Psychological manipulation: brainwashing

Psychological manipulation: brainwashing

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Brainwashing describes methods to manipulate people psychologically, i.e. to wear down those affected by physical and psychological violence and more subtle methods until he assumes the identity desired by the brainwashers.

Pavlov's dogs

The Russian researcher Pavlov discovered the conditional reflex in experiments with dogs. One day water entered the rooms where the dogs were, and the animals had to swim for their lives for a day. After that, they had forgotten almost all the reactions they had learned.

Pavlov concluded that by overwhelming one's physical capacity, one can make a person give up the learned contents of his consciousness, values ​​and norms, and also memories. This emptiness can then be filled with new content - for example with a previously rejected ideology.

Physical torture or manipulation?

Methods of causing this loss of consciousness include: deprivation of sleep, hunger, thirst, fear of death or solitary confinement. However, the breakdown of previous beliefs through such torture methods is rarely permanent.

The classic image of brainwashing is a victim in a torture cell, which an inquisitor submits to with carrot and stick, attaches the thumbscrews, and promises to stop the ordeal in cooperation.

In reality, the soft methods work better and above all sustainably. Margaret Singer, who researches psychocults, writes: "Brainwashing is invisible social adjustment."

According to Singer, deprivation of liberty and physical violence do not lead to success at all: "All research (...) clearly shows that captivity and the use of violence are not necessary conditions, but on the contrary are counterproductive when it comes to attitudes and behavior of people change."

She writes: “If you really want to turn others around, the soft methods are cheaper, less noticeable and highly effective. The old motto that honey attracts more flies than vinegar still applies today. "

Brainwashing is therefore not a one-off breaking of a personality through violence, but a gradual manipulation in which social and psychological influences are exchanged bit by bit. A person's perception of their environment is being reprogrammed.

Singer explains the meaning of such programming: "The programs aim to destabilize a person's self-concept, to make them reinterpret their life story and to accept a new version of the reality of the causal relationships."

Personality training

In postmodern turbo-capitalism, personality training is a boom that doesn't stop. Some of these “trainers” work seriously and there is little to object to educating people about how they can better use their potential than they currently do.

But manipulative methods harmonize with the neoliberal ideology of performance that everyone who is socially marginal is to blame if they do not swim in the money.

Unlimited energy, inner strength, self-confidence, harmony, joie de vivre and, above all, to be on the side of the winners. These are the promises of the "Become what you want to be" seminars.

Authoritarian drill, "overcoming" internal blockages by spreading the participants' fears, are part of the usual methods, night-long group meetings and, as a traditional method of brainwashing, reprogramming yourself because the person concerned, as he is, is not correct Such exercises are emotionally stressful.

But the participants who accept the system join in and think critics are “not yet there”. At the end of the seminar, the “new person” should be there, and bizarre training prepares for redemption.

These crash courses promise what serious psychotherapy can only achieve in the long term. It is not about effective therapeutic approaches such as self-reflection or a change in behavior, but rather about drilling and humiliation.

Many participants are thrilled after the seminars. However, this is not because they now deny their lives as successful personalities, but because of the subtle manipulation: they do not see themselves as victims of manipulation, but feel enlightened.

They often react aggressively to any skepticism - like members of sects. In contrast to Scientology, however, such seminars are standard in many companies and employees who take part in them often do not dare to criticize.

The Milgram experiment

The bad news is that brainwashing works, and not just for people who are particularly unstable. Psychologist Stanley Milgram had subjects tortured a subject with (fictitious) electric shocks in the 1960s if they made mistakes.

The test subject had an electrode on his arm that was connected to an alleged electroshock device in the "teacher's" room. This “teacher” saw the test person and was supposed to give her electric shocks from 15 to 450 volts. Above it was: "Slight shock", "Danger", "Severe shock", and in the end only "XXX".

