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Techniques > Conversion > Brainwashing

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Brainwashing as a term and modern concept originated in the Korean War, when American prisoners of war who had been incarcerated by the Chinese returned to America espousing communist ideals. This was particularly frightening at the time as the specter of the communist Russian USSR, with its escalating nuclear capability, was causing 'red under the bed' paranoia, and the thought of Americans being converted to communism against their will was terrifying for many.


The prisoners in Korea first suffered severe physical and psychological stress, ranging from starvation to being incarcerated in tiny boxes for days and even months at a time, to standing bound with a rope around the neck such that falling would result in strangulation. Sleep was also regularly disturbed.

Their social structure was also broken up, with leaders separated from troops, religious expression banned and mail withheld and most other forms of cognitive stimulation removed.

Meanwhile constant attempts were made to recruit them to the Communist cause, including:

  • Daily lectures that lasted for hours about the perils of Capitalism and the benefits of Communism with enforced participation.

  • Interrogations that lasted for weeks, where the interrogator lived with the prisoner and was often very friendly.

  • Isolation from others, in particular having letters from home withheld and being told that their families did not care about them.

  • Humiliation and enforced public confessions, including self-criticism over breaking of trivial rules.

  • Small rewards, such as food, clothing and improvements in living conditions, for any form of desired cooperation.

Demands were carefully paced, with rewards for initially small collaborations, followed by escalating requests. They also took care to show prisoners that all decisions they made were their own choice.


The overall approach had three main strands. First physical and emotional treatment that led to exhaustion, learned helplessness and hence a reduced ability to reason and resist. This included an unbalanced diet that led further to brain dysfunction.

Secondly, subtle temptation, for example isolation and removal of stimuli that led people to seek any intellectual input, even Communist. Likewise, to a starving person, a small morsel of food would seem like a feast.

Thirdly, small rewards that encouraged the attribution of cooperation to free will and hence, by the consistency principle, would lead to the prisoners to change their beliefs to support their apparent support of Communism. When reflecting later about their behavior, it was difficult to blame what became significant acts on what now seemed like small rewards that were given.

Overall, this was effectively a 'big stick, small carrot' approach. When you are in total darkness, a small light will grab your attention. When you are drowning in deep dread, you will grasp at any small straw of hope. When you are hurt, you will seek and be grateful for any rescue.

Subsequent studies concluded that there was no single method that led to brainwashing - it was the combined effect of many methods over a period of time that led to the conversion of the prisoners to belief in Communism.

Critical factors

Critical factors that increased the chance of people being 'brainwashed' included a negative or confused sense of identity and self doubt. Coupled with a strong sense of guilt and a tendency towards black-and-white thinking, such people would most easily fall into the traps being laid for them.

Avoiding brainwashing

A less-known, but notable, fact is that there were also many Turkish prisoners of war, yet none of these succumbed to the brainwashing attempts. This is attributed to several factors, such as a devolving chain of command where, if an officer died, then the man below immediately took charge, even if it was a private soldier. They also learned methods from each other of psychologically detaching themselves from the situation and viewing it all objectively and dispassionately.

Other studies have shown that those who most feared capitulation were actually those who were in least danger. It seems their realization of the dangers gave them sufficient cognitive efforts to resist. This was particularly true of those with well-integrated and stable personalities, although if these people did convert, they would then remain faithful to the new ideology for longest.

Wearing off

It has also been found that conversion seldom continues forever. Away from the controlled environment, the effects of brainwashing gradually tend to wear off, as original values and beliefs that may not have been fully eradicated (and in effect had gone into hiding) start to reassert themselves. Without treatment, however, the general psychological effects of the trauma caused by the conversion methods can have longer-lasting effects.

See also

Lifton's Brainwashing Processes

Conversion Books

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