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.

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