What is brainwashing? A simple answer is that it is the eradication of a person's beliefs and thought processes and the installation of new ones with the intention of controlling and dominating.
To fully answer the question 'what is brainwashing' it's useful to have a look at a bit of history and how things have evolved since the term was coined.
Edward Hunter used the term brainwashing in 1950 to describe what had been done to the American prisoners of war by the Chinese. Some of these prisoners had been converted to communism while they were in captivity and a few even refused to return home on their release. The Chinese captors had done something to radically change the belief systems of these men.
The term 'wash brain' was apparently a literal translation of a Chinese colloquialism 'hsi nao' which described the persuasion techniques used by the Maoist government to convert trouble makers into 'right-thinking' members of society.
Later on in the 1950s Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer and other psychologists studied these prisoners and others who had been influenced in similar ways. Lifton describes in some detail how the brainwashing techniques were used not only to change the beliefs, but to attack and change the victim's identity. He used the term 'thought reform' for this process.
In brief, the victim of brainwashing was subjected to all manner of personal attack, including physical abuse in the case of the prisoners. They were made to feel personally guilty about things which meant that they believed they deserved the punishment. The prisoners were also made to denounce their past. They were pushed to breaking point or beyond. They believed they were in a situation from which there was no escape. Many of them wanted to be killed.
Then they were shown some kindness, some leniency. Of course, this way out was conditional on them forgetting the past and accepting a new way.
They had to confess to having done bad things in the past. The guilt was now directed at who they were and their previous way of thinking. A new identity begins to emerge, an identity that is linked to the new way. The more they learn the new way, the stronger the identity becomes and the stronger it gets, the easier it is to live the new way. This new identity is accepted by the manipulators and treated well (as long as the new rules are followed). The new identity feels that it is has improved after having overcome the 'problems' of the past.
Of note, these belief changes were not particularly stable and the prisoners who returned home, over some time, reverted to their previous beliefs.
Edgar Schein called this 'coercive persuasion' and he described it as a three stage process where the personality is unfrozen, changes are made and these are then refrozen into a new, but false, personality. We call this new personality a pseudopersonality.
Now that the process of brainwashing had been described, people began to understand how such sudden and extreme conversions in beliefs could happen.
Several researchers began to notice similarities to other situations. Therapy patients were noted to have had their beliefs radically changed by their therapist. The new religious movements were attracting people and quickly changing them around. It was suggested that these people were being subjected to brainwashing techniques, too.
As far as we can tell, religion has been a hotbed of cults from the very start because it's not possible to prove, or disprove, the basic premise of religion. This makes it a very useful arena for manipulation because the ideas can be manipulated, distorted and re-interpreted for the manipulators own personal gain.
In the 1960s, the human potential movement took off. The idea was that humans were not achieving their true potential and there were all sorts of programs, techniques and courses created to allow for evolution and development. Once again, this basic idea is not provable or disprovable and leaves the field wide open for the psychopathic manipulators to trick, deceive, con and defraud people.
Again, people were undergoing sudden conversions, this time in large numbers.
But this time there was a difference. There was no war, there were no enemies, there was no violence, no torture. The leaders of the various groups claimed that they were not holding a gun to the group members' heads, that the members were freely making their own decisions.
And the members did believe that they were making their own decisions. They had no sense that they were being forced into anything. They believed they were willing participants.
But they were willing participants in their own destruction.
They did not see that their personality was being attacked, broken down, changed and remolded. They believed that their group leader was helping them. They believed that the group leader was an amazing person who was a shining example of a human being that they wanted to emulate. They couldn't believe that the group leader might be taking advantage of them.
The programs they attended started off with a discussion of the problems that the members had, the difficulties, the hardships, the suffering. Members were blamed for their lives being this way. If the leaders could elicit tears and evoke suffering and pain, all the better. Next, the ideas and techniques of the group are introduced and members are 'invited' to apply the techniques to their lives and notice how things can be different. They feel hopeful and happy. Later, the members are led to take this happiness and visualize the future of their dreams, having all their resources available to them... with no sense of problems or difficulties... where anything is possible... Elation and euphoria are the result.
