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The term brainwashing first came into public currency in the U.S. during the Korean War in the 1950s as an explanation for why a few American GIs appeared to defect to the Communists after becoming prisoners of war. Brainwashing consisted of the methodology used by the Chinese communists to attempt to cause deep and permanent behavioral changes in their own people, to do the same thing to foreigners imprisoned within the boundaries of China itself, and to disrupt the ability of prisoners of war to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment. Although the use of brainwashing on U.N. prisoners during the Korean War produced some propaganda benefits, its main utility to the Chinese army was that it significantly altered the number of prisoners that could be controlled by one guard, freeing other Chinese soldiers to go to the battlefield. In later times the term "brainwashing" came to be applied to other methods of coercive persuasion and even to the effective use of ordinary propaganda. The term "brainwashing" has often been used to explain some methodologies for the religious conversion of inductees to new religious movements including cults.

'Brainwashing' is a loaded term, suggesting nefarious intent and grotesque methods, with more currency in the public mind than in psychology. Brainwashing generally amounts to little more than a combination of persuasion and attitude change, propaganda, coercion, and restriction of access to information.


The Korean war and the origin of the term

In September 1950, the Miami Daily News published an article by Edward Hunter (1902-1978) titled " 'Brain-Washing' Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party." It was the first printed use in any language of the term "brainwashing," which quickly became a stock phrase in Cold War headlines. Hunter, a CIA propaganda operator who worked under cover as a journalist, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. He made up his coined word from the Chinese hsi-nao—"to cleanse the mind"—which had no political meaning in Chinese. An additional article by Hunter on the same subject appeared in New Leader magazine in 1951. In 1953 Allen Welsh Dulles, the CIA director at that time, explained that "the brain under [Communist influence] becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control."

In his 1956 book "Brain-Washing," Hunter, described "a system of befogging the brain so a person can be seduced into acceptance of what otherwise would be abhorrent to him."

Later, two studies of the Korean War defections by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein concluded that brainwashing was transient in its effect when used on prisoners of war. They found that the Chinese did not engage in any systematic re-education of prisoners, but generally used their techniques of coercive persuasion to disrupt the ability of the prisoners to organize to maintain their morale and to try to escape. The Chinese were, however, able to get some of the prisoners to make anti-American statements by placing the prisoners under harsh conditions of deprivation and then by offering them more comfortable situations such as better sleeping quarters, better food, warmer clothes or blankets. Nevertheless, the psychiatrists noted that even these measures of coercion were quite ineffective at changing basic attitudes for most people. In essence, the prisoners did not actually adopt Communist beliefs. Rather, many of them behaved as though they did in order to avoid the plausible threat of extreme physical abuse. Moreover, the few prisoners who were influenced by Communist indoctrination were believed to have done so as a result of the confluence of the coercive persuasion, and the motives and personality characteristics of the prisoners that already existed before imprisonment.

Lifton and Schein, also concluded in their anaysis of POWs that in fact coercive persuasion, in which a mixture of social, psychological and physical pressures are applied to produce changes in an individual's beliefs and attitudes, can occur when a physical element of confinement is present "forcing the individual into a situation in which he must, in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose himself to persuasive attempts." They also concluded that it was successful only on a minority of POWs (only 11 out of 3,000 Korean War POWs actually converted to Communism) and that the end result of such coercion was very unstable, as most of the individuals reverted to their previous condition soon after they were removed from the coercive environment.

The use of coercive persuasion techniques in China

Brainwashing (as it was popularly called) or thought reform (as it was more formally designated) consisted of techniques and methods used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which were developed previously in the Soviet Union to prepare prisoners for show trials, as well as techniques used even earlier in the Inquisition. These techniques had multiple goals that went far beyond the simple control of subjects in the prison camps of North Korea. They were intended to produce confessions, to convince the accused that they were indeed perpetrators of anti-social acts, to make them feel guilty of these crimes against the state, to make them desirous of a fundamental change in outlook toward the institutions of the new communist society, and, finally, to actually accomplish these changes in them. To that end, techniques were used that broke down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, with regard to information retained in the mind, and with regard to values. To accomplish their goals, many techniques were used, including dehumanizing of individuals by keeping them in filth, sleep deprivation, psychological harrassment, inculcation of guilt, group social pressure, etc. The ultimate goal that drove these extreme efforts was the transformation of an individual with a "feudal" or capitalist mindset into a "right thinking" member of the new social system.

While the methods of thought control were extremely useful at gaining prisoner compliance, a key element in their success was tight control both of the information available to the individual and of the behavior of the individual. When close control of information could no longer be maintained, former prisoners fairly quickly regained an objective picture of the world and the societies from which they had come. Furthermore, prisoners subject to thought control often simply behaved in ways that pleased their captors, without changing their fundamental beliefs. So the fear of brainwashed sleeper agents, such as that dramatized in The Manchurian Candidate, never materialized.

Terrible though the process frequently was to individuals imprisoned by the Chinese Communist Party, the reassuring result of these attempts at extreme coercive persuasion was to show that the human mind has enormous ability to adapt to stress and also a powerful homeostatic capacity. The account of one man's resistance to brainwashing is In the Presence of My Enemies, by John Clifford, S.J.

The use of coercive persuasion in police interrogations

Psychological coercion appears to be common in the interrogations of suspects. An indeterminate number of nonvoluntary confessions may be attributed to the coercive nature of police interrogation during which deceptive and deceitful practices may be used.

Dr. Richard Leo a recognized authority on the subject of police interrogation practices, argues that although there are no statistics showing how often false confessions actually occur, certain techniques of investigation are more likely to produce a false confession than other techniques. For example, techniques that maximize the suspect's involvement in the crime, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and extended questioning can exert "extreme influence" in the person being interrogated. ("Extreme influence " in decision making is a legitimate field of study recognized since 1908.)

Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:53:12