed a failure. Covert operations could claim little more than being capable of turning unsuspecting victims into “vegetables.”
Effective mind control exists in most mundane aspects of human existence: the inner pressures to be bonded to other people, the power of group norms to influence behavior, the force of social rewards (such as smiles, praise, a gentle touch). We influence one another, intentionally or unintentionally, using the most basic principles of social psychology, motivation, and social learning. It is people in convincing social situations and not gadgets or gimmicks that control the minds of other people. The more worried we are about being seen as ignorant, uncultured, untalented or boring, and the more ambiguous the events are that are to be evaluated, the more likely we are to take on the beliefs of those around us in order to avoid being rejected by them.
What Zimbardo appears to be saying is that social pressures like ‘political correctness’ are a form of mind control. Could it be that the CIA found obscure strands of Mexican hallucenogenic mushrooms but missed age-old knowledge of crowd psychology? I think not.
I do think that Zimbardo is in an excellent position to give us some insight into what the destroyed MK ULTRA documents might have contained. In this post I’m going to summarize Zimbardo and Andresen’s paper and offer some suggestions– not proof, but suggestions– on how these manipulative practices might be used now.
Zimbardo’s paper discusses two “basic principles of social psychology”:
1) “Basic Training in Compliance”
Etiquette and protocol are powerful inhibitors of unconventional action. When people around us behave alike and as they are expected to, it becomes difficult for us to evaluate their actions critically or to deviate from what is expected of us in the situation… It is the wiser course of action, we are taught, to go with (or around) power, not to challenge it.
Those who occupy social roles that carry prestige and credibility in our eyes can work wonders. The most potent influences are eased around to us by our buddies or by reputable “experts,” rather than by those whom we think of as “enemies.” A neighbor tells us to stop by for a chat with some interesting people, our doctor prescribes a new antibiotic, a businessman offers us exciting financial prospects, brother says he’s impressed with a new pastor. Such testimonials encourage us to take the first step along most of the paths we’ve chosen for ourselves, good and bad, because such influences are basic to being engaged in social life.
To this day in every major American university with a Philosophy department you can find ‘experts’ touting ‘critical theory’, which is mostly just the revolutionary politics espoused by the CIA-affiliated Frankfurt School intellectuals. There’s very little consistent philosophy in ‘critical theory’– its confusion is even admitted by friendly biographer Martin Jay*– yet academics still take ‘critical theory’ seriously… I propose, readers, that academics adopt this view because ‘everybody else’ appears to.
For another example of Zimbardo’s observations in practice, consider Charlotte Iserbyt’s recollections about her time as a “change agent” for the U.S. Department of Education, where she was taught how to “con the community”.
2) “Saturation and Detachment”
Unlike our response to “overtly” persuasive communicators who may beseech us to buy the latest gourmet cookware, to jog daily, to elect particular politicians, or to give to certain charities, situations with “normal appearances” (see Goffman,Relations in Public) don’t seem to require skepticism, resistance, or even our conscious attention. We often move through them “on automatic” and are thus prone to being influenced without our slightest knowledge.
Perhaps we don’t want to be wholly critical and alert at all times, but mindlessness is often promoted as a way of encouraging passive acceptance at the expense of individual discretion. The hook is that when we are faced with complex problems we often yearn for simple answers and rules of thumb for how best to proceed. Immersing ourselves in the teachings of a powerful leader, in the say-so of the dominant partner in a relationship, or in the total ideology of any highly cohesive group can be comforting.
What if Dick Helms was burning reems of paper on the CIA’s work with the Ad Council, for example.
Zimbardo’s and Andresen’s paper goes on to describe some of the ways Navy personnel (and the rest of us) can resist social influences. The antedotes may tell us something about the poison:
A) “Developing a Critical Eye”
To acquire the kind of sensitive skepticism needed to detect undesirable influences when they arise, people must learn to be vigilant to discontinuities between the ideals people espouse and their concrete actions…
The biggest lies are often hidden by a compelling context and are discovered later on the basis of discontinuities that in hindsight are obvious.
Discontinuities like “neoconservative” political sociologists who want to teach others about avoiding “racism, prejudice and political extremism”.
B) “Resisting Persuasion: Confidence, Clarity, and Persistence”
The best persuaders always appear to be just like us. They understand our problems, empathize with our predicament; in fact, they were there once themselves. They speak our language, share our needs, and know the inside jokes. When someone appears to share our concerns, he or she becomes a cohort, an ally, someone we can trust and give the benefit of the doubt. The tactic is powerful because attitude change, like all socialization, is most effective when it goes unnoticed.
This persuasive tactic is, I believe, the one George Orwell picked up on in his essays on power worship and writing for children: the fairytale of the supreme leader involves a number of ‘good’ sidekicks, one of which any given child can identify with. In this way the author ‘speaks the language’ of the reader, who then becomes more receptive to indoctrination. Are you a Hermione Granger; or a Cho Chang; or one of the Weasleys; or perhaps a member of the “Order”?
