The Science Of Brainwashing, Big And Small

The Jonestown Massacre is a famous example of brainwashing in psychology circles because it seems to capture the power of thought control in its most extreme, well-executed form. It offers psychologists a window into the human mind that, for obvious ethical reasons, can’t be recreated in a lab. For Kathleen Taylor, University of Oxford psychologist and author of Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Jonestown offers startling insights into how easily our brains can change, and how those changes actually happen on a daily basis.

“What I think’s going on,” Taylor said, “is that people are using techniques of social psychology that we use all the time, but they are applied in very extreme circumstances.”

These techniques are so commonplace they might be invisible. Advertisements and salespeople like to distract customers so they stay focused on the message, repeating certain phrases over and over, and, perhaps the most compelling, filling customers with doubt about their past choices. The principles hold whether the product is dish soap or religious fundamentalism.

“People tend not to think about things they believe in very much,” Taylor said. By exploiting that lack of analysis, someone interested in reshaping a belief could instill so much self-doubt in a person that eventually the new idea seems plausible, and even true. People’s uncertainty is seized, recast as new beliefs, and behavior follows.

Brainwashing sits at the far end of this manipulative spectrum, Taylor argues, but it relies on the same principles. Its aim is ultimately to control what information enters the brain, where the one doing the brainwashing can delete old associations and, indeed, form brand new neural pathways that cement new ones.

“Because the brain is so malleable, [the information] reshapes what’s going on inside the brain, thereby affecting what behavior comes out the other side.”

That change in behavior seems to come in two distinct forms. The first is brainwashing by force, the kind popularized by prison camps, in which people are tortured and starved and practically destroyed until the “new” reality replaces the old one. The person doing the brainwashing has complete control of the person’s psyche, stripping the victim of what he or she thought she knew and offering redemption through a new, seemingly better, alternative.

“But obviously advertisers can’t do that,” Taylor said, “so what they do instead is use, what I call, brainwashing by stealth.”

In this case, coercing involves changing the emotional associations people make without them noticing a change is taking place. It doesn’t have to be as sinister as subliminal messaging. For decades, advertisers have known that customers respond to emotional connections on an unconscious level. And that unawareness is important, Taylor says, because of a psychological phenomenon known as “reactance,” which states when people know they’re being emotionally manipulated, it tends not to work. So advertisers have a vested interest in being as discreet as possible.

“You’re not really concentrating on it,” Taylor said, “but you’re left with the impression that there is a positive emotion associated with this particular thing they want you to buy.”

2.Finding The Line

Consumption isn’t the only motivation that compels people to be psychologically coercive. Sometimes it’s spite. Dr. William Bernet, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, has seen firsthand the true range of parents’ destruction when divorce leaves children caught in the middle of an ugly war for the upper hand. Confused and scared about who to trust, and sometimes plagued with fears of physical abuse, kids reject one parent in favor of the alienating one, exhibiting what psychologists call parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

“I would say that PAS is caused by brainwashing or indoctrination of the child,” said Bernet.

Wracked with resentment, the alienating parent tells the child how awful the other parent is, openly insulting them, forbidding the parent from visiting, and sometimes lying about cases of abuse, just so they can get full custody of the child. In children, the resulting effect is a warped view of the other parent, one that can last well into adulthood if contact is never reestablished.

PAS can combine both forms of brainwashing Taylor mentions, which makes it decidedly harder to pinpoint when alienation takes place, and therefore harder to measure when a child exhibits signs of the syndrome. What’s more, the line between emotional parenting and criminal activity is whisper-thin, and judges can’t monitor parents’ activity round-the-clock. The best evidence psychologists can use to prove a child’s PAS is his or her testimony, which is reliable, but first they have the difficult task of noticing a problem.

Author: Linda Turner

Coaching and Therapy Currently studying Psychotherapy , Cognitive psychology, Hypnotherapy. Qualified NLP, EMDR and CBT therapist. REIKI Master. I believe in truth, honesty and integrity! ≧◔◡◔≦

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