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Journal Article

Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of Brainwashing1

Benjamin D. Zablocki
Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1998), pp. 216-249
DOI: 10.1525/nr.1998.1.2.216
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.1998.1.2.216
Page Count: 34
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Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of Brainwashing1
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Abstract

ABSTRACT: This is the second part of a two-part article about brainwashing. In the first part, published in the premier issue of this jounal, I discussed the history of this much maligned concept and attempted to rescue it from the fruitless culture wars in which it has become entangled. I offered a limited and precise definition of brainwashing with the goal of making it a useful concept in the social-psychological study of disaffiliation from religious movements. In this second installment, I attempt to complete the rehabilitation of brainwashing, transforming it from an ideological shibboleth to a carefully defined, limited, and useful sociological concept. The first step in this process is to reframe the concept as a tool for studying the neglected problem of religious disaffiliation. This involves theoretical reframing within the context of rational action theory and substantive reframing within the context of the investigation of external and internal costs of leaving a religious community. In contrast to some of the more grandiose claims sometimes made for brainwashing as the sole explanation of cult movement behavior, I argue instead that brainwashing is only one of the factors that need to be examined in order to understand the more general phenomenon of exit costs as a barrier to free religious choice. Reframed in this manner, I then go on to establish the scientific validity of this reframed concept. But a concept may be valid and still not be very useful if it refers to events that occur only rarely. Therefore I next go on to present evidence that there are events which occur fairly frequently in cult movements for which the brainwashing conjecture offers one plausible explanation. Next, I discuss four alternative conjectures that purport to explain much the same phenomena and demonstrate that the brainwashing conjecture holds its own with any of them. In the final section of this paper, I speculate about ways of going beyond mere conjectural plausibility to the development of a testable theory. I point to some directions for future research that may eventually allow us to identify the actual processes by which brainwashing brings about a significant and, at times, overwhelming increase in the cost of disaffiliating from religious communities.

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