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Monday, October 3, 2011

Psychology in Fiction Q&A: Brainwashing

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is intended for writing purposes only and does not represent psychological advice.
QUESTION: I have a character that I am writing who has a daughter but is brainwashed into believing that she isn't his daughter. How do I go about this? When people are brainwashed, or their memories are swept, how does it happen to them?
ANSWER: Hm, so your character once knew he had a daughter, but now he has been brainwashed to believe he does not, i.e. that this woman is not his daughter?

That's do-able, as memory is pliable and easily distorted.

The first technique anyone will use if they want to persuade someone is repetition -- saying the same thing over and over in a convincing way. Repetition can be very powerful.

Brainwashers also control the environment; that is, they keep the individual from exposure to people who might contradict anything the brainwasher is saying.

True brainwashing involves numerous stages, including verbal assaults on everything the individual believes about himself and his values. This usually includes simultaneous attacks on physical and emotional well-being, to create confusion, disorientation, and exhaustion. In other words, a man (or woman) is much easier to break down if you attack him on all levels, making it hard for him to think straight. Sleep deprivation and starvation are not uncommon, as are confusing, seemingly whimsical behaviors on the part of the brainwasher. That is, the brainwasher may torture the individual for no apparent reason, and then provide seeming kindnesses. Over time, this can create a sense of dependence on the brainwasher, and a deep desire to keep him or her happy. (This is called Stockholm Syndrome.)

One of the experts on brainwashing and mind control is Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who wrote a book called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing in China." In the book he identifies principles brainwashers use.

In addition to isolating the individual from others, seemingly whimsical manipulations, and assaults on the individual's sense of self and personal values, brainwashers work to convince the individual that he has committed sins to which he must confess.  These sins are, of course, behaviors from the individual's life outside the brainwasher's control, and the brainwasher offers redemption if the individual will only adopt the brainwasher's rules or doctrine.  In other words, the subject becomes so confused and overwhelmed by guilt that he's essentially floundering for a way to escape the feeling; at this point the brainwasher helpfully offers up the new ideas she wishes the individual to adopt.

Remember, if YOU have a psychology in fiction question you want to see answered here, use the Q&A form on my Archetype site or send an email using my QueryTracker email address to the right. (Please use Q&A in your Subject Line!).

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Rebecca Gomez said...

Interesting. Now I want to write about brainwashing!

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

Wow! Thank you so much for this post. I know this is writing advice, but it hit me at a personal level. Your comments are such an accurate description of my ex-marriage it's scary.
I plan to devour your Writer's Guide to Psychology as soon as I get it. I'm sure my characters will benefit from it.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Really glad you got out of a bad marriage, Carmen. You're right, the description is also one that fits far too many domestic violence situations.

If you or someone you care about is in such a situation, there is help.
For more information, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website from a safe (e.g. library or friend's) computer: http://www.thehotline.org/get-educated/what-is-domestic-violence/

Brookster said...

Brian Dunning did a recent Skeptoid episode on brainwashing. Maybe not quite so straightforward as the post implies: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4278