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How Brainwashing Works (and is Working on You)

What we can learn from history about how the internet is brainwashing us

Unless we give ourselves space and calm to reflect without a constant desire to check, see, or emote, we will never have the chance to actually consider the ideas we are being presented with.

“How intoxicating to feel like God and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits.”

– Albert Camus

Thirty-five years ago I attended a lecture in London by the late and great Dr Arthur Deikman. In his engaging, witty, and profound talk, Deikman demonstrated how the techniques of brainwashing usually associated with cults or totalitarian societies are, in fact, found equally in American corporate settings as well as in government, media, and other mainstream organizations.

The pressures of cultish environments that he discussed included:

  • Compliance with the group
  • Dependence on a virtuous or infallible leader
  • Avoidance of dissent
  • Devaluing the outsider
  • Elevating membership of the in-group (the “chosen people”)
  • Restricting access to outside influences to control the milieu
  • Breaking reality down into simplistic, all-or-nothing precepts: good versus evil; “if you’re not with us you’re against us.”
  • Bombardment with stimuli, whipping up emotions such as shame, blame, fear, and hope in order to drown out self-reflection and force compliance with groupthink.1

But while the use of these pressures to force conformity is nothing new, I was surprised to hear that the idea of brainwashing, often now called ‘radicalization’, is actually pretty recent.

Washing of brains

In 1950, the term ‘brainwashing’ was used for the first time in an article by Edward Hunter in Miami News. The term is a translation of hsi-nao,a Chinese term meaning “to cleanse the mind”.2 Hunter claimed that the population of China was being brainwashed by the Communist Party in their universities and re-education camps.

This new idea of brainwashing suddenly gave the American public an explanation for some very disturbing events.

Americans renouncing America

After the Korean War, which of course was a proxy war between America and Communist China, the public had discovered that some captured American servicemen had seemingly converted to the Chinese Communist, anti-American ideology.

At the time the phenomenon had seemed inexplicable, but now, with this new (and increasingly popular) concept of brainwashing, they had an explanation. The servicemen had been the unwilling victims of insidious psychological mind-control techniques.

One influence that seemed to be at play was the need for a consistent sense of self. As Robert Cialdini rightly pointed out, we all need to have a sense that our actions and beliefs are consistent.3

To begin with, the soldiers’ captors had cleverly gotten their prisoners to publicly state mildly anti-American sentiments. Perhaps ones that were perfectly reasonable, such as “American policy isn’t always perfect.” Then, bit by bit, the captured servicemen were induced to become increasingly black-or-white in their pro-Communist, anti-Western sentiments.

So often the process of brainwashing, whether within a cult, a country, or even just a relationship of two people, begins with very reasonable, mild assertions that are hard to disagree with. But bit by bit the demands build from that basis of agreement until you have been properly radicalized with extremist views.

Beliefs that have been inculcated through brainwashing don’t come from personal experience or calm reasoning but rather from other people. They tend to be simplistic beliefs which are inflexible and absolute.

As well as controlling the environment (Chinese students were prohibited from ever leaving campus grounds during the more fanatical communist ideological indoctrination waves4), the Chinese Communists used other means to control and shape beliefs.

Making a god of a man

The Chinese Communists demanded devout reverence for Mao Zedong. Non-Communist outsiders were devalued and labelled ‘imperialists’ or ‘reactionaries’. Public confessions and torture, often in workplaces and universities – the so-called ‘struggle sessions‘ – whipped up a frenzy of fear and zealous righteousness. No one could be ideologically pure enough. In fact, often it was the most ideologically righteous who would suddenly be denounced and subjected to witch hunts.

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We’ve seen these cult-like patterns occur time and time again throughout history, from the zealous actual witch hunts in Europe and America, in which mass hysteria sometimes induced people to ‘confess’ to being witches, to 1950s American McCarthyism and the ‘red scare’, when people could be blacklisted simply for knowing someone who might have communist sympathies.

But in order for brainwashing to ‘stick’, it needs to appeal on some level to our emotional impulses.

How our emotional needs are manipulated

The Nazis had no interest in brainwashing their prisoners to the ethos of their creed. As in Soviet Russia, civilian prisoners were either worked to death or simply murdered. But the Chinese Communists seemed to genuinely want to ‘help’ their population, and any Western prisoners, to let their old selves die and be reborn as perfect socialist citizens.

We all have needs for attention, conformity, a sense of status within a group, connection to a meaning greater than ourselves, and, of course, safety and security. And it is when these needs are manipulated that we become malleable to thought control.

Cult leaders such as Jim Jones, who led 918 followers – 304 of them children – to mass suicide and murder in his jungle commune at Jonestown, preyed on the vulnerable.

When recruiting, he would target people whose lives lacked meaning and purpose, a ready source of attention, or a sense of community. Jones seemed to offer, and perhaps did for a while, a sense of meaning, purpose, and community. He became a kind of psychopathic pied piper.

