Brainwashing is a term frequently used in the popular media to refer to a phenomenon known among psychologists as coercive persuasion. Essentially, the term refers to a set of strategies used to forcibly change someone’s belief system, so they will adhere to a new set of beliefs and obligations. In the public mind, the term often has been associated with the change of perspective and abandonment of family and values often seen in members of religious cults. Some of the techniques described below, however, have also been standard tools in the interrogation of uncooperative prisoners throughout human history.
Major elements of coercive persuasion include:
- Application of physical or emotional stress. Physical stress would include deprivation of sleep, food, light, or exercise. Emotional stress would include isolation with no stimulation, constant repetitive chanting, or sleep deprivation to the point of entering a trancelike state.
- Attribution of all of the person’s problems to one simple explanation, which is repeated over and over. This technique worked well for the Nazis, but it works equally well for today’s ﬁnancial self-help gurus and fringe religious groups.
- Unconditional love, acceptance, and attention are provided by the group leader, who ignores any and all faults, if the subject will come to him.
- Creation of a new identity. This frequently includes a name change and special clothes, as with the practices of the Hare Krishna movement, who all dress identically and sport distinctive haircuts. This makes group membership far more important than individual identity, thus rendering members easier to control.
- Entrapment: also known as the foot-in-the-door technique. The member agrees to a few small changes but then demands begin to gradually increase. Once the demands become unreasonable, it’s too late, and cognitive dissonance is reduced by continuing to go along with the demands.
- Access to information is severely controlled. The group may require a severing of preexisting social ties, including ties to family. Doubts about the group or its leader are mocked, along with attempts at critical thinking. Any distress caused by this is attributed to a lack of sufﬁcient faith in the group or its leader.
The implementation and effectiveness of these techniques are readily seen in the activities of several of the more notorious cults of recent years. The members of Marshall Applewhite’s small Heaven’s Gate community, for example, were all highly intelligent by most measures, yet all of them, including their leader, after dressing identically, lay down and committed suicide in anticipation of being taken aboard a spaceship hidden in the tail of the comet HaleBopp. In Tokyo the members of Aum Shinrikyo, who all wear identical clothing and masks of their leader’s face, injured thousands by releasing nerve gas in a subway system.
Contrary to what many believe, these techniques work on everyone, not just the ignorant or unintelligent. Mohamed Atta, a 9/11 pilot, was well-educated and wealthy, with no apparent psychopathology, a description which equally well suits the followers of Marshall Applewhite, as well as those of Jim Jones, the People’s Temple leader whose followers, over 900, including many children, committed suicide together in the jungles of Guyana.
- Ofshe, R. J., and Watters, E. Making Monsters: False Memory, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. New York: Scribner’s, 1994;
- Zimbardo, P. G., and Leippe, M. R. The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Inﬂuence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.
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