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The Power of Brainwashing

As the New Year wishes of joy and peace for all mankind fade with the Times Square fireworks, we face a world full of wars and fanaticism. 

Sane people clearly believe that fanatics are simply psychopaths, but the truth is they have been indoctrinated with beliefs that are just as strong as those who are against war and violence.

Tweet: Brainwashing is altering someone’s perception, often for personal gain, but not always. In its mildest form, it is used to enforce good behavior. At its worst, it turns people into suicide bombers. #storybuildingblocks #writingtips

Brainwashing is utilized by governments, religions, and the military. We use the techniques when we teach children right from wrong. We use them in advertisements to discourage drug use, cigarette smoking, teen pregnancy, and drunk driving.

The depth and breadth of the brainwashing, the content, and the purpose are widely variable.

The first tactic is assuming authority

An authority works best if he or she wears a lab coat, a uniform, or holy robes. It has been posited in studies that 62% of the population will follow an authority figure’s orders even if it means harms to others. Unless the authority figure isn’t around to find out about it, then the normal morality chip kicks in and they refuse to do harm. Unless they are sociopaths who lack the morality chip to begin with. When Dick is forced to rely on the authority figure for his survival, he will attempt to placate him, especially when praise by that figure produces reward.

The second tactic of brainwashing is repetition

A meme (or idea) is repeated ad nauseum. If you say something to Dick long enough, often enough, and with enough authority, he starts to believe it. He accepts the veracity. Then he propogates the meme by sharing it with others. A meme is mental virus that can be spread on contact and with familiarization.

The third tactic is isolation.

By keeping Dick away from people who think differently or contradict what he is being told, the meme is reinforced. By telling Dick up front that other people will doubt him, contradict him, and tear down his thematic argument, they are shoring up the meme in Dick’s mind. He expects attack, so he repels attack. 

The authority figure convinces Dick that everyone around him has a malevolent agenda. Only those who embrace the meme can be trusted. Only those who embrace the meme are worthy. In this way, others attacks on the logic or practices actually reinforce the meme in Dick’s mind instead of breaking it down.

In cults, the members are kept isolated until the meme has taken firm, uncontrovertible hold. The members are taught to shun anyone who does not agree with the meme. They are told to cut off friends, family, lovers, jobs, clubs. Anything that works to discredit the meme.

Isolation is a basic fear. No one wants to be alone. Everyone wants to belong. Accepting a meme can be the entrance price for connectedness.

If you want to portray a character that seems impervious to brainwashing, you should pick one of the personality types that resist group-think: those who are happy to stand on their own and don’t care about consensus or what others think of them.

The fourth tactic is degredation: the destruction of one's self-image.

The authority figure will tell Dick that he is essentially flawed, sinful, in error, and only by embracing the meme can he be redeemed or saved. The transgressions are behaviors Dick engaged in while outside the authority figure’s control. It could be something as simple as going to work or having a beer on a Saturday. Dick begins to feel guilty for having the beer. He feels overwhelmed by his own worthlessness when he goes to his job. This is where the authority figure steps in and helpfully offers the way to salvation: the meme.

Dick is nothing if he does not believe the meme. He will be punished for not believing. He will be rewarded for believing and propagating the meme. In extreme hostage situations, Dick may be starved, sleep deprived, even drugged to make him malleable. The purpose is to muddy Dick’s thinking so the meme stays clear and in the forefront.

The fifth tactic is dependence:

Once Dick accepts that his existence is totally reliant upon the authority figure and his minions, he will do or say anything to ensure their survival.

The agenda of the perpetrator affects whether the brainwashing is benevolent or malevolent.

Brainwashing is used by gang leaders and drug dealers. As teenage Jane slides down the rabbit hole of addiction, she may have self-esteem issues to begin with. She is told that by doing drugs, she is looked down on by society and discriminated against. The world just doesn’t understand them and everyone is against them having a good time. Instead of the drugs being the faulty thinking, everyone else on the planet is just a giant buzz kill. The drug-using community becomes their support system. Since the drug addiction usually isolates them and harms their ability to support themselves, they become totally reliant on the drug community.

In a gang, the crimes they commit serve the same purpose, guaranteeing that no one will support them the way the gang can.Gangs and drug communities are particularly alluring to teens who don’t have a strong home life and who have been abandoned by their parent(s), but this kind of brainwashing can be used on anyone in any socioeconomic setting. If Jane lives in a community where she is threatened with the gang or drug culture every time she walks out her front door, she may find it easier to join in than fight it.

