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The Science of Thought Control

by Kathleen Taylor


The Birth of a Word


Origins and Cognates

The term ‘brainwashing’ was born in the crucible of war – the Korean War. The United States, the major participant in this joint effort, soon noticed that something strange was happening to US troops taken captive by the enemy. Some emerged from prisoner of war camps as, apparently, converted Communists, ready to denounce their country of birth and sing the praises of the Maoist way of life. The phenomenon of prisoners forced to laud their captors was not a new one. But some of these soldiers continued their bizarre and passionate disloyalty even after they were free of the Communists’ grip.

That war, like other extreme situations, could do strange things to human begins had been known for centuries. William Sargant’s 1957 book Battle for the Mind recounts his work as a doctor and psychiatrist with veterans in WWII. Many of theses men were suffering from what used to be called shell shock or combat stress and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. William Sargant notes extraordinary changes in personality, wild fluctuations in mood and behaviour, alarming increases in suggestibility, and loss of self-control shown by both solders and civilians affected by traumatic experiences. Clearly the stresses of war could have a catastrophic impact on human brains.

But brainwashing is more than neurosis or psychosis. Such states may be induced as part of the brainwashing process, but they are only a step on the way to the goal of forcing the victim to succumb to the propaganda of the brainwashers. Brainwashing is characterised in a wholly negative terms as a kind of mental rape: it is forced upon the victim by an attacker whose intentions is to destroy the victim’s faith in former beliefs, to wipe the slate clean so that new beliefs may be adopted.

If someone disagrees with you, you can of course kill him, but that is risky. Alternative methods were already being developed by the earliest human groups. Robert J. Lifton identifies four such methods: coercion, exhortation, therapy and realisation. Like many methods of persuasion, thought reform as practised by the Chinese Communists uses elements of all four classes. However, what Lifton calls ‘ideological totalism’ – a tendency towards extreme, all-or-nothing modes of thought characteristic of totalitarian regimes – ‘leans most heavily upon the first two’, coercion and exhortation.


Aspects of Brainwashing

Brainwashing is not just a set of techniques. It is also a dream, a vision of ultimate control over not only behaviour but thought as well. Brainwashing is more ambitious, and more coercive than simple persuasion, and unlike older cognates such as indoctrination, it has become closely associated with modern, mechanistic technology. It is a systematic processing of non-compliant human beings which, if successful, refashions their very identities.

Finally, brainwashing has a guise as a concept of last resort, a screen pulled across to hide the abyss of our ignorance. We invoke it when we have no other explanation, or are not motivated to look for one. When faced with something extraordinary, such as apparent mass voluntary suicide, or the sympathy of some kidnap victims for their captors, our fist instinct is to describe the victims as brainwashed.


Victims and Environments

One obvious conclusion which we can draw from the literature on brainwashing is that in tis alleged status as a process – an evil and terrifying magic which turns free citizens into zombies – it is essentially a social process, requiring at least two participants. Brains are changed by signals from the world around them all the time, but we do not call noticing birdsong or the sound of a car ‘brainwashing’. For that term we require a coercive agent or agnets, and whatever occurs in brainwashing, as in any form of persuasion, involves a social interaction between the brainwasher and the victim.

It was from a totalitarian government that the term ‘brainwashing’ first emerged. So how do totalitarian States, or individuals, try to implement their dreams of control? For governments, Lifton identifies eight psychological themes characteristic of thought reform and of totalitarian ideologies in general. 

1. Milieu control – Control of an individual’s communication with the external world, hence of his or her perceptions of reality

2. Mystical manipulation – Evoking certain patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that they seem to be spontaneous (higher purposes or supernatural authorities)

3. The demand for purity – The belief that elements outside the chosen group should be eliminated to prevent them contaminating the minds of group members (binary oppositions inherent in totalist thought, e.g.; good/evil)

4. The cult of confession – The use and insistence on confession to minimise individual privacy

5. Sacred science – Viewing the ideology’s basic dogmas as both morally unchallengeable and scientifically exact, thus increasing their apparent authority

6. Loading the language – Compressing complex ideas into brief, definitive-souring phrases, ‘thought terminating clichés’ (ming-numbing process involving brief, highly reductive, definitive sounding phrases, easily memorised and expressed in order to suppress independent thinking)

