Jul 23 2013


In the movie, The Manchurian Candidate, a Korean war POW returns home, but during his captivity he had been “brainwashed” and turned into a sleeper political assassin. The movie is partly responsible for bringing the concept of brainwashing to the public consciousness.

I occasionally am asked something to the effect of, “is brainwashing real?” The problem with this question is that first you need to define “brainwashing.”  The answer depends on that definition.

Brainwashing is the process of altering one’s beliefs and opinions through aggressive influence, and typically without the consent of the individual. Brainwashing combines three techniques – social influence, persuasion, and education.

Social influence is simply altering someone’s beliefs and behavior through emotional appeals and psychological manipulation. Persuasion involves argument – persuading someone that the new beliefs are correct. Education involves propaganda – giving people information selected or distorted to lead them to a set of beliefs.

The problem with the definition of brainwashing is the demarcation issue – where do we draw the line between common everyday interactions, like advertising, political advocacy, and regular education at one end, and malignant brainwashing at the other?

If you include any attempt at manipulating the beliefs of others as brainwashing, then sure, it absolutely exists and works to some degree. If you define brainwashing as only the Manchurian Candidate end of the spectrum – the ability to implant secret commands that can be triggered at a future date – then, no.

Part of the problem is that the term “brainwashing” has entered the vernacular and is now used to refer to any significant attempt at altering the beliefs of others, even on a single issue. It therefore has lost much of its meaning through dilution.

The term is probably better reserved for those situations that go beyond everyday activity, such as advertising, or Fox News.

There are real examples of situations that can be meaningfully called brainwashing. Totalitarian cults, for example, seek to completely control and take over the lives of their members. This includes physical manipulation, such as sleep deprivation, starvation, and control of the environment and even basic bodily functions like going to the bathroom.

Totalitarian cults also engage in extreme emotional manipulation, such as “love bombing” – overwhelming someone with positive attention from the group.

Brainwashing, in other words, requires a high degree of control. Prisoners, therefore, are vulnerable to brainwashing because their captors control their every waking moment. North Korea and China apparently engaged in a brainwashing program of POWs from the Korean War. However, the program was only successful on 21 out of 20,000 POWs to the extent that they chose to live in China after being released.

There were many more collaborators who had been turned while a prisoner. According to released documents, however, the Chinese and Koreans did not use any innovative secret methods of brainwashing. Rather:

The methods included isolation; sleep deprivation; compulsory ideological classes; threats; public- and self-criticism; endless “confessions;” exploitation of anger over U.S. racial discrimination; destruction of the chain of command; sophisticated psychological pressure; bribery and blackmail.

Are the above methods “brainwashing?” Again, it depends on your definition. You might also refer to such techniques as “indoctrination” rather than full “brainwashing.”

Here is also an interesting interview with a North Korean military officer who defected, Kim Joo-Il. He describes a national program of indoctrination through education and propaganda. The article refers to this as brainwashing, showing again how the lines of definition are blurred.


To answer the question of, is brainwashing real, I would say this – techniques for influencing the beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors of others certainly exist and are variably effective. These techniques exist along a spectrum from simple influence, to indoctrination, all the way to totalitarian control and brainwashing. There are no sharp demarcation lines, but the extremes do exist.

Brainwashing, however, does not involve secret techniques to reprogram the target’s brain without their knowledge, making sleeper assassins or something similar. They are just extreme attempts at influence through manipulation and control.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “Brainwashed”

  1. Billzbub says:


    When I was in college, I like to hypnotize people for fun. It sure seemed to me that the people that were hypnotized really believed the ludicrous things that I was telling them, and that the suggestions could last for a long time. For example, one person I hypnotized totally believed that a rock was talking to them. Another person would immediately go back into the “trance” any time that I pretended to shoot them with my fingers, even days after the actual hypnosis.

    I really believe that I could have brought them up to a roof and told them that there was a plank that extended off the roof, and they would have tried to walk on it. Could tricky implementation of hypnosis be used to pull of something like the Manchurian Candidate where the subject would think they are doing something else so it wouldn’t violate their beliefs?

  2. LDoBe says:

    Hypnosis is certainly interesting. But it has a lot of limitations that can get in the way of this kind of brainwashing. In order to get the subject in a hyper-suggestible state, they have to trust the hypnotist. Without trust it doesn’t work. After that, the subject can’t be made to do anything against their core beliefs. You can alter their perceptions fairly easily (eg the balloon test), but it would have to be subtle enough that they don’t catch on that the hypnotist is trying to get them to do something against their core beliefs.
    Hypnosis has problems even with willing subjects. It woul be immensely difficult to implant complex post-hypnotic suggestions into someone being held as a POW. The whole situation screams distrust, which means hypnosis is probably not an effective method.

