Brainwashing: Coercive Persuasion Techniques

How does brainwashing work? Learn about the persuasive coercion techniques that allow people to change others' beliefs.
Brainwashing: Coercive Persuasion Techniques
Roberto Muelas Lobato

Written and verified by the psychologist Roberto Muelas Lobato.

Last update: 22 December, 2022

Brainwashing is the subject of many movies and documentaries, like the one about communists in Vietnam who brainwashed US soldiers. However, the process isn’t always as dramatic as it seems in the movies. You may understand the concept of brainwashing better if you call it coercive persuasion.

Coercive persuasion means influencing someone through the use of force. This type of persuasion is stronger and invasive. Sects, totalitarian states, terrorist organizations, and kidnappers (among others) use this type of persuasion.

Brainwashing someone or using coercive persuasion isn’t simple. You have to use different techniques to get someone to actually change their belief system, thought process, and the way they feel and act. These coercive persuasion techniques can be divided into four types: social environmental, emotional, cognitive, and those that induce dissociative states.

A guy covering his eyes.

Social environmental techniques

These kinds of techniques manipulate or control the subject’s surroundings or environment. The goal is to weaken the individual’s resistance in order to make it easier to persuade them. Some of the social environmental coercive persuasion techniques are:

  • Isolation: This makes it easier for the subject to be persuaded. It consists of closing the subject off from the world mentally, socially, and physically. In other words, completely isolating the individual.
  • Information control: The control and manipulation of information constitutes a form of isolation. With less information, the subject won’t have as many options to choose from. Their critical thinking will also be limited.
  • Creating a state of existential dependency: This is making someone believe that their existence depends on someone else. Usually, that someone is a kind of leader. In practice, it means satisfying someone’s primary and secondary needs until there is a total dependency.
  • Psychophysical debilitation: Some kinds of physical debilitation are associated with psychological debilitation. That, in turn, leads to a weakened ability to resist persuasion techniques.

Emotional techniques

Motivations are emotionally conditioned. Consequently, if you can influence people’s emotions, you will influence their motivations and their behavior.

  • Emotional activation of pleasure: This consists of charming people and treating them well. People use it to draw people in and grab their attention.
  • Emotional activation of fear, guilt, and anxiety: Using rewards and punishment to get emotional responses of fear, guilt, and anxiety. These emotions encourage dependency and submission.

Cognitive techniques

These kinds of techniques draw from the two we already discussed. An individual who is physically weak and feels guilty is in a perfect position to be brainwashed.

  • Denigration of critical thinking: The perpetrator shows the individual the invalidity of following their own thoughts. Thus, every time they think something, they end up repressing it.
  • Use of deceit and lies: Distorting reality by hiding information, lying, or deceiving.
  • Demanding submission: Establishing the idea of group thought. Demanding that the individual submits to what the group decides. In other words, developing conformity and submission.
  • Group identity: Identity has to be collective. As a result, individuals lose their personality and take on the group’s identity. This can make individuals lose any distinguishing characteristics.
  • Controlling attention: Manipulating what takes up someone’s attention means that you can also force them to pay attention to the persuasion attempts.
  • Control over language: Controlling language is a way of limiting freedom. Omitting certain words or phrases is one way of avoiding particular questions or evaluation.
  • Changing the source of authority: Once you tear down a person’s principles of authority, you expose them to a totalitarian authority. Consequently, this authority figure gains all the power. Everyone else has to submit.

“There are only two means by which men can deal with one another: guns or logic. Force or persuasion. Those who know that they cannot win by means of logic, have always resorted to guns.”

-Ayn Rand-

A guy trapped in a hole by coercive persuasion.

Coercive persuasion techniques that induce dissociative states

Dissociation corresponds to trance states that arise when an experience is intensified. These states lead to a momentary loss of consciousness and identity. They are more common in totalitarian environments. These states of consciousness also make followers more vulnerable. As a result, it’s easier to control them by limiting their options and reducing their ability to evaluate them.

Coercive persuasion or brainwashing is when you manipulate someone’s environment to weaken them. Cognitive and emotional persuasion change the way they think and feel. That, in turn, leads them to trance states that make them easier to persuade.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Rodríguez-Carballeira, Á. (1992). El lavado de cerebro. Psicología de la persuasión coercitiva. Barcelona: Editorial Boixareu Universitaria.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.