Brainwashing or thought reform is the application of coercive techniques to change the beliefs or behavior of one or more people for political purposes. Whether any techniques at all exist that will actually work to change thought and behavior to the degree that the term "brainwashing" connotes is a controversial and at times hotly debated question.

The term first came into use in the United States in the 1950s during the Korean War, to describe the methods used by the Chinese communists to cause deep and permanent behavioral changes in their own people and foreign prisoners, and especially to disrupt the ability of prisoners of war to effectively organize and resist their imprisonment.

It was also used in the US as an explanation for why a few American GIs appeared to defect to the Communists after becoming prisoners of war. Later analysis determined that sleep deprivation and torture were to blame for these events, noting that few repatriated prisoners of war retained allegiance to Marxist doctrine which had been inculcated during their incarceration.

Although the use of brainwashing on United Nations prisoners during the Korean War produced some propaganda benefits, its main utility to the Chinese lay in the fact that it significantly altered the number of prisoners that one guard could control, thus freeing other Chinese soldiers to go to the battlefield.

In later times the term "brainwashing" came to apply to other methods of coercive persuasion and even to the effective use of ordinary propaganda.

Many people have come to use the terms "brainwashing" or "mind control" to explain the otherwise intuitively puzzling success of some methodologies for the religious conversion of inductees to new religious movements (including cults).

The term 'brainwashing' is not widely used in psychology and other sciences, because of its vagueness and history of being used in propaganda. It is often more helpful to analyze 'brainwashing' as a combination of persuasion and attitude change, propaganda, coercion, and restriction of access to information. Note that many of these techniques are more subtly used (usually unconsciously) by advertisers, governments, schools, parents and peers, so the aura of exoticism around 'brainwashing' is undeserved.

Read more about: