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Brainwashing is a concept based on what is known as psychological manipulation . Tactics of mental reprogramming are used to attack the target person's self-confidence and their own judgment in order to destabilize their basic attitudes and perceptions of reality and then replace them with new attitudes. Older brainwashing methods tried to break the mental resistance with physical violence. Brainwashing theories first emerged in the context of totalitarian states . Later they were occasionally used in religious groups (sects).

In 1975 the UN in its declaration on the protection of all persons from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (No. 3452, December 9, 1975) also included the method of brainwashing by means of manipulative psychotechnics .

Origin and use of words

The word brainwashing is derived from the English term brainwashing . The term brainwashing entered the English vocabulary through an article, "Brain-Washing Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party," which appeared in Miami News in 1950 . The author, Edward Hunter, had been contracted by the CIA to distribute articles about brainwashing in the press. The term was then used for propaganda purposes during the Korean War , e.g. B. to undermine Korean allegations of biological warfare on the part of the US based on the alleged confession of prisoner of war Frank Schwab. The scientific name is menticide . There is also a partial menticide. This term means the total or partial loss of personality.

Other sources attribute the term brainwashing to the writer George Orwell , who in 1948 published his dystopian novel in 1984 about the perfect totalitarian prevention and surveillance state . However, the term was only able to establish itself in the vernacular . The psychologist Hans-Eberhard Zahn considers the name dubious; because "nothing is washed or erased from the brain, on the contrary: something is put into it." Zahn therefore prefers the terms decomposition or reprogramming , since a brain cannot be erased like a computer memory; rather, the " software " will be changed.

In the 1970s, the term was increasingly used in the trial of Patty Hearst , who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and joined the group some time later. Since then, the term “brainwashing” in the legal field has been used to describe any influence that is regarded as negative, such as participation in a new religious movement . Colloquially, massive psychological influences are also referred to as brainwashing .

Researchers also use the terms Coercive Persuasion, Mind Control, Brainwashing, Thought Reform, Mental Programming.


Brainwashing or mental reprogramming is nuanced, with carefully coordinated programs, carried out slowly and subtly so that those affected do not notice how they are gradually being made compliant and how certain behaviors are triggered in them by external control. Those affected should not recognize how their behavior is steered in the intended direction by skillfully manipulating social and psychological factors through direct or subliminal influence. The use of force is not absolutely necessary, as was already discovered in brainwashing attempts in China in the 1950s. Today's psychogroups and “sects” use psychotechnics that have been researched and developed for decades to manipulate their addressees in order to perfect their manipulation programs. Methods for changing behavior through mental reprogramming suppress any form of criticism . They are characterized by the defamation of critics. In the absence of factual arguments, the protagonists of various psycho-groups claim that critics are fundamentally never right. In doing so, they often work with allegations: by ascribing personal motives for revenge or human weakness to their critics, attempts are made to make them implausible. The argumentation patterns of right-wing extremist circles, which serve to spread their "truth", are characterized by latent verbal attacks and aggressiveness, with militant groups there is also an open willingness to use violence .

Historical attempts at brainwashing

The first modern attempts to develop and use brainwashing methods were the show trials during the purges under Stalin in the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Methods of the medieval inquisition were studied for this purpose.

During the first years of the establishment of the sphere of power under Mao Zedong , re-education programs were carried out using similar methods , which the Chinese people termed brainwashing. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 tens of thousands of professors and students were sent to the countryside for re-education.

According to Lewin, a new structure needs three phases for mental establishment.

During the Second World War in the USA, the emigrated German psychologist Kurt Lewin investigated the question of how National Socialism could develop in Germany and how the German population indoctrinated by National Socialism could be freed from this indoctrination after the war. So it was not about brainwashing, but on the contrary, how the results of such brainwashing could be reversed. He came to the conclusion that it was not enough to explain this development, but that human systems would have to be changed in order to counteract such developments or to reverse their effects. His 3-phase model , which he later developed and which deals in general with the laws of planned change, is also based on these earlier considerations on overcoming National Socialist brainwashing in post-war Germany through re-education .

