During the Korean War, Korean and Chinese captors reportedly brainwashed American POWs held in prison camps. Several prisoners ultimately confessed to waging germ warfare -- which they hadn't -- and pledged allegiance to communism by the end of their captivity. At least 21 soldiers refused to come back to the United States when they were set free. It sounds impressive, but skeptics point out that it was 21 out of more than 20,000 prisoners in communist countries. Does brainwashing really work in any reliable way?
In psychology, the study of brainwashing, often referred to as thought reform, falls into the sphere of "social influence." Social influence happens every minute of every day. It's the collection of ways in which people can change other people's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. For instance, the compliance method aims to produce a change in a person's behavior and is not concerned with his attitudes or beliefs. It's the "Just do it" approach. Persuasion, on the other hand, aims for a change in attitude, or "Do it because it'll make you feel good/happy/healthy/successful." The education method (which is called the "propaganda method" when you don't believe in what's being taught) goes for the social-influence gold, trying to affect a change in the person's beliefs, along the lines of "Do it because you know it's the right thing to do." Brainwashing is a severe form of social influence that combines all of these approaches to cause changes in someone's way of thinking without that person's consent and often against his will.
Because brainwashing is such an invasive form of influence, it requires the complete isolation and dependency of the subject, which is why you mostly hear of brainwashing occurring in prison camps or totalist cults. The agent (the brainwasher) must have complete control over the target (the brainwashee) so that sleep patterns, eating, using the bathroom and the fulfillment of other basic human needs depend on the will of the agent. In the brainwashing process, the agent systematically breaks down the target's identity to the point that it doesn't work anymore. The agent then replaces it with another set of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that work in the target's current environment.
While most psychologists believe that brainwashing is possible under the right conditions, some see it as improbable or at least as a less severe form of influence than the media portrays it to be. Some definitions of brainwashing require the presence of the threat of physical harm, and under these definitions most extremist cults do not practice true brainwashing since they typically do not physically abuse recruits. Other definitions rely on "nonphysical coercion and control" as an equally effective means of asserting influence. Regardless of which definition you use, many experts believe that even under ideal brainwashing conditions, the effects of the process are most often short-term -- the brainwashing victim's old identity is not in fact eradicated by the process, but instead is in hiding, and once the "new identity" stops being reinforced the person's old attitudes and beliefs will start to return.
There are psychologists who say the apparent conversion of American POWs during the Korean War was the result of plain-old torture, not "brainwashing." And in fact, most POWs in the Korean War were not converted to communism at all, which leads to the question of reliability: Is brainwashing a system that produces similar results across cultures and personality types, or does it hinge primarily on the target's susceptibility to influence? In the next section, we'll examine one expert's description of the brainwashing process and find out what makes an easy target.