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The process

Psychological mechanisms and dynamics

Political capabilities and limitations


The term “brainwashing” is used here to refer to the technique or process employed in communist-controlled states to attain either or both of two objectives: (1) to compel an innocent person to admit, in all subjective sincerity, that he has committed serious crimes against the “people” and the state; and (2) coercively to reshape an individual’s political views so that he abandons his previous beliefs and becomes an advocate of communism. Both objectives, however dissimilar they may initially appear, are attempts to make an individual accept as true what he previously rejected as false and to view as false what he formerly saw as true. Both are achieved through the same techniques and procedures.

The European communists and the Chinese communists differ considerably in their respective emphases upon these two goals. The Europeans concentrate largely on the confessional aspect; the Chinese, especially in dealing with their own people, are more concerned with ideological conformance. In either variant, however, the subordinated aspect will usually be pursued as a means of achieving the primary end. Accordingly, the Europeans rely upon Marxist indoctrination to hasten the confession; the Chinese utilize confession as a means of facilitating ideological conversion.

Although a number of other terms—“thought control,” “thought reform,” “ideological reform,” “menticide”—have also been employed to denote this process, “brainwashing” is probably the most common and will be used here. Unfortunately, considerable confusion has arisen from the tendency of many writers to employ these terms indiscriminately when dealing with analogous situations in which prisoners have been compelled to reveal military intelligence, to cooperate with their captors against their fellow prisoners, or to make knowingly false confessions of guilt. The above phenomena, although superficially similar in some respects, lack the unique characteristics of true brainwashing: the enforced but real conversion of political belief and/or the sincere confession of guilt for crimes of which one is actually innocent.

Viewed in a broader perspective, brainwashing is related to propaganda and political education, or socialization. All three seek to mold attitudes, to inculcate certain beliefs and minimize or destroy others. All three utilize, in varying combinations, the tools of reason and emotion, logic and faith, persuasion and coercion. In short, all three may be regarded as aspects of political indoctrination.


Two lines of development, essentially independent of each other, can be traced. The communist Chinese were employing a rudimentary type of brainwashing against captured enemy soldiers and, less frequently, against civilians in the late 1920s. By the Yenan period (1935–1945) the practice had been sufficiently improved to be used to ensure the loyalties of intellectuals who, in increasing numbers, were making their way to communist-controlled areas of China. Early in the 1940s the party faced the dual task of stamping out unorthodoxy among its growing membership and “Sinofying” an essentially foreign ideology (Lifton 1961; Mu 1962). The technique was then brought to its present state of sophistication and has since been an established organizational device.

In the Soviet Union an early variant of brainwashing, based upon a rich legacy from the tsarist secret police, can be traced back almost to the civil war period. Major refinements seem not to have been worked out, however, until the great purges of the 1930s. At this time widespread attention was first drawn to brainwashing by the series of amazing confessions produced at the well-publicized Moscow “treason trials.” Equally amazing and, to the outside world, incredible confessions came to be a predictable feature of the recurring purges that racked the communist states of Europe over the next two decades. The pattern was quite consistent: officials holding positions of high responsibility were arrested and charged with plotting against the regime. After an intervening period of interrogation, they would abjectly confess, either at public trials or at administrative hearings, to a long series of counterrevolutionary crimes. By the most conservative estimate, hundreds of similar admissions were extracted from persons of lesser stature and prominence. Although many of the confessions undoubtedly were knowingly false and contrived, there were a disturbing number of instances in which it seemed that the accused had actually been brought to believe his own declaration of guilt (Beck & Gosin 1951; Leites & Bernaut 1954).

This initial interest was subsequently greatly fanned by the events of the Korean War. Some American prisoners of war confessed that they had engaged in bacteriological warfare operations; some, together with prisoners of war from other nations, issued statements highly critical of United Nations policy; some became openly procommunist. These and other forms of coerced behavior were popularly attributed to brainwashing, and although the actual number of such cases was relatively small, the ensuing public furor led eventually to official inquiries (e.g., Great Britain … 1955; U.S. … 1955). Although many prisoners had indeed been subjected to harrowing pressures, few had undergone true brainwashing; nevertheless, the term came into widespread, if highly imprecise, popular usage (see Biderman 1963).

