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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 beliefs—both 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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage