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Brainwashing or thought reform is the application of coercive techniques to change the beliefs or behavior of one or more people for political purposes.

The term first came into use in the United States in the 1950s during the Korean War, to describe the methods used by the Chinese communists to cause deep and permanent behavioral changes in their own people and foreign prisoners, and especially to disrupt the ability of prisoners of war to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment.

It was also used in the US as an explanation for why a few American GIs appeared to defect to the Communists after becoming prisoners of war. Later analysis determined that sleep deprivation and torture were to blame for these events, noting that few repatriated prisoners of war retained allegiance to Marxist doctrine which had been inculcated during their incarceration.

Although the use of brainwashing on United Nations prisoners during the Korean War produced some propaganda benefits, its main utility to the Chinese lay in the fact that it significantly altered the number of prisoners that one guard could control, thus freeing other Chinese soldiers to go to the battlefield.

In later times the term "brainwashing" came to apply to other methods of coercive persuasion and even to the effective use of ordinary propaganda.

Many people have come to use the terms "brainwashing" or "mind control" to explain the otherwise intuitively puzzling success of some methodologies for the religious conversion of inductees to new religious movements (including cults).

The term 'brainwashing' is not widely used in psychology and other sciences, because of its vagueness and history of being used in propaganda. It is often more helpful to analyze 'brainwashing' as a combination of persuasion and attitude change, propaganda, coercion, and restriction of access to information. Note that many of these techniques are more subtly used (usually unconsciously) by advertisers, governments, schools, parents and peers, so the aura of exoticism around 'brainwashing' is undeserved.


The Korean war and the origin of the term

The Communist Party of China used the phrase "Xi Nao" ("wash brain") to describe their methods of persuasion in ensuring that members who strayed from the Party message were brought back into orthodoxy. The phrase was a play on "Xi Xin", ("wash heart") a commandment found in many Daoist temples ordering the faithful to cleanse their hearts of impure desires before entering.

In September 1950, the Miami Daily News published an article by Edward Hunter (1902-1978) titled "'Brain-Washing' Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party." It contained the first printed use of the term "brainwashing," which quickly became a stock phrase in Cold War headlines. Hunter, a CIA propaganda operator who worked under-cover as a journalist, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. An additional article by Hunter on the same subject appeared in New Leader magazine in 1951. In 1953 Allen Welsh Dulles, the CIA director at that time, explained that "the brain under [Communist influence] becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control."

In his 1956 book "Brain-Washing: The Story of the Men Who Defied It", Edward Hunter described "a system of befogging the brain so a person can be seduced into acceptance of what otherwise would be abhorrent to him". According to Hunter, the process is so destructive of physical and mental health that many his interviewees had not fully recovered after several years of freedom from Chinese captivity.

Later, two studies of the Korean War defections by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein concluded that brainwashing had a transient effect when used on prisoners of war. Lifton and Schein found that the Chinese did not engage in any systematic re-education of prisoners, but generally used their techniques of coercive persuasion to disrupt the ability of the prisoners to organize to maintain their morale and to try to escape. The Chinese did however succeed in getting some of the prisoners to make anti-American statements by placing the prisoners under harsh conditions of deprivation and then by offering them more comfortable situations such as better sleeping quarters, better food, warmer clothes or blankets. Nevertheless, the psychiatrists noted that even these measures of coercion proved quite ineffective at changing basic attitudes for most people. In essence, the prisoners did not actually adopt Communist beliefs. Rather, many of them behaved as though they did in order to avoid the plausible threat of extreme physical abuse. Moreover, the few prisoners influenced by Communist indoctrination apparently succumbed as a result of the confluence of the coercive persuasion, and of the motives and personality characteristics of the prisoners that already existed before imprisonment.

Lifton and Schein, also dicussed coercive persuasion in their analysis of POWs. They defined coercive persuasion, in terms of a mixture of social, psychological and physical pressures applied to produce changes in an individual's beliefs and attitudes. Lifton and Schein concluded that such coercive persuasion can succeed in the presence of a physical element of confinement, "forcing the individual into a situation in which he must, in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose himself to persuasive attempts". They also concluded that such coercive persuasion succeeded only on a minority of POWs (only 11 out of 3,000 Korean War POWs actually converted to Communism) and that the end result of such coercion remained very unstable, as most of the individuals reverted to their previous condition soon after they left the coercive environment.

The use of coercive persuasion techniques in China

Brainwashing (the popular name for the phenomenon) or "thought reform" (a more formal designation) consisted of techniques and methods used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such techniques originated earlier: in the Soviet Union to prepare prisoners for show trials; as well as even earlier in the Inquisition. These techniques had multiple goals that went far beyond the simple control of subjects in the prison camps of North Korea. They aimed to produce confessions, to convince the accused that they had indeed perpetrated anti-social acts, to make them feel guilty of these "crimes" against the state, to make them desirous of a fundamental change in outlook toward the institutions of the new communist society, and, finally, to actually accomplish these desired changes in the recipients of the brainwashing/thought-reform. To that end, "brainwashers" used techniques that broke down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, with regard to information retained in the mind, and with regard to values. To accomplish the goals of the exercise, many techniques came into play, including dehumanizing of individuals by keeping them in filth, sleep deprivation, psychological harassment, inculcation of guilt, group social pressure, etc. The ultimate goal that drove these extreme efforts consisted of the transformation of an individual with a "feudal" or capitalist mindset into a "right thinking" member of the new social system.