The next series of related events occurred in the years immediately following the Korean conflict. Many Europeans and Americans who had been living in communist China were arrested and charged with espionage and related crimes. After lengthy periods of incarceration most of the accused publicly confessed that they had engaged in counterrevolutionary efforts, attributed their crimes to mistaken “reactionary” political views, and proclaimed their conversion to Marxism. At the same time, thousands of Chinese of uncertain party loyalty were sent to revolutionary “colleges” and “thought reform centers,” from which many subsequently emerged as avowed communists. There is little question that a sizable percentage of these persons, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, had successfully been brainwashed (Hunter 1951; Lifton 1961; Sargant 1957).

Although brainwashing is a comparatively recent addition to the armory of political weapons, it has many points of similarity, both in behavioral manifestations and in psychological dynamics, to phenomena with which the Western world is quite familiar. Among these are spontaneous religious conversions, voodoo rites, hypnosis, conditioned reflex behavior, and, of course, the extraction of confessions from “witches” in earlier centuries. But although brainwashing shares some features with these phenomena, it differs considerably from each of them in techniques and objectives and can therefore correctly be regarded as sui generis.

The process

The techniques of brainwashing are fairly well standardized, although the nature and intensity of the pressures applied to any individual will vary with the personality of the subject, the circumstances and importance of the case, and the competence of the personnel assigned. But there are two notable differences between the Chinese and the European practices. First, the Chinese will try to brainwash small groups of persons, as well as a single individual; the Europeans normally limit a given effort to one person, although dozens of such operations may be going on simultaneously. Second, a sizable percentage of the subjects in the Chinese undertaking will be persons not actually under formal arrest; many will be so-called volunteers with the technical status of students. In Europe, on the other hand, the subject is invariably someone under arrest and charged with serious political crimes. These differences are reflected in the specific tactics employed, but, in general, brainwashing is accomplished by the utilization of the following measures:

(1) Total control. The prisoner’s entire existence, down to the most intimate needs, is governed by strictly enforced rules that cover both waking and sleeping hours. The objectives are to keep the subject under constant psychological harassment and to drive home the lesson that his jailers are omnipotent and he is powerless.

(2) Uncertainty. In the weeks immediately following his arrest, the prisoner will not be informed of the specific charges against him, and his pleas for a bill of particulars are met by angry declarations that he is fully aware of the nature of his crimes and by a demand for immediate and full confession. The accused thus finds himself in an appalling dilemma: he can hardly conduct an effective defense, given his ignorance of the charges, and he cannot satisfy the demand for a confession, since he does not know what it is that he is alleged to have done.

(3) Isolation. Once arrested, the accused is completely cut off from the outside world and receives only such information about his family and friends as his custodians see fit to give him. Where the isolated unit is the group rather than the individual, the program design minimizes the possibility of relationships going beyond the group.

(4) Torture. The accused is also subjected to a variety of other mental and physical torments. He may be told that his wife has divorced him or that his closest friends have signed statements testifying to his guilt. Relays of questioners will work on him for 12 or 16 hours at a stretch, during much of which he will be kept in acute or chronic pain. The prisoner will be sent back to his cell, allowed to fall asleep, and promptly recalled for another session. This process will be continued until the prisoner finally reaches the desired degree of mental malleability.

(5) Physical debilitation and exhaustion. Prison diet is planned to ensure rapid loss of weight, strength, and stamina. Eventually the subject is so weakened that prolonged mental effort becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The disruption of sleep, particularly under conditions of constant interrogation, tension, and terror, greatly accelerates this process of debilitation and exhaustion.

(6) Personal humiliation. From the moment of his arrest, the prisoner is made to realize that his “criminal” behavior has deprived him of any previous claim to personal dignity or status. His degradation will be almost in proportion to his previous eminence and importance.