For each task that the test person answered incorrectly, the "teacher" should increase the "penalty" by 15 volts. At 120 volts the "tortured" shouted that he was in pain, at 150 V "got me out of here". If the teacher now had doubts, the "senior scientist" said: "You have no choice". 60% of the participants went up to 450 volts, where they had to assume that the test person had died because they did not dare to disobey.

If they did not see the test person, almost all of them increased to 450 volts.

Repetitions of the experiment in other countries led to the same result. If authority is set, in this case scientific, people give up responsibility for actions that they would otherwise ethically reject.


Brainwashing means systematic manipulation, that is, influencing someone against his will; it changes thought patterns and memories, psychological and emotional impressions.

However, manipulation in milder forms takes place constantly: in relationships, at work, in marriage, school or university.

People use it when they want to enforce their own will against others to force them to behave as they expect.

A common method is to suggest to the victim that the desired behavior is without alternative, correct, and the best for the manipulated.

Isolating the other person, depicting him as abnormal, is one of the common forms of manipulation: “I don't understand it. Everyone else goes to bed early, only you want to watch a DVD at night. ”

Manipulation turns into open or hidden power games, for example when a wife threatens because her partner is not doing what she wants: "Okay, get the divorce documents."

The manipulator is in a dilemma, even if he sees through the game: Even if he assumes (he can not be sure) that it is only a matter of forced courtesy, marriage is at stake - according to words.

Such a practice turns into psychological violence, for example, to assume that "you break everything" when someone falls down a glass. It is not about the specific incident, but about gaining control over the other person so that the victim functions as the manipulator would like it to.

Direct devaluations of personality are even clearer: "You are boring, you are lazy, you are stupid." Most of the time something sticks to it, but even people with stable self-esteem cannot react appropriately to such defamation. It is important to understand that the manipulator primarily says something about himself.

Projection and double messages

Devaluation often goes hand in hand with projection: the more brute the verbal aggressions are, the more the aggressor usually projects his own negative feelings onto another person. This, often unconscious, manipulation becomes clear when the aggressor gives the other person responsibility for their own destructive feelings: "Now I'm freaked out again because of your behavior."

Duplicate messages are a trap in relationships to unsettle the partner. The manipulator, for example, says with a sarcastic undertone: "And, are you feeling good?" When the person concerned asks: "Why are you angry", the manipulator replies: "I was just asking if you feel good." Aim is to create a queasy feeling in the partner and to deal with what is so annoying to the manipulator. If the manipulator now approaches the partner and asks what is going on, the answer comes: "Nothing is not important ..." If the victim does not respond to the game, the manipulator suggests: "I am indifferent to you."

Parents like to use this remedy to trigger fear, insecurity and self-doubt in the children, in relationships it serves the same purpose. A strong self-confidence and reflection are necessary so that this power game does not establish itself as a system, because then the manipulator will use it again and again because he has learned that the other one works.

Abuse of social behavior

Why do we allow ourselves to be manipulated? Sympathy for the manipulator comes into play, the need for recognition, the confusion of an increasingly complex society and the attempt to reduce the flood of stimuli to simple explanations.

Manipulation plays with our social behavior, giving and taking. We help each other, which is a good thing. But it can be exploited by the manipulator doing us a "favor" and making us feel "committed" to him. Then he demands a consideration or keeps us in the balance to owe him something.

The "foot in the door" also proves to be a manipulation technique, for example if we don't want to take on a job and our supervisor asks us to "look at the matter first". This is because it is difficult to say no once we say yes.

Manipulation also works through repetition. Repetition of a statement says nothing about its accuracy, but it is memorized to us. The known is trusted and we are more positive about it than the unknown.

Anyone who manipulates us usually speaks to our emotions before submitting their request in order to eliminate our ability to criticize.

The manipulator puts time pressure on those affected and only provides them with limited information. He also flatters the victim. We are under pressure, at the same time feel recognized and fail to look for more information.

Bluffing and questioning techniques that lure us out of what we don't want to tell are other means of manipulating.

