Brainwashing: Decoding How Cults Work

Photo: Marc Nozell via CC BY 2.0

There’s a limited pool of tropes and thematic elements from which popular culture can continually reinvent itself; and, as the adage goes, art often imitates life. The subject of brainwashing is just one of these frequently recycled plot devices, and although fictionalized accounts of brainwashing are proliferated throughout myriad media channels, it is one that consistently resonates with the audience’s most visceral fears. Movies like “Zoolander,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and “A Clockwork Orange” all engage with this subject matter (albeit with disparate treatments). “Brainwashed by our leaders / By our Kings and Queens / Brainwashed in the open / And brainwashed behind the scenes,” sings George Harrison in his song entitled “Brainwashed,” found on the eponymous album.

Suffice it to say, mind control appears to be one of those vaguely unappealing colors that are nonetheless found on every artists’ palette. If art truly mimics our reality, then one could make a reasonable case for the notion that brainwashing is virtually ubiquitous in modern society. But this doesn’t necessarily suggest that we’re all just zombies wandering through a Huxleyan existence. On the contrary: Social influence is an integral component in defining what it means to be human, and the knee-jerk reaction to loaded words such as “brainwashing” and “mind control” is perhaps unwarranted.

Indeed, we’re subject to countless social influences on a daily basis. Julia Layton of How Stuff Works presents three ways in which we may experience “thought reform”: the compliance method is simply an order to do something; the persuasion method is used to alter one’s perceptions; and the education method essentially involves propaganda. Layton explains that, “Brainwashing is a severe form of social influence that combines all of these approaches to cause changes in someone’s way of thinking without that person’s consent and often against his will.”

And yet, consider how often you may be subtly influenced by any one of these methods individually. You see a juicy cheeseburger on a fast food commercial, and your stomach starts to rumble. You get an email from that animal activist group asking you to donate money, and you just can’t say no to those sad puppy-dog eyes staring back at you.

Moreover, the judicious use of rhetoric — which emphasizes how something is said more than the content of the message — can move us to action. As Aristotle said in his “Rhetoric” essays: “There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able to reason logically; to understand human character and goodness in their various forms; and to understand the emotions — that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.” These devices are known as logos, pathos, and ethos, respectively.

Of course, these deliberate persuasive techniques are not the only ways in which we are influenced. In fact, features of our brain’s functioning subtly and unconsciously mold our behavior. One example of this is perceptual priming. Famously studied by Dr. Anthony Marcel in the 1970s and 1980s, priming occurs when two similar stimuli are presented in rapid succession, which results in the participant making a quicker association between the two. For instance, one frequently cited scenario is when a person presented with the word “butter” is quicker to recognize the word “bread,” but not the word “nurse.” In essence, the first stimulus primes — or provokes — the subsequent response. All this is to say that though we nurse some innate fear of mind control, we’re being subtly “brainwashed” by a variety of stimuli all of the time.

This is far from the only way in which we are unconsciously swayed by external and internal factors. One study conducted by Dr. Kimberlee Weaver and colleagues that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which demonstrated the ways in which we are influenced both by our social groups and by repetition. Weaver explains the results: “Across our studies, we found that although three people each expressing the same sentiment is more influential than one person expressing the same belief three times, the latter was, on average, 90% of the former.”

In other words, when our brains perceive one person proffering an opinion several times, it has nearly the same effect as three different people saying the same thing. As the title of the study reads, “a repetitive voice can sound like a chorus.” So when mom keeps telling you that those chocolate bars will give you acne (even if she’s the only one who says so), you might just start to believe her.

One might suggest that the above phenomenon is due in part to simply not paying thoughtful attention to who is saying what. Dr. Ellen Langer conducted several studies, which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which illustrated how we may be influenced when we are operating on a distracted or mindless cognitive echelon.

The methodology of one of Langer’s experiments involved a situation in which: “People about to use a copying machine were asked to let another person use it first. The study utilized a 3 by 2 factorial design in which the variables of interest were the type of information presented (request; request plus ‘placebic’ information; request plus real information) and the amount of effort compliance entailed (small or large).” Specifically, these requests all began with, “Excuse me, I have five (or 20) pages,” but they diverged following this: “May I use the Xerox machine? ”; “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”; and “May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” The results found that when the request was minor (five copies as opposed to 20), 60% of the request-only group acquiesced, while the latter two requests were both met with more than 90% compliance, even though the “placebic” explanation offered no novel information.

Langer explains: “Thus, while the information given to Group 2 was redundant in an “information theory” sense, it was predicted to be necessary, and thus not redundant, in a script sense … If complex verbal interactions can be overlearned, mindlessness may indeed be the most common mode of social interaction.” Put another way: When we are going about our days distracted and stretched too thin, we may not realize or remember the subtle ways in which people are manipulating us to their advantage. On the other hand, if you want to skip ahead in line, perhaps all you need to say is: “Excuse me, may I go ahead of you? I need to buy my groceries.”

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