The original brainwashing techniques described by Robert Lifton were done to prisoners by obvious enemies. Today, mind control is used on it's victims by supposed 'friends' to manipulate, abuse and dominate. Would you recognize if a friend or a teacher or a coach was controlling your every move? If you said yes, how exactly would you know?
Most people would not, that's why cults are thriving!
Both brainwashing techniques and mind control methods are used to change people's beliefs and attitude so that they make the decisions and do the things the manipulator desires. They are used in totalitarian states, with prisoners, in destructive cults, in abusive relationships and some would argue that they are used in the media for advertising and used by governments to control the people.
The end result is a person or persons with different beliefs and values, who typically believe very strongly in some ideas to the point that they want to convert others to their ideology. In fact, the person may be so different from before, they may have changed so much that they are said to have a pseudo-personality. Frequently the family and friends of cult members say they don't recognize them any more.
The term brainwashing was first used by Edward Hunter in the 1950s after studying American soldiers who were prisoners of the Chinese. When the prisoners were released, many of them were denouncing Western ideas and had converted to communism. This caused a big scare because it was thought the Chinese had finally found a way to control other people's minds.
Subsequent studies revealed that the brainwashing techniques being used by the Chinese were not new or magical. A lot of the techniques had been used before to torture people and many of the psychological techniques have been used in destructive cults and sects for hundreds of years.
Brainwashing is also called mind control, thought reform, psychological persuasion, coercive persuasion, thought control, mental control. So what is it?
It's best thought of as a series of techniques that are used over time to change a person's perception, cognition, emotions, decision making and behavior to such an extent that they have lost their freedom of choice.
There are a few of important things to keep in mind. First of all, it's a series of techniques, is not usually one single technique used but rather a multitude of things going on at the same time.
Secondly, brainwashing is a process. It doesn't happen instantly, it takes time. However, the time taken will depend on the number of brainwashing techniques used, the skill of the manipulator and so on.
Thirdly, the idea of whether a person knows they are being manipulated or not is an interesting one.
Steve Hassan, who has treated ex-cult members for over 30 years makes this interesting distinction. He likes to think of brainwashing techniques being used in situations where there is hostility, for example, with prisoners. The prisoner knows the person using the brainwashing techniques is an enemy. He knows his staying alive may depend on his changing his attitudes and beliefs.
There may be physical torture and abuse with pain being used as a strong motivator. The prisoner may even lie about his attitudes and beliefs to prevent suffering.
However, during this process if the threat of danger is removed, (when the prisoner is free) it's usually easy for him to revert to his old beliefs.
He suggests that mind control is different in that the manipulator is considered a friend or a helper of some sort. The person being manipulated becomes a willing participant. They are happy to go along with the advice and direction of the person who is supposedly helping them.
This kind of situation is much more common in cults or in marriages where there is no gun to anyone's head and there may be no physical force or violence.
For this very reason, cult members do not believe that they are being brainwashed or mind controlled. The classical idea of brainwashing has to do with torture, force and making people do things against their will. Cult members, however, believe they are making their own decisions. It can be very difficult to convince them otherwise!
This distinction also becomes very important when trying to undo the brainwashing or mind control, because while the prisoner knows it was his enemy trying to manipulate him, the cult member or the husband or the wife believe that a friend was looking after them. Because there is a very strong emotional bond, it can be incredibly difficult for the victim to get their head around the idea that this supposed 'friend' was doing them tremendous harm and was doing it to take advantage of them for his/her own selfish desires.
It's very common that cult members, having left a group because they are disillusioned with something, continue to think of the leader as a good person, a helper, or even enlightened and godlike.
Adding in a sexual relationship (which in terms of brainwashing/mind control is considered sexual abuse because of the imbalance of power in the relationship) means that effects can be more profound.
Obviously, this distinction is not set in stone. For example, sometimes when cult members find out about what the leader is really doing, they have no difficulty recognizing the evil that is actually present.
And some of the American prisoners mentioned above continued to believe in the ideas of their captors after they were released. This indicates that the Chinese were using the brainwashing techniques to good effect!
Robert Lifton has studied the American prisoners of war extensively and he outlines the process this way:
Lets look at these steps one by one and consider the brainwashing techniques used at each step. (Remember that these ideas can just as easily be applied to groups of 2 people or groups of thousands.)
Assault on identity
The first thing the manipulator does is challenge the person at the level of identity. The American prisoners were physically abused and tortured while everything they said was contradicted. Fairly quickly, they began to doubt themselves.
The Establishment of Guilt
Clifton's prisoners reported that a huge guilt complex was imposed upon them. In the end they believed that they deserved their punishment. It no longer had anything to do with the injustice of their captors, but rather that they believed that they should be punished.
One of the important brainwashing techniques here is to make the person feel responsible for their faults and the things that go wrong in their life. If they make a mistake, do something poorly, or if things do not go according to plan, it's their responsibility and so they feel guilty.
During this stage the prisoners were expected to denounce friends and colleagues. And then their family and their previous standards. Any doubts or ambivalences they have (or had! for example, something minor about the political system of America they did not like or agree with) are played upon by their captors to increase the degree of self betrayal. This has the effect of separating them from the past and further destroying their sense of self.
Breaking point: Total Conflict and the Basic Fear
At some point the prisoners realize that there is no way out from the horror and pain and guilt. They begin to experience one of the most primitive and painful emotions known to man, the fear of total annihilation. In fact, many wished for a quick death. Some even suffered delusions and hallucinations. Obviously their ability to think and reason at this stage was severely compromised.