In the mid-1950s, Edgar H. Schein and Robert J. Lifton investigated American soldiers captured during the Korean War on behalf of the US government. They wanted to find out what new things the Chinese had done with the American prisoners of war, that they had unexpectedly collaborated with the Chinese and showed other inexplicable changes in behavior; among other things, trust among the prisoners completely collapsed. The CIA operated from 1953 to the 1970s as a MKULTRA designated secret research program on possibilities of mind control . Thousands of people have been subjected to drugs, extreme stress or even torture in human experiments. Program director Sidney Gottlieb later stated that the targeted mind control was not possible.

Attempts to explain

The American psychology professor Margaret Singer describes brainwashing as an invisible social adjustment that takes place in six steps:

"1. Leave the person unaware of what is going on and how they are changing step by step.
2. Control the person's surroundings and environment, especially control their time.
3. Purposefully create a feeling of powerlessness in the person.
4. Establish a system of reward and punishment and control the experience in such a way that the person's behavior that reflects his or her past identity is suppressed.
5. Establish a system of reward and punishment and manage the experience in such a way that the person internalizes the group's new belief system and behavioral norms.
6. Develop a self-contained logical system and an authoritarian power structure that does not allow feedback and cannot be changed without the approval or direction of the leadership. "

Court verdict against Scientology

The former Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim won a large amount of compensation in a damages lawsuit against Scientology because he had to undergo psychiatric treatment after his exit. The US Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the "brainwashing" methods used by Scientology had largely caused the mental illness of Wollersheim. According to the Supreme Court, brainwashing is far more effective than inflicting pain, torture, drugs, or using physical violence and threats. Violence is the old model of brainwashing. Nonviolent brainwashing is considered to be much more effective because it allows people's attitudes to be changed without their knowledge and consent, and so they can be made subservient to the manipulator. It is always about fundamentally changing a person's personal self-concept, perception of reality and interpersonal relationships in order to manipulate their self-sufficient decision-making ability. So the person unconsciously and unintentionally becomes compliant henchmen of the organization. The brainwashing programs are effective because the manipulated people are subjected to very strong emotional stress, which they can only relieve by inserting themselves into the system and obediently adopting the required forced behavior. These practices are unethical, unfair and incompatible with religious practices, the Supreme Court said, as it is clearly a control technology.

Reception in popular culture

John Frankenheimer's conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate (German: Ambassador of Fear ) from 1962 is about a returnee from the Korean War (played by Frank Sinatra ), who became a posthypnotic remote-controlled contract killer after being brainwashed in captivity . The film gained great prominence in various conspiracy theories according to which the CIA would in reality have succeeded in producing remote controlled killers. It has been claimed from various quarters that Lee Harvey Oswald , Sirhan Sirhan , Ted Kaczynski or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not act of their own accord, but were in truth "Manchurian Candidates".

In 2004, Jonathan Demmes The Manchurian Contestant starring Denzel Washington was released , a remake of the film that focuses on brainwashing during the Gulf War .


