Science Interviews


Wed, 20th Nov 2013

The science of brainwashing

Dr Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.

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EyesHannah -   What about using psychology findings to control the thoughts of the opposition?  The word “brainwashing” was coined over 70 years ago.  During the Korean war, American soldiers in Chinese prisoner of war camps came home communists, denouncing the American way of life - an apparent reversal of their beliefs.  To find out about the science of “brainwashing”, I caught up with Dr. Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.

Kathleen -   The whole idea of brainwashing is really contested.  This is not some kind of magical weird process.  It’s just this basic application of psychology and neuroscience only taken to very extremes.  Because it’s very coercive, you don’t get people doing brainwashing research, at least not in reputable institutions.  So, there is no field of brainwashing research, that's the first point. 

However, neuroscience is making some progress in understanding the kinds of changes that might take place in the brain when somebody is put in that kind of very stressful situation.  So for example, the US military has done research looking at the effects of stress on the brain and looking at stress hormones and how they affect particularly pre-frontal areas because I think the essence of a quote, unquote brainwashing situation is when somebody is very, very highly stressed.  They're put under an awful lot of pressure and that pressure might be emotional abuse, it might be lack of sleep, it might be forced to do repetitive behaviours, it might be isolation from all the things that they know so they're kind of disoriented, and it might be that their inputs are controlled so that their entire reality is under somebody else’s control.  So, all of that is going to change the brain.  Of course it is, everything changes the brain, but those allow the “brainwasher” to have much more control over what's actually going into the brain and obviously, what's going into the brain is to a certain extent, determining what is being thought by the brain and what is coming out in the terms of actions and behaviours. 

So, you see for example that in cults, the once that exert the most bizarre control, the ones that really seem to be able to make people do very extreme things are the ones that are very isolated and having a lot more control of the person’s situation whereas cults like the Moonies, that people operate in society are much less extreme.

Hannah -   What kind of implications are there for “brainwashing” in the world of politics?

Kathleen -   I mean, there are loads, absolute loads.  So for example, it is possible that as people develop more understanding of how beliefs changes happens in the brain that they want to use that in situations where you have people with beliefs that don’t match yours and that raises huge political and ethical questions.  So for example, you have the simple questions of who decides whose beliefs are okay and whose beliefs aren’t.  And then you have the whole ethical thing about whether changing somebody’s belief is actually like treating them for a mental illness or whether it’s like doing something else.  I mean, there are really big questions about this.  So, the whole idea of beliefs in politics and whether they can be changed and specifically, whether they can be changed artificially – I mean, people are really interested in working out how beliefs are based on how they're encoded in the brain.  That's the first step to wanting to be able to change them and I mean, that's just one of the big issues that neuroscience is going to raise increasingly in the next years and decades.  It’s one of the biggest.

Hannah -   And I'm afraid that's all we have time for this month.  Thanks to Fran Ashcroft, David Jett, Rod Flowers, Kathleen Taylor, Mark Lyndhurst, Ty Carter, Barrack Obama, and Amy Milton. 


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How can you tweak with people's belief systems to alter their viewpoints?

it's quite easy: distimpson, Fri, 6th Dec 2013

We are born with no beliefs. We learn to believe whatever gives us comfort or prevents pain. So if we are offered greater comfort or worse pain, we can change our beliefs. 

Every society has had its share of brainwashing, from supporting a football team (a wholly irrational activity that can lead to all sorts of egregious behaviour) to believing in an afterlife that will be compromised if we don't submit to a paedophile or give a tenth of our income to support the priesthood. To some extent, societies are defined by their irrational beliefs and actions. alancalverd, Fri, 6th Dec 2013

In a book called The Rational Animal, Douglass Krendrick and Vladas Griskevicius discuss subconscious programs that the human brain runs in different situations when prompted by different stimuli. They argue that there are not necessarily different personality "types" but just one or more programs that get run more often, based on either the kind of situations a person ends up in a lot, or perhaps how successful those programs have been in meeting needs in the past.

