In an episode of the Science Channel's "Through the Wormhole," host Morgan Freeman, explored the potential, and dangers, of hacking the mind. Like computers, human brains may be vulnerable to hackers. Psychologist Marc Salem can decipher a person's thoughts using the tiny physical cues in a person's body language. Salem was able to guess the cards of professional poker players by picking up their nonverbal inflections and cues. But, is it possible to hack into a person's brain and plant thoughts there?
During the Korean War, Korean and Chinese captors reportedly brainwashed American POWs held in prison camps. Several prisoners confessed to waging germ warfare, which they hadn't, and pledged allegiance to communism by time they were released and 21 soldiers refused to return to the U.S. after they were released. But, that was only 21 out of over 20,000, so it begs the question does brainwashing really work?
Psychologists refer to brainwashing as thought reform which falls into the area they call social influence, the ways in which people can change other people's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. There's another method, the compliance method, which tries to produce a change in a person's behavior and is not concerned with his attitudes or beliefs. Believe what you want, just do it. Then there is persuasion method which tries to change in attitude and, also, the education method, also called the propaganda method, which is when a person doesn't believe what they are being told.
Brainwashing combines all of these approaches to cause changes in someone's way of thinking without that person's consent and often against his will. In order to to be successful complete isolation and dependency of the subject is required which is why it happens in prison camps and cults. The persons doing the brainwashing must have complete control over their subject so that sleep patterns, eating, using the bathroom and the fulfillment of other basic human needs depend on the will of the agent. The process involves systematically breaking down the subjects identity to the point that it doesn't work anymore. The agent then replaces it with another set of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that will work in the brainwashed person's environment.
Experts are divided over the definition and effects of bainwashing. Some definitions require the presence of the threat of physical harm while others only require nonphysical coercion and control.
Many the effects of the process are short-term and once the victim's new identity stops being reinforced their old attitudes and beliefs will start to return.
Therefore, many psychologists claim the conversion of American POWs during the Korean War was the result of torture, not brainwashing, as evidenced that most POWs were not converted to communism. So, does it always work and who makes an easy target?
We are constantly bombarded with commercials for products to buy, and exposed to people’s rants on social media. People tell us how we should vote, who we should hate, be afraid of, what we should buy and eat...everything.
Before social media, advertisements would appeal to only people who were part of the target audience. However, nowadays social media and the internet offer personalized advertising tailored just for us. They know what you have been looking at and we provide the information based on our likes, comments, status updates, etc. See this article on sneaky marketing strategies.
Recent studies have looked at the effectiveness of advertising on social media. One study used Facebook likes and focused on two personality traits: extroverts and introverts although it must be admitted that subjects were stereotyped. When one type was targeted they tended to react in a more positive manner than the non-target group even though the advertisements used were for the same product. Advertising is often designed to persuade us to buy more things that we don’t need and it's effective.
Mind control and brainwashing are goals for governments. The CIA did a series of experiments called MK-Ultra that was run, often surreptitiously, on what amounted to human guinea pigs. Some people (for example, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Rob Hunter of the Grateful Dead volunteered).
The CIA’s purpose was to find the key to brainwashing. The CIA Director Richard Helms described the aim of the experiment was finding a drug that could "[...] aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control.” The drugs LSD and ecstasy were experimented with.
They also tried identifying personalities that would be easy to manipulate and prone to succumb to the drug-induced mind control. From 1946 until at least 1953 patients of the New York State Psychiatric Institute were administered drugs in order to find out which personality types were easier to manipulate even at the cost of a few lives.
Social media users are part of an ongoing experiment. Mass persuasion using psychological strategies are used every day as they try to persuade us how we can live healthier, happier lives whether it be by buying certain products, gambling or supporting certain candidates or policies, discrediting individuals, eliciting information and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control. On Yahoo's home page take a look at the news stories and see how many actual news stories and how many “sponsored” headlines there are.
Whether it’s through online ads, Russian bots, secret governmental projects, manipulation and mind control are a matter of interest because we are all subjects.
The manipulation of public opinion over social media has become a threat.
Government agencies and political parties are exploiting social media platforms to spread junk news and disinformation, exercise censorship and control and undermine trust in media, public institutions and science. More and more political parties are using misinformation on social media.
Human biases play an important role. We’re more likely to react to content that taps into our existing grievances and beliefs so inflammatory posts will generate quick response.
Many Facebook users will believe anything their friends copy and paste into their status. Why?
Not trusting requires a lot of mental effort. If we woke up every morning questioning and doubting everything and everyone in our life, it would be mentally exhausting. We are also hardwired to seek safety in numbers and a survival advantage in belonging to a group. Being a lone wolf is not a good path to success. Being a skeptic and arguing with friends, even if you're right, could result in you no longer being their friend.
Studies show that we like to trust other people. Scientists have had subjects play games with a stranger and with a friend. The game is rigged so the subject is equally as successful with both partners, but on an MRI, the reward centers of the brain light up brighter when the subject has success with the friend. Even when psychologists rigged the game so the friend stole money, the subject's keeping playing the game with them.
Of course, some people are just gullible and easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action and have the tendency to believe anything even if unsupported by evidence.