Now they believe they have had a life changing weekend. The reality is that they have actually had the pseudopersonality installed.
The manipulators had learnt how to change people without the physical force and torture.
Which is not surprising because it's what psychopaths have been doing to individuals for centuries anyway. But now the process was formalized. It was out in the open. It was public knowledge.
Hypnosis was being taught in courses and it was available to anyone. Other influence techniques were being developed as part of the personal development movement. If any of these were any use, if they worked well, they were adopted by other manipulators.
The speed with which the beliefs, attitude, ideas, thinking processes and behaviors of a victim could be changed, increased. A weekend was enough to install a pseudopersonality. Sometimes, it only took a few hours.
For this reason 'mind control', as opposed to brainwashing, is often used for what sociopathic cult leaders and psychopaths do to people nowadays.
The problem for the unsuspecting victims was that if anyone asked them 'what is brainwashing?' it conjured up images of soldiers, guns, torture and concentration camps. They did not associate it with their own group and their own glorious leader. After all, friends don't brainwash each other!
In this process, because the victim believes they are making their own decisions all the way along, the changes stick. When there is no sense of outside pressure and a person believes they are making their own decision, the decision is stronger and typically lasts longer. They have no obvious reason to change it.
The soldiers above realized that an enemy had forced them into changing their beliefs so it made sense to change back after they had been released.
This is a major problem for people nowadays who have been mind controlled by an unscrupulous person, whether it's in a cult or an intimate relationship or a work situation. The pseudopersonality does not disappear simply because they are no longer being manipulated.
After leaving abusive situations, cult members and other victims of mind control typically believe that it is their fault that they ended up being taken advantage of. Many of the beliefs and behaviors imposed on them persist, too.
These things were imposed by the psychopathic or narcissistic manipulator for the manipulator's own benefit. They do not benefit the victim at all. The victim, however, does not realize the extent of the changes that they were subjected to and usually has even come to accept the pseudopersonality as who they are.
When they run into problems, they think they need to work on themselves in some way and don't associate the problems with the abusive situation they have been in. Going to therapy to change themselves means they are trying to improve the pseudopersonality. They are trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. Nor surprisingly, therapy for such problems is rarely successful.
There are many people who do not believe that brainwashing / thought reform / coercive persuasion / mind control exists. They don’t accept that cults do harm to people. They criticize, for example, parents of children in cults for making a fuss over nothing. In general, they minimize or deny the damage and blame the victims for their problems.
Some say that the theory of brainwashing does not explain how some people are not recruited into a cult or how some people seemingly voluntarily leave. That's enough for them to reject the idea of brainwashing.
The cult leaders, of course, will quote these people and use them as evidence that critics are discriminating against them and their group, the 'minorities'.
I mention all this here for the sake of completeness. If you have been in a cult or an abusive relationship you will have your own opinions.
Brainwashing involves changing a person in almost every way. Beliefs, thinking strategies, decision making priorities and emotions are controlled by the manipulator which results in a different world view, different values, different morals and different behavior.
People often think that brainwashing is done in far away places by nasty people with torture equipment. The reality is that between 1 and 4% of the population are psychopaths or narcissists and they are doing this very thing with their partners, their children and the people around them.
Psychopathic cult leaders are manipulating the members for their own selfish benefit. And cults are not just orange robed groups with shaved heads in India. Nowadays there are cults organized around health, sports, religion, politics, personal development and so on. And there are a lot of them!
The effect on the victim is devastating. They have their life stolen away from them. They lose money, energy, their friendships, often their family, their creativity and they are abused mentally, verbally, physically and sexually. They lose years of their life. And even when they get out of the abusive situation, it's not over. They have to work to undo the damage while in many cases the abuser just carries on doing the same thing to others.
You can read more about mind control, the mind control trick, pseudopersonalities in intimate relationships, the signs of emotional abuse, characteristics of a cult, how to escape a cult and how to leave an abusive relationship
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