The truth about mind control

All you have to do to get someone to believe something is make them behave as if they do.

At the end of the Korean War, 21 American prisoners-of-war chose to remain in communist Korea and openly sided with an enemy that had killed thousands of their comrades. In addition, a surprisingly large number of the American service personnel who did return home enthusiastically expounded the strengths of communism. The family and friends of these servicemen were stunned, and the world’s media flocked to Korea to report the story. Some researchers suggested that the Koreans had brainwashed the American soldiers with flashing lights, hypnosis or mind-altering drugs.

They were all wrong.

My latest book, Rip It Up, examines the curious relationship between behaviour and thought. Your everyday experience tells you that your thoughts cause you to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown.  However, decades of research have revealed that the exact opposite is also true - behaviour creates thoughts. When you smile you feel happier, and when you frown you feel sad. The same effect applies to belief. Get people to behave as if they hold a certain belief and bingo, they start to actually believe.

Extensive interviews with prisoners-of-war who returned from Korea revealed that the Chinese authorities had employed this principle.

Shortly after capture, the Chinese guards asked servicemen to jot down a few short pro-communist statements ("Communism is wonderful", and "Communism is the way of the future"). Many of the Americans were happy to oblige because the request seemed so trivial. A few weeks later the guards upped the ante and asked the prisoners to read the statements aloud to themselves. A couple of weeks later the Americans were asked to read the statements out to their fellow prisoners, and to engage in mock debates arguing why they believed the statements to be correct. Finally, fresh fruit or sweets were offered to any soldiers who were prepared to write pro-communist essays for the camp newsletter. Once again, many of the prisoners were happy to oblige.

The Chinese did not have to resort to arcane brainwashing techniques. Instead, they simply ensured that the prisoners were encouraged repeatedly to support communism, and then leave them to develop beliefs that were consistent with their behaviour.

Researchers have seen the same effect in their laboratories. In some studies participants have completed questionnaires about their political beliefs, and then been asked to give a short speech in favour of a political party that they oppose. Two weeks later the participants had come to believe that perhaps the opposition party wasn’t so bad after all.

The same procedure has been used in many different contexts, with people presenting talks about abortion, smoking, drink-driving, and greater police powers. On each occasion, behaving as if they believed a certain argument achieves what a hundred rational reasons couldn’t, quickly changing their attitudes in favour of the position they were asked to support. Indeed, the depth of change is such that the participants often deny ever holding their original opinions, and if they are shown their original questionnaires they argue that the forms have been faked or claim that they misread the questions.

The same effect can be used to influence entire populations. Saying "Heil Hitler" every day would have encouraged many ordinary Germans to become more open to Nazi ideology. Having people repeatedly sing a national anthem will make them more patriotic. Making children pray every morning will increase the likelihood of them adopting religious beliefs. 

Each time people may feel as if they are simply "playing along". In reality, their behaviour is having a deep and lasting effect on their thoughts and beliefs.

Professor Richard Wiseman is a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. 'Rip It Up' is published by Macmillan on 5 July.


A US soldier taking a communist prisoner in Korea. A surprisingly large number of US service personnel were pro-communist when they returned from the war. Photograph: Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Want to know how you really behave as a doctor? Watch yourself on video

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development – and videos can help us understand patients, too.

One of the most useful tools I have as a GP trainer is my video camera. Periodically, and always with patients’ permission, I place it in the corner of my registrar’s room. We then look through their consultations together during a tutorial.

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development. One of my trainees – a lovely guy called Nick – was appalled to find that he wheeled his chair closer and closer to the patient as he narrowed down the diagnosis with a series of questions. It was entirely unconscious, but somewhat intimidating, and he never repeated it once he’d seen the recording. Whether it’s spending half the consultation staring at the computer screen, or slipping into baffling technospeak, or parroting “OK” after every comment a patient makes, we all have unhelpful mannerisms of which we are blithely unaware.

Videos are a great way of understanding how patients communicate, too. Another registrar, Anthony, had spent several years as a rheumatologist before switching to general practice, so when consulted by Yvette he felt on familiar ground. She began by saying she thought she had carpal tunnel syndrome. Anthony confirmed the diagnosis with some clinical tests, then went on to establish the impact it was having on Yvette’s life. Her sleep was disturbed every night, and she was no longer able to pick up and carry her young children. Her desperation for a swift cure came across loud and clear.

The consultation then ran into difficulty. There are three things that can help CTS: wrist splints, steroid injections and surgery to release the nerve. Splints are usually the preferred first option because they carry no risk of complications, and are inexpensive to the NHS. We watched as Anthony tried to explain this. Yvette kept raising objections, and even though Anthony did his best to address her concerns, it was clear she remained unconvinced.

The problem for Anthony, as for many doctors, is that much medical training still reflects an era when patients relied heavily on professionals for health information. Today, most will have consulted with Dr Google before presenting to their GP. Sometimes this will have stoked unfounded fears – pretty much any symptom just might be an indication of cancer – and our task then is to put things in proper context. But frequently, as with Yvette, patients have not only worked out what is wrong, they also have firm ideas what to do about it.

We played the video through again, and I highlighted the numerous subtle cues that Yvette had offered. Like many patients, she was reticent about stating outright what she wanted, but the information was there in what she did and didn’t say, and in how she responded to Anthony’s suggestions. By the time we’d finished analysing their exchanges, Anthony could see that Yvette had already decided against splints as being too cumbersome and taking too long to work. For her, a steroid injection was the quickest and surest way to obtain relief.

Competing considerations must be weighed in any “shared” decision between a doctor and patient. Autonomy – the ability for a patient to determine their own care – is of prime importance, but it isn’t unrestricted. The balance between doing good and doing harm, of which doctors sometimes have a far clearer appreciation, has to be factored in. Then there are questions of equity and fairness: within a finite NHS budget, doctors have a duty to prioritise the most cost-effective treatments. For the NHS and for Yvette, going straight for surgery wouldn’t have been right – nor did she want it – but a steroid injection is both low-cost and low-risk, and Anthony could see he’d missed the chance to maximise her autonomy.

The lessons he learned from the video had a powerful impact on him, and from that day on he became much more adept at achieving truly shared decisions with his patients.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide