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Coercive persuasion refers to social influences capable of producing substantial behavior and attitude change through the use of coercive tactics and persuasion, via interpersonal and group-based influences.

The term was coined by Edgar Schein[1] in 1961 in relation to his study of Chinese POWs 'indoctrination. According to Schein, the essence of coercive persuasion, ..., is to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, mentally intact individual. Schein notes that elements of coercive persuasion exist in many areas of human endeavor such as college fraternities, established religion, social rehabilitation programmes, the armed forces, and other conventional institutions. Schein also suggests that the popular image of brainwashing as entailing "extensive self-delusion and excessive [mental] distortion [...] is a false one." [2]

Martyn Carruthers has the following definition: "Coercive persuasion attempts to force people to change beliefs, ideas, attitudes or behaviors using psychological pressure, undue influence, threats, anxiety, intimidation and/or stress. (Coercive persuasion has been called mind control and brainwashing.) [3]

Coercive persuasion is studied in managerial psychology, psychology of religion, epistemology, civil law, politics, diplomacy, and different aspects of sociology.

In academic fields, the terms coercive persuasion, coercive psychological systems or coercive influence are often used interchangeably.

Coercive persuasion is used as a deterrent in diplomacy and warfare, using a threat to use force, or a credible threat to escalate a crisis or war to a more dangerous level.[4]

Some scholars such as Michael Langone or J.K. Ungerleider use the term coercive persuasion in the same sense as brainwashing, thought reform or mind control[5] [6] and connect it to methods of cultic groups in acquiring and retaining members. This view is disputed by scholars such as James Gene[7] and Bette Nove Evans [8], among others, while the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion[9] stated in 1990 that there was not sufficient research to permit a consensus on the matter and that "one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control". A similar statement was made by the APA in 1987 regarding the study called "Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control" (DIMPAC)).[10]. See also Brainwashing controversies.

In the cases of Molko vs. Holy Spirit Association and Wollersheim vs. Church of Scientology, coercive persuasion was connected by the plaintiffs to the legal concept of undue influence[11][12].

Tactics mentioned in describing coercive persuasion can include everyday methods like hard sale tactics or environmental control like described by Robert Lifton.


  1. ^  Schein, Edgar, Coercive Persuation: A socio-psychological analysis of the "brainwashing" of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists (1961), W. W. Norton (publishers), (1971 edition ISBN 0393006131)
  2. ^  Schein, Edgar, Brainwashing and Totalitarianization in Modern Society (1959)
  3. ^  Carruthers, Martyn, Prevent Coercive Persuasion & Mind Control (online) Retrieved November 2005
  4. ^  Cimbala, Stephen The Politics of Warfare (2004) pp.144-5 , Penn State Press, ISBN 02-71025-921
  5. ^  Langone, Michael, Cults Questions and Answers] (Online) Retrieved November 2005
  6. ^  Ungerleider and Wellish, Coercive persuasion (brainwashing), religious cults, and deprogramming American Journal of Psychatry, 1979
  7. ^  Gene G. James, Brainwashing: The Myth and the Actuality Fordham University Quarterly, Volume LXI, June 1986
  8. ^  Novit Evas, Bette Interpreting the Free Exercise of Religion: The Constitution and American Pluralism, () pp.91-3, UNC Press, ISBN 0-80784-674-0
    "For legal purposes, the term coercive persuassion [as it pertains to the acquisition of religious beliefs] is both conceptually flawed as well as unworkable witin the limits of the First Ammendment"
  9. ^  Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, council meeting on the 7th of November 1990 (Online)
  10. ^  APA Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology, Memo re Final Report of DIMPAC Task Force, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology, May 11, 1987 (online)
  11. ^  Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn. (1988) 46 C3d 1092 (online)
  12. ^  Document presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Wollersheim vs. Churchof Scientology How does mind control work?: A technical overview of mind control tactics (Online) Retrieved November 2005

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