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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.

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