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
Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage