How Brainwashing and Other Manipulation Changes Minds

Every few years, a cult suicide, terrorist attack, or mass delusion raises questions about how people can be convinced to believe seemingly unbelievable things. The concept of brainwashing has been frequently used to try to account for inconceivable acts—such as the Washington, D.C. sniper attacks of Lee Boyd Malvo, who claimed he was influenced by his co-conspirator. The idea of brainwashing is extremely controversial in psychology, and not all mental health professionals believe it exists. But every day, people try to shift perceptions and change minds through advertisements, propaganda, manipulation, and numerous other techniques.

Those who believe in brainwashing argue that it is very real and that anyone can fall prey to it. But how does it work?

Vulnerability to Influence

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to the concept of brainwashing and other manipulation techniques. People bent on manipulating others often target others who seem particularly vulnerable. Common traits of those who fall prey to what some consider brainwashing include:

  • Financial insecurity that makes it impossible to leave a strong leader or that makes it necessary to find someone to depend on
  • A history of being abused
  • Being a people pleaser, and wanting to be liked at all costs
  • Isolation, which makes it less likely that the victim's friends and family will question his or her choices
  • Difficulty coping with stress

Exhibiting Omnipotence

Whether it's a husband abusing his wife or a cult leader inducing followers to commit suicide, those who apparently brainwash take specific steps to make their victims feel they are omnipotent. They often try to control even mundane daily activities, such as grooming, sleeping, and eating. This fosters a sense of dependency and can make victims question their decision-making skills and their ability to function on their own.


We've all seen commercials where the same phrase is repeated over and over again, but this approach can work. When we hear something frequently enough, it can become familiar and comforting. Repetition may even make it easier for a message to circumvent your critical-thinking skills.

Intermittent Rewards

Brainwashers, particularly abusive ones, often use intermittent and unpredictable rewards to foster obedience and dedication. When people don't know when they're going to get a reward, they tend to feel much more positively about it. This technique commonly occurs with abusive spouses, who may bring their partners flowers after a particularly egregious outburst or suddenly and randomly perform a dramatic gesture of love. The victim may be impressed by this display and so taken aback that he or she is left unable to consider the long history of negative behavior. Moreover, because victims often admire or even love brainwashers, they look for signs of love and devotion. Profound apologies, presents, and even simple reassurances can give them an incentive to stick around.

Peer Pressure

Particularly in cult-like environments, peer pressure can be a powerful incentive. Victims may look around and reason that if everyone else is doing something, it must not be that bad. Apparent brainwashers may use the fact everyone else is doing something as evidence that it is normal and healthy, and may even stigmatize people who don't engage in the activity as “crazy” or “stupid.”


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