Sciency Words: Brainwashing

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.

10 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Brainwashing

  1. Well said. As a skeptic, this is a truth I periodically have had to relearn.

    The other is that when we think we understand other people’s interests better than they themselves do, we’re usually wrong. Even if their beliefs are wrong, the self interested (often unconscious) reasons for those beliefs typically aren’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really good food for thought, about how the word gets tossed around so casually. I often use “brainwashing” as a catch-all shortcut word to describe coercion or social conditioning or manipulation, but you’re right, ultimately we can’t be programmed like a computer. We can only be exploited and nudged in certain directions we may not have thought to go in ourselves without the suggestion, but were predisposed to anyway.
    Like say you’re a naive teenager who feels disenfranchised, and you’re looking for something to identify with. You start venturing into the darker side of the Internet, reading white nationalist message boards and thinking “These people feel like me, this is empowering, I want to belong to something that understands me” and then before too long you’re walking around with this chip on your shoulder, brimming with all of this newfound knowledge about how things really are that you’ve been soaking up like a sponge. You’ve swallowed all the rhetoric and are excited about the idea of telling everyone about it. People would say that’s an example of “brainwashing” but it really isn’t, because as you point out, there’s technically no such thing.. Some people are less discriminating about what they allow to take root in their heads. But this has prompted me to think about how loosely I use the word.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m guilty of this too. I don’t talk about this much online, but I have to deal with a lot of people in my daily life who’ve taken on some pretty extreme political attitudes lately. They certainly act like they’re brainwashed.

      It wasn’t until I read that “50 psychological terms to avoid” paper that I started rethinking my use of that word. That’s what motivated me to write this piece. That and the fact that just last week someone called me a sheeple and said I’d been brainwashed by the liberal media elite. Needless to say, this was not an effective way to get me to change my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hear ya. It’s especially frustrating when people you respect continue to steadfastly believe certain things that have been debunked as hoaxes. They believe because they want to believe and they’ll make facts conform to that belief. And then they call naysayers sheep. They’re consciously choosing at some point to accept clearcut falsehoods.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah. I think it’s important to be self-critical, to question and doubt your own beliefs. Otherwise, I guess you could end up brainwashing yourself, in a sense.

        Can’t say I’m perfect about doing that, but I try, and I’ve changed my own mind enough to know I’m capable of doing it. Some people, though, seem to have a really hard time admitting they’re wrong, even to themselves.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So I’m watching an episode of Star Trek the next generation the other day(forgot which one)and data says something like “the common term used—and somewhat innacurately—was brainwashing. Of course I immediately thought of this post

    Liked by 1 person

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