Think positive?

"Think positive" is the guiding principle of the liberal idea that "everyone is a smith". Among those psychologists who act as key words for the functioning in the capitalist usability, the "positive thinking" is considered a mantra to be successful in all respects, and those who do not succeed do not think positively enough.

However, empirical psychological studies show that exclusively “positive thinking” is dangerous. At best, it leads to ignoring obstacles that occur with any plan; in more serious situations, it drives people who have mental and social problems into isolation because they believe that their justified bad feelings are the reason for their well-being is.

To suggest that a person suffering from depression "you don't think positively enough" is like punching him in the stomach.

"Positive thinking" is an esoteric ideology, whether with the help of supposedly supersensible beings, psychological banalities or the suggestion that wishes come true if one only "thinks positively" and, as is usually the case in esotericism, forbids people to think .

Optimistic thinking becomes a dictatorship; those affected submit to a fiction that they cannot achieve. Winning, having to be rich or having to be good is a coercive system that drives victims into despair of not being worth anything.

All of their gurus have in common that the "way to success" excludes any criticism. If you think about what happens when a project fails, you are out of the game. The essence of scientific honesty, namely to doubt, is forbidden.

The conditioning of "positive thinking" includes wiping out the old personality and putting a new identity in its place. A protagonist of this ideology, Norman Vincent Peale says: “Let's make an effort until we really understand that it is possible for us to influence and shape our future positively through our mentality. If we can create a successful picture of our personality in our imagination, we will stick to it until it becomes a reality. ”

Another "positive thinking" propagandist, Erhard F. Freitag, even speaks openly of brainwashing: "Start immediately by subjecting your thoughts to some control. Banish any negative thoughts and doubts. "

That leads to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, who said, "All the happiness you find is within you."

The followers of positive thinking are stripped of their identities and experiences, their life story and their way of thinking - in the end they lose their personality.

Political brainwashing

The English word "brainwashing" comes from the Chinese and was introduced in the United States in the Korean War.

The show trials during the Stalinist purges, in which the victims of terror accused themselves of the worst crimes, became known in the 1930s. Mao Zedong carried out so-called re-education programs, which the Chinese call brainwashing. Between 1966 and 1976, tens of thousands of teachers and students had to move to the countryside to do peasant work.

The psychologist Kurt Lewin examined the supporters of National Socialism in Germany and tried to understand how National Socialism could establish itself and how the brain-washed Germans could be de-indoctrinated. He developed a model of re-education to teach the Germans humanism and human rights again.

What Happens When Brainwashed?

The psychiatrist Dr. Ivo Planava, born 1934 in Brno, in the Czech newspaper "Listy" in 1969 analyzed what happens during brainwashing, which people are particularly at risk, and how people can defend themselves against it. He summarized:

There are two ways to lose the belief that your own action makes sense: First, a sudden mental breakdown. But it rarely has a lasting effect because people are aware of the threat and offer resistance.

On the other hand, the slow abandonment, a process of gradual change, especially when people in a similar situation make up the environment. The individuals isolated in this way are no longer able to make decisions that go beyond “living from hand to mouth”. Such people are easily manipulated.

Civil liberty consists on the one hand of choosing, but on the other hand of the ability to choose. Freedom to choose is objectively given by politics; the ability to be able to choose, on the other hand, requires assessing situations and acting accordingly.

According to Planava, modern dictatorships know very well that they cannot only rule “with bayonets”. As long as citizens can judge, they resist. Authoritarian systems therefore controlled freedom of thought. To do this, citizens would have to suspect that the state has an organization that has secret police that cannot be legally attacked. Citizens therefore felt an indefinite fear, whether they had a clear or bad conscience.

Political programming, for example, begins with a surprising shock action: the victim is suggested that it will not last long; his family is in danger and those affected are isolated at the same time.

In the second stage, the victim is ominously guilty until he thinks he did something wrong.

