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Margaret Singer

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Margaret Singer

Margaret Singer
Born 29 July 1921
Denver, Colorado,
Died November 23, 2003(2003-11-23)
Berkeley, California,
United States
Residence Berkeley, California,
United States
Nationality American
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

Martin Z. Ford, PhD
Known for Brainwashing, Cults in Our Midst, family therapy, schizophrenia research, Crazy Therapies
Spouse Jerome R. Singer

Margaret Thaler Singer (1921–2003) was a clinical psychologist and anti-cultist.

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

In 1987, as head of the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for the American Psychological Association, Singer oversaw the production of a report that was later rejected by the APA's Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology. Thereafter, Singer's expert testimony in four subsequent cases was not accepted. In 1992 she unsuccessfully sued the APA for "defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy."[1]


Singer was born in Denver and received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Denver.[2]

Career as psychologist


After obtaining her PhD, Singer worked at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, in their department of psychiatry for eight years.[3]

Singer began to study brainwashing in the 1950s at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., where she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War. Singer's research at Walter Reed has been described as "ground-breaking" within her field.[4][5] She moved to Berkeley in 1958.


Singer's research also focused heavily on the areas of family therapy and schizophrenia. She conducted research with the National Institute of Mental Health, the United States Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[5]


Singer began studying cults in the late 1960s. She published in the field of cults, 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 the American Family Foundation, the major anti-cult group in the United States as well as the Cult Awareness Network, an anti-cult organization.


Singer was a guest lecturer of psychology at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1991.[6]

In addition to UC Berkeley, she also served as a Faculty Member and/or Lecturer at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Washington School of Psychiatry, The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, the Department of Psychology at The University of California at Los Angeles, the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, and other institutions.[7][8]

Expert witness

An article by J. Gordon Melton examines her court testimonies, noting ways these build on and differ from her professional publications and expands from general assertions of social influence within "cults" to a more robust "Singer hypothesis" which leads directly to a "robot theory" of brainwashing.[9]

At one point, Singer interviewed Charles Manson.[10] Singer played a role in the trial of Kenneth Bianchi, in the "Hillside Strangler" case. 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.[10] Later, she guested on PBS Frontline, speaking about the trial, in a special show entitled: "The Mind of a Murderer." Singer asserted that Bianchi was a psychopath, and stated: "He may simply be evil."[10]

Her expert testimony was no longer accepted after the report of the APA taskforce 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. 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.[11] This had significant consequences later on, since it meant that brainwashing could no longer be used a defence for the practice of deprogramming.[11]

Professional associations

Margaret Singer was a leading researcher in the field of psychosomatic medicine, and was made President of the American Psychosomatic Society in 1974. She was the first female and first psychologist president of the Society[12] She also served as a board member of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute Review Board and the American Family Foundation.,[13] and on President Gerald Ford’s Biomedical Research Panel.[7]

Singer was very active in the fields of communication and family therapy and for eight years; a member of the Board of Directors of Scott O. Lilienfeld of Emory University. The panel discussion was held in San Francisco, California, at the 2001 Conference of the American Psychological Association.[10]

DIMPAC task force

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 testimony 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".[15]

Singer and her professional associate, sociologist Richard Ofshe, subsequently sued the APA, and a group of scholars and lawyers.[16] 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)

In 1996, Landmark Education sued Singer for defamation. 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.[25] 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."

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 uses coercive persuasion for fear of legal recrimination from Landmark.[26]

Harassment and death threat complaints

An obituary in The New York Times described harassment, death threats against Singer, and dead animals found on her doorstep,[8] due to her "battles" involving cults and brainwashing. A biography of Singer published by Thomson Gale states that her "enemies among cults" were responsible for harassing her.[27]

Another obituary that appeared in The Los Angeles Times claims that cult "operatives" went through Singer's trash and mail, picketed her lectures, hacked into her computer and released live rats in her house.[28] Statements made by her family to the San Francisco Chronicle, include allegations that one "cultist" worked her way into Singer's office, stole students' term papers and sent notes to Singer's students, and that groups harassed her family as well.[29]

A Time Magazine article described Singer as an outspoken Scientology critic who traveled under an assumed name to avoid harassment.[30]

Honors and awards

  • She was reported to have been nominated twice for a Nobel Prize, for her work in schizophrenia.[31]
  • Leo J. Ryan Award,[32] for research on cults, from the Cult Awareness Network[7]
  • Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health[32]
  • Hofheimer Prize, American College of Psychiatrists, 1966[33]
  • Stanley R. Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists, Research in Schizophrenia, 1976[33]
  • Achievement Awards – Mental Health Association of the United States[6][13]
  • McAlpine Award for Achievement in Research from the Mental Health Association of the United States[7]
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Award for Cumulative Contributions to Research in Family Therapy[7]
"Margaret Singer Award"

In 2004, the International Cultic Studies Association created the "Margaret Singer Award" in her honor. Philip Elberg, Esq. received the award in 2004 for "his work in advancing the understanding of coercive persuasion and undue influence".[34] Arnold Markowitz, M.S.W. received the award in 2006, for "26 Years of Helping Families and Ex-members".[35]


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][8]



