A large number of people use the concept of brainwashing to refer to a wide range of phenomena that involve the use of persuasion to modify the behaviour of other people, particularly against their will. However, from the perspective of psychology brainwashing has been questioned because of the ambiguity of its definition. Let’s see what is meant by brainwashing and what precedents exist.

What is brainwashing?

The concept of “brainwashing” is very close to that of “mind control”. It is an idea without a strict scientific basis that proposes that the will, thoughts and other mental facts of individuals can be modified through persuasion techniques, with which unwanted ideas would be introduced into the psyche of a “victim” .

If we define the concept in this way, we see that it has a marked similarity with another more typical of the vocabulary of psychology: that of suggestion, which refers to the influence that some individuals can exercise on the mental contents of others (or on their own; in this case we speak of autosuggestion). However, the term “suggestion” is less ambitious.

Although the idea of brainwashing is not entirely incorrect, this popular concept has some unscientific connotations that have led many experts to reject it in favour of other more modest ones. The instrumental use of the term in legal processes, especially in disputes over the custody of minors, has contributed to this.

Examples of brainwashing

It is common for complex phenomena such as suicide terrorism to be explained by many people through the concept of brainwashing, especially in cases where the subjects are seen as young and impressionable. Something similar applies to sects, religions , behaviour during wars or radical political ideologies.

In relation to the latter case, it should be mentioned that brainwashing has been used mainly in attempts to provide a simple explanation for events related to violence, such as the massacres that took place in the context of Nazism and other types of totalitarianism.

Subliminal advertising is another fact that we can relate to the idea of brainwashing. This type of promotion, which is prohibited in countries such as the United Kingdom, consists of the inclusion of messages that do not reach the threshold of consciousness, but are perceived automatically.

On the other hand, psychology itself has often been accused of being a method of brainwashing . Particularly known is the case of Pavlov’s and Skinner’s behaviourism, criticized by other experts and in works such as “Clockwork Orange”. Psychoanalysis and techniques such as cognitive restructuring have received similar signs of rejection.

History and popularization of the concept

The concept of brainwashing emerged for the first time in China to describe the persuasion of the Chinese Communist Party over the opponents of the Maoist government. The term “Xinao,” which is literally translated as “brainwashing,” was a play on words referring to the cleansing of the mind and body promoted by Taoism.

In the 1950s the U.S. government and military adopted the term and applied it to justify the fact that some American prisoners had collaborated with their captors during the Korean War. It has been argued that their aim may have been to limit the public impact of the disclosure that chemical weapons had been used.

Russian historian Daniel Romanovsky later claimed that the Nazis had used brainwashing techniques (including re-education programs and mass propaganda) to promote their ideas among the population of Belarus, in particular the conception of Jews as an inferior race.

However, the popularization of brainwashing is mainly due to popular culture. Before “Clockwork Orange” appeared the novel “1984” by George Orwell , in which a totalitarian government manipulates the population through lies and coercion. Sauron’s mind control in “Lord of the Rings” has also been associated with brainwashing.

Vision from Psychology

Psychology generally understands the phenomena attributed to brainwashing through more operative concepts of a more limited scope, such as persuasion and suggestion, within which hypnosis is included . In these cases the changes in behaviour depend to a great extent on the subject’s autosuggestion from external stimuli.

In 1983 the American Psychological Association, the hegemonic body in the field of psychology, commissioned clinical psychologist Margaret Singer to lead a working group to investigate the brainwashing phenomenon. However, Singer was accused of presenting biased data and speculation and the project was cancelled.

It cannot be stated categorically that brainwashing exists as an independent phenomenon because of the ambiguity of its formulation. In any case, many authors argue that the use of powerful persuasive techniques is evident in contexts such as the media and advertising ; however, clichés should be avoided.