Margaret Singer

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For the birth control activist, see Margaret Sanger.
Margaret Singer
Margaret Singer Photograph.jpg
Margaret Thaler Singer
Born (1921-07-29)July 29, 1921
Denver, Colorado
Died November 23, 2003(2003-11-23) (aged 82)
Berkeley, California
Fields clinical psychology
Institutions American Family Foundation, Cult Awareness Network
Alma mater University of Denver, B.A., M.S.
University of Denver, PhD, clinical psychology, 1943
Doctoral students Jesse S. Miller, PhD
Known for Cults in Our Midst, Crazy Therapies

Margaret Thaler Singer (1921–2003) was a clinical psychologist and important researcher with her colleague Lyman Wynne of family communication.[1] She was a prominent figure in the study of undue influence in social and religious contexts.

Singer's main areas of research included schizophrenia, family therapy, brainwashing and coercive persuasion. In the 1960s she began to study the nature of social and religious group influence and mind control, and sat as a board member of the American Family Foundation and as an advisory board member of the Cult Awareness Network. She is the co-author of the book Cults in Our Midst.


Singer was born in Denver, Colorado and received her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Denver in 1943.[2] After obtaining her PhD, Singer worked at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine's department of psychiatry for eight years.[2]


In the scientific community, Singer was best known and respected for her studies in schizophrenia and family therapy.[3] She conducted research with the National Institute of Mental Health, the United States Air Force, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[4] Singer was a guest lecturer of psychology at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1991, and she served as a faculty member and/or lecturer at other UC campuses as well as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the University of Rochester, and other institutions.[5]

Singer's work on family communication won her a place as one of the pioneers in the developing field of family therapy.[6] As noted in one obituary, her collaboration with Lyman Wynne was particularly important. "Lyman’s work with Margaret Singer on communication deviance (CD) of parents of patients with schizophrenia created a new method of analysis of thought disorders.[7] Singer began to study brainwashing in the 1950s at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., where she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War.[4][8] Beginning in the late 1960s, she expanded her studies in the field of cults and published a number of articles on mind control ("psychological coercion") and similar areas. She developed theories about how cults recruit and retain members (such as her Theory of Systematic Manipulation of Social and Psychological Influence) and was on the board of many of the major anti-cult groups and organizations in the United States. At one point, Singer interviewed Charles Manson.[9]

By the 1970s Singer was a leading researcher in the field of psychosomatic medicine, and became the first female and first psychologist President of the American Psychosomatic Society in 1974.[10] She also served as a member of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute review board and the American Family Foundation board.[11]

Singer played a role in the "Hillside Strangler" trial of Kenneth Bianchi. Singer concluded that Bianchi had faked symptoms of multiple personality disorder, in order to escape responsibility for the murders of several women in Los Angeles.[9] Later, she spoke about the trial on PBS Frontline in a special show entitled: "The Mind of a Murderer." Singer asserted that Bianchi was a psychopath, and stated: "He may simply be evil."[9]

An article by J. Gordon Melton examines her court testimonies, noting ways these build on and differ from her professional publications by expanding from general assertions of social influence within "cults" to a more robust "Singer hypothesis" which leads directly to a "robot theory" of brainwashing.[12] J. Gordon Melton, it is worth noting, was a defender of organisations, including the Scientologists,[13] and briefly the Aum Shinrikyo cult after it conducted a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway,[14] that Margaret Singer associated with undue influence in her book, Cults In Our Midst (2003).

Her expert testimony was no longer accepted after the report of the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control, of which she was chair, was rejected by the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) of the American Psychological Association. In a book chapter by J. Gordon Melton, that author claimed that, thereafter, courts shifted to accepting the position held by the great majority of scholars studying new religious movements, moving away from the perspective of Singer and others sympathetic to her brainwashing thesis.[15] According to Melton, this had significant consequences later on, since it meant that brainwashing could no longer be used as a defense for the practice of deprogramming.[15]

DIMPAC task force controversy and aftermath[edit]

In the early 1980s, some U.S. mental health professionals became well-known figures due to their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against groups they considered to be cults. In their testimonies they presented theories of brainwashing, mind control, or coercive persuasion to support the legal positions of former group members against their former groups.