Brainwashing is used by abusive spouses and child molestors. In an abusive relationship, the abuser makes Sally believe that he is the only one who loves her, who wants her, who understands her. It’s just the two of them. And to leave means emotional if not physical death. The abuser cuts her off from society, her friends, her family, and whittles away at her self-esteem to the point where she doesn't know the cage door is open.

Brainwashing in the form of propaganda is used in war. If Dick is on on the delivery end, he sees it as a noble effort to win the war. If Dick is on the receiving end, he might fight with all his might to keep the propaganda from taking hold. Fanatic religion is considered horrific by most of the population, but not if you’re the fanatical prophet or acolyte.

It’s all about point of view. And that, my dear writers, is a powerful and controversial thematic argument for any story.

If you are writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, ask yourself what kinds of prevailing thought processes are supported in your story world. How have the societies been brainwashed, in good ways, in bad ways? Brainwashing often plays a role in Thrillers and Mysteries. It is a factor in a literary tale where the heroine escapes an abusive relationship or family.

My hope is for all people to be brainwashed into peace on earth and good will toward all life forms.

Character Currency In Action

Tweet: Characters all have needs and desires that form their #emotionalcurrency.

Currency = Motivation
A character’s currency might be safety, money, esteem, physical objects, or spiritual wellbeing. Some desire closeness. Others desire space. A character’s “currency” is the key to influencing them, building relationships with them, and igniting their fury.

If someone keeps trying to motivate or influence your character by promising or threatening them with things they don’t want or don’t care about, their efforts will fail. 

Characters with opposing currencies have a difficult time building a relationship, a friendship or a working partnership.

Emotional currency provides the carrot and the stick of dynamite.

An antagonist who threatens people with things they aren’t afraid of fails in his scene objective. An antagonist who bribes his henchmen with things they don’t want also fails in his scene objective.

If Dick is motivated by a job well done, then self-esteem is its own reward. Dick might react positively to praise or find it uncomfortable.

If Dick performs a task for the self-satisfaction of seeing it done, when Sally heaps praise on him for it, it won’t mean much. His lack of reaction can confuse and annoy Sally. Especially if Dick counters the praise with, “I didn’t do it for you.” Those are fighting words. Sally feels her gift of praise is rejected, her feelings are hurt. That will either throw her into passive mode or aggressive mode.

If  Sally feels like she is giving Dick something, even if it is something Dick neither wants, needs, nor values, she expects esteem in return. Dick, not understanding her currency, won’t give it to her. He will just be annoyed that he was given something he didn’t want, need, or value.

In order for them to mend fences, Sally would have to come to grips with the fact that not everyone wants, needs, or values what she wants, needs, and values. Dick would have to learn how to graciously accept something he didn’t want because Sally was exhibiting generosity of spirit in giving it. 

To go forward in a healthy manner, they would both have to learn to communicate their wants, needs, and currency in a calm, rational way. That rarely happens. Characters rarely become so self-aware that their psychological buttons aren’t pushed. That's why we have fiction ... and reality television.

The esteem of others can be a reward that reinforces Dick's scene or overall story goal. This is great if Dick is building a house for Habitat for Humanity, not so good if he is building a robot that will take over the planet.

If Sally does something with the expectation of being praised and praise is withheld, she may get mad. She may be tempted to get even. She might undo her efforts in retaliation for not receiving the accolades she hoped for. She may be driven to petty acts of spite or refuse to cooperate further. This dynamic plays out in couples, families, and offices all over the globe. It plays out in classrooms, sports teams, social clubs, and PTAs.

If Sally is denied praise and Jane receives praise, Sally will deflect her anger onto Jane. Jane will become a target for her revenge fantasies, especially if the person she really wants to punish is untouchable, dangerous, could fire her or she's married to him. She might think before she strikes at someone she has to live with. If Dick needs a specific piece of information, physical object, or cooperation, he will have to figure out what Sally’s currency is and use that to influence her to give it to him. Her mind will automatically assign a more desirable scapegoat for her frustration.

Dick can try appealing to Sally’s sense of fair play. If Sally has been repeatedly denied the praise or recognition she deserves, she won’t feel like being fair.

Dick can try appealing to her sense of accomplishment by praising her work. Sally recognizes that Dick is feeding her a line and refuses again.

Dick can try bribing her with more money than she can make in a year. Sally is well off financially and that carrot isn’t enough to sway her.

