Brainwashing: what is it and how effective can it be?
The term, which originates from a Chinese phrase, is now applied to prison camps in North Korea, cults and controversy over national education in Hong Kong
“Brainwashing” is a term which is used very liberally.
In former cult member Alexandra Stein’s groundbreaking book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (2016), she explained how the term had evolved from the Chinese word xinao (which literally translates as “wash brain”) during commentaries about prisoner-of-war camps in early communist China and North Korea.
She said it referred to when regimes “used methods of indoctrination to neutralise opponents of the regime, and in many cases, convert them to sometimes enthusiastic support”.
She further explained how “a cult employs brainwashing in its efforts to keep members under its control”.
But closely linked to “brainwashing”, she said, a cult may use techniques we could term as “coercive persuasion”, “mind control” and “thought reform”. There are therefore various degrees of controlling human thought.
Most recently in Hong Kong, government critics have continued to condemn the growing emphasis on “national education” in the city’s schools as a “brainwashing” exercise, because it actively persuades children from kindergarten onwards to embrace their Chinese identity and be patriotic to mainland China.
In June this year, Hong Kong’s outgoing education minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, dismissed the concerns, insisting a small group of people had hyped up “brainwashing” fears about national education. Still, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ignited further concern after she proposed making Chinese history a compulsory subject at junior secondary level.
In its more extreme form, “brainwashing” may evoke images of totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, where individuals are forced into servitude through systematic coercion by the government.
Numerous accounts from escaped North Koreans, such as Park Yeon-mi, who fled with her family to mainland China in 2008 and later settled in South Korea, have described how the state-controlled media in Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship blamed any hardships they faced, including the Great Famine from 1994-98, on their enemies’ evil plots.
Park, 23, who now travels the world to discuss the brutalities of the North Korean regime, also witnessed the government’s more aggressive coercive techniques, such as public executions for so-called traitors. These serve as a deterrent to residents, but are also part of a social-conditioning strategy to enforce concepts of “right” and “wrong” from an early age.
However, the study of “brainwashing” is still evolving, and currently most scientists do not consider the process to be based on scientific fact. Dr Joyce Chao Pui-han of the Hong Kong Psychological Society said although there was evidence to show the repetition of certain stimuli on the human brain could cause a new neural pathway to form, the effect would differ from person to person.
“We are not robots,” she said. “People can be exposed to the same situation and have different outcomes. What has been found is that some people, through a coercive situation, have changed their beliefs, but when the coercive environment is removed, they no longer display those beliefs. There have been no scientific studies to show brainwashing is a scientific system.”
Despite this, the notion of brainwashing has often featured in popular culture, most notably in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four , and continues to be applied to various oppressive regimes around the world.
There have also been attempts to summarise the brainwashing process in non-scientific terms. Robert Jay Lifton is widely considered to be one of the first psychiatrists to analyse brainwashing in detail, after examining suffering endured by American soldiers in Chinese prison camps during the Korean war from 1950-53.
He outlined eight elements of what he termed “thought reform”, which can be summarised as follows:
1. Environment control: limiting all forms of communication outside the group, including media.
2. Mystical manipulation: the potential convert becomes convinced the group has a higher calling, perhaps as a result of a profound encounter or experience.
3. Demand for purity: the potential convert becomes fully dedicated to the group’s overall goal for change.
4. Cult of confession: the potential convert admits past sins and imperfections to the group, and is even encouraged to express doubts and criticism of its leaders.
5. Sacred science: the potential convert must accept the group’s perspective is absolutely true and explains everything.
6. Loaded language: the group adopts a special type of language which reinforces the “black and white” nature of the world.
7. Doctrine over person: any experiences the potential convert had before joining the group are viewed within the context of the group’s rules and values, even if they contradict them.
8. Dispensing of existence: anyone who leaves the group is doomed and cannot achieve salvation.
In outlining these eight elements, Lifton described the psychological stages endured by the potential convert:
1. Assault on identity: the victim is consistently told they are not who they think they are or achieving their desired aims, until their beliefs feel less solid.
2. Guilt: the victim is made to feel “bad” about any “sin” they may have committed, until they feel shame.
3. Self-betrayal: the victim is forced to admit they are “bad” and reveal the names of any family or friends who have the same “wrong” beliefs.
4. Breaking point: the victim may subsequently experience a nervous breakdown.
5. Leniency: the abuser may offer their target some small reprieve, which will in turn mean the victim feels a disproportionate amount of gratitude to their abuser.
6. Compulsion to confession: the victim is encouraged to confess everything to relieve guilt and pain.
7. Channelling of guilt: amidst the confusion, the victim no longer knows why they are in pain, so the abuser takes the opportunity to fill in the gaps in order to enforce the new belief system.
8. Releasing of guilt: the victim is told it was their old belief system that was wrong, not they themselves.
9. Progress and harmony: the abuser offers a new “good” belief system.
10. Rebirth: the victim embraces the new belief system, fully rejects the old one and subsequently feels “re-born”.