We can be manipulated by any source that seems to promise the completion of our basic emotional or physical needs, whether that source be one person or many. A bully will intuitively seek to prevent the completion of another person’s emotional needs for status, safety, or self esteem. A totalitarian society will seek to exclusively control the completion of these needs, as will a controlling romantic partner.

Believing whatever the supplier of my emotional needs requires me to believe may seem like a small price to pay. And when you feel that your life has purpose and meaning at long last, it can feel hard to let go of a belief that supports that sense of meaning, however absurd or simplistic that belief might be.

So when needs are not, for whatever reason, completed adequately, we are said to be vulnerable.

Cult leaders target the emotionally vulnerable. But within totalitarian societies, people can be made vulnerable by force. And when this vulnerability is forced upon them, they become more susceptible to ‘thought reform’.

Take Father Luca for instance.

No sleep and broken bones

Father Luca was a Catholic priest working in China when the Communists took over.5 His captors wanted a confession of imperialism from him (though no confession was ever seen as good enough for the first three years of a Westerner’s captivity).

His first interrogation lasted one hour, during which he was made to stand. Back in his cell he was also made to stand as he was harangued, hectored, and generally yelled at by six other inmates who were tasked with wearing him down. They would poke and slap him all night, taking turns to ensure he neither sat nor slept. Gradually, his legs became swollen and distended with fluid.

He remembered being permitted to sleep on only three occasions in a four-week period. Approximately 16 hours of sleep over 4 weeks!

The enforced poking and slapping from his cellmates and the interrogations continued unabated.6 He became delusional, and his infected legs and lack of sleep meant that he kept contradicting his own ‘confession’, which his captors didn’t like.

Eventually he was allowed to sleep for two days, before the interrogation began again. This time he was beaten for several hours, mainly on his back, causing multiple fractures to the bones. Eventually a young Chinese man came and tried a different tack, speaking kindly to Father Luca in his own language. But ultimately he was still dissatisfied with the priest’s ‘confession’.

This interrogation left Father Luca unable to move. For many months he was dependent on his unsympathetic cell mates for his every need, while he slowly physically recovered.

So we can see Father Luca was made vulnerable through sleep deprivation, fear of execution, physical incapacity, and unrelenting interrogation and shaming. Not surprisingly, he did become, at least for a while, somewhat radicalized by these coercive techniques.

Eventually, after years in captivity, his ‘confession’ was finally accepted and he was released, on the condition that he leave China. But the effects of thought reform lasted far longer than his physical injuries.

If someone isn’t already vulnerable, then they are made vulnerable in order that they can ‘see the light’ and adopt the beliefs they are required to have.

So these are some of the subtle and not so-subtle forms of belief manipulation. But what on earth has all this got to do with our interconnected, enlightened times? And how could we be brainwashed through our own computer screens?

Echo chambers and public apologies

Many of us spend a huge amount of time online. A 2019 report found that the average internet user now spends 6 hours and 42 minutes online each day.7

Our environment shapes our beliefs and attitudes (which is why in totalitarian societies the environment of the citizens is tightly controlled by those at the top). And for many of us, our environment is now largely cyberspace.

We might think that brainwashing is harder to do now because outside, alternative influences are harder to control – and that’s true, to a degree. But consider the situation in China, where there is extensive internet censorship and mass surveillance of its citizens.

Access to social media like Instagram and Facebook, and even to YouTube, Google, and Gmail is completely disallowed. The Chinese government has even developed the notorious Social Credit System, which limits your work options, ability to travel, and other freedoms if you are deemed to have the ‘wrong’ ideas or friends.

So in a sense technology has made thought control easier in China – not that it’s stopped the Chinese government from continuing to imprison up to three million imprisoned Uyghur moslems in their compulsory, ‘re-education’ establishments.

But even when we are not directly coerced by the state we still, to some extent, freely allow our ideas and beliefs to be shaped online. Although the internet should and can expose us to multiple viewpoints, if we tend to seek out online material that simply confirms our own ideologies (and this is quite a natural human behaviour) then our biases and beliefs tend to be reinforced.

Human vulnerabilities to online radicalization

We are, many of us, prone to shame, guilt, and the need to please others and fit in. These needs were exploited by the Chinese Communists, and they continue to be exploited today in the online environment. Sure enough, many of the characteristics of Chinese brainwashing can be found online.

The internet provides the perfect forum to devalue the outsider. Many of us, if we are honest, have a drive to feel superior to some other group, be it Republicans, Democrats, religious people, non-religious people… ad infinitum.

Another increasingly common online phenomenon is public shaming and forced apologies. Certainly the kind of apology demands, public shaming, and ‘confessions’ we sometimes see among the Twitterati would fit in quite well with classical Chinese thought reform.