(7) Certainty of guilt. Perhaps one of the most insidious devices employed is the complete and unyielding assumption of the prisoner’s guilt manifested by his interrogators. This certitude partially justifies, even in the prisoner’s mind, the stringency of the measures applied to elicit a confession.

Sequence of events

The above are the conditions, then, under which brainwashing takes place. After an initial period of disbelief and shock, the prisoner begins painfully to reflect upon his past behavior, hoping to recall some chance act or remark that, grossly miscontrued, could account for the apparent certainty of his guilt. With the passage of time he becomes increasingly incapable of coping intellectually with his jailer’s arguments. Eventually, he concedes that any past deed which might even remotely have had “objective” subversive consequences, intended or not, may reasonably be viewed as criminal by the regime.

One aim of brainwashing is to destroy the distinction between guilt and innocence, the other to obliterate the borderline between fact and fancy. This intellectual demolition does not proceed easily or swiftly, in either its confessional or its ideological aspect. The prisoner will fight desperately to maintain his faith in his innocence and in his previous values, but his strength is steadily sapped by physical debilitation, fatigue, pain, deprivation, humiliation, and degradation.

Concurrently he begins to sense, if only subconsciously, that life becomes slightly less unbearable during those periods when he shows progress in conceding the possibility of his guilt, or when he evidences a greater receptivity to Marxist doctrine. Living conditions improve and there is a lessening of physical pain; even his interrogators become more friendly and less impersonal. Contrariwise, intervals in which little progress is made or in which the prisoner “regresses” are promptly followed by a return to the old mode of existence, now all the more intolerable. In short, compliance is rewarded, resistance punished. Inevitably he reaches that stage of hope and despair where, in Orwell’s classic example, he most desperately wants to believe that “two and two make five.”

In all probability, acceptance of the concept of “objective” guilt marks the point of no return. What follows, however prolonged or harrowing, is really a slow piecing together of detail into a confession. Confessional verisimilitude may necessitate the incrimination or denunciation of others, but by this time the prisoner is as confused about the guilt or innocence of others as he is about his own.

Psychological mechanisms and dynamics

The earlier theory that brainwashing was systematically perfected in the laboratories of Soviet and Chinese psychologists, and that it represented a triumph of social science research, has now been largely abandoned. Rather, the technique seems to have been empirically developed, with little if any assistance from professional psychologists, to cope with immediate practical problems (Bauer 1952; Wortis 1950). Evidence also suggests that the Chinese and European variants developed essentially independently of one another, although there may have been some exchange of ideas and practices.

As yet there has been no generally accepted explanation of the psychodynamics underlying the brainwashing process. One school, contending that it is primarily an extension of the work done by Pavlov in the field of conditioned reflex behavior, sees the subject as the victim of a step-by-step conditioning process. Another argues that brainwashing can best be understood in terms of Freudian theory. A third suggests that group behavior formulations provide the most satisfactory interpretation. Recent writings tend toward an eclectic approach, with the author likely to present the alternative theoretical explanations that might account for the behavior observed. There is now also general agreement that the technique was not the outgrowth of a consistent or even conscious adherence to any single school of psychology (Hinkle & Wolff 1956; Lifton 1961). Psychologists and psychiatrists tend to agree more readily upon the nature of the specific psychological mechanisms utilized in the brainwashing process. Many of these are already well known in behavioral contexts other than brainwashing.

(1) Identification. Isolated from human contact, the prisoner will often identify with his chief interrogator, who is usually more sympathetic and less brutal to the prisoner than are his subordinates. This identification, in which both subject and inquisitor may become emotionally involved, is often an important factor in effecting the subject’s capitulation. The students in group political indoctrination will, of course, tend to identify with each other.

(2) Decrease of intellectual capacity. As a result of fatigue and debilitation, the prisoner reaches a point of exhaustion, where he is literally too weak to think in any coherent manner.

