In this special WIRED edition of Science Friction, Rusty Ward breaks down the real science behind brainwashing.
Reminds me of a couple of points an x-KGB counterintelligence officer made clear to me, which differ slightly… and then expand on what Rusty says here.
1) Relationship. The brainwashing experiment he did on me was considered “great success” when I agreed with him on simple matters, or did a very simple favor. He said that was already getting me on his side, groundwork for a relationship, changing the way I thought about communicating with the “enemy”, which to the KGB equaled a form of mind control. Brainwashing to him was more of a subtly motivated friendship, than the in your face, stereotypical threats/thought breaking/torture tactics the CIA uses. He couldn’t stress enough that when you have to get physical with the informant, you are weak, you are not a professional. Beating the mind > beating the body.
The thing is, I considered my agreeability on simple matters a form of manipulation as well, in order to see where the line of questioning was going, what was he really after and what could I get away with, in order to estimate my behavior & his response moving forward. He strongly disagreed, which made me think this possibly hints at a cultural difference in what it meant to change someone’s way of thinking vs their behavior. In the end, if I answered the way he wanted, he called it a win.
2) Nurturing. Paying large sums does wonders to keep an assest coming back was also key, and he repeatedly remarked how cheap the US is with assets and that’s why our intel is balls. Constant monitoring and contact tells the assest they are free to an extent, but they are indeed on someone else’s leash, dependent on them for the small degree of freedom they will have until they are no longer of use.
3) Punishment. This isn’t to suggest that baby steps and playing house is what he’s saying works. The threat of torture or death, was always looming, as an understood consequence of the power dynamic It felt like the mood could shift drastically and in a very bad way, if you didn’t do what they wanted. Food, sleep and drug manipulation was of course used, but again - the more you had to manipulate the mind with tools, the quality of the intel decreased. This aslo diminished your reputation and made you look incompetent. Making someone think they are doing something freely, is where it’s at, always. That was his teaching moment to me.
4) Repetition. Focusing on direct methods is the norm, but if you are doing your job, repeating efforts in indirect methods of control can lessen the work load tremendously. With only a little more effort on the upstart reconnaissance-wise, the same thing they are threatening the asset with, they could do to their significant others to a harsher degree. Keeping tabs on family, loved ones, and mistresses was going to happen. Suddenly, it seems you really have no choice but to get along. Sustaining yourself to protect others.
The cultural differences between brainwashing and psychological coercion may be different enough that depending on the desired outcome, the investment and long term quality of the methods used will be indicative of the short term return. Something the US has trouble demonstrating an understanding of on several levels.