Another manipulative technique is forceful communication:
Research shows that powerful people express confidence and self-assurance across all channels of communication – through body language, through words, and paralinguistically. Regardless of someone’s “real” credibility, what we end up responding to is how competent, confident, honest, and stable he or she appears to be.
An example of this would be those intelligence professionals who shouted their confidence in Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”. They’re the experts, right?
Continuing in the WMD vein, confusion is a useful manipulative tool:
Mind control typically involves coming to accept a new reality… Elaborate but inadequate justifications for recommended actions can be very confusing. Once confused, we can easily be persuaded by false analogies, semantic distortion, and convenient rhetorical labels because we will tend not to question them and to think about them creatively, but to accept them at face value.
The final prong to this psychological attack is closely paired with confusion: belittling the victim’s confidence in their own powers of judgement.
Susceptibility to control becomes greater with increased self-consciousness. When people are induced to focus attention on themselves by being made to feel awkward, deviant, or silly, and to worry excessively about what others think, they can be led to resolve opinion disparities with others in the favor of the other person’s opinion.
Consider the chilling effect of the following slurs: ‘racist’, ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘homophobic’, ‘authoritarian’, etc. These slurs are used to divert attention away from what’s being said by ‘shaming’ the speaker.
C) Resisting Manipulation by Fear
Manipulating fear is the demagogue’s favorite tactic, consider Sen. Mary Landrieu’s or Rep. Charlie Rangel’s latest spewings.
By making us feel fearful or anxious, the manipulator is in a position to ease our discomfort by providing reasonable explanations and soothing solutions. Much advertising is based on this principle. So are many social interactions.
D) Resisting Manipulation through Feelings of Guilt
Gnawing feelings of guilt can also provide a powerful impetus for personal change. Feelings of self-disgust, a desire to confess, to do penance, or perhaps even to experience suffering, are all potent persuaders in their own right. Simply being in the presence of those less fortunate can often be influential, particularly if we are somehow made to feel responsible for their plight. Professional beggars make it their business to make passersby feel guilty for being well dressed and well fed.
Observers like Norman G. Finkelstein have noticed how Jewish suffering during WWII has been used to push for policies of dubious moral nature. The use of the Holocaust to further Zionist causes is interesting, considering how close Zionism was to the hearts of some intelligence operatives in the 1960s, and perhaps even as far back as the 1920s.
What the MK ULTRA documents do tell us is that the CIA was very interested in how Chinese Communists maintained their power by manipulating China’s national character. (This fascinating study is contained under subproject 108, MORI ID# 17364). The Chinese are famous for using public displays of guilt– ‘struggle sessions‘– for ‘re-education’. Why was the CIA interested in control via manipulating a nation’s character?
E) Identify False Choices
Once aware that their prey is bagged, they emphasize the victim’s freedom of choice – after tactfully constraining the alternatives…
Skillful persuaders may also deny us our freedom in order to control our behavior with the help of the reactance principle. Studies have shown that when we perceive severe limitations on our behavioral freedom we sometimes move to reassert this freedom by advocating the opposite position, which may be exactly what the opposition wants.
Finally, Zimbardo talks about “systems of control”, which touches on the ‘cult’ psychology work that he’s well known for. These observations will have particular meaning for readers who enjoyed my post Great Users of People, and I’ll be writing more about intelligence “systems of control” in the future. In the meantime…
The behavior of large numbers of people must be managed efficiently. For this reason, persuaders develop “systems of control” that rely on basic rules and roles of socialization and that impart a sense of belonging. When interaction among people is restricted to interchange between their social roles, however, it becomes easier for ethical, moral, and human concerns to take a back seat.
Perhaps those NSA employees who willingly participate in the dragnet spying against their fellow citizens are victims of such manipulation; perhaps these agents’ ethical lapses have something to do the highly-persuasive, cult-like, environment they live and work in?
When a group of people becomes more preoccupied with seeking and maintaining unanimity of thought than with carefully weighing the pros and cons of alternative actions, raising moral issues, and critically appraising decisions, unanimous resolutions are often reached prematurely. As part of the package, members may be led to support these decisions for better or for worse. When tightly-knit groups are insulated from outside sources of information and expertise and their leaders endorse prospective policies before members have a chance to air their views, decision-making processes deteriorate.
Decision-making processes at the NSA deteriorated to the point where dragnet spying programs were approved in the first place. As much as I dislike the ‘intelligence community’ in general, I do believe that it’s leadership in previous generations was smarter and a little more restrained about ‘pushing the envelope’ with Checka-like surveillance programs.
Finally, I remind readers that the Checka had a habit of turning on their own:
The tighter a system is, the more likely that minor challenges will be met with retaliation. In prisons, mental hospitals, religious or political cults, military establishments, concentration camps, and so on, some people have virtually total control over the existence of others, and minor deviations or threats to that power are intolerable.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, I haven’t given any hard proof of what the MK ULTRA files Helms burned contained. However, I think Zimbardo and Andersen’s observations are better informed than most. I think that some of the discontinuties in American cultural and political life suggest that researchers at the CIA were not so out of touch as Bill Colby would have us believe.
* See chapter 2 “The Genesis of Critical Theory”, page 82 of Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1973.