(3) Disorientation arising from solitary confinement. Few persons can endure prolonged isolation without suffering serious adverse emotional and intellectual consequences. The ensuing disorientation and confusion contribute measurably to the “softening-up” process. Severe sensory deprivation will also often produce a type of “stimulus hunger,” leading in turn to greater suggestibility [seePerception, article onPerceptual deprivation].

(4) Suggestion. The susceptibility of most persons to suggestion has long been recognized as an important factor in shaping both normal and abnormal behavior. It can be particularly effective where, as in brainwashing, the suggestions move in a single direction, where “countersuggestive” stimuli can be screened out, and where the subject is kept under great emotional and physical stress. Suggestion plays a key role in helping the prisoner construct his confession once he is no longer able to distinguish between his own actions and those suggested to him at an earlier point by his interrogators. The resulting admission, fully credible to the confessing person, will often be an admixture of the two.

(5) Repetition. The importance of repetition is well known to students of the learning process and has been a mainstay, in particular, of Chinese pedagogy. The prisoner is told, over and over again, that he is guilty; the student is subjected to innumerable repetitions of the principles of Marxist ideology. Constant reiteration of an idea, especially if its acceptance has desirable social or personal consequences, eventually inclines all but the most obdurate persons toward greater receptivity.

(6) Guilt feelings. Both prisoner and student are compelled minutely to review—and often to justify—their past lives, personal as well as political. Except for the infrequent saint, reflections of this nature are almost certain to arouse some feelings of guilt. In a communist society, where one often remains silent in the face of flagrant personal and social injustices, these feelings are not far below the surface. Once evoked, they often work to undermine the capacity or willingness to resist.

(7) Ego destruction. Although he has no alternative but to submit, the humiliation and degradation endured by the subject result in a profound decrease of self-esteem, a loss all the more devastating if he was previously a person of some eminence. His weakness and helplessness contrast invidiously with the omnipotence and apparent omniscience of his interrogators. The resulting ego destruction seriously affects his ability to withstand the process.

(8) Conditioned behavior. The extent to which brainwashing relies upon the mechanism of conditioned behavior is a matter of some controversy (Sargant 1957). There is no question, however, that the deliberate relating of punishment and reward to progress or the lack of progress is one way of “conditioning” the prisoner to make the type of response desired.

(9) Nonrational behavior in the face of sudden stimulus. Faced with an unexpected massive stimulus—pain, fear, anger—many individuals are emotionally overwhelmed. They can no longer control their behavior and will react in what seems to be a quite uncharacteristic manner, much as experimental animals do when they can no longer cope with the stimuli presented to them. Prisoners unexpectedly subjected to abuse, indignity, or pain may be so overcome that their most determined resistance will suddenly crumble and they capitulate in relatively short time.

(10) Alternation of fear and hope. The alternation of fear and hope is the classic carrot-and-stick device. No matter how cruelly the prisoner may be treated, his captors are careful to keep before him the hope of a better life, perhaps even freedom, if he yields to their demands. The technique is quite similar to that used by the revivalist who depicts, in vivid and harrowing detail, the eternal suffering to which his auditors are doomed—unless they repent and accept the true faith. The revivalist plays upon fears of a hell to come; the brainwasher exploits the horrors of a hell that is.

Political capabilities and limitations

We come, finally, to the two most important questions that arise in any discussion of brainwashing: What are its political capabilities? What are its political limitations?

Almost every serious student has agreed that very few persons are capable of indefinitely resisting brainwashing, given the present state of the art. Assuming the brainwasher has technical competence and the determination and willingness to invest the time and manpower necessary to carry brainwashing to completion, there is an overwhelming likelihood that any individual victim will succumb to the process (Meerloo 1956). The exceptions, other than persons of incredible fortitude and stamina, are the psychotic, the highly neurotic, and those who die or commit suicide in the course of events (Hinkle & Wolff 1956). Much the same conclusion can be drawn, given the same conditions, with regard to brainwashing efforts conducted on a group of persons, although the circumstances here permit a larger number of cases of successful resistance. For the great majority of men, especially when a single person is the target, brainwashing comes close to being an “absolute” weapon.

