How does brainwashing work?
Brainwashing is the process of changing the thoughts and beliefs of another person against their will. In psychology, brainwashing is often referred to as “thought reform” or “thought control”.
We frequently hear about brainwashing in our everyday lives. Are advertising and infomercials brainwashing? What about political rhetoric? Or rightist talk radio? Most people view these as persuasion, propaganda, education, or campaigning, not as brainwashing in the narrow sense of the word.
Famous Cases of Brainwashing
Let’s look at some of the more famous cases of so-called brainwashing. A few American soldiers captured in the Korean War confessed to their North Korean captors to waging germ warfare, and a few reportedly pledged allegiances to communism. At least twenty-one refused to return to the United States after 1953. Patty Hearst, heiress to a publishing fortune was kidnapped by the left-wing Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. The group isolated and brutalized her, and she ended up joining the group. A famous photo from a surveillance camera shows a gun-toting Hearst robbing a bank.
Lee Boyd Malvo assisted John Allen Muhammad in killing ten people in 2002 Washington, DC, sniper Attack. Malvo, age seventeen, was abandoned by his mother in Antigua, picked up by Muhammad, brought to the US, and brainwashed into believing there was an impeding war between the Islamic religion and the United States.
Lawyers used the brainwashing defense in both the Hearst and Malvo cases. In both trials, the defese claimed their client would not have committed such crimes under normal situations.
Brainwashing and Religion
Some infamous religious cults could fall into the brainwashing category, too, including the People’s Temple with Jim Jones in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, Texas; and Heaven’s Gate, founded by Marshall Aplewhite, out in San Diego. Some people consider these cases to be brainwashing because the adherents engaged in activities that are out of the mainstream of accepted societal behavior. Examples include isolation, suicide, and total adherence to a single leader.
The Manson family, the Ku Klux Klan, the Unification Church and the Hare Krishna movement are sometimes put in the brainwashing category, but not everyone would agree.
True brainwashing is an intense form of influence, requiring complete isolation and dependency of the brainwashee. This kind of brainwashing takes place in prison camps or cultist compounds. The practitioner has complete control over the victim’s sleep and eating patterns, and even bathroom privileges. Through this forced total dependency the brainwasher breaks down the person’s identity to the point where there is nothing left. The brainwasher then replaces that identity with another set of values, beliefs and attitudes.
The 1962 psychological-thriller classical movie The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Janet Leight, and Angela Lansbury, is a good depiction of brainwashing. Tin this political thriller, the son of a prominent US family is brainwashed by his communists handlers to assassinate a potential political opponent. They remade it in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. The critics said it was bad and they are probably right.