A technique of torture and compliance, brainwashing is used in many contexts to control victims. From personal relationships and marriage to cults, all the way up to the scale of nation-states, removing or reducing independent thinking and action in a person or population gives the brainwasher enormous power and advantage.
The word’s origin is from a Chinese term meaning “forcible indoctrination to induce somebody to give up basic religious, social, or political beliefs and attitudes in favor of a belief system imposed by the brainwasher.” It’s also been referred to as mind control, thought reform, undue influence, or coercive persuasion — and is a form of highly unethical emotional and psychological manipulation.
Brainwashing is essentially a method of inducing a false personality into a target, after breaking them down psychologically. There are many different methods and techniques employed, from disinformation and sleep deprivation to hypnosis to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The goal of this “thought reform” project is to remove the individual’s agency and train them to follow the orders of the cult or high-demand group.
Seemingly normal, totally “average” people can fall under the sway of brainwashing techniques in use by cults much more easily than one might think. Cults and abusive organizations prey on people at vulnerable times in their lives, when they are most suggestible and least likely to mount an opposition. People who have gone through a loss, or a major life change, or are feeling particularly adrift may be lured by the sway of a deceptive organization. It can be very exhilarating to feel plugged in to an intense community after going through a period of grief or anxiety — almost irresistable, to some.
7 brainwashing tactics
- isolation — separating you from family and friends, or any kind of support network who may provide alternative and negative views of the abuser
- monopolization of attention — they seek to have the target orient their entire world around the abuser, leaving them little time to think about anything else
- weaken your resistance — wearing down your defenses over time, so their messages take firmer hold
- give occasional indulgences — providing temporary relief or even pleasure contributes to the overall program of intermittent reinforcement, to induce dependency on the abuser for stimulation of any kind
- demonstrates “all-knowingness” — becomes an absurd moral authority on your entire life, presenting the truth about your inner self and past history with more omniscience than you yourself possess. They know you better than you know yourself — and you believe them!
- destroy all sources of joy — the brainwasher needs to ensure that they are the sole source of pleasure and pain, for complete operant conditioning control over the target. All other pleasures in life are eradicated or eroded.
- degradation and humiliation — if the target gets close to figuring out the truth about the power imbalance and impropriety of the abuser’s behavior, the abuser will immediately begin a scathing shame campaign to punish the temerity of daring to stand meekly on one’s own
Brainwashing in politics and religion
Use of brainwashing by communist officials in China, Korea, and Vietnam gained attention in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. The brainwashing technique is also used by gangs, cults, and organized crime networks to control both members and outgroups.
Perhaps most commonly it is associated with fringe religious groups like the Peoples Temple, Unification Church (or Moonies), Children of God, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, The Manson Family, and thousands of other cults less well known. Sometimes the brainwashing is intended to limit the followers’ access to the outside world, and sometimes it is about grooming them to perform criminal acts from financial crimes to murder to starting a race war.
Many interdisciplinary minds across multiple fields have studied the topic of brainwashing and undue influence, or have contributed significantly to our understanding of behavioral influence. Here are some highly consequential thinkers, researchers, and experiments on the subject:
- BF Skinner
- Ivan Pavlov
- Robert Jay Lifton
- Asch Experiments
- Stanley Milgram — Obedience to Authority
- Zimbardo Prison Experiment
- Erich Fromm — Escape from Freedom
- Theodor Adorno
- Hannah Arendt
- Robert Altemeyer
- Mao Zedong
- Moscow Trials
- Jim Jones
- David Koresh
- undue influence
- thought reform
- mental predation
- Stockholm Syndrome