What Does Science Say About Brainwashing?

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Brainwashing is a term that emerged in the 1950s to explain the changes in belief systems and ideologies exhibited by US soldiers after they were released from detainment in China. Today, psychologists prefer the term coercive persuasion. In recent decades, researchers have unpacked the process involved in changing one’s entire belief systems through force. 

The name Rev. Jim Jones might ring a bell for some of you. If not, then you might be more familiar with the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”, which was born from the infamous Jonestown massacre in 1978.

This massacre revealed one of the most unbelievable and gruesome sides of humankind. Jim Jones was a charismatic leader who managed to convince 900 people to commit mass suicide, including many small children!

A tragic pile of skulls (Photo Credit : papi8888/Shutterstock)

Imagine finding hundreds of bodies lying on top of each other because some guy said drinking fruit punch laced with cyanide was the only way to go. What could possess someone to willingly do something like that to themselves and their children?

Most people will tell you that these people were ‘brainwashed’ into committing such an act.

Upon hearing such stories, I grew up believing that anyone could be brainwashed to do anything. After all, what other possible reason could there be for 900 people to kill themselves like that?

So… what can science really tell us about brainwashing?

Where It All Began

The era of the World Wars was filled with uncertainty, bloodshed, and unimaginable atrocities. The Korean War in 1950 was no different.

The simmering tension between North and South Korea came to a boiling point in 1950, when North Korea attempted to invade South Korea to unite the country. Fearing support from China and the Soviet Union’s communist regime in North Korea, the United Nations sent out its own troops to assist South Korea.

It was during this tumultuous time that many US soldiers were sent to the front lines. What followed shocked the entire world.

Korean troops in 1950 (Photo Credit : Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Americans that were released after being captured by the communist nations often became communist supporters themselves. In a book by Kathleen Taylor on brainwashing, she describes the soldiers’ behaviors based on Edward Hunter’s observations and says:

“[…] Some emerged from the prisoner of war camps as, apparently, converted Communists ready to denounce their country of birth and sing the praises of the Maoist way of life.”

In order to understand what really happened to these American soldiers that had once believed in their own society enough to die for it, government agencies in the US started to investigate.

In particular, CIA agent Edward Hunter was baffled by the way these soldiers acted. It was as if the soldiers had become broken records speaking the same dialogue over and over again. They spoke of no physical harm having been done to them, even though they were discovered in shackles.

This mental torture by which a person is slowly but forcibly converted to believe in a system contrary to their former belief system is what he called ‘brainwashing’.

The word quickly became a sensational phenomenon perpetuated by the media and the public. Suddenly, brainwashing became a topic of discussion in every household and back alley.

This fear became so real that the US started pouring resources into research on brainwashing.

The concept of brainwashing became a real deal (Photo Credit : Casimiro PT/Shutterstock)

Also Read: Why Do People Take Orders Even When They Know It Can Cause Harm?

Research On Brainwashing

Since no one could evidentially explain the strange behavior that the American soldiers were exhibiting, US organizations funded research on the impact of drugs, sensory deprivation, and hypnosis on the human mind.

However, under the veil of doing good, many experiments were found to have been conducted in highly unethical ways. Project MK ULTRA is a perfect example of this.

Project MK ULTRA

The CIA believed that the enemies had used mind control techniques to brainwash their soldiers. Thus, they funded Project MK ULTRA to test out drugs (like LSD) and other methods of psychotherapy (like electroshock therapy) on unsuspecting individuals to ‘brainwash’ them.

Most of the records of these studies were deliberately destroyed by Richard Helms, the CIA director at that time, but the truth always has a way of coming out.

In 1974, The New York Times reported on the CIA’s illegal experimentation in mind control. The documentation later revealed that the CIA had even contemplated the use of radiation for mind control.

The truth about Project MK ULTRA was revealed (Photo Credit : Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

Such experiments and the media sensation that followed have made it very difficult to continue exploring the science of brainwashing. One military psychiatrist that greatly benefitted from the media frenzy was William Sargant.

William Sargant’s Explanation

In his book, Battle for the Mind, Sargant explains that brainwashing has its roots in Pavlov’s conditioning experiments. In his famous dog experiment, Pavlov conditioned the canines to associate the sound of a bell with food. Eventually, whenever the dogs heard the bell, they would start salivating, even when food wasn’t there.

However, Sargant was more fascinated by what Pavlov described happening to the dogs later. Pavlov said that a majority of the experimented dogs forgot about their conditioning after they narrowly escaped death during a flood in 1924. Sargant supplemented the findings of Pavlov by saying that “ […] extreme nervous excitement could result in inhibition of the brain’s cortex, causing a ‘rupture’ in previous conditioning.”