Then the minions of the regime present information that supports the distorted perception: twisted statements by those affected, fake documents or fabricated denunciation of family and friends.

If the individual feels left alone by everyone, he opens himself up to influence. Now the carrot begins: "If you cooperate, you may be able to come free." This ties in with the victim's hope and unconscious guilt. The manipulators slowly build up paranoia and self-accusation of the victim. They appeal to "reason" and offer "adaptation to reality" as a way out.

Suggestion of hopelessness to live with the old identity goes hand in hand with promises to come out of the situation if the people concerned "adapt". On the other hand, absolute hopelessness is counterproductive for brainwashing. Those who have nothing to lose are more likely to resist than someone who is given nebulous hopes.

In order to make judgments, a person needs differentiated information, and interpersonal communication integrates him into in group and society. The "re-education" therefore prevents all contacts with confidants and access to alternative information; the brainwashing of the masses, on the other hand, is breaking down the communication structure.

Totalitarian regimes therefore control the mass media with inconspicuous censorship until it becomes superfluous because system loyalty dominates the monopolized media. In addition, historical experience is brought into line and reduced to the narrative of the regime.

The regime disrupts and destroys families, friendships and social groups, associations and unions. The henchmen of the powerful prefer to look for people at work who are in a difficult situation, do not have a good reputation, have alcohol or other problems, are underpaid or underpaid.

It is suggested to them that they advance if they share information about other employees. Non-compliant groups can be disintegrated by dismissing, relocating, or promoting the least qualified. The less information people receive, the less secure they become. Now the regime offers false security: "If you recognize us, you have nothing to fear."

Forced personality change

Sects and psychocults do not have the means of violence of political dictatorships. On the other hand, they tie in with the needs of unstable people who are dissatisfied with their life situation and promise them healing if those affected “change”.

People who are caught up in such sects show typical behavior:

1) They align their lives absolutely and according to different principles than before.

2) They treat their environment as hostile.

3) They submit their own judgments completely to another authority.

4) You only surround yourself with like-minded people (party, ashram, etc.)

5) You bind yourself extremely to a leader and uncritically represent his worldview.

6) You also want to “transform” others with this absolute belief.

The three steps of "transformation" are:

1) Fascination with the guru's teaching

2) Destruction of personal security and break with the social environment

3) Building a new identity

Recognize and protect yourself

Who is particularly at risk of being brainwashed - whether by sects, psychocults, esoteric "healers", "personality trainers", cold-calculating company bosses, advertising professionals or political demagogues?

First, there are people who suffer from serious diseases that neither they nor serious doctors understand; secondly, those who suffer from the loss of a person, be it after a divorce, death or move; thirdly, young adults who have just come from their parents' house and are not yet familiar with the outside world - religious and political sects are the main fishery here.

Psychocults are masters at recognizing traumas and tragic living conditions and explaining them to those affected with their belief system, in order to then build a slavish new identity on this narrative pattern: for example, they suggest to a woman who was beaten by her father as a child that she was had been a woman in a previous life who had been raped and now had to work through these rebirths.

People who are in crisis and change mostly feel lonely; the “brainwashers” reinforce this loneliness by further isolating the victims and only allowing the psycho group, esoteric sect etc. as social contact.

In violent relationships, the perpetrator prevents the victim from contacting family and friends. In the prison, the guards isolate the prisoners from each other.

The following applies to every brainwashing: The perpetrators look for victims, especially those who are weak and vulnerable.

These include:

People who have lost their jobs and fear for their future; newly divorced who don't dare to start over; People who are generally too open to stimuli due to psychological peculiarities such as bipolar or highly sensitive; People who tend to subordinate due to their biographical character; People who come from an overprotected family and are looking for a replacement family; People who come from broken families and long for a healthy world; Drug users and alcoholics who are looking for a way out of addiction; People who are particularly naive and have little access to information; lonely people.

