On Brainwashing

Humans are typically very easy to brainwash, as experience proves. All you have to do is repeat the same lie often enough, and many people will believe you. If you are a beloved parent or other beloved authority figure, and you start repeating your lies when your children are young enough, then you can make it extremely difficult for these poor children to ever see the light of truth.

There are numerous examples from the distant past, and recent history provides compelling reminders; just consider events in politics in the past five years in a number of countries around the world. Advertising practice provide additional compelling examples, as you will notice from your own experience. If only I buy these fancy clothes, and buy this fancy scent, and so on, then members of the opposite sex will find me cool, say the advertisers. And many of us believe them; enough to keep the practice widespread. (Advertisers understand very well the vulnerability of children to brainwashing; they know that if they capture a child’s brand loyalty, they will likely own that loyalty for life.)

When my children were young, I used to occasionally spout nonsense (but deadpan, as if it were true, and in an age-appropriate way) in an attempt to amuse them. It worked fairly well, and they were indeed sometimes very amused, and always figured out that what I was saying was nonsense. Later I realized that this may have had a very good unintended consequence: It encouraged my children to actually exert mental effort to assess what I said instead of just accepting it blindly. I don’t know if this helped to protect them from brainwashing or falling for scam artists, but I hope it did, and it’s worth thinking about this more deeply if you have children or are otherwise a teacher. My children are both about 30 years old as I write this, and I still perform my nonsense shtick from time to time, and occasionally they are still amused. It has become part of our family’s culture.

Which brings us to the question of what you can do to cope with all of the brainwashing attacks that have been aimed at you and will continue to be aimed at you. And what can the education system do? Spouting nonsense might be amusing, but it seems to be insufficient as an educational strategy.

As an educational strategy, we need to model strategies for assessing claims for validity, and provide students lots of practice for doing so. As a start, simply provide students with a list of statements, some of which are true and some false, ask students to identify which statements are true and which false, and to explain why in each case, is a wonderful exercise and encourages thoughtfulness. Providing opportunities to prepare and present arguments and counter-arguments, and to discuss the various sides of an issue with classmates, is another important method.

In chess, a good player considers which counter-moves an opponent might try before finalizing the decision to make a certain move. Similarly, students should be encouraged to read (and view) actively, by considering what could be wrong with what is being presented, and why. Even if the presented information is correct, thinking about what might be wrong with it can’t help but lead to a deeper understanding.

All of these pedagogical strategies, and more, provide bulwarks against brainwashing, and these skills can be trained and improved with practice. But no matter how much we examine our thoughts, it’s inevitable that biases will remain. As Alfred North Whitehead said, “Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” This highlights one of the great values of science to civilization: Science, like other rigorous academic studies, is a kind of organized common sense, the methodology of which helps us to avoid nonsense and discover what the world is really like. In his address to the graduating class of the California Institute of Technology in 1974, Feynman discusses the duty of a scientist to be scrupulously honest, to “bend over backwards” to be careful:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

We have a tendency to fall in love with our own ideas, and fail to be objective about them; science provides both individual and “institutional” (or cultural, if you prefer) methods for counteracting this, because over time the less useful ideas are weeded out, and the most useful ideas come to the forefront.

The flip side of this discussion is that you can use the mind’s gullibility to implant useful beliefs and thought patterns. For example, how many people do you know who sabotage themselves with repetitive thoughts that they are too dumb to make anything of their lives? If you suffer from this, you can remind yourself (repeatedly) that thoughts are transient, and that it’s very probable that you can achieve whatever goal you have provided that you work at it. You could think of this as a sort of brainwashing, but a very benign type, because you are doing it yourself, and because you are implanting helpful thoughts to replace self-sabotaging ones.

The “fake it until you make it” slogan is a variation on this theme. What if you told yourself repeatedly that you have the strength and tenacity to get through your current difficulties; do you think that this would change your experience for the better? Approaching this experimentally with a sense of curiosity will be interesting.

Could you “brainwash” yourself into changing a procrastination habit, or some other unhelpful habit? Could you “brainwash” yourself into becoming a better student? Try it!

In this way you think of your own mind as a tool, somehow apart from your “self.” By playing with this idea, you will be able to come up with all kinds of helpful variations on this theme of “brainwashing yourself.” Some will work well for you, others less so; experiment and retain the ones that work best!