Signs of Brainwashing

By M.W.Frater, Claude Brodeur Ph.D

AlchemyThe idea of brainwashing is customarily associated more with techniques of political indoctrination rather than with methods of teaching. However, I cannot help wondering to what extent some “brainwashing” might occur as a benevolent form of education. Perhaps, it would be useful for teachers and students, and the public in general, to know something about the process generally called “brainwashing” as currently understood.

In a generic sense, any attempt to change someone’s thinking or beliefs by the use of intensive propaganda techniques under conditions of stress may be called “brainwashing” (consult The ABC of Psychology by Leonard Kristal, Editor, John Wiley & Sons, 1982). The word is said to have been first used in this way by George Orwell in his novel, 1984.

My information about brainwashing comes mostly from political dissidents and prisoners of war. Techniques of brainwashing were first extensively reported during the Korean war, when prisoners were persuaded to make public statements renouncing their own country’s military actions and praising the political system of the people whom they were fighting. They were supposedly converted to the enemies’ political thinking.

Brainwashing techniques

The three D’s. Initial techniques to elicit favourable statements from a captive audience, so to speak, were the savage use of electric prods and other similar kinds of physical abuse. Later the techniques became more refined, like the three D’s: debility, dependence, and dread.

Isolation. One tactic for generating a state of debility, dependence, and dread (DDD) is isolation. Identify the leaders of the group and remove them from the group. Introduce informers whose job is to create an atmosphere of suspicion and to prevent trust or intimacy developing among the prisoners. Another technique is to subject a captive to sensory deprivation. Decrease the amount of sensory stimulation available, such as is readily experienced in solitary confinement. The idea is to do whatever you can to destroy morale and “esprit de corps,” making captives vulnerable to threats and bribes.

Thought control. Another tactic for generating a state of DDD is thought control. Force a person to choose between cooperating or losing one’s income, position, tenure, possibility of advancement or meritorious pay increase. Confuse people and wear them down by unpredictable treatment, sometimes harsh and seemingly unfair and arbitrary, and at other times friendly, fair-minded, and conciliatory. This kind of manipulation produces anxiety, dread, and guilt, as well as confusion about what to think and how to act.

Conditioning. A further tactic is political conditioning. This consists of daily repetitious lecturing and instruction along a certain line of thinking, behaving, and being. If you go along with the “party” line, you are rewarded and if you don’t, you are punished. Usually those who are considered “bright” or more “advanced” in their thinking and behavior are used to persuade others who are less “bright” or less “advanced.”.


Research seems to indicate that the effects of attempted brainwashing are not lasting in most cases. But the techniques are effective with some people, and that should be of some concern to teachers, students, and parents.

I also ask you to consider the possibility that most people might tend to think about brainwashing only in its more extreme forms. What about the less obvious instances of brainwashing? Could administrative procedures used to operate a board of education, or a university, involve brainwashing-like activities, like techniques to silence differences of opinion and enforce conformity to policy.

What about those classrooms in which these techniques may be to a degree? I’ll grant you that this might be done unconsciously and haphazardly, under the guise of good teaching. Methods of group learning could lead to this. I found this happening in one of my classes. I administered a multiple-choice quiz to my students. Then, I allowed them to discuss their answers in small groups. In some cases, I found that if the group had a strong leader who convinced the group that his answer was correct, when in fact it was not, then the group accepted the wrong answer as correct. It was then more difficult to convince the group that the answer that they had agreed was the correct one through the group process was indeed incorrect. I was trusting that the group on the principle of the collective consciousness would come up with the correct answer. The answer, by the way, was in the textbook and they were allowed to refer to the textbook, which surprisingly they did not do.

If intellectual freedom is an objective worth defending from erosion, we must then carefully examine the way in which we treat those who are teaching as well as those who are taught. Whether or not we are aware of the psychological effects of academic policies and procedures, they are real and pervasive and powerful determiners of morale, esprit to corps, creativity, and productivity.

I imagine that the attention given to the questions I have just raised will depend upon how important it is for us as individuals to think for ourselves, to have the courage to think for ourselves, and not simply accept the group’s thinking

For more information about brainwashing read the classic book Battle for the Mind by William Walters Sargant. You can purchase a copy from Barnes and Noble. You may also find a copy in your local library.

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