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Brainwashing, also known as thought reform or re-education, is the application of coercive techniques to change the beliefs or behavior of one or more people usually for political or religious purposes.

The term brainwashing is a relatively new term in the English language. Before 1950, it did not exist. Earlier forms of coercive persuasion had been seen during the Inquisition, the show trials against "enemies of the state" in the Soviet Union, etc., but no specific term emerged until the methodologies of these earlier movements were systematized during the early decades of the People's Republic of China for use in their struggles against internal class enemies and foreign invaders. Until that time, descriptions were limited to concrete descriptions of specific techniques. The person sitting nearest to the door knows a lot about brainwashing... ask her...she'll tell you.

The term xǐ năo (洗脑, the Chinese term literally translated as "to wash the brain") was first applied to methodologies of coercive persuasion used in the "reconstruction" (改造 gǎi zào) of the so-called feudal (封建 fēng jiàn) thought patterns of Chinese citizens raised under prerevolutionary regimes. The term first came into use in the United States in the 1950s during the Korean War, to describe those same methods as applied by the Chinese communists to attempt deep and permanent behavioral changes in foreign prisoners, and especially during the Korean War to disrupt the ability of captured United Nations troops to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment.

It was consequently used in the U.S. to explain why, compared to earlier wars, a relatively high percentage of American GIs defected to the Communists after becoming prisoners of war. Later analysis determined that some of the primary methodologies employed on them during their imprisonment included sleep deprivation and other intense psychological manipulations designed to break down the autonomy of individuals. American alarm at the new phenomenon of substantial numbers of U.S. troops switching their allegiances to the enemy was ameliorated after prisoners were repatriated and it was learned that few of them retained allegiance to the Marxist and anti-American doctrines that had been inculcated during their incarcerations. The key finding was that when rigid control of information was terminated and the former prisoners' natural methods of reality testing could resume functioning, the superimposed values and judgments were rapidly attenuated.

Although the use of brainwashing on United Nations prisoners during the Korean War produced some propaganda benefits, its main utility to the Chinese lay in the fact that it significantly increased the maximum number of prisoners that one guard could control, thus freeing other Chinese soldiers to go to the battlefield.

In later times the term "brainwashing" came to apply to other methods of coercive persuasion and even to the effective use of ordinary propaganda and indoctrination. And in the formal discourses of the Chinese Communist Party, the more clinical-sounding term "sī xǐang gǎi zào" (thought reform) came to be preferred.


Many people have come to use the terms "brainwashing" or "mind control" to explain the otherwise intuitively puzzling success of some methodologies for the religious conversion of inductees to new religious movements (including cults).

The term "brainwashing" is not widely used in psychology and other sciences, because of its vagueness and history of being used in propaganda, not to mention its association with hysterical fears of people being taken over by foreign ideologies. It is often more helpful to analyze "brainwashing" as a combination of manipulations to promote persuasion and attitude change, propaganda, coercion, capture-bonding, and restriction of access to neutral sources of information. Note that many of these techniques are more subtly used (usually unconsciously) by advertisers, governments, schools, parents and peers, so the aura of exoticism around "brainwashing" is undeserved. At the same time, nuanced forms of indoctrination and propaganda in religious, political and commercial venues may occasion wider and deeper impacts than do outright coercive tactics. Mirroring George Orwell's doublespeak, strategists of indoctrination and propaganda frequently disguise themselves as promoters of freedom and liberation.

Thought reform is the alteration of a person's basic attitudes and beliefs by outside manipulation. The term usually relates closely to brainwashing and mind control.

Popular speech continues to use the word brainwashed informally and pejoratively to describe persons subjected to intensive influence resulting in the rejection of old beliefs and in the acceptance of new ones; or to account for someone who holds strong ideas considered to be implausible and that seem resistant to evidence, common sense, experience, and logic. Such popular usage often implies a belief that the ideas of the allegedly brainwashed person developed under some external influence such as books, television programs, television commercials (as producing brainwashed consumers), video games, religious groups, political groups, or other people. Mind control expresses a conception only mildly less dramatic than brainwashing, with thought control slightly milder again. With thought reform and coercion we start to move into acceptably neutral academic jargon and into the areas of propaganda, influence and persuasion.

In societies where the government maintains tight control of both the mass media and education system, and were media stand firmly behind the government, it is used to disseminate propaganda on a particularly intensive scale the overall effect can be to brainwash large sections of the population (See FOX News). This is particularly effective where nationalist or religious sentiment is invoked and where the population is poorly educated and has limited access to independent or foreign media.

According to research and forensic psychologist Dick Anthony, the CIA invented the brainwashing ideology as a propaganda strategy to undercut communist claims that American POWs in Korean communist camps had voluntarily expressed sympathy for communism and that definitive research demonstrated that collaboration by western POWs had been caused by fear and duress, and not by brainwashing. He argues that the CIA brainwashing theory was pushed to the general public through the books of Edward Hunter, who was a secret CIA "psychological warfare specialist" passing as a journalist. He further asserts that for twenty years starting in the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted secret research (notably including Project MKULTRA) in an attempt to develop practical brainwashing techniques (possibly to counteract the brainwashing efforts of the Chinese), and that their attempt was a failure.


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