The perpetrator must always find a victim against whom he can take a superior position. For example, he starts lying to the victim, shames him and intimidates him. He distorts statements by those affected and blames the victim when it feels worse and worse.

He sets a framework, such as a "seminar" of his psycho-cult, in which disgrace allegedly belongs to learning training: abuse and harassment are just as much a part of this as exposing those affected. They are forced to be passive.

At the same time, the perpetrators offer the victim a supposedly better alternative to their old environment: they bring them into contact with people who have already been brainwashed; Those affected find themselves in a group pressure and strive for a position in the group, which they can only achieve if they fulfill the suggestions of brainwashing.

The suggestions are repeated, spoken, sung or "followed up" until key words are memorized, often in the rhythm of the heartbeat and with suitable music.

Those affected do not have time to reflect on what is happening, for example, they have to continuously take part in "seminars", do group work or have one-on-one talks with "brainwashed" people.

A “we against them” is constantly presented to the victim, and criticism from the outside world is reinterpreted as a conspiracy of dark powers - each “explanation” amounts to the fact that the guru is right and the critics wrong.

Once the brainwashing is complete, the victim can be reprogrammed.

Now the same methods of conditioning are used to rebuild those affected: if those affected act as the perpetrators wish, they will be rewarded if they show remnants of their own thinking, the perpetrators link them to negative experiences, humiliation and incapacity.

What can you do about brainwashing? In postmodern democracies we are not brainwashed by a political regime like George Orwell, but by a variety of advertising strategies, competing psychocults, "motivational gurus", "alternative explanations" etc.

First of all, we have to be painfully aware that nobody is immune to brainwashing. It is based on human needs such as social community and recognition as well as on the fears and hopes that everyone has, no matter how psychologically stable we are.

If we are trained in manipulation techniques, we can be sure that someone is using them. Are we obviously in a crisis for outsiders, for example if we walk alone in the park with our heads bowed? Then a stranger speaks to us and promises to build us up should we become skeptical.

For example, we could ask: "Do you want to influence me now or is that serious?" Of course he will deny manipulating us, then we continue to ask: "Why are you talking to me?"

Does he leave it with friendly words or does he ask for our phone number? Does he stay on our heels even though we show him that we want to stay alone? Does he recommend a group that has a solution to our problem? Does he immediately have the right answer for our worries? These are all indications that something is wrong.

We can also leave the manipulation to nothing from the beginning by addressing the motivation behind it.

But what do we do when friends and relatives are brainwashed? We should seek professional help, for example cult officers or critical psychologists who work with cult victims.

We should inform the victim's teachers, colleagues, and confidants, investigate the perpetrators, and ask the police for advice on critical forums.

Above all, we should show our affection to those affected and make it clear to them that they can trust us. If our friend, partner or child has psychological problems that the perpetrators are linked to, we can involve serious therapists who offer the victim a real perspective. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Bodo Rollka; Friederike Schultz: Communication tool human image On the use of human images in social discourse, Springer, 2011
  • Karsten Altenhain; Renhold Goering; Johannes Kruse: The Return of Torture ?: Interdisciplinary Studies on an Extreme Form of Violence, Its Media Presentation and Outlaws, V&R Unipress, 2013
  • Margaret Thaler Singer; Janja Lalich: Sects: How people can lose and regain their freedom, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, 1997
  • Stanley Milgram: The Milgram Experiment: On Obedience to Authority, Rowohlt Paperback, 1982
  • David M. Buss: "Selection, Evocation, and Manipulation", in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 53 Issue 6, 1987, Texas - College of Liberal Arts
  • Thea Bauriedl: Even without a couch: Psychoanalysis as a relationship theory and its applications, Klett Verlag, 1999
  • Wolfgang van den Daele: Biopolitics, Springer, 2012
  • James T. Richardson: Regulating Religion, Springer, 2004

Video: What Is A Cult and How Does It Work? Margaret Singer (December 2022).