Robert Lifton has studied the American prisoners of war extensively and he outlines the process this way:
- Assault on identity
- The Establishment of Guilt
- The Self-betrayal
- Breaking point: Total Conflict and the Basic Fear
- Leniency and Opportunity
- The Compulsion to confess
- The Channeling of guilt
- Re-education: Logical Dishonoring
- Progress and harmony
- Final confession
Lets look at these steps one by one and consider the brainwashing techniques used at each step. (Remember that these ideas can just as easily be applied to groups of 2 people or groups of thousands.)
Assault on identity
The first thing the manipulator does is challenge the person at the level of identity. The American prisoners were physically abused and tortured while everything they said was contradicted. Fairly quickly, they began to doubt themselves.
The Establishment of Guilt
Clifton’s prisoners reported that a huge guilt complex was imposed upon them. In the end they believed that they deserved their punishment. It no longer had anything to do with the injustice of their captors, but rather that they believed that they should be punished.
One of the important brainwashing techniques here is to make the person feel responsible for their faults and the things that go wrong in their life. If they make a mistake, do something poorly, or if things do not go according to plan, it’s their responsibility and so they feel guilty.
During this stage the prisoners were expected to denounce friends and colleagues. And then their family and their previous standards. Any doubts or ambivalences they have (or had! for example, something minor about the political system of America they did not like or agree with) are played upon by their captors to increase the degree of self betrayal. This has the effect of separating them from the past and further destroying their sense of self.
Breaking point: Total Conflict and the Basic Fear
At some point the prisoners realize that there is no way out from the horror and pain and guilt. They begin to experience one of the most primitive and painful emotions known to man, the fear of total annihilation. In fact, many wished for a quick death. Some even suffered delusions and hallucinations. Obviously their ability to think and reason at this stage was severely compromised.
Leniency and Opportunity
When the prisoners could literally take no more, all of a sudden there was leniency. A friendly face, a kind voice, an offer of a little luxury, a cigarette or a drink. For the prisoner, suddenly there is hope, a way out.
And of course the opportunity that the captor is offering is to fully denounce the old way and embrace the new way. “Just do as we want and you’ll be okay.” In order to avoid total annihilation, the prisoner becomes motivated to help his captors!
The Compulsion to Confess
The prisoners typically confess to anything at first, saying what they think their captors want to hear and even inventing crimes. They feel they want to remove the evil from inside, the evil that makes their captors punish them. The confessions gather momentum, with the prisoners admitting to more and more. One of the brainwashing techniques used was to get prisoners to ‘encourage’ each other to confess.
The Channeling of Guilt
The prisoners reported that instead of just feeling guilt for their past actions, they began to feel guilt for who they were and for the set of beliefs they had in the past. They realized that their point of view was different from that of their captors and the more they accepted their captors way of thinking, the more they felt guilty for who they were.
Re-education: Logical Dishonoring
The next of the brainwashing techniques was to go beyond feeling guilty to understanding their lives were a series of shameful acts, not only because they did not fit in with communist ideas but also because they were violating their own personal ideals.
The idea is that each of us has a thesis, a personal creed or ethic, as well as it’s antithesis, a weakness which contradicts or works against this ideal. The communists encouraged the antithesis and wore down the thesis of each individual. To some extent the antithesis is that part of us that we normally try to suppress (because we learnt it was socially unacceptable). As this aspect becomes more dominant the true identity becomes more suppressed.
Why is this logical? Lifton says it’s only logical if we look at the bigger picture. The acceptance of this new identity becomes linked to learning the communist doctrine, and they become inseparable, one reinforcing the other. This was the overall aim of the communist captors. Therefore it is logical to cast the previous life in a bad light.
The prisoner’s weaknesses and strengths were known to his captors, and both were used against him to continually educate him in the new doctrine and reinforce the new personality.
Progress and Harmony
As the prisoners continue to progress, the brainwashing techniques changed and they received recognition and acceptance and were treated as human beings again. Compared to earlier treatment the sense of harmony now is enough to motivate them to keep going.
Final confession: The Summing Up
The prisoners confess one last time, for the record, so to speak. There may even be a solemn ceremony or a rite of passage. This time, however, it’s the new identity speaking, and it’s as if the new identity is describing the things in the confession as if they are personal discoveries. It’s as if they are better people now for having overcome the ‘problems’ they had in the past.
This final confession is the prisoners subjective experience of his reformers message, plus the guilty re-evaluation of his past actions. For this reason it can be quite logical and believable.
The man is ‘whole’ again, but his reality is different, thoughts and values have shifted and the prisoner has a different relationship with the world. The brainwashing techniques here involve rewarding ‘good behavior’ and punishing the bad.
Prisoners are allowed back into the world again but they have to deal with people who treat them as they were before, people who question their new ideas and beliefs and even question their new identity. (This was often very traumatic for the ex-prisoners.)
Mind control techniques
As with brainwashing techniques, the idea of mind control is to destroy the old identity and create a new one a pseudo-personality, one that holds the beliefs, values and ideas of the manipulator.
For example, cult members are told that they are weak and defective in some way. They are products of society where society has imposed beliefs and ideas on them making them like everybody else. And society did this when they were very young before they could make their own decisions. Often parents are criticized for being less than perfect and the members come to believe that the parents were doing them harm too.
The members thus begin to question themselves and who they are.
Debilitation is also used in cults and is brought about by sleep deprivation, long working hours, poor diets or high-sugar diets, secretly putting drugs in food. And in some cults, violence is indeed used. (Some cults are very violent with physical and sexual abuse being used to manipulate members. However, the members have typically been led to believe it’s for their own good!)
Guilt and fear are used extensively as part of the overall emotional manipulation of cult members. Emotional manipulation is also used to make the members feel good about what they are doing, as well as to prevent any critical thinking. When we experience very strong emotions, there’s not a lot of reasoning going on.
Differences with brainwashing techniques
Cults will also use the following techniques to manipulate that are not necessarily used in the brainwashing techniques described above:
- deceit – double agendas – the victim thinks they are getting one thing, but the reality is they are getting something else
- love bombing – showering of new members with love and affection to make them feel special
- childish games to cause age regression and encourage obedience
- no questions or criticism of the leadership is allowed
- new members are usually accompanied by more experienced members and are not given time alone to think
- cults encourage financial commitment as a way to encourage psychological commitment
- loaded language – complex ideas are condensed into short sound bites which means the members think less
- chanting, singing, dancing, body therapies – all reduce critical thinking
Things that are common to both brainwashing techniques and mind control tactics:
- spying on peers and reporting misdeeds to the leadership
- creation of dependency by alternating rewards and punishments for the same behavior
- unpredictable behavior by abusers
- long boring, convoluted speeches
- verbal abuse, criticism, insults
- no criticism of the new doctrine is allowed
- small rewards for desired behaviors, punishments for unwanted behaviors
- all-powerful leaders who decide everything
- victims usually ignorant of what happens next
In the sequence of brainwashing techniques above, we see that not until the stage of leniency and opportunity does the victim begin to cooperate with the captor. In mind control (as described above) the victims are willing participants in their own destruction from the word go. They cooperate with the leader from the very start, or at least very shortly thereafter.
They believe they are making their own decisions and when we believe there is no coercion, we are freely deciding, we are much more committed to those decisions and the decisions last longer.
This means that the whole process of mind control can actually go much more quickly then when there is force and pain and suffering involved. Even after a course of several days in a cultic environment, some people can be further along in the process of developing a new personality then some prisoners after 3 or 4 months of torture.
When people talk about cults and brainwashing techniques evolving with technology, this is what they’re talking about.