It has become standard practice to say that a person who passionately believes absurd premises has been “brainwashed”. You probably can even find an instance or two of that word being invoked on this blog. Concerned relatives have even had cult members abducted and/ or forcibly subjected to “deprogramming” in order to undo such brainwashing. But many experts in behavioral sciences seriously question the whole concept of brainwashing, and some are even insisting that, in its most literal sense, it’s a myth — which is to say that you cannot make someone believe something against their will. The consensus on the the topic is that we always ultimately have a choice.
Although it might seem as if we’ve been hearing references to brainwashing forever, the term actually dates back only to 1950. (Granted, that’s more than a lifetime ago to most people reading this, so it might as well be forever.) The term brainwashing comes from a Chinese expression for indoctrination; and the whole concept was popularized by red-baiting American journalist/ government agent/ propagandist Edward Hunter, who was regarded as an expert on psychological warfare despite being challenged by psychologists even at the time he was writing.
The idea of brainwashing was nixed in print as early as 1956 — by none other than the U.S. Army, which noted in a report that, while political prisoners or prisoners of war subjected to forced indoctrination under torture and threats may be complicit with their captors under the circumstances, they revert to their normal behavior when their freedom is restored. Incidentally, the military itself provides an illustration of the kind of conditioning that normally gets labeled “brainwashing”. Soldiers are trained to follow orders precisely, and sometimes even kill, without question or hesitation. But they may or may not believe in the principles, values and causes they are fighting for; and they, too, resume their normal ways once they return to civilian life.
The debunking by the Army and by behavioral scholars did not, in the least, curtail the popular narrative about brainwashing, which has even been cited in criminal defense — perhaps most notably by defenders of Patty Hearst (whose conviction indeed may may have been unjust, since, brainwashed or not, she was subjected to coercion by her captors, and may have acted at least in part out of fear). The concept took flight in the public imagination, and it became a staple of sci-fi and fantasy fiction to feature some kind of drug, ray gun, or other device, or just mysterious “hypnosis” (a total misrepresentation of that concept as well) that immediately would transform a person’s personality, convictions and loyalty.
Rather than controlling the environment of a targeted individual through violence, threats, torture and duress, the “brainwashers” might control the environment through separation, saturation, and apparently benign attention. This is what happens with cults like the Moonies; they bombard recruits with constant displays of “love” around the clock, never allowing them any time alone or away from the group’s activities. Isolated from family and other former connections, the susceptible individual forges a new identity and new loyalties to the cult. But again, the individual ultimately retains the reins and makes the decision to join and to stay — even if deciding otherwise might result in physical harm, as it might have at Jonestown.
Then there is the third type of “brainwashing”, which is the one we hear about most often, though it is the least coercive: the “brainwashing” of certain sectors of the public who are saturated with incendiary media. Propaganda outlets like Fox “News” do not control the physical environment of their targets, but they do control the mindspace. And rather than resort to threats or enticements, they manipulate their audiences by ginning up fear and anger toward imaginary or greatly distorted problems.
You’ve no doubt heard stories about Fox turning perfectly reasonable individuals into blithering, incoherent conspiracy theorists. But Fox doesn’t do that to anyone without their cooperation. If you allow yourself to fall for a disinformation campaign — say the claim that “illegal” immigrants are a big threat to your safety and way of life — it’s because you’re already inclined to believe such things; in this case, it means you already had a streak of racism and xenophobia at your core. The propaganda outlet simply coaxed you into letting it surface, and helped amplify it.
This third type of indoctrination is generally referred to as “brainwashing” in a rather figurative sense, hyperbolically likening it to the other two types. (Fox itself even labeled it as brainwashing when Sesame Street tried to educate kids about vaccines. Seriously.) Yet ironically, this variety of “brainwashing” is the one that tends to be permanent. Those who have drunk the Fox Kool-Aid rarely if ever return to sanity.
The exceptions (or apparent exceptions) are those who get called on the carpet for their actions stemming from their indoctrination; if they don’t blame “cancel culture” or “fake news” for wrongfully persecuting them (or even if they do), they might make at least a superficial renunciation of their programming, insisting that they have been misled and pleading the brainwashing defense — the new version of temporary insanity or “the devil made me do it”. This has been the case with some of the MAGA cultists brought to justice for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Prior to arrest, they declared that they were 120 percent in the right, and were merely defending truth, justice, and The American Way. But when staring down the door of a jail cell swinging open in their direction, they did an abrupt about face and insisted that the scales had fallen from their eyes, and they now could see that the Dear Leader had been pulling their strings. Go figure.
You might argue that some people are truly not fully responsible for their choices owing to mental incapacity. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that a great many MAGA cultists are none too bright. A voter interviewed in Virginia flatly stated that “Critical Race Theory” was the most important issue in the state’s gubernatorial election, then admitted that he had no idea what the term even meant — he just knew that it was something he was strongly opposed to. Another voter elsewhere insisted he was certain the COVID-19 vaccine was lethal, and everyone who took it would be dead within a couple of years; and in almost the same breath, he praised 45 for supposedly developing the life-saving vaccine.
But stupidity alone does not account for Kool-Aid guzzling. In fact, many people who fall for bizarre conspiracy theories are in fact quite intelligent. As Jonathan Gottschall discusses in his book The Storytelling Animal, the urge to form narratives is an essential component of what makes us human. And we all form narratives, with or without all the facts, and with or without a framework of reason.
What about mental disturbance? Lordy yes, there’s plenty of that to go around as well. Steeped in rumors about the “Deep State”, and Q-Anon and Critical Race Theory and a “stolen election”, right-wing culture is just one big funny farm. But insanity is actually the goal, the finished product, rather than the root cause. Mental illness itself does not necessarily mean gullibility. Sure, schizophrenics live in a fantasy world; but the fantasies are of their own making. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they are easier to persuade to accept other people’s fantasies. If that were the case, then surely it would be just as easy to persuade them to accept reality.
In short, we ultimately bear responsibility for our own beliefs. And yet some people are certainly more susceptible to propaganda than others– perhaps because they are isolated, depressed, angry or just bored. And the manipulators exploit these weaknesses to the hilt, serving up a steady stream of self-centered and self-serving delusions. Even if brainwashing isn’t real, the propagandists do their best to make it so. And they have had a phenomenal degree of success in promoting their delusions and disinformation– whether we call it brainwashing or not.