  • Klaus Behnke , Jürgen Fuchs (ed.): Decomposition of the soul. Psychology and psychiatry in the service of the Stasi (=  Rotbuch. 1015). Hamburg 1995, ISBN 3-88022-365-3 (2nd edition. Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-434-46160-9 ).
  • Kurt Lewin ; Gertrud Weiss Lewin (ed.): The solution of social conflicts. Selected treatises on group dynamics (original title: Resolving Social Conflicts. Translated by HA Frenzel), Christian, Bad Nauheim 1953 (with a foreword by Max Horkheimer and an introduction by Gordon W. Allport).
  • Robert J. Lifton : Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. 1961, ISBN 0-8078-4253-2 .
  • Edgar H. Schein: Coercive persuasion, A socio-psychological analysis of the “brainwashing” of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists. 1961.
  • Edgar H. Schein: From Brainwashing to Organizational Therapy: A Conceptual Journey. Cape Cod Institute, 2005.
  • Benjamin Zablocki: Towards a Demystified and Disinterested Theory of Brainwashing. In: Benjamin Zablocki, Thomas Robbins (Eds.): Misunderstanding Cults. 2001, ISBN 0-8020-8188-6 , pp. 159-214.
  • Dick Anthony: Tactical Ambiguity and Brainwashing Formulations: Science or Pseudo Science. In: Benjamin Zablocki, Thomas Robbins (Eds.): Misunderstanding Cults. Pp. 215-317.
  • David Bromley: A Tale of Two Theories: Brainwashing and Conversion as Competing Political Narratives. In: Benjamin Zablocki, Thomas Robbins (Eds.): Misunderstanding Cults. Pp. 318-348.
  • Stephen A. Kent: Brainwashing Programs in the Family / Children of God and Scientology. In: Benjamin Zablocki, Thomas Robbins (Eds.): Misunderstanding Cults. Pp. 349-378.
  • Dominic Streatfeild: Brainwashing: The Secret History of Mind Control . 2008, ISBN 3-86150-876-1 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b A. Jacobsen: 'The Pentagon's Brain. Little, Brown and Company, New York 2015, p. 105, ISBN 978-0-316-37176-6
  2. a b J. T. Richardson: 'Brainwashing' as Forensic Evidence. In: SJ Morewitz, ML Goldstein (Ed.): Handbook of Forensic Sociology and Psychology . Springer, New York 2014, ISBN 978-1-4614-7177-6 , pp. 77-85, doi : 10.1007 / 978-1-4614-7178-3_5 .
  3. Kristal Davidson: Brainwashing. From secret services, scientists and agents. In: The first . November 14, 2014.
  4. ^ OVG Münster , decision of May 31, 1996, Az .: 5 B 993/95, printed in NVwZ . 1997, p. 302.
  5. Bärbel Schwertfeger: Reaching for the psyche - what consequences controversial training and therapy offers can have. Download PDF.
  6. ^ Hubert Michael Mader: Studies and reports. Political esotericism - a right-wing extremist challenge. National Defense Academy, Vienna 1999, pp. 107, 130f.
  7. James T. Richardson: Brainwashing Claims and Minority Religions Outside the United States: Cultural Diffusion of a Questionable Concept in the Legal Arena. In: Brigham Young University Law Review. No. 4, 1996.
  8. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
  9. China, Interview with Zhao Ming: Liberated from Torture in China's Labor Camps. ( Memento from December 23, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) At:
  10. see Kurt Lewin: Der Sonderfall Deutschland (original English version 1943). In: K. Lewin: The solution of social conflicts. Christian, Bad Nauheim 1953, pp. 74-91. For the later 3-phase model, see K. Lewin: Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change. In: Human Relations. 1, 1947, pp. 5-41, pp. 34f; German: Planned changes as a three-step process: loosening up, transferring and consolidating a group standard. In: K. Lewin: Field theory of the social sciences. Huber, Bern 1963, p. 262f.
  11. ^ Robert J. Lifton: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a study of "brainwashing" in China
  12. ^ Edgar H. Schein: Coercive persuasion, A socio-psychological analysis of the “brainwashing” of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists.
  13. Terry Gross: The CIA's Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A 'Poisoner In Chief' . , September 9, 2019.
  14. Margaret Singer In: Bärbel Schwertfeger: The grip on the psyche - what consequences controversial training and therapy offers can have. PDF download, p. 5f.
  15. Margaret Singer in: Bärbel Schwertfeger: The grip on the psyche - what consequences controversial training and therapy offers can have. PDF download, p. 4.
  16. ^ Fran Mason: The Manchurian Candidate . In: Peter Knight (Ed.): Conspiracy Theories in American History. To Encyclopedia . ABC Clio, Santa Barbara / Denver / London 2003, Volume 2, p. 458.