A large number of people use the concept of brainwashing to refer to a wide range of phenomena involving the use of persuasion to modify the behavior of other people, especially against their will. however, psychological brainwashing has been called into question by 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 which proposes that the will, thoughts and other mental facts of individuals can be modified by techniques of persuasion, 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 presents a marked similarity with another more typical of the vocabulary of psychology: that of suggestion, which refers to the influence that individuals can have on the mental content of others (or in their own, in this case we are talking about auto-suggestion). However, the term “suggestion” is less ambitious.
Although the idea of brainwashing is not entirely incorrect, this popular concept has unscientific connotations that have led many experts to reject in favor of more modest ones. The instrumental use of this term in legal proceedings, in particular in disputes concerning 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 brain drain, especially in cases where the subjects are seen as young and influential people. Something similar this applies to sects, religions, Driving during wars or radical political ideologies.
Regarding the latter case, it should be mentioned that brainwashing was used mainly to try to give a simple explanation to facts 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 banned in countries like the UK, involves the inclusion of messages that do not reach the threshold of consciousness, but are perceived automatically.
On the other hand, often psychology itself has been accused of being a brainwashing method. The case of Pavlov and Skinner’s behavior, criticized by other experts and in works such as “The Mechanical Orange”, is particularly well known. Psychoanalysis and techniques such as cognitive restructuring have received similar rejection samples.
History and popularization of the concept
The concept of brainwashing first appeared in China to describe the persuasion that the Chinese Communist Party was submitting to opponents of the Maoist government. The term “xinao,” which literally translates to “brainwashing,” was a play on words referring to the cleansing of mind and body promoted by Taoism.
In the 1950s the United States government and military adopted the term and they applied it to justify the fact that some American prisoners had collaborated with their captors during the Korean War. It has been argued that its purpose may have been to limit the public impact of the disclosure of chemical weapons use.
Russian historian Daniel Romanovsky later claimed that the Nazis used brainwashing techniques (including mass re-education and propaganda programs) to promote their ideas among the Belarusian population, especially the conception of Jews as an inferior race.
However, the popularization of brainwashing is mainly due to popular culture. The first of “The Mechanical Orange” appeared in George Orwell’s novel “1984”, In which a totalitarian government manipulates the population through lies and coercion. Sauron’s mind control in “The Lord of the Rings” has also been linked to brainwashing.
Vision of psychology
Psychology in general understands the phenomena attributed to brainwashing through more operational and limited concepts, such as persuasion and suggestion, which includes hypnosis. In these cases, behavioral changes depend to a large extent on the subject’s self-suggestion 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 task force to study the phenomenon of brain damage. However, Singer was accused of presenting biased data and speculation and the project was called off.
It cannot be categorically stated that brainwashing exists as an independent phenomenon due to the ambiguous fact of its formulation. In any case, many authors claim that the use of powerful persuasive techniques it is evident in contexts such as media and advertising; however, clichés should be avoided.