How to identify and avoid brainwashing

The term “brainwashing” was first used by American journalist Edward Hunter in 1950 when he reported on the treatment of American soldiers in Chinese prison camps during the Korean War. Brainwashing techniques have been documented as far back as the Egyptian Book of the Dead and have been used by abusive spouses, parents, self-proclaimed psychics, cult leaders, secret societies, revolutionaries and dictators to bring others under their control and seemingly willingly manipulate them. These techniques have nothing to do with fantastic weapons or exotic powers, but they do require an understanding of the human psyche and a desire to exploit it. By better understanding these techniques, you can learn how to protect yourself and others from them.

Identify brainwashing techniques

Those who seek to brainwash others usually target weak and vulnerable victims.

Not everyone is a suitable target for this form of mind control, but certain people are more susceptible to it at different times. A skilled manipulator knows what to look for and will target people who are going through a difficult time in their life or going through a change that may or may not be their own making. Possible candidates include People who have lost their jobs and fear for their future. Recently divorced people, especially if the divorce was very painful. People suffer from long-term illnesses, especially when they don’t understand them. Those who have lost a loved one, especially if they were very close to that person and have few other friends. Young people leaving home for the first time. These are particularly popular with religious cult leaders. A particularly predatory tactic is to gather enough information about the person and their belief system to explain the tragedy that the person experienced in a way that is consistent with that belief system. This can later be expanded to explain the story in general with this belief system. However, it is subtly modified according to the manipulator’s designs.

Be aware of people trying to isolate you or someone you know from outside influences.

Since people going through personal tragedy or other major life changes tend to feel lonely, a skilled manipulator works to amplify those feelings of loneliness. Insulation can take many forms. Young people in a cult could be prevented from contacting their friends or family members. For people in an abusive relationship, it can mean that the abuser never takes his eyes off the victim or allows contact with family and friends. For prisoners in a prison camp, it can mean isolating prisoners from one another while subjecting them to subtle or overt forms of torture.

Watch out for attacks on the victim’s self-esteem.

Brainwashing only works when the perpetrator assumes a superior position to the victim. This means that the victim must be broken so that the perpetrator can rebuild it according to his ideas. This can be done through mental, emotional, and ultimately physical means until the target is physically and emotionally worn down. Psychological torture can begin with lying to the victim and progress to shaming and intimidating the victim. This form of torture can be carried out with words or gestures, from an expression of disapproval to invading the victim’s personal space. Emotional torture can begin with verbal abuse, then progress to harassment, spitting on, and performing dehumanizing acts such as stripping the victim for photographing or viewing. Physical torture can mean starvation, freezing, sleep deprivation, beatings, mutilations, and more, none of which is socially acceptable. Physical torture is often used by abusive parents and spouses, as well as in prisons and “re-education” camps.

Watch out for those who try to tell you that being “part of the group” is more attractive than the outside world.

Along with wearing down the victim’s resistance, it is important to offer a seemingly more attractive alternative to what the victim was aware of prior to contact with the abuser. There are a variety of methods for doing this: The victim is only allowed contact with other people who have already been brainwashed. This creates a form of peer pressure that encourages the victim to want to be like the new group and strive for group acceptance. This can be compounded by touching, rap sessions, or group sex, or by stricter measures like a uniform dress code, controlled diet, or other strict rules. Repeating the message by singing or chanting the same phrases over and over again, often with an emphasis on certain keywords or phrases. Imitation of the rhythm of the human heartbeat through the cadence of the leader’s speech or through the musical accompaniment. This can be increased with lighting that is not too dim or too harsh, and a room temperature that promotes relaxation. Never give the victim time to think. This can mean simply never giving the victim any time alone, or bombarding the victim with repeated lectures on incomprehensible topics with no questions asked. Presenting an “us versus them” mentality where the thought leader is right and the outside world is wrong. The goal is to achieve blind obedience until the victim commits their money and life to the perpetrator’s stated goals.

Perpetrators who brainwash others often offer rewards if the victim “converts

” Once the victim is completely broken and compliant, they can be retrained. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, depending on the circumstances of the brainwashing. An extreme form of this compliance is known as Stockholm Syndrome. It was made famous by an incident in Sweden in 1973 when two bank robbers captured four hostages over a period of 131 hours. After the hostages were rescued, they identified with their captors, to the point that one of the women became engaged to her captor and another hostage set up a legal defense fund for the criminals. Patty Hearst, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974, is also considered a victim of Stockholm Syndrome.