Leniency and Opportunity
When the prisoners could literally take no more, all of a sudden there was leniency. A friendly face, a kind voice, an offer of a little luxury, a cigarette or a drink. For the prisoner, suddenly there is hope, a way out.
And of course the opportunity that the captor is offering is to fully denounce the old way and embrace the new way. "Just do as we want and you'll be okay." In order to avoid total annihilation, the prisoner becomes motivated to help his captors!
The Compulsion to Confess
The prisoners typically confess to anything at first, saying what they think their captors want to hear and even inventing crimes. They feel they want to remove the evil from inside, the evil that makes their captors punish them. The confessions gather momentum, with the prisoners admitting to more and more. One of the brainwashing techniques used was to get prisoners to 'encourage' each other to confess.
The Channeling of Guilt
The prisoners reported that instead of just feeling guilt for their past actions, they began to feel guilt for who they were and for the set of beliefs they had in the past. They realized that their point of view was different from that of their captors and the more they accepted their captors way of thinking, the more they felt guilty for who they were.
Re-education: Logical Dishonoring
The next of the brainwashing techniques was to go beyond feeling guilty to understanding their lives were a series of shameful acts, not only because they did not fit in with communist ideas but also because they were violating their own personal ideals.
The idea is that each of us has a thesis, a personal creed or ethic, as well as it's antithesis, a weakness which contradicts or works against this ideal. The communists encouraged the antithesis and wore down the thesis of each individual. To some extent the antithesis is that part of us that we normally try to suppress (because we learnt it was socially unacceptable). As this aspect becomes more dominant the true identity becomes more suppressed.
Why is this logical? Lifton says it's only logical if we look at the bigger picture. The acceptance of this new identity becomes linked to learning the communist doctrine, and they become inseparable, one reinforcing the other. This was the overall aim of the communist captors. Therefore it is logical to cast the previous life in a bad light.
The prisoner's weaknesses and strengths were known to his captors, and both were used against him to continually educate him in the new doctrine and reinforce the new personality.
Progress and Harmony
As the prisoners continue to progress, the brainwashing techniques changed and they received recognition and acceptance and were treated as human beings again. Compared to earlier treatment the sense of harmony now is enough to motivate them to keep going.
Final confession: The Summing Up
The prisoners confess one last time, for the record, so to speak. There may even be a solemn ceremony or a rite of passage. This time, however, it's the new identity speaking, and it's as if the new identity is describing the things in the confession as if they are personal discoveries. It's as if they are better people now for having overcome the 'problems' they had in the past.
This final confession is the prisoners subjective experience of his reformers message, plus the guilty re-evaluation of his past actions. For this reason it can be quite logical and believable.
The man is 'whole' again, but his reality is different, thoughts and values have shifted and the prisoner has a different relationship with the world. The brainwashing techniques here involve rewarding 'good behavior' and punishing the bad.
Prisoners are allowed back into the world again but they have to deal with people who treat them as they were before, people who question their new ideas and beliefs and even question their new identity. (This was often very traumatic for the ex-prisoners.)
As with brainwashing techniques, the idea of mind control is to destroy the old identity and create a new one a pseudo-personality, one that holds the beliefs, values and ideas of the manipulator.
For example, cult members are told that they are weak and defective in some way. They are products of society where society has imposed beliefs and ideas on them making them like everybody else. And society did this when they were very young before they could make their own decisions. Often parents are criticized for being less than perfect and the members come to believe that the parents were doing them harm too.
The members thus begin to question themselves and who they are.
Debilitation is also used in cults and is brought about by sleep deprivation, long working hours, poor diets or high-sugar diets, secretly putting drugs in food. And in some cults, violence is indeed used. (Some cults are very violent with physical and sexual abuse being used to manipulate members. However, the members have typically been led to believe it's for their own good!)
Guilt and fear are used extensively as part of the overall emotional manipulation of cult members. Emotional manipulation is also used to make the members feel good about what they are doing, as well as to prevent any critical thinking. When we experience very strong emotions, there's not a lot of reasoning going on.
Cults will also use the following techniques to manipulate that are not necessarily used in the brainwashing techniques described above:
Things that are common to both brainwashing techniques and mind control tactics:
In the sequence of brainwashing techniques above, we see that not until the stage of leniency and opportunity does the victim begin to cooperate with the captor. In mind control (as described above) the victims are willing participants in their own destruction from the word go. They cooperate with the leader from the very start, or at least very shortly thereafter.
They believe they are making their own decisions and when we believe there is no coercion, we are freely deciding, we are much more committed to those decisions and the decisions last longer.
This means that the whole process of mind control can actually go much more quickly then when there is force and pain and suffering involved. Even after a course of several days in a cultic environment, some people can be further along in the process of developing a new personality then some prisoners after 3 or 4 months of torture.
When people talk about cults and brainwashing techniques evolving with technology, this is what they're talking about.
While there is no school for psychopaths, cult leaders or manipulators, they are constantly learning and using the results of current research in order to improve their abilities. In fact, cult leaders often attend anti-cult meetings and conferences to understand what preventative measures and treatments are being used by therapists who treat ex-cult members.
Cults and sects thrive in times of crisis. Education about how brainwashing techniques and mind control techniques actually work is vital if we are to stop cults and psychopaths from destroying society.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
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