Brainwashing Has a Grim History

November 27, 2021

In 1937, the longtime Bolshevik leader Georgy Pyatakov was tried in Moscow for treason, sabotage and other alleged crimes against the Soviet Union. He gave a false confession, declaring:

‘Here I stand before you in filth, crushed by my own crimes, bereft of everything through my own fault, a man who has lost his Party, who has no friends, who has lost his family, who has lost his very self.’ He was executed for his alleged offences shortly thereafter – and he was one of many.

How had the Soviets persuaded so many defendants to testify to such lies? Some observers were convinced they had developed a secret tool for coercion. It wasn’t just that they appeared able to force people to say things, but that their victims actually appeared to believe the lies.

The Soviets used a number of techniques to obtain confessions. They were not shy about resorting to brutality; some of the signed confessions found in the archives reveal bloodstains. The accused were repeatedly interrogated until they felt like ‘automatons’. They were kept isolated in solitary confinement, but well within earshot of other prisoners who were beaten.

There was initially no widely used term to explain such attempts at forced persuasion, but that changed in the context of Mao Zedong’s victory in China and the Korean War some years later. Edward Hunter, a wartime propagandist with the US Office of Strategic Services, is credited with coining the flamboyant term ‘brainwashing’ in 1950 to account for mysterious confessions extracted from Western prisoners of war by the Chinese government.

After brutal treatment, some victims not only confessed to unlikely charges but also appeared to be sympathetic to their captors. Brainwashing later made a prominent appearance in the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which the evil Dr Yen Lo explains to a Communist co-conspirator that his American prisoner has ‘been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed … His brain has not only been washed … it has been dry-cleaned.’

With such origins, it is no wonder that the concept of brainwashing is criticised: it all seems so musty, reeking of the Cold War and questionable science. Some note that the concept has been used as a rhetorical weapon to attack followers of new movements (‘Ignore them; they must have been brainwashed to believe this nonsense’). Others dislike the term because it seems to blame victims for being gullible and weak, even though some victims of apparent brainwashing have included very gifted individuals. People lose sight of the fact that this form of dark persuasion occurs in extremis, when people are literally at their wits’ end.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that ‘a new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.’ Hunter’s new word might as well have been crabgrass: it crowded out more reasonable alternatives.

Some experts have preferred the term ‘coercive persuasion’ to explain the unusual behaviours observed among prisoners of war, cult victims and hostages who have paradoxically sided with their assailants or made palpably false and self-destructive confessions. Despite experts’ research on the subject, many still regard brainwashing as a bubbe-meise, a ghost story from the past.

Lenin was enchanted by the potential for Pavlov’s approach to be used to influence the Russian people

‘Coercive persuasion’ – which I’ll use interchangeably with ‘brainwashing’ – is a much harder term to argue with. It’s obvious that people can be forced to do things, but it also appears that people can be coerced into believing things under certain conditions. We see this all too frequently in instances of false confessions, Stockholm syndrome (in which a hostage develops a loyalty to their captor), and cults that foster various religious and political ideas.

There is even concern today that social media has become coercively persuasive, indoctrinating people to believe preposterous things (eg, ‘vaccines cause autism’, ‘COVID-19 isn’t worth worrying about’). Can social media contribute to coercive persuasion? To answer that question, one needs to more clearly define the sorts of situations that produce it.

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