Recognize new thought patterns of the victim.

Much of the rebuilding of the victim occurs with some of the same powerful conditioning techniques of reward and punishment that were used to break the victim in the first place. Positive experiences are now used to reward the victim for thinking and acting as the abuser desires, while negative experiences are used to punish the last vestiges of disobedience. One form of reward is to give the victim a new name. This is commonly associated with cults, but the SLA resorted to this tactic when naming Patty Hearst “Tania.”

Endless repetition.

Although brainwashing can be effective and thorough, most manipulators find it necessary to test the extent of their control over their victims. Control can be tested in a number of ways, depending on the perpetrator’s goals, with the result determining to what extent the victim’s brainwashing needs to be continued or reinforced in order for it to remain effective. Extorting money is a way of testing control, while also lining the criminal’s pockets. Psychic Rose Marks used her control over author Jude Deveraux to cheat her out of $17 million in cash and property while ruining her writing career. Committing crimes, either with or for the offender, is another possibility. An example of this is Patty Hearst accompanying the SLA on one of their raids.

Identify brainwashing victims

Look for a mixture of fanaticism and dependency.

Brainwashed victims often appear focused on the groups and the group leader, to the point of obsession. At the same time, they seem unable to solve problems without the help of the group or its leader.

Look for “Yes people.

” The victims will unquestioningly consent to what their group or the group leader dictates, regardless of the difficulty of following in step or the consequences of doing so. You can also withdraw from other people who don’t share your interest in the abuser.

Watch for signs of withdrawal from life.

Brainwashing victims tend to be listless, withdrawn, and distant from the personality that identified them before they were brainwashed. This is particularly noticeable in both cult victims and people in abusive relationships. Some victims may internalize their anger, leading to depression and a variety of physical illnesses, possibly even suicide. Others may direct their anger at anyone they see as the cause of their problems, often through verbal or physical arguments.

Rinse out the brainwashing

Make the victim aware that they have been brainwashed.

This realization is often accompanied by denial and fear as the victim begins to question things without any practice in questioning. Gradually, the person concerned should realize that he or she has been manipulated.

Expose the victim to ideas that contradict the brainwashing.

Presenting multiple options without presenting the victim with too many options at once gives the victim a new, broader perspective from which to challenge the beliefs implanted by the brainwashing. Some of these opposing ideas can have their own form of manipulation. In such cases, it helps to present the idea in as unbiased a form as possible. A more powerful form of this method is forcing the subject to re-enact the brainwashing by re-enacting it, but giving the subject options to counter the brainwashing. This type of therapy requires an experienced therapist.

Encourage the victim to make their own decisions based on the new information.

At first, the sufferer may be afraid of making decisions for themselves or ashamed of making “wrong” decisions now or in the past. With practice, however, this fear will subside.


It is possible to recover from the effects of brainwashing without outside help. 1961 studies by psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton and psychologist Edgar Schein showed that few of the POWs exposed to Chinese brainwashing techniques actually became convinced of communism and the few who did told themselves rid of this belief once they escaped captivity.


Although forms of hypnosis could be used in brainwashing, hypnosis is not the same as brainwashing. Brainwashing uses a superficial system of rewards and punishments to influence victims, and the goal is always to break down victims’ resistance. Hypnosis usually begins by relaxing one’s target, involves diving deeper into the psyche, and usually has nothing to do with rewards and punishments. Despite its depth, hypnosis usually works faster on the target than brainwashing. In the 1980s, specialists called deprogrammers were hired by concerned parents to forcibly free their children from cults. However, many of these deprogrammers themselves use brainwashing-like techniques to anti-indoctrinate the “rescued” victims. Their deprogramming methods often proved ineffective due to the brainwashing need to be constantly reinforced. They also committed crimes by kidnapping their targets. Read our blog to learn more about how to avoid brainwashing.

About the Author

Maggie Murray

Maggie Murray is a freelance writer with a decade-long track record of helping people lead healthier lives. Her areas of expertise include fashion, travel, gift ideas, and personal budget planning. Maggie is also a big fan of That's why she gets an A+ in saving money!