Although this is not mentioned in the book, your question makes me wonder if perhaps "brain washing" might be exposing a person to continuous stimuli that keeps one particular program running over and over. For example, constant threats to physical safety or ego integrity runs, say,  the "social joiner/follow the herd/safety in numbers" program over and over, crowding out programs that make one want to separate, stand out, try something different, experiment, be independent. cheryl j, Fri, 6th Dec 2013

I would have thought these were some sort of "instinctive behaviors" like fight or flight. Manipulating instinctive behaviors would be a powerful means to elicit a response, it is my opinion that many of the social media sites work on this level, perhaps brainwashing is similar. But after reading the wiki entry it seems there may not be a consensus on what instinctive means:  "To be considered instinctual, a behavior must: a) be automatic, b) be irresistible, c) occur at some point in development, d) be triggered by some event in the environment, e) occur in every member of the species, f) be unmodifiable, and g) govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable)." Seems (to me) a rather ridged definition. distimpson, Fri, 6th Dec 2013

Maybe that's why they invented the concept of the subconscious, because can we become partially aware of these responses, or override, or select between programs, and because some learned responses can become automatic as well.

A lot of the research in this area is based on "priming" experiments in which subtle cues are statistically shown to affect people's decisions. Priming experiments seem so silly, you almost wonder how anyone gets funding for them when you read the titles, and yet they generate some really interesting and often disturbing results about why people make the choices they do.

But getting back to the original question about brain washing, Stockholme syndrome is an interesting phenomenon, because it does seem so irrational. Here is a description of the event for which it was named:
On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors."

There are explanations involving evolutionary biology, as well as other kinds of psychology. There seems to be a gradual re-norming, in which the absence of abusive behavior, after intense exposure to it, is seen as an act of kindness.

Stockholme syndrome may also explain why some women stay in abusive relationships. cheryl j, Sat, 7th Dec 2013

I'm beginning to realize that “brainwashing” has a pretty wide range of states. Mild forms as in societal norms or pop culture marketing to very extreme situations as in captive abuse. Abruptly changing someone's fundamental beliefs that they have formed over a lifetime would be very difficult, I guess that is why torture is not very effective, or so I'm told. Over a more prolonged period, humans like all animals adapt as best they can, apparently people have been enslaved for years in otherwise free societies.
This seems a lot like shock treatment, I can understand the “go with the flow just happy to be alive” initial response but it is harder to understand the long term effects. But having said that, my most profound memories are of traumatic experiences, some things you never forget or completely get over. It's hard for me to understand but you never know how you will react to a situation until you are in it for real.

I'd guess brainwashing (if that is the correct usage) is easier if a person did not have any opposing belief or no thoughts to begin with, assuming that is why children are so susceptible. It seems to me that most of the violence I've seen against women is learned behavior. distimpson, Sat, 7th Dec 2013

I’m not sure if you mean learned behavior on the part of the abuser or abused, or both.

Like other kinds of antisocial behavior, a mixture of bad genes and a bad environment are a disastrous combination, but one or the other has a much weaker predictive value, or is not predictive at all. Not all abusive men come from abusive homes, and many who experience and witness abuse actively oppose it as adults. Likewise, statistically, most women who have been in an abusive relationship did not grow up in abusive home and do not suffer from significantly low self esteem, other than the feelings originating with the abusive experience itself.

Abusive, controlling partners are not generally immediately dislikable or disagreeable. The relationship often has a honeymoon phase that is pleasant and exciting, and the destructive personality traits can be well hidden for months. In the beginning the abuser has  an idealized vision of his partner whom he expects to fulfill all of his future needs and comply with any and every demand. Until he realizes that this is impossible, he is sweet and loving.

Abused partners often ignore  warning signs of possessiveness and control. The abuser may claim he is insecure because of other women who  hurt him in the past, a common story of abusers, which makes jealousy seem more acceptable and even illicit sympathy. Warnings signs are also ignored because of other positive qualities.  It's hard to conceive that someone who may be, for example, fun, good looking, interesting to talk to, humorous, creative, hard working, talented, enthusiastic, and even affectionate – could possibly be the same person who would grab someone by the hair and smash her face into the dash board of the car, shove her around, or give her a black eye. Television shows about domestic violence never associate any positive qualities with abusers, which makes abused women's behavior even more bewildering.

A gradual shift in thinking takes place, to where simply not being mistreated is interpreted at a kind act and the victim begins to believe that if she just didn’t do or say certain things to upset her partner, or tried harder to please him, or didn't have certain defects -  the relationship would go back to the way it was when they first met. She begins to believe that her partner’s unpredictable, explosive anger must be her fault, because she can see no other rational explanation for it, because there is no rational explanation for it. She might also want to believe that there might be a way to fix it or prevent it.

