Is Brainwashing Real?

This question originally appeared on Quora, the best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Answer by Jon Mixon:

First things first: There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

While this doesn’t make sense to outsiders who are looking at the group, those people haven’t been involved with that group, so they have never weighed its benefits and detriments. It seems to them that the people who are participating in the group are somehow being “controlled” and that they are being held against their will, when in reality the overwhelming majority of a group’s core members are there because they choose to be.

Some smaller groups or groups run by people who have mental or emotional issues will attempt to make members stay in the group or try to “punish” those who have decided to leave. This invariably fails as it attracts unwanted attention to the group and its teaching and potentially involves bringing law enforcement and other government agencies into the group’s affairs (if the group is a terrorist organization, because of its illegal status, avoiding detection is paramount).

So people who are in groups that seem odd or even deranged by outsiders have simply decided to either mimic the group’s rituals and words to remain part of the group, or they have made the conscious decision to become a core member of the group and accept and believe the group’s core tenets. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply a make decision or decisions.

While occasionally these decisions lead to suicidal or criminal behaviors, even these behaviors are undertaken (unless addictive drugs are widely used by the group’s members) with a clear understanding of their consequences. Again, people who are outside of these groups discern these actions as “disturbed” or “crazed” and while they may well be, they also reflect the conscious decisions made by that group’s members.

Obviously children, elderly people with diminished mental capacities, the mentally ill, and those who have serious mental deficiencies are excluded from being able to make conscious and responsible decisions. When groups exert influence over these individuals, then this isn’t “brainwashing”—it is behavior that should be addressed by the authorities to prevent exploitation or harm coming to these people.

More questions on Quora: