Things About Brainwashing Writers Need To Know
In Fictionland, brainwashing is often done by strapping someone down in front of a chair, maybe giving this person some mixture of drugs, and playing a video. Or they might be made to believe something after a single hypnosis session. They might be programmed with "trigger words" that make them instantly turn into mindless killers. But the reality is very different - the methods usually take more time, but are much less obvious. And whereas in Fictionland, brainwashing is often carried out on the behest of some evil overlord or by some creepy evil scientist, in reality many brainwashers are small-time religious or ideological leaders, or other very common authority figures, or just plain regular people who just want more control and dominance overs in their lives. Whoever you plan to have do it in your own story, if you're interested in playing brainwashing up realistically, here's an examination of what real-life brainwashing can look like and entail.
Table of Contents
- Those who brainwash often prey on the vulnerable
- Common techniques used by brainwashers
- More things to know about brainwashing and brainwashing victims
- There is often hope for escape and recovery
Those who brainwash often prey on the vulnerable
The most vulnerable people are usually the ones who are desperate or needy in some way. They might feel alone or unloved, or they might not have a stable financial situation, or they might not have people they can rely on for help should an emergency happen. They might feel like the world is set against them or that they're trapped in a situation that's slowly draining their life away. They might have recently suffered a loss or tragedy that has completely upturned their lives and left them feeling exposed or uncertain for the future, or has left them with an emotional void they ache to fill. Or they might feel uncertain about something, and want some sense of reassurance or direction.
Here are a few examples of what vulnerable people can look like:
Paige grew up in an abusive, unsupportive household. As a child, she was often told that her big dreams were impossible, or even that they were "inappropriate" for a "good" girl. She was also kept away from many social opportunities because her parents didn't want her being "influenced." At eighteen, she finally escapes from her family to find a life elsewhere. But now Paige's social support network is nonexistent, and she can't trust her parents to help her out in times of crisis (at least, not without using it as an opportunity to sabotage her or try to pull her back under their control).
Someone like Paige could potentially be preyed upon by someone who offers friendship and/or a surrogate family, or otherwise offers to be there for her in her time of need.
Derek had a decent childhood, but as an adult he is struggling to find keep a job that pays well. Furthermore, he just can't seem to find a girlfriend - it's starting to feel like everybody but him has a girlfriend or is getting married. Right now, the world just makes no sense to Derek - he went to school and to college and did everything he was told he needed to do to be successful, but despite his best efforts, nothing's falling into place - and with every failure, his frustration continues to grow.
Someone like Derek could potentially be preyed on by someone who offers him the opportunity to pull himself out of his seeming never-ending cycle of failure. An explanation for why failure keeps occurring (EG, "[group/demographic] keeps sabotaging good, hardworking people like us!") could also appeal - because finally, the question of why this keeps happening is seemingly answered.
Taylor is the victim of disaster. After losing home and family to a hurricane, the world suddenly feels like a terrifying, uncertain place where nothing makes sense and hope seems distant. ("Why did this have to happen? Did we do something to deserve it? How can I ever put my life back together?" What's the use of even trying, if things like this are going to happen?")
Someone like Taylor could potentially be preyed upon by someone who offered answers that made some sense out of life's seeming randomness and gave a sense of hope and purpose in life.
Naomi is a highly sensitive person who feels terrible about hurting anyone or doing anything wrong, and wants very badly to avoid hurting people or making them feel bad. Because she knows that she's an imperfect human being, she always tries to remain receptive to input and criticism from others so she can continue to learn how to be a better person.
Someone like Naomi could potentially be preyed upon by someone who uses moral and ethical precepts as a tool of control - EG, demonizes undesired thoughts, beliefs, actions, etc. as evil, unethical, immoral, harmful, etc. no matter how innocuous they actually are.
Casey has never suffered too much personally, but has noticed a lot of suffering and injustice in the world, and is saddened and enraged by it. What's more, it seems that too few people (if anyone) actually care enough to speak out or do anything about these problems, and there seems to be little to nothing Casey can actually do to accomplish much.