Finally, there is a loss of perspective, as the abused becomes more and more isolated. She avoid friends and family out of embarrassment, and because it appeases the abuser who pressures her to stay away from people who might interfere. And if frustrated family or friends break off contact, the abuser uses it as evidence that no one really cares about her but him.

In that respect, the gradual shift in thinking, the loss of perspective from isolation, the unrelenting intimidation, the inability to predict when and why the abuser will "explode", even things like deliberate sleep deprivation, have a lot in common with what people experience in cults. And in both cases, a year or so afterwards, people who have these experiences are amazed that they felt and acted the way they did, as if they weren't really themselves during the experience. In that respect I think it is more like brain washing than a type of learned behavior.

ps  (Sorry for my use of pronouns - I do realize that women can be abusive and controlling or exhibit personality disorders as well.) cheryl j, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

I meant both. This is surprising to me, I've only have a few instances to draw on growing up so I was under the impression that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. I'd mention another source of learned behavior is outside the family in teen peer groups, although not physically restrained it can feel like you are trapped and required to conform to a way of thinking, a few make it a life mission to leave it behind.
No doubt, the longer it goes on the harder it is to leave, more and more strings, and there is a lot of fear and uncertainty it trying to leave, some of it unfounded but some not. You have to commend the folks that take the action to get out, a lot of bravery in my opinion. distimpson, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

Yes, I would think the dynamics of street gangs, would be very similar to cults and abusive relationships. The display of violence towards other people and objects is a subtle but ever present message - this could happen to you, if you are disloyal -without the group, you are nothing. cheryl j, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

I picked up a very perceptive line - in fact the only line I heard - from a radio play. The torturer said to his victim "You will come to love me because I am the only person who can stop the pain". The I arrived at my destionation and switched the radio off, but it was worth hearing just for that. alancalverd, Mon, 9th Dec 2013

Fear-based conditioning works pretty well for religions. I believe fear have such an effect on the hippocampus and amygdala that it can repress higher forms of learning. Hence, brainwashing may be a emotional response to the stress generated from fear, were our cognitive functions and subconscious become infiltrated from the coercive persuasion.

The newly defined "war on terror" concept is a form of state-sponsored brainwashing. It's purpose is to create beliefs and thoughts about a so called war on terrorism, an artificial fairy tale to conditionate human intelligence on the motivations of war through fear-based narratives.

In fact, war generates more terror than brainwashing possibly could. To deprogram the mind from coercive persuation requires to learn and detect how cognitive infiltration works. Science is a good starting point to gather informations on the modalities of mind programming by providing a method to inquire on the origins of fear. tkadm30, Mon, 28th Dec 2015

Propaganda probably works in multiple ways. Just repeat something often enough and people start to give it more credibility, even if its been disproven ( like autism and vaccines.)
Or there's "availability bias" where people tend to over estimate the likelihood of things or events if they can easily call to mind an example. The more examples you flash in front of the public, the more persuasive it is, even if there many more counter examples or "non-occurrences".

I also think propaganda (or any kind of persuasion, even advertising) also takes advantage of  cueing certain behaviors that may be hardwired or evolutionary. In "The Rational Animal" Kenrick and Griskavicuis propose several basic behavioral "programs" humans run that make them more likely to act a particular way in certain situations. Their categories include "kin care, mate acquisition, mate retention, status, affiliation, disease avoidance, and self protection."
Propaganda, like convincing people that a certain group is a threat, seems to have employed cueing a lot of these - foreigners will attack you, violate your women, they may have weird diseases,  they will cost money and take jobs. Of course, the opposition appeals to some of these elements as well - pictures of refugee children remind us of our own, and cue our protective instincts. Either way, there's always a primitive, emotional element in persuasion when there isn't the time or inclination to cite actual facts. cheryl j, Sun, 3rd Jan 2016

Brainwashing or coercive persuasion is more dangerous than propaganda. Common sense and reasoning can overcome propaganda which is often promoted by authorities. For example the prohibition of cannabis is a form of state-sponsored propaganda to restrict access to natural medicine over synthetic drugs.

Peoples with poor maieutics skills can be victims of coercive persuasion. Hence, the Socratic method can stimulates critical thinking, which is a mental ability required to evade brainwashing.

Also, psychological warfare may use propaganda to test how populations respond to brainwashing/mind control.    tkadm30, Fri, 15th Jan 2016

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