A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is brainwashing possible?

March 18, 2005

Dear Cecil:

Is brainwashing possible? How does it work? Does the government really use it? How would I go about brainwashing someone?

Cecil replies:

Let's define our terms. If by brainwashed you mean "presenting a zombie-like appearance and having no interest in normal human contact," all you have to do is sit your subject down with a Game Boy. However, if you're looking for something a little more advanced, e.g., a preprogrammed assassin as depicted in the 1962 movie and 2004 remake The Manchurian Candidate, that could be a little tougher to deliver on. As with many manifestations of cold-war paranoia, brainwashing was about 80 percent fantasy and 20 percent fact.

The term brainwashing was first used by a journalist (and, it turned out, CIA hireling) named Edward Hunter, who in 1951 published a book called Brainwashing in Red China. As portrayed by Hunter and later writers, brainwashing was a scientific program of mind control in which masterful communist manipulators used techniques such as Pavlovian conditioning, drugs, and hypnosis to turn ordinary folks into robotlike tools of the state. The public ate it up and soon was calling any type of communist indoctrination brainwashing. When U.S. servicemen captured during the Korean conflict publicly confessed to war crimes, the cry went up: They're brainwashing our boys! Subsequent scholarly studies of civilians released from communist Chinese prisons confirmed that something akin to brainwashing really was going on. Robert Jay Lifton, whose 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China remains one of the classic works in the field, interviewed dozens of ex-prisoners. He concluded that they'd been subjected to a multistep program starting with an assault on the prisoner's identity through brutality and humiliation and often leading to an admission of guilt, betrayal of friends and associates, and finally submission and (for some) release. In Lifton's persuasive depiction, several former captives, in particular a Catholic priest compelled to confess to implausible crimes, sound eerily like the broken protagonists in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As the quotation marks in Lifton's title suggest, however, scholars had already realized that early reports about communist mind-control techniques were greatly exaggerated. For one thing, U.S. Korean war prisoners had not been brainwashed in any meaningful sense. Though they had been subjected to group indoctrination, their confessions were extracted mainly through good old-fashioned beatings, exposure to hunger and cold, and so forth. Few were turned into committed communists. (To put things in perspective, only 21 U.S. prisoners refused repatriation after the war, compared to 22,000 POWs from communist countries.) The communist Chinese regime did, and in some form presumably still does, have an extensive system of reeducation camps in which antisocial elements were shown the error of their ways. However, social scientists now generally agree that the form of "coercive persuasion," as they prefer to call it, practiced there wasn't based on any novel or profound insight into the human psyche and didn't use exotic methods such as Pavlovian conditioning or drugs. Rather it consisted of traditional police interrogation tactics, a heavy dose of communist ideology, and constant badgering by other prisoners farther down the road to Marxist enlightenment. Implanting brainwashees with posthypnotic suggestions to kill and so forth was strictly Hollywood.

Brainwashing became a hot topic again in the 1970s with the rise of religious cults such as the Hare Krishnas, the Moonies, and, more chillingly, the People's Temple — you know, Jim Jones, poisoned Kool-Aid, etc. Cultists sometimes did crazy things; obviously, alarmists argued, they'd been brainwashed. Calmer sorts eventually established that in most cults physical coercion, an essential element of brainwashing as commonly understood, was missing. If anyone was doing any brainwashing it was the deprogrammers hired by families to kidnap their cult-member relatives and hold them captive for days in an effort to knock some sense into them.

One of the stranger aspects of the whole business was the attempt by the U.S. to develop its own behavior-control program. Fearful that it was falling behind in the brainwashing wars, the CIA starting in 1953 secretly funded a bizarre research effort known as MKULTRA — one initiative allegedly involved feeding LSD to a pre-hippie-era Timothy Leary and hundreds of others. After a congressional investigation in the 1970s headed by Senator Frank Church, the agency was ordered to halt drug experiments. Conspiracy buffs claim research on related techniques such as the ever-popular brain implants continues clandestinely, and I suppose one never knows. But the more likely story is that such programs were discontinued, not because anybody necessarily had moral scruples, but because the techniques under investigation just didn't work.

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