Fortunately, it is a weapon with serious practical limitations and shortcomings. The results achieved seem not to be permanent if the subject is allowed to return to a free society. Most returned prisoners have renounced both their confessions and their Marxist sympathies shortly after their repatriation (Lifton 1961). On the other hand, more lasting effects may be achieved when the subject remains in a communist society, where the conversion is strengthened and reinforced by recurrent environmental stimuli. On this point adequate data are lacking. The second shortcoming is more serious. The conditions required for its success make brainwashing one of the most expensive and uneconomical techniques available to the modern state. To be successful, it demands a uniquely structured and controlled environmental setting and an inordinate investment of time and manpower. Despite the costs entailed, its effectiveness is limited to individual subjects or, even under optimum conditions, to a small group of persons. Certainly it is not yet a weapon that can be turned against large, let alone mass, audiences.

Moral issues aside, one might well ask if the confessions and conversions obtained are really worth the labor and expense that go into their achievement. Both the European and the Chinese communists obviously think they are. The position of the former is perhaps easier to understand, since brainwashing is used only to elicit confessions that can be politically exploited at home and abroad, although the manner in which the confessions are attained is now sufficiently well known to deprive them of much of their original propaganda value. The Chinese persistence in continuing to subject sizable numbers of persons to this form of political indoctrination can, in the final analysis, be explained only in terms of China’s obsession with achieving total ideological conformity regardless of the costs entailed.

In conclusion, one must keep in mind that the foregoing assessment of the capabilities and limitations of brainwashing is, at most, valid only with regard to the present state of the technique. One must concede at least the possibility that technological advances may someday surmount these limitations and that mankind will then be able to remold the human mind on the same mass scale and with the same economy and efficiency which advances in nuclear technology have enabled us to use in dealing with the human body.

Albert Somit

[See alsoPropaganda; Socialization. Other relevant material may be found underAttitudes.]


Bauer, Raymond A. 1952 The New Man in Soviet Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Beck, F.; and Gosin, W. [pseuds.] 1951 Russian Purge and the Extraction of Confession. London and New York: Hurst & Blackett; New York: Viking Press. → Translated from the original German.

Biderman, Albert D. 1963 March to Calumny: TheStory of American Prisoners of War in the Korean War. New York: Macmillan.

Brown, James A. C. (1963) 1964 Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

Ellul, Jacques 1965 Propaganda. New York: Knopf.

Great Britain, Ministry of Defense 1955 Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Korea. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

Hinkle, L. E., Jr.; and Wolff, H. G. 1956 Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of “Enemies of the State”: Analysis of Methods Used by the Communist State Police (a special report). Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 76:115–174.

Hunter, Edward 1951 Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds. New York: Vanguard.

Leites, Nathan; and Bernaut, Elsa 1954 Ritual of Liquidation: The Case of the Moscow Trials. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Lifton, Robert J. 1961 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. New York: Norton.

Meerloo, J. A. M. 1956 The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. New York: World.

Meyerhoff, Arthur E. 1965 Strategy of Persuasion: The Use of Advertising Skills in Fighting the Cold War. New York: Coward.

Mu, Fu-sheng 1962 The Wilting of the Hundred Flowers: The Chinese Intelligentsia Under Mao. New York: Praeger; London: Heinemann.

Sargant, William W. 1957 Battle for the Mind. London: Heinemann; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

U.S. Secretary of Defense’s Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War 1955 The Fight Continues After Battle. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Weissberg, Alexander (1951) 1952 Conspiracy of Silence. With a preface by Arthur Koestler. London: Hamilton. → First published as Hexensabbat: Russland im Schmetztiegel der Säuberungen.

Wortis, Joseph 1950 Soviet Psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Yü, TÊ-chi 1964 Mass Persuasion in Communist China. New York: Praeger.