  • Recovery from Cults, Contributor: Preface, as Margaret Thaler Singer, PhD, 1995, ISBN 0-393-31321-2
  • Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, Contributor: "New Age Therapies", as Margaret Thaler Singer and Abraham Nievod, pgs. 176–205. 2004, ISBN 1-59385-070-0, ISBN 978-1-59385-070-8
  • The Anatomy of Suicide: Silence of the Heart, by Louis Everstine, With a Foreword by Margaret Thaler Singer, PhD, 1998, ISBN 0-398-06803-8 ISBN 978-0-398-06803-5
  • Personality Measurements in the Aged, In Birren et at., ed. 1963


  1. ^ "Decision Against Margaret Singer (CESNUR)". 
  2. ^ a b Margaret Thaler Singer. (Obituary)(Biography), The Lancet, 31-JAN-04, Ivan Oransky.
    Singer played cello in the Denver Civic Symphony as she earned her bachelor's degree in speech, master's degree in speech pathology, and PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Denver, graduating in 1943.
  3. ^ "Brainwashing Expert Dies of Pneumonia", Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan
  4. ^ Fagan, Kevin (May 26, 2002) "Psych Sleuth: Margaret Singer has made history delving into the psychology of brainwashing", San Francisco Chronicle
  5. ^ a b McLellan, Dennis (November 28, 2003) "Margaret Singer, 82; Expert on Brainwashing, Cults Testified at 1976 Trial of Patricia Hearst", Los Angeles Times
  6. ^ a b "Brainwashing Expert Dies of Pneumonia", Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan.
  7. ^ a b c d e The Barden Letter, RE: Truth and Responsibility in Mental Health Practices Act, R. Christopher Barden, PhD, J.D., LP, to The Honorable Henry Hyde, Chairman, Judiciary Committee, United States House of Representatives, January 5, 1995
  8. ^ a b c O'Conner, Anahad (December 7, 2003). "Margaret Singer, a Leading Brainwashing Expert, Dies at 82". New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2007. 
  9. ^ Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory by J. Gordon Melton on CESNUR web page. Retrieved April 1, 2001.
  10. ^ a b c d In Memoriam: Margaret Thaler Singer, The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, Spring/Summer 2004 Volume 3., Number 1., by Scott O. Lilienfield, Emory University
  11. ^ a b Gallagher, Eugene V.; Ashcraft, W. Michael (2006). Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America. Westport, CT:  
  12. ^ "Presidential Address Singer, 'Psychosomatic Medicine', Vol. 36, No. 1
  13. ^ a b Margaret Singer – expert on brainwashing, San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2003
  14. ^ Wollersheim, Lawrence. "Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.". FACTNet. Archived from the original on 9 July 2011. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ Experts on Cultism Sue Academic Associations. The Cult Observer, Vol. 9 No. 8,1992
  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. ^ Singer, Margaret. "STATEMENT BY MARGARET SINGER". Archived from the original on 31 July 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  26. ^ Scioscia, Amanda (19 October 2000). "Drive-thru Deliverance". Phoenix Times. Archived from the original on 16 October 2006. 
  27. ^ Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005. Entry updated: October 18, 2005.
    Singer's work earned her numerous enemies among cults, whose members were known to leave dead rats on her doorstep, threatening letters in her mailbox, and hack into her computer. Undeterred, Singer continued her work right up to the time of her death, her most recent projects involving con artists and the frauds they perpetrate on senior citizens such as herself.
  28. ^ McLellan, Dennis (November 28, 2003) "Margaret Singer, 82; Expert on Brainwashing, Cults Testified at 1976 Trial of Patricia Hearst", Los Angeles Times
    But not everyone agreed with her views on the subject, and Singer paid a price for her work. Cult "operatives" dug through her trash, went through her mail, picketed her lectures and sent her death threats. They also hacked into her computer countless times, once released dozens of live rats in her house, and frequently left dead rats on her doorstep with threatening notes.
  29. ^ Margaret Singer has made history delving into the psychology of brainwashing, San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 2002. Once a cultist talked her way into working in Singer's campus office, then stole a sheaf of term papers and sent bizarre notes to the students. "One of those groups went through my mom's mail and knew everything about us – my girlfriend's name, where we went, what we bought, all kinds of stuff," says her son Sam Singer, a publicist in San Francisco. "We all put up with a lot, but nobody more than her.
  30. ^ The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power, Time Magazine, Richard Behar, 1991.
    Psychologist Margaret Singer, 69, an outspoken Scientology critic and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, now travels regularly under an assumed name to avoid harassment
  31. ^ Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005. Entry updated: October 18, 2005.
    AWARDS Hofheimer Prize for Research, 1966, and Stanley R. Dean Award for Research, 1976, both from American College of Psychiatrists; two- time nominee, Nobel Prize; received awards from American Psychiatric Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Association, and Mental Health Association of the United States.
  32. ^ a b Bio, 1999 Conference: Cults, Psychological Manipulation & Society, Minneapolis, MN, May 14–19, 1999
  33. ^ a b San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday November 25, 2003
  34. ^ Psychological Manipulation, Cultic Groups, and Other Alternative Movements, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain, July 14–16, 2005.
  35. ^ Margaret Singer Award – 26 Years of Helping Families and Ex-members: Lessons from the JBFCS Cult Hot-Line and Clinic, Arnold Markowitz, M.S.W., 2006 Conference, Denver, Colorado. International Cultic Studies Association.

External links

  • Bio, Idea Journal, Margaret Thaler Singer PhD
  • FACTnet past board of directors, brief biographical profile
  • Documents on Brainwashing Controversies and the APA
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