  3. @Icethetix says:

    Pardon my ignorance but I hold “Hypnosis” in the same light as Homeopathy and it’s ilk. Power of suggestion I believe is possible to different degrees depending on the individual but full on Hypnosis? I’d really like to hear from Steve on this one if he has any opinion on it. So much so, I’ve gone and registered an account so I could post this.

    “Just smart enough to appreciate how dumb I am”

  4. BillyJoe7 says:

    No mention of religion which is surely the most pervasive and effective form of influence/indoctrination/brainwashing ever invented.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    There is also what is called Stockholm Syndrome which is in effect a form of brainwashing that invokes an attachment to an abuser. I do not doubt that attaching to a perpetrator could have been protective, so many organisms have the capacity to do so, not just humans. In lions, after the new alpha male kills the cubs from the old alpha male, the mothers of those cubs will still mate with him.

    There are many cases of suspects confessing to crimes they never committed at the urging of police.

  6. Billzbub says:

    @LDoBe: Thanks for that response. I see what you are saying. It makes sense that you have to be willing and trusting to be hypnotized, which would prevent this from happening. I’m not sure about the core beliefs thing though. I think if you trick their perceptions by saying, for example, that their target is just a poster and not a real person, then it would short-circuit any core belief problem they might have.

  7. Mitchell says:

    Billzbub: The saying is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the claim that in college you could have hypnotized people into walking off a roof is an extraordinary one. Perhaps you could give us a bit more context, like, how long ago this all happened, how you met your hypnotic subjects, whether you are still in touch with them, and so on?

  8. Senex says:

    I wonder what you think, Steve, of the Patty Hearst case. On one hand they systematically tortured her — on another hand when she had a chance to escape she chose to stay and identified with her captors. Unlike POW’s she knew the cavalry was looking for her. Those POW’s thought they were forgotten. She doesn’t seem radicalized now and appears a model citizen after being released from jail.

    I’m interested in influence as a topic. I think the Hearst case is chin scratcher.

  9. Bronze Dog says:

    There is also what is called Stockholm Syndrome which is in effect a form of brainwashing that invokes an attachment to an abuser. I do not doubt that attaching to a perpetrator could have been protective, so many organisms have the capacity to do so, not just humans.

    I have a suspicion in some cases, like hostages feeling sympathy for their captors might in part come from seeing their human reactions to the stresses, instead of seeing them as action movie mooks. In longer lasting hostage situations, the hostage takers would likely give them a one-sided account of their motives, goals, and justifications while the situation restricts the hostages’ access to alternative perspectives.

  10. ccbowers says:

    “I have a suspicion in some cases, like hostages feeling sympathy for their captors might in part come from seeing their human reactions to the stresses,”

    I agree that this is a better way to characterize this phenomenon, rather than an active attempt at brainwashing by the captors being the primary cause. In addition to the typical bonding through sharing experiences, I think that there is an added effect of having traumatic shared experiences that add to the bonding to some degree (even if the trauma is cause by the captors). Hazing also attempts to take advantage of this effect, by creating trauma and/or adversity. Of course I am not saying that this is good. I think that it is pretty clear that this type of bonding is pathological.

  11. mufi says:

    This topic brings to mind something that cognitive scientist/linguist George Lakoff wrote (see pg. 128 of The Political Mind):

    How did the “war on terror” metaphor get established as the idea to characterize our Middle East involvement? Neuroscience tells us that ideas are physically instantiated as part of our brains and that changes occur at the synapses. Such synaptic changes, called long-term potentiation, occur under two conditions-trauma (where there is especially strong neural firing) and repetition (where neural firing recurs). September 11 was a national trauma, and the “war on terror” was introduced under conditions of trauma, then repeated over and over for years. The result was that the metaphorical idea became physically instantiated in the brains of most Americans.

    I’m tempted to say that the Bush Administration and the media “brainwashed” us on this metaphor, which then influences how we think about the topic, but perhaps that’s extreme. It’s definitely somewhere on that spectrum, though.