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"Brainwashing" is a term with negative connotations, used to refer to the recruitment processes of disfavored religious and political groups. It represents one of the most effective social weapons adapted for use in efforts to exert social control over so-called New Religious Movements, sometimes referred to by the similarly negative term "cult."

The term was developed in the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, first being used by Edward Hunter, a CIA operative paid to write propaganda about the Communist takeover in China. He developed the ideologically based term to describe the processes whereby ordinary Chinese citizens were allegedly converted to Communist beliefs. Others used the term to refer to methods used in Korean POW camps, especially after some POWs chose to remain in Korea rather than return home.

The ideological term became popularized and was a staple in the linguistic arsenal of the anti-Communists. Brainwashing then developed a life of its own, being used to refer to any questionable practices of recruitment and socialization. The term achieved fame and became a part of everyday lexicon when defenders of Patty Hearst attempted to use the brainwashing metaphor to explain why she had begun to cooperate with her captors in the Symbianese Liberation Front, going so far as to rob banks with them.

The term was ready-made when controversy erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s over the development of many New Religious Movements in American society, such as the Unification Church and the Hare Krishna Movement. Those opposed to the groups, including many parents who were unsatisfied with the religious choices of their children, sought a simple explanation of why some of America's brightest and best would choose to abandon their normal career trajectories and families to follow a strange and new religion. Thus brainwashing became a popular explanation of such events: People were brainwashed and being held under mind control; they did not join of their own volition but were tricked into participating, according to the brainwashing perspective.

Such ideas rejected notions of free will or agency on the part of the joiner. The paternalism of designating decisions made by young people choosing to try out another ethic or belief system as resulting from brainwashing seems obvious, but it was often overshadowed by genuine concerns of parents for their children's well-being, even if those children were of age.

Thus many parents chose to intervene in their children's religious choices, giving rise to the new pseudo-profession of deprogramming. Deprogrammers kidnapped thousands of young people out of newer religions, subjecting them to considerable physical and psychological coercion in an effort to get them to leave their group of affiliation. This controversial process, which has been used less in recent years (mainly because of some adverse legal decisions), was based almost entirely on the idea that because of brainwashing the members had to be "rescued" by those wanting to "help them exercise their free will."

Originally the concept of brainwashing was based on the physical coercion allegedly used by the Chinese against Korean POWs and by the Communists in the 1950s who gained control of China. Supposedly the use of physical coercion not only could result in compliance, but could also, if skillfully done, turn the person into a robotlike entity programmed to follow orders at the exertion of certain stimuli. Films such as The Manchurian Candidate were based on this view of brainwashing. Such views have been soundly critiqued by scholars (e.g., Anthony 1990; Anthony and Robbins 1994; Barker, 1986; Richardson 1991, 1993).

This robot conception was not applicable in the circumstances of recruitment to new religions, since few examples of physical coercion could be found in such groups. However, enterprising legitimators of the anti-cult movement redefined brainwashing in a creative way. They developed the concept of "second-order brainwashing," which referred to the use of psychological coercion, including even positive emotion, in recruitment. This approach to recruitment, in which people were encouraged through positive emotion and affective ties to join a group, was deemed even more insidious and effective than the original physically coercive methods of the Communists. Thus the anti-cult movement attempted to redefine brainwashing, placing more emphasis on psychological coercion than on physical coercion.

Although brainwashing as an explanation for participation in new religions has fallen from favor in recent years among scholars and in the courts, the term is still quite popular in general parlance. A few scholars have made efforts to revive the term, but with little success among the scholarly community. Most scholars accept research results indicating that newer religions are actually very small (even if very well publicized) and have very high attrition rates. Both of these characteristics undercut any effort to support so-called brainwashing theories of recruitment.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Elvis Cults; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; New Religious Movements; Proselytizing; Psychology of Religion; Unification Church.


Anthony, Dick. "Religious Movements and Brainwashing Litigation: Evaluating Key Testimony." In InGods We Trust, 2nd ed., edited by Tom Robbins and Dick Anthony. 1990.

Anthony, Dick, and Thomas Robbins. "Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence." In Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, edited by V. S. Ramachandran. 1994.