7. The primacy of doctrine over person – The idea that a dogma is more true and more real than anything experienced by an individual human being

8. The dispensing of existence – The right to control the quality of life and eventual fate of both group members and non-members


God or the Group


Religion and Politics

The Idea

Both politics and religion call on certain core ideas which are so highly abstract that I refer to them as ‘ethereal’. Ethereal ideas are so ambiguous that they are often interpreted very differently by different individuals. This ambiguity makes them hard to challenge with rational debate; participants in such a debate may, in effect, be talking at cross-purposes. Speakers often use such ‘glittering generalities’ to mask impracticalities, hidden catches or other devils in the detail of their aims and objectives, or in the hope of evoking an emotional response from their audience which will increase the level of commitment to their agenda.

The emotions

While the abstract nature of ethereal ideas allows their adherents to avoid focusing on difficult practicalities, these concepts are not detached from reality. Far from it: they gain their power by being linked to specific, highly emotive examples. Human brains tend to associate two stimuli perceived at the same time, and a skilled speaker will make use of this, trying for instance to associate a perceived or real injustice with an ethereal idea.

The consequences

Ethereal ideas are generally bloodstained. Valued more highly than human life, they also facilitate the processes whereby, firstly, ends can come to justify means, and secondly, people who don’t accept their ideas encourage totalist thinking. They therefore can be used to justify acts of terrorism. Groping for explanations, we use terms like evil, mad or brainwashed. We also react with hostility and sometimes repression, providing a clear external threat which serves to strengthen the emotional commitment for terrorists.


The Psychology of Cults

Every cult, political or religious is unique; and although it is arguable that the major world religions began as cults, most have become so institutionalised that they have lost many of their cultic features. However, there are some phenomena commonly found in both cults and religions. These include a strict differentiation of leader and followers; rebellion against established authority; paranoia as the new movement seeks to establish itself; simplistic, dualistic thinking; and a tendency towards utopian thinking. Finally, cults differ from religion and many other groups in the frequency and violence with which they self-destruct. 


Ingroups and Outgroups

In general, natural groups seem to encourage attraction between their members. This attraction is not restricted to romance or sex: we prefer to be with people who ‘provide us with rewards’ and who ‘are similar to us at a very basic level on such aspects as beliefs, interests, personal background and values’. We also tend to be attracted to people who are physically or functionally nearby: the mere fact of repeated encounters with them seems to increase our liking for them. Human beings engaging in social interactions tend to synchronise their posture, movements, vocalisations and facial behaviours and their moods converging, a process labelled ‘emotional contagion’. Contagion increases perceived similarity and hence mutual attraction.


Are cult members brainwashed?

We have seen that many of the most terrifying aspects of cults can be addressed by social psychological research on group cohesion, emotional bonding and diffusion of responsibility. There does not seem to be a particular process called ‘brainwashing’ which is distinct from these other psychological processes. That is, the forces that operate in extreme cults, such as the Manson family and Jonestown, seem to be simply more powerful versions of forces which can be found in many other human groups. Beliefs about groups are part of one’s beliefs about oneself: the more important the group, the larger it looms in its members’ cognitive landscapes. This means that as the group takes over more and more of the self, members define themselves less and less independent beings. When the group is all that matters, when personal responsibility is diffused across the group, then the leader can achieve a level of totalitarian control worthy of Big Brother. There is nothing magical about how this can occur.


Summary and Conclusion

Groups are a fundamental aspect of human existence. Often they benefit and comfort their members: cult membership in the West, while espousing a way of life very different from the capitalist milieu, can sometimes provide such considerable benefits for both psychological and physical health that it might almost be seen as a rational choice to make, a valid antidote to capitalism. However, the fact that cults adopt such different narratives from the societies in which they live challenges the assumption of those societies, and provokes what can be extreme hostility, especially in relatives of cult members. The anti-cult movement has found the term brainwashing, tainted from birth with the stench of propaganda, a useful stick with which to beat its enemies.

And the fears of anti-cultists are not without some justification. Sometimes groups, particularly small groups, can become extremely dangerous. This can occur particularly when they are highly cohesive, when group membership is extremely important to individual members, and when abstract, unchallengeable ideas are coupled with extremely strong emotions. Such groups often show features of totalitarian thinking.



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