The methods of thought control proved extremely useful at gaining prisoner compliance. Key elements in their success included tight control of the information available to the individual and tight control over the behavior of the individual. When close control of information broke down, former prisoners fairly quickly regained an "objective" original picture of the world and of the societies from which they had come. Furthermore, prisoners subject to thought control often simply behaved in ways that pleased their captors, without changing their fundamental beliefs. So the fear of brainwashed sleeper agents, such as that dramatized in the novel or in the films of The Manchurian Candidate, never materialized.

Terrible though the process frequently seemed to individuals imprisoned by the Chinese Communist Party, these attempts at extreme coercive persuasion ended with a reassuring result: they showed that the human mind has enormous ability to adapt to stress and also a powerful homeostatic capacity. John Clifford, S.J. gives an account of one man's resistance to brainwashing in In the Presence of My Enemies.

Brainwashing controversies

A claim that the theory was mere political propaganda

According to research and forensic psychologist Dick Anthony, the CIA invented the brainwashing ideology as a propaganda strategy to undercut communist claims that American POWs in Korean communist camps had voluntarily expressed sympathy for communism and that definitive research demonstrated that collaboration by western POWs had been caused by fear and duress, and not by brainwashing. He argues that The CIA brainwashing theory was pushed to the general public though the books of Edward Hunter, who was a secret CIA "psychological warfare specialist" passing as a journalist. He further asserts that in the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted secret research for twenty years, attempting to develop practical brainwashing techniques and that the research was a failure. See the article on MKULTRA for an example.

Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements and cults

In the 1960s, after coming into contact with new religious movements (NRMs, popularly referred to as "cults'), some young people suddenly adopted faiths, beliefs, and behavior that differed markedly from their previous lifestyles and seemed at variance with their upbringing. In some cases, these people neglected or even broke contact with their families. All of these changes appeared very strange and upsetting to their families. To explain these phenomena, the theory was postulated that these young people had been brainwashed by these new religious movements by isolating them from their family and friends (inviting them to an end of term camp after university for example), arranging a sleep deprivation program (3 a.m. prayer meetings) and exposing them to loud and repetitive chanting. Another alleged technique of religious brainwashing involved love bombing rather than torture.

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In the early 1980s, some U.S. mental health professionals became controversial figures due to their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against new religious movements, during which they presented anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or “coercive persuasion” as generally accepted concepts within the scientific community. The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1983 asked Margaret Singer, one of the most vocal proponents of coercive persuasion theories, to chair a taskforce caled DIMPAC to investigate whether brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements. Before the taskforce had submitted its final report, however, the APA submitted an amicus curić brief in an ongoing case. The brief stated that "[t]he methodology of Drs. Singer and Benson has been repudiated by the scientific community", that the hypotheses advanced by Singer were "little more than uninformed speculation, based on skewed data" and that "[t]he coercive persuasion theory ... is not a meaningful scientific concept"[1] ( However, the brief did not characterize the theory of brainwashing as disproven or as unscientific (as some comentators assert) -- only as not scientifically proven. The brief itself suggests the hypothesis that cult recruitment techniques might prove coercive for certain sub-groups, while not affecting others coercively. When the DIMPAC report finally appeared in 1987, the APA rejected it because it "lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur".

In their Handbook of Cults and Sects in America, Bromley and Hadden present the ideological foundation of the brainwashing theories, and demonstrate its lack of scientific support. They argue that the simplistic perspective inherent in the brainwashing metaphor appeals to those attempting to locate a effective social weapon to use against disfavored groups, and that the relative success of such efforts at social control should not detract from the lack of scientific basis for such opinions.

Psychologists, sociologists, many ex-members of purported cults, and most anti-cult activists now concede that the term brainwashing does not properly apply to the recruitment and retention techniques used by the so-called or alleged cults. Given the linguistic/semantic controversy, some anti-cult activists like Steven Hassan started using the term mind control as an alternative label. See also cults and mind control controversies.

Note that some religious groups, especially those of Hindu and Buddhist origin, openly state that they seek to improve the natural human mind by spiritual exercises. Intense spiritual exercises have an effect on the mind, for example by leading to an altered state of consciousness. These groups state, however, that they do not use coercive techniques to acquire or to retain converts.

Social scientists who study new religious movements, such as Jeffrey K. Hadden (see References), understand the general proposition that religious groups can have considerable influence over their members, and that that influence may have come about through deception and indoctrination. Indeed, many sociologists observe that "influence" occurs ubiquitously in human cultures, and some argue that the influence exerted in "cults" or new religious movements does not differ greatly from the influence present in practically every domain of human action and of human endeavor.