Keep in mind that many modern scientists do not agree with this statement, particularly because this theory hadn’t gone through the vigorous and thorough peer-reviewed testing that is often demanded by the scientific community.

On top of that, Sargant was a controversial psychiatrist who was known to employ unnecessary physical therapy, like electric shocks, to ‘cure’ his patients. Most of his more extreme approaches ended up worsening his patients’ situations.

Patients were tortured, when they had only been seeking psychological treatment (Photo Credit : Viacheslav Nikolaenko/Shutterstock)

Hearing all this, it’s no wonder that scientists presently want to distance themselves from the word brainwashing. This gave way to new terminologies, such as coercive persuasion or thought reform, by Edgar Schein and Robert Lifton, respectively.

Coercive Persuasion

Edgar Schein was an MIT professor well-known for his work on coercive persuasion. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines coercive persuasion as:

“systematic, intensive indoctrination of political or military prisoners, using such methods as threats, punishments, bribes, isolation, continuous interrogation, and repetitious ‘instruction.’”

Unlike the other investigators, Schein points out that coercive persuasion is not limited to people who are imprisoned or in cults. It also isn’t what the media portrays brainwashing to be.

You don’t suddenly stop believing in everything you know. In fact, coercive persuasion is a slow and gradual psychological force that could make you adopt different ideologies. This force could be persuasion tactics, such as stress, that could make you do what you may not have done otherwise.

According to Schein, there are three stages of ‘brainwashing’ (based on Kurt Lewin’s change model):

Stage 1: Unfreezing

Shake the person’s belief system in any way possible, so much so that they start to doubt themselves. This would give them the motive to change or adopt new ideologies.

Stage 2: Changing

This is when new principles are instilled into the minds of those being coerced. Let’s take an example of how we do this in our everyday lives. You might have long believed the idea that we only use 10% of the brain. Then someone provides you with scientific proof, such as MRI studies, that demonstrate the falseness of this statement. You find merit in the argument and start to believe that the 10% usage idea is only a myth.

Coercive persuasion could involve any possible means of changing a person’s perspective, including mind-altering techniques, such as hypnosis or repetition.

Stage 3: Refreezing

The new beliefs are then incorporated into the person’s routine, essentially ‘freezing’ those thoughts and beliefs in place.

Advertisements influencing the mind (Photo Credit : Golden Dayz/Shutterstock)

However, Schein’s isn’t the only explanation. There are several others, including the works of Lifton (an American psychiatrist) on thought reform/coercive persuasion. One thing to remember is that these still lack scientific rigor and require more objective investigations in order for us to properly understand brainwashing.

Also Read: Can Hypnosis Be Used To Plant An Idea In Someone’s Mind?


From the shocking tales of American soldiers in the Korean War to cult indoctrination that still happens to this day, brainwashing has become the go-to explanation for people’s conversion away from their normal ways of behaving. However, as revealed by the reports of Project MK ULTRA, scientific investigation into brainwashing has shown how unreliable and unethical many of these studies are. Exploring such a concept is extremely difficult, as you cannot ‘brainwash’ someone for the sake of ‘science’. We will have to think outside the box to come up with unique ways of analyzing coercive persuasion without ethically stomping on the rights of mankind. Hopefully, the future will generate more answers to our questions about brainwashing, to ensure that we stay in control of our thoughts, belief systems and behaviors!

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References (click to expand)
  1. An apocalyptic cult, 900 dead: remembering the Jonestown .... The Guardian
  2. Korean War | Eisenhower Presidential Library. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home
  3. Declassified: Mind Control at McGill | The McGill Tribune. The McGill Tribune
  5. Battle for the mind. ia801300.us.archive.org
  6. (2007) Pavlov's Dogs Study and Pavlovian Conditioning Explained. simplypsychology.org
  7. (2020) Public psychology and the Cold War brainwashing scare - NCBI. The National Center for Biotechnology Information
  8. Full text of "Coercive Persuasion" - archive.org
  9. Coercive persuasion - APA Dictionary of Psychology. The American Psychological Association
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About the Author

Niveditha has done her master’s in neuroscience from Newcastle University, UK and received her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from D.Y. Patil, Navi Mumbai. She enjoys watching popular science YouTube channels and eating food she knows will upset her stomach. She is a proud cat mom and loves teaching everyone (including the cat) about biology. She also enjoys listening to true crime podcasts, reading books and writing her own stories in her free time.