Dick remembers a conversation they had about Jane and how Jane unfairly received praise for something Sally felt she deserved the credit for. Dick offers to help her harm Jane’s reputation or make Jane look incompetent. Bingo, Sally agrees because revenge and retaliation are her currency of the moment. That doesn't make Dick a nice guy, but sometimes you have to do something bad to get something good, or at least promise it in the heat of the moment and renege on it later!

All of your characters will be motivated and influenced by their currency. Conflicts and misunderstandings will abound.

For more tips on motivating your characters, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Tapping Your Character's Currency

16 Characters
In Story Building Blocks II and Build A Cast Workbook, I introduce sixteen character mannequins based on personality types that you can twist and warp to fit your story needs.

Each mannequin could be male or female. I had to choose pronouns, so I went with the pronoun that matched the greater percentage of gender in each category. He and she can easily translate into masculine, feminine, or androgenous. Sex and sexual orientation do not directly affect personality type, except when it comes to social expectations and how those expectations shape the character.

Everyone has deep-seated needs that serve as currency: the thing that defines their personal carrot and stick. Dangle the right morsel in front of them and they will do anything to get it. Threaten to take it away and they will do anything to keep it.

"Relationships are like a bank account, you need more deposits than withdrawals."

Tweet: "Relationships are like a bank account, you need more deposits than withdrawals."

1. Wynn’s currency is appreciation. She is the worker bee, never the queen. She needs to be needed, to hear “well done” often, and to be thanked for the everyday things she does to keep a life, a workplace, or a planet running smoothly. Telling her that her help isn’t needed or wanted is her trigger.

2. Francis is more interested in being right than being happy. He sees himself as the herd dog keeping everyone in line. He needs people to respect his authority and opinions. All is well, as long as people accede to his point of view and decisions. Call him wrong or question his authority and the fight is on.

3. Nevada hates conflict. He sees himself as the shepherd who guides the flock. His currency is appreciation for his dedication to others. He craves loving affirmations for working hard and providing for other people. Calling him selfish or telling him his efforts are misguided starts a fire.

4. Arden’s currency is gratitude and appreciation for his integrity. As long as people respect him and appreciate his hard work, things go smoothly. Tell him his assistance isn’t needed or question his intentions and the game is on.

5. Blair’s currency is affection and admiration. If she isn’t consistently praised, she deflates. Telling her she is anything but perfection or that she hasn't done anything to earn praise makes her an enemy.

6. Dallas wants to be adored for being the life of the party. She values her sense of fun and adventure. Telling her the party is over or to get serious and she will make your life hell.

7. Hadley wants to be adored for breathing. She wants everyone to be happy. Since she is generally agreeable and good-natured, people usually comply. If the adoration fades, trouble sets in.

8. Shelby wants to be honored and respected. She is a team player. As long as people treat her like a valued member of the team, family, or planet, things are fine. Questioning her character is a call to war.

9. Joss craves recognition for his intelligence and skill. He's the typical silent maverick. He is usually admired in the short-term. His derring-do draws people in, but eventually drives them off. Question his competence and you’ll like find yourself in the crosshairs of his sniper scope.

10. To Kelly, all the world is a stage and he is the main attraction. He is the ultimate game player and always wins. Never accuse him of being a loser or make him sit on the sidelines.

11. Greer is the ultimate reclusive genius. He wants recognition for his competence. Since he is usually competent, he receives it. When he forgets to take care of things he does not consider important or his efforts are misdirected, his competence might be questioned and the fight is on.

12. Taylor is the ultimate organizer or volunteer. She wants to be appreciated for her goodness and service. She usually is, unless her efforts become toxic.

13. Cam wants to be admired for his intelligence and competence. He is the deep thinker of the group. People usually admire that about him. Question his competence or his research and the fight is on.

14. Morgan also wants to be admired for his intelligence and competence. He is the ultimate thrill-seeking gambler. When his sometimes reckless behavior makes those traits questionable, the game is afoot.

15. Lee is the take control steamroller of the group. Lee wants to be top dog. Things are fine as long as her rules are obeyed. When she steamrolls the wrong person or is demoted, she turns lethal.

16. River is the most spiritual and likely to believe in the paranormal. She wants to be admired for her wisdom and desire for harmony. She is usually admired, unless her desire to be worshipped becomes obsessive or her belief system is too bizarre.

To learn more about the mannequins and how personality types create conflict for your characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book, and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook available in paperback and E-book.