The Association of World Academics for Religious Education, states that "... without the legitimating umbrella of brainwashing ideology, deprogramming -- the practice of kidnapping members of NRMs and destroying their religious faith -- cannot be justified, either legally or morally".

Dr. James Richardson, a Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, claims that if the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that NRMs would have high growth rates, while in fact most have not had notable success in recruitment, most adherents participate for only a short time, and that the success in retaining members has been limited. In addition, Tom Robbins, Eileen Barker, Newton Maloney, Massimo Introvigne, John Hall, Lorne Dawson, Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley, Gordon Melton, Marc Galanter, Saul Levine and other scholars researching NRMs have argued -- and established to the satisfaction of courts and relevant professional associations and scientific communities -- that there exists no scientific theory, generally accepted and based upon methodologically sound research, that supports the brainwashing theories as advanced by the anti-cult movement.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a statement in 1977 related to brainwashing and mind control. In this statement the ACLU opposed certain methods "depriving people of the free excercise of religion". The ACLU also rejected (under certain conditions) the idea that claims of the use of 'brainwashing' or of 'mind control' should overcome the free exercise of religion. (See quote (

Thought reform theories

Thought reform is the alteration of a person's basic attitudes and beliefs by outside manipulation. The term usually relates closely to brainwashing and mind control.

Steven Hassan, a controversial anti-cultist, has suggested that the influence of sincere but misled people can provide a significant factor in the process of thought reform. However, many scholars in the field of new religious movements do not accept Hassan's Bite model ( for understanding cults.

One of the first published uses of the term thought reform occurred in the title of the book by Robert Jay Lifton (a professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York): Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China (1961). (Lifton also testified at the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst.)

See also Religious conversion

Colloquial use

Popular speech continues to use the word brainwashed informally and pejoratively to describe persons subjected to intensive influence resulting in the rejection of old beliefs and in the acceptance of new ones; or to acount for someone who holds strong ideas considered to be implausible and that seem resistant to evidence, common sense, experience, and logic. Such popular usage often implies a belief that the ideas of the allegedly brainwashed person developed under some external influence such as books, television programs, television commercials (as producing brainwashed consumers), video games, religious groups, political groups, or other people. Mind control expresses a conception only mildly less dramatic than brainwashing, with thought control slightly milder again. With thought reform and coercion we start to move into acceptably neutral academic jargon and into the areas of propaganda, influence and persuasion.


The alarmist concept of brainwashing functioned as a central theme in the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate in which Communist brainwashers turned a soldier into an assassin through something akin to hypnosis. The idea that one person could be so enslaved to another as to do their bidding even when (no longer) under duress, has fascinated dramatists and movie viewers throughout the ages.

The Charles Bronson movie Telefon had a similiar plot to The Manchurian Candidate but featured water supply tampering as the brainwashing technique instead of hypnotic suggestion.

It also plays a central role in The Ipcress File, where Michael Caine tries to resist his re-programming. The idea has also appeared in comedies such as The Naked Gun, where Reggie Jackson becomes a tool in an effort to kill Queen Elizabeth II, and in Zoolander, which depicts male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) becoming brainwashed/hypnotized into trying to kill a fictional Prime Minister of Malaysia.

See also


  • Anthony, Dick. 1990. "Religious Movements and 'Brainwashing' Litigation" in Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins, In Gods We Trust. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Excerpt available online (
  • Hadden, Jeffrey K., The Brainwashing Controversy (
  • Hadden, Jeffery K., and Bromley, David, eds. (1993), The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc., pp. 75-97
  • Hassan, Steven Releasing The Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, 2000. ISBN 0967068800.
  • Richardson, James T., "Brainwashing Claims and Minority Religions Outside the United States: Cultural Diffusion of a Questionable Concept in the Legal Arena", Brigham Young University Law Review circa 1994
  • Robert J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961)
  • Scheflin, Alan W and Opton, Edward M. Jr., The Mind Manipulators. A Non-Fiction Account, (1978), p. 437
  • Schein, Edgar H. et al., Coercive Persuasion (1961)
  • Shapiro, K. A. et al, Grammatical distinctions in the left frontal cortex ( Cogn. Neurosci. 13, pp. 713-720 (2001).
  • Wakefield, Hollida, M.A. and Underwager, Ralph, Ph.D., Coerced or Nonvoluntary Confessions, Institute for Psychological Therapies.


  • Anthony, Dick, Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence. An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials, Ph.D. Diss., Berkeley (California): Graduate Theological Union, 1996, p. 165.
  • Hunter, Edward, Brain-Washing in Red China. The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds, New York: The Vanguard Press, 1951; 2nd expanded ed.: New York: The Vanguard Press, 1953
  • Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Communist Psychological Warfare (Brainwashing), United States House of Representatives, Washington, D. C., Tuesday, March 13, 1958
  • Hassan, Steven. Releasing The Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, 2000. ISBN 0967068800.

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