Anthony, Dick, and Thomas Robbins. "Negligence, Coercion, and the Protection of Religious Belief." Journal of Church and State 37 (1995): 509–536.

Barker, Eileen. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? 1986.

Richardson, James T. "Cult/Brainwashing Cases and the Freedom of Religion." Journal of Church andState 33 (1991): 55–74.

Richardson, James T. "A Social Psychological Critique of Brainwashing Claims About Recruitment to New Religions." In The Handbook of Cults and Sects inAmerica, edited by Jeffrey Hadden and David Bromley. 1993.

Richardson, James T., and Brock Kilbourne. "Classical and Contemporary Brainwashing Models: A Comparison and Critique." In The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy, edited by David G. Bromley and James Richardson, pp. 29–45. 1983.

James T. Richardson

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A systematic, coercive effort to alter an individual's beliefs and attitudes, usually by physical and/or psychological means; also referred to as "thought control."

Brainwashing has been used predominantly in reference to severe programs of political indoctrination, although it is used occasionally in connection with certain religious, especially cultic, practices. Brainwashing works primarily by making the victim's existing beliefs and attitudes nonfunctional and replacing them with new ones that will be useful in the environment created by the captor.

Basically, the techniques of brainwashing involve the complete removal of personal freedom, independence, and decision-making prerogatives; the radical disruption of existing routine behavior; the total isolation from, and destruction of loyalties to, former friends and associates; the absolute obedience to authority in all matters; intense physical abuse and threats of injury, death, and permanent imprisonment; and the constant presentation of the new beliefs as the only correct and acceptable alternative to continuing an unenlightened life. These techniques are intended to induce in the victim a state of childlike trust in, and dependency on, the captor. Confessions of imagined past crimes are often part of the brainwashing process, with the victim admitting to trivial or absurd shortcomings and errors, and sometimes implicating others falsely. Other captives who have already been brainwashed may be used to reinforce the process, criticizing the victim and supporting the captors and their value system. Once the process begins to take hold, threats and punishments are replaced by rewards. The victim is allowed increased physical comfort and given psychological reinforcement in the form of approval and friendship . All efforts are directed toward cementing his or her new identity, based on the new set values and beliefs provided by the captor.

The study of the techniques and effects of brainwashing grew markedly in the 1950s, after a number of U.S. soldiers appeared to have become indoctrinated when taken prisoner during the Korean War. They confessed to imagined crimes, including the waging of germ warfare, and refused to be repatriated when the war ended. Studies of these prisoners of war and of individuals who had undergone ideological conversion in Chinese prisons during the same period revealed connections between the radical changes in attitude caused by brainwashing and existing knowledge about attitude and identity formation and change in ordinary circumstances. While some brainwashed individuals may actually be released and allowed to return home, researchers have expressed doubts about whether the process can be completely effective or really last for a prolonged period. Its short-term and long-term effectiveness in actually altering an individual's beliefsboth within the brainwashing environment and removed from that environment vary from individual to individual, depending on personality characteristics and many other factors. Intense effort and complete control over the victim are required, and must be exercised over a period of years. Consequently, many of the brainwashing efforts made during the Korean War were ineffective, with the prisoners either resisting change or merely becoming confused instead of indoctrinated. In addition, certain attitudes on the part of prisoners proved particularly resistant to change. Due to these limitations, many psychologists believe it would be impossible to brainwash large populations, even with the use of mass media.

A classic literary example of brainwashing is found in George Orwell's novel, 1984. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is subjected to isolation, humiliation, physical deprivation and violence , and constant threats of further violence. He is also forced to make false confessions which include implicating and denouncing others. His captors express their intent to "squeeze you empty and fill you with ourselves." Their ultimate success in forcing Smith to adapt to whatever beliefs they choose is most memorably demonstrated in his final capitulation to the view that two plus two equals five.

See also Cults

Further Reading

Hyde, Margaret. Brainwashing and Other Forms of Thought Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.

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