The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1983 asked Singer, who was one of the leading proponents of coercive persuasion theories, to chair a taskforce to investigate whether brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" did indeed play a role in recruitment by such groups. The task force was titled APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). The task force completed its final report in November 1986. In May 1987 the APA Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) rejected the DIMPAC final report, stating that the report "lack[ed] the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur," and also stating that the BSERP did "not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue."[16]

Singer and her professional associate, sociologist Richard Ofshe, subsequently sued the APA, and a group of scholars and lawyers, in 1992 for "defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy,"[17] and lost in 1994.[18] In a further ruling, James R. Lambden ordered Ofshe and Singer to pay $80,000 in attorneys' fees under California's SLAPP suit law. At that time, Singer and Ofshe declared their intention to sue Michael Flomenhaft, the lawyer that represented them in the case, for malpractice.[19]

Singer was subsequently not accepted by judges as an expert witness in four cases alleging brainwashing and mind control.[20][21][22][23]

After the report was rejected, Singer reworked much of the rejected material into the book Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, which she co-authored with Janja Lalich.[24]

Landmark Education legal dispute (1996)[edit]

In 1996, Landmark Education sued Singer for defamation.[25] Singer mentioned Landmark Education in Cults in our Midst; it was unclear whether she labeled Landmark Education as a cult or not. Singer issued a statement stating that she did not intend to call Landmark a cult, nor did she consider it a cult.[26] Singer removed the references to Landmark Education from subsequent editions of the book. She also stated at deposition that she had "no personal, firsthand knowledge of Landmark or its programs." Singer had no money to defend as she was retired from University.

Amanda Scioscia reported in the Phoenix New Times that Singer never called Landmark a cult, but that she described it as a "controversial new age training course". She also stated that she would not recommend the group to anyone, and would not comment on whether Landmark used coercive persuasion for fear of legal recrimination from Landmark.[27]

Harassment and death threat complaints[edit]

As an outspoken critic of Scientology, Singer faced harassment, death threats, and dead animals on her doorstep. She was known to travel under an assumed name to avoid harassment.[5][28]

Her critiques of groups she considered cults and or to be brainwashing resulted in harassment of Singer's family and students as well, including allegations that one individual worked her way into Singer's office, stole students' term papers and sent notes to Singer's students.[8] Other examples included "operatives" going through Singer's trash and mail, picketing her lectures, hacking into her computer, and releasing live rats in her house.[4][28]

Honors and awards[edit]


Margaret Singer died of pneumonia on November 23, 2003 in Berkeley, California, at the Alta Bates Medical Center. She was 82. Singer was survived by her husband, two children, and five grandchildren.[2][5]


  • Singer, Margaret Thaler; Lalich, Janja (27 September 1996). "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work?. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0787902780. 
  • Singer, Margaret Thaler; Lalich, Janja (1 March 1995). Cults in Our Midst. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0787900519. 
  • Singer, Margaret Thaler; Nievod, Abraham (2003). Lilienfeld, Scott O.; Lynn, Steven Jay; Lohr, Jeffrey M., eds. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (Pbk. ed.). New York: Guilford Press. pp. 176–204. ISBN 978-1-59385-070-8. 


