25 Scary Facts About Brainwashing
By Jill Gordon
Although there are a lot of unfounded myths and conspiracy theories about brainwashing, it is still considered to be a very serious and scary mind control technique. As a student, you’re used to analyzing problems from all angles and making your own deductions, independent of what anyone else tells you. But what if things didn’t always work that way? Here are 25 scary and surprising facts about brainwashing.
Theory and Systems
These mind control and brainwashing theories tackle the history of brainwashing and different techniques used to control victims.
- Repeated confrontation: The repeated confrontation method supposedly serves to "break down a person’s resistance, expose poor habits, and allow the person to start over with correct methods and new goals," according to VisionandPsychosis.net.
- Brainwashing has nothing to do with self-discipline: Even in situations involving obsessive compulsive behavior or corrupted thought processes, any new idea or practice brought about through self-discipline is not considered brainwashing. Brainwashing exclusively refers to manipulating a person’s sensibilities and thought processes against their will.
- The use of chemicals, drugs or physical tools isn’t brainwashing: If someone is using chemicals, drugs, weapons or other physical devices to get desired results from a person, he or she is not brainwashing them. Brainwashing is mind control without the use of outside resources.
- Education and re-education: Before the term brainwashing was introduced, the same techniques and effects were referred to as "re-education," in the U.S. in the Soviet Union especially.
- Brainwashing is generally considered a form of torture: Because manipulators may use torture methods to achieve brainwashing their victims, brainwashing itself is referred to as a form of torture in some dictionaries.
- The Chinese are the first official brainwashers: Brainwashing was coined in the early 1950s by journalist Edward Hunter, who wanted to describe the efforts of the Chinese Communists to control the minds and thought processes of the Chinese people after their takeover in 1949.
- Brainwashing is especially effective during times of transition: During times of major social, political or personal transition, the brain is most vulnerable to brainwashing.
- Guilt, confession and shaming techniques: Making victims feel guilty or shameful for putting faith in their original convictions, lifestyle, or family and friends is an effective technique for forcing them to accept new ideas.
- Confinement and isolation: Keeping victims confined and away from the people and environments that are familiar to them breaks down resistance and is a technique often used to brainwash individuals.
- Despite torture, victims often end up feeling a bond between themselves and their captors: After accepting the new ideals of the group, victims will also accept their treatment and even feel bonded and loyal to their captors.
- Mystical Manipulation: This mind control technique is used to convince victims that their captors or leaders experience divine intervention. Supposedly spontaneous "magic" or spiritual-like experiences will occur, making the brainwashers seem more powerful and truthful, but it is actually an orchestrated plan designed to trick victims.
- Purity and perfection: Brainwashers and cult groups force victims to become converts who wholly accept and support the ideals of the group. The group is considered the only true way to become pure and good, and members must always strive for perfection.
- Time control: Psychologist Margaret Singer lists time control as an effective brainwashing or mind control technique, which requires that manipulators or cult leaders monitor and designate the way victims spend their time, including what they think about at any given moment.
- Ideals and beliefs are viewed as black and white: There is no room for debate, analysis or questioning when brainwashing. A victim must completely accept any new ideas and wholly reject any competing beliefs, lifestyles, people or experiences.
- Restriction of independent thinking or actions: According to mental health counselor Steven Hassan’s BITE model for mind control, effective brainwashing requires victims to ask for permission before making decisions or doing certain things. The idea that everything must be done for the group and with the group is also a prominent brainwashing tactic.
- Spying: Steven Hassan has also found that spying is encouraged among group members and victims to heighten a sense of paranoia and loyalty to group leaders.
- Dehuminzation and demonization: Cult or group leaders may dehumanize or demonize outside people or ideas in order to make their ideas seem more like the only true, good way.
- Torture and stress techniques: Psychiatrist and researcher William Sargant found that "intense signals, longer than normal waiting periods, rotating positive and negative signals and changing…physical condition" were effective techniques for radically changing the personality of dogs.
- Dispensing of Existence: This term or technique refers to the idea that brainwashers have the power to control the fate of the existence or placement of victims in their group.
- Sacred Science: This brainwashing principle means that the ideas of the group, or the ideas that a brainwasher is trying to instill in his or her victim, are equal to God in terms of purity, sacredness and truth.
- Brainwashing is more of a pop culture phenomenon rather than a scientific fact: While there has been much theoretical research done on brainwashing, mind control and cults, Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick tries to explain the reasoning behind the American brainwashing defense — in criminal court and generally — by writing that "brainwashing became so much a part of mainstream popular culture."
These famous cases have kept brainwashing and the threat of mind control in the public eye.
- U.S. use of the term brainwashing: The term brainwashing started being used in U.S. vocabulary during the Korean War as a way of explaining why American troops switched sides after being prisoners-of-war. Their defection was probably caused by torture, like sleep-deprivation.
- Patty Hearst: Patty Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, was famously kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. She was brainwashed and eventually assisted in a bank robbery with the SLA, for which she was imprisoned. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter commuted her term, and she was released. President Bill Clinton fully pardoned Hearst in 2001.
- Nazis and propaganda: Many believe that the Nazi’s use of propaganda brainwashed the German citizens into believing the lies about Jews and other supposedly "inferior" races or social groups.
- Elizabeth Smart: The story of kidnapped teenager Elizabeth Smart was a major public-interest news story from the time she disappeared in 2002 until she was found nine months later. Smart’s parents and family members were suspected of the crime, but Smart was ultimately found in the custody of Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Ileen Barzee. In an interview with Good Morning America, Elizabeth’s father Ed Smart revealed that he believed his daughter had been brainwashed. Elizabeth had stayed with her captors in the mountains behind her home and heard rescuers calling for her, but never left Mitchell or Barzee.