Brainwashing, or mind control, involves systematic, coercive effort to alter an individual's prevailing beliefs and attitudes, usually by physical and/or psychological means; sometimes referred to as thought reform.
Brainwashing has been used predominantly in severe programs of political indoctrination, war settings, prison camps, and terrorist cells, although it is associated occasionally with certain types of cult practices. Brainwashing, an extreme form of social influence, works primarily by breaking down the individual's existing beliefs and attitudes, rendering them nonfunctional, and replacing them with new ones that will be useful in the environment created by the dominant individual or group.
The study of the techniques and effects of brainwashing grew markedly in the 1950s, after a number of U.S. soldiers appeared to have become indoctrinated when taken prisoner during the Korean War. They falsely confessed to nonexistent crimes, including the waging of germ warfare, and refused to be repatriated when the war ended. Studies of these prisoners of war and of individuals who had undergone ideological conversion in Chinese prisons during the same period revealed connections between the significant changes in attitude caused by alleged brainwashing and existing knowledge about attitude and identity formation and dramatic change in typical circumstances. There is considerable doubt in the scientific community as to whether the expressed personality and belief changes were the result of actual mind control or, perhaps more likely, a response to torture.
Many researchers have expressed doubts about whether the process can be completely effective or really last for a prolonged period. Its short-term and longterm effectiveness in actually altering an individual's beliefs—both within the brainwashing environment and removed from that environment—vary from individual to individual, depending on personality characteristics and many other factors. Intense effort and complete control over the victim are required and must be exercised over a period of several years. Consequently, many of the brainwashing efforts made during the Korean War were ineffective, with the prisoners either resisting change or merely becoming confused instead of indoctrinated. In addition, certain attitudes on the part of prisoners proved particularly resistant to change. Due to these limitations, many psychologists came to believe it would be impossible to brainwash large populations, even with the use of mass media.
A classic literary example of brainwashing is found in George Orwell's novel, 1984. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is subjected to isolation, humiliation, physical deprivation and violence, and constant threats of further violence. He also is forced to make false confessions that include implicating and denouncing others. The captors’ ultimate success in forcing Smith to adapt to whatever beliefs they choose is most memorably demonstrated in his final capitulation to the view that two plus two equals five.
See also Cults ; Milgram's obedience experiment ; Mob psychology ; Paranoia .
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