What is brainwashing?

Brainwashing is a severe form of social influence that causes changes in someone's way of thinking without that person's consent and often against his will. The "brainwasher" - that is, the influencing agent - actively breaks down the target's identity and replaces it with another set of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that work in the target's current environment. So invasive is the influence that it requires the total isolation and dependency of the subject, which is why the most familiar brainwashing occurs in cults or prison camps.
The agent requires complete control over the target, with sleep patterns, eating, using the bathroom and fulfillment of other basic human needs depending on the agent's will.
Most psychologists believe that brainwashing is possible under the right conditions. Some, however, see it as improbable or at least as a less potent influence than the media portrays it. Many experts believe that even under ideal conditions, the effects of brainwashing are most often short-term. The victim's old identity, they say, is not eradicated but instead is in hiding, and once the "new identity" is no longer reinforced, the person's old attitudes and beliefs begin to return.
During the Korean War, Korean and Chinese captors reportedly brainwashed American prisoners of war. Several POWs ultimately confessed to waging germ warfare -- which they hadn't -- and pledged allegiance to communism by the end of their captivity. About two dozen soldiers (a tiny fraction of the 20,000-plus prisoners in communist countries) refused to come back to the United States when they were set free.
Some psychologists say the apparent conversion of those POWs was the result of plain-old torture, not "brainwashing." And the fact that so few were converted leads to a question of reliability: Is brainwashing a system that produces similar results across cultures and personality types, or does it hinge primarily on a particular target's susceptibility to influence?

Continue Learning about Mental Health

Guilt-Free Ways to Say No
Guilt-Free Ways to Say No
Photo Credit: Martin Howard, via Flickr Creative Commons “Crazy busy” has become the new hip designation for those with packed schedules and over-ext...
Read More
What makes a bully want to hurt other people?
Raychelle C. Lohmann, MS, LPCRaychelle C. Lohmann, MS, LPC
Oftentimes, bully perpetrators are troubled and lack positive coping and social skills.  According t...
More Answers
4 Simple Ways to Avoid Feeling Lonely
4 Simple Ways to Avoid Feeling Lonely4 Simple Ways to Avoid Feeling Lonely4 Simple Ways to Avoid Feeling Lonely4 Simple Ways to Avoid Feeling Lonely
Loneliness and isolation can have serious health effects—but being proactive goes a long way.
Start Slideshow
Why Is It Important to Figure Out Why I Feel Sad?
Why Is It Important to Figure Out Why I Feel Sad?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.