Someone like Casey is potentially vulnerable to an outspoken individual who really seems to have the guts to get up and do something and to actually criticize all these problems everyone seems to be ignoring, and who actually seems to have some sort of plan or method to tackle these problems.
By now, you might be noticing a pattern - these people have specific needs and desires - whether physical or emotional - that a potential brainwasher can take advantage of. It's also important to note is that intelligence has very little to do with it - very smart people get suckered like this all the time. This is because it's more about hitting people in their emotional centers or appealing to their basic survival instincts, rather than reaching out to them intellectually. Emotional wants and basic survival instincts can often override logic and rationality even in the smartest people, especially when they're desperate.
One thing that actually does make a person more resistant is prior experience with some form of brainwashing, such as from manipulative parents or from a cult-like religious environment. People who experienced such as children are more likely to recognize manipulative behaviors for what they are as adults. (But even so, it's not necessarily foolproof.) Attempts to reach out to someone are also unlikely to work if the one reaching out is perceived as an enemy or threat.
Common techniques used by brainwashers
Brainwashers have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to make people comply and believe what they're saying. Not every brainwasher or brainwashing organization is going to use each and every one of these, but most of them will use at least several.
Claiming it's the other people who are doing the brainwashing. Many brainwashers will claim that it's their boogeyman of choice who is doing the brainwashing/indoctrinating/etc., and that all they're trying to do is share the truth or fight back against their oppressors. What's more, they may wholeheartedly believe that this is actually the case. (If someone can't seem to comprehend how anyone would hold a dissenting opinion without being brainwashed, that person is probably brainwashed.)
Encouraging a black-and-white view of everything. Many brainwashers speak or act as if things are simply black and white, with no room for gray... or blue, or red, or the rest of the spectrum that makes up the complexities of real life. This can entail sentiments along the lines of "Either you're with us, or you're against us!", "Either you agree with us 100% and do everything we tell you, or you're just helping the bad guys win!", or "That person just said that? Well, I guess we can't like/support that person now." Or "Either you're doing what you do because you love us and want to help us, or because you hate us and want to see us fail," or "either your actions are godly, or they're sinful."
Gaslighting. Having doubts, asking the wrong kind of questions, or having the wrong kind of opinions might be framed as a sign that one isn't advanced enough or lacks proper "understanding," be framed as proof that one still has incorrect beliefs or impure motives, or that one is still brainwashed/indoctrinated/etc. by their boogeyman of choice, or that one is stupid, naive, ignorant, etc. One might be told that ideas and goals that don't dovetail with the brainwasher's goals or beliefs come from a place of selfishness or a control-freak nature. One's former life choices or pre-brainwashed self might be demonized as utterly selfish or reprehensible, even if by all reasonable standards one wasn't actually that horrible of a person. Any failure to live up to perfect compliance (no matter how ridiculous the brainwashers' demands are) might be framed as selfishness or proof that one isn't trying hard enough. Or if victims, when questioned, don't give answers their brainwashers don't like, they might be asked questions like "are you sure?" over and over until they start doubting themselves and start giving the answers the brainwashers want.
Infospamming. Views and beliefs might be condensed into catchy little slogans or sayings for brainwashers to repeat whenever they think the victim needs reminded of something. Anything and everything might be used as an excuse to teach or remind victims of what brainwashers want them to think and believe. Victims might be pressured or forced to watch, read, or listen to materials containing whatever their brainwashers wants them to think or believe, and may be expected to spend a ridiculous amount of time doing so. This is often effective because of the illusiory truth effect - where hearing something repeated over and over makes people feel that there must be some truth to it.
Making the victims repeat this info. Such as through chants, slogans, etc. Because saying things perceived as untrue makes most people uncomfortable (this is known as cognitive dissonance), their minds will often start to believe these things in order to alleviate the discomfort.
