Rebuilding the Self

  • ­Progress and harmony: If you want, you can choose good.The agent introduces a new belief system as the path to "good." At this stage, the agent stops the abuse, offering the target physical comfort and mental calm in conjunction with the new belief system. The target is made to feel that it is he who must choose between old and new, giving the target the sense that his fate is in his own hands. The target has already denounced his old belief system in response to leniency and to­rment, and making a "conscious choice" in favor of the contrasting belief system helps to further relieve his guilt: If he truly believes, then he really didn't betray anyone. The choice is not a difficult one: The new identity is safe and desirable because it is nothing like the one that led to his breakdown.
  • Final confession and rebirth: I choose good.Contrasting the agony of the old with the peacefulness of the new, the target chooses the new identity, clinging to it like a life preserver. He rejects his old belief system and pledges allegiance to the new one that is going to make his life better. At this final stage, there are often rituals or ceremonies to induct the converted target into his new community. This stage has been described by some brainwashing victims as a feeling of "rebirth."

(See How Cults Work: Indoctrination for details on the thought-reform process that takes place specifically in destructive cults.)

A brainwashing process like the one discussed above has not been tested in a modern laboratory setting, because it's damaging to the target and would therefore be an unethical scientific experiment. Lifton created this description from first-hand accounts of the techniques used by captors in the Korean War and other instances of "brainwashing" around the same time. Since Lifton and other psychologists have identified variations on what appears to be a distinct set of steps leading to a profound state of suggestibility, an interesting question is why some people end up brainwashed and others don't.

Certain personality traits of the brainwashing targets can determine the effectiveness of the process. People who commonly experience great self doubt, have a weak sense of identity, and show a tendency toward guilt and absolutism (black-and-white thinking) are more likely to be successfully brainwashed, while a strong sense of identity and self-confidence can make a target more resistant to brainwashing. Some accounts show that faith in a higher power can assist a target in mentally detaching from the process. Mental detachment is one of the POW-survival techniques now taught to soldiers as part of their training. It involves the target psychologically removing himself from his actual surroundings through visualization, the constant repetition of a mantra and various other meditative techniques. The military also teaches soldiers about the methods used in brainwashing, because a target's knowledge of the process tends to make it less effective.

While the U.S. consciousness was turned to brainwashing in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Korean War, brainwashing has been around for longer than that. Scholars have traced the roots of systematic thought reform to the prison camps of communist Russia in the early 1900s, when political prisoners were routinely "re-educated" to the communist view of the world. But it was when the practice spread to China and the writings of Chairman Mao Tse-tung ("The Little Red Book") that the world started to take notice.