This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.


Perhaps the most notorious persuasion technique is brainwashing. The term was coined by journalist Edward Hunter in his book Brain-washing in Red China (1951). "Brainwashing" is a translation of the Chinese characters hsi and nao, which together mean literally "to scrub the brain."

How does "brainwashing" work?

The Chinese developed hsi nao in the 1940s as a form of therapy for people who failed to see the merits of communism. Such people were considered to have impure thoughts. The treatment was simple and direct. The offenders were imprisoned and removed from all forms of spiritual and intellectual contamination. They were exposed to proper patterns of thought, and they were allowed to go free only when their speech and actions showed agreement with the authorities. . In essence, the system was much like the prison rehabilitation experiment at Patuxent, described in Chapter 14. People were prohibited from doing disapproved behaviors. Their reinforcement, if they complied with authorities, was gradual restoration of freedoms.

How was brainwashing used during the Korean War?

Brainwashing attracted public attention in the USA during the Korean War. American GIs were trained to give only name, rank and serial number to captors. Yet some of them "cracked" and appeared in North Korean broadcasts, urging their buddies to surrender. Had they been tortured? Most said they had not been tortured. So why had they cracked?

It turned out the soldiers had been kept under very rough conditions. Of 7,000 captured, 3,000 died in captivity. Many had minimal food or medical care. There was no contact with life outside the prison camps. The North Koreans fostered mutual suspicion among the captors by rewarding some for spying on others. Conversation was discouraged. The only intellectual stimulation permitted was propaganda: information provided by the North Koreans. Any prisoner who began to "see the light" and agree with the propaganda was immediately rewarded with special privileges and supplementary food.

What crucial variation in the North Korean procedure probably made their attempts at brainwashing less effective?

The numbers of Americans who succumbed to these pressures and converted to the North Korean side was actually rather small. At the end of the war, only 21 of 4,000 captives chose to stay with their captors rather than returning to the United States. Perhaps the low numbers were due to a crucial variation in the North Korean imprisonment procedure, as compared to the Chinese procedure. The North Koreans kept most United States prisoners in groups. As we saw earlier in the research on conformity and obedience, a dissident in a group can reduce both obedience and conformity. In every group of prisoners there was likely to be at least one who refused to succumb to propaganda or other inducements. This probably gave strength to the others. People kept in complete isolation are much more likely to "fold" under pressure.

What did McConnell recognize?

Psychologist James V. McConnell of the University of Michigan recognized that so-called brainwashing techniques, when they worked, resembled the process of shaping or the method of successive approximations used in operant conditioning. The target behavior is doing what the authorities say. If prisoners are kept from each other, to prevent the psychological support that enables resistance to propaganda, and if they are systematically rewarded for small changes in behavior, many can be led to change their ways in order to achieve the ultimate objective of rejoining society. They may believe they are "shamming" (as the teenage prisoners in Patuxent put it) but they change anyway.

McConnell (1975) saw this as a logical procedure for rehabilitating prisoners of all types, and he said so in a Psychology Today article titled, "Prisoners can be Brainwashed Now." The title was a deliberately inflammatory hook to attract readers. People who read the article discovered that it actually recommended relatively benign positive reinforcement procedures. In the article, McConnell revealed that this was also the secret of so-called brainwashing in communist China. Unfortunately for McConnell, many people never got beyond the title, and they supplied their own assumptions about what brainwashing entailed. Therefore, instead of inspiring enlightened changes in prison rehabilitiation, McConnell's article probably succeeded only in contributing to the sinister reputation of behavior modifiers in the mid-1970s.

Where did the "tough" techniques of Guantanemo Bay come from?

One of the great ironies of the War on Terror is the ineptness of prisoner treatment at the Guantanemo Bay facility at Cuba, run by the U.S. military. It does not resemble Patuxent, or Chinese brainwashing, or any other effective technique. Ironically, the interrogation techniques (waterboarding, humiliation, threats) were based on cold war reports of supposed Soviet bloc interrogation techniques. Whether or not the Russians or East Germans ever used these techniques, American soldiers in the mid-20th Century were taught to expect them so they could resist if caught. Somehow this led to the assumption that such "tough" procedures must be especially effective for interrogating suspected terrorists. After all, if our cold war enemies were prepared to use such techniques, they must be powerful.

What are bad side-effects of tough interrogation tactics?

Evidence suggests the opposite. Pressuring enemy prisoners tends to strengthen their resistance. Techniques resembling torture simply force a detainee to supply whatever information the torturer seems to want, so the techniques produce unreliable intelligence. The same is true of forced confessions. In recent years DNA evidence has shown that many prisoners falsely confessed to rapes and murders in the pre-DNA testing era, under threat of tough treatment. This is surprising to many people. (Why would a person confess under any circumstances, if the possible result in life imprisonment or execution?) But apparently it happened, because the DNA evidence exonerated many of these "self-confessed" criminals, showing conclusively they had not committed the crimes to which they confessed.

Guantanemo turned out to be a case study in how not to produce attitude change and useful intelligence. Not only were ineffective tactics used for interrogation, but prisoners were kept together in groups, which almost guaranteed a lack of attitude change. Interrogation techniques used at the Guantanemo Bay facility were later approved for use in Iraq prisons, leading to the Abu Gharib prison fiasco in which American solidiers photographed themselves humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners. American military experts said the Abu Gharib incident was one of the most harmful events of the Iraq War, making it easier for anti-American groups to recruit new members.

Experts in interrogation pointed out that torture and similar techniques simply do not work on "enemy combatants" and other prisoners, because (as argued above) they inspire resistance and elicit false confessions. What works is so-called brainwashing of the Chinese variety: separation from other prisoners and step by step reinforcement for behavior change.

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