Redefining words and concepts. By doing this, brainwashers can create and foster a system of thought that almost always works out in their favors. People can't complain that they're being treated unfairly if they're told that "unfair" actually means "people in the outgroup not giving us what we want," nor can they complain that they're being abused if "abuse" is conveniently redefined to exclude the way they're being treated.
Creating a system where behavior normally considered unacceptable is allowable for themselves. For example, claiming that it's all right if they take ridiculous amounts of money from their victims because they "work so hard for everyone else," or claiming that they are allowed to have angry outbursts where others aren't because they're under so much more pressure. Or they might claim they can't be held accountable when they behave in a way that would typically be considered abusive - they might claim to have "divine authority," or claim that they have some condition that makes them unable to help themselves. (And of course, their victims are painted as bad people if they try to protect or defend themselves in any way.)
Cutting off external input. People might be pressured or forced to cut contact with people who think or believe differently. They might be pressured or forced to dispose of media from outside sources, perhaps being told that it's full of evil propaganda and cannot be trusted.
Pressuring victims to divulge old shames or intimate personal details. This is another way of taking advantage of what cognitive dissonance does to people - because people normally only tell details like these to those they absolutely, telling them to someone they don't know that well might make them begin to view this person as a trustworthy person to relieve the dissonance. (Plus, it gives brainwashers future blackmail material.)
Exhaustion. This makes it harder to think rationally, so by keeping people constantly tired by limiting their sleep or by overworking them can keep them unable to think very hard about what they're being taught or told to do and can make them more susceptible to emotional appeals.
Punishing noncompliance. This can be done in many ways, including revoking certain rights or privileges, or using guilt or shaming techniques; or by ignoring, shunning, or ostracizing the victim; or by forcing the victim to watch, read, or listen to propaganda materials; or even with corporal punishment.
Telling victims they're part of something grand and glorious. No matter how badly they're being treated or how disposable their brainwashers actually think they are, they might be told that they're doing something vitally important. Making victims feel like they have a noble purpose gives them incentive to stay and keep doing whatever it is their brainwashers want.
Telling victims that the treatment they receive is normal and/or necessary. For example, by telling them "Do you really think anyone else would treat you any differently?", or "I'm just preparing you for the real world!", or "If you can't take this, you'll never stand up against what's coming next!" or "This is just the way things are done, and it's not your place to ask questions." (Of course, this last one just raises the question of just who can ask questions.)
Telling victims that everyone else hates them, or wants to hurt them, or would abuse or exploit them. This can scare them out of trying to leave their brainwashers and go somewhere else, thus keeping them under control. (And if they are treated scornfully or cruelly by others, this will only reinforce their belief that their brainwashers are truthful and knowledgeable.)
Telling victims that other horrible things will happen if they leave. They might tell victims that they'll just end up worse off than they were before they met their brainwashers, or that they'll end up taken over by demons, or that they'll fail miserably because they just don't have the skills to cope with the "real world."
Telling victims that no one else would understand, believe, love, or put up with them; or that if they told anyone else the truth they'd be locked up or taken away; or that they/the government/whoever would come and persecute everyone in the group. Another scare tactic to keep victims too afraid to leave or reach out for help.
Making victims feel as if they owe the brainwashers compliance. Victims might be told that defying them or leaving would be an act of disrespect or betrayal. The brainwashers might talk about they've done so much to help their victims (even if in reality, they've expended almost no effort to help them) and how what they're asking for in return is such a small price or favor to ask (even if it's not). Or they might talk about what horrible situations or fates they rescued their victims from (even if that wasn't the case). Or they might talk about how much they plan to help their victims, if only they'll just give them some help first.
More things to know about brainwashing and brainwashing victims
Some brainwashers genuinely believe what they're saying. Either because they were brainwashed by someone else, or because they hold paranoid delusions, or delusions of grandeur, or similar.
Brainwashing often happens gradually. Many times, the brainwashing process starts out with teachings or requests that probably don't seem too unreasonable or terrible at the time (EG, "It's all right to tell a little white lie now and then for a greater good.") But as time goes on and a victim gets more involved and invested, things gradually escalate (EG, "You absolutely can't tell your family anything about us or our plans. Lie and tell them you're going to the library if you have to. It's okay to lie to them because you're doing it for your true family - us.")