We’ve all seen grovelling public Twitter apologies for statements which might have been taken out of context or genuinely not intended to hurt others. Often, just as in Chinese thought reform, the apology/confession is not enough. Tweets and Instagram uploads can and do cost livelihoods.

Good! you might think, if you’re prone to thought reforming others. And I can see your point. Certainly we should all be polite and decent online, as anywhere else. And many people who lose their jobs (and sometimes even the potential for future work) over online activity may have behaved terribly. But consider this:

  • What is to stop online lynch mobs from choosing to take offence as a power play? Power over others is still power, even when it comes in the guise of taking offence.
  • How can the ‘wrongdoer’ make amends if apologies aren’t enough?

A climate of fear, guilt harnessing, revenge, collective shaming, and enforced grovelling apologies produces super fertile ground for brainwashing.

Wider context or intention may be entirely discounted, just as in Chinese thought reform. For brainwashing to thrive, reality needs to be perceived in simple, absolutist terms. And that’s a perspective that’s all too common in cyberspace.

The all-or-nothing online environment

Online reality can so easily be reduced to binary: all or nothing, black or white. We look for comments that align with our pre-existing beliefs and demonize anyone whose comments conflict with our ideas. Good versus bad. But it can get worse than that.

Someone with conflicting opinions can easily be framed as not just wrong or mistaken, but evil. This leads us back to devaluing the outsider.

What’s more, emotions such as depression produce, and are maintained by, the kind of all-or-nothing, absolutist thought that is encouraged by some online activity.8

A recent study found that teenagers – especially girls, who tend to spend less time gaming and more time on social media than boys – become more likely to develop depression and engage in suicide-related behaviours the more time they spend online (though thankfully it was also found that spending time away from screens can reverse this trend).9 And the thought that some sites actively encourage suicide or self-harm among vulnerable people is nothing short of terrifying.10

A recent study found that teenagers – especially girls, who tend to spend less time gaming and more time on social media than boys – become more likely to develop depression and engage in suicide-related behaviours the more time they spend online.Click To Tweet

The more all-or-nothing, absolutist thinking we are exposed to, the more we tend to come to see the world in totalistic ways.

But the online world may be inadvertently supplying another feature of Chinese thought reform methods, too.

Choosing screen over sleep…

The Chinese brainwashers were keen to restrict sleep. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, based on the experiences of people he knew who had been imprisoned by Russian communists during the so-called Moscow show trials, brilliantly describes sleep deprivation as a way of ripening the mind of the victim for manipulation by the Soviet state.

Excessive use of the internet does seem to cut into sleep time for many people.11 The resulting sleep deprivation can numb or even disable the part of the mind that helps us check our impressions of validity.

And that’s not the only thing interfering with our ability to make value judgements.

… and stimulation over contemplation

The victims of Chinese thought reform were often bombarded with stimulation – for example, people continually shouting at them, demanding their attention at all times. This kind of bombardment with stimuli precludes any time for self-reflection or for assessing the validity of new ideas.

With pop-ups, news updates, incoming messages, and increasingly desperate emotive clickbait, the online environment can also be overwhelming. Unless we give ourselves space and calm to reflect without a constant desire to check, see, or emote, we will never have the chance to actually consider the ideas we are being presented with.

But there is hope! And unlike the prisoners of the Chinese regime, we can voluntarily free ourselves.

We can choose

We can, of course, use the internet without letting it shape who we are and what we believe too radically. We can resist shaming and demonizing those who hold opposing views, and we can refrain from using the online world as a way to simply meet our need for emotional stimuli or for zealous righteousness.

What’s more, we are not imprisoned by the internet the way the subjects of Chinese brainwashing were. We can step away and meet our needs offline in as many varied ways as possible so as to be less susceptible to online shaping of our minds.

But whether it’s pornography moulding our perceptions as to what lovemaking is or political or religious radicalization getting worked up in forums, the internet, like any environment, can certainly radicalize us in ways that echo those methods used in totalitarian regimes. Not to the same degree perhaps, but I suggest that the powers and techniques of brainwashing exist on a continuum.

Knowledge is power, and we have been warned.

To learn more about how language can be used to change minds, read more about our online course Uncommon Hypnotherapy.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  1. See: Deikman, A. J. (1990). The wrong way home: Uncovering the patterns of cult behaviour in American society. Beacon Press.
  2. See: Winn, D. (2017). The manipulated mind: Brainwashing, conditioning and indoctrination. Malor Books.
  3. See: Cialdini, R. B. (2006). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (revised edition). Harper Business.
  4. See: Lifton, R. J. (2012). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of “brainwashing” in China. The University of North Carolina Press.
  5. See: Lifton (2012). Thought reform, p. 38
  6. See: Lifton (2012). Thought reform, p. 42

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