Could You Become Brainwashed?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Experts are still debating whether brainwashing is real or just figment of our imagination.

By Jean Lawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

If you follow the trial of Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger of the alleged Beltway snipers, you will hear of a sociable young man "brainwashed" into hiding in a specially outfitted car trunk and murdering people. In the Elizabeth Smart case, a typical suburban youngster was so "brainwashed" by her captor, the story goes, that she had chances to escape and didn't. Patty Hearst went from carefree socialite to bank robber.

Is brainwashing real? Could it happen to you?

"In the behavioral sciences, brainwashing is an extremely -- repeat extremely -- controversial subject," Ron Enroth, PhD, a professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of nine books on cults, tells WebMD. "It is impossible to prove scientifically that someone was 'forced' by someone else to do something. I am in the minority of scholars on this, but I believe something is going on in these cases. The person's capacity to make decisions has been impaired."

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does cite "thought reform" as a contributing factor to the type of dissociate disorder applied to cult members.

Thought reform, or the more scientifically accepted "coercive persuasion," is defined as the systematic application of psychological and social influence techniques in an organized way, within a managed environment -- with the end result of making someone do something that is not in his or her best interests.

Brainwashing Need Not End in Murder

The term brainwashing goes back to the 1950s days of drip-drip-drip torture and thought control by which the Chinese were said to turn Korean War POW's into communists. An extreme form was found in the movie The Manchurian Candidate, in which an individual was "washed" so clean that he could be "reprogrammed" to respond to a code word.

Now, methods of persuasion are arraigned on a continuum, going from education to advertising to propaganda, to indoctrination, to coercive persuasion, or brainwashing. We are all subject to some form of persuasion everyday. When does it become brainwashing?

"Patty Hearst, Elizabeth Smart, these are just the tip of the iceberg," Joseph Flaherty, MD, head of the department of psychiatry of the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, tells WebMD, citing other manifestations of brainwashing, such as:

  • Domestic violence victims, who stay despite being told to leave and knowing they should leave.
  • Hostages, who often bond with their captors as in the case of the four Swedish bank tellers that were held in the vault for six days in 1973, came to know their captors, and even resisted rescue, resulting in the term the "Stockholm Syndrome." Some experts says it only takes three days for such a bond to form.
  • Cult members, who substitute a new set of beliefs for their long-held values of God and family and sometimes even change their names to signal their new identities.

Could You Be Brainwashed?

"You don't have to be kidnapped to possibly be brainwashed," Flaherty says. Although he concedes there are no good studies on this, he lists some things that could make you vulnerable to brainwashing, including:

  • Being on the passive, unforceful side, being a "go along to get along person"
  • Being prone to "spacing out" and dissociating from time to time
  • Having weak family ties or combative relations with family
  • Having a history of abuse
  • Being a substance user or abuser
  • Responding poorly to stress
  • Not having sufficient money to resist the suggestions of others
  • Either being uneducated or not taking full advantage of the education you got
  • Not having smart, opinionated peers to evaluate things with you
  • Being in a transition state, between marriages or between high school and college

How Brainwashers Get Over on You

Lee Malvo was cut off from his mother and was traveling around with an older individual with his own agenda. Cult members usually are taken from their familiar haunts. "The first thing that happens is that the individual is isolated," Flaherty says. "The captor gets rid of family and friends." The domestic abuser may move the family away from sympathetic family members or pick fights with friends who might help the victim.

"I know of one case, Enroth says, "in which cult members were so influenced by the cult leader that they prayed everyday to be given cancer if they ever thought of leaving the cult."

Usually time elapses in which some positive reinforcement is given and nothing bad happens. This gives hope. "In the case of the domestic abuser," Flaherty says, "he usually apologizes and says it won't happen again."

The brainwasher also exerts his or her power to enforce trivial rules, such as report every penny you spend or you can't use the bathroom in daylight hours. In extreme cases, food, sleep, and bathroom privileges are removed. Violent threats are interspersed with occasional indulgences.

Overall, the perpetrator is showing omnipotence. At the same time, the brainwashing subject is undermined and degraded. Soon after, the subject's own ideas are so doubted, the brainwasher's ideas are substituted.

"The hallmarks are fear, guilt, and intimidation," concludes Enroth. "This results in a parent calling me and saying this is no longer my daughter or no longer my son. This is a totally different person."

Can Brainwashed Victims Recover?

Even when a person gets turned around, over time, the situation can be reversed, Flaherty assures.

After the person is "released" and placed in a different environment, he or she may face:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder, including panic attacks or trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Reliving of the experience
  • A feeling of terrible emptiness -- what now?
  • The appearance of different personalities or a tendency to present different "faces" to different people.
  • Lack of confidence in making good decisions
  • Aversion to intimate, trusting relationships

"The important thing is to seek help from someone experienced with brainwashing," Flaherty says. There is more to it than stealing someone back and screaming in their face until they change their mind back.

"I believe in cognitive therapy," he says. "Be realistic, see where you are now, see what you are looking at."

Not everyone can be brainwashed. "Some people," Enroth says, "question everything." That is the guy or gal who, when asked to help murder some people, will see that it's a bad idea and completely unjustifiable, no matter what anyone says.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

Published Dec. 15, 2003.

SOURCES: Ron Enroth, PhD, professor, sociology, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif. Joseph Flaherty, MD, head, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago.

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