  1. ^ "Lyman Wynne". 
  2. ^ a b c Oransky, Ivan (January 2004). "Margaret Thaler Singer Obituary". The Lancet 363 (9406): 403. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(04)15460-3. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  3. ^ "Margaret Singer, Expert On Cults, Brainwashing". Sun Sentinel. 29 November 2003. Retrieved 2015-02-20. 
  4. ^ a b c McLellan, Dennis (28 November 2003). "Margaret Singer, 82; Expert on Brainwashing, Cults Testified at 1976 Trial of Patricia Hearst". Los Angeles Times Articles. Retrieved 2015-02-20. 
  5. ^ a b c O'Connor, Anahad (7 December 2003). "Margaret Singer, a Leading Brainwashing Expert, Dies at 82". Retrieved 2015-02-20. 
  6. ^ Nichols, M., & Schwartz, R. (2005). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods (7th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Fagan, Kevin (26 May 2002). "PSYCH SLEUTH / Margaret Singer has made history delving into the psychology of brainwashing". SFGate. Retrieved 2015-02-20. 
  9. ^ a b c Lilienfeld, Scott O. (23 November 2003). "In Memoriam: Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer". The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice 3 (1). 
  10. ^ Singer, Margaret Thaler (February 1974). "Presidential Address". Psychosomatic Medicine 36 (1): 1. 
  11. ^ a b Rubenstein, Steve (25 November 2003). "Margaret Singer -- expert on brainwashing". SFGate. Retrieved 2015-02-20. 
  12. ^ Melton, J. Gordon (March 1999). "Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory". CESNUR. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  13. ^ "Marburg Journal of Religion (September 2003)". 
  14. ^ "Tokyo Cult Finds an Unlikely Supporter", The Washington Post, T.R. Reid, May 1995.
  15. ^ a b Gallagher, Eugene V.; Ashcraft, William Michael, eds. (30 October 2006). Introduction to new and alternative religions in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0275987121. 
  16. ^ American Psychological Association Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) (1987-05-11). "Memorandum". CESNUR: APA Memo of 1987 with Enclosures. CESNUR Center for Studies on New Religions. Retrieved 2008-11-18. BSERP thanks the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for its service but is unable to accept the report of the Task Force. In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur. [...] Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue. 
  17. ^ Dr. Margaret Singer and Dr. Richard Ofshe Sue Associations, The Cult Observer, Vol. 9 No. 8, 1992
  18. ^ Case No. 730012-8, Margaret Singer, et al., Plaintiff v. American Psychological Association, et. Al., Defendants
    "This case, which involves claims of defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy, clearly constitutes a dispute over the application of the First Amendment to a public debate over matters both academic and professional. The disputant may fairly be described as the opposing camps in a longstanding debate over certain theories in the field of psychology. The speech of which the plaintiff's complain, which occurred in the context of prior litigation and allegedly involved the "fraudulent" addition of the names of certain defendants to documents filed in said prior litigation, would clearly have been protected as comment on a public issue whether or not the statements were made in the contest of legal briefs. The court need not consider whether the privilege of Civil Code 47 (b) extends to an alleged interloper in a legal proceeding. Plaintiffs have not presented sufficient evidence to establish any reasonable probability of success on any cause of action. In particular Plaintiffs cannot establish deceit with reference to representations made to other parties in the underlying lawsuit. Thus Defendants' Special Motions to Strike each of the causes at action asserted against them, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure 425.16 is granted."
  19. ^ Allen. Charlotte, Brainwashed! Scholars of Cults Accuse Each Other of Bad Faith, December 1998. Available online
  20. ^ District of Columbia Court of Appeal, case 853 F.2d 948, Kropinski v. World Plan Executive Council.
    "Kropinski failed to provide any evidence that Singer’s particular theory, namely that techniques of thought reform may be effective in the absence of physical threats or coercion, has a significant following in the scientific community, let alone general acceptance.
  21. ^ Robin George v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California, District Court of California Appeals, August 1989, case cited in Lewis, James R. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, pp.194, ISBN 0-19-514986-6
  22. ^ Boyle, Robin A., Women, the Law, and Cults: Three Avenues of Legal Recourse—New Rape Laws, Violence Against Women Act, and Antistalking Laws, Cultic Studies Journal, 15, 1–32. (1999) in reference to United States v. Fishman, United States District Court of California, CR–88-0616; DLG CR 90 0357 DLG
  23. ^ Jane Green and Patrick Ryan v. Maharishi Yogi, US District Court, Washington, DC, March 13, 1991, Case #87-0015 OG
  24. ^ Bill Piekarski, Southwestern Coll. Lib., Chula Vista, California, Library Journal, 1995, Reed Business Information, Inc.
    In 1992, Singer (emeritus adjunct, psychology, Univ. of California at Berkeley) unsuccessfully sued the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association, alleging conspiracy to discredit her research and destroy her reputation.
  25. ^ Drive through Deliverance, Phoenix New Times, October 19, 2000
  26. ^ Singer, Margaret. "STATEMENT BY MARGARET SINGER" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 July 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  27. ^ Scioscia, Amanda (19 October 2000). "Drive-thru Deliverance". Phoenix Times. Archived from the original on 16 October 2006. 
  28. ^ a b Behar, Richard (6 May 1991). "Scientology: 'Religion' a Thriving Cult of Greed, Power". Time. Retrieved 20 February 2015.