Or for another example, a brainwasher might start with something like "Our group believes in striving for peace and equality." This is noble enough, which makes it good bait for the idealistic. Early on, a victim might be encouraged to go and protest whatever the group opposes. Then later the victim might be encouraged to send harassing, even threatening messages to perceived enemies. Eventually, this might culminate in the victim being encouraged - or even ordered - to actually attack or harm perceived enemies in some way.
Brainwashing victims don't feel "brainwashed." However, they might feel like they have purpose in life now, or that everything finally makes sense, or that they finally have the truth and know what to do. If they've been told that the rest of the world is degenerate, reprobate, or ignorant to the truth, they might feel like they're better, smarter, or more fortunate than everyone else. If they've been told they have great and glorious purpose in some grand design, they might feel superior or special. If they've been told that the rest of the world is out to get them, they might feel constant fear that they'll be targeted or that they are being targeted. If they've been often told that they're sinful, impure, or selfish, or that people who like or do certain things are such, they might constantly doubt their own thoughts and desires or feel self-loathing.
They are victims. They were manipulated and coerced to think and behave a certain way for the sake of using and exploiting them, and/or for the sake of rendering them unable or unlikely to resist, challenge, or otherwise make trouble for their brainwashers. Almost anyone can potentially fall prey to a brainwasher at some point - all they need is to have a vulnerability somewhere that the brainwasher can exploit. And most brainwashers are predators looking to gain or advance by manipulating and exploiting someone else, plain and simple.
There is often hope for escape and recovery
Although there are some lost causes, many who have been brainwashed can often recover with time. It can be a long road, and there can be setbacks along the way, but it is possible. Some things that can make escape and recovery more likely are:
Always being on the short end of the stick. Those who actually benefit from a system created by a brainwasher (or at least receive only minimal harm) are much less likely to question it (and may even dismiss those who do question it as selfish, whiny, or as troublemakers). On the other hand, those who are constantly losing out somehow are more likely to start asking questions and turn against it.
Valuing honesty, integrity, fairness, and being true to oneself over respecting authority or somebody's say-so. Those who place a higher priority on respecting ideals and values rather than respecting authority are much more likely to question what authority is telling them and thus ultimately free themselves from control. On the other hand, those who are of the view that authority is to be respected and that's that are more likely to be lost causes.
Being able to learn about other people and perspectives in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment. When people feel attacked (whether individually or categorically), they tend to go on the defensive and stop listening - or worse, try to attack back. But people who can come to understand others and their ways of thinking without being told that they're bad, stupid, defective, etc. are more likely to stick around and listen long enough for them to start realizing that what they were taught is messed up.
Finding out that the "monsters" aren't actually monsters. Those who have been isolated from the groups they've been taught are terrible and horrible may find themselves unable to justify their hate and fear when they find out that these people aren't actually demons and monsters, but are instead regular human beings just trying to live their lives.
Getting away from it all. If removed from a source of brainwashing for awhile, they might start to think outside the boxes the brainwashers put them in and realize just how weird, irrational, and wrong their claims and teachings were.
Realizing they have an out in the outgroup. If people understand that they can leave their brainwashers without fear of scorn, condemnation, or abuse from outsiders, they'll be much more inclined to give it serious consideration if they start feeling that things are rotten where they are now. On the other hand, if they feel that leaving their situation is unsafe or just inviting more abuse, they'll probably stay where they are.
Having time to absorb new information and question everything gradually. With few exceptions, nobody shifts to a new worldview overnight. A brainwashing victim might need weeks, or even months or years to completely overcome everything. (Even years after the fact, a brainwashing victim might struggle to enjoy something that had been deemed bad or evil by the brainwasher without feeling guilty or filthy.)
For more information pertinent to how brainwashing can happen, take a look at How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad.
For more information pertinent to the topic of overcoming brainwashing, take a look at Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably.
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