Brainwashing, by Kathleen Taylor

BRAINWASHING: The Science of Thought Control
By Kathleen Taylor
Oxford University Press; ?18.99; 337pp
ISBN 0 192 80496 0
Buy the book

Some books become classics without ever being good simply because they put their finger on the national pulse. Even in its day, 1959, there were mixed feelings about Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. Great literature it wasn’t — Time magazine listed it as one of its Ten Best Bad Novels — but it became a bestseller and its influence has proved enduring.

Two films have been made of it: the first by John Frankenheimer in 1962; the second opens this month. Condon’s vivid prose, pulp tinged with paranoia, lodged in the American psyche because it drew on the primeval fear of mind control.

Like successful thriller writers since, Condon was feeding off the science of his day. The US had been severely shaken by the experience of its soldiers in the Korean War. One after another, captured soldiers were paraded in front of radio microphones and cameras to denounce their country and parrot North Korean propaganda. The first example occurred less than a week after US ground forces joined the war — and a mere two days after the GI involved had been captured — and by the war’s end the US Army calculated that one in seven prisoners of war had collaborated.

This traumatic experience coincided with the first use of the word brainwashing, coined by the journalist Edward Hunter. A fervent anti-Communist, Hunter based his book on the experiences of Europeans caught in China by the advance of Mao Zedong’s victorious army. It came from the Chinese term hsi-nao, which means cleansing of the mind.

The bitter Korean experience was thoroughly investigated through interviews with all 4,000 returned prisoners of war. Some, identified as possible converts, had been subjected to five hours of indoctrination a day, sometimes combined with torture. Many had succumbed, signing untrue confessions declaring, for example, that the US had used biological warfare in Korea. It had not, but the charge stuck.

So Condon’s book fell on a population that had been persuaded — if not actually brainwashed — into believing in the existence of brainwashing. The idea that our minds could be cleansed of all sentiments of loyalty, patriotism and military discipline by simple procedures such as humiliation and constant repetition was a shocking one. But was it true?

By the early 1960s the tide had begun to turn. Robert Jay Lifton, the psychiatrist who conducted many of the interviews with PoWs, concluded that the effects were not long-lasting. Even those who had hymned the virtues of Communism while in North Korean hands re-adopted US values.

Yet the whiff of something nasty lingers still. In her new book on the subject, Kathleen Taylor sets out to investigate if brainwashing is the truth or, as some of her friends said when she told them that she was writing the book, hogwash. “Does it actually exist,” she asks, “or is it a totalitarian fantasy, dreamt up by an American journalist to describe the nature of an alien culture?”

Conversion by evangelists is as old as religion. Americans who would celebrate a born-again Christian as a soul saved from eternal darkness found it much harder to accept a GI transformed into an apologist for Communism. While many religious conversions last a lifetime, few, if any, of those transformed by North Korean re-education into temporary Communists stuck by their new beliefs once the threats to their lives were withdrawn.

Social Influence

“A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it’s so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy.

Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope. One difference is in its greater efforts to block quitting the group, by imposing high exit costs, replete with induced phobias of harm, failure, and personal isolation.”
– Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., What Messages Are Behind Today’s Cults?

More remarkable, in their way, are the disciples of cult leaders such as Charles Manson or the Rev Jim Jones, who were persuaded to commit murder or mass suicide. The slaughter at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978 left 900 dead after Jones persuaded them to drink a sweetly flavoured cyanide soup. It may be impolitic to say so, but the willingness of so many young Muslims to become suicide bombers conveys just the same quality of horror and disbelief.

If people can be persuaded to die for an ideal, even to kill themselves for it, doubting the power of persuasion is no longer an option. Taylor argues that there is something about those in their teens and twenties, the age of the lost GIs and suicide bombers, that makes them especially vulnerable.

Cults share with Communist societies the totalitarian elevation of group over individual, and doctrine over person. They also share a taste for confession, the control of milieu, and the sharp dichotomy between in-group and out-group. But Taylor argues that the processes binding cults together are not different in kind, but only in degree, from those in many other social groupings.

So if this is not brainwashing, what is? Taylor believes that the media can be potent weapons of mass persuasion, controlling the milieu after events such as the attack on the twin towers, and saturating the mind with stereotypical views. The simplification of arguments, the cult of confession and loading the language are all “obvious features of any tabloid”, she claims.

Her conclusion appears to be that while brainwashing as originally imagined is not practical, we are all a little bit brainwashed by our culture and experience. This is hard to swallow, appearing as it does to put Jones and the tabloid press in the same category. Her book ends with a plea for a liberal education and a criticism of the dangers of multiculturalism.

We should be strengthening individuals’ basic rights so that no group has special privileges, she says. That is an unexceptionable objective.

Read more about books in the Times Online

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Times Online, UK
Nov. 27, 2004 Book Review
Nigel Hawkes

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)