  12. tmac57 says:

    mufi- I’ve never read Lakoff,but the interviews that I’ve heard him do are intriguing.
    At the risk of slipping into politics (which almost never goes well 😉 ) I feel like there is a massive campaign to re-frame almost every issue toward some sort of malevolent political agenda in a kind of steady drum beat of (brainwashing?) demagoguery that seeks to, and often succeeds at getting people to check their brains and critical thinking skills at the door.
    Never in my lifetime have I seen so much biased information disseminated as the ‘Truth that they don’t want you to know’. It is alarming,and frustrating,and in some ways parallels the phenomena of bullying.
    I guess I need to read that book.Thanks

  13. HarryBlack says:

    I feel like this is such a difficult question to answer because of the objectivity issue. The term brainwashing is only ever used to describe something we would think of as negative. So to some of us religion is brainwashing, to religious people its an awakening. Until they lose religion in which case its brainwashing again.
    Similarly, the idea of choosing positive behaviours for people versus negative ones should be scemantics. If foreign governments can “program” someone to change their political beliefs. Cant they also program people not to repeat offend in serious harmful crimes? Do they? The stats for change of beliefs in POWS seem less effective than a televised debate…
    I think before the psychology of why behaviours change or even the neurology of it we need a more neutral and specific definition of what we are talking about. Does brainwashing refer to everything adopted after the initial values the person had? Is reforming a born and bred white supremacist brain washing? Is it more beneficial or harmful to society?
    For what its worth having had the experience of being what many would describe as brainwashed numerous times throughout my life my gut feeling is that it has more to do with reducing the cognative dissonance of a survival or success strategy. I didnt want to believe that I behaved the way the military wanted me to because i was afraid. My ego changed my perspective to “this is totally right and people outside just dont get it”.
    In any case Im not sure how ethical it would be to push such responsibility on to the victims of harsh situations for the sake of a tidy definition as I feel that type of mental flexibility, however we may view it or judge it is the reason many people survived otherwise crushing situations.

  14. leonet says:

    @Icethetix: I think the scientific literature on hypnosis is clearer than on things like homeopoathy. The experiments seem to show that hypnosis “is”, in the literal sense of the word, a “belief”. For example, if you do the same “ritual” with a group of people and tell some that it’s “hypnosis” and some that it’s just “relaxation”, those who think they’re “hypnotized” respond significantly more. (source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15950884)

    I think people underestimate how strongly belief influences behavior. You can’t really program a person in a fashion that they’re totally unaware of, but if you put them in a situation in which their beliefs and the social milieu (e.g. the audience) both push them towards a certain behavior, they will feel a very strong compulsion to go along with what they are expected to do.

  15. Bruce Woodward says:


    One thing hypnotists seem to say is that some people are more “suggestible”, and I have always wondered about that and linking in with brainwashing, is there any evidence that any type of person is more easily brainwashed or hypnotised?

    If so are there any external factors that can make us more or less suggestible?

    @ Icethetix re “Just smart enough to appreciate how dumb I am”

    Every day I think I have plumbed the depths of how little I know, every day I have more questions than the one before. The intellectual security is saying “God/Aliens/My Spirit Guide Benito did it all” must be a strange kind of relief… at least for a while.

  16. leonet says:

    In the lab, suggestibility is measured using questionnaires that begin with a ritual to prime the subject (hypnosis induction or watching a series of images or videos to deliver a suggestion) and then given a task. It’s probably debatable as to whether these scales really measure the sum total of what we’d call suggestibility, but they are reproducible in terms of things like Stroop inhibition.

    As far as external factors influencing suggestibility, I’ve seen some contradictory papers showing that hormones like oxytocin might or might not make people more suggestion. In principle though, if you agree with Dr. Novella (and most of us here) that the brain generates all of what we call consciousness, then it seems to follow that a sufficiently advanced technique for drugging the right neural pathways would be able to control behavior.

    I wonder if Dr. N has any thoughts on this possibility.

  17. superdave says:

    Part of the problem is that people don’t like to consider that there are two sides to ever story, so they think that there is no way anyone could disagree with their opinions or be taught to disagree with them without any malevolent intent.

  18. Bill Openthalt says:

    @ superdave… they think that there is no way anyone could disagree with their opinions or be taught to disagree with them without any malevolent intent.

    Actually, the passion or vehemence with which people defend their opinions (and concomitantly attack the opinions of their perceived opponents) is inversely proportional to the scientific basis of these opinions. This relation is present even if these people honestly present their opinions as scientifically based.

    There are some interesting corollaries:

    1. Passionate commitment to an opinion (or a group created around such an opinion), can only exist if this opinion is not scientifically verifiable. Worse, the most scientifically ludicrous opinions generate the most passionate commitment.

    2. The passion/vehemence with which an opinion is defended is a measure for its scientific basis, even if the proponent is convinced the idea is scientifically sound.

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